Category Archives: Reflections

Fleet: A London Walk

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How do you plan a walk through a city? I am in London, ready to walk, and already lost in the sense of possibilities that the city has to offer. I could follow the Thames, this way or that. I could choose a neighbourhood and try and walk every street. I could follow a famous road, or the quickest route between two well-known landmarks. Or I could follow a river, a lost river, buried beneath the city streets.

Standing at Blackfriars Bridge, looking back across the river to the south bank from where I came, across to the Shard and the other buildings that remind me I have never spent enough time in these city to be able to account for and date the changes, it is the last of these ideas that I am putting into action. Inspired by Tom Bolton and his London’s Lost Rivers I am going to follow the route of the Fleet, the best I can, from Blackfriars to King’s Cross and to see what I see along the way.

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On Heinrich-Heine-Straße, Berlin

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I am early, so I take some time on the corner with the man who is always there, looking out across the junction towards the kebab shop and the U-Bahn station; to where the crowds gather waiting to gain entrance to the club; to the Plattenbau walls and their balconies; beneath the wintergarten windows still shining with the lights of a Christmas already past. The cars move along the street that bears the name of the man for whom this memorial – surrounded by trees atop a small plaza of crooked flagstones – was built. Beneath the ground the U-Bahn trains stop at the station of the same name, a station that was closed for 28 years when the wall divided the city and divided the street a few hundred metres to the south, complete with barriers, checkpoints and border controls.

Heinrich-Heine-Straße is one of those corners of Berlin I had never had any real reason to spend time in, although my daughter’s friend lives down the street so I have emerged onto this corner a few times recently, and usually too early. When I do, I spend some time at the memorial, following the man’s gaze as he looks out across the street and the traffic. Heinrich Heine lived in the first half of the 19th century, a writer of narrative poems, plays, essays and travelogues; a man who wrote the words “where they burn books, they will ultimately burn people too” in 1821. In 1933, 102 years later, Heine’s books were among those burned on the Bebelplatz by the Nazis in Berlin, and those sadly prophetic words are now engraved at the spot.

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Five years under grey skies

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It was on the 29th December 2011 that I launched this blog by looking back over the previous twelve months, which included trips to Spain and Anglesey, the Baltic coast and walks in and around Berlin. I am not really sure now, five years on and once more immersed in the not-unpleasant limbo of the Christmas-New Year period, what I was hoping to do with this website. Early on I searched for and encouraged others to contribute to the site, launching (and the quietly abandoning) ideas for different series of posts, before it settled down to being what it is now.

So what is it? It is a place where I can write about the things that interest me; the places I have visited, the ideas and reflections that are inspired by “adventures beyond the front door” – the original tagline for the site. It turned from a collaborative project to a personal one, for my words but also for the photography of my partner Katrin. We realised over the five years that Under a Grey Sky was becoming an inspiration to us as a family, to get us out that front door and down the river bank, up the hill or to a new neighbourhood of the city. “It’ll make a good blog,” became the rallying cry; reason enough to visit someplace new or head back for another look at a familiar haunt.

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A Berlin Story

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We had not been running the tours at Slow Travel Berlin very long when we got the request. A couple, new to Berlin, wanted a private tour of Wedding and Gesundbrunnen for them and their friends. “My husband is in his eighties,” the message ended. “So it might be a little slower than usual!”

We met at the ice cream cafe on Prinzenallee, on the corner of Badstraße. The couple were already there, drinking coffee and waiting for their friends to arrive. Once the group had gathered, and after another round of coffees, we began to walk. The route starts at the site of the old Luisenbad in Gesundbrunnen, and then moves through the historic neighbourhood of Wedding; along the Panke river and across Nettelbeckplatz; to Leopoldplatz and then back through the side streets to Humboldthain and the top of the flak tower.

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The walk to the top and the possibilities of the mountain: Slemenova špica, Slovenia

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We drove up the Vršič pass, that high mountain road built by Russian POWs during the First World War that crosses the Julian Alps and links the Soča and Sava river valleys of Slovenia. The road consists of a series of seemingly endless hairpin bends, back and forth, passing the Russian Chapel built in memory of those POWs killed by an avalanche during the construction of the road. Up we drove, this time beneath blue skies, the walls of the high peaks rising up above the autumnal colours of the trees that lined the road. I had that flutter in the belly, the sense of excitement that comes with arriving in a mountainous landscape. The anticipation of the walk ahead. Imagining the views from the top and how it would feel. The possibilities of what was to come.

“The remoteness of the mountain world – its harshness and its beauties – can provide us with a valuable perspective down on to the most familiar and best charted regions of our lives.”
– Robert Macfarlane, Mountains of the Mind

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The forest compound and the lake, Wandlitz

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During the first years of the German Democratic Republic, the leading members of the Socialist Unity Party took homes in Pankow, in a crescent of villas close to the Panke river and the palace at Niederschönhausen. After 1953, when Soviet tanks rolled onto the streets of East Berlin to quell an uprising of the workers, and the 1956 Hungarian Revolution, which ended in much the same way, those head honchos, including Walter Ulbricht, Erich Mielke and Erich Honecker, decided things were not secure enough even in the leafy Berlin suburbs. Five years after Brecht had written his Buckow Elegies as a response to the events of 1953, the leadership – unable to dissolve the people / And elect another – moved north, to a fortified compound in the woods, just outside the town of Wandlitz.

They remained there until the Berlin Wall came down in 1989 and the eleven-month transition that followed, resulting in German reunification on the 3rd October 1990. Not long after the Wall came down, at the end of November 1989, the first journalists were admitted into what had become known as Volvograd, after the Swedish cars the Politbüro members drove along their special motorway between Wandlitz and East Berlin. Although the myth and rumour of the GDR had created an impression of the leaders of the GDR living in unimaginable luxury in the Waldsiedlung (‘Forest Settlement’), the reality of life in the compound was, like so much in the GDR, a little more banal. Continue reading

These fractured lands

fracturedlandsA story:

I met him by the sea, at a place where the road ended with a turning circle and a neatly mown patch of grass and a sign that said NO BALL GAMES. It was to be the last of our meetings. I had everything I needed, everything I thought I was going to get, and had only come back to say goodbye.

I rang the doorbell of the holiday cottage but there had been no response. Only then, as I looked back across the grass and down towards the water, did I see him, standing on the coastal path with binoculars raised to his eyes. Beyond him the tide was low; an old ship’s boiler – the remains of a wreck – rested on the damp sands between seaweed covered rocks. Oystercatchers, gulls and cormorants. Out on the horizon a container ship. Otherwise just the expanse of water, waiting to be filled with thoughts and memories.

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