Walking in the rain – Heimbach, Eifel

In the car park at Heimbach, as the river waters ran fast beneath the castle walls, we peered through the windscreen as the rain beat down on the car and puddles formed where the asphalt had been misshapen by time and the long reach of thick tree roots beneath the surface. We had known, before leaving home, that it was going to be one of those days. A day when the ‘fun’ only registers after, with a cup of tea or a glass of wine. A day where you get to test the claims of those jackets and shoes you’ve paid so much money for. A day of walking in the rain.

We had known before driving to Heimbach that this was what we could expect, with the rain speckling the surface of the reservoir as mist rose up through the trees of the forests that covered the steep slopes on either side. We’d traced the shades of blue across the map of the Eifel on our phones, hoping for patches of grey and green, even if none were predicted. We had known, but it still took us a moment to steel ourselves. To open the car door. To take the first steps.

I tried to remember the words of Melissa Harrison, novelist and nature writer, and author of a book all about the joys of walking the rain. “I relished the smell of rain on dry ground, known as petrichor,” she wrote in The Guardian, “and the way moisture in the air alters distance and sound. I realised that only wanting to walk in dry weather was like only ever listening to music in a major key. I’d been missing out on so much.”

It was time for some music in a minor key. For some melancholy and sweet sorrow. On the roof of the car it sounded as if the rain had eased a little. This was our moment. It was time to go.

The reservoir at Heimbach is part of a system of flooded valleys created in the 1930s in the name of electricity production and drinking water for the growing cities of western Germany. The Staubecken Heimbach is a narrow sliver of a basin between the main dam and another one at the edge of the town, after which the Rur river continues on its way down to join the Maas, flowing through Belgium and the Netherlands to the Rhine-Maas-Delta where it meets the North Sea close to Rotterdam.

Our plan was to walk between the two dams, following the so-called ‘Elves trail’ beneath the Meuchelberg hill on the north side of the reservoir and then back along the southern shore. And despite our slow start, there was something magical about the atmosphere as we walked, the rain making a light pattering sound on our hoods as we followed the path, stopping to eat blackberries without the elves noticing us as we went. 

We crossed the valley over the dam, close to the hydroelectric power plant, but found our way back to Heimbach blocked. There’d been a landslide, or some other kind of storm and flood damage. It was too dangerous. We would have to head back the way we came.

It was a reminder that this part of Germany had only recently suffered the impact of major flooding, most notably along the Ahr valley but also throughout the Eifel region. On our drive that morning we had passed through towns and villages where the impact of the floods was heartbreakingly visible. Buckled railway lines. Football pitches peeled back by the force of the waters. Entire households’ worth of belongings, piled up by the side of the street, waiting to be collected.

When floods like this happen – the dams and reservoirs had also been overwhelmed – it was easy to fall back on the idea of a natural disaster. Of a ‘once-in-a-thousand-years’ event. A so-called ‘Act of God’. But this time the experts seemed to be in agreement. These floods, like the forest fires and bark beetle infestations, storm surges and glacier melt elsewhere in Germany, were part of extreme weather patterns caused by climate change, in turn caused by us. The Belgian home affairs minister described the floods as one of “the greatest natural disasters” the region had ever known. But how ‘natural’ was it?

We made our way back to Heimbach, following the Elves Trail once more. The rain continued. There were weak smiles of solidarity with the few other hardy souls who were braving the weather. There was a beauty in the valley that day, but a melancholy too. It was most certainly a walk in a minor key. And it was not the rain that made it so. 

50°37’46.4″N 6°28’02.7″E
Photographs: Katrin Schönig
Words: Paul Scraton