Craster in the early morning. The North Sea is calm, still like a mill pond. Down below the path oystercatchers pick their way across the rocks of what – at a higher tide – we have named ‘Jacob’s Island’ but which is now very much connected with the mainland. At low tide a rusted ship’s boiler can be seen resting on the damp sands, the legacy of a hundred-year-old wreck and a reminder that while the sea may be calm this morning, the rocks along the Northumbrian shore have claimed many ships over the centuries.
Through the village and there is little sign of life on the streets. Outside the cafe a young woman wipes the overnight moisture from the picnic tables on the terrace, preparing for a day of serving tea, cake and sandwiches to daytrippers and long-distance walkers following St Oswald’s Way along the coast. A drinks delivery is unloaded at the the pub and in the smokehouse someone is working as the smell of kippers drifts out from the stone buildings and down towards the harbour.
When sitting in the back of the car as we crossed Anglesey as kids – slowly, because the dual carriageway hadn’t been built yet – we were always searching for the landmarks that meant we were nearly there. There was one point, the crest of a low hill, where the road cut through some rocks beneath a white cottage surrounded by gorse bushes, that we would see through the gap in the front seats and the car windscreen the vista that told us we were close. The Rhoscolyn Coastguard lookout. The reverse cigarette of the Anglesey Aluminium tower. Holyhead Mountain.
A little more than 200m high Holyhead Mountain is easily the highest point on Holy Island, higher than anything on Anglesey, and although that is not particularly tall when compared to the peaks of Snowdonia a few miles away, it is still a striking lump of rock that sits above the port town of Holyhead and falls directly into the sea on two sides. The Romans built a lookout tower there, which gives it its Welsh name of Mynydd Twr… and it appears to have been a place of settlement and human activity for thousands of years. It has had chunks taken out of it as it was quarried for stone and the cliffs below its summit are popular and populated with any number of bird species who share the slabs with rock climbers dreaming of white horses as kayakers ride the waves beneath their feet. We have been coming here for years, mainly to the South Stack Lighthouse and the Ellins Tower RSPB centre, but this time we were going to walk the mountain.
Not up it, but around. Continue reading
Long time readers of Under a Grey Sky will have seen pieces about Rhoscolyn before, and here comes another one, but I make no apology. As someone who left the UK at the age of 22 and has lived in Berlin for almost 15 years, and whose parents no longer live in the town that I grew up in, the idea of “home” has always been an interesting one to me. And if there is one constant in my conscious memory, the one place that has changed through the years but – really, when it comes to my emotions about the place – always stayed the same, then that is Rhoscolyn, and specifically Outdoor Alternative, home to my Uncle and Aunty, cousins and whatever it is kids of cousins are to me or to Lotte (we have this discussion on every visit).
Over Easter we returned again, to that field with the views across from Holy Island to Anglesey and beyond, to Snowdonia. When the weather is good it feels as if you can make out the climbers reaching the top of those peaks. When the weather closes in you can feel as if this collection of buildings along a dusty track is the very end of the world. This time, on arrival, we did as we always do and walked the headland around to the beach, following at the same time the waymarked trail of the Anglesey Coastal Path but also the personal topography of memory and my fellow members of the Red Devils, who explored every patch of heather and gorse, sandy cove and rocky inlet, and gave them names and stories and drew maps that made the place truly ours… and now, as we walked that headland again, I could still picture those maps in my head as I told some of those stories to Lotte.
The sounds of the city began to fade as we climbed the steep slope up from the river embankment; the squeal of the trams as they turned the corner to cross the bridge; the siren of a police car racing past the Rudolfinum on the opposite bank; the bells from any number of churches, whose spires rise up above the Old Town and, as we climbed higher, came more and more into view.
At the top we reached Letná Park we could see beyond the narrow streets of the Josefov and around Old Town Square, out to the TV Tower with David Černý’s babies ever crawling up the sides. After a few days of staring up at the castle we now looked across the ridge to it, to Petrin Hill and down the river towards the National Theatre, the New Town, and some modern tower blocks beyond. Continue reading
We caught the tram having walked through smooth, unmarked snow on the pavement outside our house. As we walked a cyclist passed, cutting a solitary line ahead of us where the caretaker of a neighbouring building leaned on his shovel and considered the work that was to come. The tram was soggy, with puddles of water surrounding islands of grit, our neighbourhood of Berlin-Wedding passing by on the other side of steamed-up windows.
We took the tram to the end of the line. Is this where we came for my arm? Lotte asked, as she always does when we come to this corner of the city, as we disembarked opposite the Virchow Klinikum. Yep, I replied, but turned her away from the hospital and crossed over towards the graveyard that stands like a gothic warning to patients walking the grounds on the other side of the street. Here the road, our road, makes its last hundred metres as an ordinary city street before it becomes the motorway, next stop Dresden, Leipzig or Magdeburg…
Overnight the familiar world changes. The city under snow is a different place. Edges are softened. Sound is muffled. Lotte and I walk out from our apartment onto the street we see every single day and it feels like a place in a dream, one which you recognise, where you know where you are but that doesn’t seem quite right. Not that Lotte cares, as she sees the clean, untouched expanse of snow covering the terrace of the hotel next door.
The day after Christmas we drove through the streets of West Belfast until they began to rise to meet the lower slopes of Black Mountain. Not that we could see it. As we reached the last house on the left, where Feargal lives, the fog not only blocked our view of anything above us but also the city we had left behind. So the visibility was poor and the ground was surely to be sodden, after the rain of the previous couple of nights, but we gathered together with Feargal and his friends the mood was good.
Just past the house a river runs beneath the road and there is a sign dedicated to Feargal’s dad Terry, whose poetry has appeared on these pages and who did more than anyone to get access to the Belfast Hills. The story is on Under a Grey Sky here, and sadly Terry died not long after. I never got to meet him, but my dad and Deena did and by all accounts he was a remarkable man. So we were walking in his memory, and that of Feargal’s brother – also called Terry – who was killed in 1998 and who had also loved these hills and the outdoors in general.