“Everybody’s gotta be somewhere!”
When I told a neighbour on the Isle of Man that I was moving to live in Germany he advised me that the Manx are “bored abroad” and that the troubles of the world are caused by people who don’t stay where they are put. There is more than a smidgen of truth in the anecdote about the Manx crab:
A tourist warns a fisherman on the pier that one of the crabs in his crab box is about to climb out and escape. The fisherman tells him not to worry because they are Manx crabs and as soon as it looks like one of them is going to get out, the others gang up and pull him back down to their level.
In 1880 John Ruskin wrote to the Manx artist John Miller Nicholson, “You are cramped and chilled by Isle of Mannishness, you ought to take a knapsack on your shoulder, a grey paper book, half a dozen colours and a piece of chalk and so walk to Naples and back.” (Thanks to Alan Kelly at Mannin Collections for filling in the blanks in my memory of this quote.)
When deciding where to live in Germany I looked for edges. I was born a few yards from the high tide line and lived on the shore for 55 years. I come from a family of seafarers and am fascinated by geography. I have an affinity with, and awareness of the close connection of all the places at the thin edge and feel remote from the dark places in the middle. Wherever I am on the coast I have a sense of precisely where I am on the globe and find it easy to visualise a connection to any and all the other places on the blue edge.
I have always felt perfectly at home sitting on a rock or pier or walking a beach anywhere on the coast of Europe. In Facing the Ocean (Oxford University Press – Jan 2001), Barry Cunliffe describes historic communities and common Celtic culture that stretched along the European Atlantic coast. He argues that the peoples of the Atlantic rim all share a cultural identity shaped by the Atlantic Ocean, an identity which stretches back almost ten thousand years.
Old nautical charts may identify dangerous uncharted waters with “here be monsters” but worse fates were in store if you pushed inland as “here be witches” and “here be dragons”.
As a child all the great adventures were stories of the sea and my Sunday School prize books for attendance were eagerly anticipated. Treasure Island, Coral Island, Robinson Crusoe and Kidnapped. But our horror stories, the stuff of nightmares were all in the grim illustrated fairy tale book with its dark forests, witches, trolls, goblins, pied pipers,wolves and vampires. To this day I avoid the sinister circuses, clowns, harlequins and masked carnivals.
The heart of darkness
I have looked through family papers and found no record of my grandparents’ families ever venturing any distance inland. This was hardly surprising given that over a period of 70 years there were seven pilots in the family, on the Manchester Ship Canal, Thames, Firth of Forth and Liverpool. From age 14 my grandfather had sailed to many ports around the world but the furthest he was ever from the sea was when he piloted ships through the canal from Liverpool to Manchester. He was sunk 3 times in WW1 , twice by U boats, once by a mine. Strangely, some 30 years later, on the 12th July 1945 he ventured well inland, into the heart of darkness (Manchester) when he piloted the only German submarine, U1023, to transit the Manchester Ship Canal.
But you don’t need to go far away from the sea to be lost inland. In his poem The Pleiades (included in The Ghost Orchid, Jonathon Cape 1995), the Irish poet Michael Longley describes a 90 year old woman who lived in the middle of the Isle of Man and who had never seen the sea.
The thin bits at the edge were discovered and charted long before the interiors. Graham Robb describes in his fascinating book The Discovery of France (Picador, 2007) how:
“..even at the end of the nineteenth century ….. wild people were said to descend into market towns wearing goatskins and speaking their own incomprehensible language.”
Robb describes how an expedition discovered the Verdon Gorges in 1905 and the publication in 1906 of the description of the expedition as “a revelation of the nation’s ignorance of itself”.
Cooler at the edge
For our move to Germany the obvious location, the northern coast was ruled out on a few counts. Too far from Bavarian family and populated by the unclean northern Germans and from my point of view, if Erskine Childer is to be believed, hidden for most of the year by cold banks of fog hiding terrors and based on the evidence of my walk around the west coast of Denmark, washed by brown muddy waters.
That left only the western edge and so it was to be a life on the border, beside the navigable Rhine where the river makes a long long thin opening to the sea.
At Breisach, from the Celtic for breakwater, I can make my connections and visualise my map while watching the barges pushing up from the salty stuff at Rotterdam.
This sunny south-eastern corner has something nearer to a Mediterranean climate. When looking south-west through the Belfort Gap I have a sense that the watershed is close and that it is pretty much all downstream on the bike along the Rhone to Marseilles.
My earliest memories are of falling asleep to the lullaby, the long low note of the fog horn in the knowledge, in summer at least, that the next day would be calm in the bay. This aural history was lost with the decommissioning of the foghorn by the Northern Lights.
In Breisach the fog horn is replaced by the church bells alerting the faithful and warning the rest of us to keep clear of the dangerous religious waters.
From the top of the Vulkanfelsen vineyards on the southern slopes of the Kaiserstuhl, the full length of the rocky outcrop of Breisach can be seen and with the Munster at the upstream end it is easy to visualise this great stone barge stemming the Rhine floods in the days before canalisation.
From the hill the sun sets over the Vosges mountains and with a glass of Vulkanfelsen Spätburgunder in hand I can imagine it setting in turn over the Atlantic 800km due west, at Carnac. Having crossed France a few times on the bike I know it will be a week’s ride before I can put up the tent on the beach and play with the waves.
From T.F.Eccles to Manx dialect poet T E Brown
“..a thinkin’ of nothin’, but down at the tide
Singin’ out for the happy you feel inside…”.