My journey started with a frenetic liaison at the BFI the night before. Conversation darted from Edward Hopper to Charles Rennie Mackintosh and Frank Lloyd Wright. A dash home in the dark, still thinking about all the things left unsaid, which also left me pondering my choice to travel alone.
… Sunday. I rode the midday rails to their conclusion: Zone 5, Terminal 5.
My destination was Stockholm, the city of islands, lakes and the Baltic sea. As the plane descended I tried to take in the scenes which seemed too picturesque to be real; forested islets, oxbow lakes and crystalline waters within small fjords, and not a single piece of concrete or steel on the horizon. The plane landed in the middle of a huge pine forest, which seemed like a feat of magic unto itself. I had arrived at Arlanda airport.
My first impressions of wandering around Södermalm (the area where I was staying) was that the city’s famed island setting was absent – it felt like many other European cities, with a mixture of late 19th century apartment blocks and modernist towers. It wasn’t until I took a trip down to Hornstull on the western end of the island that its beauty first struck me, with its small wrought iron bridges, boatyards and little red summer houses.
Apparently this is a favourite local spot during the summer for a swim. It is also close to Reimersholme and Langholmen – two smaller islands which are accessible via small bridges. These islands can be explored in under an hour, with the former being a commune set up by a Swedish industrialist and the latter once being home to a prison, which is now a youth hostel!
My visit to Gamla Stan (the old town) was a bittersweet experience. The architecture, ochre walls and cobbled streets were a joy, but the tacky tourist shops filled with plastic Viking memorabilia and the constant chatter of walking tours were not. Wander through the streets in the early hours of the morning and you’ll get a chance to soak up its real atmosphere, away from the buzzing crowds.
I was lucky to only encounter the more hostile side of Stockholm’s weather for one day, which I chose to spend visiting some of the cities many museums and galleries. By far my favourite were the Modernamuseet and Ostasiatiskamuseet on Skeppsholmen and the Vasamuseet on Djurgarden. The Vasamuseet really blew me away – a purpose built museum, designed to house the perfectly preserved 17th Century warship Vasa, which sank on its maiden voyage in Stockholm’s harbour. The story of how the ship was found and brought to the surface is really inspiring – one man’s commitment over three years, coupled with the bravery of a team of salvage divers who were spending 45 minute shifts on the sea bed in pitch black, wearing a 100kg brass and rubber diving suit. It made me think of how health and safety rules everything now – our concept of bravery has become more constrained by society’s ever increasing list of rules.
The island of Djurgarden was by far my favourite place in Stockholm. A green and airy place, formerly the royal hunting grounds, it is now home to several museums, a theme park, and the Rosendals Trädgård – a truly magical place. Ostensibly it is a garden centre, although not like any other I have encountered before. It doesn’t feel contrived or too manicured, it has no defined boundaries or fences at its edges; it just slowly blends back into the island’s wilderness.
It has a small shop and a cafe, where they serve sandwiches and cakes made from the vegetables and fruit they grow there. Although there is a commercial element there, it wasn’t overwhelming – you got the sense that promoting a connection with plants and cultivating an interest in horticulture was their main aim – it felt like a genuine community. They offer free advice, consultations on garden design (regardless of whether you live in a flat/house/mansion/boat) and they also offer courses for children. Great great place.
One of my final experiences during my stay in Sweden was taking the Waxholmsbolaget ferry out the the archipelago. Large sections of the archipelago have been purchased in order to provide summer homes for many Stockholm residents – the typical Scandanavian chalets with red weatherboard cladding and small boat houses that punctuate the islands. Although much of the land is privately owned, the archipelago foundation retain about 15% of it as nature reserves, the remaining land is subject to Swedish property law, which still allows members of the public reasonable access rights to private property. Hence the reason why there are very few fences and walls.
My journey took me to the island of Gällnö, about 2 hours our of Stockholm harbour. Although the Waxholm ferries are essentially a passenger service, they also carry mail and newspapers out to the islands. The route I took had about 20 stops on it, with many of the island dwellers using it as a means of daily commute into the city. The incredible thing is that they navigate these huge boats through narrow sounds and gaps between the islands, and when they do stop to let passengers off you have to be quick – they don’t tie up, keep the engine running and are off again in less than 2 minutes!
Gällnö is a nature reserve, which also houses a small farming community of about 30 permanent residents. I didn’t see any of them during my day trip there, nor did I see any of the elusive wildlife – there are large numbers of beaver, elk, seeker deer and roe deer. I did however spot lots of dragon flies and mushrooms – even some porcini.
The overall feeling I experienced when exploring the island was a mixture of excitement and trepidation – it was the most alone I have ever felt in nature. It made me realise how disconnected and comfortable I have become with living a homely existence – it reminded me of a great line from Jerome K. Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat:
“… ere the wiles of painted civilisation had lured us away from her fond arms, and the poisoned sneers of artificiality had made us ashamed of the simple life we led with her, and the simple, stately home where mankind was born so many thousands of years ago.”
My greatest adventure was trying to row between Gällnö and the neighbouring island Karklo, via a set of three rowing boats provided by the archipelago foundation. The rule is that one boat must be left on each side of the sound – if there is only one boat on your side, you have to row across and tow the spare boat back over. Needless to say I got wet – my boot went in the Baltic and I had a few laughs – but I managed. A small triumph, which is part of what it’s all about I think.
I’ll end by saying this trip came at a very welcome time, when new experiences and challenges were really needed to shake the cobwebs out of my head and re-examine those easy routines we all slip into.
For those of us wishing to reconnect with nature, I have made a very small suggested reading list below:
Walden and other writings by Henry David Thoreau
The Wild Muir: Twenty-two of John Muir’s Greatest Adventures by John Muir
The Foxfire Collection (various authors) – This was originally a magazine periodical, containing articles about bushcraft and wilderness skills gained by peoples living and working in the Southern Appalachian mountains. It is available to buy in bound book form, however it is quite expensive – possibly try the library?