I had been walking for three days, from Nazareth via Sepphoris, Cana, Kibbutz Lavi, the Horns of Hattin and Mount Arbel to Tiberias. There, I had upgraded to a bicycle to circle the Sea of Galilee.
The sun is burning relentlessly, although it is only March. I am still completely exhausted from the half marathon I ran in Jerusalem, just before the hike. And there is almost no water to be found along the trail. Except in the lake, of course. But I mean water that’s clean, without some prophet having put his feet into.
A church on top of a hill catches my eye. The beautiful view can already be imagined from below, the toll it will take to get there not. I have to dismount and push the bike. The hill turns out to be a mountain. Which is logical, because this is where Jesus delivered the Sermon on the Mount. The most important place of Christianity is not in Rome, not in Bethlehem, not in Jerusalem. No, it was on this mountain one Friday night that Christianity was founded. With this speech, Jesus turned from a Jewish rebel into the founder of a new religion. (Many Christian readers will be shocked now: “What do you mean, Jesus was Jewish?”)
My hopes rest on Jesus as well. Especially on sura 7 sentence 37 from the Gospel of John:
Let anyone who is thirsty come to me and drink.
And indeed, in the garden in front of the enormous church, the interior of which reminds me of the train stations built during Italian fascism, a fountain gushes, as promised by the master. Palm trees grow around the water hole. The sound of the water feels like an oasis in the desert.
In front of the pond, the above Bible verse is quoted. And next to it a secular sign: “water not for drink”.
After the stellar and promising start of the new series “One Hundred Years Ago …”, I am now under pressure to deliver a funny story every month. The problem: History is not always funny.
The whole month, I’ve been pondering whether (a) to use the Paris Conference on reparations to be paid by Germany to address the myth of the stab-in-the-back legend as well as of Germany’s financial overstretch by the Versailles Treaties, or (b) to use the Leipzig Trials to recall German war crimes in World War I and draw a connection to the Nuremberg Trials.
I find both very fascinating, but I am probably alone in this. So I choose (c) cats.
A hundred years ago, people were still environmentally conscious, which is why hardy anyone traveled by plane (and if they did, it was for dubious purposes). Railroads, long walks to Italy and ships were popular alternatives.
The latter is what we are going to talk about today.
About a particular five-masted gaff schooner, as we sailors call it. A sailing ship, that is. A wonderfully elegant sailing ship, made entirely of wood, but used to transport coal. It was the Carroll A. Deering, named after the daughter of the shipowner.
Since 1919, the ship sailed back and forth between its home port in Virginia, Puerto Rico, Brazil and Spain, which was more dangerous than it sounds. Because this is exactly the spot marked by the Bermuda warning triangle, which was supposed to be avoided at all costs.
But costs are what shipowners hate, and thus, the captain was ordered to sail right through.
On 9 January 1921, the ship left the Caribbean island of Barbados, after the captain had bailed out his first officer from prison.
The destination of the voyage was Virginia, although I’m not sure whether it was on a direct course or a rum-induced lurching course. Because the first sighting of the Carroll A. Deering off the US coast was not until 29 January 1921, when our sailing vessel passed a lightship off the coast of North Carolina and made contact by megaphone.
Oh yes, a lightship is something like a floating lighthouse that is firmly anchored and ideally marked on nautical charts. Please don’t ask “what for?”, you landlubbers. Or read the book by Siegfried Lenz.
So a crewmember from the Carroll A. Deering called over to the lightship, informing it that they had lost their anchors in the storm and asking it to convey the message to the shipping company by telegraph. In his log, the lightship captain noted with astonishment that the call was not made by the captain, nor by the first officer, but by an ordinary sailor. He also noted that he could not spot any of the officers on board.
Mysterious. But the Carroll A. Deering was already sailing on again, heading for Cape Hatteras.
There, she was next sighted on 31 January 1921. Now, not only the captain and the officers were invisible, but the entire crew had turned into ghosts. The Carroll A. Deering had run aground on a sandbar. The sails were set, the lifeboats were gone.
Because of a raging and roaring storm, it took four days for the brave men and women from the Coast Guard, who were probably only men at the time, to finally board the Carroll A. Deering.
They encountered nobody. Not a human soul. No message left behind. No log book.
Only a cat.
The Coast Guard searched the waters for another month and a half, but found no trace of the rescue boats or crew. No one ever saw them again. No one ever heard from them again.
There were many theories:
Mutiny, not least because the lightship had not seen an officer aboard the Carroll A. Deering.
Alcohol smuggling, because Prohibition had been in effect in the US for a year, and the ship came from the Caribbean (rum, mojito, daiquiri). But then why would no one from the crew ever be seen again?
Abandoning ship because of the storm. But why would anyone do that? There was much less chance of survival in the small lifeboats. The ship itself was not destroyed.
Maybe a pirate attack. But there were no traces of a fight.
The wildest theory: The ship had been captured by Communists who wanted to take it to Russia. In fact, a search of the United Russian Workers Party headquarters in New York unveiled such plans. In 1920, German Communist Franz Jung had hijacked a steamer to sail to Murmansk to pay Lenin a visit, which, had this series begun a bit earlier, would surely have been honored in a separate episode.
The cat, the only one to know the truth, kept suspiciously silent.
“What is a cat doing on a ship?” you are wondering, and now the educational part begins:
Until very recent times, cats on ships were not only nothing unusual, but mandatory. Especially on merchant ships, but also warships hardly dared to sail without a cat. And thus, cats came to America with Columbus.
The legal sources date back to the Middle Ages: The Rôles d’Oléron, a 13th century French maritime code. The Black Book of the Admiralty from the 14th century. The 15th century Code of the Consulate of Valencia. They all stipulate that the shipowner is liable for damages if the ship fails to carry a cat and goods on board are damaged by rats as a result. If the cat dies en route, a new cat must be taken on board at the next port.
According to a Scottish law from the 13th century, a stranded ship remained the property of the shipowner as long as there was still a man, a dog or a cat alive on it. The cat thus prevented the ship from becoming an ownerless shipwreck that any beach walker could pocket.
From the time of mercantilism onwards, France insisted in all trade treaties that every ship must carry at least two cats. Otherwise, the vessel was not considered fit for sea.
It was not until 1975 that the Royal Navy banned ship cats from its warships, and it is probably no coincidence that this marked the final end of the British Empire. Just think of the Seychelles, Solomon Islands and Gilbert and Ellice Islands.
From ocean-going cats, I could now move on to the development of maritime law, submarine warfare, the Titanic or the Battle of Jutland.
But I return to the Bermuda Triangle.
Not only do ships disappear there, but so do plenty of airplanes. (That’s why most US citizens don’t fly directly to Cuba, but first to Mexico and then approach the Caribbean island from the west, to avoid the Bermuda Triangle.)
Because this series could also be called “How to get from one issue to another hundred topics” instead of “A Hundred Years Ago …”, the planes disappearing in the Sargasso Sea remind me of planes disappearing in Germany at the time covered in this series. Without the Bermuda Triangle, but in an equally mysterious way.
But I will keep this short and only reproduce a newspaper article from Freiheit, a left-wing Berlin daily newspaper from 29 December 1920:
Under the heading “The Mysterious Planes” it says:
The Reich Ministry of Transport appeals to the public to turn in the airplanes that are still being kept hidden among the population. Since the working class does not have barns, forests, sheds and similar places of storage, there is hardly any point in asking them to hand over the hidden planes. So where are the hiding places? Well, in the enclosures of the large agrarians in the countryside, and it is strange that it is always the Entente missions that uncover such hiding places, causing utmost inconvenience to the German government.
Just the other day, as the Reich Ministry of Transport has to admit, another batch of planes, which had been kept hidden, was flown to Poland. The government has the obligation to pose as harmlessly as if it considered these shenanigans with airplanes to be merely black-market maneuvers and financial speculation. In truth, of course, these planes fill the arms depots of Orgesch and its related organizations, which move their stockpiles of weapons around to keep them out of the sight of the Entente mission.
That would give rise to at least three further topics:
The fight of right-wing forces against the republic did not begin in 1933, nor in 1923 with the Hitler putsch, but on the day the republic was founded. Perhaps that is why we should take a closer look at the constant revelations of right-wing extremist networks in the contemporary German military and police. In the past, airplanes disappeared, today weapons, explosives and ammunition disappear.
You probably wondered why German planes were flown to Poland. Well, it’s a bit like Fiume: Neither the armistice nor the peace treaties really brought World War I to an end. War was still raging on all fronts in Poland, and the planes from Germany were probably used to support the Germans in Upper Silesia. Everything quite unofficially, of course.
Under the Treaty of Versailles, Germany was prohibited from building an air force. What did the German military do? Well, of course, it secretly built up an air force. And it did so at the secret fighter pilot school and testing facility in – you’ll never guess – Lipetsk. That was in the Soviet Union. The intensive German-Soviet cooperation (there was also a joint secret tank school in Kazan) lasted until 1933. The foundations for the Hitler-Stalin Pact had been laid.
Each of these complexes deserves its own article. But for today, that was enough history, I think. So now I’ll disappear into my Bermuda Triangle and leave you to guess where in the world we will reappear in February 1921.
If someone is interested in deepening the topics only touched upon: No problem. With a little support for this blog, I could work on more topics per month. In return, you will get the perfect papers for your history class.
I don’t remember exactly what year I moved to Lithuania. It must have been about ten years ago.
But I do remember that it was on July 1st. Because in the same week, on July 6th, was my birthday.
From Vilnius, where I lived, I traveled to nearby Trakai. This is a national park with a lot of water and many islands, a castle, beautiful old villages, mysterious cultures like the Karaites, and – like everywhere in Lithuania – a lot of nature and greenery. Some of the islands are connected by wooden bridges, others can be reached by rowing boat.
So I hopped from island to island, like the Allies advancing on Japan, only more peaceful and placid. And without being shot at.
Instead of kamikaze killers, on many of the islands, especially the wooded and remote ones, I was greeted by fairy circles. Through the trees, I observed girls in long white dresses with flowers pinned in their hair. They held each other’s hands and were dancing in a circle and singing.
It was beautiful.
I didn’t want them to spot me. I didn’t even want to take pictures so as not to destroy the magic.
On some islands, there were several of these dancing and singing circles, and some noticed me. I turned down all invitations to join the dance, because at that time, I was still very shy.
When they realized that I was not Lithuanian, they welcomed me to the country and explained that July 6th was a very special day. I agreed with that, but – because I am not only shy, but also modest – without revealing that I was the birthday child.
I don’t know how word of my arrival had spread so quickly. And how they knew I was coming to Trakai that day.
In any case, no country had ever given me such a reception.
Later, someone told me that July 6th is a national holiday because King Mindaugas had been crowned on that day in 1253. However, this was so long ago, I don’t think people would still dance and sing for it. Besides, Lithuania is not a kingdom.
Puno, a small town in Peru. Situated at 3827 meters above sea level. It’s rather chilly uo there. I go to bed with a jacket and go jogging in the morning to defrost.
The people here don’t care about the 3827 meters. The ocean is far away. Besides, they have their own sea, right on their doorstep: Lake Titicaca. They call it a lake because you can drink the water, but it’s as large as the sea. Like 15 Lakes Constance, 47 Districts of Columbia or 107 Guernseys.
Looking for the train station, I follow the railroad tracks. Instead, I find the harbor. Doesn’t make much difference, I guess, steam locomotive or steamboat.
One of the ships is about to sail. Its horn roars. A man on deck calls out to me: “Do you still want to get on?”
“Where are you going?”
“To the Uros.”
Oh. A floating convention of urologists, then. All right, maybe I can sponge a free prostate exam. I get on board seconds before the gangway is pulled from under my feet.
But it’s not completely free, because Hernan, who is apparently something like a tour guide, relieves me of 70 soles (= 20 dollars). Never mind, I’ll eat more from the buffet to make up for that.
Hernan, who can read minds, says: “Lunch on the island is an extra 20 soles.” Alright, the prospect of an island puts me in a generous mood. Hernan introduces me to his sons: Lionel and Cristobal. The boy with the name like a soccer player is wearing a tracksuit of the German national team. Talking to the children incurs no extra charge.
It turns out to be a beautiful, sunny day. The kind of day that looks much warmer in photos than it is in real life. But at least there is no storm. The ship chugs through calm, waveless water. When you have a lake like this on your doorstep, you really don’t need the sea. (Only the Bolivians keep making a big drama, ever since they lost access to the sea, instead of being happy about owning half of Lake Titicaca.)
We are sailing through reeds. Or rather through a channel that leads through the reeds. So straight that it must have been artificially constructed. Like in Venice.
At a checkpoint made entirely of reeds, the boat slows down. Hernan hands down a stack of Peruvian soles and we are allowed to pass. No canal without a canal charge collection checkpoint.
They built ships out of reeds and lived on the lake from then on, undisturbed by the Spaniards. (At the time, Europeans didn’t yet know how to swim.) After they realized that the Spaniards weren’t leaving anytime soon, they built entire islands out of reeds. Floating islands. With reed huts on them. I don’t know how they don’t sink, but they do look pretty.
“Originally they had their own language, Urukilla, but then it mixed with Aymara and eventually died out,” Hernan continues. That’s sad, but better the language dies than the people. The Romans don’t derive any benefit from everyone still speaking Latin, after all.
On the other hand, if more people died out, it would be better for the environment and the sea level would not have risen to over 3800 meters already. But for this complaint, the Uros are the wrong target. There aren’t really that many of them. About 1200 Uros on 87 islands, Hernan says.
Now their population is holding steady, he says, because they have two to three children per family, not all of whom stay on the islands. “Fifty years ago, each family would produce a soccer team as offspring.”
Ah, that’s why the floating soccer field is deserted now. Or maybe no opposing team wants to compete on such shaky ground.
We dock at a relatively small island. Six simple huts. And a tower, for communication with the other islands, using smoke, flags and mirrors.
I’m beginning to realize that I’ve joined a tourist cruise and that the 25 or so passengers will now harass the poor family on their little island. But the island does not sink. The ground is pleasantly soft and gives way with each step. And there is always a slight swaying. I would love to lie down and fall asleep.
But I have to pay attention, because now the island chief is explaining something. Five families live on his island. If there were ever ten families, then new living space would have to be created in the form of a new island, explains the man driven by an expansionist urge.
No problem, he says, there are plenty of totora reeds. They get them from the national park. He builds a small model of an island, fast and simple, poof poof. But because the water attacks the reeds, the island has to be renewed every three months. While living on it. It’s like changing the engine of a car while driving.
Speaking of cars: The island chief is quite proud of his two boats. A small one and a large, splendid one. “These are my Volkswagen and my Mercedes-Beng,” as he calls it.
They also have solar panels. For TV, radio, light. It’s definitely smarter than lighting a campfire.
What’s the rifle for, I ask, hoping for stories of pirate raids or the fight against colonialism.
“I shoot birds,” he says martially. He likes his role as defender, protector, breadwinner and leader of the small island. When we leave, I will ask for his name and won’t be surprised in the least that it is Adolfo. The other islands can be glad that he hasn’t invaded them yet.
Particularly sought after is a type of bird whose name I didn’t remember. Because of their large eggs. For omelets. In a corner of the island, I find only one dead bird. Apparently starved to death. With a last desperate cry in its beak.
When Adolfo casually mentions that reeds are edible, I can’t help myself. I haven’t had breakfast.
Tastes like celery. It would be monotonous, but in an emergency, I could eat my way through an entire island. Oops, now I forgot to wash my hands between touching the dead bird and the reed stick. Happens every time.
Adolfo invites us onto his boat. The big one, the “Mercedes-Beng”. And suddenly, from every corner and every hut, children come running, wanting to get on the boat.
It’s as busy here as on the canals of Venice. And everything because of the bloody tourists. Just like in Venice.
We cross over to the main island of the Uro territory. There are stores, restaurants, even lodgings for tourists. And for one sol, you get your passport stamped. All on a billowing patch of reeds. One storm, and the capital city is gone.
And there is a public telephone. In case you need to reach the children who live too far away for smoke or mirror signals.
Hernan would like to give smoke signals, too, because we have to move on. Strict schedule. So, back on the motorized ship and further out into the lake.
I am sitting next to Ryan from Alaska. He is with the Seventh Day Adventists and proudly points out a school run by his sect on one of the floating islands.
“We are represented in over 200 countries,” he says proudly, as if it was a business. Well, maybe it is.
One can only hope that Adolfo will soon turn his rifle on the invaders. The audacity of Christian missionaries to show up in areas where the population has been slaughtered, enslaved and raped by Christians really deserves a salvo from the shotgun.
But you don’t want to hear my angry rants, you want to listen to Hernan’s information-packed explanation. So: We are heading to the island of Taquile. Almost like Tequila, but not related in any way.
The terraced fields are the first thing you notice about the island. They protect the soil from erosion. It clearly works, as can be seen from the fact that many islands without terracing have disappeared. Atlantis, for example. The Solomon Islands and the Maldives are next.
The terraces date back to the time of the Tiwanaku. They ruled the island before the Inca. Well, actually before the Kolla, but after those came the Inca. This reminds me that I have wanted to write about the Tiwanaku, as I once visited their capital. Which is also called Tiwanaku, you can see it in the southeast of the map above. Southeast is in the bottom right. So, if you want to hear from the Tiwanaku, let me know. But first, let’s get back to Taquile, or you’ll get anxious with impatience.
Taquile was the last place in South America to be conquered by the Spanish. It was not until 1580 that they took the island, which at that time was part of the Inca Empire. The Spaniards wanted to show who was boss and banned traditional Inca clothing. Instead, the inhabitants of the island had to dress like Spanish peasants. They still wear this costume today and present it as “traditional,” even though it was the imposed clothing of the colonizers.
Clothing is important on Taquile in two ways. Beyond the obvious, I mean.
On the one hand, the island lives on textile production. All over the island, you see women and men weaving and knitting.
Secondly, Taquile may only be entered wearing a hat. The archways that guard the entrances to the inhabited parts of the island make this unmistakably clear.
The head coverings worn by Taquileños give all kinds of information. Depending on their shape, color and angle of wear, they indicate whether one is single or married. Whether one has a baby. Whether the baby is a boy or a girl. Whether one holds an office in local government. Whether one is looking for a girlfriend or not. And so on.
Of course I respect the local culture and wear a hat myself. Hopefully not indicating anything that I don’t want to indicate.
The island has some peculiarities to offer. In the 1930s, the islanders pooled their funds and bought all the land from the state. And then the land was distributed among the resident families somewhat equally. Okay, not quite the October Revolution. But at least a small land reform.
When tourism became more important than agriculture, socialist ideas finally prevailed. People organized themselves as cooperatives and vowed not to build large restaurants or hotels. Rather, each family was to profit from tourism. If you want to stay overnight on Taquile, you simply come by boat (also run by the cooperative from Taquile) and tell the reception at the wharf how many nights you want to stay. Then you will be assigned to a family that is currently hosting. Thus, everyone takes turns with the tourists.
The stores selling textile products also belong to the cooperative. Every producer can offer his or her products there. The prices are set jointly. There is no haggling. Anyone who is caught letting tourists bargain the price down, or who sets up a small stall himself, has his products removed from the stores for two weeks.
Because socialism is known to form better human beings, the 2000 or so inhabitants don’t need any police. The prison has been sitting empty since 1937.
The table is empty, too, because before lunch comes art. Enter Ricardo. With hat, guitar and pan flute. He has apparently been active in the tourism sector for some time, because he speaks German quite well. Or he is the foreign minister of Taquile, and music is just his side hustle. A side hustle that, Hernan sternly informs us, is not included in the total price. After my last bill sails away, I fervently hope that the return trip to Puno is included in the price.
On the other hand, it’s quite nice here. Too bad I’ll probably never be invited for cat sitting. Because – another rule from the time of the Tiwanaku, Kolla and Inca – cats and dogs are forbidden on the island. After all, there were no cats in South America before the Spaniards brought them. That’s probably why Peruvians have no problem eating cats.
The return trip to Puno takes three hours. For the children, that means six hours of traveling to and from school every day. Enough time to get their homework done.
Suddenly, an explosion rips through the air. Black smoke rises. Probably some error in the chemistry homework.
Easter Island is shrouded in mysteries. Where did the first inhabitants come from? How did they manage to cross the Pacific Ocean? Why did they do it? What is the point of the stone statues across the whole island? How could people without sophisticated technology move and erect huge pieces of rock (up to 15 meters tall)? Why were all the moai, as they are called, toppled and pushed over?
That’s right, they were once all toppled by the islanders themselves.
Everyone knows photos like this.
But in reality, only a few of the statues have been put up again, and very recently. All across the island, most places look like this.
Still, the big question remains: how could people move such huge stones? I can reveal the secret. It’s the material. It is a special kind of stone with lots of air bubbles inside, which is actually very light, called tuff. But look for yourself:
Do you also have so many travel guides at home for countries you never made it to? I still got a Lonely Planet guidebook for Central Asia, which I bought in 2007. Apparently, in the past 13 years, a lot of things have come up, because I still haven’t been to Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan or Uzbekistan.
Because I still have to save a little until I can afford the train ticket to Tashkent, I have shortened the waiting time with a book about these five fascinating countries. Thankfully, the Norwegian author Erika Fatland took it upon herself to travel through dictatorships, autocracies, barren steppes and drafty yurts for her book “Sovietistan”.
Even if I still can’t tell all the -stans apart one hundred percent after reading the book (for that, an intensive personal inspection is essential), and even if one or the other revolution has changed circumstances in the meantime, I still got quite a good impression, which only intensified the travel bug. Fatland interweaves her own experience with historical inserts, which sometimes get a bit out of hand when she lectures about Genghis Khan for pages on end.
Fatland’s new book, “The Border: A Journey around Russia”, continues the method slightly modified, unfortunately with less of what was strong about “Sovietistan” and more of what was less good. Here, the lecturing takes over, again for pages on Russian Siberian expeditions or on border conflicts, with only little conversation and personal encounters to make up for it.
In this second book, one gets the impression that Fatland was sent on a long journey to repeat the success of “Sovietistan” come hell or high water. The author herself admits that she would not have spent $20,000 to cross the Northeast Passage, for example. More enlightening are the reports from places that remain closed or hard to get to for the average traveler, like the Donetsk Republic or South Ossetia.
Again and again, her impatience and annoyance shine through when an agreed interview is delayed, when the cab driver doesn’t show up, or when the internet connection is bad. In Urumqi, she spends four days just staying in the hotel and watching Netflix. Clearly, someone is not very enthusiastic about her own journey, which, according to the subtitle, must lead “through North Korea, China, Mongolia, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Ukraine, Belarus, Lithuania, Poland, Latvia, Estonia, Finland, Norway and the Northeast Passage”.
This is simply too long and too much for one book.
For authors, my general advice to travelers applies as well: Less is more. Focus on one or two places, but really immerse yourself in them. And don’t make plans for more than 50% of the time. The rest must remain open for spontaneous encounters, for surprises, the stuff that makes for good stories.
When I disclose that I am from Germany, I am always asked about soccer, cars or Nazis. Sometimes, I would rather pretend that I am from Lithuania or some other little known country.
But in Peru, I had a new “Ah, you’re from Germany” experience.
In a vegetarian restaurant that takes animal welfare as seriously as Peruvian politicians take the fight against corruption, I order rocoto filled with minced meat.
While I am waiting, Ivan joins me at the sturdy wooden table. He has a beard like Lenin, hair like Bob Ross, and he is wearing shorts and trekking shoes. He seems to be working in the restaurant or helping out or just always around.
As soon as he learns where I’m from, he blurts out:
“Ah, like Gunter Hampel!”
Oh dear, no idea for what team he is playing.
“And Reinhard Giebel!”
Hm, never heard of him before.
With increasing enthusiasm, Ivan comes up with more names: Toto Blanke, Hans Koch, Werner Lüdi.
Typical names of soccer players, but none of them rings a bell. Maybe I should read a soccer magazine once a year, so I can have at least a little chat about the subject.
I’m about to apologize for my sporting ignorance, but impetuous Ivan continues already: “Germany is the leading nation in Jazz! Not France. Not the USA. What you are pulling off over there, it’s incredible!”
The filled rocoto is as spicy as a burning volcano. Ivan notices my pain and gets a large jug of lemonade for the ignorant German.
In front of the Shah Cheragh Mosque, a guard stops me: “Are you Muslim?”
“To be perfectly honest, I am not.”
“I’m sorry, Sir, but today the mosque is only open to Muslims,” he explains, referring to the festival of Ashura. Trying to be helpful, he adds that tomorrow it will be open to everyone again.
But today is my last day in Shiraz; tomorrow morning I have to catch an early flight to Tehran. Too bad, the mosque with a mosaic of millions of mirror shards is supposed to be one of the most beautiful in Iran.
The guard suggests that I come back in ten minutes. Puzzled, I walk around the block. Will he be on lunch break then?
No, he is still there. With a broad grin, he asks: “So, are you Muslim now?”
I smile appreciatively at his ingenuity and reply: “Allahu akbar.”
With a welcoming wave of his hand, he invites me into the mosque.
Some of you claim not to have enough time to read my longer articles. I am already trying to make it easier by dividing articles into up to 183 numbered chapters, so that you can get a pizza in between and can easily resume reading where you left.
But I also want the super-busy, child-rich and attention-deficient among you to share in my travels and observations. (Honestly, I don’t like to read longer articles on the screen myself.)
So from now on, there will be a weekly short bulletin, about the length of a postcard. Just one anecdote, from first-hand experience. And only one photo. Exactly like a postcard.
You are invited to browse the list of my travels and let me know from where you’d like to read a virtual postcard.
“If I take the night bus from Heathrow to Newquay, I’ll get there well rested,” I had thought, although I should have known that I can’t really sleep on night buses. But the last hours of the nine-hour ride are nice. It’s already dawn, and the National Express bus is winding its way on narrow country roads between high hedges, passing green hills with grazing sheep.
At 6:35, the driver kicks me out in Newquay. Objectively, it’s still cold, but I’ve just come from Canada, so anything above zero feels mild. And finally I’m back in a small town where you can quickly find your way around and walk from one end to the other.
I head down to the beach, because the sea is one reason I came to Cornwall. On this early morning, I am the only one awake, it seems. All the waves just for me.
Swimming makes hungry.
For breakfast, I’m craving a hot pasty, but the stores are not in any hurry to open. They can afford it because they are world champions. All of them. Every single bakery. One touts itself as “Voted best Cornish Pasty Shop in 2018,” the other as “Winner of World Pasty Championship 2018,” the third as “Winner of Cornwall Pasty Competition 2018.” It’s like boxing, where everyone has their own association to act as a world champion. The “Oldest Cornish Pasty Maker in the World” can rest on its laurels without subjecting itself to these annual competitions.
At 8 o’clock, the first store opens. The baker puts me in a hopeful mood: “The pasties are already in the oven!” I’ll gladly wait for that, I proclaim, until she informs me that it will be another hour. Oh, this pasty is apparently as elaborate as a goulash. My excitement for Cornwall’s favorite pastry mounts, but I postpone making its acquaintance until later in the day. The fact that bakers don’t start work until 8 a.m. would probably make their colleagues in other places laugh.
(If you’re here just for the pasties, you can skip to chapter 7).
Instead of waiting around all day, I’ll use the time to introduce myself at my workplace for the next two weeks. As a house sitter, I will take care of a small house and a fat cat.
On the way, I pass the library with a bilingual sign: “Library – Lyverva”.
The job with the cat seems to be easy. Bigfoot, as the big cat is called, allows me to pet him right away. He doesn’t seem to care that suddenly someone else lives in the house, as long as he gets fed every day and can continue to come and go when he wants. He also doesn’t seem to be averse to longer trips, because he immediately jumps into my bag.
The next morning, the cat gives me an enormous fright. While I’m in the bathroom, someone is tampering with the door handle from the outside. I thought I was alone in the house, and of course I didn’t lock the door. Helplessly, I look around for a weapon, but I don’t even have a hair dryer.
The door opens and in walks Bigfoot.
The cat is so independent that he doesn’t really need a house sitter. Except at night, when he likes to open the door to the bedroom, come to bed and read spy novels with me.
And another thing makes this house sit easier: the last cat sitter was a rather strange fellow who ate the entire pantry, then went to the local food bank and, other than that, never left the house. At the end of his stay, he asked the landlady for the bus fare because he didn’t have a penny.
Unfortunately, my predecessor also left the heating on too long and too much, so now I don’t dare ask if it could be turned on just a little bit, to help against the terrible cold I caught in Canada. But no, this is England, from April on, the windows are open and the Atlantic winds are whistling through the house, no matter if someone almost dies from coughing.
Did I say England?
“Cornwall,” the owner of the house and the cat corrects me, before taking the bus to the small airport of Newquay to enjoy her last vacation in Europe before Brexit. (At least that’s what we thought back in May 2019. As we all know, things turned out a bit different).
I ask Susan if she speaks Cornish.
She laughs, “Nobody speaks Cornish!”, and immediately takes another swipe at the Southwest nationalists: “Half the words are made up anyway, because there simply were no words for modern objects at the time the language was spoken.” I venture a guess that “lyverva” is one of them.
But Cornish is not alone. Newquay is hosting an International Celtic Festival this week, with guests from Scotland, the Isle of Man, Brittany, Ireland and Wales.
The Cornish flag is flown in some gardens. Many cars and several stores display the white cross on black background.
That doesn’t have to mean anything, though. In Bavaria, too, the white-blue rhombuses are everywhere, yet nobody wants Bavaria to become independent. Mebyon Kernow, the most important party supporting autonomy for Cornwall, scores between 2% and 4% in elections. Apparently, the issue doesn’t rank quite as high as the flags are flying.
The world champions from chapter 2 don’t have to work long either, because when I get to the bakery at 17:30, the girl is already closing the shop. Therefore, they are offering a discount on the leftovers of the day. 1.50 £ instead of 3.50 £ for a large pasty, which is perfectly sufficient for dinner. Here, I can live cheaply.
Well, it’s not world class, let alone in the league of Kaiserschmarrn, but in Great Britain you can become famous even with culinary mediocrity.
When eating in the park or on the beach, you have to watch out for the seagulls, which are either always hungry or always up to mischief.
The best thing about Newquay is that the South West Coast Path goes through here. This is a long-distance hiking trail of just over 1000 kilometers, closely following the coast and circling the southwestern tip of England, Cornwall and Devon.
Long-distance hiking trails in Great Britain, the “National Trails”, are something special. A paradise for hikers! Always in beautiful nature. Only rarely do you share the path with roads and vehicles for a short stretch. Soft paths. Comfortable resting places. At least one pub per day. Well signposted. Okay, the latter is not really needed for a coastal hike, where you can’t stray too far from the path or always find your way back onto it.
And another advantage, very useful for me on this occasion: In the UK, there are buses even to remote bays or to the middle of nature. I can only leave the cat alone during the day, otherwise he will eat the orchids, which to protect is another of my responsibilities. But with the double-decker buses, I get away from Newquay in the morning and then walk 20 km or so back to town during the day. Then the same in the other direction, and so on, further and further.
As I don’t aim to win a hiking competition, but just a first impression, this approach is enough for the moment. In the back of my mind, there is the idea of the European Coastal Path, and I want to give coastal hiking a test before I embark on the 5000 km from Leningrad to the Algarve.
I take the bus to Harlyn Bay to walk back in the direction of Newquay.
It is perfect hiking weather.
Such a bay presents the hiker with at least two options: Either walk through the sand close to the sea and climb back up at the other end (beginners). Or choose the leisurely path above the cliffs and enjoy the view (experienced hikers). Or you run down to the water, delighted at first, but then you start looking for a place to climb up to the trail (me).
Personally, I prefer to hike on the high ground, because I like to have a wide and broad view. Besides, the sea looks a bit suspicious to me, a sentiment that will still turn out to be perfectly justified.
And there is nice company up here.
Because I think that animals, at least mammals, deserve to be treated with respect and courtesy, I talk to the sheep. About the weather. About the salinity of the grass in the immediate vicinity of the sea. About their opinion of llamas. About Brexit.
“Good morning,” says a cheerful young woman whom I didn’t even see coming.
Very generously and in typical British politeness, she ignores the fact that I’ve been having a conversation with balls of wool and tells me that she’s hiking the entire South West Coast Path.
Hannah has taken two months off for this project, but she laughs: “At work, they probably wouldn’t even have noticed that I am not there.” I suspect some procurement and controlling department in the far-flung branches of municipal bureaucracy. But no, Hannah is a producer with the BBC, responsible for television series like Top Gear and Cars of the People. People who thunder through the Jordanian desert in 250-horsepower cars or tackle the world’s most difficult alpine road at work apparently long for nature and tranquility in their free time.
We don’t even ask each other if we want to continue hiking together, but simply remain in conversation as we leave the sheep behind. And for lunch, we share corn, salad and bread. Disappointingly, the chicken is raw, because I only had eyes for the price when I was shopping. Useless. (Both the decapitated chicken and mindless me).
Just past the sheep, in Mother Ivey’s Bay, there is a hangar like out of a James Bond movie. A ramp leads out of the sea to a building on stilts, apparently for smugglers’ boats. From the coastal path, it can only be reached by a steep staircase.
Until I realize that this is not the launchpad for nefarious fishing expeditions, but for heroic rescue missions.
On a sunny day with calm waters, it looks like fun. But the volunteers with the Royal National Lifeboat Institution RNLI are usually called to sea when there’s a storm. It storms a lot and often and violently in the waters around the British Isles. (Incidentally, one reason for Brexit was that bureaucrats in Brussels wanted to regulate wave heights and ban storms on weekends.)
Other types of maritime disasters are supposed to be prevented by lighthouses, like the one at Trevose Head.
In the old days, you could always stop by the lighthouse keeper for a grog and a pipe, but nowadays these gizmos are all electrified, automated and remote-controlled. The former lighthouse keeper’s cottage is a vacation home.
Hannah has a tent with her, but in between she stays with friends, many of whom conveniently live in small harbor towns on the coast. Today she stays in Porthcothan, so I’m alone again for the rest of the day.
That’s what I like about the long-distance paths in Britain. The trails are not crowded, so you are happy to meet other hikers. You get to talk to each other. You share food and tips. You hike together for a few hours until someone wants to walk faster or slower, take more breaks, or just prefers peace and quiet again. Everything is very informal. If you’re hiking in the same direction, maybe you’ll meet up again later. If not, then not.
I envy Hannah, because she didn’t take a single photo during the whole walk together. She just enjoys the moments. For herself. As she said: “The photo never captures the mood anyway, the waves, the salt, the exhaustion.”
That’s true freedom!
But I’m burdened with this blog and demanding readers around the world, so I documented a bit of the afternoon walk for you as well.
On this stretch, Mawgan Porth is a good place to swim in the sheltered bay and to refuel with fish & chips.
Because the next place, Watergate Bay, is as unsuitable for this as one could imagine. As you can see from afar, judging by the poor architectural taste, there is pretentiousness in the air and on the table. Normal food? Normal prices? Not here. “I hope that bloody Jamie Oliver will go bankrupt!” I scream into the wind, angry about the menu, with its prices unaffordable for ordinary working people, let alone those depending on welfare.
(That was in early May 2019. Two weeks later, the restaurant chain did indeed file for bankruptcy. So, beware of my curses criticizing capitalism!)
I catch sight of Newquay, but the coastline is so rugged that my sweet temporary home is still hours away. Hopefully I’ve left enough cat food for Bigfoot. (Although he looks like he could easily do with a day’s diet.)
On Saturday evening, the town is visibly more crowded than usual. Weekend, May, sunshine, some festival, all this makes the people flock to Newquay.
The visitors are different than in the rest of Cornwall. Fewer pensioners who come to paint in watercolors. More English underclass, wearing shorts far too early in the year and not letting the cold get to them because, after all, you only go to the seaside once a year. Parents who don’t have a free hand for the outstretched hand of the girl balancing on the harbor wall because they are busy with their cell phones.
“Newquay is pretty rough and run-down, isn’t it?” Hannah had asked, and anyone who can translate British politeness will guess what she really means. But I have to disagree. Newquay is not St Ives, but neither is it a Brazilian favela.
Sure, there are such rotten corners. But there are also very beautiful and cozy spots. The park under the railroad viaduct, for example. Or the park with a pond, where I sit down exhausted after every hike, soak up some sun and chat with people.
I still commit the faux pas of referring to England instead of Cornwall, which regularly leads to rebuke. Helpfully, however, in English, not Cornish.
“What makes the difference between England and Cornwall?” I ask curiously.
The answers remain vague for the most part.
“We are friendly people, with a sense of community.”
“Life is more chilled here.”
“Look at the beaches! Isn’t it beautiful here?”
Sometimes I get the impression that England is synonymous with London, the stressful big city, where people reluctantly go when they have to appear in court or before a parliamentary committee. The fact that most of England is also green and pretty and laid-back doesn’t even occur to the southwestern patriots.
“We have a sense of identity and pride and place.”
This is true everywhere else, but the statement unintentionally sums up how most nations come into being: By wanting them to come into being and firmly believing that they will.
When I ask if anyone speaks Cornish, there is an embarrassed silence. In the 18th century, the language died out, and now there are some attempts to artificially revive it.
To what purpose? Well, for identity and pride and things like that.
“We old people still have a hard time with it, but the children, they grow up with Cornish. They learn it all by themselves,” the gentlemen in the park hope, but I think they might be a tad too optimistic there.
In addition to its uselessness, the Cornish language project suffers from the fact that there are three different variants of Neo-Cornish that not only cannot communicate with each other, but are downright enemies. (More on Cornish terrorism in chapter 34.)
But they all agree on one thing: “We are definitely not English!”
Oh, you must be curious what Cornish actually sounds like. Here it is:
Honestly, this seems to be more of an alcoholic than a linguistic project.
One afternoon in the park, I carelessly mention that I am studying history. That gives new rise to the enthusiasm among the older gentlemen:
“Dumnonia was already autonomous under the Romans.”
“Tamar River is one of the oldest borders in Europe.”
“When the West Saxons conquered Devon, Cornwall remained independent.”
“Even King Æthelstan recognized that.”
“The Mappa Mundi mentions Cornwall separately, as one of the few regions in Britain.”
“Same on Sebastian Münster’s map.”
“Only Mercator got it wrong, the old geezer,” says one of the old geezers.
“Virgil already mentioned us as a separate nation in his Anglica Historia.” I wouldn’t have thought that the men in the park were that old.
This, by the way, is only the short version, as far as I still remembered it later. Because I don’t dare to pull out my notebook. Normally, I fear that the presentation of this instrument of inquisition will silence my interlocutors. But in this circle, I am sure that it would have the opposite effect and would lead to lectures as long as a Cornish mile. But trust me: Even with all the details, the story wouldn’t make more sense.
“Queen Elizabeth II only insists that Cornwall be part of England because that way, she could bestow the Duchy of Cornwall on her son.”
“As a consolation prize,” laughs another.
“Whose tax collectors squeeze us like a lemon,” pouts yet another.
In the course of the increasingly heated discussion, it turns out that the current queen cannot really be at fault for the complicated constitutional construction of Cornwall, because the duchy was created in 1337 to provide a private colony for the respective prince of Wales (currently Prince Charles). Just like the Congo for the Belgian king.
The gentlemen then speak of bailiffs, rights of escheat, royal fish and tin levies, of which I understand nothing at all, as always when Britons fall back on precedents from the Middle Ages to justify current rights or wrongs.
An example, and let’s stick with tin levies for a moment: In 2000, a Revived Cornish Stannary Parliament walked onto the stage, declaring itself the successor to the Cornish Stannary Parliament, a representative body of Cornish tin miners, somehow established by royal charter in 1201, which had last convened in 1753. By British standards, that’s the day before yesterday. This body calculated that the Duchy of Cornwall had collected too much tax in the period from 1337 to 1837, and filed a claim for 20 billion pounds.
The bill was sent to Prince Charles, who is however not authorized to sell parts of the Duchy of Cornwall, because he is only the trustee. (In fact, no one has that right, which is why the duchy cannot be dissolved, but instead – because of the bona vacantia rules on ownerless property – accumulates more and more real estate.) Thus, he could only collect the money through higher feudal charges or taxes, meaning that the people of Cornwall would have to finance the compensation themselves. The case of Cornwall v Cornwall has been pending in the High Court ever since, and will probably continue to do so for as long as the case of Jarndyce v Jarndyce.
If all this is too confusing for you, you definitely shouldn’t order cognitive dissonance for lunch.
Still, it tasted good. Fish should really only be eaten with a view of the sea or the lake from which it was taken that morning.
Newquay also has a harbor, of course, from where fishermen go into battle every day against the EU fishing armada, fighting a cod war.
In former times, this was quite an important industrial port, but with the change from sailing to steam navigation, this chapter was over. Now, with Brexit, good old smuggling is likely to become a boom business again.
The fishermen are happy to take you on a tour, starting at £ 15 for two hours. You get to keep the catch, so it can turn into a profitable journey. I’m thinking of going to sea with them, just for Bigfoot’s sake. But I don’t want to hold an ugly sunfish in my hands, nor fall into the clutches of a basking shark.
Instead, I recommend the really good ice cream from Oggy Oggy, which, together with fish & chips, constitutes my balanced diet.
A heavy stone commemorates the Beatles’ visit to Newquay in 1967, where they filmed the movie “Magical Mystery Tour”, a film so terribly bad that it has rightfully been forgotten.
At the moment, they must be filming a surfing movie, because every day surfboards are being carried around town by exactly the kind of people you’d expect to see in surfing movies: tanned long-haired guys, girls with freckles, all with tattooed compasses so they don’t get lost, and all unhealthily thin and muscular.
Also, surfing seems to be so boring that you can only endure it under the influence of drugs.
While I am sitting on the beach, smoking a cigar, the surfer chicks think that I have built a particularly badass joint. After several flirting looks, which I don’t take seriously because the girls are clearly too young and too attractive for me, two of them dare to walk over to me.
Damn, it’s too late to run away now. I just hope they don’t want to recruit me for their stupid movie.
“Hey.” (I guess that’s how you say hello in the surfing community.)
“How long are you staying here?”
“Oh cool, then we’ll see each other around.”
“That would be great,” I say, because it’s okay to lie to young people.
To be on the safe side, I promptly get up and continue the walk along the South West Coast Path, which conveniently passes through Newquay, unsurprisingly always along the coast.
It’s nice that the entire coastline has been kept clear for the trail. The buildings are somewhat set back, sparse and – except in Watergate Bay (chapter 15) – never ostentatious.
Again and again, wooden crosses mark where hikers have strayed from the trail.
Because the morbid readership wants to inspect the exact scene of the calamity, and because I haven’t done anything stupid yet today, I climb down the cliff onto a small but seemingly stable ledge.
The grass is so deep and thick and fresh and soft that I would love to fall asleep here, even though I have a house with a bed and cat at my disposal. The soft green hugs the body like those couches that adapt to the shape of your body. There are even little grass hills that work perfectly as head and arm rests. In the store, people pay € 1499 for something like this, here I only pay one euro for the cigar to make the perfection complete. Hopefully, I won’t set the grassy coast ablaze.
Maybe that’s why so many homeless people come to Cornwall?
People who become homeless in Glasgow or in Newcastle apparently take a look at the sad British weather forecast, see only one little sun smiling shyly over Cornwall, and hitchhike southwest. But sunshine and temperature are almost meaningless figures here. The power of the wind alone determines how much you freeze.
Usually, I find my way around quickly wherever I go. One long walk around town, east, west, north, south, and I can answer tourists’ questions about how to get to the beach or the train station. But in Newquay, it takes me a few days.
That’s because of the promontory peninsulas that extend far into the sea, turning my exploratory walks, which consistently follow the coastline, into hour-long endeavors, only to end up, confusingly, almost where I started. And because of the Gannel, south of town, which I first deem to be a river, although it is an estuary. I don’t know what that is, either, and that ignorance will take bitter revenge in chapter 39.
Actually, it is only a riverbed in which one can hike and ride horses. Of the water marked on the map, only a trickle can be seen, across which leads a path of stone blocks.
And the southern shore is beautiful. Hardly any construction, but colorful flowers sprouting with happiness. A peaceful flock of sheep has been so startled by a tractor that it rushes across the slope, bleating wildly.
A more impressive cross than for those who accidentally rolled off the cliff (chapter 25) has been erected for the sons of Newquay who lost their lives on the cliffs of Gallipoli, on Okinawa or on Gold Beach in the struggle against emperors, fascism and other evil.
Aden 1964 and the Falklands 1982 are still added below the dead of World War II, but a new plaque has been added for Afghanistan, as if expecting the military campaign there to last forever. Only 20 more years and we will be able to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the First Anglo-Afghan War.
As I walk back to Newquay, enjoying the sunset, the two surfer chicks from chapter 23 catch sight of me.
But one of them is reading a book, which makes me curious. Besides, they’re alone now. Their surfing buddies probably had to go to bed early.
The book is “The Reckoning,” I realize as I approach.
“Are you studying law?” I ask, because who else reads books by John Grisham.
“Yeah!” they exclaim enthusiastically, introducing themselves as Kensa (23) and Jessica (25), as if their respective age should mean anything to me.
How neat! Finally I found experts with whom I can continue the constitutional-historical discussion from chapter 20. Unfortunately, it soon turns out that with their lawyer robes, they have also disrobed themselves of all legal knowledge. Girls in bathing suits are not good conversation partners. Fortunately, I remember that I urgently need to feed and cuddle the cat.
In a side street from the Sainsbury supermarket, there are two down-and-out men sitting on the sidewalk, marked by poverty, alcohol and perhaps worse. I can’t spare the requested change, but I have some time. Alex and Craig introduce themselves, we formally shake hands. They ask where I am from. “From Germany,” I reply, and Alex is delighted: “Like Heisenberg! Guten Tag.”
It remains unclear whether he knows the physicist personally or whether he once studied physics, because Craig keeps interrupting him.
Alex stands up so that we can walk a few steps further and apologizes for his buddy, who unfortunately has psychological problems. “That’s why I’m on the road with him. He needs someone to protect him.”
Old-fashioned solidarity, the kind that probably only exists among the poor. Charles Dickens was right about that.
But Alex is no longer completely sober either, because five times he asks me what my name is, and five times he shakes my hand to introduce himself.
Craig heaves up his body, which is wrapped in far too many sweaters, and a lighter falls from his hand. Instinctively, I pick it up and hand it back to him. This has apparently never happened to either of them before, because they keep mentioning it, as if to reassure themselves that it’s true: “Did you see that? The gentleman picked up my lighter.”
As we say goodbye, they thank me warmly and effusively: “You really are a good person.” Craig hugs me like a bear.
They don’t even ask for money anymore. It’s obvious how rarely anyone treats them as humans. Yet, it would be so easy. Just talk for a few minutes, look each other in the eye, show no fear or loathing, but interest. And please don’t tell me that you don’t have time for that.
The next day is another hiking day, this time from Perranporth to Newquay, about 20 km.
The beach in Perranporth is not exactly crowded, but if you have a dog, you have to go out even when it’s cloudy. Whereby the nominally colder and cloudier day again turns out to be milder than a sunny but windy day.
The beach is so long and wide that ten thousand people could walk twenty thousand dogs without it becoming crowded. And between them, there would still be enough room for two Marine divisions to land.
The Marines come to mind because Perranporth beach is as treacherous as the beaches in Normandy. Small rivulets of water are criss-crossing the sand, suddenly filling up around you and cutting you off from land. Then, you have to run back quickly and take another path. Or daringly jump over a channel that has just appeared. Or get wet.
All over the world, the 24-hour cycle is divided into day and night. At the equator this rhythm is stable, closer to the poles it varies with the seasons, but the principle is the same all around the globe.
On the coasts of Cornwall, another phenomenon divides the day: low tide and high tide.
“So what? You’re not a ship, are you?” readers in the mountain regions are wondering, thinking of low and high tide as the difference between a full and an empty bathtub.
But for hikers, knowledge of the tides is of vital importance, a matter of life or death. Because when the sea expands at high tide, it claims the space that landscape planners actually set aside for recreation. Thus, it can happen that you spot a wide bay with a sandy beach, imposingly enclosed by steep cliffs, take a nap there – and a few hours later, you are washed away.
I have to decide whether to take the path over the cliffs or walk barefoot over the sand. The bay looks peaceful, so I choose the surfer’s path instead of the via ferrata.
Whenever you are exactly in the middle of the bay (which is 3 km wide in this instance), the spring tide comes rushing in, and you run for your life towards the cliffs, hoping to find a place to climb up.
And climb you must, because the tide here is not measured in bathtubs. It brings more than 7 meters of additional water! That’s like a two-story building. If the cliffs are too steep, and they often are, you die.
An alternative is to run towards one of the rocks jutting out of the sea and hold out there until the tide goes out. But of course, as a stranger to the area, I don’t know which rocks or sandbanks protect you from the tide and which don’t. So, I would probably stand in the sea and just drown more slowly and less dramatically instead of slamming into the rocks.
Smart hikers have a cell phone with them for such cases, to call the sea rescue. Repeatedly, I see low-flying helicopters rescuing helpless dogs and their owners from hungry sharks.
But if you know me, you know that I absolutely abhor the thought of bothering someone else because of a self-inflicted predicament.
Besides, as you can see from the last photos, I just managed to climb up the steep rocks. It’s amazing what nimbleness and dexterity the approaching water brings to light. Like a water-shy cat, I sprinted up the almost vertical cliff.
Henceforth, I shall only hike on top of the cliffs and not be lured into supposedly romantic bays, not even if a mermaid were to show up.
But up here lurks another danger, around the clock, regardless of weather and tide. You look out over the sea, peer into the clouds, pick a few flowers, and suddenly a crater opens up, as if the wildflowers had been the last thread holding the earth’s crust together.
I don’t know why people travel all the way to Turkmenistan to see that fire pit, when here, the gate to hell opens at every turn. And right next to the hiking trail. Without a warning sign, without a protective fence. That’s how capitalism works. Ships have lighthouses guiding them to safety, but people are left to disappear and die.
Or maybe the holes were dug on purpose.
In chapter 19 I already announced it – now we have come to the darkest chapter in this report: Cornish terrorism.
When one has been arguing, discussing, publishing and litigating for an independent Cornwall for centuries (see chapter 20), it is inevitable that even among the most good-natured peoples of this earth, some will run out of patience. We know from ISIS and the Republican Party how quickly one can become radicalized.
The Cornish terrorist groups are called An Gof, named after the blacksmith Michael An Gof – you know, the leader of the 1497 uprising -, Cornish National Liberation Army and Cornish Republican Army. They’ve already set fires in a barbershop, in a bingo hall, and in one of the detested snooty restaurants, but always at night, so that no one gets hurt. Apart from that, they tear down English flags, and in Tressilian, they are even said to have once sprayed anti-English graffiti on a garden wall in 2007.
In 2017, the Cornish Republican Army claimed that a female suicide bomber was ready to give her life for Cornwall. However, they had not yet found a suitable target and they did not want to waste the young woman’s life pointlessly. Probably the terrorists are waiting for the next bingo championship under the English flag.
I can imagine that at international terrorist conferences, the Cornish brothers are not taken quite seriously.
But onward with the hike, because today it is so cloudy that I – as always having left the house without a watch – have no idea if it’s still feasible to make it to Newquay before nightfall. With all the nasty floods and climbing, my progress is way behind my non-existent plan.
Today, I don’t meet any hiking and conversation partners. Everyone else on the path already has company, either human or canine. The shepherds do not like to see the dogs, by the way, because the sheep are apparently so pacifistic that they let themselves be mauled by a dachshund, as a cruel photo on a fence vividly illustrates.
West of Hollywell, huge holes gape in the cliffs, so rectangular they look unnatural. Like submarine bases.
An association that is reinforced by the military base that I am walking past. But even here, enough space has been left between the barracks and the sea for the hiking trail. Priorities. Walking takes precedence over war, nature over NATO.
However, the base looks like it hasn’t been used since World War II. And maybe not even then. Because starting in 1939, a number of mock villages, mock airports and mock barracks were built in Britain to attract German bombs and thus protect real villages, airports and barracks. At the mock airports, lights went on and off constantly, and radio traffic was simulated to feign busy air traffic. One man who was fooled by this was Rudolf Hess. But then, he was guided by even more far-reaching misconceptions about Great Britain when he crashed into a meadow disguised as an airport.
Even those who remain strictly on the path are not safe from falling into a sudden abyss.
The United Kingdom is consistently losing territory. Sometimes large chunks at a time, as in North America in 1776, India in 1947 and Scotland in the next referendum. But more often, small stretches of coastline drift off to independence. Erosion, like so much that sounds erotic at first glance, is destructive and avaricious. With its wet claws, it tears shreds out of the island, not minding whether people still live there or not.
I’ve always told you: Don’t invest in real estate!
Back to the hike, which will hopefully take me back to Newquay before nightfall. If I read the map correctly, I only have to climb one more hill, cross the riverbed of the dried-up Gannel, and I’m home, where Bigfoot is already waiting for me to spend the whole evening in front of the TV, with him in my lap.
But behind the last hill, it becomes complicated. Unlike the night, the tide doesn’t come once, but twice every 24 hours. And not every day at the same time. And, of course, at different times at each section of the coast. Bookstores sell a booklet that predicts the exact low tide and high tide times for all beaches, harbors and lighthouses, but the tables look like you can’t understand anything without a degree from the Naval Academy.
If I had a captain’s license from Dartmouth, I would have known what an estuary is. It’s something between a river delta and a firth. And now I know why the little stream needs such a huge riverbed: It fills up twice a day with the water masses washed in by the boisterous tide.
Unfortunately, this is happening right now.
My way back is cut off.
The pegs mark where the path would otherwise be, but it is already more than a meter under water. Well, I could still wade through and get wet, but there’s another problem: The water level is rising incessantly, and strong currents are pushing inland.
From minute to minute, I am cut off more.
I am doing some emergency calculations: High tide twice a day, low tide twice a day. So a flood lasts at least 6 hours. It should be about 6 p.m. now, and the tide is just beginning. That means I’d have to wait until after midnight for the tide to go out again, and then venture through the treacherous estuary in the dark.
No, that’s too risky, even I concede that.
Instead, I must first climb back up the hill to safety, and then run inland in a race against the tide. If I’m faster than the water, I’ll eventually have to reach a place where I can still wade through the riverbed. (Or get stuck in quicksand and drown.)
The valley is filling up with water relentlessly. Again and again, I descend from the hills, hoping to cross from south to north, from danger to safety, from wilderness to home. But each time, the water is already there, as if it was mocking my feeble attempts.
Each time I have to retreat disappointed, losing yet more valuable time in the race against the tide. The water masses pushing in from the Atlantic Ocean are much faster than I could ever be, even forgoing smoke breaks.
In the end, I have no choice but to detour for several miles and hours until I reach a road that leads safely across the waterway.
Of course, the problem could be solved by building a high bridge at the mouth of the Gannel. But whenever I suggest that, the people of Newquay say, “What for?” “But there’s never been a bridge.” “Nobody needs that.” Apparently, when you live here, the tides become second nature and you glide through the aquatic confusion with somnambulistic confidence.
The next day, I take the bus to Perranporth to walk further west along the South West Coast Path. For that, I don’t have to remember any tide times, but only when the last bus will return to Newquay.
From Perranporth, the track goes so steeply uphill that I am glad to find a bench at the top of the cliffs with a wide view over the morning sea. Time for the first break, after about 20 minutes of walking.
The bench stands in front of a cottage, which hopefully never spoils its view by watching news like those in chapter 38.
I am wondering who lives here, when – as if to prove that Cornwall is even smaller than the proverbial small world – Hannah steps out of the cottage, backpack shouldered and full of energy. “This is a youth hostel,” she explains, “and one of the nicest I’ve ever stayed at.” A small fence has been drawn around the campsite in the garden for safety’s sake; one could fall down a few meters, after all.
Hannah is only walking a short distance today because she’s staying with friends in St Agnes. That’s on my way, and so we head west together, often dangerously close to the cliffs.
I should really tell fewer stories and pay more attention to the way, otherwise I myself become the story, against which, as this blog testifies, I have no objections in principle, but for which I prefer, if not a Hollywood cliché happy ending, then at least the unharmed survival of the protagonist.
The tin industry has also fallen to its death, not least because of the feudal lord’s overtaxation mentioned in chapter 20. If Prince Charles were not so rapacious, the hammers would still be beating, the furnaces glowing and the coins jingling.
Now, only the bats flutter up in fright as we climb through the ruins.
St Agnes is the kind of place I would walk by without giving it a second thought if I hadn’t seen on the map that it has a church, a library and even a pub.
At the Railway Inn, however, it is as silent when we enter as if we were interrupting a funeral. The two men at the counter continue to look deep into their beers. The innkeeper comes out of the kitchen and informs us that there is no lunch, not even feigning regret.
We move on to the Miners & Mechanic Institute, where friendly women serve cheerful healthy food in a colorful café.
Such cafés also make long-distance walks in Great Britain a pleasure. You’ll find them in small towns, providing an aura as if stepping into a living room, seeing themselves more as a meeting place for conversation than a commercial enterprise. The menu is handwritten. The mother is in the kitchen, and when the food is ready, the daughter gets up from her schoolwork to bring it to the table. Watercolors, pottery and knitted gloves are for sale. Often to collect money for a community member who has been diagnosed with cancer or lost a leg. There are books to borrow or to take home. A brochure from St Agnes Writers Club invites people to contribute poems for the next anthology. Too bad they’re not looking for travel writers.
Two ladies at the next table are talking about the people who have fallen off the cliffs in recent days.
“The three teenagers who tried to climb the fence to the festival, that’s sad.”
“And the boy who was walking along the wall of an old brickyard and fell off the cliff at the end.”
“The rescue crews were busy for five hours!”
“I saw the helicopter.”
“He’s in the hospital. He’ll never be able to live carefree again, they say.”
“At least he’s not dead.”
“I don’t know.”
“In Newquay, somebody fell into the sea last week.”
“But that was a tourist.”
“The tourists are really the dumbest ones.”
And that was when I recognized the folly of what I had been doing. As a bus turned up in front of the café, I ran outside, hopped on and flew to Bavaria, a safe 1000 km away from the sea.