From the street, which runs in a straight line through the Jungfernheide forest in the north of Berlin, circling around the old Tegel airfield, it is a short walk through the trees to the lake. The path, which follows the water’s edge from the Greenwich Promenade south towards Saatwinkel and Spandau, passes by sailing and rowing clubs, small colonies of holiday cabins and the odd bathing beach. On weekends lifeguards sit on the wooden terrace in front of the station and keep an eye out on those in the lake, while families gather on the sand close to the jetty where the small ferry leaves for the short crossing to the islands.
This has become our lake. Presumably most Berliners have one. Over any given summer we will explore at least a couple of the many hundreds of bodies of water that can be found scattered across Brandenburg and even within the city limits of Berlin itself, but this is the one we return to most regularly. It is close enough to be the destination of a morning bike ride or a long run, following the ship canal that links the lake and the Havel river with the Spree close to Berlin’s main train station. It is half an hour on the bus or fifteen in the car. There are prettier lakes, perhaps. Bathing spots with less people, almost certainly. But this has become ours and a key part of our summer routine.
We head there after work, loading up an improvised picnic, towels and the blow-up kayak we’ve borrowed for a few months while its owner hikes the length of a country. At the lake we walk past the bathing beach and follow the sandy track through the trees until we find a small cove with access to the water. A couple are sitting beneath a tree with bottles of beer. A pair of shoes and a towel suggest someone else is out on or in the water.
In the channel between where we set up and Reiswerder island, a grey heron stands in the shallows, surrounded by a raft of coots and a solitary great crested grebe, who seems a bit lost. We can hear the music from the beach, brought to the lake via a portable speaker. We can see down the lake towards Tegel, where the Humboldt brothers lived as children, and across to the deep green of the Tegel Forest, where they played as kids and dreamed of exploring the world, as Alexander would go on to do. Between here and there we can see boats, so many boats. A pleasure cruiser filled with people sipping beers and enjoying the late afternoon sunshine. Sailing boats and motor boats. Kayaks and canoes. A rowing crew. Tens of SUPs.
We blow up the kayak and take it in turns to paddle out and join them. You could go for hours, following the shore. Charting a course between the islands. From the water you can catch a glimpse through the trees of the little wooden summer cottages accessible only by boat. What a privilege that must be, to have such an escape on a lake inside of Berlin. From the water you can see the steam rising from the power plants down at Ruhleben. The huge industrial complexes of Siemensstadt are just a couple of kilometres away. The old airport, the prison and the factories that once built the locomotives that opened up the globe are all nearby. But Berlin is like that. Even in this city, Germany’s largest, it’s always possible to find space.
Down on the bathing beach, a group of lads attempt to climb into a dinghy that they’ve loaded with beer and a tiny outboard motor, powered by a car battery they’ve placed carefully at their feet. It looks, in more ways than one, like an accident waiting to happen. Kids splash in the shallows as the Reiswerder ferry approaches, sounding its horn with a long blast to warn them to keep out of the way. There’s a schedule to keep. Everyone stays clear of the swans. They’ve heard the rumours.
Just down shore, we swim and we paddle. Drink some beer and eat our tea beneath the trees that reach out over the water. There are many reasons why our home city is special. There is culture and nightlife, and a history in many shades. We have friends and family, memories that linger on the streets and squares, at the outside tables of favourite beer gardens and cafes, and the cosy corners of bookshops and pubs for when the nights draw and the long winter takes hold.
And we have the forests and the lake, and the places to which we can escape, without ever having to really leave home.
Photographs: Katrin Schönig
Words: Paul Scraton