Our view of history over the centuries has inevitably been moulded and formed by the victors of battles, by the rich and the powerful, and by those who were able to read and write and, more importantly, use their knowledge of language(s) to form opinions. Seldom do we get to take on the perspectives of the losers in battles, of the weak and poor, and importantly of the illiterate. I see the social historian as someone who helps to bridge that gap.
T.C. Smout’s volume A Century of the Scottish People 1830-1950 is dominated by interpretations of how the ordinary peasants and the factory workers in the cities were subject to the control of the rich and powerful in society. From the inhumane clearances of the countryside to the appalling and dangerous conditions of the industrial environment, from the cruelty of employing children as young as 6 years of age in the mines and on the looms to the injustices shown to home workers in the textile industry, the story unfolds gradually towards the formation of unions and the establishment of compulsory education for all children.
Scotland in the late 19th and early 20th centuries was a tough place to live if you were a member of the majority social class. Child mortality was high, people died young of industrial diseases and accidents, and mothers frequently died in childbirth, not to mention all the other potentially fatal diseases like TB and typhus. There were no comforts, little food, and the living conditions were frankly appalling. By contrast, the succeeding 70 years up to the present time have seen changes that have transformed the lives of the majority to a level that would have seemed impossible in Victorian Britain.
Re: Cyclists by Michael Hutchinson
Michael Hutchinson, a former pro-cyclist-turned-journalist, writes an excellent weekly column in The Comic………more accurately known as Cycling Weekly. His style is to combine well-informed commentary on aspects of the world of cycling, mixed with wry humour and critical insights into whatever is current or in fashion. I know some faithful followers of the magazine turn immediately to his column when they open their current edition.
Re: Cyclists, 200 years on two wheels is his take on (basically) the entire history of cycling, from the ‘draisine’ (hobby horse) invented by Baron von Drais in Germany in 1816 to what we know to today, the bicycle in all its configurations. No matter how sophisticated bicycles become, from the technical metal compounds that go into the frames, to the growing subtlety of the accessories that go on the frames, the design of the bicycle has not fundamentally changed over the years. Two hundred years on we are still taking advantage of that leap of imagination that went into building the early machines, and that will probably never change.
His perambulations take him through the history of Cycling Weekly, a magazine that began simply as Cycling in 1891, bang in the era of the penny farthing (perhaps the most dangerous of the velocipedes to ride), through its brief and disastrous flirt with mopeds, when it was renamed in 1957 as Cycling and Mopeds, to its current incarnation, inspired largely by the world of racing.
Although he dedicates the last chapter to the future of cycling (as most similar tomes do) he is challenged to predict any fundamental changes ahead, given that we have already come through 200 years of history and development without any real departures from the original designs.
A good book and worth reading.
Not climbing back on the bike after breakfast can be a bit disorienting, but Trinidad is not a place you fly in and out of.
It is one of only 5 original Spanish colonial towns in Cuba, and it is by far and away the best preserved. Mostly colourfully painted single storey buildings, it’s heritage is further confirmed by its rough cobbled streets, not very comfortable for either walking or cycling.
You can spend hours wandering the streets, negotiating the tour groups and touters, and be surprised by something interesting round every corner. I was waylaid my a museum called The battle against the bandits,
and discovered it was about Castro’s bid, in the early years of his regime, to root out the counter-revolutionaries in the Sierra de Escambray, which is the backdrop to Trinidad. The exhibition was designed to be a war memorial to all those who died for their fatherland…..and there seemed to be a lot of literacy educators amongst the victims.
Castro had created huge teams of teenage literacy teachers who went out into the countryside to teach the campesinos to read and write….it was claimed the target of 100% literacy in the nation was achieved in less than a year. Many point to this as one of the great achievements of the regime, but I bet many of those people have never been into a bookshop or library in Cuba. Let me explain.
Cuba may be literate but nobody actually reads anything….not even newspapers. The rare bookshop you find has very few books, no customers, and that’s because 90% of the books are about some aspect of the revolution and the other 10% are about yawn-inducing topics like the history of apiculture in Cuba. Even the libraries are empty, because all they have are fusty dusty ageing volumes on topics no one wants to read about. What’s more, they are housed in dark forbidding unwelcoming buildings. The people of Cuba are suffering from cultural and intellectual starvation, and nobody here seems to realise it. Or do they…..?
I would recommend anyone coming to Cuba avoids the organised packaged tour. Go independently, live and travel with the people. Experience something of the discomforts of their means of transport, their lack of choices in both food and consumer goods, their frustrating queues to get the most basic things (I queued today to get into a bank and to buy a WiFi card). People say they want to see Cuba before it changes, as if what the Cubans have now is romantic and cute, and capitalism is only going to ruin it. We need to wake up and stop being patronising. Do go and spend your £s and $s to support their failing economy, but get down there in the trenches with them and try to see the world as they see it. You can’t do that if you are forever retreating into an air-conditioned tour-coach or finishing your day back at a smart hotel that serves canapés and cocktails before dinner.
OK folks, rant over. I’ll be back on the bike again tomorrow…..😊
If the winter weather deities are on my side, my Virgin Atlantic flight will take off from Gatwick at midday on Monday, and will deposit me at Havana José Marti airport at something after 17.00, a 10 hour flight that will allow me to gain 5 hours extra daylight that day. Somewhere in the hold my bike will be in an assortment of bits in a box, and the fact that we are both together on the flight will be unreal for reasons other than the weather……
You see, on Christmas Eve I felt one of those annoying winter infections beginning to take hold and, thinking I would be on the mend within a few days, it just got worse and worse, till I got to the point where this trip was very much held in the balance. Ten days later as I began to slowly emerge from the depths, a plan B gradually formed in my brain, the least taxing option being to just get myself on the flight and over to Cuba without the bike, and take it from there……either hiring a steed for the duration, or just on an ‘as-needs’ basis to do a few local rides.
Then a modification formed to that version of the plan, involving the use of my 25 year old Raleigh, the frame of which I had broken in New Zealand, and which had been repaired by a local boat welder in Queenstown. That was 6 years ago, and it had only ever been ridden sporadically since then for a bit of off-roading. Given that the Raleigh is now superfluous to my needs (my Dave Yates has now replaced it) my current plan is to ride it in Cuba and then give it away, saving me the hassle to boxing it up for the return flight, and providing someone with (perhaps) a much needed bike. Cubans, after all, are renowned for their ability to ‘mend and fettle’, and since bicycles are a bit of luxury for many Cubans, I expect it to find a new eager owner with relative ease.
Cuba, as many of you know, is a singular place. It is still suffering the austerity of a blockade by the Americans, and many everyday items are difficult to find, especially for resident Cubans. And with access to the internet being extremely limited, it is likely that posts on my blog will be sporadic and intermittent. A blessing you may say but, as ever, I promise to make my contributions to the world’s fountain of knowledge with pithy and ‘short-winded’ offerings.
Watch this space.
Castles (from the latin ‘castellum’ = fortified building) were generally built for protection, and would incorporate all kinds of features to make them safer places in the event of attack (moats, crenellations, drawbridges etc…). But that was only true up to the later middle ages when the increasing use of artillery in warfare made castles easier to conquer. Thereafter, castles were generally built as pseudo-fortifications, imitating some of the features of the traditional castle, but only for decoration, like Kimbolton Castle and Sissinghurst Castle. They were certainly built to impress, but only as fine country houses to entertain guests and, sometimes, royalty.
Bodiam Castle, on the other hand, was built in the 14th century, incorporating all the elements needed for keeping the enemy out (in this case the French), including towers, drawbridge, battlements, moat, murder holes (for pouring boiling oil through)…..but never once in its history was it ever threatened by siege. But unlike many medieval castles, which were fairly spartan places to live in, Bodiam was designed to provide comfortable living quarters for the Dalyngrigge family for several generations. When it finally fell into the hands of Lord Curzon in the 20th century, he bequeathed the whole property to the National Trust on his death in 1925.
We sat on a couple of Trust deckchairs looking down on this impressive pile before feeling the tug of intrigue to discover the interior, climb up a couple of the towers, view the vineyards covering the hillsides and peer through the arrow slits looking for the approaching enemy. It had all the elements of a robust fortified building, and is still this impressive because it had never been attacked or ransacked by a marauding army.
The fetterlock and falcon of Fotheringhay
On my 80km (50 mile) sortie into north Northamptonshire this morning, I sped through villages like Coppingford, Glatton, Lutton, Fotheringhay, Southwick and Stoke Doyle, all of them small communities with fewer than 100 inhabitants, but all of them with houses built in the singularly attractive stone of the area, and churches that have been cared for and restored over the last thousand years.
It is astonishing that a community the size of Fotheringhay (80-90 inhabitants) can afford to pay for repairs to the church’s lantern tower, the scaffolding for which is probably taking the best part of a week to build. But a quick bit of research has uncovered that the community was given a grant of some £54,000 to repair the lantern tower, and that over recent years, they have managed to raise nearly £1.5 million for general repairs to the fabric of the church.
Fotheringhay, as small as it is, has played a major role in this country’s history. Not only was it the birth-place of Richard III, but the Castle (which now no longer exists) was the place of execution of Mary, Queen of Scots. If you study the photograph carefully, you will see an insignia at the top of the tower: a falcon within a fetterlock, the symbol of the House of York.
Study the map below, and the stretch of road from Wadenhoe (in the west) to Old Weston……..remarkably straight, and almost as if my phone had lost contact with the gps signal. Well, here in the UK, a straight stretch of road frequently indicates the one-time presence of the Romans, and this stretch is precisely one such inheritance.
It is astonishing how the attention of the long-distance cyclist can be harnessed rigidly to the idea of roaming in far-away places, some exotic, some not quite so, and what lies on or near the doorstep is completely overlooked. I’m ashamed to admit that I have never cycled in Ireland, and doubly ashamed because, on my mother’s side of the family, I have several first cousins in County Limerick, whom I visit only very sporadically. So my decision for 2017 is to right that wrong, and spend three weeks riding the Irish ‘End-to-End’……better know as Mizen Head (in the south west) to Malin Head (in the north)…..or known more familiarly as the Miz-Mal.
It is not a huge distance. The shortest route between the two points is about 550kms but, no doubt, I will wander off route and take in some of the west and north-west coast, and probably notch up about 800kms. The first few days will very handily take me in the direction of my relatives in County Limerick, and it will be a huge added bonus that I will be able to spend a few days visiting, catching up with family matters, and celebrating our mutual advancing years.
As with every journey I do, I spend weeks absorbing information, reading and listening to podcasts, generally immersing myself in the history and culture of the country (or countries) I’m visiting. Ireland, too long seen as a mere appendage to Britain, is a country with its own Celtic vitality, and it has a rich heritage that is uniquely its own. My reading has taken me through the biography of WB Yeats, some of the short stories of James Joyce, the history of the 20th century and its turbulent years fighting for freedom, accompanied by the stark reality of revolution portrayed in Ken Loach’s film The Wind that shakes the barley.
Much still to unearth and anticipate. Watch this space.
Let me do an unashamed plug for the City of Culture. Ah, come on……really…..you don’t know what I’m talking about? Whenever I mentioned to friends that we were going for a few days to the City of Culture, those who knew what I was talking about replied something like this: “What, you’re going to ‘ull? Why? Who in their right mind goes to ‘ull?”.
That reaction is, sadly, all too common. Kingston upon Hull (to give it its full name), the place that nobody visits because it is out there, on a limb, and you never go near it on your way to anywhere else. The people who end up in Hull only do so because they are actually going to Hull……..for some strange reason (apparently). The place that everyone loves to mock……but I’m now going to put the lie on that.
Hull is a happening place, especially now it has been elevated to the status of City of Culture. It began the year with an almighty bang, with a firework display second only to what happened on the Thames at New Year. Go to Hull this year and you will find museums bulging with special exhibitions, art galleries with veritable masterpieces, theatre and musical events going on in the most unexpected places. The Ferens art gallery has a Francis Bacon and a stunning Rembrandt. The University Art Gallery is displaying BP prize winning exhibits. The Museum Quarter in the old town will keep you happily engaged for hours, from the history of slavery and its abolition (William Wilberforce was MP for Hull), to a splendidly bedecked museum of transport and street life (including a whole section on the history of the bicycle).
You can take a taxi ride that introduces you to the past and present of the city, or take a walk over the Humber Bridge wearing a pair of headphones, listening to readings, poems and music that will enhance your walk. We spent a whole morning in the aquarium known as The Deep, happily absorbed in the dazzling variety of sea creatures, competing with excited toddlers and their parents for space next to the aquaria.
The day’s activities over, one evening we escaped to nearby Beverley, to its Minster, and let the dulcet tones of the Minster choir waft over us at their choral evensong. The other evening was spent back at the Museum Quarter where the History Troupe, under the leadership of Rob Bell, led us engagingly through the history of the Great War, digging beneath the surface to reveal the fortunes and misfortunes of the many thousands of Hullensians who fought and died in that dreadful conflict. In Run for the Line, the story celebrates the life of the outstanding HKR rugby player, Jack Harrison, scorer of a record 52 tries in one season. But we are constantly brought back to the hardships suffered by the people of Hull, to the deaths in the Pal’s battalions which were decimated on the first day of the Battle of the Somme, and of the 7,500 men who perished and the 25,000 other casualties who were left maimed, both physically and mentally, by the brutality of warfare. The readings and the songs were scripted from the collection of narrative poems written by Rob Bell, entitled Sharp Street, and the power of the music alongside the descriptive narrations left the audience deeply moved.
Before 2017 is out, make a decision to spend some time in Hull. Ignore what all your friends say about the city. As likely as not, they will never have been there. I guarantee you will be entranced.
I love it when a visit to a historic country house in the UK throws up a bit of obscure history that didn’t quite make it into the A level history syllabus. And this is precisely what happened when we recently visited Farnborough Hall in Oxfordshire.
I am sure, like me, you will have heard of the window tax, used extensively in the 18th and 19th centuries in several countries, as a way of raising revenue for the crown. Instead of the income tax we pay today, families then were taxed on the number of windows (above a certain number), meaning that those with the biggest properties were taxed more heavily than the rest. Because some wily home owners started bricking up windows, thereby reducing their tax bill, in 1792 William Pitt had a brainwave. In addition to taxing windows, he imposed a tax on the number of clocks and watches owned by people. The resulting effect was exactly the same. People got rid of surplus timepieces, the bottom fell out of the clock-making industry, and pubs and inns started doing brisk business because they were often the only establishment in a community to have a clock. Yes, you’ve got it….locals would pop in to check the time and be distracted by the merchandise.
The few clocks that were made during this brief period (lasting only about 6 months), came to be known as Act of Parliament clocks, and I’m sure if you are an owner of one dating from this time, you will be sitting on a fortune.
Time to book your place on Flog it! or the Antiques Road Show.
It’s easy to cruise through country communities, some only a cluster of houses, admiring the local architecture, spying churches hiding behind a screen of trees, sweeping over packhorse bridges that date back centuries, and within minutes you’ve left them behind anticipating the next village.
But stop occasionally, root around, find information boards or street names that tell a deeper story, and you will be amazed at what you might find. Odell, for example, has a manor house at the top of a hill that is called Odell Castle. Much more than just a name, shortly after the Norman invasion in 1066, a motte-and-bailey castle had been built by Walter de Wahul, with a stone keep, where the family lived for the next 400 years. The much restored castle survived until 1931 when it was destroyed by fire, and the present manor house was built in the 1960s.
Villages like Milton Ernest will carry connections with a famous person, even though those connections might have been fleeting. The famous musician, Glenn Miller, for example, spent most of the war entertaining American troops in Europe, but sadly met his end when his aircraft disappeared in bad weather in 1944. He had been stationed at a local airfield near Milton Ernest, and his death is commemorated with a plaque in the village hall.
Then I could mention the history of Thurleigh Airfield, but easier to give a link that gives a complete history of its role in World War 2.
Always aspiring to commit some of my life-experiences to paper in the form of a book-length narrative, I decided to join a local Writers’ Group. The principle of associating with others who are already on the journey is always a good starting point, and in my first writing competition with the group, they kindly awarded me the first prize, which included a glass goblet (I promised not to break it in the next 12 months!) and the princely sum of £15….. As we all know, the ‘journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step’, and in the world of letters, your first literary prize (however small) can be your first important step.
The task at hand was to write 1000 words about some aspect of the history of Huntingdonshire. I took as my starting point a line from TS Eliot. The pictures have been added as illustration for the benefit of this post, and did not appear in the submitted piece.
If you came at night like a broken king…
I have cycled the lanes and byways of Old Huntingdonshire for nearly 40 years, and there is hardly a day goes by when I don’t learn something new about this extraordinary little corner of the East Midlands. One day, about 25 years ago, having laboriously climbed over the wold from Hamerton, past the four houses and redundant church that make up Steeple Gidding, a road sign to Little Gidding beckoned me, teasing me along a narrow single-track lane that led to a cluster of buildings and a small church, it’s remoteness advertised by the tufts of grass growing down the middle of the lane. Little did I realise at the time that my unplanned visit that day might lead to a lifelong connection with this isolated little community which, over time, began to release some of its secrets.
“If you came at night like a broken king….”. This line, taken from TS Eliot’s Fourth Quartet ‘Little Gidding’, a poem inspired by his visit in May 1936, intriguingly points to the community’s past royal connections. Bear in mind that this tiny hamlet is so remote that even people living in the nearby locality have never paid a visit nor, sometimes, do they even know it exists. So how did a king find his way there, not just once, or twice, but three times?
It is a story set in the early 17th century. Nicholas Ferrar, a former businessman and prime mover in the Virginia Company, as well as a member of parliament, had given up his life in the city and had brought his extended family to a ruined farmhouse in west Huntingdonshire to begin laying the foundations of a contemplative religious community. In 1633 they unexpectedly received a visit from King Charles I on his way to Scotland, and their work on the Gospel Harmonies immediately caught his interest. The Harmonies were an attempt by the Ferrars to bring together parallel readings of the Bible so that they might be seen both separately and as a continuous whole. This was achieved by cutting and pasting diverse sections of the Bible so as to create a more fluent reading of the narratives. The King liked them so much, he asked them to prepare a special set of Harmonies of the Book of Kings and Chronicles, which were duly sent to the him the following year, richly bound and gilded in purple velvet.
Sadly, Nicholas Ferrar died before the King’s second visit to Little Gidding, just a few months before the beginning of the Civil War. In 1642, on his way north to rally his troops at York and then to raise the royal standard at Nottingham, he once again stopped by Little Gidding, taking advantage of an opportunity to rest and receive refreshment. He first visited the little church of St John, the absence of images and icons telling him of the widespread local puritanical enforcements. “What will not malice invent?” he was heard to comment. Then after taking refreshment and inspecting the latest editions of the Harmonies, the King gave five pieces of gold to the widows of the community, money he had won playing cards the night before.
When the Civil War defiantly turned in favour of the Parliamentarians, the King had to make an escape from the siege of Oxford in April 1646, disguised as a servant, and he began to make his way north under the cover of darkness, sleeping and resting in safe houses during the day. His ultimate intention was to surrender himself to the Scottish army, with whom he thought he might meet with greater clemency. He travelled with two of his most trusted companions, Dr Hudson and Mr Ashburnam, and they arrived in Huntingdonshire in early May. The ‘broken king’ climbed the hill to Little Gidding, crossing the grassy meadow below the manor house, still known to this day as King’s Close, and were received warmly by the Ferrar family. Sadly, this warm reception of the King was to lead to the later destruction of part of the church, and the theft of all the plate and furniture of both house and church.
John Ferrar was aware that Little Gidding was not a convenient safe house for the King. His previous two visits were well documented and known publicly, and suspicion would immediately fall on them in the event of a search party roaming the area. So John Ferrar wisely accompanied the King to a safe house in nearby Coppingford, and it was from there that he made his way north towards Stamford. Charles finally put himself into the hands of the Scottish Presbyterian army at Newark, was transferred to Newcastle, and after nine months of negotiating with the Parliamentarians, was handed over to the enemy in exchange for the huge sum of £100,000, with promises of further funds for the Scots in the future. The fate of Mr Ashburnam is unknown, but Dr Hudson met with a grisly end at the hands of the puritans. He finally surrendered himself on the promise of favourable terms, but these were ignored by his captors. Like many other prisoners of war in Newark, he was thrown over the battlements into the river Trent.
When the Puritans learned of Little Gidding’s involvement in the King’s escape, the Ferrars hastily escaped, possibly to France, and left their estate knowing that it would be
destroyed and robbed in their absence. The whole of the west front of the church was destroyed, including the west gallery and the organ. The wood from the organ was used to build a fire where several of the estate’s sheep were roasted. The one notable thing that was recovered 200 years later was the brass eagle lectern, which had been thrown into a nearby pond, and is now housed for safe-keeping in Ferrar House.
However, despite this act of sinister vandalism, the restored church today is very much as the Ferrars would have known it.
Cycling along country lanes, through little villages and hamlets, I am frequently conscious of the history I am travelling through. Wherever I go in this land, people have populated this country for thousands of years, and every metre of every ride comes close to some significant event in the past that has likely got lost in the mists of time. A well known African proverb tells us: “Until lions have their own historians, tales of the hunt will always glorify the hunter”. So too with human beings. Until the poor and dispossessed have their historians, tales of the past will always glorify the rich and powerful, and will be recounted and handed down in a carefully sanitised version.
My ride this morning took me through tiny places associated with well known people from the past, some of whom were history-makers. Christopher ‘Troublechurch’ Browne, for instance, was a non-conformist who wanted to separate church from state, and became a mentor and father-figure behind the Pilgrim Fathers who set sail across the Atlantic to found a new colony. He was associated with Thorpe Waterville and had lived in Lilford Hall.
John Dryden (poet) was born in the Rectory in Aldwincle, and John Quincy Adams (6th President of the USA) had ancestors that came out of the tiny hamlet of Achurch. Achurch was also the home village of Alfred Leete, the designer of the famous Kitchener poster of the Great War that encouraged men to enlist in the armed services. My route home traced a long straight stretch of Roman road, and my route out passed through the village of Yielden that can trace its origins back to the late Neolothic period (2000 BC).
We are not only ‘surrounded by geography’, we are also surrounded by our ancient past.
If you know anything about the history of 16th century England, no doubt the subject of religion will feature prominently. The reigning monarch dictated which should be the established religion, and refusing to obey the wishes of the monarch could make life very uncomfortable. Indeed, many lost their lives because they refused to acquiesce and change sides.
In Amsterdam, on the other hand, the great change brought about by the Alteration in 1578 saw the city officially change its status from being Catholic to being Protestant. Unlike the ‘great alterations’ in England, this alteration did not cause a huge social and political earthquake. The Amsterdamers took it in their stride, and weighed up the pros and cons of taking a severely hard line attitude to dissent, and eventually decided that the wealth and talent brought by members of other religions to the city were immensely more important than ostracising them, or even executing them.
So Amsterdam settled into a long period of quiet acceptance, so long as the dissenting places of worship were not visible to the rest of the community. So over succeeding years, several buildings and attics were adapted to meet the spiritual needs of the dissenters, the most notable (and probably the only surviving example) is the Catholic chapel known as ‘Our Lord in the Attic’. An ingenious attic conversion that can accommodate several dozen in the congregation, but remains invisible to passers-by.
Amsterdam beckons for reasons far beyond its legendary tulips….believe me.
Now you may be thinking this a thinly veiled reference to its notorious red light district (…and yes, visitors do flood there in their thousands) and the equally famous cannabis supplying coffee houses (the only places in the whole of Holland where foreigners can indulge legally). But no…..Amsterdam is much, much more than that.
If you want to get to the palpitating heart of Amsterdam, and understand its very essence, you have to take in some of its excellent museums and the grand houses where the great and the good (and not so good) used to live. Spend an hour in Rembrandt’s house, then go to the superbly refurbished Rijksmuseum, and spend another hour in the golden age gallery, absorbing the masterpieces of the 17th century, until you are confronted by Rembrandt’s dazzling Night Watch…….trust me, you will be bewitched.
When Amsterdam underwent its huge religious earthquake, with the Alteration of 1578, when the city converted to Protestantism from Catholicism, the genre of painting almost immediately changed from expensively patronized religious art, to the secularism that became so famous of the succeeding century. Even formal portraits gave way to relaxed smiling couples on their wedding day, and drunken behaviour within families……..in the world of art, this was akin to a tornado sweeping through the population.
Then move forward in history and take a 10 minute walk to Van Gogh’s museum, and allow your mind to be rudely switched from the darker, sombre colours of the 17th century, to the bright colours and vivid brushstrokes of an artist who was hardly recognised in his day, who struggled to make a living through his art, and whose ultimate insanity drove him first to cut off his own ear, then to shoot himself…..at the absurdly young age of 37.
The museum has put together a joint retrospective of Van Gogh alongside the Norwegian Edvard Munch (famous for The Scream)…..two contemporary artists who learned their trades in Paris, who never actually met, but both betrayed an astonishing similarity not only in their artistic techniques, but also in their psychological and emotional states. The contrasts are enlightening.
Beyond the guide books, I wanted something to give me a different perspective on Berlin before heading off on our visit. This volume by Rory MacLean, Berlin: imagine a city did just that. I wasn’t sure about its format at first, but a few random chapters in, I tuned into the idea of getting a glimpse of the inside of the city through a series of 23 vignettes.
Each chapter is devoted to a mini-biography of someone, whether famous or unknown, who either had an impact on the city, or who was impacted by the city. From Frederick the Great to Bertolt Brecht, from David Bowie to Marlene Dietrich, from Christopher Isherwood to John F Kennedy….along with unknown nationals and migrants……their lives were all intimately tied up at some stage with the fortunes or misfortunes of Berlin.
This is a city that has had a turbulent recent past. If there had been any vestiges of an ancient and medieval past, they were all successfully wiped away by the utter destruction of the city by allied bombers during the last war…….and its reconstruction developed a city of two halves. During the Cold War years, the political division between east and west spawned two ‘cities’ that were a hemisphere apart……..and since the fall of the Wall, the strip in ‘no man’s land’ that came to be called death strip, became the biggest building site in Europe, and is where some of the most exciting and innovative architecture is to be found today.
This volume is an unconventional way to begin your journey of understanding Berlin, but it makes a very interesting read, nevertheless.
Getting into the Reichstag requires some planning and patience, though entry is free to visitors. I tried to book tickets online, but there was nothing available for weeks in advance. We sought inside information from some young staff on the gate, and they advised coming early in the morning to join a queue……which I did the next day…….when I arrived at 7.30am, I found myself second in line.
The lady in front of me had arrived at 7am in the hope of securing tickets for her entire class of students. We chatted until a third person arrived, and discovered he was waiting to get tickets for his whole family. I had been warned about carrying ID for both of us (in our case, passports) but the other two were unaware that ID was needed, especially for those in their groups who weren’t present in the queue. As I secured our tickets for an evening visit (the Reichstag stays open until midnight) I watched the other two walk away dejectedly, presumably to return and make a second attempt.
The Reichstag, which is now the seat of the German Bundestag, was built at the end of the 19th century, to house the government of the German Empire. In 1933 it was severely damaged by fire (believed to have been caused by Nazi arsonists) and more or less fell into disuse until reunification in 1990, when it was decided to move the capital from Bonn back to Berlin, and to rebuild the Reichstag to house the parliament.
The prestigious contract was granted to the famous British architect, Sir Norman Foster, and he replaced the old dome with a magnificent glass dome, including a spiral walkway that takes visitors to the very top. We started our visit just as the sun was setting, so the views over the city illuminations were mixed with the luminescence of the fading sunlight. The upper balcony was a place to linger to enjoy the urban panorama, the base of the dome was also a place to linger, to study the information boards delving into the complex history of the Reichstag.
And right beneath us, looking down into the well of the dome, you could gaze on proceedings in parliament which, at 9pm, understandably had more visitors in the viewing gallery than deputies on the floor.
You have to remember that Berlin (and Germany) was not just subjected to the devastating division between east and west during the cold war years, but in the 1930s and 1940s it also suffered the appalling oppression of the National Socialists.
Germany had undergone a social and political revolution with the coming of the Third Reich, which initially promised to be the saviour of the country following defeat in WW1 and the economic depression but, in fact, turned into the force that ultimately destroyed Germany by 1945. Instead of being liberated by the allied troops at the end of the war, the division of Germany into four sectors spelled the advent of years of ‘incarceration’ for those in the east.
Curiously, on the same site where a long section of the Wall has been preserved, you will also find the museum of the Topography of Terror, which is housed in the area where the National Socialists had their centre of operations, including the buildings where dissidents were interrogated and tortured.
The museum provides a detailed and honest account of the brutality dealt out by the Nazis. I found the same message coming across as I did in the Documentation Museum in Nuremberg (which I visited 18 months ago en route to Istanbul). The blame for the war and its destructive consequences was entirely the responsibility of the National Socialists, including the utter annihilation of much of Germany. At no point did I see the merest suggestion that the allied troops bore any of the responsibility.
I guess that Germany’s ability to swiftly come to terms with its own past has been a cornerstone to the rapid reconstruction of a country that has, once more, become the leading nation of Europe……both economically and morally.
Our hotel in Berlin was located 100 metres from the site of the Wall, inside the old American sector. By a hair’s breadth, those who lived along this strip had found themselves just inside the western sector when the barricade went up overnight on August 13th 1961. Many families were split. People were cut off from their places of work. People who had stayed the night in one sector found they couldn’t return the next day to the other sector. What had once been the easiest crossing from east to west Germany, suddenly became the most difficult………indeed, the most lethal.
The no-man’s land created by a second wall became the killing zone, better known as the ‘death strip’, where more than 100 would-be escapees lost their lives. Over the years the barricade was upgraded until, in 1975, they began constructing the ultimate retaining wall measuring 12 feet in height. But none of this prevented more than 5000 people making a successful bid to cross the border; some in hot air balloons, some through the sewers, some in daring car dashes through checkpoints, even some on crude zip wires. If the desire was strong enough, some would most definitely find a way.
“Ich bin ein Berliner” (JF Kennedy) and “Mr Gorbachev, tear down this wall” (Reagan) were powerful milestones on the road to the Wall’s demolition, but none more powerful, perhaps, than Bruce Springsteen’s rock concert given in the eastern sector just 18 months before the wall came down. His invitation to play may have been the GDR’s attempt to appease its own younger generation, but it had exactly the opposite effect. It simply made them hungrier for more of the same.
The line of the Wall has now become a defined cycling and walking route around the city. What used to be the ‘death strip’ has been the biggest building site in Europe for many years, and it is along this strip that you will find some of the most avant garde buildings and creative open spaces that you’ll find anywhere in an urban setting.
…..doors to these historic buildings left open and a warm welcome with refreshments inside. Not only are these buildings a capsule of the religious past and present, but they also give us a unique insight into the heart and soul of a community. We have a singularly rich heritage in this country that is worth preserving.
Life is not just about the bike……just in case you had wondered. A journey to the south west to deepest Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly, those remote islands so long associated with smuggling, shipwrecks, Augustus Smith (founder of Tresco Abbey Gardens), dramatic sunsets, pristine white sandy beaches, and the endless blue of the ocean as it meets the sky on the horizon.
No bikes (the longest stretch of road is only 3 miles), but a walker’s and nature lover’s paradise…..and if a bit of ancient history attracts you, they have found burial chambers and villages that go back to the Mesolithic age (6000 years ago?).
This is probably Jenny’s favourite place in the whole of the British Isles……it would be mine but for the danger of succumbing to ‘cabin fever’ after a few weeks.
Enjoy the photos.