Sunday, April 16, 2006

Meetings and memories

Weeks of raw grey days, enlivened by short sharp thunderstorms finally gave way to temperatures in the comfort zone for cycling, around 15 °C. We took the chance for a short expedition, on the Bromptons, over the fields to Weinheim, a neighbouring small town, on the mainline railway, at the foot of the Odenwald hills. It’s a distance of about 8 km, mostly on tarmac. We approached Weinheim, as so often by bike, via the rather unappetising commercial zone, full of depots and truck parks, before reaching the residential bungalows with their struggling spring flowers and magnolias seemingly frozen in bud burst. We made for the station to buy the Saturday edition of one of the British ‘heavies’, a treasure to savour on our return. En route a car drove slowly past, with the window down. We expected perhaps, at best, a question about the bikes; at worst, abuse of the ‘get off and milk it’ variety; but no, it was my German teacher from the Viernheim night school whom I had last seen about 15 years earlier. We grinned, waved, said Hello and she was gone, leaving me amazed that heavily disguised by advancing age, sunglasses and helmet I was still recognisable. At the station we encountered a new interpretation of the Bromptons, 2 metres apart parallel in their parked positions: Tandems, I suppose, said a passerby?
Then we headed out of town roughly northwards, parallel to the Bergstrasse, an ancient routeway along the foot of the Odenwald hills, and the inspiration for our ‘mega’ publishing organisation. The Odenwald, a straight-edged line of hills were still mostly dark with leafless trees and occasional greener fields. On the plains we encountered two youngsters on unicycles, a recent special offer by one of the discount stores here. They were having a great time, riding fast off making circles and stepping off quickly from time to time. At a picnic bench, surrounded by apple orchards, still in bud a young family, small child in trailer, parents well wrapped in winter cycling togs, were having lunch. From their panniers they appeared to be touring, undeterred by the cool damp Spring. In front, over one of the bridges across a drainage channel, that slices in a straight line from the edge of the hills to the distant Rhine, there appeared a real tandem, that bore its riders away to the south. Above us wheeled hawks, hoping for mice on the channel banks and in the distance a couple of gliders circled lazily in the thermals after being catapulted aloft from the small airfield by Weinheim. Our route now turned into the forest that lies between Viernheim and Lorsch, an old monastic settlement to the north. Here it was, last year that we encountered a frightened riderless horse, clattering at speed along the field way. At that point we leapt from our bikes into the fenceless field without injuring ourselves. Shortly afterwards we encountered the limping horseman who had been thrown off shortly before. All parties being without mobile phones we could only report that the horse was heading back to the stables and assure ourselves that no real damage was done to anyone.
The forest, some 15 km long and 8 km wide with its myriad gravelled and unpaved tracks is a superb green lung for the people of Viernheim and the whole region. However, it was not always so. For the monks of Lorsch it was a hunting area, where dukes and kings also came for rest and recreation. Then anyone poaching game would have had an unpleasant end. For bona fide travellers using the ancient north/south track was not without its dangers as footpads and murderers sometimes lurked in the dark depths, as the memorial stone to BusMichael testifies. In more recent times large chunks of the woods were used by US forces as training areas and weapon storage in underground bunkers. Now these too have been reopened to the public and we cycled past the remains of giant fences, the wire in rusting rolls at intervals. Within these areas plants and animals have flourished largely undisturbed for 60 years, an unexpected plus point for military occupation. Viernheim is almost encircled by Autobahns, fortunately either in cuttings or bounded by soundwalls. Our route now took us over small bridges across two of these, through the Scots pines and the mix of oaks and beeches, glades of heathland interspersed in the area of ice-age sand dunes, which the forest covers. Just before reaching one of our landmarks, the Tank Road, a wide potholed route that follows the old railway line between Viernheim and Lampertheim we came across a group of youthful cyclists, clad in pinks and yellows and struggling a little to make headway over the chunky gravel. They seemed fairly cheerful, despite the occasional shriek as gravity almost prevailed and continued on their way, spurred by Mum, Dad or even Oma or Opa - here folks celebrate their 80th birthdays quite often on bikes! The Tank Road is very useful as a means of orientation for non-locals like ourselves since one tree or one crossroads in the forest looks much like any other! With 25 km ‘on the clock’ and lunch not taken we decided to take a few left turns to bring us home in good time. We reached the next landmark, the Kaefertal Waterworks after a brisk ride. Here another important act in Mannheim’s more recent history took place as US forces reached it in April 1945. By a stroke of fate the telephone was still connected with the civil powers in Mannheim. A German-speaking doctor with the US troops was able to negotiate a surrender without further bloodshed. On, over a small rise provided by a sand dune, encountering the usual mix of Nordic walkers, joggers, dog walkers and slow cyclists one finds near settlements, we pedalled the last kilometres home via the dog clubs, nests of pigeon fanciers and the like. After 30 km it was time to make tea, prepare a sandwich and settle down with the paper.

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