8 June 2024

Walkin' Back to Happiness

For Amanda

It's showery and cold today, but yesterday morning I set off from Hunstanton along the Norfolk Coast Path towards Thornham.  

Funny but it's true
What loneliness can do
Since I've been away
I have loved you more each day

Red Valerian

Past the old lighthouse (now holiday lets) and into Old Hunstanton where the dunes are peppered with multi-coloured Beach Huts, some for hire (c£1,000 a week peak season) and some for sale (c£35K to £50K leasehold).

This one is protected from the devil by a self-sown Elder (Sambucus nigra)....

And here the Dog Rose (Rosa Canina) may ward off evil spirits and protect from the plague.

It is quiet, and the light is fair.  I breathe clean air, and feel good to be out.  I love the colours around me; I love my new-found freedom, despite the sadness it is clothed in.

Today is a day for flowers.  It has been a strange summer so far - everything has a spring-like freshness, even though we are only weeks off the longest day.  In the grass by the path I note Common Spotted Orchids (I think - forgive me if my identifications are mistaken?) which raise their heads against a backdrop of Yellow Archangels....

Everything seems to be in flower, from the brambles....

To the nettles.....

Even those without chlorophyll, like this Broomrape:

And then there are the grasses - this being Hare's-Tail Grass waving in the breeze.....

The bright colours are a delight.  From the pale pink of Thrift:

To the shiny gold of Common Hawkweed:

And of Bird's-Foot-Trefoil (sometimes called Granny's toenails, though better known as Eggs and Bacon):



To the Lapis Lazuli blue of Germander Speedwell:

Over there there's a string of Pyramidal Orchids:

And then a bunch of Weld (Reseda Luteola also known as Dyer's Weed as it provides a rich yellow dye):

Then I am jolted back to the day, as the path has crumbled away, eaten into by coastal erosion, a reminder that the world  needs looking after:

And on the detour a hole in the ground brings to mind the Second World War and the anniversary of D Day, and all the sacrifices and suffering that we should not forget.....

But the honeysuckle waves me on:

And the Wild Carrot seems so healthy there has to be hope....?

Though of course everything is subject to multiple interpretations, as are these blood-red Poppies:

It has been another pleasant walk, one that Amanda would have enjoyed, so I will carry on for her.....

My love she speaks like silence,
Without ideals or violence,
She doesn't have to say she's faithful,
Yet she's true, like ice, like fire.

People carry roses,
Make promises by the hours,
My love she laughs like the flowers,
Valentines can't buy her.

Love Minus Zero/No Limit
Bob Dylan (1965)

Walking back to happiness
Said goodbye to loneliness
I never knew I'd miss you
Now I know what I must do
Walking back to happiness I shared with you

Helen Shapiro (1961)

Written by John Schroeder and Mike Hawker

1 June 2024

Let it be.....

 Just a closer walk with thee.....

It's neither spring, nor summer, and I have been laid up, but thankfully the storm has passed, and I take myself to Ken Hill.  These woods, near my house, are where I used to walk with Amanda, almost every Sunday, through all the seasons, until she could go no more.  A squirrel watches me from a mighty oak, and I am reminded that, for reasons now lost, my pet name for Amanda was Squirrel.....

Just a closer walk with Thee,
Grant it, Jesus, is my plea,
Daily walking close to Thee,
Let it be, dear Lord, let it be.

No, I haven't got religion, but Amanda did, and sometimes I wish I could believe......

Perhaps it's enough that I have the world of nature around me.  A beautiful mesh of cool green beech leaves above me, a pyramid of beautiful, though invasive, Rhododendron over there:

Each flower a marvel of design and colour:

The Foxgloves display with the same palette in the shadows:

Attracting busy bees to their hidden stores of nectar:

Or radiating glory when struck by patchy sunlight filtering through the trees:

Amanda walks with me in my heart, chuckling with delight at the Yellow Azalea (Rhododendron luteum):

I sniff the wild Honeysuckle, smiling at my memories:

And admire the glowing Elderflowers, thinking she might like some cordial:

Through this world of toil and snares,
If I falter, Lord, who cares?
Who with me my burden shares?
None but Thee, dear Lord, none but Thee.

Then I pick up a high-pitched piping call, like a dentist's ultrasonic scaler, and search the trunks around me, eventually picking out a tiny Treecreeper scuttling up the bark:

There aren't many birds around, or so it seems.  The wind is strong, whooshing through the leaves and branches, and birdsong is something of a rarity now.  Pigeons thrash away through the trees when disturbed.  Jackdaws call to each other above their nesting sites:

A parent Robin threatens me as I photograph one of its young:

I hear the shrill trilling of Wrens in the undergrowth, but often they are quick to take cover when I approach, though I catch this little one waiting for food:

High in the crowns I can just make out Blue Tits picking up caterpillars, but they are too far above me to picture.  An incautious Jay, however, obligingly perches with his lunch on a branch within sight:

I walk along the path by the line of beeches:

I am weak, but Thou art strong;
Jesus, keep me from all wrong;
I’ll be satisfied as long
As I walk, let me walk close to Thee.

And then follow the hill to the carved seat where Amanda used to love to sit looking out through the trees towards the Wash. The dappling sunlight plays tricks with my vision and for a moment I can imagine her there,  an evanescent angel....

On my way home, a flurry of feathers lies across the mud on the track and I see the crimson breast of a freshly killed Pigeon, the hapless prey of a Sparrow Hawk, perhaps, a reminder that all life comes to an end, one way or another [without death there is no life.....]:

When my feeble life is o’er,
Time for me will be no more;
Guide me gently, safely o’er
To Thy kingdom shore, to Thy shore.

Just a closer walk with Thee,
Grant it, Jesus, is my plea,
Daily walking close to Thee,
Let it be, dear Lord, let it be.

Evanescent Angel:
Thank you for walking with me today......


Listen to Patsy Cline and Willie Nelson:


21 May 2024

The Train Was On Time.....

Absinthe makes the Harz grow fonder.....

The Train Was On Time

Abroad thoughts from Home

In the Romanesque Collegiate Church of St Servatii at Quedlinburg, where Henry, Duke of Saxony, was buried in 936, a candle shines.  The solitary brightness reminds me of Amanda, whose life burned out so early.  She would have loved it here, and I would have loved to have shared so much more with her.
We travelled widely together, even towards the end, when she had already developed debilitating symptoms of the dementia that curtailed her life.  Our last trip was to Krakow, and we went up in a tethered balloon, high above the castle, and it was wonderful to be with her in that unfiltered delight. 
Quedlinburg is the end of the line on this trip, the last place on the itinerary, and it is a wonder.  Around 2000 half-timbered houses here have either survived some eight centuries or been kept standing through sensitive restoration.
It is quaint, and cobbled, and very quiet at night.  The tourists are mainly bussed in from other parts of Germany, and they seem to evaporate in the evening.

The Schlossberg, Quedlinburg

The castle is currently closed for restoration, the Churches are listlessly fine, the Markt seethes by day but is inert by night.  It is claimed that in 1589 as many as 133 witches (the area was particularly blessed with the presence of witches) were burned here in a single day, but we didn't see any on our visit....  In fact, I found the ladies charming:

However, to be honest, there are only so many half-timbered houses that one can take – imagine, for example, a display of 2000 Ford Cortinas [I don’t know why I thought of that, and I know it isn’t the same, but......]
The reconstructed centre of Hildesheim from the tower of St Andreas' Church

I wonder why I travel.  What is it that takes me away from home? Does it really broaden the mind?  Is there some catharsis involved?  Or is it just to pass the time? (After all, it would have passed anyway, pace Samuel Beckett.)
I suppose the travel bug, if you can call it that, may have come from my parents.  My mother was born in India, and so tales (and photos) of the exotic fed my childhood dreams.  My father’s wartime experiences took him through North Africa, to Italy, then to Egypt and the Middle East, all of which became part of the family story.
Then, as children, we were transported, for summer holidays, to glorious, faraway places such as Dorset, Gloucestershire, Wales, Scotland.....
Later on, I moved to Italy, and began to explore not only that diverse and enthralling country, but also further afield, to Greece, then to Kenya, India, Thailand.....
With Amanda, before our children joined us, we tootled about France in our Renault 4 with a tent in the back. Then, for our honeymoon, we flew to Peru, to stay with friends in Lima, and to visit Cuzco and Machu Pichu.  
During the endgame, after the children had grown, we had many more trips to Italy, but also to Spain and the Canaries, to China and Australia (to visit our daughters), to Austria, Latvia, and finally to Poland (these last three being Christmas market trips). 

Rehearsing Handel in the Marktkirche St Georgii et Jacobi, Hannover

Why the restlessness? What were we after? I guess it was partly that a change of scene is (usually) refreshing?Partly to experience different cultures, different architecture, different art? For example, there's a great exhibition comparing and contrasting Pablo Picasso and Max Beckmann at the Sprengel Museum, Hannover.

Jedenfalls trage ich das Gesicht der Zeit wie kein anderer. Das ist sicher - Max Beckmann
[In any case, I wear the face of the times like no other. That's for sure]

The majority of our adventures were before tourism went mad. Most were before the world began to worry about the impact on climate that travelling obviously has.

I now rail (ironically, selfishly) against the waves of visitors to every site of ‘importance.’ The queues to get into the Colosseum, to gawp at St Mark’s and the Doge’s Palace, or to board a boat to see the canals of Amsterdam, make me whisper ‘bloody tourists’ to myself, painfully aware that I am essentially no different.
But still I go.

A view of Wernigerode from the Schloss

I love the change of air.  I love to find an old café and sit to taste the local fare.  I love to get away (from it all?)  I love to meet people (like the young woman behind the bar on the S/S Stockholm to Vaxholm, or like Thilo Gross on a train to Amsterdam, discussing his application of the Königsberg bridge problem to Bristol, where he had been Reader in Engineering Mathematics at the University.)

Friendly, charming people

It isn’t rocket science.  The world is endlessly fascinating, and I personally do believe that travel can broaden the mind – though the old joke that, ‘If it’s Tuesday, this must be Belgium!’ still has some truth behind it.

So, there I was, in the Romanesque Collegiate Church of St Servatii, Quedlinburg, missing my late wife.  But why Quedlinburg?

Well, there are a number of reasons.  For several years I have been making brief trips, with my old friend Michael, exploring Germany in a jigsaw kind of way. Berlin, Hamburg, Lübeck, Weimar, Cologne, Heidelberg, Leipzig, Dresden, Munich, Stuttgart, the Black Forest and a plethora of minor places, such as Bach’s birthplace in Eisenach, the university city of Tübingen, the picturesque town of Rothenburg ob der Tauber, and so on.....  So this trip was to the Harz Mountains, an area neither of us had visited before....
And, apart from the joys of half-timbered houses, thermal spas, wooded valleys, 

Between the Hexentanzplatz and the Rosstrappe above the Bode river, just outside Thale

spooky hilltops and various churches and castles, 

The now crumbling Schloss Marienburg, not far from Hildesheim 

the Harz is home to the Harzer Schmalspur Bahnen (the Harz Narrow Gauge Railways, with a fleet of 25 steam trains, the oldest dating from 1897, 16 diesel engines and over 140km of tracks they connect the towns of Wernigerode, Nordhausen and Quedlinburg....) And I like steam trains!

It's a fun experience, winding up the 1,141 metre high Brocken (the home of Walpurgisnacht) in a perfectly working, metre gauge, steam train, the carriages jolting and swaying, 

the passengers clinging to the gangway connections where the smoke gets in your eyes.....  Sadly, the slopes of the Brocken are now littered with dead spruce, 

Evidence of global warming on the slopes of the Brocken

weakened by hot dry summers and finished off by bark beetles or fire, sad witnesses to the effects of global warming – nothing of course to do with global tourism - but the rewards at the top are great views, Schwarzbier, and a history of the border between East and West in the Brockenhaus Museum (which reminds us of the benefits of a united Europe).

The Eagle of Goslar, in the Kaiserhof, the Imperial Palace

So, I have these questions:  Does absence make the Harz grow fonder?  Is home where the Harz is?  Is the Harz a lonely hunter?  And I think the answer to all three is, Take these chains from my Harz and set me free.....  (Or, Don’t go breaking my Harz).

As with all things, the people of Wernigerode take their line dancing seriously

Just don’t mention the war.

Rest in Peace - Munster Cathedral

To warm up for this trip I read Heinrich Böll’s novelThe Train Was On Time, which is both a hymn of praise to the punctuality of German Railways and a terrible story of war and the agony of youth.  I won’t spoil it by telling you that it is about Andreas, a 24 year old soldier who travels towards the Eastern Front with a premonition that he is certain to die in exactly five days’ time.

As I was carried through boarded up stations and past ruined traces of human endeavour, the engineer hooting the train whistle at remote crossings, thoughts about war, and time, and life swirled like steam through my head.

And in Hanover, on my way home, I visited the Aegidien Church which was destroyed during the night of October 8th 1943 by aerial bombings. In 1952, it was designated a war memorial dedicated to victims of war and of violence.  On one wall is a plaque, which states that, War and catastrophe claimed the lives of many residents of our city at the front and at home. 12,628 fell 1914-1918; 1939-1945 11,360 fell; 7000 were killed by bombs. 6,700 are missing. Countless people died in prison camps and in flight.

The seventy metre fountain in the Royal Gardens of Herrenhausen, Hannover

It doesn’t say that Hanover was bombed 88 times in WWII by the British and Americans, nor that sixty per cent of the city was destroyed.  Nor does it apportion blame, though the word Katastrophe (disaster) comes from the ancient Greek for a sudden down turn.  Not for the first time (a similar plaque in a ruined church in Hamburg was more explicit) I sense (please forgive my simplification here) that the German people acknowledge that, as has happened before in history and is still happening today, flaws in leadership can have appalling consequences.

Making friends - Goslar
I return home a little older, and perhaps a bit wiser.  I have seen the World Heritage Rammelsberg ore mines near Goslar, where forced labour was used to extract silver (in October 1944, and not just in concentration camps, there were nearly 8 million foreign workers throughout the German Reich, some recruited under false pretences while others were forcibly abducted.)

Machinery in the Power Generating plant at Rammelsberg

In Wernigerode, on Himmelfahrt (Ascension Day), I witness a parade of local dignitaries heralded by hunting horns, bedecked with flags, and addressed by the Mayor, who was heard to be called Führer by a devoted follower. Innocently, I had imagined it was not a term that was still in use....

My mind is broadened, perhaps. One thing I have learned is that the Germans are obsessed with the Spargel (Asparagus) season, and it is about the only fresh vegetable (apart from potatoes and red cabbage, perhaps) that appears in restaurants, and then only in one form - boiled - and served with either butter or Hollandaise sauce and accompanied by ham or schnitzel or scrambled egg. The white stuff, which they prefer, also doesn't have the pungent effect that is often experienced in Norfolk!

I am also enlightened by a fulsome exhibition in the West Wing of the Museum Schloss Herrenhausen (once home to the baroque princely-state of the Royal House of Hanover).  Here I learn something of the history of the textile free habit so endearing of German Spas (and which I learned about reticently in Bad Harzburg and Thale).....

But I have also travelled some 1,500 miles on German railways (and, currently, this can be done with a single ticket valid for a calendar month for €49), with only one small glitch.  On the way from Rheine to Amsterdam our train stopped, in the middle of woodland.  An announcement informed us that the train had hit something and there had to be an investigation. Men in high vis jackets walked alongside our carriage.  Our companion in the compartment, the very same Thilo Gross, he of the Königsberg bridge problem, declared that this would probably mean a delay of three hours.  Why so? I asked, and he said he had had similar experiences in the past, when the police had had to examine the body and so on.  Suicide, in this remote place? I questioned.  Sadly, it could be, he said. Again, why so?  I asked, and he replied that there weren’t many guns in Germany.....

One of Niki de Saint Phalle's 'Nanas' at the Leibnizufer der Leine in Hanover

It turned out, I am happy to say, that we had simply run over a few stones on the line, and in fact we arrived in Amsterdam practically on time. 

The next day, the 06.45 Eurostar from Amsterdam to London departed on time, but then came to a halt at Calais.  Not a suicide.  Not stones on the line, but a power failure near Ashford on the HS1 line. After a while we progressed, but slowly, haltingly, as only one track was operative at Ashford.  We arrived seventy minutes late in London.
A power failure.....  What does that say about the UK?
The train was not on time.  

But I know that Amanda will wait for me.

Auf Wiedersehen?

Andreas leaned forwards to look at the softly lit clock on the dashboard, and he saw it was six o’clock, just on six.  An icy shock ran through him, and he thought: God, God, what have I done with my time, I’ve done nothing, I’ve never done anything.....
Heinrich Böll