I am just going outside and may be some time…

…or a walk around the village…

After mild weather in Scandinavia that produced only a token dusting of snow I expected to find England balmy, full of birdsong and our woodland carpeted in snowdrops. And so it was for a few days before tentative forecasts of snow began to surface. Despite spring being in the air we were told to expect arctic conditions that would bring life as we know it to a frozen and ice-bound halt. I’m a sceptical sort of chap and take such warnings – the Met Office issued an Amber alert – in my stride but found myself glancing at the horizon to see if the distant spires of Cambridge were disappearing, Mordor-like, under dark clouds.

As the weather front approached us Heathrow Airport cancelled first a third and then half its flights; the BBC warned of icy conditions, road closures and probable accidents; concerned spokespeople wrung their hands in angst during hastily-arranged interviews as they implored us to pay extra attention to our elderly neighbours and the wireless advised us to stay tuned to our local station for weather updates. The tension mounted and the weather dominated the news – reporters ‘live’ at a silent Heathrow and various points around the country gazed upward into clear skies and down at deserted roads as they explained how serious it was going to be. When temperatures began to drop I wondered if I should I head over to our 24-hour Tesco store and stock up with essential provisions but worried that, if the snow hit, I might become trapped in a nightmare world of clueless staff, special offers and tasteless cheese. As Sky News reported that the snow had started falling in the north and was moving south we lit candles, turned up the heating and drew the curtains in what were probably futile gestures against the forces of nature.

It snowed during the night. At least 10cm lay on the ground and the biggest problem I faced was negotiating around the neighbour’s kids’ snowman on the way to pick up my croissants. Ben and Emily came in for hot chocolate later and, somehow, against the odds it seems, we all managed to survive without the aid of the emergency services.

Barrowboy in winter

For a couple of hours in Skåne this weekend and in a gesture of spectacular personal effrontery, it snowed. Not much – perhaps 5cm – but enough to make the landscape look a little more like January than it did last week. I suspect that Skadi, the Nordic goddess of winter, was responsible for the irony of snow falling here while I was driving the 700km to Dalarna just to throw snowballs at the moon but, as I’d hoped, by the time we’d arrived at Villa Långbers the snow lay round about crisp and even, if not very deep. And it was cold.  About -17°C cold. The cloudy weather and snow that was forecast clearly hit the country further south and so, adding surprise to the delight of spectacular frozen vistas, we had some delightful days with bright sunshine and cold, clear nights.

Tällberg is an interesting place and a smallish, pretty collection of houses hung randomly on the side of a hill overlooking Lake Siljan. The town has a wealth of old buildings and, for the most part, these are maintained well so that the overall ambiance is one of historic rural ideal. This appeals greatly to visitors and tourists – as it did to us – as well as organisers of corporate events. The seven rather cosy hotels are especially busy at midsummer but in winter they cater for Swedes heading for the ski slopes. Pretty as Tällberg is, one can’t escape the feeling that the majority of the two-hundred local residents – most of the youngsters escape to Stockholm as soon as they can – are well-heeled retirees and summer-house owners.

Skiing in Sweden is not the massive industry that we know from further south in Europe and comparisons between the short days on modest hills and the high pistes of the Alps would be unfair. It is, however, less pretentious and thereby much more relaxed. We managed some cross-country along excellent forest trails during the weekend but, like many of the more strenuous aspects to my life, I lack practice and spent more time on my bum than I need to go into here. Unscathed, I searched the local forests in vain for Three-toed woodpecker but got some good record photographs of an Eagle owl. Regrettably, there was no wolf action; the howling we heard in the distance at night turned out to be the local youth dealing with the long, dark winter as only they know how.

A frozen Lake Siljan beyond a paddock
Gärdsgård - a typical Swedish fence used for keeping things out, not fencing them in

The method of building log cabins like these was exported to North America with the settlers. The system is known as 'cross-joint'. The building to the right is a härbre, which was used to store food and usually built off the ground to protect against pests and damp

Mission Control lends moral support in the search for a Three-toed woodpecker

Still no snow and the geese are getting fat

Barnacle geese arriving

Well into January and, despite an occasional crisp, cold day the warm, wet and windy weather continues. I’ve just read that it’s been the warmest Christmas and New Year in Sweden for 250 years and I think I know who to blame. When we celebrate St Martin’s Day here we eat roast goose. St Martinis the patron saint of soldiers and horses but I can’t find any reference to his ever having been to Skåne despite his penchant for travelling. He was Hungarian by birth and spent time as a Roman soldier and a monk; later he was Bishop of Tours in France and has his shrine on the road to Santiago de Compostela in Spain so quite why we make a fuss on his name day has escaped me, but there it is. Legend has it he hid in a goose pen while trying to avoid being ordained as Bishop and was discovered because the geese were cackling. The Swedes – always up for a bit of roasting and feasting – took that as a good enough reason for killing a goose on St Martin’s Eve and the celebration persists, although I suspect it may have more to do with the local Skånsk folk taking advantage of the arrival in autumn of tens of thousands of migrating geese. Whatever the reason, in honour of the saint those more traditionally-minded than me roast a goose, say ‘Skål’ and enjoy a bowl of black soup or svartsoppa. This thick, reddish-black broth is made from spiced goose blood, flavoured with fruit and is eaten with entrails of various kinds. I’m thinking it’s probably an acquired taste and not in the top ten vegetarian dishes.

St Martin’s Day is on 11 November and there is a piece of Swedish folklore attached to it. Apparently, if it snows on that day there will be no snow at Christmas but if the day falls on a Friday or Saturday – snowing or not – the winter will be harsh. Well, it didn’t snow on St Martin’s Day this year so snow wasn’t on the cards over the holidays but the day was, however, a Friday. The temperature today doesn’t even hint at a harsh winter and suggests the folklore is out of kilter. Either way, it’s been unusually mild and a little bit too damp for a London boy brought up on notions of roasting chestnuts and James Stewart running through Bedford Falls. I like snow and, despite my memories of Christmas being happy ones, in England the holidays tended to be wet and there was always a point when, with sad acceptance, I had to concede that the dull, drizzly days weren’t going to produce it. We expect some snow in Skåne during the winter – whether or not it snows forSt Martin – and I’ve lived in hope that the second half of the fable will hold true but so far, it doesn’t look like it and the long-range view is that it will stay mild.

Of course, if you’re one of those thousands of migrating geese that’s good news – hunters aside – as there is plenty of food and, more importantly, when it’s not frozen you can get at it. So the mild weather offers one way of bridging the gap between reliving the disappointment of Christmases past and digging out the car; it means I can spend a few hours with some of those geese on the flooded meadows near the blustery south coast at Ingelstorp.

Bean geese

In autumn and winter southern Sweden gets a lot of geese – the delightful and excellent restaurant at Skanors Gastgivaregard even has goose footprints painted on the road outside in celebration. Around 50000 Bean geese fill our fields and meadows and, if it remains mild, something between 11000 and 20000 White-fronted geese join them, too, although they move south quickly if it freezes. Last winter, when it did snow, only twenty-one White-fronts stayed but this year there are thousands feeding with the Bean geese. At Ingelstorp over the holidays there were geese everywhere; grazing the fields, filling the sky and enjoying the weather in noisy abandon. The numbers are immense and swelled by some of our 200000 Greylag geese and 50000 Canada geese. A few days ago the beet fields also had a few Pink-footed geese and some Barnacle geese which meant that there were six different species in one of the flocks. Occasionally a Lesser-white fronted goose joins this party and the Barnacle geese often have a Red-breasted goose with them. They are hard to pick out from the 130000 or so that fly-by on their way to the Nederlands and I know one particular chap who has tried and failed to do that more than once. The Brent geese don’t stay long even if the weather is mild so the 18000 or so migrating birds [of the 100000 that pass through] have now gone. There are one or two Egyptian geese around and they, like the lonely Bar-headed goose that keeps turning up year after year, have probably escaped from someone’s back garden.

Ingelstorp offers another local treat. Olof Victor’s is a bakery and café that uses a wood-fired stone oven to produce some of the best bread, cakes, biscuits and, especially, cinnamon buns in Sweden. Their products are seriously good and can even be found in Harrods food hall. Mild weather in Skåne might be good for the wintering geese but it’s still pretty cold even when there’s no snow so OV’s is the perfect place to get warm again. And for checking the weather forecast.

And as for me, I can feel spring in the air and am getting antsy so before I head for somewhere that has warm water and palm trees I’ll have a few days in the north of Sweden just so that I can get snow on my boots. Tallberg in Darlana, with its frozen forests and wolves beckons.

 

Just another year – but forward or backward?

2010 ended with a whimper; it’s been foggy and very damp outside my office window and mild; very different to the snow and sub-zero temperatures prevailing when we returned from Sweden for the holidays. The trip that usually takes a few hours took two days, involved cancelled trains, cancelled planes, a fitful but greatly-appreciated sleep in Copenhagen before a forced change of airport and some dodgy moments in the taxi that brought us here. We’d read about the chaos at Heathrow and how the country had come to a standstill following the first flurry of snow so we expected something much worse than we found. By the time we landed both runways were open and planes were moving the backlog of red-eyed and dishevelled travellers but there were still huge stacks of baggage lying around and a lot of despondent expressions. Beyond the airport boundary the roads were clear of marooned drivers, who had apparently survived the previous few days through a combination of soup from the Salvation Army and messages of moral support from the tabloid press. BAA’s completely inept management and arrogant disregard for its customers generated justifiable outrage but gave us plenty to moan about so things were more or less normal in pre-Christmas Blighty.

In all honesty though, I was pleased to be out of Sweden for a while because it wasn’t quite so cosy over there, either. It’s usually pretty well organised but, believe it or not, the snow was causing some travel problems although the weather wasn’t all that was troubling the Viking spirit; it was just one of the issues combining to depress an already glum population that was battening down for a long, cold winter. Sweden prides itself on maintaining a smug homeostasis and is rarely disturbed by anything more significant than the issue of the new Ikea catalogue; 2010 wasn’t to be the same.

Remember Julian Assange? In August Sweden issued an arrest warrant for him only to revoke it next day. Was the Swedish special prosecutor’s office misbehaving or just maladroit in the manner in which charges against him were dealt with? First the allegations were dismissed and then resurrected after appeal by the two girls involved. Then another arrest warrant was issued, allowing barmy left-wing itinerant intellects the opportunity to tell us that free speech is being stifled. Maybe it is but someone needs to un-muddy the waters for us as I seriously wonder whether the guy can now get a fair hearing after so much speculation and, this is the ironic part, leaking of information to the media. Back in June it had been so much easier to put our faith in something less tangible than the course of due process; true love.

The collective euphoria of Crown Princess Victoria’s fairy-tale wedding was short-lived and with Julian looking like he wouldn’t be back for his day in court the country was dealt another body-blow when it was dished-up a dose of reality at the September general election. Life took on a different perspective as the ruling coalition lost ground to the Sweden Democrats, a party that leans a fair bit to the right and has strong views on immigration. Immigrants represent nearly one in seven of the population but this issue is usually grumbled about in hushed tones. Although this was only the second time that a Conservative government had been re-elected it was returned without an overall majority and the Sweden Democrats entered parliament for the first time. The previously ever-popular Social Democrats – these guys have ruled for 65 of the past 78 years and are largely responsible for the sumptuous welfare benefits that are enjoyed – were given the finger. Thrown into turmoil at election results that were the worst since 1914, they forced their cold-eyed leader, Mona Sahlin, to walk the plank. The turmoil left the government reeling from the political uncertainty and it had to spend as much time managing its allegiances, alliances and negotiating margins as it did addressing the economy, energy and the environment, which are perpetual and major issues. As the Swedish winter was about to plunge the country into dim twilight more than a few Swedes were reflecting on the consequences of getting what they wished for.

Certainly the unfortunate souls being picked-off by a sniper at bus stops in Malmö did.

In November it was the turn of the Monarchy; with the political situation becoming clearer and the dust settling a book called The Reluctant Monarch was published. The 20,000 print run flew off the shelves as word spread that it alleged the revered and previously respected King Carl Gustaf XVI was actually something of a rake. Here was a monarch of great dignity and mild countenance who, the book alleged, attended strip clubs and wild sex parties while philandering with a buxom model. To make things worse, it was also alleged that he used the secret service – Sapo – to manage the necessary cover-up by repossessing compromising photographs from the sirens themselves, presumably under threat of having their welfare benefits withheld. It seems that the Royal Family have done the proper thing – they reportedly discussed it sensibly and agreed to move on – but I wonder what else there is over on the dark side. The King is a committed hunter; the book acknowledges this when it alleges that he had sex with two women at the same time [I suspect that this is not literal and means that they were engaged in a tripartite tryst] after completing a successful elk hunt. Back in 2008 he caused a minor flap in conservation circles when he advocated hunting Swedish wolves before their population of about 180 ‘exploded’. 180 is not a lot of wolves in the third largest country in western Europe, especially when they tend to stay in the forest, so these revelations suggest to me that there might have been something more sinister to his enthusiasm for culling them. I’m thinking three, maybe four at the same time? Bad enough but then there were suggestions of Nazis further up the family tree. A TV documentary – Kalla fakta [Cold facts] – has alleged that Queen Sofia’s father grew rich during the Second World War by producing armaments from a factory that had been stolen from Jewish owners. She claimed that the factory produced hairdryers and toy trains. I guess that’s just what was needed in Germany during the war so that’s alright then. Hairdryers, eh?

It was all a bit worrying as we’ve always thought that Sweden would be the perfect bolt-hole in the event of civilisation coming to an end so you’ll appreciate that all this uncertainty – which in Sweden is tantamount to civil unrest – was unsettling, to say the least. Then in December just when we thought life might get back to normal Sweden, of all the places in the world, suffered a terrorist attack. We were appalled – not so much at the possibility of a life-threatening event but that someone had dared to do something that was so, well, un-Swedish. As Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt put it when responding to the two explosions ‘Our democracy functions well; those who feel frustration or anger have the opportunity to express it without resorting to violence.’ Which is of course true, unless you come from Luton, where the perp was apparently radicalised and where they don’t speak Swedish but it doesn’t really demonstrate an understanding on what Islamic terrorism is all about, does it?

So, the holidays are about over, people here are still groaning about the weather, traffic chaos, petrol and rail fare increases and VAT at 20% but spring is just a few weekends away. 2011 will be a better year, mark my words.

Here are some pics from those dark, cold days……

 

 

….well, not that dark, really.