‘Invisible forces were at work’

I wrote two days ago of our impressions of Holtenau on our initial visit during our Kiel road trip between October 2 and October 4. I said it was a quiet, well-heeled sort of place, full of pleasure yachts, less Kiel, more Kowes.

But that was only half the story. If you approach the Holtenau Lock at the mouth of the Kiel Canal from the south – in other words, if you don’t cross the Canal and stay on the Kiel side – you get a very different view. And that’s what we did on the morning of October 3.

Davies and Carruthers go through the lock on the evening of October 2, of course, and spend the night in what Childers calls a ‘capacious basin’ on the inside of the lock. We couldn’t see that basin when we visited on the 3rd, but there might be a reason for that, which I’ll come to shortly.

On the Kiel side of the Canal, you get a much stronger impression of the industrial and engineering might that the Canal represents, and which must have hit our two English heroes so forcefully. In fact, this ‘working’ side of the lock feels very English, a familiar collage of red brick, cobblestones and even the obligatory abandoned freight railway. One thing that wasn’t at all English, though, was the stone coat of arms cast into the wall, the shrieking eagle of the new German Empire, restored in 1871 by the first Kaiser with more than a nod to the old Holy Roman Empire.

The German Imperial Coat of Arms at Holtenau Lock. Crikey.

Presumably in 1898 this place would have been a hive of activity, but in these days of automation it felt curiously devoid of humans, apart from a small huddle of them on the viewing platform above the lock, which we made our way up to.

And here, for the first time, we got a real slug of the industrial awe that the visiting Edwardian Englishman must have felt. We watched a huge tanker enter the lock, heard the alarm, and then from beneath us saw the gate of the lock emerge and begin to close. The gate here moves across the canal, like a sliding door – it was a mechanism I’d not seen before, being more used to the swinging-gate affairs familiar on British locks. The whole process took something like twenty minutes, and then the tanker, by my reckoning, made its way out of the Canal, and into the Baltic.

A not-particularly-helpful picture of the Holtenau Lock gate beginning to close.

I promised some thoughts on the ‘capacious basin’ Carruthers mentions on the inside of the Holtenau Lock. As I said, we couldn’t see it – but I think I might know why. When the Canal opened in 1895, it was a lot narrower than it is today. At the waterline, it was 66.7 metres wide, and at the bottom 22 metres wide. Soon after it opened, though, it was decided this wasn’t wide enough – not least because the new warships of the German Navy, which had grown bigger and wider thanks to the arms race with Britain, were too big for it. So work began on widening the Canal almost immediately – by 1914, when this project was finished (in timely fashion), the Canal was 102.5 metres wide at the surface, and twice as wide – 44 metres – at the bottom.

And then, in the 1960s, as supertankers revolutionised international freight, the Canal was widened again, to its current surface width of 162 metres; the bottom was doubled again, to 90 metres. So today’s Canal is almost three times as wide as the one Carruthers and Davies sailed down – so it may be that the capacious basin has simply been absorbed by the wider Canal.

We got back into the car, and drove back over the High Bridge, heading back to Holtenau town for breakfast on the same quayside we’d spent the previous evening. Now, the sea outside was literally brimming with pleasure yachts, all of them waiting to make their way into the Lock, accompanied by enormous tankers which looked like they might fall on them.

The Baltic side of the Holtenau lock on October 3rd
The Baltic side of the Holtenau lock on October 3rd

After breakfast we spent a very pleasant morning tracking the roads as they switched back towards the Canal and away again. Away from the Canal, the landscape was green and very beautiful – Childers calls it ‘grey and monotonous’, which may have been down to the weather in 1897 when he visited, or may have been down to his odd lack of interest in non-waterborne matters, at least in this book. Like any landscape bisected by water – or by rail, or by motorway – there was an odd interrupted feel to the topography, as we kept encountering dead ends and sleepy canal-side villages. The only other vehicles were saw were bikes, and at one point we drove along a three mile stretch of road alongside which was being built a very impressive cycle path, though no-one was working on it, and no-one was cycling on it.

In fact, there were no people anywhere, other than the occasional cyclist. We encountered a gaggle of a dozen motorhomes parked alongside the Canal, facing another dozen on the other side, but they seemed to be empty. We drove down to a German military base alongside the Canal, surrounded by fences and barbed wire. It, too, was deserted. The only things moving was the ships on the Canal, which we glimpsed through the trees. It was as if gigantic office blocks were taking a stroll through the woods. At one point, I heard notCarruthers speaking in English to someone, and thought he had met a Human Being. But no. He was chatting to his wife on his phone.

Roads, houses, Canal, ships – but no people. What on Earth was going on? We stopped at Rendsburg for lunch to try and find out – but that’s the subject of another post.


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