Tag Archive for: History

Standing your round goes back to ancient times. Beer was big in Ancient Mesopotamia. Who would have thought it? Witness the clay tablet above, dating back to 3,000 BC. Unearthed in what is now modern Iraq, it is in the custody of the British Museum. The cuneiform script details the allocation of a brew as payment to workers. Almost in the realm of Indiana Jones, this intoxicating breath of ale’s ancestry.

This August’s Historic Brewing Conference in Manchester delves no further back than 2,000 years later – when the Iron Age transformed Europe and our shores. There’s still  a lot to get through. Among a distinguished line-up of beer historians from across the globe will be Johnny Horn, co-founder of Scottish sour specialists Vault City, currently brewing at his new Holy Goat project in Dundee. His previous academic speciality was the archaeology of Iron Age Britain and he has published papers on drinking vessels of the period. So expect his talk on Beer and Brewing in Pre-historic Britain to be one of the highlights of the two day conference (August 5 and 6).

The venue is the new incarnation of Fairfield Social Club, appropriately in one of the city’s most historic districts, between the River Irk and Angel Meadow. And handily close to Blackjack Brewery. The creators of this unique event, exploring both the technical and social aspects of beer’s history, are Keith Sowerby, one of the North’s most informed beer enthusiasts, and Steve Dunkley, formerly of Beer Nouveau, specialists in reviving old styles.

Keith tells me: “The project is six years in the making and was gaining traction when the Pandemic struck. We had aimed to hold the conference in the old Fairfield Social Club railway arch, so there is some irony in our finding that their new set-up meets our needs so well.

“We have noted events which have touched on historic brewing before, especially in the States, but none aiming to systematically address the breadth of both the technical and social aspects of brewing ales, beers and other cereal based beverages, linking in forum and individual discussion over a few beers to our modern experience. We are guaranteeing that this will not be a dry event.”

Keith and Steve have lined up a sparkling array of speakers, including MC Emma Inch, a writer and home brew champion whose most recent podcast, Same Again?, explores the complex relationships between beer, pubs and mental health; four times Beer Writer of the Year and social historian Pete Brown; Jane Peyton, beer educator and Britain’s first beer sommelier of the year; and Mancunian ‘exile’ John Keeling, legendary head brewer at Fuller’s for decades.

From Norway comes farmhouse beer styles expert Lars Marius Garshol; from Minneapolis Doug Hoverson, chronicler of mid-West brewing; and from Toronto Gary Gillman, whose blog explores the technical aspects of brewing history. My wild card across the two days is the presentation from Irish historian Dr Christina Wade on Going to Hell in a Beer Barrel: Alewives, Demons, and the History that Connects them. 

If all this sounds a mite lecture room, fear not. This is a beer-led event. So much fun to be had. Alongside the papers there will be ample windows for socialising and networking. A special conference bar will be well stocked with recreations of historic and heritage beer styles. Expect some collaborations with local breweries (to be announced). And if one of the talks does tackle Prohibition we can’t see that having any tangible effect on intake.

  • Tickets are on sale now, priced at £70, giving access to both days, Monday, August 5 and Tuesday, August 6. Quite a bargain.  Buy them here.

Thunder stolen by a turnip; whatever next? My portal into reviewing Pen Vogler’s enthralling new social history of food, Stuffed (Atlantic, £22), was to be via the humble root vegetable. But trips to Florence and Paris delayed my words and, meanwhile, The Observer’s Rachel Cooke went down that same route (sic), name checking naturally the departed agriculture minister Thérèse Coffey, who responded to salad dearth in our supermarkets by advocating we all ‘cherish’ the turnip. Did she mean the cute purple and white version the French call ‘navets’, or our own more rustic swede or rutabaga, often confined to being over-wintering livestock fodder? Even though her advice might count as a plea for seasonality, as so often, ‘Nellie The Effluent’ muddied the waters. The UK’s biggest turnip grower happened to be in her Norfolk constituency and he was giving up on it because those same supermarkets wouldn’t give him an affordable return.

Appropriately, Stuffed, subtitled ‘A History of Good Food and Hard Times in Britain’, is a surprisingly political survey of feast and famine with a particular emphasis on the damage wrought on subsistence by 300 years of Enclosures forcing 6.8 million acres of communal land into private ownership. The book title is not just about a full stomach, it’s also about being shafted.

Its predecessor Scoff, with its examination of class within English eating and drinking was her ‘Nancy Mitford’ book; this is her ‘Jessica Mitford’, constantly drawing parallels with times of scarcity in the past with, say, today’s children going hungry. In the introduction she puts herself firmly in the camp of medic Chris van Tulleken in bemoaning the baleful effects of UPF (ultra-processed foods), toxic equivalents of the adulterated horrors of the Victorian era, detailed in chapters such as ‘Bread and Butter’ or ‘Mustard and Pickles’ in lurid detail.

It took an outsider to chronicle the industrialised food short-cuts that could wreck or even kill a consumer. In 1820 London-based German chemist Frederick Accum published A Treatise on the Adulteration of Food and Culinary Poisons, its cover warning “There is death in the pot”. But it was not until half a century later that the Sale of Food and Drugs Act finally legislated against universal excesses such as the addition of alum or aluminium salt to make a baker’s loaf heavier and bleached whiter. Pen writes: “It was not lethal but it could cause swollen gums and inflate the gum, leading to dyspepsia, diarrhoea and gastritis, all of which impeded the absorption of nutrients.” Alum grinders inhaling its dust became seriously ill; it is still around today.

If all this sounds a mite dour, don’t fret. Born out of impeccable historical research, Stuffed shares the same lightness of touch that made Scoff a best-seller. Particularly wry is her take on the link between that Dickensian twist, gruel, and a ‘healthy brunch mate’ of 2023. While porridge had 5oz of oatmeal per pint, gruel managed just 2oz. A similar ratio to our oat milk, which thankfully avoids the workhouse pollution of rat and mice droppings!

As with Scoff, the book is divided into chapters devoted to a particular foodstuff, 26 in all, ranging from carp to strawberries, from goose to pumpkins with a recipe tagged on the end of each, each account riffing across the centuries, driven by the weight of her research.

Which brings us back to where we came in. The turnip gets a chapter to itself, introduced as a surprising flagship for Renaissance wellness theory based upon ‘the humouds’… revered too for its aphrodisiac qualities. So not just the neglected foodstuff it has become across our shores. According to Stuffed, improved farming techniques on a grander scale slowly transformed the turnip into primarily animal feed for winter.

Let us salute Baldrick’s proud and upright turnip

Witness for the turnip’s defence, unearthed by the diligent Pen, is much-travelled Tudor cleric Andrew Boorde, A Compendyous Regyment or a Dyetary of Healthe (1423) puts the turnip on a pedestal for its medicinal properties, particularly in a sexual context. She writes: “His prescriptions closely follow a slightly earlier book by Sir Thomas Elyot, as they both agree that turnips boiled and eaten  with flesh ‘augmentyth the seed of man’ and a small amount of raw turnip was good for the appetite.”

Hence the aptness of those running turnip jokes across the first two series of BBC’s Blackadder. In the launch episode the new King Richard gives a speech: “This day has been as ’twere a mighty stew in which the beef of victory was mix’d with the vile turnip of sweet Richard slain and the grisly dumpling of his killer fled. But we must eat the yellow wobbly parts two serves. In life, each man gets what he deserves!”

The apogee of the dick-shaped turnip gag comes in series two when the Edmund Blackadder’s servant prepares his ‘Turnip Surprise’. Edmund: “And the surprise is…?” Baldrick: “There’s nothing else in it except the turnip.” Edmund: So, in other words, the Turnip Surprise would be…a turnip.”

To much merriment the Turnip Surprise turns out to look like a “thingy”. Baldrick: “A great big thingy! It was terrific.” Edmund: “Size is no guarantee of quality, Baldrick. Most horses are very well endowed, but that does not necessarily make them sensitive lovers. I trust you have removed this hilarious item?” Baldrick: “I found it particularly ironic, my lord, because I’ve got a thingy that’s shaped like a turnip!” Miriam Margolyes as Edmund’s Puritan aunt (whose inheritance he seeks) demands she must have her turnip not mashed but as “God intended”. It arrives and further priapic hilarity ensues.

I have turnips. What do I cook with them?

The batch of un-suggestively shaped turnips I brought back from the market demands I prepare something that does them humble justice. Maybe use the beef stew with turnips recipe from 17th century diarist and gardener John Evelyn that’s appended to Pen’s turnip chapter. My gut instinct is to go for the great Richard Corrigan’s take on the French classic Navarin that pairs lamb shoulder with anchovies, but it requires tiny purple spring turnips. Mine are larger but still intense, so I stew them in butter and thyme with chopped chestnuts and black garlic, add rich beef stock, simmer for an hour, liquidise and serve as a rich veloute. A proper winter warmer.

One boon of the lockdowns, as we sought solace beyond our isolation, was stumbling upon digital escape routes for which we felt a kinship. Mine were strangely consoling. Among the social media tumult of misinformation and malice what a relief each day to receive via Twitter an Eric Ravilious artwork (@Ravilious1942) or a snatch of Seamus Heaney verse (@HeaneyDaily)? Best of all was my discovery of the Friends of Friendless Churches. I was not alone – there were 46,000 followers of @friendschurches helping spread the word about a tiny 65-year-old charity ‘caring for 60 redundant but beautiful places of worship in England and Wales.’

I also follow @BatsinChurches. This project tailors the interests of our 18 native species to the delicate structures they choose to inhabit. Both these niche organisations – the first mostly privately resourced, the second a Heritage Fund recipient, each a labour of love – get their moment in the spotlight in Peter Ross’s vivid trawl across the ecclesiastical edifices of our island, Steeple Chasing (Headline, £22, published May 11).

Appropriately enough, Friendless Churches is the focus of the chapter titled Dust. The author meets its director, Rachel Morley an Irish woman in her thirties, on site on a bend of the River Monnow just across the Welsh Border. St James Llangua is nearing the end of its working life. It’s not in a good state. Can they afford to rescue it it? It will take £300,000 to fix the roof and make it safe. That’s half of the Friends’ annual income. 

Further chapters are entitled Steel, Fire, Stone, Bone, Fen, Light etc in this award-winning Scottish feature writer’s neo-WG Sebaldian quest for meaning among the steeples and bell towers. Elegiac, yes but more… The melancholy element is inevitable, if not as pervasive as in its predecessor, A Tomb With A View: The Stories and Glories of Graveyards (Headline, £20).

That came out in 2020. This suggests a publisher cashing in with a quickfire follow-up. Far from the case. Steeple Chasing is given an extra dimension by the intervening pandemic. The quirky stories are still there, as is Ross’s wry charm, but essentially this is a book about people caring deeply. About the fabric of churches and the fabric of community. It has become a state of the nation book. While focusing on structured religion in decline.

The dressing-up box meets secret anointment excesses of this weekend’s Coronation (of the ‘Defender of the Faith’) made me wish for a simpler communion with history. Alone in a Norman church, perhaps, among fields. Such architectural survivors, of course, feature in Simon Jenkins’ comprehensive England’s Thousand Best Churches, which offers a star rating for each. This can easily become a tourist ticker exercise. I say this as a man already compiling a Steeple Chasing bucket list. On it for starters are two slightly spooky churches – Holy Trinity at Stow Bardolph in Norfolk and St Peter’s and St Paul’s at Chaldon in Surrey.

The former is host to a life-size wax effigy of one Sarah Hare, a member of the local gentry who died aged 55 on April 9, 1744 ‘after poisoning her blood with the prick of a needle’. It was her wish to be memorialised this way; the body itself is buried beneath the church floor. The face is “plump and over-ripe, ingrained dirt gives the impression it is veined like cheese, The eyes are blue. Dark curls fall across the forehead. The effigy has grown grubby and worn. The neck and décolletage are filthier than the face and the hands are filthiest of all. Her left index finger is coming away at the knuckle, “ writes Ross.

He compares the experience to Dorian Gray, Miss Havisham or the end of Don’t Look Now. “It would be the most natural thing in the world, the most dreadful thing in the world, if she smiled.” After which he takes tea with her descendant, Lady Rose Hare, who is rather fond of Sarah. The only other funeral effigies in the UK are in Westminster Abbey. Surely some Royal hangers-on were auditioning for the part last Saturday.

Grand Guignol in pictorial form at the Chaldon church, tucked in a fold of the North Downs. Dating back to 1170, ’The Ladder of Salvation of the Human Soul and the Road to Heaven’ is a 17ft by 6ft red mural depicting purgatorial torment. Demons stir a cauldron full of murderers, a hell hound chews a woman’s arm, devils press forks to the head of a money-lender until white-hot coins spill from his mouth. How precious to find such a masterpiece still in situ rather than transported to a museum.

As so often in the book, Ross’s empathy comes to the fore. Acknowledging it is intellectually quite complex, offering new ideas about the afterlife, he writes that “the total  effect is visceral. It must have been a fearful experience for medieval churchgoers to stand facing the altar with this horror show behind them. I bet they smelled the sulphur. I bet they felt the heat on the back of their necks.” 

Linking it tenuously to Picasso’s Guernica, Ross concludes: “it seems both ancient and queer and radical and modernist”. That could apply to Stanley Spencer. In the same chapter, Paint, Ross takes in his vast religious war painting, Resurrection of the Soldiers, at Sandham Memorial Chapel at Burghclere, Hampshire. I love these (sic) leaps of faith throughout Steeple Chasing.

The book ranges far beyond country churches. Sheela-na-gigs and other ruderies, wooden angels among Norfolk rafters, Glastonbury’s sacred springs, the abandoned brutalist seminary of St Peter’s outside Dumbarton. The mighty centres of Christendom are also tackled – Lindisfarne, Durham Cathedral, St Paul’s. With the latter, in the Fire chapter, his fascinating tangent features the air wardens who stood sentinel over it during World War II, when miraculously it survived. My favourite London contribution, though, is in the next chapter Cats. Worth buying the book just for this account of a feral Borough Market ratter enlisted to serve in the same capacity at adjacent Southwark Cathedral. Christened Doorkins Magnificat, she patrolled the grounds by night and found favourite spots inside to snooze during the day. This famous feline even met The Queen on one royal visit. 

Alas, Doorkins’ eventual end was hastened by being caught up in the 2017 Islamist terror attack on London Bridge with its fleeing crowds, sirens and flashing lights. After the Cathedral doors were blown open in a controlled explosion, she was never the same cat again. No spoilers. Buy this fabulous book to find out what happens to Magnificat.

A YouTube postscript

Each time I finish reading a Peter Ross book there’s a pattern developing. I Google a film. In the case of A Tomb With A View it was One Million Dollars, Anife Kellehers’s documentary about Dublin’s Glasnevin cemetery that’s also an elegy for its legendary tour guide, Shane MacThomais (who committed suicide aged 44, though that’s not mentioned in the film). It’s a remarkable watch.

In Steeple Chasing John Betjeman’s A Passion for Churches gets a mention in relation to Norfolk’s rich holy building heritage. The BBC screened it in  1974 and it’s still available grainily on YouTube. Watch it and be amazed at how 50 years has transformed Britain (an absurd lapse into medieval kingship ritual aside). Did people really look like that? Was it all so grey? It out-Larkins Larkin, a vastly superior poet to Betjeman (witness Church Going or An Arundel Tomb). And yes, at least in the country parishes, we were still clinging on to being a church-going nation.

I’ve been contemplating cruelty a lot lately. No, not inflicting it personally. There are already enough despots and apparatchiks around showing no remorse for what they do to their fellow man. I’m more interested in how we can all turn a blind eye to the suffering that may underpin our simplest pleasures. Easy to write off a legacy of organised humiliation and torture of entire races. War? No, Sugar.

Penning The Dark History of Sugar obviously disturbed food historian Dr Neil Buttery. At our meeting in a cafe near his Levenshulme home he came across as a gentle, civilised soul, slightly regretful of his own sweet tooth (we disagreed on the necessity for Bake-off) after putting our centuries-old sugar rush in often gruesome context. 

Gung-ho apologists may rage against the dumping of a slave master’s statue by trumpeting what a glorious boon the British Empire was for those under its yoke. But, in the crowded field of global exploitation between the 16th and 19th centuries, British  explorers, slave traders and plantation owners certainly ‘refined’ levels of cruelty exceeding those of colonialist rivals.

That 1791 political cartoon above, called Barbarities of the West Indias shows a cruel overseer plunge a slave, claiming to be ill, into a kettleful of boiling sugar syrup to ‘warm’ him up. Nailed to the wall behind are a dismembered arm and amputated ears (British Museum).

You survive the hellish boat journey from Africa and all that awaits you is the tyrannic treadmill of working in the cane fields and dangerous factories. Black lives didn’t matter.

Across the Caribbean as slaves heavily outnumbered masters and their downtrodden British servants there was always a fear of rebellions, so every savage means was used to break their spirit as much as their bodies.

From 1807’s The Penitential Tyrant below shudder at the iron mask, collar and spurs used to restrain slaves.The masks were often fitted with tongue depressors, preventing swallowing; collars had long spurs so they could not lie down or sleep.

Such revelations were all grist to the anti-slavery mill slowly grinding along towards Abolition in 1834, when vast amounts of compensation allowed slave owners to retire in luxury back to Blighty, country houses, statues and all. They left behind chaos as ‘freed’ slaves discovered they weren’t entirely free and sugar operations found all kinds of back door ways to continue to exploit a captive workforce. Production would shift across the globe with all kinds of political and social consequences.

Meanwhile, back across the Atlantic, from the mid 18th century onwards sugar had become an essential part of the middle class diet alongside fashionable coffee and tea, seen as healthy alternatives to booze. A far cry from the luxury spice it had been at the court of the extravagant Richard II as supplies filtered in from the East. Dr Buttery has done a terrific job in crushing a vast web of historical detail into barely 200 pages.

Our americano and latte have just been brought over. Neither of us takes sugar with them. Our chat has now moved onto the sugary legacy of ill health. A spoonful of sugar may help the medicine go down but it’s the catalyst for billions of dental cavities.

The patron saint of tooth decay appears to be Queen Elizabeth I, whose licensing of what was essentially piracy opened up the New World to sugar cultivation and slavery. Her sugar kick addiction was fuelled by whole banquets given over to the stuff, shaped into dolphins, elephants mermaids and the like. Result her legendary rotten black ‘tushy pegs’.

After extraction of many of these and the consequent collapse of her lower face she constantly covered it up or stuffed her mouth with rags. A later monarch, Sun King Louis XIV, did the same after losing all of his teeth to sugar by the age of 40. He also banned smiling at court in Versailles. It was likely he suffered from Type 2 diabetes, a consequence of a sugary diet that has snowballed ever since. A dark history indeed.

Ironic that the day Neil and I meet up – and I put a face to the evolutionary biologist turned chef behind the podcasts – our bedevilled government backtracks on cracking down on the obesity epidemic. 

Delayed for at least a year is the proposed ban on “buy one get one free” deals on junk food and a pre-9pm watershed for TV advertising, Continuing to encourage cheap food and drinks high in sugar, salt and fat is apparently a measure to alleviate the cost of living crisis. Let them eat cake!

The Dark History puts our sugar-dependent diet in historical context, charting the rise of breakfast cereals (“by 1921 there 60 brands, most liberally laced with sugar”) and commercial cakes and biscuits. Then there’s jam, not the kitchen garden preserve of yore but, aimed at the working city dweller, an industrialised product – “made from fruit of inferior quality or even the left-over pulp from some other food manufacturing process and only made up around a third of jam by weight.” 

And, of course, it was advertised as good value and nourishing, a fitting partner for the white bread and strong tea which in the 20th century remained a working class staple meal. All not so far removed from today’s fast food conglomerates who disguise the amount of sugar and salt (and all sorts of unhealthy shelf-live extending additives) in their products. And don’t get me started on the diet advice scapegoating of healthy fats to get sugar off the hook.

Neil Buttery insists he didn’t set out to write a political book, but his hugely readable and recommendable Dark History chimes with so many current preoccupations about food poverty, obesity and, of course, Black Lives Matter. 

Another coincidence on the day we met: a Home Office deportation flight took off to Jamaica, carrying British-raised Afro-Caribbeans guilty of various previous offences. Any excuse and an absence of compassion. Previous flights, to fix immigration loopholes, had strong Windrush generation connections. The legacy of slavery is not easily sugar-coated. 

A Dark History of Sugar by Neil Buttery is published by Pen & Sword in hardback at £20. Check out his blog British Food: A History. and the allied podcast. He has a further website, Neil Cooks Grigson, where he works his way through the great cookery writer Jane Grigson’s 1974 classic, English Food. 

A chilling brush with slave heritage

As a travel writer I’ve been lucky enough to visit Caribbean islands – Jamaica, St Lucia, Antigua, St Vincent, Mustique… and Barbados. On that latter island, after severing ties with Britain, there are plans to build a new heritage site next to a burial ground where the bodies of 570 West African victims of British transatlantic slavery were discovered. 

It will complement the existing Barbados Museum and Historical Society in Bridgetown. For a more vivid echo of a turbulent colonial past I was recommended St Nicholas Abbey. One of only three Jacobean mansions left in the whole Americas, the gabled old house set among mahogany trees summons up the ghosts of those early plantation owners.

At first encounter it’s a serene spot. Current owners the Warren family have been in situ for under two decades and lovingly preserve the old rum-making methods in a boutique distillery. So you get a steam-powered cane crush and a traditional pot still, using cane for the syrup that’s unique to the 400 acre estate, half of which is under sugar cultivation.

Tucked way behind the gorgeous old house is a museum addressing the tribulations of slavery on the estate and in the passage to the barrel rooms, easy to miss, are seven yellowing pieces of paper scribbled with lists of names, numbers, and pounds sterling, dating back to 1834.

Apparently in anticipation of freeing slaves, owners had to document the numbers and estimated worth of their slaves for the government to pay them out. £150 was the going rate for the most valuable male with farming skills with fertile women also valuable commodities. Tradable flesh. All this so that sugar could be on every table back home.

It’s nigh on 40 years since the BBC televised their adaptation of John Le Carré’s Smiley’s People, culmination of his trilogy about spymaster George Smiley, the squat, bespectacled antidote to the crass, cartoonish antics of James Bond. I’m all for compulsive  slow burners, so I read the 1979 novel again recently before catching up with Alec Guinness as Smiley on Amazon Prime.

Le Carré, who died last December, had made Berlin his personal literary territory through 1963’sThe Spy Who Came In From The Cold, made into a movie with Richard Burton two years later. Somewhere in between the two books (and before a certain David Bowie) I lived in West Berlin and can never forget how I survived a sub-Arctic initiation, living in a Turkish quarter not far from the Wall, scene of both books’ denouements.…

It was a bitter January. I always call it my pea soup month. Each evening after work at the Bilka supermarket I stood shivering at the Imbiss at Zoo Station to eat my thick Erbsensuppe – mushy pea puree by any other name. 

At weekends I treated myself to a sausage in it. I was the ultimate, penniless student in my puckering mock leather greatcoat and threadbare loon pants. The only thing I had in abundance was hair.

Finally, come February I got paid and was able to vary my diet to Currywurst with potato salad and even get to see some of the amazing city, an island of Capitalism stranded in the middle of Red East Germany – remaining so until the Wall came down in 1989 and Deutschland was reunified, the Brandenburg Gate serving as its symbolic centrepiece.

After only fleeting visits since and I’m back in the reunited capital a tourist not cultural squatter. Currywurst is now as much a Berlin icon as David Bowie, but pea soup has bitten the dust in favour of burgers and, of course, the doner kebab, created in the city by Turkish immigrant Kadir Nurman in the early Seventies (as with Bowie, we never met).

It’s a city utterly changed, obviously for the better, the axis for citizen and tourist alike shifting back to the original centre in East Berlin. There the Prussians built vast museums and monuments to their warrior culture, but I suspect the urban cool hang-outs in districts such as Prenzlauer Berg, Kreuzberg, Neukölln and even raw Friedrichshain are more the magnet for today’s weekenders. 

Still there’s no escaping the huge burden of history borne by Berlin – the legacy of Nazism, Communism and the city’s perennial brand of Hedonism, all to come to terms with. It   makes for a thought-provoking cocktail of impressions. 

Where to start? For me it was on top of a car park in Neukölln. Klunkerkranich is a place to get your bearings, but first be prepared to negotiate five floors of shopping mall and a couple of concrete ramps. Your reward a ramshackle boho bar (no food), a sun trap with a wonderful view across the city (main image). 

Two Weissbiers later and I felt like a native, though these were cloudy, refreshing Bavarian wheat beers; the real native Berliner Weisse is rather tart, neutral stuff perked up with a Schusse (shot) of raspberry or (shockingly green) woodruff syrup. Like Currywurst, really just a one-off must.

For old times’ sake, I drank one in the Prater on Kastanienallee, a true old-fashioned, tree-shaded beer garden, open seasonally, surviving up among the baristas and sushi meisters of hip Prenzlauerberg.

For the most spectacular view of the sprawling metroplis trek up to the top of a DDR relic – the Fernsehturm (telly tower). You can sip suitably retro cocktails in the panoramic bar 365 metres above the ground and imagine the Stasi are stalking you. In its shadow is another institution peddling a Teutonic image at odds with contemporary Berlin. The Alexanderplatz branch of Munich’s famous Hofbräuhauswill satisfy your craving forSchweinebraten, dumplings and the like.

You are now in Mitte, catch-all designation for the city’s core, which I kept gravitating back to (but not Alexanderplatz itself, concrete ‘dead’ centre). Much more human in scale and with better shopping, the Hackesche Höfe is a series of eight inter-connected Art Nouveau courtyards with elaborate ceramic facades off Rosenthalerstrasse, mixing shops, bars, theatre and creative studios. Neglected during the GDR era, it symbolises the rebirth of the whole Mitte, where thoroughfares such as Torstrasse, Linienstrasse, Tucholskystrasse and Auguststrasse are packed with interesting indie restaurants and bars. 

On Torstrasse, I’d recommend tiny Noto, with its laid-back contemporary take on German food, but even better in the same vein on Linienstrasse, Das Lokal, where an old corner Kneipe (bar) has been transformed into one of the best affordable, casual dining spots in the city. They squeezed me in at the counter and I munched on a blanquette of rose veal and drank a limpid Rheinpfalz Pinot Noir. Then I went back another night for venison.

Even more casual was Berlin’s take on street food, at Birgit and Bier, a hippyish beer garden, just south of the River Spree, that makes Klunkerkranich look smooth. I like this Turkish cafe heavy corner of Kreuzberg, where the spirit of alternative Berlin lingers on. Promenade along the river westwards beyond Schlesisches Tor and you’ll find wonderful street markets.

Or step in off the wide, breezy space that is Warschauerstrasse and enjoy the achingly cool public space of the Michelberger Hotel in the company of one of Berlin’s new wave craft beers from Brewbaker. For those of you that have missed the city’s club scene, it’s only a 10 minute walk from Berghain, which finally reopened at the start of October, the former power station having been repurposed as an art space during the Pandemic.

By all means visit the big sights, the Brandenburg Gate, Reichstag, Checkpoint Charlie, but weekends away should also be about this kind of aimless sauntering, keeping your eyes open. The Germans have a verb for it: to ‘Bummel’. 

So, if you’re in the Tiergarten, Berlin’s equivalent of Central Park complete with an obligatory nude sunbathing patch, grab a beer and pizza and hire a boat at the lakeside Cafe am Neuen See.  Finally, for the ultimate drift through this fascinating metropolis let the stern take the strain – go on a river cruise. Boarding near the medieval Marienkirche, famous for its ethereal ‘Dance of Death’ fresco, I took the basic 23 euros one hour tour from Stern & Kreis. We glided serenely past the bombastic hulk of the Cathedral, the monumental Museum Island and on to the modern riverside resurgence beyond the Reichstag. It would give a fascinating over-view for a first time visitor. Oh yes, and there is a Himmel; they serve beer on board.

Make this your Berlin Bucket List

There’s so much to see, don’t try to cram too much into your stay. I’m saving sunbathing out at the Wannsee lake and a visit to the Stasi (East German secret police) Museum until next time. Here, though, are a few musts…

The Holocaust Memorial

Between the Brandenburg Gate and Potsdamer Platz, its design is inspired by Prague’s amazing Jewish Graveyard with its dense, cluttered gravestones. Here in Berlin 2,700 square, dark grey pillars of varying heights are scattered across the site. In the middle of the engulfing maze I was overcome by an immense feeling of isolation and despair, which is the appropriate response to a space designed to commemorate the exterminated Jews of Europe.

The Jewish Museum

Celebrating its 20th anniversary, this Daniel Libeskind building in Kreuzberg bears obvious architectural resemblances to his later project, the Imperial War Museum North at Salford Quays. Step back from its zinc facade and the great zigzag slashes rearrange themselves into a dislocated Star of David. Three long, intersecting corridors – ‘axes’ of exile, holocaust and continuity – showcase small artefacts, mementos, testimonies, but the centrepiece is the Holocaust Tower. This is a vertiginous, walled void, completely dark but for a small slit high up, allowing light and noises from outside. Small batches of visitors are filtered in at a time and the huge door swings behind you. Flesh-creeping.

Topographie des Terrors

On the central site of the Gestapo and SS HQs, this exhibition space offers a comprehensive account of the rise of Nazism. Outside, set against a remaining fragment of the Berlin Wall, is an essential open air presentation of life in Berlin from 1933-45.

Gedenkstatte Berliner Mauer

Immediately upon reunification, the city bought a stretch of the Berlin Wall on Bernauerstrasse to keep as a memorial of the fortified dividing line that was suddenly imposed upon the city by the East German regime in 1961. The visitor centre charts how families were separated on that fateful day. Elsewhere across the city are preserved segments of the Wall. Within an easy canalside walk of my hotel near the Hauptbahnhof is the Invalidenhof, a 19th century graveyard poignantly preserved by being in the ‘death strip’. Here it was in 1962 that West German police shot dead an East German border guard to rescue a 15-year-old boy who was in the process of escaping.

Museum Island

Five great museums cluster on the site of the original Berlin river island settlement, now a Unesco World Heritage Site. You could spend an entire week exploring the collections. Pick one? Perhaps the Pergamon built over a century ago in the style of a Babylonian temple to house the treasures German archaeologists were plundering across the globe. Stand-outs are the ancient Pergamon altar itself unearthed in eastern Turkey and the reconstruction of Babylon’s Ishtar Gate with its eerily preserved deep blue bricks and and sculpted mythical beasts. If all this monumentalism leaves you cold slip into the nearby Alte Nationalgalerie, whose collection of predominantly 19th century art boasts some wonderful Romantic landscapes by Caspar David Friedrich.

Fact file 

Neil Sowerby stayed at Motel One Berlin Hauptbahnhof, Invalidenstrasse 54, 10557 Berlin, +49 30 36410050. It’s across from the transport hub of the central station. 

For full tourism information go to the Visit Berlin site and to book a Berlin Welcome Card, official tourist ticket giving access to public transport and many attractions plus 200 discount offers go to this link.