The Running Wolf is my third historical novel based in the north east of England. It’s inspired by the tale of the master swordmakers who defected from Solingen in north west Germany and came to live in Shotley Bridge, County Durham in 1687. The book focuses on Hermann Mohll, who was imprisoned in the winter of 1703/4 in Morpeth Gaol after he was caught smuggling swords into England and suspected of high treason and being in cahoots with Jacobite rebels. (For more information about the history surrounding Mohll and the other swordmakers, please check these articles about the Shotley Bridge swordmakers.)
While researching The Running Wolf, I spent time exploring the three main locations in the book: Shotley Bridge, County Durham; Morpeth, Northumberland; and Solingen, North Rhine Westphalia, Germany, and I took lots of photos, so I thought I’d share some of them here. Solingen was a fascinating place to visit – I went there in October and November 2018, and stayed in an apartment near the crossroads at the enthrallingly named Werwolf, which, of course has an exciting tale attached to it! Legend has it that a band of blademakers were assailed by a werewolf while on their way to their Schleifkotten (little grinding workshops). This is because werewolves frequent crossroads (as do hanged criminals). Other theories include Werwolf being a bastardisation of Wehrwolf, as in wolf pits to keep people out (or in).
Solingen also hosts the national sword museum, Deutsches Klingenmuseum, which is definitely worth visiting as it has swords from all over the world, as well as from Solingen. I took so many photos, I’ve put them in a separate article, here.
Once upon a time, there were over a hundred swordmaking forges in Solingen, with 26 of these along the River Wupper. Out of the original 109, now there are only two left standing. There was a third, but it burnt down, sadly. As you read on, you’ll see that fire is an ongoing problem. Fortunately, the two remaining swordmaker cottages/forges have been preserved close to their original state. The two buildings that remain are both museums, which are open to the public, and if you’re interested in the history of the swordmakers, they’re well worth a visit. There’s a little cafe inside Balkhauser Kotten, and throughout the year, there are special days where you can tuck into traditional dishes such as kale and horse sausage.
The first forge I went to was Balkhauser Kotten, whose ground floor was filled with period forge equipment and old swords. The waterwheel was still operational and a glass floor has been installed so you can watch the waterwheel turning the forge machinery. It was very useful to spend time in the Kotten to soak up the atmosphere and listen to the sound of the waterwheel clanking away – it must have been maddening, although I suppose you’d just get used to it in time. It’s worth visiting the Balkhauser Kotten website, as it helpfully explains the history and there are lots of old photos of how it used to be before the fire. (Don’t worry if you don’t speak German as it will translate to English.) Apparently, the first building was half-timbered, but with a thatched roof, built probably in 1504.
When I was in Solingen, I tried to walk as often as I could so that I could take in the surroundings at the same pace as the swordmakers (and not at all because my German is so bad I was terrified every time I had to get a bus or a taxi). Although when faced with a long uphill walk, I girded my loins and got the bus back. When I was walking from Solingen down to the River Wupper, I was struck by how similar it was to walking from Consett down to the River Derwent. I cut through some lovely autumnal woodland, and the weather was kind to me.
The second swordmaking forge I visited on the River Wupper was the Schleiferei Wipperkotten. This is a double Kotten, with one half operating as a museum and the other as a private forge that still uses water power. It’s very near to the weir, and you can see it in the video below.
If you look on its website, you can see old photos of the Wipperkotten and surrounding buildings, as well as a plan of the building’s interior, showing how the waterwheel powers the internal workings on various storeys. There’s a fascinating short black and white film showing the Wipperkotten in action, with various grinding stones being used to grind blades, and women carrying baskets of blades on their heads.
While in Germany, I also visited the district of Gräfrath in northern Solingen, which has some astonishing architecture, all overlooked by the church of St. Maria, which was built in the 12th century. While I was in Gräfrath, I treated myself to a beer, and I have to say that it was easily the most delicious beer I’ve ever had. It was deceptively strong, though, and it was as well I just had the one. The whole district was decorated with grindstones and you couldn’t go anywhere without tripping over one. This area is also home to the Kunstmuseum (art museum), which contains the museum of persecuted art, which was a fascinating detour from swords, and the staff there were very friendly and helpful. I was very taken with the Solingen Lintel installation (the falling windows below).
Everywhere you go in Solingen, there are beautiful buildings, and here are just a few of them… (bar the bins, of course). There is a Schloss (castle) nearby, but I didn’t manage to make it there this time – something to look forward to next time I visit (and maybe another beer, or two)!
If you’d like to read The Running Wolf , copies are available from booksellers, such as: Blackwell’s, Books etc, Forum Books, Foyles, Hive, Waterstones and WHSmith. Available in e-books for Apple, Kindle, Kobo, Nook, etc. Also available from independent bookshops and local libraries. If you’re not in the UK, the Book Depository ships worldwide free of charge.
Best wishes, Helen