millbank headwind

Returning to London as a cyclist is like coming home. When I was little we’d often cycle as a family – down to Dulwich to visit grandparents, or every week to the Sumics music group off the Caledonia Road; every school morning for two years my dad would put me on the back of the tandem and take me down to Essex Road station, and my mum had taught me to handle the Old Street roundabout (killer of a dozen cyclists a year) aged about ten (which was, on reflection, genuinely insane.)

However, as an adult doing his own thing fifteen years later, this is a new and exciting world. Lessons learned among the Velocipede Squad:

  • The “cycling superhighways” are actually genuinely fantastic. My first ride from Paddington down to Vauxhall had maybe five hundred metres of road shared with vehicles; all the rest was segregated cycletrack, almost all of it offroad. It’s an approach I’ve never seen in Britain before, done properly: cyclists are treated like actual people. No, better than people. Like cars.
  • A lot of London cyclists take it seriously. The cult of spandex is in full force here, and its adherents are everywhere, dolled up in fetish gear and humping two grand of carbon fibre at warp five. The Millbank peloton makes me feel small, slow, afraid, low-vis and unreflective. It stings.
  • Fortunately, the Dutch/Danish baseline approach of “it’s too far to walk and too nice a day to get the metro, let’s use this legitimate method of two-wheeled transport with our normal clothes” isn’t extinct. Boris bikes (which should really be named Ken bikes, but what the hell) are a very important and very visible enabler of this, and comprise maybe a quarter of the bikes on the morning commute.
  • Probably due to a lack of proper hills, many London cyclists have no clue how to use their gears. There’s always some dipshit standing on his pedals. Always.
  • The Millbank peloton forcing its way onto the MI5 roundabout, against right of way and in the face of actual motor vehicles, by sheer force of numbers and overwhelming impatience, is a bizarre and terrifying thing to see.
  • There are some truly superb calves and arses on display on my usual route to work. Given the unisex nature of cycling cult gear, it’s often hard to ascertain the gender of their owners, which probably badly confuses and upsets some people.
  • HGVs on London roads move gently, tentatively, clearly very aware of the terrible damage they can do. People are surprisingly polite to buses, and buses are surprisingly polite in return. There is an intense, passionate mutual hatred between cabbies and cyclists.
  • There’s a neat little initiative Lambeth Council are running, creating cycling spaces out of parking spaces with custom-made lockable sheds you can ask for a space in. I registered a request when I first moved here, was told to expect a response soon, and several months later haven’t had it. Apparently there’s a vast backlog because the contractor doing it is the only one in the UK capable of building lockable sheds, and Lambeth are utterly unable to compel any sort of performance out of them. Classic public-private partnership.
  • There are still far, far too many prick cyclists who think they’re too cool for red lights and will sail through in full view of everyone, including across surges of moving traffic and through pedestrians crossing the road. Annoyingly, they usually survive, so I move for a programme of public crucifixions.
  • My boss pointed out that most drivers in central London are professionals: chauffeurs, bus drivers, van drivers, taxi drivers, lorry drivers. On reflection, it shows. Private vehicles are actually in the minority, which is a blessing. I don’t want to be either in or around a regular car.
  • I’m not really frightened of cars hitting me, because in the tight confines nothing goes fast enough to do any serious damage. I am however terrified of being crushed between them, and the godawful lanewreck around Parliament Square requires being between lanes for most of it. Not fun.
  • Either the lanes on the southbound side of Whitehall heading onto Parliament Square need better marking, or they’re putting something in the water, as there’s not once I’ve followed it without five idiots in the wrong lane indicating and trying to shoulder their way in.

hey ho, on the devil’s mount


"Sorry, your listening post is on another hill."
“Sorry, your listening post is on another hill.”

In Grunewald, overlooking much of west Berlin, stands a steep green hill called Teufelsberg. This means “devil’s mount”, and while the ominous associations lift for a moment on learning the name was after the nearby Teufelssee (“devil’s lake”), they return full force on learning that the hill is not natural, but artificial, built from the ruins of a dead Berlin. Between round-the-clock aerial bombing from the RAF and USAAF, and the Red Army taking the city a street at a time with rifle, hand-grenade and 203mm siege howitzer, Berlin was more rubble than city in 1945; and when the Cold War began in earnest, the blockaded West Berlin had no way of shipping its remains beyond city limits. Thus: a giant hill made of piled-up destroyed buildings, with an indestructible Nazi training college underneath it, and an odd observatory-looking NATO listening post on top.

I hadn’t even intended to go to Teufelsberg, but the Technikmuseum and the Gatow airbase were both closed on Mondays for whatever weird Berlin reason, so Plan C it was. Navigating was more difficult than it should have been; Google Maps’ listed paths are almost, but not quite, entirely unlike reality. Realising this and adopting the traditional hill-climbing method of “up”, I accidentally stormed up the smaller Drachenberg instead, and after spending a while catching my breath on the windy open plateau there, had to come halfway down again in the blazing sun. Still, it was a lovely walk; trees have been planted on Teufelsberg, the leafmould and wild grass have covered the detritus of the war. It feels like any other wooded hill, but where the path wears away to the bones of the land beneath, it’s not rock that is exposed, but brick, concrete and rebar.

Count how many times the fence has been broken and then repaired. Or, go insane trying. Either's good.
Count how many times the fence has been broken and then repaired. Or, go insane trying. Either’s good.


Ascending the much more heavily wooded Teufelsberg, for real this time, I couldn’t work out what the actual status of the listening post was. A website offering tours said it had shut down and I couldn’t find its successor; Wikipedia gave a very muddy and uninspiring account; and coming to a fence at the top, whose many, many repairs showed evidence of a constant, vicious running battle between fence-maintainers and people with wire cutters, made me no more optimistic. But persevering along the path I found a gate, where several extremely scruffy-looking people with beanbags and a small child asked me for money. As it turned out, the complex has been overrun with hippie-ish squatters who charge entrance based on no authority whatsoever. They said €7, €5 for students (and had a clipboard to make it seem all legit). I said I was a student and showed them my young person’s railcard. They were in no real position to argue.

Sub-dome with matching armchair.
Sub-dome with matching armchair.

The squatters have padlocked most of the buildings up (the fucking hypocrites), but what remains is an intriguing post-Cold-War sprawl of lovingly-if-messily maintained gardens, recycling stations and hoards of furniture arranged with Germanic pedanticism, all in the shadows of huge dead NSA structures sprayed with really quite impressive murals in all sorts of lurid colours and degrees of fatuous countercultural nonsense. I don’t know the engineering behind the listening station, and all the significant kit is long gone, but what remains is a series of tall buildings capped with puffball globes made of fibreglass hexagons. The highest and largest building has two lesser globes on the roof of a squat office building, and a single greater one between them, on a tiered column lined with shredded tarpaulins.

Above: Domes. Below: Popular theory as to purpose of domes.
Upper left: Domes. Lower left: Popular theory as to purpose of domes.

Said main building is easily accessible and is basically a graffiti gallery; all very run down, but not stinking of piss, which is a mercy. The roof has been lined with a fence made of wooden forklift pallets, there are separate bins for different recyclables and you just know they empty them every day; very German squatters. There’s no electricity, though, and health & safety is generally thoroughly Ukrainian; to get to the highest point, inside the top dome, you need to climb about fifteen flights of stairs in pitch blackness (thank heaven for the LED function on modern smartphones. The dome itself has almost no views, just a port in it, but the echoes are incredible, and I spent a good fifteen minutes up there whacking pieces of detritus into each other and stamping my feet to see how it would sound.

Leaving, I discovered the fridge of drinks by the clipboard hippies was on an “honour system”, so I donated a euro for a rainbow-labelled COLA-MIX in order to a) rehydrate b) maintain my self-destructive habit of buying oddly named sweet drinks in foreign parts. It wasn’t that bad, in truth. Going downhill was even more of an odyssey than coming up, as I once again put my trust in Google Maps and was once again betrayed. Trying desperately to follow my phone’s directions along paths which weren’t there, I ended up on mountain bike tracks which testified to the daring, not to say total suicidal lunacy, of local mountain bike riders, and ended up at the right place by luck as much as judgment. Overall, I had the time of my life, but it’s probably a good thing I didn’t have anyone else with me; between the steep hills, mild peril and totally improvised navigation, I suspect most companions would have got quite annoyed with it all. But I’ve always found that the best way to have an adventure is to point yourself in the vague direction of something interesting and follow your nose.


Berlin & Northern Germany, 2016



gravity’s rainbow

Prora and Peenemünde are practically adjacent, maybe 40km as the V-1 flies.* However, we were taking the Billmobile, and unlike the V-1 it has no easy way of crossing the twelve of those km which are water. So, after a breakfast of bread, Nutella, cheese and nondescript meat at Prora, we were in for a long drive back across Rügen and the north of Germany – the sky overcast and full of kestrels, the roads well-maintained and punctuated by utter idiots. Peenemünde is, as any fule kno, pretty much the birthplace of modern rocketry: home to the Nazi development programme which spawned the V-1 cruise missile, V-2 ballistic missile, their hundreds of less-well-known but still visionary siblings, and, through captured tech and scientists, the Soviet and American space programmes. In the usual chaotic Nazi way, several separate organisations worked in parallel but not always collectively on rocket-themed tools of destruction. Laboratories, factories and launch sites crowded the island, but most were bombed to powder during the war and the remains thoroughly looted for technical secrets by the occupying Allies.

"Once zer rockets go up, who cares where zey come down? That's not my department," says...
“Once zer rockets go up, who cares where zey come down? That’s not my department,” says…

Peenemünde is a secluded peninsula, suggested by the mother of Nazi rocket genius and karma houdini Wernher von Braun as “just the place for you and your friends”. Like Prora, it’s technically on an island, Usedom, which in this case is part German and part Polish. Usedom has any number of odd little tourist attractions – Wildlife Usedom with a growly tiger, something involving Teutonic knights whose poster had a bunch of them under a wheeling bald eagle (note: bald eagles are not native to the Baltic or, indeed, to Europe), a €7 hall of mirrors. Comprehensively and almost literally overshadowing them is the vast disused power plant housing the Peenemünde museum.

Note the massive Nazi death-rocket in the foreground.
Note the massive Nazi death-rocket in the foreground.

The power plant, built to power the military base (especially the production of liquid oxygen for rocket engines) was at the time of its construction one of the most advanced in the world, with pioneering particle-ionising technology to hide its smoke – the same that’s used now to reduce. It survived the war and the subsequent loopy GDR mismanagement, and is preserved as a “living museum” of the technology – and of the sad state of affairs under communism: the switch from mineral coal to low-grade lignite (all the good coal mines being the other side of the Iron Curtain), then to natural gas, and then back again when East Germany had supply problems with that; the underpaid, overworked plant staff having to jerry-rig** their own sandblasting machines and make wheelbarrows and fenceposts in their off hours to comply with GDR consumer goods requirements. Most of the boilers, the coaling infrastructure and the flue cleaners remain, although the turbines are all gone.

Crane and coal-crusher, from when they could actually get anthracite.
Crane and coal-crusher, from when they could actually get anthracite.

We took a lunch break for currywurst and chips before heading back in, this time for the true attraction: the rocketry museum. The collection was superb, with crumpled nosecones and hull pieces off A-4s (as they insisted on calling V-2s), pulse-jet components off V-1s, and models of all the weirder projects – the effective but aesthetically unbalanced Hs-293, the directly violent-looking Fritz-X, the thoroughly silly Rheintochter, the outright suicidal Me-163. Lots about the Wasserfall missile, an early surface-to-air rocket: its advantages were that unlike the V-2 its fuel could actually be stored, its disadvantages were that it cost as much as the bombers it was intended to destroy, and its terminal guidance system still hadn’t actually been invented when the war was lost.

Right: GPS. Left: GLONASS.
Right: GPS. Left: GLONASS.

It’s a complete museum, technical, conceptual and, inescapably for a war museum in Germany, moral, shot through with (reasonably eloquent, though patchily translated; one reference to “hydraulic” rockets was particularly confusing until we worked out it meant “liquid-fuelled”) comments on “the ambivalence of technology”. A gallery of utopian science-fiction visions and the lives and works of pioneers like Goddard and Tsiolkovsky was paces away from an unflinching look at a world of grim, emaciated slave labourers, striped pyjamas sewn with a pink triangle; in the next room, bricks and dust, wartime newspapers with photos of blitzed-out London streets; and, down the hall, a thoroughly-referenced meditation on mutually assured destruction (with graphs!). I thought the impact of the actual V-weapons was a bit overdone, as the RAF routinely inflicted more death and devastation in a single thousand-bomber raid than everything invented in Peenemünde put together. Actually, the RAF got a look-in, with a room devoted to Operation Hydra – the biggest bombing operation against a single point target (as opposed to a city) of WW2 (and, presumably, of all time). Although Peenemünde was more or less neutralised by the raid, and V-2 production went (literally) underground, it was a poor showing for British aviation; most of the bombs went into the sea, or landed on the slave workers’ barracks. Oops.

V-2 fuel mixing system. Each hole holds an individually milled brass shower head and about twenty smaller milled brass pieces, spraying a vortex of alcohol fuel and liquid oxygen. All this was powered by a large milled aluminium pump which itself required two more types of fuel. No wonder they lost the war.
V-2 fuel mixing system. Each hole holds an individually milled brass shower-head thing and about twenty smaller milled brass pieces, spraying a vortex of alcohol fuel and liquid oxygen. All this was powered by a large milled aluminium pump which itself required two more types of fuel. No wonder they lost the war.

I had been hoping to venture north into the actual ruined launch sites of Peenemunde (breaking through a hole in the a fence and wandering down miles of abandoned road to investigate a bombed-out rocket stand probably still riddled with live ammunition… no, that doesn’t deter me, that’s the point) but Prufstand VII, the most impressive bit, was an irritatingly long way away, and the guides I found were vague as to distances but specific as to the presence of impassable mosquito-ridden bogs. Most importantly, Bill was knackered after two full-on days, especially with another 300km of driving to do. So, next time, I suppose.

"And that was the longest, and that was the end."
“And that was the longest, and that was the end.”

* There are lots of large, confident black-and-grey crows around, along with the hundreds of sparrows, wagtails, blackbirds, swallows, house martens, sedge warblers and various other small nice birds of the Baltic coast. It’s nice.

** Technical term.


Berlin & Northern Germany, 2016
Prora PeenemündeTeufelsberg

the colossus of Rügen

(Click on the images for higher-res versions!)

North of Berlin, the autobahn ran through dense (but orderly) forest and then opened out into broad fields under the grey morning sky. Wind turbines have sprouted across Mecklenburg-Vorpommern like daffodils in spring, their blades striped orange. Occasional showers came down, brief but intense, but by the time we reached the island of Rügen the day was bright and the sky blue. Over the bridge by Stralsund, with its striking Marienkirche and picture-perfect Hanseatic seafront, was Rügen itself, with an unexpected number of of car dealerships and railway lines, and on its east coast, Prora.

Youth hostel in Block V, bottom left; Block IV, largely abandoned, centre; Block III, mostly museums, top right. There are eight blocks; the entire complex is nearly 5km long.
Youth hostel in Block V, bottom left; Block IV, largely abandoned, centre; Block III, mostly museums, top right. There are eight blocks; the entire complex is nearly 5km long.

Prora is a holiday camp of cyclopean proportions, envisioned as a key point for the Nazis’ “Kraft durch Freude” (Strength through Joy) organisation -a mass tourism initiative intended to overcome class divisions by uniting the German Volk in affordable but healthy holidays, with lots of outdoorsy pursuits, hiking, sea cruises etc etc. It appears from history that Hitler learned of the Butlins camps being built in the UK in the mid-late 1930s and, more or less, turned to Albert Speer and said “outdo them.”) The result was a resort built for 20,000 people, continuous blocks of flats punctuated by piers overlooking a huge crescent-shaped beach on the east coast of Rügen. Its completion interrupted by the war, it was used in a vague way by East Germany and mostly abandoned, with large parts in ruins. Part of block V contains the largest youth hostel in Germany; we were in Room 101 (gulp), which as Block VI is now rubble stands as the northernmost surviving part of Prora.

It goes on like this for miles. Literally miles.
It goes on like this for miles. Literally miles.

(The pier structures joining them up were never completed, so the most Prora has ever been is eight separate gigantic blocks of flats; the southernmost and the two northernmost are ruins now, and the remaining five are now numbered, south-north, I-V. With me so far? Good. Here’s a map, the surviving blocks are red on the right.) That block, of which the youth hostel occupies less than a third, is well over half a kilometre long.

The hostel felt rather in keeping with the original KdF intentions – clean, austere, healthy, affordable but with no emphasis on class, with the implication that this was merely for hiking, swimming naked, etc etc etc. * Initially, though, our hopes of exploring Pripyat-like abandoned ruins deflated; the place was much busier, much more orderly and much better fenced off than expected. Sets of Nazi-built bungalows were in regular use, now basically just suburbia; stern, efficient German fencing covered the rest of Block V, and most of what we could see of Block IV had already been redeveopled into some surprisingly nice flats. The foundation of the pier structure between V and IV was just an inaccessible foundation which I barked my knee trying to climb, and the railway-and-technology museum, by the time we reached it, was only open for another half hour and wanted €10 for its single room of cars and trains (although it was a big room, and they did look like quite good cars and trains.) We returned to the hostel for an early dinner, bockwurst and kartoffelsalat – a typically German cheap meal, the sausage nondescript flavourless meat, the potatoes lost in a sea of mayonnaise, but it filled us up and didn’t cost much.

The idealised German tourists, their complexion a healthy bronze.
The idealised German tourists, their complexion a healthy bronze.

We set out again, looking to make the best of it. The pier foundation by our room, between block V and the now-gone block VI, was at least accessible if nothing more than a cartouche of sea-wall overlooking the beach; a statue of two very naked bronze German holidaymakers (the woman with massive shoulders and tits-as-an-afterthought, the man horse-faced and standing, silver spray paint on her nipples and his cock) watch over the actual, considerably less sculpted (in every sense) holidaymakers on the beach. We strolled down the white sands, full of little shells and leftover sandcastles – you can see nothing of the resort from the beach, it’s grown quite a bit since Hitler’s time.

Harbour structure - now just sand, bricks and spray paint.
Harbour structure – now just sand, bricks and spray paint.

At the very centre of Prora’s crescent, between blocks III and IV, stands the pier structure which was meant to take Baltic cruise ships; the superstructure and the jetties were never finished, all that’s left is a graffiti-stained redbrick wall, and inland the site of the Festhall is a tangled wilderness of little pine trees and fragrant pink roses. But, pressing on, we found a proper half-built structure with that tasty crumbling STALKER feel; a look through a shattered window found some sort of abandoned bowling alley, a wriggle under the fence and negotiating with a shattered wall got me in (it was, indeed an abandoned bowling alley). That was a bit better.

Bowling alley! (Of course I went in.)
Bowling alley! (Of course I went in.)

Moving inland along the building revealed the only one of the pier structures actually completed, a long curved Nazi-deco building which contained a fish restaurant and something which advertised itself as a nightclub but looked extremely closed. Beyond it, in Block III, were several now-closed museums, one trying much too hard with its signage to attract us in, the other barely trying at all, and an empty adventure playground/agility course, where healthy young Germans can move from tree to tree along zipwires and suspended platforms, in a death-defying fashion. Moving further along down the coast, we found Block II, half-converted into flats with nice glass balconies. I’d seen some cranes, far, far to the south, from the Block V pier and assumed they were in the town of Binz, south of Prora. They were actually working on Block I – and Block I isn’t even the southernmost part. “Bloody hell, but this place is huge,” I thought, for neither the first nor the last time that day. Even the abandoned ones were quite emphatically fenced off, and mostly building sites; still, we’d seen enough that the trip didn’t feel wasted, and headed back home.

It's difficult to imagine, but there were meant to be sets of these piers at the end of each block. They were double-ended; this is the landward one, but opposite it one would have jutted out into the beaches. As far as I know, this is the only one ever completed.
It’s difficult to imagine, but there were meant to be sets of these piers at the end of each block. They were double-ended; this is the landward one, but opposite it one would have jutted out into the beaches. As far as I know, this is the only one ever completed.

But at last, coming back, we lucked out: the southern end of Block IV, in the process of redevelopment: gutted but accessible, and we wasted no time in going in, climbing to the top floor and wandering around the huge dusty concrete emptiness, enjoying the crumbling construction and the views of the brilliant blue Baltic. There were holes in many of the staircases, it was all thoroughly enjoyable, and we came back to our room late in the long dusk to drink tea and look out over the sea.



* What? It’s not a bad idea just because the Nazis liked it. Hitler was a vegetarian, remember, and I don’t usually accuse my veggie friends of Nazi sympathies.

Berlin & Northern Germany, 2016
Prora – PeenemündeTeufelsberg

the redoubtable beast has had pegasus pills

Following that time back in January I managed to write five hundred words about a backpack, A Materialistic Love-Letter to a Physical Object II: THE BICYCLE.



I’ve never actually had a new new bike. Various second-hand/hand-me-down/shared family bikes (and the tandem) have done me for most of my life and family cycling holidays, with a brief, memorable ride to the Giant’s Causeway on some ankle-shredding pieces of crap we hired from some Ulster wide boy, and a characterful little clunker once borrowed for a few euros to pootle around Tempelhof.  For the first year of uni, I borrowed my dad’s zippy Marin, but he took it back in the end.

At the start of second year, I was given a nearly-new second hand bike by my wonderful un-godparents, which served very well for nipping around campus and taking me to various hellish corners of Birmingham for my census work. It was my mainstay for a long time, the first machine I as an adult felt any ownership of, with aftermarket aluminium pedals I fitted when the plastic ones fell apart, and a little green zip-tie round the headtube identifying my right to lock it to things around Mason Halls. But it was quite heavy, and was never really the same after Dad jammed it into the back of the car when shipping out for third year: the derailleurs clicked in spite of endless fiddling with the levers and cables, and the brakes seemed to be useless despite one replacement after another. But it served well (if decreasingly frequently) over the next couple of years, until I locked it up in the city centre when going off to Ukraine, and came back to find it missing.

Feeling a bike-shaped hole in my life, I went around shops and poked listlessly at the internet – there’s a strong second-hand market on Gumtree, but it seems to move very fast, when the one thing I don’t want to do is rush. Demand moves fast at the various second-hand places in Bristol, too – everything I could find was some combination of the wrong size, the wrong shape, rather expensive, or fitted with those stupid sodding frame-mounted gear levers for racing hipsters. If I were feeling somewhat flush, my choice would have been a Bristol Bicycle, from local legends Jake’s Bikes, a wonderful setup which also happens to be right next door to my current office. They’re designed as city bikes, rather than mountain bikes or racers, and have a real thought-through appeal to them: you get a very strong sense that some blokes who work at a bike workshop have been making notes of issues their customers have for a long time, and set out to put together a bike which addresses them.

Not long after Ukraine, I started my temp job at the bank, and when I got made permanent recently one of the Proper Employee benefits I was keen to take advantage of was the Cycle Scheme, which lets you buy a new bike from pre-tax salary sacrifice – ie, you avoid paying income tax or NI (so savings north of 30%) – and which Jake’s happily offer. The process developed into a massive struggle, with repeated problems with their online form and, once I’d actually ordered the bike and attendant lock, pannier rack and mudguards, our idiotic work systems cancelled the whole thing and demanded I go through the process again – so, feeling a) flush from a tax refund, b) thoroughly cheesed off at the whole silly system, I just went down to the shop and bought the thing outright.


The new toy, now with mudguards and pannier rack
The new toy, now with mudguards and pannier rack.

It’s a “Park Street”, crisp black and silver,* with smaller wheels than I’m used to but excellent gears and a light, compact aluminium frame; the brakes are superb, the posture natural. I was struck on my first ride how odd it felt to have a bike all tuned up and silent, with no clicking or rattling anywhere, no stick in the controls or idiosyncrasies in the gear levers. It felt… nice. I don’t actually need it for my current trip to work – which is fairly hilly and takes exactly half an hour, my cutoff point for where the extra faff of cycling (especially needing extra clothes and kit, which you really do with these cold dark winter afternoons) outweighs the travel time saved. But it’s very nice to have, for the future, a machine which absolutely fits my spec and feels right, one which is, for the first time, something just for me.


* The Bristol Bikes are matte black with plain metal fittings, and no fancy or show-offy bits; Jake explained to me that he wanted them to be very un-flashy, to avoid attracting thieves’ attention. While I agree with the rationale, I think it’s gorgeous and would totally nick it.