On Potsdamer Straße (to see an old friend)

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By Paul Scraton:

Potsdamer Straße talks to me, as I walk down from the S-Bahn, past the library and across the canal. It talks to me about the Joseph-Roth-Diele, with its checkered tablecloths and a menu of goulash and spätzle, surrounded by the books and the words of a writer who was both of Berlin and not from Berlin, a man who disliked the city intently and yet became one of its greatest chroniclers. It talks to me about the shop for believers, filled with statues and trinkets; a little piece of Rome in this godless city. And it speaks to me of the Wintergarten and its cabaret stage, and the many thousands of performances I’ve never seen.

Not all the memories of the Potsdamer Straße are mine, but some are, and they take me back to my earliest days in the city. A long night with friends who lived on a side street to this great thoroughfare, starting with cocktails in a dark bar of concrete and polished wood, and ending in an all-night drinking den with carpet on the walls and friendly drag queens, with one more beer to toast the rising sun. Another friend lived down the street, from whose apartment we could watch Christopher Street Day parades while eating a huge watermelon bought from the supermarket on the corner along with Fladenbrot and dips. And Potsdamer Straße reminds me of the night bus home to Steglitz, catching glimpses of 21st century versions of Sally Bowles through the window, visions wrapped in long coats and heavy scarves beneath the street lights. How I was too lonely and scared to press the button, to bring the bus to a halt and climb down onto the pavement. 

***

Anyone who moves to this city at any time is told that they came too late. They should have been here in the 1990s. Or the 1970s. Or the 1920s. But in those first few months, the Potsdamer Straße I spied through the night bus window offered a glimpse of the different versions of the city I arrived too late to experience. There was Franz Hessel, passing Christopher Isherwood on the street corner outside a red-lit bar. Across the road, a pale boy in the shadows who has come to the city to meet David Bowie. And my friends on the side street, newly arrived from the south, moving in to the apartment as the shadow of the Berlin Wall still lingered up the road, just a mile or so to the north. 

A decade later it was my turn. A train from Schönefeld with the city under snow. The television tower, lost in the mist. Darkness in the streets around Alexanderplatz, which made the three letters – OST – above the Volksbühne seem to shine all the brighter. The earliest memories of a place, seared the strongest.

On Potsdamer Straße I walk to see an old friend accompanied by these memories. Fragments and faces. Bodies and beer bottles. Up to now, my friend has haunted other places in the city. A basement bar in Mitte. An art school garden in Charlottenburg. A soft summer evening in Wedding. After today, he will join the cast that stalk Potsdamer Straße with me.

***

None of us experience a place in the same way. We all bring with us our own stories and knowledge, our own cast of characters, whether real or imagined. Even in unknown or unfamiliar places we rarely arrive empty handed, and what we see when we get there is shaped by what we know and what we don’t. A few weeks ago, in my friend’s kitchen, he talked about his work in the same way that I think about the Potsdamer Straße. He could show me something, he said, but he couldn’t tell me what to feel. Everyone brings their own luggage. Everyone brings their own ghosts. 

***

On Potsdamer Straße, where Joseph Roth loiters, making space on the pavement for pious shoppers, and the street looks the same now as it did when I viewed it through a rain- and exhaust-smudged window (even though I know that it can’t), I turn into a courtyard to meet my old friend. People used to make newspapers here. Journalists, editors, printworkers. You can see it in the buildings, read it in the brick and glass and concrete. A form for a purpose, now used for something else, like so many places in this city. I think of all those words, written and printed and sent out from the gates. News today. Chip paper tomorrow. Add this place to the memories;  my own and of others. Add it to what I hear when Potsdamer Straße talks to me. And add it to what I will be holding within as I face my old friend’s creations. 

***

Paul Scraton is the editor in chief of Elsewhere: A Journal of Place and the author of two books published by Influx Press: Ghosts on the Shore: Travels along Germany’s Baltic coast (2017) and Built on Sand (2019), a novel set in Berlin and Brandenburg. 


The Graffiti Chapel

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By David Lewis:

Some days we could walk across the city without touching the ground.  In the 1960s, when the city was welcoming the car into her widened streets with open arms, it was decided to extend safe sky-streets over the busy roads.  We called them the walkways. Bridges sprang over the traffic and the walkways connected them. By the time I knew them twenty years later they were filthy and vandalised but still connected parts of the city centre, like a half-cleared railway network of odd branches and unused lines. 

So the city decided that the walkways had been a mistake, and decommissioned them.  Gently they were cleaned from the city’s streets and perhaps her memory as well. The scars are still there, brick or concrete rectangles on the first floor of buildings where a walkway used to be, the stumps of bridge supports, another scar-rectangle matching on the other side of the road. 

When I knew they were going to demolish them, I walked as many walkways as I could.  They leaped across Old Hall Street, Roe Street, the Goree, others I cannot remember, so familiar were they and so completely have they been erased from the cityscape.  The walkways squeezed between buildings to create sky-streets of broken lights and urine. And graffiti. Inevitably the taggers and street artists saw the walkways as a golden opportunity to enrich the city and the urban experience.  

Two walkways met at a small open pavilion, a room open on three sides to the elements, the roof supported on slender concrete pillars.  Every inch of the walls and ceiling and floors was spray-painted, and over-painted, and painted again. Names and titles and challenges and dates chased each other over the concrete in a swirl of reds and silvers, blacks and yellows, blues and a rich strain of orange. Standing there, I lost all sense of proportion or depth, as if in a chapel by Giotto, a street trompe-l’oeil, vertiginous and disorienting.  It smelled of cigarette smoke and urine rather than frankincense, and unlike Giotto the artists had no need to respect perspective, morality or architecture, but they were liberated by their concrete canvas: the words and colours flowed freely over floor and wall, onto windowsill and pillar, swirling to head height and beyond, so that the floor seemed to descend and the ceiling to rise into the sky.  It was bawdy, exciting, psychedelic, exhausting.  

And it was doomed.  The cigarette smoke was the problem.  The graffiti chapel stood like a debauched and drunken priest alongside the new solemn fortress of the Crown Courts on Derby Square, a reminder of the anarchic city, the lawless city, its underbelly, everything the towers of the Courts stood against. The Courts were built in a deliberate biscuit-concrete echo of the Castle that once stood there, and Crown Courts and graffiti chapel stood like a debased version of what used to be, Castle and Church. 

The graffiti chapel and the walkway was where the visitors to the Crown Courts, the families and friends of accused or plaintiff, stood for an anxious cigarette, and the smaller messages were prayers of hope, votive offerings to an indifferent Law; ‘Thomas is Innocent!’ ‘Luke S Got Five Years Should Have Been Ten’, ‘Where’s the Justice for Our Mary’.  Painting the walls would only attract the graffiti boys again, and it was decided to demolish. So one autumn day, tracing surviving walkways or their routes on the ground, I turned a corner to find the graffiti chapel gone. In my days writing about the city’s churches, I turned other corners to find other chapels demolished, but none saddened me as much. 

***

David Lewis has written five books of history/landscape/psychogeography about his native Liverpool and Merseyside.  He posts urban/rural images on Instagram - davidlewis4168 and mutters about the world on Twitter - @dlewiswriter


Mirages: A walk along the periphery

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By Julia Bennett:

mirage noun 1. an optical illusion caused by atmospheric conditions

Air still, heat building during the morning in the summer of 2018. Purple marshes to the right, tinged with sea lavender, to the left the creeks and sandbanks of the interstitial area between land and sea. Stepping out eastwards from Burnham Deepdale, the North Norfolk coast path crosses Deepdale Marsh on a high raised bank. Upturned boats seemingly abandoned to the mud and gulls; a windmill in the distance, unmoving. A sense of desolation averted by the Mediterranean-like heat. A group of paddle boarders drift past: serenely balanced on their boards in the still waters of the English coastal creeks, but clearly not fit craft for the rigours of the North Sea crossing itself. This is the not-quite-land and not-quite-sea border of the rump of England, back turned towards mainland Europe out across the North Sea.

The path itself, built up above the tides, steers a tenuous path between the opposing forces of land and water. The local population of sea birds is well adapted to the equivocal nature of this place: long-legged orange-beaked oyster catchers; a lively assortment of gulls; mousy-brown curlews, elongated toes splayed over the surface, long bills digging deep into the salty mud. Passport-less, curlews travel across Europe. Some stay in the UK over winter, others choosing France or Spain, like elderly British holiday makers spending a few months somewhere warm to save on heating bills. A slight ripple in the creek signals the presence of those bilingual, multi-modal, land-and-marine mammals: an otter, bobbing a furry head briefly above the water. For millennia the North Sea has provided a pathway to the rest of the world, rather than a moat around the castle of England.

Hitting the road at Burnham Overy Staithe the mood changes: the harbour bustles with tourists, boats clamouring for their custom. Zig-zagging through the crowds, the coast path steps out again onto a high bank, this time crowded with people headed to the beaches at Holkam Nature Reserve. Creeks and channels curl into the spit of land like tree roots digging into a rock face, refusing to give way to the clarity of either land or sea. Dunes ahead obscure the view of the beach whilst simultaneously signalling its sandy closeness. Over the dune-summit the land finally concedes defeat and in a long exhalation of breath sends a broad expanse of blue to meet the horizon. Golden sands stretch eastwards as far as the eye can see, a broad yellow-highlighter mark on the map demarcating the island of Great Britain from the continental mainland. Walking now along the shoreline footprints stamp out tribal belongings, temporary tattoos washed away by the next wave. The hot, still land seems to hold its breath and wait. Gradually, Holkam beach broadens out as the land of this corner of England distinguishes itself from the polyglot North/Nord Sea/see/zee. No longer a liminal space between land and sea, mainland and island, the ground underfoot becomes a little firmer and the atmosphere changes.

mirage noun 1.1. An unrealistic hope or wish that cannot be achieved

A couple of miles along, dunes rise again and behind them, a cool, sweet smelling pine wood reminiscent of the beaches of Northern France. The cool silence of the deserted sand-and-pine-needles paths sheltering beneath the trees provides a breathing space away from the spotlight of the hot midday sun. Through the trees, glimpses of colourful painted beach huts presage the arrival of the superior-but-faded grandeur of Wells-next-the-sea. In bright blocks of colour or Breton stripes beach huts are a staple of the traditional British seaside, along with buckets and spades and sticks of rock. But unlike the cheap plastic buckets on sale they are highly desired properties, costing almost a day’s wages to rent for the day, despite being, literally, built on sand.

Emerging from the trees the path skirts a large car park before following the sea wall into Wells-next-the-sea, ironically another mile inland due to the retreat of the sea over the centuries. A mini-train transports those without cars to and from the beach. The sea’s retreat changed the identity of this place. Wells was a busy trading port with Europe in the sixteenth century but is now a slightly upmarket, English seaside town with fish and chips and tacky souvenir shops along the front and a few olde gifte shoppes in the narrow roads heading inland.

The coastal bus service passes through here. It is full of school children at 4 o’clock on a term-time weekday afternoon, with a few tourists and the occasional local. Along this gentrified stretch of coast, the bus travels through picture-postcard villages: red-tiled rooves and Georgian facades, roses around the doors of stone cottages, traditional butchers’ and greengrocers’ shops with names written in antiquated fonts, and the ever-present bunting, flapping gently in the breeze. At first glance this is an image of a corner of England which, much like Wells, has been left high and dry by the twenty-first century. A Disneyfied mirage, hazy in the late-afternoon heat. Isn’t that a ‘Jack Wills’ nestling amongst the tea shops of Burnham Market?

***

Note: Definitions taken from en.oxforddictionaries.com

Julia Bennett is a sociologist who researches place and belonging


On visiting the Dylan Thomas Boathouse, Laugharne

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By Anna Evans:

Approaching along the peninsula, the town seems to lie at the end of the road, like reaching a final destination. A castle stands guard over the quiet estuary, dramatic and imposing, its battlements slowly reclaimed by the landscape. It is a trip I embark on as much to look for traces of the past, a memory of a prior visit fifteen years ago. Arriving at the hour of dusk in early spring, the town quiet and deserted, the Boathouse already closed for the day. We walked along the street to the pub where Dylan and Caitlin Thomas used to drink together in the evenings. Then we continued our journey into Pembrokeshire, driven on by the time.

I am thinking of a photograph on a beach somewhere on that trip to Wales. Dark clouds and grey sea. There is synchronicity in the image; our faces are together, touching in the half light. When photographs were still like slips of chance on the paper. Thinking about being outside as night fell in the mountains, sharing a bottle of wine; jubilant in the almost total darkness, with no lights to guide us home.

Today I am on time to make the pilgrimage and see inside the house, but I had imagined my return differently, that I would have more time to look around and to absorb the atmosphere of the place. I am distracted, harassed; my mind caught in the argument we had this morning, still unresolved. Family life spinning around us, its currents of confusion. I am looking for clues of something. Thinking back to a simpler time and recalling pictures of my past self, shrouded in the rain-soaked hills and twilight of the Welsh skies. Dylan Thomas is important to me. His poetry resonated with me, the colour of language. He gave me a way to think about death and the passing of time, and about change.

Thomas lived in the town with his family, and for the last few years of his life acquired the Boathouse and the writing hut. It is a place in which he wrote some of his most important poems, and a place that witnessed arguments, the disintegration of his marriage, of his body. A life lived outside convention. The house is understated, leaving scope for imagining life here. I look around, my camera stuck on sepia mode, nostalgia in the recreated drawing room space. A notice explains that this is not the actual furniture, much of which Caitlin sold in response to the ever-advancing demands for money, the unpaid bills.

Family photos on the wall. Dylan and Caitlin in a rowing boat, his deep brown eyes stare into the camera. The exhibition tells me that Dylan would retreat to his writing shed, away from the noise of the children, from the travails of family life. The closed door. I look out from the window at the far-reaching view out into the bay, across the estuary, outwards to sea. Thinking about the precarious balance of art and life, between real life and life on the page, and about trying to carve out a space for one from the other. Thomas is seen in a pure sense as an artist, one who created his art and placed it above all things, the artist as genius, demon angel, doomed to destruction.

I continue back along the path to the writing shed. It is beautifully restored and has inspired many aspiring artists, as the photographs and paintings of it attest. It is overlooking the water, the sweep of the bay and the harbour where boats lie, picturesque, as if cast adrift from the sea. A place to think about moorings and being unmoored.

I am always compelled by images of writing spaces and desks, by descriptions of how and when writing takes place. I think of my own chaotic balance of writing and life, the hasty tidying away of books and paper to make a space for living, my writing is always on the move, from one place to another. A dedicated writing space where things could remain untouched is every writer’s dream. Where, as Caitlin explains, from two until seven each day – often she would lock the door - Dylan would disappear, returning hours later with a perfectly crafted line or two of poetry. In his writing space, the many lists of words he compiled. The possibilities of language, and the meticulous hours spent in constructing a single sentence. Looking out to sea, a retreat away from the domestic confines of home, exposed to the waves and sealed off.

Leaving the writing shed, I begin to walk, thinking to head back into the town. There is a path leading to the churchyard where Thomas is buried, and a sign says that ‘the path to Dylan’s grave can be muddy.’ It occurs to me that I am the same age now, as Dylan when he died. I would like to keep following the path but I am uncertain where it goes and how long it will take. Instead I read your messages, you are wondering where I am, how long I am planning to be away.

Looking back as we drive onwards, the remains of the castle unexplored, the map open displaying the route along the coastline, the town falling away behind us.

Now I see that the road continues.

About the author:
Anna Evans is a writer and researcher from Huddersfield in the north of England, currently living in Cambridge. Her interests are in migration and literature, cities and movement, and she completed an MA in ‘Writing the Modern World’. She is currently working on a project on the places in Jean Rhys’s fiction and has recently launched a blog playing literary detective around Paris and London in seach or Jean Rhys and other wanderings, titled And The Street Walks In. 

Countdown

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By Ian C Smith:

In nocturnal limbo, untethered from sleep since 2.30, body aching, checklist of not-to-be-left-behinds reducing like ended experiences sintering away, months morphing into years, or waves washing below the light aircraft he boards in hours and minutes counting down, he can’t stop check-listing a spun out life.

Averse to a homecoming of smelly rot, tiny insects swarming in decomposed matter in the silence below his sink, he deposits kitchen scraps in the compost, balancing this by removing some for scabbed garden spots, trowelling through a fecund reek writhing with worms before leaving for his beloved place, a shimmer of memories.

Repositioning items in two battered bags, he mulls over squeezing in a book he is nine-tenths through, a literary heavyweight as big as a best seller with a title of reducing numbers by a favourite writer, a rich rendition of possible paths taken in an artistic life.

Immersed in its saga, he is unable to leave the book behind, checks another item off, medication, considers arithmetical probabilities, how happiness can remain a hairsbreadth away, loved photos, angled light blessing an island, shrouded reminders of a life, prowling his mind’s distant alleys, treading softly through the dark stables of the past. 

About the author: Ian C Smith’s work has appeared in, Amsterdam Quarterly, Antipodes, Australian Poetry Journal,  Critical Survey,  Live Encounters, The Stony Thursday Book, & Two-Thirds North.  His seventh book is wonder sadness madness joy, Ginninderra (Port Adelaide).  He writes in the Gippsland Lakes area of Victoria, and on Flinders Island, Tasmania.

From Travail to Travel

By Ian C Smith:

On Saturday mornings in post-war London he thrills to the idea of escape.  For sixpence he sees a hero, dressed more like a movie star than a cowboy, elude a dull-witted gang, sidling from a spot tighter than his belt and boots, while the juvenile audience, escaped from grey boredom, jeers hoarsely.

Freedom: scheming prisoner motivation, the door left unlocked, exit road snaking away to the hills, or shaking off hounds by crossing streams, or the fairground life, always moving on, appeals, his hourglass almost done, parents edging closer to learning of his shoplifting, their emigration to Australia offering him an escape tunnel.

Vanished people intrigue: a car stranded under a tree, keys no longer swaying, silence, the stars, restless wind, the only witnesses; fresh starts, no difficult goodbyes, off to find Utopias gloved in dreams.  Isolated Australians’ penchant for flying overseas triggers his idealised self as a secretive drifter who makes unscheduled stops.

Travelling light to New Zealand where the South Pacific, Tahiti, await, island hopping the Dateline, splendour beckoning beyond dock lights, then hitch-hiked highways, youth hostels somewhere in America, this yearning for other lives, his homing instinct, exempts him from worn out love, income addiction, the fetid weight of a wasted life.     

About the author:
Ian C Smith’s work has appeared in, Antipodes, Australian Book Review, Australian Poetry Journal,  Critical Survey,  Prole,  The Stony Thursday Book, & Two-Thirds North.  His seventh book is wonder sadness madness joy, Ginninderra (Port Adelaide).  He writes in the Gippsland Lakes area of Victoria, and on Flinders Island, Tasmania.

Seven Sisters

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Sussex's white cliffs are something else: steep rolling waves of white, seven in a row. I'm with friends, walking straightish route 14 miles along the coast from Seaford to Eastbourne. It’s the first walk back after winter, and the simplest, easiest and least ambitious escape I could make. Whatever it is, though, I need it. The walk grabs all the energy my lazy London arse could muster for a sunny Saturday. I could have been lying in my garden all day, sitting up only to drink another tinny. Instead I struggle four hours in dusty walking boots towards my destination: a cold shandy.

I've been at work all week, fingers tripping the keyboard and feet tucked under the desk. The newspaper’s been an endless churn of stories about the Home Office, and its new assault on the Windrush generation. Objective: getting out of my head. Here are waves of turf. Here is a beach cut in half by a river. Here the sea makes chalky plumes. Walls of green grass ride up and fill my gaze and cliffs of white chalk soar up from short backshores. Out there, the big blue Channel spindles out to the horizon. The view is huge and the walk is satisfying. Within half an hour, my hamstrings ache and the back of my T-shirt is damp with sweat.

In Kent, Dover's cliffs are just outside the sea port. They run white and constant, at a uniform height. (UKIP once ran an anti-immigration poster showing escalators running to their tops). From the sea, the cliffs are a picture of high-walled Britain. Now, even inside Fortress Britain, a dreading vertigo grows. Whenever you came, whatever your standing in the community, the Home Office can still pull the rug from under you. Uneasy residents cloak discrimination with the state-sanctioned term, ‘hostile environment’: in reality this means putting ‘Go Home’ vans on the roads, deporting survivors of abuse and torture, and forcing teachers, doctors and the general public to police one another’s immigration status. It wouldn't take much for us to fling you out, the tactics say. To even third- and fourth-generation Britons, people still ask: no, but, where are you really from…

Between Seaford and Eastbourne stand England’s other 'white cliffs'. The Seven Sisters come in waves. Peaks trade with dips, where shingle beaches and gaps let us down to the sea. The current of chalk swells and dwindles. At times, the cliffs stand unassailable; at others, the land admits a fault. But at every point along the path, whether high or low, you can see the line of the land in flux.

In 'Wanderlust', Rebecca Solnit writes: "When you give yourself to places, they give you yourself back; the more one comes to know them, the more one seeds them with the invisible crop of memories and associations that will be waiting for when you come back, while new places offer up new thoughts, new possibilities. Exploring the world is one the best ways of exploring the mind, and walking travels both terrains.”

What happens when the place you give yourself to, gives nothing back? What happens when someone else harvests 'the invisible crop of memories' you sowed, weeded and watered? I cannot write about these white cliffs without writing about those white cliffs. We read the landscape, and the landscape reads us. The coastline changes and our landscapes retake us.

Ellie Broughton is a writer from London and wrote for Elsewhere No.04. On Twitter she's @__ellie

Postcard from... the Salt Range and Islamabad

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By Leylac Naqvi:

I am on the motorway between Lahore and Islamabad. At the point where the plains of the Punjab meet the Salt Range, I look and for a minute it seems a mirage, then more details of the shape, scope, and size of the hills emerge from the remnants of the mist I am leaving behind in Lahore. The sun is out, and I’ve got a cup of coffee in a styrofoam cup from the service station at Bhera in my hand. And as I ascend, and the sun is shining, I am seized with a sudden, unexpected happiness.

-

I wake up in the morning to golden light. I remember that about this place. I remember that I like the wind and the light and the way the dust makes everything look as if through a filter, slightly antiqued.

-

In contrast to Islamabad’s relatively staid exterior, the land seems to somehow call out from under, over and around its surroundings – the cloudless blue sky, the wind pushing the (imported) eucalyptus trees around, bright sun in the afternoon – they seem to try to speak even when the city itself is muted. Islamabad, situated on the Potohar Plateau and framed by the Margalla Hills, seems to have an undercurrent of vitality that is at odds with its usually calm surface.

-

Originally from Oregon in the U.S., Leylac Naqvi called Pakistan home for several years and now lives in Singapore. This postcard is a composite of moments from multiple return trips to Islamabad over the years since she moved away.

Beacon Bound, Part I: The Collapse

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In memory of his grandfather, Nicholas Herrmann walks the length of The Ridgeway: an ancient road stretching for eighty-seven miles across chalk downland, from Overton Hill to Ivinghoe Beacon. We will be following Nicholas’ journey here on the Elsewhere blog over the next couple of months.

When a star dies, the collapse creates an event of such immense gravitational force, matter is compelled from far and wide, and all light is extinguished. That point in space, once brilliant and warm, turns impossibly dark.

This is the image I have in my mind on the day my grandfather dies. The family is gathering at the house, and I’m speeding eastward on my way to say goodbye. The twenty-year-old car rattles and shakes, struggling to do seventy, and as I wedge the drooping window with an elbow, I remember from whom the car was inherited.

The red kite signifies the beginning of the Chilterns. Usually, its presence is comforting, telling me I’m close to my childhood home. On the M4, they appear around Newbury, their distinctive shapes patrolling the skies at the limits of some invisible boundary. I see one now, urging me on like a herald, soaring on an updraft as it leads me towards the tragedy.

Several hard hours later, we fill the house with memories. His gentleness, his mischief and decorum, his astounding knowledge of the natural world. The January sun shines a cold light onto dregs of Earl Grey. With energy left only to sit still, my father speaks an idea into the silence: he will walk the length of the Ridgeway – that ancient track that John, my grandfather, loved, and lived beside for much of his life. Eighty-seven miles from Overton Hill in Wiltshire, northeast along the North Wessex Downs and Chiltern Hills, to Buckinghamshire’s Ivinghoe Beacon. Britain’s oldest road.

There is unanimous support for the idea. A plan is quickly formed and agreed upon: my father and I will walk the route in stages, others joining us whenever they are able. We rise to leave. As I pull on my coat, a Post-it catches in the corner of my eye – something destabilising, at once familiar and strange. A small reminder, of something done or undone, written by someone else in my own handwriting. Another inheritance.

*

We start on Good Friday. As we load our packs into the car, a pair of red kites fly out from their nest in a nearby beech tree and circle us. Their call: half whistle, half screech, steady like a kettle on a camping stove. They fly low, their kiln-coloured breasts almost skimming the chimney. We stop and watch in the light rain, able to make out every mark on their speckled chests, every feather on their ashen heads. Red, white, yellow, black: all the colours of heat. Like winged devils they twist their singed wingtips and flick their forked tails. Then they pitch and roll away together over the fields, two embers drifting on the wind.

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Scavengers, survivors, masters of extinction. As they once did in medieval times, kites fill the sky above Reading. At any given time, you can look up and see two or three of these raptors stalking the suburbs. But in the 1930s, after decades of persecution, just one or two pairs remained in the UK. Now, Britain acts as a lifeboat for the species – there are thought to be around 2,700 breeding pairs after a 1989 reintroduction in the Chilterns. And their numbers in Reading are on the rise. A study from 2015 found over four percent of households purposefully leave out meat for the birds, causing hundreds to commute into town each day from the surrounding countryside.

Avebury stone circle lies a mile and a half away from the start of our journey, so we make a stop to remind ourselves of its might and mystery. A crow lands on a megalith, oblivious, or uncaring. I place a palm on a pockmarked, rain-slick stone twice my height, its purpose lost to the ages. We make our way south, circle Silbury Hill – cumbersome and impenetrable – and pass the West Kennet Long Barrow, haunting us from a hilltop. The beginning of the Ridgeway is a car park that sits beside three squat tumuli, too regular on this topography to be given names.

This place undermines time. Prehistory and present congeal like the rain-churned paths orbiting Avebury, a thousand footsteps preserved in mud.

The Ridgeway National Trail was opened in 1973, and is just a section of a five-thousand-year-old route that used to run from the Dorset coast all the way to the Wash in Norfolk. In prehistoric times, the plains and lowlands were heavily forested and covered in undergrowth, making progress near impossible. The chalk provided a way through, drier underfoot, less impeded by vegetation. The trail we know today comprises two different ancient highways stretching across five counties and divided neatly by the Thames – the Ridgeway to the west, the Icknield Way to the east.

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I step over the threshold. The chalk track stretches out in front of me, a steady incline of white on green, clinging to the contours of the Marlborough Downs. Stuck between seasons, the landscape sags under the accumulated weight of the rain, the track transformed to a gritty paste beneath me. To our right, woody tangles of hazel, gorse and hawthorn. To our left, fields curve down to villages and farms safely tucked into the combes below. Everywhere, we pass the sleeping noble dead, their resting places marked by clumps of beech dotted across the undulating landscape.

It’s quiet on the ridge. The weather is deadening, driving wildlife to its shelters. We pass rook nests and badger setts, unreachable and dark. I imagine these creatures in their sanctuaries watching our progress along the hills, as they have done for millennia. A solitary skylark punctures the hush, jostled by the wind. A hare takes flight. I step off the track onto the furrowed edge of a field. Shards of flint mark its perimeter, newly banished by the plough. I am hunting for axeheads and arrowheads, as I was taught to, by John. I slow my pace, using my feet to nudge and lift stones from the soil, hoping to unearth an artefact – coins, pottery, a clay pipe – just as he would while walking these hills.

Sarsen stones – those huge, mystical sandstone blocks used to construct Avebury and Stonehenge – litter our surroundings, increasing in number as we approach Fyefield Down. In this area alone, there are said to be 25,000. They are called the Grey Wethers, resembling sheep from a distance, but to me they just look like stones: inert, lopsided and lichenous, strewn across the hillside by a geological cataclysm. We press on, past four White Park cows sheltering from the easterly wind behind a gorse bush. Charming and ancient, with long, perfect horns, they turn to watch us through barbed wire.

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Soon, we enter a section flanked on either side by shivering hawthorns, dense vegetation climbing their trunks as if the ground is rising to claim them. I pause in a puddle, confounded. As I consider the trees I become agitated, realising I don’t understand the process taking place. I don’t know if the growth on the trunks is moss, or lichen, or liverwort – if it’s harming the trees, or killing them, or benefitting both sides.

I don’t belong. I am out of place – a vagrant, a product of the city, a non-native species in a foreign land.

What am I doing out here, so exposed, so far away?

This is John’s world, not mine. He had a passion for moss and lichen, collecting them on walks, filing them with labels carefully away in a miniature chest of drawers. The photograph at his memorial is a portrait of John kneeling in a wood somewhere, studying the undergrowth, excited by a find. He would have understood this. He would have been able to explain it to me.

Further along, the track levels out, an alley of breeze-bent trees winding past a dew pond. Above, a kestrel is suspended against the clouds, feathers fanned and tousled. From a great height it scrutinises the hedgerows, before yawing behind the ridge and out of sight.

Rock pools.jpg

The landscape is an infinite pallet of earth – every imaginable shade of green and brown: grass, moss, leaf, thorn, footpath, fence post, bark and branch, soil, flint, chalk. Puddles like rock pools stretch across the width of the track and lead the way to a metalled B-road that spills down the hillside towards the village of Broad Hinton. Then, another car park – an island of discarded energy drinks and weathered Walkers multipacks. After hours on the ancient track, these objects feel uncanny and unwelcome. We stop by a log in a nearby copse for lukewarm coffee, and cheese and pickle sandwiches made soggy by the rain.

The sun fails to punch a hole through the sarsen sky. The wind picks up and the way gets muddier leading up towards Barbury Castle – the site of an Iron Age hillfort rising above the landscape, imposing even now after 2,500 years. It blocks the way ahead, the path climbing and cutting straight through. It’s in the ideal position – it has an eye on us long before we reach it, and its steep sides slow our progress. From the top I can see for miles to the west, surrounded by sheep grazing in deep ditches formed by the castle’s earthwork ramparts. And somewhere above, the radio told us, a Chinese space station is tearing up and hurtling down towards Earth.

The breath is blown from our bodies as we step onto Smeathe’s Ridge. Like a backbone holding together the land, the ground falls away on either side to the awesome expanse of the country. We follow the narrow ridge past plantations of oxidised larch and fields below, chalk showing through the dark topsoil in waves. At last unimpeded, the wind harries and hounds us, lashes the cold rain and numbs our cheeks. With a kite’s-eye view, I glide over the land, and I am overcome.

Our boots touch Tarmac, and we’re received by the sleepy environs of Ogbourne St. George, the first ten miles behind us. The rain swells the town’s little river, submerges great sections of road. We return home in a daze, our minds still on the hills. Clay-stained, we gather ourselves by the fire. It has been a day of elements.

That night I slip and slide in dreams of falling.

The journey has begun.

Nicholas Herrmann is a writer and photographer based in Bath. His work has appeared in journals and online, and his writing has been shortlisted for the Bath Novel Award and Janklow and Nesbit Prize. He is a graduate of the Creative Writing MA at Bath Spa University. He is currently working on his first novel. You can find him on Twitter: @NickPSH.

In Orkney

By Ian S. Grosz:

I am headed north for Orkney, a UNESCO World Heritage site, and a landscape both largely devoid of trees and deeply sedimented in vast layers of human history. I surge up the A9 from Inverness, skirting the bleak seascapes of Caithness, and eventually reach Gills Bay. Here I will catch the ferry for the short crossing to St. Margaret’s Hope on South Ronaldsay, the most southerly of the Orkney archipelago.

On South Ronaldsay I camp at the wonderfully eclectic Wheems Organic Farm – just the right side of hippy - and fall into an easy sleep listening to the calls of oystercatchers and the swooping chirrup of swallows in the dusk. The next day, I head out on my bicycle to see the evocatively named Eagle’s Tomb, and the less compelling but well marketed Tomb of the Otters. That night I dream of bones. 

What I have really come for, like most people, is the enigmatic group of monuments centred around Brodgar and Stenness - the latter the site of an ancient stone circle that pre-dates Stonehenge by a thousand years - and the mysteries being uncovered at the Ness of Brodgar, where a five thousand-year-old complex of ceremonial buildings has been unearthed. Approaching the head of the isthmus that separates lochs Harray and Stenness, linking the dark and brooding Ring of Brodgar with the other sites, I find myself in a natural amphitheatre dominated by the two peaks of Hoy to the west. At mid-winter the sun sets between these hills and, for three weeks either side of the solstice, illuminates the deep interior of the incredible feat of engineering that is Maes Howe Chambered Cairn. 

This is a liminal place, a portal between worlds: between our time and theirs, between the setting sun and the mountains, and the shimmering waters of the lochs. It is a place between life and death, and not without atmosphere. Taking in the monuments in context with the surrounding landscape makes sense of the location of these sites, and bridges the vast gap in time between the people who built them and us. Here, in the low lying fertile ground, where fish and wildfowl were plenty, and the sun’s light fell at year’s end, was where they found and made their place. 

Maes Howe, still a striking feature in the landscape today, pre-dates the Great Pyramid at Giza by several hundred years, and commensurately, to view it I must join an official tour that needs to be booked in advance. No photography is allowed inside the tomb. Pictures of it for a keepsake are available as part of the official brochure. Still, it is worth the expense, and the unwanted chitchat with other tourists on the bus from the visitor’s centre to the tomb itself.    

Once inside the tomb, we crowd around the guide in a reverent hush, as ages layered on ages are revealed in the light of her torch: from the standing stones re-used in its construction and the Viking graffiti on the walls, to the Victorian roof repair. Swallows nest above our heads while the ages are unpicked for us, and once or twice the lights are dimmed to bring the tomb-dark that bit closer. The earthen smell is both sobering and strangely comforting, and the now empty spaces where the dead once would have lain seem no more than generic storage places. Those people of so long ago are absent, and yet moment-by-moment their presence seems to come closer.

Between the layers of larger facing stones that make up part of the walls are many smaller pieces, wedged in to level each course in the wall. Seeing this calls to mind the dry-stone walls that still criss-cross the countryside all over the British Isles.  I begin to feel a connection to the people who built these impressive monuments, building with hands just like ours, looking out at the Universe, and trying to make sense of it all.

Later, in Stromness, I visit an exhibition entitled Conversations with Magic Stones that is part of an island-wide collection tracing our relationship with stone: from those who work it, collect it, or simply have special pieces that have been passed down in the family or come to them by chance. How many of us pick up pebbles on a beach, are drawn to stone sculpture, or seek out these ancient memorials in the landscape? Stone is aeons old, constituted in stars, formed in the earth, shaped by ice and water, and worked by people. In them is an impossible journey spanning time we cannot imagine.    

Whilst camping at the Sands of Evie, I take a walk along the crescent moon-shaped bay as the sun dips toward the horizon. There, amongst the many stones and pebbles grouped and sorted by the tide along the beach, I spot a long, pale, tapered stone. It is smoothed and rounded at the edges like many of the other stones gathered by the waves, but has a shape I am drawn to. I pick it up and turn it in my hands. It has a weight and a presence that communicates with me. It fits in my palm perfectly. It seems made for my hands: for pounding or hammering. It has a feel, a life: imminence. Although smoothed by wave action it has an overall size, shape and balance that cannot be accidental. The Broch of Gurness - occupied between 500 BC and 100 AD - lies just beyond the headland. It could be wishful thinking, but perhaps this stone in my hands is a once discarded Mace Head, now washed to the shore on to this beach.

Barbara Hepworth said that ‘…it is a perfectly natural feeling to wish – to take a rock and turn it into life and to make, in that way, an image which has a magic to preserve life in one’s own personality.’ In this stone I now hold in my hands, I feel a personality coming through; as though someone is speaking to me from a time I had thought unreachable.   

About the author:
Ian is a writer interested in the themes of Place, Landscape, Belonging and Identity. He writes both poetry and prose and uses photography to supplement his non-fiction work. He has recently completed a Post Graduate Certificate in Social Research and is now enrolled on an MLitt in Creative Writing at the university of Aberdeen. He is currently planning a trip for a project in the Outer Hebrides.  

A companion piece to this essay was published by our friends at The Island Review. You can read 'Orkney: a sense of time and place' here.