A wherry was a boat used on the Norfolk Broads a hundred or so years ago. This particular drawing of a wherry provides me with a link to those regions of Germany which we in the West were not allowed to visit for 28 years between 1961 and 1989. When the Iron Curtain across Europe was finally removed in 1989 there was in the West an immense curiosity to see those long hidden territories. Had they changed completely? Were the cities ruined by Communist mass housing? Was the countryside irreparably damaged by collective farming or huge industrial complexes? Had history and traditions been forgotten or superseded or lost in re-education? Since then we have learnt to ask humbler questions. We have seen, much to our surprise, that Communism and Capitalism alike have had some fairly destructive effects on town and country. We have stopped looking at things through pro-Western filters and applied some of the same questions to ourselves, realising that any differences are a matter of degree rather than of stark black-white contrast.
Some of the first to rush in after 1989 were the German television camera teams, who made wonderful topographical series entitled Streifzüge or Reisewege or Bilder aus Deutschland, now, of course, already a valuable record of a state of things which has since moved on. We were fascinated, having lived in Germany for so many years and never having been able to travel through so much of Germany's historic territory. The area that seemed least changed as far as we could judge was what is now called Mecklenburg-Vorpommern. It lies along the coast of the Baltic Sea and used to be divided up into a number of principalities such as the Grand Duchies of Mecklenburg-Schwerin and Mecklenburg-Strelitz. It is covered by a chain of lakes and canals and is the home of a variety of wildlife we in England can only dream about.
The historical map above shows the area at about the time towards the end of the nineteenth century when the Norfolk wherry becomes involved in the story. One can make out the two Grand Duchies and to the east Pommern (Pomerania). The modern map gives a better idea of the many lakes which are linked together by rivers and canals, so that one can, in fact, travel through most of them without setting foot on land, which is what the wherry does, as we shall see.
In the midst of all our excitement in 1989 my older son, who has a knack of finding the right thing at just the right moment, discovered a splendid book in a local antique shop and made me a present of it for my birthday the following year. It came, he was told, from the collection belonging to a farming family from our area of southern England, who had just decided to go and farm in post-Communist Hungary and escape the difficulties of farming in England. Its title was Our Wherry in Wendish Lands - From Friesland through the Mecklenburg Lakes to Bohemia, and it was published in London by Jarrold & Sons of 3 Paternoster Buildings. No date is shown but it must have been in 1891 or 1892, for the journey took place in 1890. The author was H.M.Doughty and he had evidently written several other accounts of journeys in his boat. He must have kept detailed notes of everything they saw and experienced, since his book proves a real mine of information, very interesting to have to hand when watching the many television programmes about the same newly accessible regions. And the other splendid feature of the book is the collection of delightful pen illustrations by two of his daughters who accompanied him. The others on board were the butler, who also cooked, a Suffolk fisherman and a Friesian sailor. In 1985 the Ashford Press in Southampton published a facsimile reprint which is still obtainable. In 2001 a German translation with original illustrations appeared was published by Quick Maritim Medien.
The wherry was 53 feet long and 13½ feet wide with a mast that could be lowered to pass under bridges and a keel that could be removed for shallows. It had one sail, a large gaff and no boom. The deck house contained a kitchen and men's cabin at one end and two main cabins, a saloon and a ladies' cabin at the other end, with a bath in each companion way and plenty of storage space. The author's description makes it sound most inviting: "The ladies' cabin has four beds, not one above the other, but end on, two on each side; cold water is laid on, and there is a dressing table, a cheval glass, and two capacious chests of drawers. At the dining-table in the saloon is room for eight; hooks for two hammocks are in the beams overhead. In both cabins lockers and drawers are everywhere." The boat had been planned to accommodate all six children of the owner as well as three men. They began their journey on 26 July and voyaged more than 1600 miles through Germany before returning to the port of Hamburg on 21 October 1890.
The "Wendish Lands" in the book's title refers to the Wenden, a Slavonic tribe which settled in the region between the Elbe and Oder rivers from about 600 AD and of whom there are still traces to be found in the population of this area. They are famous for their beautiful old farmhouses built in a circle (Rundling) with the great end gable facing onto the village green to which there was traditionally only one entrance. Charlemagne fought several campaigns against them around the end of the eighth century, at least partly in the name of Christianity.
The Saxon King Henry I conquered the Wends in 928 and by setting up new bishoprics and walled towns, was able to consolidate his success. But, as with Slavonic tribes generally, the subjugation did not last and Christian ambitions combined with the need for more land led to crusades being undertaken not only to Palestine. At the time of the Second Crusade against Islam 1147-1149 Heinrich der Löwe (Henry the Lion), King of Saxony and Bavaria, was much more interested in expanding his territory eastwards with what is known as the Wendish Crusade which lasted intermittently from 1147 to 1185. He continued to strengthen his influence by founding more bishoprics in Ratzeburg, Oldenburg and Mecklenburg, which latter derives its name from the Wendish fortification Michelenburg south of Wismar on the Baltic coast.
Henry the Lion was married to Mathilda, or Maud, daughter of Henry II (Plantagenet) of England, at whose court he was forced to spend a few years in exile after quarrelling with the German Emperor Friedrich Barbarossa. After the latter had drowned during the Third Crusade, Henry made his peace with the next Emperor, Heinrich VI. All of this was really a dynastic struggle about land and influence in the Holy Roman Empire, that hegemony which was in fact a revival of the original Roman Empire with a distinctly Christian mission, hence the inspiration it gave to the cause of defeating the heathen in northern and eastern Europe.
Thus the region, through which the crew of the wherry Gipsy travelled, while free of any actual Roman history, since the Romans never conquered the north and east of Germany, was thickly covered in layers of past tribal movements, settlements, kingdoms, dukedoms, battlefields and burial grounds. The North German Plain owes its existence to the last great Ice Age. It stretches with hardly a hillock for hundreds of miles under a vast sky with fantastic cloud formations. It is criss-crossed by streams, channels, rivers and lakes all with their attendant mists and the peculiar light effects caused by the moisture content of the air. The silent movement of the wherry could hardly have disturbed the mysterious countryside as they passed. The book contains a map of their journey, red lines showing their route by water up the Elbe, through the lakes of Mecklenburg and back up the Elbe into Bohemia. Dotted red lines indicate extra excursions made by rail.
That the author of the book, H. M. Doughty, was conscious all the time of the historical links between Germany and England is illustrated particularly well in a passage he wrote about their arrival in the "Wendish Lands" along the Elbe, just after leaving Lauenburg, south-east of Hamburg. "We were now well within the ancient 'Wendish Land' - for no less than 800 years the home of a wild race of Sclav (sic) hunters and fighters 'over sea and sand', the Wends. For generations, Christian Saxons and heathen Wends had slaughtered each other, by way of pious missionary argument, till at length Henry the Lion conquered and killed Niklot Prince of the Wends, in a battle by the river Warnow. The interest of this fight, fought so long - 700 years - ago, is of more than mere academic interest to Englishmen; for it is strange as true, that the blood of both the Christian and heathen chiefs, the conqueror and the conquered, runs united in the veins of our English royal family. Our Queen is a direct descendant of both Henry the Lion and Prince Niklot. Henry was a Guelph prince - Her Majesty has no more famous ancestor _ and the Queen's grandmother, good Queen Charlotte - a Mecklenburg princess - was descended directly from the Obotrite Niklot. That ancient house of Mecklenburg is the one reigning family in Germany which is in the male line descended from the Wends. It has, except one short usurpation by Wallenstein, reigned since the heathen times (or rather since Niklot's son was restored) without a break; and to this day its members keep the old title of Princes of Wenden." The Queen Charlotte he refers to was the wife of George III and mother of Edward, Duke of Kent and Victoria's father. She was of the Mecklenburg-Strelitz line.