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the other dam

“It’s called ‘Manhattan on the Maas’,” a local said to me my first day in Rotterdam, pointing to the smattering of high-rises that jab the skyline on the banks of the river that snakes in from the North Sea. Then, as if she’d said something grossly presumptuous, she gave an embarrassed laugh: “Well, that’s what some people call it,” she added.


Rotterdammers are absurdly self-effacing when it comes to the charms of their hometown. Almost the first question you hear when you meet someone here is, “So, when do you plan to visit Amsterdam. This inferiority complex is unsurprising in many ways. Amsterdam, after all, is achingly pretty. Its network of canals fringed by centuries-old gable houses provide most visitors with the picture postcard version of Holland they were anticipating. Holland’s second city, by contrast, is less easy to love. Its center was laid to waste by the Germans at the start of the war and though it has recovered remarkably to become Europe’s busiest seaport, it is like the ugly sister who knuckled down to work while her more beautiful counterpart was lavished all the attention.

In Rotterdam, so the saying goes, shirts are sold with their sleeves already rolled up.

In the center this resourcefulness is evident all around you. In the years since the war the flattened landscape has transformed into a wonderland of modern architecture with world-renowned architects like Norman Foster adding their imprint to the city in a series of ambitious building projects.

The best way to navigate the city is by bike. As with Amsterdam there is an excellent network of bike paths and the center is compact enough that all the major landmarks are a short ride apart.

The first stop for anyone interested in the post-war rehabilitation of Rotterdam is the Laurenskerk. The city’s only surviving medieval structure, the church is a powerful symbol of renewal. The Laurenskerk’s imposing tower was the only part that survived the Nazis aerial bombardment in 1940 and in photos taken in the aftermath, the tower is seen alone in a sea of rubble. Walking through its austere and beautiful interior it is hard to believe that most of what you are looking at dates from the fifties. The elegant stone arches that line its nave and transept have been painstakingly reassembled while towering over the vestibule the largest church organ in Europe suggests the ambition that has allowed this city to recover so well.

In front of the church in the large square known as the Grotekerkplein a produce market was underway. Vendors selling traditional local delicacies such as stroopwaffel (treacle-filled biscuits) and kibbeling (deep-friend fish nuggets) were set up alongside Vietnamese and North African food stalls.

At the cheese stand I was offered some samples of Holland’s most famous foodstuff. The British humorist Alan Coren identified two types of Dutchmen – “the small, corpulent, red-faced Edams and the thinner, paler, larger Goudas.” The man doling out the tasters definitely fell into the later. Even so, Coren might have to revise his classifications these days, especially in Rotterdam, which is Holland’s most culturally diverse urban center.

Nearly half the population are from migrant families, with the biggest minority Muslims from North Africa and Turkey. This large scale immigration has caused frictions, the most glaring example of which can be found outside the Schielandshuis Historical Museum, a short walk south of the market. Here a statue was erected to the local politician Pim Fortuyn, an outré character who won widespread support for his harsh views on Muslims (he once told an interviewer he favored “a cold war with Islam”).

His murder by a left-wing extremist in 2002 drew international attention to the country’s racial tensions and challenged the common perception of the Dutch as open and tolerant. Nearly a decade on Rotterdam has a Muslim mayor but the tensions that Fortuyn saught to exploit have not gone away – Holland’s third largest political party is headed by Geert Wilders, whose rhetoric about the tides of Muslims sweeping into Europe is strikingly similar to the murdered Rotterdammer.

Inside the historical museum it was tides of a more literal variety they were concerned about. The area in and around Rotterdam is the lowest in Holland, reaching over six meters below sea level in parts. An interactive map of the changing city down the centuries showed the system of dikes that protect this lowland from the North Sea and the polders, the large swathes of land reclaimed from the sea on which much of present-day Rotterdam is built.

Like the rest of the Netherlands, Rotterdam’s history is inextricably linked to water. Away from the center you can find some of the earliest evidence of this relationship. In the outlying suburb of Delft, a few miles northwest of the city, narrow boats hug the banks of tree-lined canals and the sails of ancient windmills, known as grondzeiler in Dutch, stand dormant in the sun-filled afternoon.

Crossing to the southside of the Maas, the river that splits the city in two, this relationship with water is brought more up-to-date. Riding over the sleek lines of the landmark Erasmus Bridge, designed by Ben van Berkel and named after the town’s most famous resident, the skeletal silhouettes of the cranes that mark the vast container port are visible on the horizon.

Nicknamed De Zwaan (the Swan) for the quirky bend two-thirds up its central pylon, the bridge is located alongside the offices of the Dutch telecommunications firm, KPN Telecom. Another idiosyncratic structure on the city skyline, one side of the telecom tower is tilted and covered in green lights that function as a giant billboard.

A hundred yards upriver from the bridge is the Hotel New York. Dwarfed by the modern edifices nearby, the hotel is one of the few buildings left in the city that attests to its maritime history. The former headquarters of the Holland-America Line, it was a silent witness to the mass migrations of Europeans to the New World. In the last quarter of the 19th century 130,000 passengers, a large proportion of them Jews from Eastern Europe, were processed through this building. It must have been a profitable venture since the interiors are luxuriously decorated in the Art Nouveau style. The highlights are the beautiful wrought-iron staircase and balustrades that spiral up from the reception area.

In the café-restaurant on the ground floor you can look out on the river. On the day we were there the sky was clear and in the late afternoon sunlight flickered on the waters of the Maas and off the face of skyscrapers on the north shore. Sipping a coffee I watched rush hour traffic cross the Erasmus Bridge, commuters returning home after a day of work in this industrious city, which is much prettier than it would have you believe.

A version of this story appeared in the Toronto Star on 1 July, 2011

a night in an english ruin

The stone cottage stood alone on the hillside, dark and sinister in the gloom of twilight. Pushing open the heavy old door I shone my torch in to the empty silence of the room. A jet black wood burner stood in the hearth, and beside it a fresh woodpile. On a shelf, stacks of papers withered in the dampness alongside the baroque remains of a melted candle in a bottleneck.

the bothy at warnscale head

I laid down my rucksack and collected some kindling. As the cold night drew in I piled the fire high, eating sausage and beans washed down with tea and, a little later, a few nips of whiskey from a hip flask.

I was miles from the nearest habitation, in the wilds of Northumberland, near England’s border with Scotland. In the musty interior of the old farm cottage it felt like I was further away, like I had slipped between the pages of a 19th century novel.

I wondered about the ghosts of the past: whose home this had been and when and why they had left. Outside in the deep of Keilder forest an owl hooted.

In the jam-packed Britain of today finding a place to enjoy the country’s heritage in true isolation is no mean feat. The land is scattered with ancient monuments – castles and churches, runes and ruins – but it’s also littered with fences, admission fees, “keep out” signs and lots of other visitors.

As a solution to this problem I heard about bothies. Dotted across northern Britain, they are ruined cottages abandoned to the elements. Often the former homes of shepherds and crofters, in Scotland many of
them are relics of the Highland Clearances, the forced displacement of the rural population carried out by the British government during the 18th and 19th centuries. One Highland bothy dating from the 18th century is the birthplace of the man whose life story formed the basis of Robert Louis Stevenson’s novel “Kidnapped”.

Another ruined farmstead at Kearvaig Bay on the northern tip of Britain contains a scrawled message on the plaster recording three generations of the same family dating back nearly 200 years.

They cost nothing to stay in, are left open all year round, and provide only the most basic shelter: a wooden platform to lay a sleeping bag on and a fireplace.

As well as the sense of history evoked by these buildings, there are good practical reasons for staying in them.

The countryside of northern England offers some of the best walking in Britain. The bucolic charms of the Lake District attract visitors from around the world, while to the east the windswept austerity of the Yorkshire moors and the wild, empty beaches of Northumberland are less known. However this being Britain, the great landscapes are not always
matched by great weather. Campouts under the stars transform to washouts in record time.

Since many of them are located close to walking trials, bothies are a good solution for trekkers who wanted to stay out on the hills without becoming a victim of our famously fickle climate.

With my appetite whetted by the online research I slung some supplies into a backpack and went ‘bothying’.

The first trip I made was to the cottage in Keilder. It was a bleak day, threatening rain overhead and below a carpet of snow still coated the wide forestry path that led through the woods.

Situated a few miles to the north of Hadrian’s Wall, the bothy makes an ideal stop-off for anyone attempting to walk the route of the 1,900 year-old ruins of the defence barrier the Roman leader constructed to define the northern limits of his empire.

Like many of the bothies, the cottage is maintained by volunteers from the Mountain Bothy Association (MBA). On its website the MBA asks that visitors help contribute to the upkeep of its buildings by observing a few basic rules – the “Bothy Code”.

At the Keilder forest site I found a guest book. One visitor, who signed himself “Smeagol” after the Lord of the Rings character, ranted about finding the place in a mess. Poor “Smeagol” complained he had walked eight miles in July heat only to find the place in a state of calamity. In a note peppered with expletives, he blamed a troupe of ne’er-do-wells he called the “air rifle muppet brigade” for flouting the code, and signed off promising never to return.

Most of the comments were more affirming: “’Spent the night by the fire with a cracking Chinese stir fry, good wine and beer. Tidied up and left some logs. Till next time.’ Signed Kev and Peter, March 21.”

After a fitful night’s sleep and fried breakfast, I collected some wood and left. On my way out I noticed a withered picture of a windswept Lakeland mountaintop hanging near the fireplace. Just such a place was to provide the backdrop for my next bothy experience.

The walk up to Warnscale Head starts in Buttermere in the southwest of the English Lake District. It skirts the edge of the pretty little lake, along the route of the Coast-to-Coast walk, until at the eastern shore it splits off and heads up the valley on to a scree-covered peak.

One of the best things about walking in England is the rich tapestry of language it reveals to you. Dialects that have long since dissolved into memory live on in the words for the land. In the Lakes for example, a hilltop can be variously a fell, pike or crag; a lake; a tarn or a mere. Reeling off the place names on a Lakeland map is an act of pure poetry. On my way up to the Bothy I passed (in order): Pike Rigg, Buttermere, Muddock Crags, Lambing Knott, Peggy’s Bridge and Warnscale Bottom.

The bothy is two-thirds up the mountain with incredible views back down the valley to Buttermere. The sun was shining the day I went and a waterfall, heavy with snowmelt, roared away to my left. In front of me the bothy — a ruined shelter for the workers who quarried shale here — was almost indistinguishable from the hillside. The same shale that it was made from scattered the ground around it.

I boiled a pan of water for tea and gazed from the bare interior to the extravagant view from the window. The valley sides looked lime green and burnt orange in the sunlight and the rocky heads of peaks like the chiselled faces of leviathans.

As I was leaving the house to drive over here my dad handed me a book to take. It was by Alfred Wainwright. If you’ve never heard of him, you should know that he is probably the best-known rambler of the English Lakes since William Wordsworth “wandered lonely as a cloud” here two centuries ago. A fugitive from a grim northern mill town,
Wainwright spent most his adult life here, producing a series of popular walking guides to the area. The guides are beautifully illustrated with the author’s own pen and ink drawings. It was Wainwright who came up with the Coast-to-Coast walk.

By chance the route to the bothy led on to Wainwright’s favourite peak: Haystacks. After a while I tore myself away from my shelter and continued the rest of the way up. The view from the top is breathtaking. Wainwright compared Haystacks to “a shaggy terrier in the company of foxhounds,” and sitting at the summit you feel the raw power of the black-faced, snow-flecked peaks that overlook you on all sides. Straight ahead the land falls away and sweeps, in one motion, to the lakeside. I sat for a while, buffeted by the wind, thinking how lucky I was that aside from the odd stray sheep grazing the uplands, I had the mountain to myself.

Two months after his death in 1991, Wainwright’s widow, Betty, following his wishes, carried the writer’s ashes up here and scattered them by Innominate Tarn, the lonely mountain lake that sits near the summit. It was an unusually cold winter in England this year and the tarn was still frozen over. But the thaw was setting in and when I stood by the water’s edge I heard the fizz and crack of melting ice.

“For a man trying to get a persistent worry out of his mind,” Wainwright wrote. “The top of Haystacks is a wonderful cure.” I watched a black bird dart over the tarn then disappear into clouds that were smoky through sunlight, seeing just what he meant.

A version of this story first appeared in the Toronto Star on March 30, 2011