‘A galaxy of coloured lights’

notCarruthers has already written about our impressions of Kiel on our mini adventure of October 2 to October 4, and as is his wont he’s focussed on retail. It falls to me to talk about more serious matters, in this case Holtenau, which is at the Baltic entrance to the Kiel Canal and which, it turns out, is a fair old way from Kiel itself, and has very much its own character.

We drove about 15 kilometres and over our first of several Hautbrücke, or ‘high bridges’, of which there are ten crossing the Kiel Canal – or the Nord-Ostsee-Kanal, as the Germans more accurately call it. The one at Holtenau was initially built in the 1880s, but has since been replaced by something more modern.

The old bridge at Holtenau. Now, that’s a bridge.

So we found ourselves on the far side of the Canal, in the very pleasant little town of Holtenau. A more different place to Ost-Gaarden in Kiel can’t be imagined – this is a very yachty community, I would guess, all immaculate townhouses interspersed with expensive-looking boutiques selling silk scarves and expensive objets. And it is nothing like we would have expected from the description in the Book.

Childers has it thus:

We rounded the last headland, steered for a galaxy of coloured lights, tumbled down our sails, and came to under the colossal gates of the Holtenau lock. That these would open to such an infinitesimal suppliant seemed inconceivable. But open they did, with ponderous majesty, and our tiny hull was lost in the womb of a lock designed to float the largest battleships. I thought of Boulter’s on a hot August Sunday, and wondered if I really was the same peevish dandy who had jostled and sweltered there with the noisy cockney throng a month ago. There was a blaze of electricity overhead, but utter silence till a solitary cloaked figure hailed us and called for the captain.

It’s a brilliant passage, and it seems to me full of industrial threat – there’s something almost sci-fi about the ‘coloured lights’ and ‘colossal gates’. But, from our particular point of view on October 2nd 2015, the passage is a bit of an odd one. It seems a very industrial scene, while the view that presented itself to us was almost bucolic.

Holtenau at dusk - not exactly industrial
Holtenau at dusk – not exactly industrial

Yes, there were huge ships waiting to go into the Lock (more of which in my next post), but they were surrounded by dozens of pleasure craft. It was more Cowes than Portsmouth. The weather was astonishingly mild (Childers paints a picture of grim and rainy weather on the days before the Dulcibella’s arrival in Kiel). There was a long quay by the water along which yachts were moored, and their owners sat in the cockpits drinking wine and eating meat and cheese. There was a café open, and at the end of the quay was the Holtenau lighthouse, built on a mound of earth excavated from the Canal, where we sat, smoked pipes, recorded some readings and generally took in the view. All very peaceful, all very pleasant.

Ships waiting to enter the Canal at Holtenau
Ships waiting to enter the Canal at Holtenau

So, first of all, let us imagine a light drizzle. That’s going to change the scene a fair bit, I would imagine.

Secondly, let’s imagine two sailors who have not seen the things we’ve seen. They’ve not taken a Channel ferry, or walked for miles through Gatwick airport for a low-fare flight, or seen the gigantic cranes at London Gateway. For them, the Holtenau lock gates might indeed have seemed ‘colossal.’

And what about the ‘galaxy of coloured lights’ and the ‘blaze of electricity overhead’? Again, let us change our point of view. We’ve come from London, which is perhaps the most advanced city in the world at the time, but it is a city where street lighting powered by gas has only existed for a few decades, and where electric street lighting is still very new-fangled and groovy. Here’s a description of it from 1895 – only three years before our adventures:

The ends of two wires attached to a powerful battery are called poles. When these poles are brought together and then separated a short distance, the current of electricity jumps across the space, and fills it with intense light. Now this light is so very hot that it will melt the hardest metals, and even the diamond. So something harder than metal is made, called carbon, and placed in holders connected with the wires, and then this carbon forms the poles. The light is found to arise chiefly from the white-hot tips of the carbon rods, and from an arch of flame which spreads from one to the other, and through which little pieces of white-hot carbon pass over from one point to the other. This light can now be used to light our streets or our rooms, or the miner may carry it with safety into the dangerous mines, or the diver down into the sea. It also is used in some of our lighthouses. Uncle Jonathan, Walks in and around London, 1895

So yes, it was delightful to figure out the topography of the book by visiting the locations. But it was also potentially misleading. We must remember that we are not two well-fed and well-watered middle-aged dullards bouncing randomly around North Germany. We are two Edwardian fellows in their twenties, and we are bound to find it astonishingly uncomfortable that these German chaps seem to have harnessed the power of the elements to drive a bloody great Canal from the Baltic to the North Sea, build massive iron gates at either and, and light it with this new-fangled stuff called electricity.

Of course, if they’d only visited South London, Carruthers and Davies might not have found this so alarming. Electric Avenue, the first market street lit by electricity in the world, was built in 1888. Even the Germans must acknowledge the engineering superiority of Brixton, after all.

Electric Avenue in 1895. More impressive than the Kiel Canal - possibly.
Electric Avenue in 1895. More impressive than the Kiel Canal – possibly.

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