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Unique reminder of the past: volunteers restore 769 route-marker stones

Every stone can be found in the online map of the city – 770th stone donated

With Deputy Mayor Erichson and representatives of the Palatinate Paragliding Club at the handover of the 770th route-marker stone in Heidelberg city forest on Friday, April 22, 2016. The stone, which can be found on the path ‘Riesensteinweg’, was generously donated by the paragliding club. (Photo: Dittmer)
Deputy Mayor Erichson and representatives of the Palatinate Paragliding Club at the handover of the 770th route-marker stone in Heidelberg city forest on Friday, April 22, 2016. The stone, which can be found on the path ‘Riesensteinweg’, was generously donated by the paragliding club. (Photo: Dittmer)

The 770 route-marker stones in the city forest help hikers find their way around the forest’s many paths just as well today as they ever did. This is thanks to the dedicated work of roughly 100 Heidelberg residents, who, in collaboration with the city’s Landscaping and Forestry Office, painstakingly restored the stones over a seven-year period. In doing so they gave a new lease of life to a cultural tradition stretching back a hundred years. Before the work started, many of these hefty sandstone boulders – some right in the heart of the forest – were severely weathered and covered in a blanket of moss. Now they have been comprehensively cleaned and the lettering given a new lick of paint. 

It was the Sport & Nature working group of Heidelberg Sports Federation (Sportkreis Heidelberg) that initially thought up the idea of cleaning up the stones, back in 2009. Originally aimed at sports people using the forest, the project quickly gathered momentum and became part of the city’s ‘Natürlich Heidelberg’ environmental education project. Eventually so many people became interested in restoring the stones that it became a volunteer-led, grass-roots project. Fêtes were held in the forest each year for the volunteers, to keep up morale.
On Friday, April 22, 2016, the City of Heidelberg held a reception at the City Hall for all the volunteers to mark the completion of the work. Following a word of welcome from Sportkreis Heidelberg chairman Gerhard Schäfer, project head Prof. Peter Hellwig spoke about the history of the stones and their restoration. A prize draw was held for volunteers in which the top prize was a ‘Königstuhl’ – literally ‘King’s Chair’, but ‘Königstuhl’ is also the name of a famous local hill – donated by the Evangelical City Mission’s Heidelberg Chair Museum. To mark its 25th anniversary, Palatinate Paragliding Club generously donated the 770th route-marker stone (worth 700 euros), which is now in position beside the ‘Riesensteinweg’ path. Throughout the project the bakery Riegler supplied cakes free of charge for the volunteers’ fêtes. The company BASF not only donated all of the paint for refreshing the lettering on the stones, but even developed a new paint color especially for the project.

Dreams of becoming an important spa town

Heidelberg city forest is criss-crossed with an unusually extensive network of paths and trails. At the end of the 19th century great efforts were put into making it easier for people to find their way around the forest and the surrounding countryside. As a result of these efforts, at virtually every junction there are route-marker stones: heavy sandstone blocks, sometimes ornately carved, showing the names of the paths and the direction to significant destinations in the forest. The stones can be found over an area stretching all the way from the Weißen Stein hill to Leimen, and from Handschuhsheim to Schönau. The lettering is carefully engraved in the stones and painted either white, or black on a white background. According to records in the city archives, the stones were mainly erected between 1880 and 1910 – a period that saw a whole host of other developments in Heidelberg such as the restoration of the castle, the construction of the funicular railway, the Stadthalle festival hall and the Bismarck Tower... and the introduction of a ‘whey diet’ at Hotel Molkenkur – all signs of Heidelberg’s aspirations of becoming an important ‘climatic spa’.

More than 40,000 letters restored in an estimated 6,000 working hours

In total the volunteers painted 40,776 letters, or an average of 53 letters per stone. A mason today would charge around 18 euros for chiseling out each letter, making the total cost of replacing the stones at least 734,000 euros. Overall, at a conservative estimate, the mapping and administrative and restoration work for the stones took 6,000 working hours, which would have cost at least 100,000 euros if paid workers had been engaged to do the work.

Every single stone can be found on the online city map

In this age of smartphones and tablets, the route-marker stones showing carefully-painted destinations, and sometimes distances as well, look like something from a fairytale. But they still really help hikers find their way around. And, thanks to recent developments in IT, every single one of the stones can today be found on the city’s geodata website. It took three years to locate the majority of the stones and enter their positions in the system, but as a result, for the first time, Heidelberg now has a record of the locations of these unique witnesses to the past. A picture library, with information about the individual route-marker stones and the story of their restoration can be found at www.heidelberg.de/stadtplan > Leisure map ("Freizeitkarte"). The online information about the stones officially went live during the ceremony held to mark the completion of the project.

Conscious efforts to make Heidelberg’s city forest a ‘recreational forest’

But how did it come about that such a huge number of route-marker stones were erected around Heidelberg’s city forest? Member of the public Joachim Leuschen made it his mission to find the answer to this question – also entirely voluntarily. While scouring the city archives he stumbled across reference to a ‘Forest Committee’, whose members included the head forester and between three and five city councilors. In 1884, he discovered, the Forest Committee assigned 1,200 Deutschmarks to the erection of 20 new benches and 20 new signposts over the course of the year. The ledgers show that the expenditure each year for the next 30 years either remained constant or increased, with the result that, shortly before the start of First World War, as many as 600 stones had been laid.

But funding for forest infrastructure in Heidelberg did not come from the public purse alone: The ‘Association for the Public Good’ (Gemeinnütziger Verein), founded in 1884, also raised considerable funds (65,000 Deutschmarks by 1904), and erected mountain huts, benches and signposts at its own expense. Minutes from December 26, 1887, show that the Forest Committee insisted on the Association for the Public Good’s erecting signposts made from stone rather than wood, in order to ensure ‘uniform signposting’. The erection of the route-marker stones was part of a much larger, conscious effort, supported by many different groups, to make the city forest a ‘recreational forest’.

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