Monday, 27 July 2009


A few days ago, I was driving along Woldgate in the East Riding of Yorkshire, in countryside not dissimilar to South Limburg, after spending a terrific afternoon at Flamborough Head. This C-classified road is as straight as an arrow and is marked on the Ordnance Survey map as a Roman Road, which supposedly linked York with the coast from where I'd just come. There are 'gates' aplenty in the North-East of England, most notably in York (Stonegate, Goodramgate and Skeldergate). These 'gates' have nothing to do with the gateways that are dotted around the ancient city walls of York, which are known locally as bars (Bootham Bar, Monk Bar). The names of these streets originate from the Viking word 'gata', meaning 'road' or 'way'. Presumably, the name Woldgate is derived from the same origin.
We know that much of the region was under Viking domination prior to 950, where Danish law and custom were observed, hence the name Danelaw to denote the territory that split England in two along a line from the Dee to the Thames. To the south-west of the line, Anglo-Saxon law held sway.
The Vikings first invaded England in around 800 and over the next 50 years or so seized large amounts of territory in Northern England including the Northumbrian (Anglo-Saxon) capital of Eoforwik, which was renamed Jorvik (now York). Viking settlements were established in the fertile regions in the North and East Anglia (alongside existing Anglo-Saxon ones). The Danes divided Yorkshire into three parts called 'Ridings' (Old Norse for 'third') for administrative purposes and these three regions were to survive for many centuries.
It was not far from here, at Stamford Bridge, that in 1066 the Vikings suffered their final defeat on English soil at the hands of King Harold, who himself lost a more famous battle two weeks later at Hastings.
The Yorkshire Wolds abounds with strange-sounding place names: Wetwang, Thwing, Langtoft, Kirkby Grindalythe, Weaverthorpe, Ruston Parva, Fangfoss and Nunburnholme to name but a few. The exact origins of these place names is uncertain, but what is for sure is that they include common Viking elements: Toft (a plot of land or farm), Thorpe (a small farm, hamlet of outlying settlement), By (a farm or village), Holm (water meadow) and Foss (a ditch). It is thought that 40 percent of place names in the East Riding of Yorkshire owe their existence to a Scandinavian presence, even though these settlements might have already been in existence during Saxon rule. And Viking and Saxon settlements would have coexisted with each other.
Some language historians have theorised that the mix of the two languages was responsible for kick-starting the 'simplification' of Old English into Middle English. Until the arrival of the Scandinavians, Old English was a strongly inflected tongue (like modern German) where common words relied on word-endings to convey a meaning for which we now use prepositions, like 'to', 'with' and 'from'. And, for example, by adding an -s, plurals were made less complicated. Only a few old noun inflections have survived, such as geese, mice and children. The complications of the language, it is said, were gradually ironed out as a way for Anglo-Saxon and Scandinavian speakers to understand each other better, through an ongoing process of 'pidginsation'. Of course, this shift didn't take place overnight, but over a period of centuries.
In addition to their place names, the Vikings donated many words to the English language (common words like get, hit, leg, low, root, skin, same, want and wrong are all of Scandinavian origin) and even more words survive in dialect. The word 'laik', for example, still enjoys popular use by children throughout the North-East and Cumbria, where it means 'to play'. A famous Danish product that many people will have played with in their childhood is Lego, which comes from the Danish 'leg godt' meaning to 'play well'.

Monday, 6 July 2009

Two Men on the Bummel

The Westweg runs north to south for 285 kilometres in the south-western corner of Germany from Pforzheim to Basel. It is one of the oldest routes of its kind in the country and its traverse is not one for the faint-hearted or those who are short of time.
This long-distance hiking trail was mapped out more than 100 years ago. It crosses the western ridges and valleys of the Black Forest and takes in some of the highest peaks in the range, such as the Feldberg and Hornisgrinde, and some of the most fantastic scenery in the whole of Germany. Those who wish to trek its entirety in one go should allow at least 2 weeks for the walk, possibly more, since each stage of the journey averages out at 20 kilometres per day. Add to that the steep and circuitous ascents and descents, that amounts to a seriously tough challenge, not to mention all the forward-planning and logistics of overnight stops.
Some like myself, like to do it in more leisurely, shorter bouts covering one or two sections at a time. Doing it at different seasons can add to the charm of the experience and, of course, the organisation is a lot less complex.
As I write, my legs are still recovering from the excesses of a 60-kilometre hike along the final two stages from Wiedener Eck to Basel at the southern end of the route. I had covered 3 sections of the Westweg in recent visits, but my walking partner, and his four-legged companion, who live in the northern half of the Black Forest had already completed the 225-kilometre to Wiedener Eck in individual sections over the last 18 months, so, for him (and his Klein Münsterländer), the 'stroll' down to the Rhine on the Swiss border would represent the culmination of an epic traverse of this mountain range.
Wiedener Eck to Kandern (day 1) is one of the most elevated sections of the Westweg and includes the massive hulk of Belchen (1414 metres), referred to as the Crown-Prince of the Black Forest summits, and Blauen (1165 metres).
We were thankful to have left the oppressive heat and humidity of the Rhine valley behind us as we started the incessant, energy-sapping zig-zag climb up the northern flanks of Belchen. The view from the top was as rewarding as it is stunning, even though the haze blotted out the far-reaching panoramas to the Alps and the Vosges. Einfach grandios! screeched the guidebook, adding mundanely: if it weren't for the long stretch ahead to Kandern, it might be possible to linger there for an eternity. After the long slog uphill, a much flatter passage to the Blauen follows, with the path hugging the contours of the main ridge at a more or less constant level in a south-westerly direction. It required one final lunge to reach the summit of Blauen before the last downhill stretch. Here, at the restuarant, our dog, in an unprovoked attack, got embroiled in a fight with the proprietor's mutt ("Mein Hund kämpft aber nicht," he had told us beforehand) and it took all our efforts, not to say bravado, to separate the two canine combatants. We left hotfoot and made our way onto the path that slipped away into woodland and down the hill. Our descent to the town of Kandern was plagued by the sound of approaching thunder and we fairly ran the 10 kilometres to avoid the risk of any adversity.
The overnight stay at Hotel Weserei in Kandern was accompanied by some excellent Badische fare and ample beer, reviving not only our aching bodies, but also our spirits.
We set off on day 2 through the gently undulating lanscape of the Markgräflerland, 26.5 kilometres short of the southern terminus of the Westweg. At these lower levels of the Voorschwarzwald, we were glad of the woodland sections to keep us cool, for by the time we had reached Basel, temperatures had soared to 30 degrees Celsius. At Burg Rötteln, we stopped for some Radler in the shade of lime trees at what my walking companion declared was the best biergarten in Germany (some accolade). Sadly, the 285-kilometre trail ends in a bit of a whimper, skirting an autobahn near the town of Lörrach and concluding along a monotonous 5-kilometre stretch in Switzerland, before entering the city of Basel. Gone here were the familiar Schwarzwaldverein signposts and a single, inconspicuous plaque marks the end of this classic trail at the Badische Bahnhof in Basel. As we supped our refreshing Weizen in the station bar, our euphoria was tempered by the fact that the bill weighed in at a whopping 14 Swiss Francs for two beers!