Grabbing hold of vine-tangled tree limbs under each arm and dragging them along behind me around the bend in the forest path, I imagined this change-of-season task being completed by many different workers over hundreds of years. Who was responsible for maintaining the castle grounds when it was built in 1210? What about the periods of time when the robber barons’ Burg (castle) Tannenberg was destroyed and slowly fell into ruin? And what about the first members of the local heritage and restoration club who took up the work again 40 years ago, joined by their common interest in local history?
James and I had traveled to Seeheim-Jugenheim near Darmstadt and hiked through the dregs of fall’s foliage up the Tannenberg Mountain at 9:00 last Saturday morning. Along with some other Americans, we joined the town’s castle restoration club volunteers. The restoration project is entirely volunteer-based so the club’s members, including a few expert surveyors and landscapers, are essentially castle enthusiasts. They organize full-day monthly restoration work sessions throughout the year, with the exception of the winter months. Our work day, though, was shorter as it was the last for the year.
We spent a strenuous but exciting three hours hauling away branches and organizing usable firewood cut from trees by a landscaper. Among the 20 or so volunteers, those who weren’t with us raked the main path and the castle courtyard clean and periodically passed by with wheelbarrows full of leaves or wood to dump. Some of the older volunteers collected wood in a truck to take away.
While it was a chilly November morning, we weren’t there long before we had worked up enough warmth to throw off our coats. I regretted laying them on a stump, however, as when I went back to get them afterward, I found fat gray spiders crawling all over them.
During a very hot day in summer, James had taken part in another work session and helped to unearth part of the castle’s outer wall. Since then and now, he was able to see how much those remains had been reconstructed with the stones they had dug up. In their digging, one volunteer had even unearthed a piece of pottery that is currently being cleaned and catalogued in preparation for display in the homely local history museum.
After we had wrapped up our work, and as James was explaining the changes he noticed since his last work session, the primary surveyor came over to chat with us about the castle. The older gentleman carried a large grid paper under one arm on which his measurements of the entire property were meticulously marked, and commented that it was always fun to work on the castle project. He showed us that from where we stood, we could see Frankfurt faintly on the horizon – a distance of nearly 30 miles (about 48 kilometers) away. On clearer days (fall is often hazy), you can see even further.
Eventually we made our way back into town for a lunch of goulash and a dessert of baked apples hosted by the castle restoration club. We sat on benches at long wooden tables in a converted stone barn. In true German fashion, the club leaders had prepared kind words of recognition for everyone from the main project organizers to the volunteers to the cooking staff; presented carefully personalized gifts to a select few; and handed out printed copies of their restoration schedule for 2016 with an added invitation to attend a pre-work kickoff event.
I’ve enjoyed visiting castles and learning about history here in Germany, but being able to feel and take part in a piece of history was an unforgettable experience.