Malham Cove

I’ve always wanted to see a limestone pavement. I don’t know why, but they have always fascinated me; dare I say it, they’ve always seemed romantic – the sort of landscape a poet would go crazy over. They were not quite what I was expecting though.

I expected the pavement to look like a city sidewalk, with tiny little cracks running along the surface, through which the occasional forlorn flower may bloom. It would be irregular but flat. In reality though, these cracks were more like gullies; you could lose a leg between them – a body even. The tops of these great slabs are called ‘clints’ and they are not as stable as you might imagine. As you walk over them they move and wobble and create great booming, grinding sounds. The crevasses between the stones are called ‘grykes’ and they’re caused by natural weathering – water dissolving it, ice bursting, the action of winds, plants and animals. I peered into these grykes, fascinating by these microcosms, these a bubble realities –  minute worlds of wonder. Are the species  here endemic?  Evolving niches so specific a human breath could shift their fate?

Down below, the tiny town of Malham was busy. Cars stalked out parking spaces. From down there you could hike to the top of the cove (up over 400 steps). We instead, drove up the road away from Malham. A sign read: No Parking For One and a Half Miles. But after that,  the road opened up and there was an open verge. We pulled up the car. It was right beside the public footpaths and thankfully uphill of the actual pavements themselves. 

Perched on the pavement, I heard the peregrines nesting all around us – crying out with sharp desperate shrieks. The sound was haunting, but the sun was bright all around us creating a strange cacophony of emotion. 

They filmed Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows here – I had to google it to remind myself of the scene. I’m not a Potter-fan anymore. I used to love speculating and predicting what will happen next – but once the last book was published, there was  nothing left. The cove looks spectacular on film – more so than in real life. That’s human memory and imagination for you – it’s greater than reality.

We cut across the side of the cove and headed towards Malham Tarn: a great lake beside a National Trust research centre. There were supposed to be toilets over there, but they were irritatingly out of order. According to one member of my party it was populated entirely by ghosts. 

The tarn itself was poison. Filled to the brim with blue-green algae – although the signs were so tiny that you may never know it; it seemed apparent most didn’t or didnt care. The internet says that it is especially toxic to dogs and young children. I thought about that afterwards as I remembered watching a dog whining and picking up rocks from the lake and putting them on the shore. The mum was drying off her children with a towel after their swim. I hoped they were okay. 

Kassie paddled her feet in the water. Afterwards, I told her she probably had only 72 hours left to live and should really make the most of her time. I think she just spent it watching re-runs of glee.  


The Grim at Swinner Gill

We had hidden behind a tree, but it was still out to get us. The snarling black beast with red eyes had our scent.

It has seen us, first of all, as we cooed rather aimlessly over a hazelnut bush and ate newly formed cob nuts from freshly bit through casings. Any older and we’d have needed a hammer, but this early on they were perfect. The pale green treats had that pea sapling tang, as well as that deeper hum that spoke of chocolate and Christmas.

Phoebe had a hoodie full of the little treats and Kassie had been steadily munching her way through the wilderness for the last twenty minutes, when we sensed that something was looking at us. Then we heard it. At first we thought it was an abnormally loud gurgle from some stomach or other, and then we thought it was one of us messing around – until we had to finally admit to ourselves that the growl was external.

It wasn’t obvious. It wasn’t like one minute it was there and the next it wasn’t. I half think we became aware of a twitching in the foliage down by the river first – for we all turned in that direction. Then we saw the shadow move out from the undergrowth. But it was the teeth that did it. It sent us leaping backwards; caused our hearts to give out a thwack like a gong. 

The grim was upon us.

The Gytash was coming for us. 

The haunter of lonely roads – the watcher of travellers who go slightly astray – and we were assuredly lost.

The dog moved hesitatingly towards us. Doddering – walking forwards and then backwards – hackles raised. Snarling – teeth bare. Fangs hooking over the side of moist grey lips.

We ran.

Some people say that the grim foretells your death. An omen of the inevitable that would prove to be correct.

First it leap at my sister, tore at her calf; chewing on her sinews. She shrieked and tried to move her way backwards. Hands in the grass. But the beast held on.

I ran at the dog full pelt. Skewering it to the ground with my body weight. It whipped round and clawed at my arms.

Phoebe held a rock in her hand, whilst Charlie held a branch. They swung together at the creature.

The rock hit off the dog’s head with a tremendous crack.

The branch snapped the dog’s legs, shattering the bones.

Its jaws finally relented and we pulled my sister’s mangled leg from its slack mouth. Blood flowed freely.

The creature whimpered, shuddered and died.

The Gytash is a Yorkshire myth – a big black dog that haunts lonely roads. Sometimes terrifying and at times leading people to safety. Strangely, when we saw a scary mythological part wolf machine, we decided to murder it brutally. And after a tetanus shot and a couple of rounds of rabies injections my sister is largely fine. 

JULY 2019

A Hike Around Muker

We looked at the map again. ‘So we should be on this path,’ my mum said. 

We’re definitely not, I thought. What path would ask you to descend at a 75-degree angle? This wasn’t Everest after all. The ground, however, had been walked – but by humans or sheep? At one point we found the husk of one of our coven hoofed friends. It was almost completely rotted out. The fur was unchanged, making the corpse seem fresh and fleshed out – whilst underneath it was obviously rotted and deflated. It’s face was a mass of black ooze. 

‘Dead,’ Phoebe said. ‘I don’t think this is the path if even the sheep are dead.’

We were a few metres away from the edge of a sheer cliff. I was not feeling great. My toes tingled. I knew that if one of us was going to die it would be my idiot  sister Kassie.  Later she told us she hadn’t even see the sheep. I don’t know what she was looking at – her phone screen perhaps? Like I said, she’d definitely be the one to die up here.

We had decided to go on a hike from our campsite at Usha Gap – in a circle, around Thwaite to Muker, along the Pennine Way (or what we suspected was the Pennine Way) and then back to the campsite. 

Thwaite, as supposed by the Norse name, was originally situated in an area of dense woods around a millennia ago. Now it’s in the heart of agricultureal land and barely a tree stands tall. It swelled in the 18th and 19th centuries when people would come to work in the local mines. The scars of said industry still litter the valley sides. But, for the last hundred years, depopulation has occured. It was felt even in 1899 when a great flood swept away houses and barns and nobody bothered to rebuild them. There just wasn’t enough people left. The streets are claustrophobic and some lanes are too small for cars, making this rural abode feel eerily abandoned and still.

We went from Thwaite to Angram, and as near to Keld as a vertical path could take us. Looking at Keld, I could see the spire of a church and the tombstones arranged around it like rays from the sun. And this is where, arguably, we lost the path and started hugging the side of the mountain (fearing for our lives). Down below we could see Swinner Gill and the old lead smelting mill, cradled by a deep valley, and the remains of Crackpot Hall.

After perching precariously along High Scar, we stopped and had lunch. Feasting on fresh Wensleydale from the creamy in Hawes; oatcakes and caraway seed crackers; greengages and apples.  

Lastly, we descended into Muker, another creepy horror-story village that stood to attention like the Children of the Corn. The houses were tombstone coloured, the roads well swept, but the edges were rougher. It resembled in many ways a pile of boulders that had fallen from the heights of nearby hills – congregating on the lowest land. Marking a sceptred place of meeting. From which men had tunnelled and carved into these stones creating houses and sheds. After that, they sprinkled a packet of brightly coloured flower seeds over the entire thing to make it more appealing – which it most definitely early did. We walked past numerous garages and outbuildings which had slumped onto one another with cracking lintels and doors off their hinges. The dilapidation is almost picturesque, but also a little sad. 

Muker has, for many years, been losing its inhabitance just like Thwaite. It’s as though the eyeless windows were pointing in the wrong direction as the young escaped to the bright lights of elsewhere. The old would die and families would be forced to sell the family jewels to tourists and second homeowners. People who’ll appreciate but not stay. People that fill the streets with a ghost-like silence. The quiet is heavy on your eardrums and you’ll wonder you’re not deaf. All you’ll hear is the beat of your own heart and the whirr of tinnitus in your ears. To put it into perspective, the population fell from 309 to 249 in the 10 years between the 2001 and 2011 census. That is severe.

Punctuating the ivory clouds at the centre of the village is the Church of St Mary. These saturated cotton wool blisters jostled so heavily on their blue background they seemed to be falling.

We walked through the graveyard – enlivened, unlike the rest of town, by three tourists and the dead. The door to the church was ajar and visitors were welcome, so we stepped under its hallowed eaves. Inside was warm and dry, although I imagine the damp is somewhat pungent in the winter. For once, I didn’t feel the church-like hush such buildings usually bring forth. I don’t think it was the absence of God. I think it’s because the village had already shushed its inhabitance and so there was no contrast between inside and out. In fact, the vibrancy of the stained glass window spoke of a building desperately trying to invigorate the populace. Of trying to entice them into the red-carpeted pews. I guess the question is who? Who comes here? The whole village wouldn’t fill the church. But then again, it leaves room for misanthropes to spread themselves out a bit. 

Hanging, without ceremony, was a black and white aerial photo. It was taken in the days when such things were a struggle and you’d need helicopters, darkroom chemicals, barrels of time and a fair dollop of money to succeed in such an endeavour. The town, we learned, was identical to its 1965 predecessor. It’s spent 50 years in Tupperware. 

We left and closed the door respectfully behind us to read the names and dates on the headstones in the yard. Who was who; who died and loved and gave birth and when, was all answered in cracked granite and lichen-covered engravings.  After this meander, we followed a footpath down toward the main road, so intimately close to people’s gardens you might feel like you were intruding.

Along the main road was a one-room village shop, a multi-roomed art gallery and the Swaledale Woollens Emporium. It sold jumpers and it was August, so I don’t have too much to say about the latter, but the gallery was an interesting wash of blues and greens, landscapes and pastoral scenes – all remade in paint and ink and glass and clay.

The day ended less well. When we got back to the campsite we noticed that someone had put their tent about a metre and a half away from mine. They talked with booming voices until 10 pm and then snored for the next 9 hours. The noise and volume was akin to lawn-mowing a bear. The next morning, after a chat with the ever so lovely campsite owner, I went over and asked them to move to the opposite field. They didn’t want to – so we packed up and left for another campsite. 

It is not okay to put your tent abnormally close to another’s especially when there is plenty of space on the site. This is unacceptable behaviour and I’m not the sort of person who will  ignore such everyday rudeness. Although I will agree, that potentially being confronted by these complaints may make someone feel a little uncomfortable. But, being on the other end of a polite request is no worse than 9 hours of torture with very little sleep. If my little conversation stops that incredibly rude Ménage à trois from reoffending – then frankly, you’re welcome.




Gedney End Drove: Salt Marsh

Whilst Europe roasted, the UK had a lovely hot day followed by a cool night – the perfect combination. Never the less, it was very apparent that climate change was occurring and we were finally in the end days. It no longer feels like we are standing on the brink – we’ve now gone over the top; we’re in No Man’s Land. And we’re all holding our breath. 

The Fenlands of East Anglia in England are spread out before our view like the ocean on a calm day – sometimes you can see for miles, but without any vantage points, the land will surprise you by quickly changing and mutating as you travel towards that beautiful semi-circle of the horizon. 

Whilst most of the fens is above sea level (unlike the Netherlands) some parts are a few metres under. Rising sea levels, due mostly to increasing temperatures, means that the salt marshes on the fringes of this Isle are vulnerable to flooding and are, therefore, shrinking. In fact global warning, the kind not created by humans, has already flooded a great stretch of our available land, and this process finished around 7000 years ago – cutting off Britain from mainland Europe far more effectively than Brexit ever could. Check National Geographic for an excellent  map.  I look at this and wonder endlessly about our forgotten lands – its people, memories, and secret places. 

Imagine inhabiting this vast area of forest and marsh and watching as the sea rolls in. Of course, it would have happened slowly, slow enough for people not to notice maybe, but within living memory. Perhaps for a few thousand years they passed on stories of this land – until they forgot where it once was and then forgot it once existed, maybe they called it Atlantis. Perhaps modern society will eventually disappear. Could we really forget society as it is? I bet the civilians of Pompei thought the same. Thought their society was immovable, carved in marble and wrought in stone. 

A few centuries ago and some of these fields would have been marshes – the inhabitance would live on intermittent high ground, villages built on stilts (like Venice). Instead of building up and up though, we drained the fens – creating a series of dykes and ditches to keep the land flat and dry.

Anyway – I let Charlie drive. Having recently passed her driving test, she was given a car as a present. I never got a car, I’m just saying. I took photos from the passenger seat which was fun. The photos are never particularly brilliant – you can never frame them like you’d want and the foreground is always blurry. But I find something so romantic about car photos. Plus it took my mind off all the near death experiences. 

We drove to Gedney End Drove, and took the Marsh Road to the coast. This piece of land isn’t part of any nature reserve (as much as I can tell) and is just down the road from RAF Holbeach. Sometimes you can see the jets chasing each  others tails across the marsh. The sound of distant bombing makes me nervous. 

I looked out across the Wash and spotted a small, but well shaped, island. Later on with the help of Google maps, I noticed this monstrosity (click the link but make sure it’s on satellite view). To start with I thought it was a digital fault – but on closer exploration it seemed to be a very real place. It is called ‘the donut’ which is weird because the British spelling is ‘doughnut’. Its alternative title is the ‘Outer Trial Bank’. It was built in the 1970’s as a test to see whether you could build a fresh water reserve in the wash. It was unsuccessful and the island is now home to 3000 breeding pairs of birds (what kind, I don’t know, probably some sort of gull thing).

All around grows Samphire (Salicornia europaea). It’s 100% edible, raw or cooked in butter. Take it home, wash it, soak it, enjoy. Sometimes I eat buckets of it. So that’s what we did.


The Theedlethorpe Dunes

The sun hung pallid; hiding behind a milky film. The sand was warm and soft underfoot. Occasionally a moment would flutter past, whereby the sun would burn holes in the low cloud cover, causing short bursts of glorious sun to bronze our skin and blind our eyes.

It was silent. No peewit cries nor screech of seagull intruded upon the shifting of sand, as it sieved its way between the marram grass and sea holly. It was a bank holiday, but we felt like the last survivors in an apocalypse. A world away from this world. Resolute in our aim of enjoyment, surrounded by death.

These was the Theddlethorpe dunes in Saltfleetby, near Mablethorpe, part of the Lincolnshire National Nature Reserve. The salt sodden sand is a dull yellow; some say on account of the clay. They also say the dunes were made in the 13th century. Obviously, though, the coast always existed, but legend has it, this was when a great  storm threw up the seabed creating striations and ridges – each year these are shaped and coerced into different configurations by the wind. The whole 8km is protected for the wildlife, but it is also littered with the ruins of human conflict.

If you pull into the National Trust carpark (for free) you can see the World War Two pillboxes from the car. The whole place was mined to defend against an invasion – but I don’t think the explosives are still there, lurking in the mire. Until recently this was a bombing range, the venture was then moved up the road to Donna Nook. Whispers online speak of blunders like the 25lb flash bomb that accidentally got wedged in the toilet of ‘The Prussian Queen’, a nearby pub, not quite on the flight path.  

We walked the short, sand swamped path from the car to the beach, dodging mines of a canine sort. Their unknown owners derelict in their duty.  Shame on them. I guess they figure they can get away with it, seeing as this place is infrequently visited. 

We’d packed a picnic – nothing special – food that’  easy to hold piled ibti a cooler box we plugged into the back of the car. This was subsequently turfed into a carrier bag to get it down to the shore without the weight. We dragged this, and backpacks and a flask of ice  water, with camping chairs in shocking shades of cobalt and lime down past the dunes to the beach.

It was just my little family: mother, grandfather, sisters. Books packed for seaside snacks, although most of us lost energy after a while and caught Pokémon instead. Eventually, as with all seaside trips, we descended into nothing more strenuous than staring at the minutiae of the sand. Pulling out cockles, clam and scallop shells, long bereft their owners – a trinket from the seaside – a tombstone for crustaceans. Soon, even that became a struggle and we snoozed, sun-dozed, in the dunes, waiting, anticipating, the heat of the sun; cosy under coats to survive the shady lulls.

Another dip into the picnic basket though, and we were up and away. Running through flaxen flats of rippled sand towards the water’s edge. Here we pulled out more exotic carcasses; those from sea anemones and oysters. My sister held aloft a crisp starfish – a corpse in beige, and we imagined its glory days in apricot hues. Its bottom most legs were crushed and twisted in the indignities of death.

I don’t know why, but the place did not feel living – everything was dead. Was this climate change or a melancholy mind?

I wandered away from the lacklustre lull of brown waves on a brown shore towards the marram grass and sea buckthorn. Towards the little hidey-holes and dips created in the peripheries of the land. Ammophila arenaria (marram), is classed as a xerophyte (along with cacti) as it possesses inwardly folding waxy leaves with minimal surface area i.e. it’s made for dry places. Its roots densely matt the dunes together, helping to encourage the colonisation of the ground by other plants and stabilise the shifting sands. It was traditionally used to make roofs, nets and even shoes. It was the wonder plant of the shore.

In Scotland, in the 17th century, however, the crop was over-harvested and entire coastal villages drowned in sand blown inland. The government wisely judged this as dangerous, and in one of the first examples of environmental management, banned its harvesting in 1695 by Act of Parliament. I image houses shovelling out the rooms, buckets of sand thrown fruitlessly into the wind – only to return on the surface of cabinets and floors moments later. In Mongolia, the plant is used to stop the encroachment of the Gobi Desert; there are pictures of it planted in strict square formations, but in New Zealand and South Africa its devastating local habitats.

I remember running through sandy dunes as a kid; no shoes, climbing barbed wire fences sunk so deep into dunes we could hop over them. We’d regularly have a beach day for gym and we’d all go running towards the horizon. Marram grass would stick into my soft pink feet. My teacher told me it would toughen them up. I’m not sure that was true.

It would grow in our garden. Instead of a lovely lawn. It made it wild and boggy; the marram grass was just impossible to dig out. In the summer we’d strip the tops bare of seeds – feeling them disintegrate in our little hands and throwing them out to the wind, or else we’d strip back the green bark and pull out the foamy insides in a mindless ritual.

More worryingly was when it grew over claggy bogs. As children we would start walking over these fields, only to feel the very ground wobble under our feet. We lived in fear of plunging through the matt of roots into the quagmire below. Sometimes I dream I’m back there, and I awake with a start as I fall.


​Budapest: Exploring Hungary’s Capital

Hungary is one part old world glamour and one part soviet concrete. The decadent opulence of the Austria-Hungarian Empire glimmers through the cracks and peeling paint like the smile of an octogenarian, revealing just a hint of the youth that once graced it entirely. But the age does not wear well, in part because Hungary was one of those nations that fell behind the iron curtain. It sat in the communist clutches of the USSR for an agonising forty years.

Before World War II, the Hungarians’ had been staunchly anti-communist, so it didn’t take long before this resentment bubbled over. In 1956, they tried overthrowing the Soviets and their sympathisers. This was quickly crushed and led to the massacre of Kossuth outside the Parliament buildings, where hundreds of people where shot dead by Russia forces. The West did nothing. Constricted by policy and over stretched in other directions; theirs was to maintain peace – even if it was decidedly chilly – even if the Hungarians suffered for it.

Yet ‘peaceful’ wasn’t exactly how the Hungarians’ would describe their new lives. The pressures of Moscow meant their existence was unacceptably cruel. Anyone speaking out again the regime was taken to the gulags after a show-trial; the street signs were changed from Hungarian to Russian; listening to Western music could lead to arrest. The USSR were in the business of obliterating what made the region different and independent. The Church was swept aside and replaced with the alter of Communism – the Cardinal was imprisoned.

According to the Hungarian National Museum, though, Hungary was “the most cheerful hut in the Socialist camp”. It did not say why, but perhaps it was in part due to the failed revolution, and the leaders’ slight relaxation of the rules. Although, that it not to say the oppression wasn’t keen.

The Hungarian National museum was old world and our feet tapped upon the marble of the grand staircase with an intrusive and spidery song. There was a strange variety of things on show, from Mozart’s piano to the paraphernalia of the Masons’ (including the Grand Wizard’s sword). The museum charted Budapest from it’s medieval beginnings to the present day. And I was particularly impressed with a communist portrait of some hard boiled leader created entirely in beans – even the frame. It created a surprising contrast to the ornate sconces and chandeliers. It was evidence of a hard time.

Our next stop was the ‘House of Terror’ or Andrássy út 60, as is its postal address. This was the former headquarters of the AVH (Arrow Cross Party) now museum. It tells the story of the horrors inflicted by fascism and communism: its relationship with Germany and Russia and in that order.

It is a striking building; the word terror, cut out from an overhanging steel ledge around the roof. I could just imagine, back in the day, the locals crossing the street to avoid such a place; starting at it horror; hearing that their loved ones had been taken to number 60 Andrassy street and weeping. Now, people queued for hours to enter. We had clocked the snaking queue the previous day and planned to turn up early, even so, we still had to wait around 30min.

In the covered courtyard, at the centre of the building was a T-54 tank, sitting in a bed of oil, which slowly dripped into the basement below. It’s within this basement, where the AVH brought political prisoners and locked them in small tortuous cells. They hung those that were deemed too dangerous. The lift down to this floor was slow; someone whispered in the gloom that it represented the time it took to die from strangulation.

Hungary achieved independence in 1989 and the fall of the Union occurred in 1991. The first ‘free’ elections were held in May 1990 and today Budapest is thriving.

We learnt a lot from the 20th century about freedom of speech and governance, and this rallying call has permeated the 21st century. Although in some ways they have now been twisted and deformed. Freedom of speech in some people’s mouths means the freedom to hurt and wound and be cruel. We should never forget what freedom actually means.

One morning we took the metro; a delightful turn-of-the-century box car a mere four metres below the road; the tram, with its enormous steps; and finally a bus (quite normal) to the most Soviet place I’d ever seen – the chairlift to the Buda Hills. Built in 1970, it is almost entirely unchanged (with the exception of the electronic ticket machine). We were met by a concrete exterior, general air of grunge, and a faded, but still bright,  propaganda style sign.

I’ve never been on a chair life before, but it was good fun and I could have easily just have sat and ridden the thing around and around all day. I couldn’t help but feel, if my daily commute was a chairlift, I’d cope much better with the stresses of life.  The 15min journey up Janos Hill costs about £4 return. Although, to be fair, I kept loosing track of what a forint was worth and hoping for the best. I supposed the chairlift was created as part of a gloriously socialist dream. Investing in communal leisure activities for the enjoyment of the people. And Socialism is actually a pretty good idea – corruption isn’t – but at least for a little while, high above the city, we didn’t let such thoughts trouble us.

They love Regan, I guess.
The Fisherman’s Bastillion
The Trams
The Chairlift
Elizabeth Tower up Buda Hill
Monument to the Murdered Jews of Budapest

Painting Berlin

Berlin is a geometric concrete powerhouse of triangles and squares. The stickers that adorn every Soviet surface advertise grunge bands, art shows, quasi-philosophical and geopolitical ideas. I feel like I should be wearing some sort of double denim, listening to Bowie on a walkman, and stomping amongst the hypodermic needles and trash strewn streets in Doc Martins. But these are all things which the East Germans wouldn’t have had in the 1980s unless they bought them ‘under-the-counter’. I thought Berlin would feel rich and prosperous, but it didn’t. Yet, they’re obviously aware of their city’s ugliness, as you cannot take a picture without a crane in shot. Slowly, it seems, they are demolishing the agonies of the past and rebuilding in humble glory.

The East Side Gallery is what remains standing of the original Berlin Wall from 1989. It stands in situ, covered in paintings, with messages of harmony and peace daubed upon it in bright colours. Many murals now feature an almost obligatory ‘Fuck Trump’ message. Understandable given the American President’s ‘build a wall’ campaign, which was a particularly cruel barb to press upon a freshly healed wound – scabbed in concrete. 

The wall could be seen as a metaphor for hate (albeit nuanced) that has been transformed into a monument for peace and tolerance. But personally, any message about The Wall or conveyed by The Wall, cannot be simple. Or indeed any message about the war or the split wrought on the country by British, American, French and Russian forces or the conflict of communism vs. capitalism. For whilst the paintings in their simplicity may speak of reunification – they cannot truly monument a period of history so difficult to categorise or describe. Perhaps the plain grey of the concrete would have been a better tribute – a more melancholy mirror for the city. This monolithic surface could stare in ambiguity over the capital. But a lot Berlin’s architecture is unvarying concrete. So perhaps you can forgive the garish murals. Art, after all, is it’s own therapy.

The greatest architectural mishap (according to those that apparently know) is the Sputnikesque T.V. tower at Alexander Platz. It is referred to as ‘God’s Revenge’ because it was built in East Berlin after the destruction of so many churches (there’s little space for religion in communism). But I have a bit of a soft spot of the disco-ball come barbershop pole design. There is, after all, a revolving restaurant at the top and whilst I didn’t have time to visit, I promise, next time Berlin, I will. And I’ll use it as the East German’s obviously did – to spy on others.

Yet Berlin can be beautiful. We took a walk one indigo evening, a friend and I, to hunt out authentic German cuisine. To the west, the clouds bubbled clementine like a bucks-fizz and eastward the skies deepen to a velvety black. Stars frittered to life like sparks from struck flints. We walked amongst sculptural fountains raining clean water, and small parks hemmed with silver railings.

Eventually, we spied our destination of beer and pork and spatzl. The portions were huge, and devoured enthusiastically. The couple beside us told us there was only one way to finish the evening and that was with schnapps and caraway. So we eagerly ordered up and downed the fiery liquid with a speckle of seeds. Afterwards, we tumbled down a grand arcade and looked for ice cream.

Perhaps looking wasn’t quite right, we’d seen it on the way – but you can never just order ice-cream, you always have to peruse the flavours first. I chose Apple strudel and salted-caramel ice cream and we perched on the cast-iron chairs outside the gelato parlour to devour our prize. Above us, the glow of pink light reached us from a wedding-cake apartment on the fourth floor. The light revealed the back of a wooden chair and a few abstract paintings hung on the wall. The balcony door was slightly ajar, and a soft human humming could be heard from within. It was night and all I could think of was soft sheets and bedtime stories. Berlin could be beautiful.

Later we had currywurst. This ubiquitous street-side snack is, to my surprise, nothing like the British curry and chips. It is instead, a sweet tomato sauce dusted with a fine coating of curry powder. Usually, it is also served with mayonnaise. There is one thing about cuisine in Berlin and that is: if you want to eat traditionally, you’ll have a hard time avoiding pork.

Unfortunately, the European apocalypse of the second world war means that a tour of Berlin’s museums is a tour of pain and horror through its murky past. Berlin’s orchestration of the treatment of Jewish people throughout Europe means the Jewish Museum is one of the most visited in the city, and quite rightly. Aside from the impressive curatorial team, the Libeskind designed building is one of the best examples of space curating subject. And what I mean by that is: that the building itself communicates messages of displacement, fear, and murder – just as the items do. Space itself tells stories of The Holocaust, of prejudice, of ghettoisation and the constant displacement of people. It is a journey of claustrophobia which plays with light and dark.

The building is technically broken into three distinct strands: the Axis of Holocaust, Exile and Community. I add community to the end of that list as if it is a salve, but really it is the heart of the museum; it’s the kosher matzo-balls and chicken soup of pass-over, the red-thread that stretches back millennia; it is love and family. It creates a continuity of stories that thrive from desert to diamond district.

The Void Room’s floor is littered with iron faces, contorted as if tortured. This is the thought-piece of Israeli artist Menashe Kadishman who says it represents the victims of war. The metal clangs and clacks underfoot, like trains on the track to Auchwitch, or the chains of slaves dragged across a concrete floor. When you visit, your first impulse is to walk forward, towards the darkness, over these faces, but this very movement makes you question your actions. Is the forward projection of your physical body a metaphorical comment on those that disregarded human life in times of cruellest war? Did Kadishman manage to turn us into the criminals he criticised? I stared at the faces trampled under my feet. Even if I walked carefully, their clanging screams still rang out beneath me.

The Holocaust tower (the first two pictures above) is a quadrilateral void in the museum space. It consists of an extreme acute angle into which the viewer can walk and experience its claustrophobic embrace. Above from which, a slither of light glares into the room like the harsh beam of a Gestapo interrogation light or hope in the darkness.

What does it feel like to be Jewish? This is the question much of this exhibition seeks to answer. Before the creation of Israel, after the Second World War, they were always a people dispossessed of geography. The Garden of Exile shows us how this might feel. Indeed, there are many playground like features to the garden: the sloping ground, the towering concrete posts, the thrill of exploring. But the atmosphere is quiet and thoughtful. Where shadows don’t reign, the hot sun dapples the ground – dispersed by olive trees far above. You feel uncomfortable, lost, claustrophobic and yet there is peace.

The Story of Berlin is another fabulous museum which charts the history of the bear city from it’s founding 800 years ago, through its numerous wars, to the fall of The Wall. There was almost no-one at this museum unlike the DDR, although they were both equally as interesting and well curated.

Overall, I was exhausted by the city. Never had I felt museum tiredness like I did in Berlin. Am I getting too old? Was I just trying to see too much? I lay on my bed back at the hotel reeling in fatigue and glancing through the fabulous mini-biographies of Berlin inhabitants by Rory McLean. I should have read this book before I left, but I didn’t. But I know I’ll be back. Berlin has so much to offer.

Berlin Map
The East Side Gallery
The East Side Gallery
Stickers on highway sign
The Skyline by the East Side Gallery
The East Side Gallery
The Berlin Wall
Alexander Platz
Alexander Platz
Upper West Building, Berlin
The Upper West Building in Berlin
East Berlin
East German Market
Jewish Museum Berlin
The Holocaust Tower
Jewish Museum Berlin, void room
The Void Room
Jewish Museum Berlin
The Jewish Museum
DDR Museum, elderberry soup with dumplings
The DDR Experience
The story of Berlin, tribant
The Story of Berlin
Museum Island

The Battle of Anglesey Sound

From mainland Wales, you can take the Menai Suspension Bridge to the Isle of Anglesey. Wales, like the rest of Europe, was blistering under a heat wave, and Angesley was field after field of crispy yellow stalks. It’s a lot like Lincolnshire or Norfolk with the cliched gently rolling hills – the very picture of pleasant Jane Austen-esque countryside, except, for the blue mountains of Snowdonia which loomed over the landscape. The story for this week is set several millennia ago and involves the national boundaries of Anglesey.

The Earl was clothed in dark leather. It was stitched and darned, and threaded and stapled against his muscles; so well fitted it was like the hands of the tailor himself was holding it taught against his white skin. As the Earl shifted under the heavy skies, the dark devil-heart clouds handing in the damp air, he longed for nothing else but his tailor’s hands.

The Earl stared into the blue distance of the mountains, observing how their tumbling valleys and mounds resembled the silky bellies of humpback whales: the white granite, like barnacles encrusted on their velvety skin.

‘My Lord, there are ships on the horizon,’ interrupted the Commander. The Earl turned around sharply to face him and stare out across the water.

‘I can’t see anything,’ he replied, irritably.

‘There,’ said the Commander, pointing with a stubby finger. ‘If you follow the rocks west, you can see the ships’ hulls.’

The Earl peered into the misty waters. Undeniably there were ships, and they were fast approaching. He sat down and watched as one ship turned into three, and the three ships turned into four, then six – each time they multiplied a dull cramp gripped at his guts.

The Earl’s army encampment stretched out before him to the west, and to the east were Lord d’Avranches men. Both were new to this Celtic stronghold which was known as Hibernia to the Romans, but was very much, in the Earl’s eyes, now a part of Albion. Their latest victory, however, had felt cold; it had felt like he was walking across slowly cracking ice. He’d got to the other side, but was well aware that the return journey would be twice as perilous. He had felt home and hearth slip away from him with every step West into the setting sun. The red flags flying on the masts spoke of friendship and trade but reeked of blood and death. He didn’t trust their sulking hulls.

‘Lord d’Avranches asks whether you will let the men ashore to trade and take on fresh supplies,’ asked the messenger. Sweat gleamed on his forehead from his mad dash across the sands.

‘No,’ he said sternly.

‘Er…no, m’Lord?’

‘No,’ he replied. The messenger’s eyes grew wide imploringly.

‘Er, begging your pardon, but Lord d’Avranches said that it would be more prudent, as we should not engage in another battle so soon after securing the island from the Welsh. We are still awaiting reinforcements’
‘That,’ he replied, ‘is precisely why I am not letting them ashore.’

‘We may not have a choice, m’Lord, they’re pulling into the deep bay. They’ll soon be within arrows reach of the shore, and it looks like they’re sending out an envoy.’ Even as the Commander spoke, the Earl was tracing the journey of a smaller vessel cutting through the bluff.

The scribe elbowed his way through the ranks. ‘It is Magnus Barefoot, the conqueror,’ he announced ceremoniously ‘The Norwegian,’ he added.
‘Oh for goodness sake, turn them away!’ he cried.

‘They do fly the flag of trade, perhaps we could…’ the scribe started.

‘No. Get rid of them I don’t have the time for this,’ the Earl, usually very predisposed to having the scribe’s company, wanted nothing more than for him to jump into the ocean.

‘Will you deliver the message yourself?’ asked the scribe.

‘Yes, of course,’ said the Earl, irritably. Straightening himself, and swinging his green cloak to one side he exposed his battle-worn armour. With a brief professional sigh, he began to stride up the beach.

‘My helm!’ he shouted to his squire. With his helm he felt safe; with his helm there was just the square of land in front of him and nothing else mattered. He fitted the squat metal box, over his face. His men followed suit. Helms placed upon heads (even if they were a little unsure of its necessity) they walked out towards the small vessel and the enormous envoys.

The afternoon turned into a volley of hand gestures, arguments and broken communications in Latin. Each volley was more confused and angry than the next. And then came the rain. Hammering down on their tin can armour with a melodic tattoo, almost disguising the sombre wings of death.

‘Arrows!’ came the cry. The shadowy cloud circled down on the men, but their hard armour held fast. The clunks of diamond-shaped arrow tips rang out with a clanging force as they slid off their armour. Their power, however, swayed the Earl slightly, like his flask was filled with wine, not water.

‘Return fire!’ He roared, and looking upwards into the melee, watched as one solitary arrow made its way…

And that was the end of the Earl of Shrewsbury, or as much as we can ascertain, being that almost a millennia has passed between 1098 and now. The solitary arrow in question is reported to have been fired by Magnus Barefoot himself, and landed itself right through the only gap in the Earl’s armour – the eye socket. How much is true is hotly debated by historians who point out that such lyrical resolutions were the bread and butter of Norse literary heritage at the time. And we all know how us humans like to tell stories

Never-the-less in some ways a trip to Anglesey throughout the ages may have meant that you were visiting Ireland or indeed Norway, such is the fluidity of identity when subject to the whims of time – if indeed we see the land as the same entity that has withstood the test of time. A hundred years past before the English Kings established a firm foothold in the area under the austere command of Edward I.


National Slate Museum

Llyn Peris looking towards Dinorwig
Llyn Peris
The Smelting Floor at the National Slate Museum
The Smelting Floor at the National Slate Museum

‘Look at that! We’d got a little bit lost driving through Llanberis, following signs to God-knows-where, trying to find the National Slate Museum and marvelling at the cute picturesque village of Llanberis, filling with tourists like Gore-tex covered sprinkles. 

We stopped outside of town, in a layby, and ran across the road to stare at the Llyn Peris mountainside opposite, and the Dinorwig Powerstation nestled between its two limbs. The hillside was cut vertically in massive rectangular shapes. Carved like peats from a bog – I could almost see a giant’s foot upon the top strut of a spade – pushing and slicing the rock like clay before me. 

This part of the mountain looked like the work of machines – but traditionally the miners would have scaled such sheers, in pursuit of slate, by hand. The men (for they were patriarchal places blessedly consigned to history)  were accomplished mountain climbers. Using counterbalances and ropes, they’d hack huge lumps of slate out of the mountain – letting them tumble – before whittling them down to size piece by piece. The site then used a narrow-gauge railway to help transport these loads back and forth between the sites. It was a site of investment and prosperity (for a time). 

As I looked over the edge of the lakeside, I noticed the ‘beach’ was a mixture of cut slate fragments lying perpendicular to each other in a semicircular bay. It was a beach from Hell – angular, jutting, cutting to the flesh. 

But we did find the Museum eventually, after turning around, popping over the bridge and gliding into the carpark.  It was a pretty reasonable £4 all day for parking and the Museum and accompanying sights were free. Someone remarked on Trip Advisor that £4 was expensive, but maybe they’d never been anywhere else before. The entrance was a great lawn of slate – cold and grey and slightly intimidating.  

Inside, the museum looked like the Mary Celeste – tools downed in great piles, slates half cut. It’s untidy and covered in industrial dust. Viewers are asked to squeeze into cupboard sized covings and watch old VHSs about the industry. One particular propaganda-style video shows miners re-enacting their tasks for a day of filming. It was obviously a welcome return – a hark back to the glory days that they cared for – but it was difficult to discern whether the men left with wistful hearts or were secretly glad they didn’t have to return. Maybe, their absence didn’t feel that long seeing at the mines were officially shut in 1969 and reopening in 1972 as a museum. These mines had trained the men in skills they would pay thousands for now – although that’s not to say that they had the better deal – apprenticeships were unpaid and the families forced to support their young men through the ordeal. 

The main smelting room was dark and cave-like. Grey-black sand layered the floor. It was saturated in the soot and the grot of many years. The blast furnaces, round and womb-like, bubbled like frog spawn at one end of the cavern. Warm light glowed from within like the comforting lights of a pub on a winter’s day – beckoning people inside. Of course, when stoked, these metal kilns would give off heat like the surface of the sun and we’d bow and tremble in their presence. Vulcan would work in their midst, hammer and anvil, pouring molten metals into compacted sand moulds in the ground – filing and sanding the metal struts and machine pieces that kept this great mining enterprise afloat.

Lining the wall along the upper staircase were a series of wooden cogs and whirlygigs with circular spokes like the sun, all painstakingly crafted with saw and chisel and skill. Up these stairs was the carpenters’ workshop, now dedicated to storing the original wooden moulds used in the casting process. The museum tells us that every millimetre, or imperial equivalent, was of the utmost importance, and the carpenter, like Jesus, stood head and shoulders above the other skilled workers in the pecking order of the mill. Up here the air felt dry – the smell of fresh-cut wood long since dissipated and the sawdust swept and thrown away. Here was certainly the neatest part of the exhibition. The floorboards clunked with dull warm thuds. 

In outside barns, came the snap and crackle of electricity and the loud whack of heavy metal levers, which were all driven by one enormous water wheel. Its radius is at least the height of two men. Rhythmically, hypnotically, whirring; the largest water wheel in Europe turns at just the right speed to make you want to watch. To bring on drowsiness and peace. The water movement makes you feel as if you are staring at a natural wonder – but it isn’t. It’s a machine, a tool, a carving of mother nature from her most troublesome child – humanity. 

Outside the compound are the workers’ cottages – each decorated in the style of a different time. The four houses (moved brick for brick onto the museum site) had decor that spanned the mid C19th to the mid C20th. Some of the older visitors looked at the C20th one a little amused. My mum told me it reminded her of her Nan’s flat. 

I wonder what would date our houses now? They seem timeless in the present, merely representing ‘house’ in our minds. But give it 50 years – what would we pick out as quintessential early C21st? A flat-screen T.V. and an X-Box? Eerily sterile furniture? Live, Laugh, Love wall hangings? Or will it be the absence of things that dictate our aesthetic – no books, videos, records; no hi-fi, no VHS, no cathode rays, no record players, no sculptures or candlesticks. Perhaps it will just be plastic, plastic, plastic.

The museum has faced some criticism from a Government-commissioned review which supported charging for certain exhibitions (what these would be weren’t specified – but slate is only so interesting). It implied that the visitor experience needed to change and  enhanced by additional funding and Dr Simon Tharly says the museum is ‘tired and old fashioned’. I mean there’s always room for improvement, but there is a danger in turning this from an experience of authenticity into yet another sterile museum environment. I also would like to remind people that this is a museum about slate mining. The average person really isn’t too fussed about cutting up rocks and making roofs. They’re lucky anyone visits to be honest. And the last thing this place needs is a kiddie centre – you know – with old toys bashed and frayed beyond recognition with no real educational use beyond parents wishing to abandon responsibility for their sprogs for 15min.  

The museum also offered live demonstrations of how to spilt slates, and you are free to walk the grounds, see where they’d extract the slates from, the hill winches and pullies and the hospital museum further up the hill. 

Later on, if you have time you can nip across to the other side of Llanberis and visit the round castle of Dolbadarn, built by Llywelyn the Great in the 13th century. It was plundered by Edward the I for beams, later used in Caernarfon castle. I don’t think he personally stole them though. That would probably be a little unkingly. The castle ruin, however, is so beautiful it has been immortalised by many romantic painters, like Turner and I spend good twenty minutes waiting for an annoyingly purposeless family to get out of the view so I could take this picture below. Please enjoy! 


Llyn Cwellyn

Llyn Cwellyn (Pron. Klin Kle-ken (sort of)) is a water reservoir just South of Mount Snowdon. It runs West from the Snowdon Base Camp (where my sisters and I set up camp) alongside the Beddgelert Forest. It is the site of many Wild-man spottings or so the annuals of the internet declare. 

The Wild-man or British Bigfoot is a hotly debated phenomenon – is there enough uninhabited land in the UK to hide such a creature? The 2012 National Eco-System Assessment of the UK says that only six to eight per cent of the UK is built up. Which according to the U.K. Bigfoot Society,  is compelling enough evidence to say ‘yes’. I think true believers are probably on medication, but I also love myths and mysteries and those feelings that defy logic – that fill our heads with magic sparks and help us see a land anew. One look at these forests, swirling in mists, left you feeling our Sasquatch cousin was really out there. You felt very far away from anything – even reason.

The footpaths on the O.S. map looked substantial, but when we came to walking them it was clear they had not been used for many years. They were overgrown and numerous trees had tumbled over the paths. They looked like fallen eaves after a building fire.

We crawled and squatted and climbed over these limbs; ducking through small spaces between these massive branches. We ended up with yellow lichen stains smattered across our hands and clothes.

Yet it wasn’t the severe sense of abandonment that set us at great unease. It was the stillness. No birds sang nor insects swarmed. Camping beside a lake in the middle of summer in a heavily forested area of bog and moor is usually the perfect breeding ground for midges –  yet there was nothing. 

My heart started to beat hard. It was irrational, but a sense of fear had started to run through me like electric. We continued on, staring hopefully at the map. We continued on because we could see two interlocking paths on the map running parallel to each other. We hoped to reach the end of one and then walk back on the other. But we never found it for all our searching…

The sun was falling low in the sky and the gloom was rising. The depths of the forest were black. Out of the dusky murk of densely grown spruces and pines, a bright white light shone through marking the clearing of Llyn Cwellyn itself. The light flooded the sky – now I just felt watched, like two peeled eyeballs were following my every move across the gravelly shore. 

There were old signs of human inhabitance: a fence long fallen and rusted, jutting out into the water; towards the other end of the shore was a stone wall, and, littered amongst the slate-like debris of the shore side gravel, was the possible signs of charred wood. But it was more than that – the foliage was bent in unusual directions, stones were moved in unusual patterns. Were there footprints in the mud? 

A sudden but colossal shift in the foliage caused us all to stop what we were doing and turn round sharply. It was as if a tree had collapsed – it might well have done – but this crash was accompanied by a sick inhuman shriek. 

We clustered around each other and looked into the darkness. I picked up a stick. There were monsters in this wood. 

We waited a bit – shallow breathing. Swore we saw moving shadows in the brush or a smidgen of red fur disappearing through the trees. 

Eventually, we made our move. Couldn’t wait out the beast no longer, and the stillness of the lake was becoming equally as unnerving. Tramping carefully, we made our way back into the shade and the coolness of the trees, and scurried back to camp as quick as we could. 

But I wasn’t afraid that evening, awaiting the Sasquatch. I was angry. I would not recommend staying at the Snowdon Base Camp. It was expensive, the bathroom block, although well built, was not well cleaned; a fire alarm blared for 30min before I was forced to drive to the pub and tell them to come and fix it. And to top it off, that night, I was awoken at midnight by loud music coming from the car park. 

My mother had hissed across from her tent when I got up, ‘don’t you dare.’ I don’t think she’s even seen Eden Lake. Either way, I did.

In a pink fluffy jumper and my flip-flops, I rapped on the window of a Renault Clio. I was met by a gaggle of dishevelled teenagers on what I presumed was some sort of youth trip gone wrong. I told them they weren’t allowed to play music – it was the rules. They turned it down, and five minutes later I think they went to brave the tent. None the less,  a well staffed and cared for campsite wouldn’t allow such late arrivals. 

I mean, I was ready to shank a big-foot with a tree branch. 

But interrupting my sleep is risky business – I have no humour for it. So look on my wrath, ye youths, and despair. Look out for a beast of pale red hair, grouchy in demeanour, whose footsteps slap on approach. It’ll rap on your window and spoil your party without even a care.

On another note:
This wasn’t the first time I’d had to complain about other people on a campsite. The first time, however, those teenagers were setting fire to a forest and 20min later two fire engines, a helicopter flyby and a police car arrived. The boys scarped and my sisters got to ride around in the fire engine. But that’s a different story…

Links: Report British Bigfoot Sightings