Dear diary – another sunny day?

Sometime during the year I lost sight of the schedule. After moving and taking time to draw breath we were sufficiently organised to find a way of moving around the diminishing towers of unpacked boxes and leave for a while; we were set for travelling. All it needed was a modicum of organisation in order that the few fixed points punctuating the calendar dovetailed neatly into any plans that developed. We had to be at the wedding of course – a grand weekend affair at an English country house could not be missed – and I had to vote in the Brexit referendum, which required some time in Cambridge even if I made a postal vote. There was a birthday gathering in Thailand and a short trip to Dubai. Those apart, it looked like there would be plenty of time to fit in some spontaneous peregrination.

It would take just a little planning and a few simple decisions. Simple, that is, until Sweden presented something that we hadn’t accounted for – a long, hot summer. It’s difficult to describe the effect of summer on a nation that lives half the year in dark, cold winter. As soon as the sun peers over the horizon Netflix and jam-making are discarded for al fresco dining in what are still single-digit temperatures; fallen leaves are swept from patios with gusto; excited chatter echoes over garden hedges and the air fills with the aroma of barbecue lighter. In the streets and supermarkets those long Scandinavian shorts appear – the ones with tie-strings, utility buckles and pockets on the knees – and on the beaches people huddle behind windswept dunes while their blond-haired children frolic in the bone-chilling water. But in 2016 it was different. Above average temperatures and long, sunny days made it feel just like the Med and you didn’t need a fleece blanket if you sat out in the evening.

The first cranes arrive over the garden in March and the sun is already shining.
The first cranes arrive over the garden in March and the sun is already shining.
Midnight at Mjörn lake near Gothenburg.
Midnight at Mjörn lake near Gothenburg.

Sweden’s summer can be a hard mistress but she does provide the perfect excuse for fleeing to warmer climes. But as the warm spell lengthened from days to weeks and then months there was little need and no justification in leaving. In fact, those arrangements that we had made were appearing more inconvenient as the year sweltered on and it became galling to leave the hammock. We swam in tepid water until early October and started a re-reading exercise as the summer’s supply of essential books was exhausted. It was too hot on some days to do more than lie in the shade with a cool drink.

I left the blogosphere inside with my tablet and just let the summer sweep me along whilst ensuring, in the interests of tradition, that the legacy of James Pimm was upheld and the fortunes of Tanqueray maintained. And as a measure of catching up, a few posts covering some aspects of my 2016 carbon footprint follow this.

A tree sparrow cooling off while I was doing the same
A tree sparrow cooling off while I was doing the same
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One step at a time

Blakeney - church and saltmarsh
Blakeney – church and saltmarsh

Moving home is never easy although I guess it can be a lot worse than what we’ve experienced over the past year. It’s taken much more mental energy than I would have thought possible and it’s also been somewhat distracting. So, along with a range of other pleasurable activities that weren’t a priority as we rebuilt walls in the old place and removed them in the new, posting an occasional blog was put on the back burner. In any event, the exercise would likely have gravitated towards anecdotes surrounding delayed sales, clarifications of legal easements, moving packing cases across Europe or getting the piano to the auctioneers so describing events seemed just a bit too much like sharing personal angst.

The dust has settled now and life has taken on a complexion that looks normal so taking the time to set out some thoughts with a passable Pinot is back on the agenda again.

The past year wasn’t all moving boxes, retrenchment and decanting furniture; we broke surface for air to visit Dubai and Thailand, had a couple of short breaks in Germany and enjoyed some summer being Swedish in Sweden. Getting away from it all – which will fill some posts shortly – kept us sane and provided perspective.

When I was younger and needed some thinking space I’d go up to Norfolk and walk the East Bank at Cley where the saltmarsh and sea air is cathartic. We did that this weekend and stayed at the excellent Byfords in Holt. It snowed a little, was very cold at times, sunny and windy by degrees and the Brent geese were everywhere. Being back in Cambridge today has the feel of home for the first time – most of the boxes are gone, new furniture is in or due for delivery, cables have been tidied into ducts and the new bookshelves are full. Climbing into bed is once again a choice, not a necessity.

Brent geese overhead at Wells-next-the-Sea
Brent geese overhead at Wells-next-the-Sea

 

Summer’s lease – thank you for the music

Benny Andersson giving his best
Benny Andersson giving his best

Over the years we’ve been to some celebrated concerts at a country house not far from where we live in England; they are held in the park during the summer on the gently sloping lawns above restored Jacobean gardens. It’s a well-tried formula – a good Pinot, picnic snacks, portable camping chairs and umbrellas; sit back, enjoy the music, get a little mellow. Well, that’s the plan but if I’m honest it really only worked out like that for us once. Mostly it has been cold and dull and twice it rained so heavily that we chucked it in, wet through to our underwear, before the concert started.

I’m not the best supporter of summer concerts – if plans are being hatched my preparations centre on the logistics of managing waterproofs, rubber boots and sufficient weather protection to see that drinks remain hot and food dry. Not so Mission Control, who is optimistic to the point of distraction. Her approach involves chilling wine, selecting an appropriate table setting and choosing which open sandals to wear. You’d have thought by now she knew that it always rains at outdoor concerts and as for me, my days of believing that wet feet are a prerequisite of musical appreciation have gone the way of my kipper ties.  

As summer reached its height and it really began to look as if you could plan an outdoor event more than 24 hours in advance the summer open-air concert agenda became a topic of conversation. I was immediately faced with a dilemma. From a point somewhere back in the seventies I have been a fan of Abba although I wouldn’t have admitted that before Mama Mia! took off. The success of the show and movie together with near-universal appreciation of the music has made it more or less acceptable to ‘fess up to a fondness for badly-rhyming lyrics and a chequered sartorial history that included stacked shoes and flared trousers. In Sweden Abba are something more than national icons, perhaps because they seem so normal and, in a manner that is intrinsically Swedish, anti-celebrity. Mission Control exchanged a few words with Björn Ulvaeus as he was loading beer into his car in Stockholm once and another time, in a traffic jam outside the city, Anni-Frid Lynstad was stationary right alongside me and smiled and waved as I recognised her. Such humility, although I secretly wished it had been Agnetha Fältskog. [That’s the blond one.]

Benny Andersson appears these days with a motley band of troubadours known collectively as Benny Andersson’s Orkester – BAO for short – and with them two vocalists; Helen Sjöholm and Tommy Körberg. The music they play is unashamedly popular and appeals to audiences, shall we say, of a mature and genteel disposition. It’s immensely popular – one song stayed in the charts for 278 weeks – but that disguises the fact that he’s a strong advocate for traditional folk music. For several reasons, but mostly because I like that they enjoy playing so much, I’ve been keen to see them for some time but our travel schedule and the brevity of their concert tour in Sweden – they play eight or so concerts a year – have minimised my chances. Added to that, most venues are a long way from where we stay and by the time we hear about a concert all the tickets are long gone. Frustrating, but what could you do? The concerts are in the open air and I’d expect it to rain anyway.

Helen Sjöholm  and accompaniment
Helen Sjöholm and accompaniment
Helen Sjöholm and Tommy Körberg
Helen Sjöholm and Tommy Körberg

And there was my dilemma; BAO were to play an open-air concert just up the road in Helsingborg and the weather was just about guaranteed to be good. No reason not to go, really – aside from the fact that it had been sold out for nine months. Would I rethink my aversion to open-air concerts, Mission Control asked?

I can’t recall if I did agree to soften my attitude but, a few days later and in blazing sunshine, I was at the VIP guest entrance at Sofiero Slott, chairs under one arm, a chilled Orvieto and an excellent picnic under the other. Quite how Mission Control managed to place us just below the stage and ahead of a few thousand people, some of whom had been queuing all day with tickets they had purchased months before, is a secret I’m asked not to divulge but there we were and there was Benny. Doing what he does best and smiling for the camera.

A bucket-list box ticked and how about that – it didn’t rain.

Summer’s lease – what a state we’re in

Red kite inspecting us
Red kite inspecting us
Golden eagles over the garden
Golden eagles over the garden

I felt the first icy grip of winter this week as I was wandering along the River Blackwater. Although it was bright and clear the temperature resolutely refused to move into double figures and I found myself reflecting on the warm, sunny days that 2013’s record-breaking summer eventually brought us. I’ve been walking the coastal marshes since I was a boy and, for me, they evoke the very essence of winter. The skies, big over the maze of winding channels and muted colours, were filled with hundreds of Brent Geese and golden plover; ducks and godwits; avocets; egrets and huge flocks of waders, panicked into a cacophony of whirring wings and alarm calls by a peregrine falcon. As background, robins and Cetti’s warblers sang in the shrubs behind the sea wall. Put simply, it was a spectacular experience.

The Essex coast doesn’t feel very different from when I first experienced it – a little more developed, a few more people, less wild perhaps – but essentially much the same. Change, though, is inexorable and often only noticed when we pause and take stock. Experiencing the sight and sound of those thousands of wintering birds was exhilarating but were there as many golden plover or redshank that held me in awe on my first visit there? Were the dunlin or geese as numerous?

In Sweden we’re privileged in living above a valley where golden eagles nest so it’s not unusual to see them – frequently with red kites – wheeling in languorous circles high over the garden. Last year a decision was taken to reduce disturbance in the valley and a project to reinvigorate the disused railway was abandoned, allowing the start of improvements to the landscape that reversed unsympathetic drainage in the grazing meadows. It was a bonus for an area that already has a rich ecology. The environment gets a very fair shout in Sweden, perhaps because it has the fourth lowest density of population in Europe or perhaps because there is less pressure on the land than in England. Whatever the reason, we’re used to big birds of prey in the sky and the thought that they might not be there one day doesn’t register as a possibility.     

Not so in the UK, where my summer was disrupted in late May by the publication of a report called The State of Nature. It’s a sobering document and requires a philosophical frame of mind – or a large Scotch – to read. It comprises collected overviews of twenty-five British conservation bodies that together provide an outline of the changing status of habitat and species in the United Kingdom and its Overseas Territories. It reports on the dire status of some species and highlights some of the successes that conservation can achieve. The headline conclusion, though, is that the UK’s wildlife has suffered a serious decline and is continuing to do so at a very alarming rate.

Egrets on the Blackwater
Egrets on the Blackwater
Wintering wading birds on the Blackwater
Wintering wading birds on the Blackwater

Reading the report raises conflicting emotions; on one hand the loss of habitat and once-familiar animals and birds is depressing whereas on the other, the gains are uplifting. Targeted conservation meant that a wintering flock of around fifty avocets graced the Blackwater margins, a bird that was once extinct as a UK breeding species. In sharp contrast, the losses of recent years are widespread and extensive – butterflies down by 72%, 40 million birds lost and 80% of lowland heath gone or degraded. The statistics paint a very disheartening picture. I rarely see House Sparrows these days yet they were ubiquitous when I was younger; recently, hedgehogs have declined by nearly 50% and could become extinct in some areas of the UK. The story is similar across a broad spectrum and one fears for less iconic species of plant or insect that lack popular appeal.

The State of Nature is upbeat and provides scope for optimism but it left me with a feeling of how little individuals can do in the face of such massive and apparently continuous loss. Anything, of course, is always better than nothing even if an individual contribution appears as insignificant as signing a petition or joining a conservation organisation.

Only this month and after fifteen years’ management of a site that contributed toward maintaining a viable population of Cirl Buntings in southern England the area has been deliberately degraded at the behest of the local NHS Trust so as to facilitate a housing development. I’m aghast that it can happen – you can read about it here – and yet not entirely surprised when considering the attitude adopted by a weak and unprincipled government that acts in a manner suggesting it is both in hock to business and detached from the long-term implications of its own ineptitude. A report from Wildlife and Countryside Link – *Nature Check 2013 – has looked at how the government is matching up to its promise to be the ‘greenest government ever’, as set out in the Prime Minister’s speech in May 2010. If you’ve caught my drift thus far you’ll know what conclusions are drawn.Red Kite, Golden Eagle, 

Next summer – when I hope it’ll be just as sunny – I’ll be checking the sky in Sweden to see how many young eagles fledge in our valley; in England I anticipate that I’ll be writing another rant as yet another misguided example of the government’s expediency comes to light. 

*Read a synopsis of the report in the Huffington Post here or read the full report here.

Blackbirds feeling the heat in 2013's record breaking summer
Blackbirds feeling the heat in 2013’s record breaking summer
Brown hare enjoys the sunshine
Brown hare enjoys the sunshine

 

Summer’s lease – sing, dammit-it’s a tradition

March in England was the coldest since 1962 and the second coldest since records began so April’s first warm, sunny days were very welcome. Ann and Lars were over from Denmark and even though it was still too cold to sit outside in comfort a visit to the east coast and the West Mersea Oyster Bar enabled us say thanks and goodbye to the native oyster season. This is becoming a tradition for Mission Control and me; the oysters are matchless and the fish and chips pretty good too, especially after a bracing walk along the Mersea seawall or beside the Blackwater.

Black-headed gulls loafing at Mersea
Black-headed gulls loafing at Mersea
Blackwater barges
Blackwater barges
Mudflats on the Blackwater
Mudflats on the Blackwater

I like traditions and believe they can have great value even if, in some respects, we’ve lost sight of what we are celebrating. Mark Twain reflected on it in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer when he wrote “The less there is to justify a traditional custom, the harder it is to get rid of it” and so it appears in real life.  In Sweden traditions are important; anything that attracts more than three people becomes a celebration and any celebration that’s repeated becomes a tradition. As a consequence, the calendar overflows with them and, not content with those they have, more are being added. We find our travel is often framed around one particular gathering or another.

We never miss Fettisdagen – Fat Tuesday – at the start of lent, where the tradition is celebrated with fastlagsbulle or semla – delicious buns filled with cream and almond paste. Shrove Tuesday or Mardi Gras is an old tradition with roots in the Middle Ages. It gets a ‘thumbs-up’ from me on the merits of these scrummy little treats alone but at the other end of the dental cavity scale the new kid on the block is Kanelbullens dag. This piece of nonsense, which was started in 1999, is a tribute to the cinnamon bun and while accepting that it’s a staple of any coffee morning in Sweden I wonder if it really justifies its own web page. In between Valborgsmässoafton, when the evil spirits are driven out and fertility is invoked with bonfires, singing and drinking and Kräftskiva, when we eat crayfish, sing more songs and get hideously drunk, bookend Midsommarafton, the most celebrated of Swedish traditions.

April’s weather was fine but cool although summer really started for us on 1 May, where the tradition of heralding the arrival of long, light evenings, deserted offices and phones switched to voice-mail, needs a bonfire. So a few days after the oyster season closed we were in Sweden celebrating Valborg or Walpurgis Night, as it’s known in England. The village turns out to light an enormous and – it has to be said – dangerous fire, sing folk songs and offer a few prayers for a plentiful bounty in the coming year. Actually, warding-off evil spirits and invoking fertility come a poor second to alcohol on these occasions so we were inside drinking elderberry flower and gin cocktails long before there was any danger of having to deal with first-degree burns.  The singing – as always – was led by our local patriarch Henry Ekelund, who has been warding-off evil spirits since he was born in the village over ninety years ago. It was clear and cold that evening; perfect for our fire but a night of contrasts. I recall hearing the first nightingale of the summer and seeing Henry’s wife, our beloved Signe, for the last time; she passed away shortly after.

My Swedish is little better than my knowledge of brain surgery but every year they give me song-sheets and every year I stumble through lyrics about buds bursting into leaf that I don’t quite understand while trying to carry tunes I don’t really know. The important thing, of course, is being there, sharing the occasion and contributing to the friendship and community spirit that pervades the evening. I’ve found it helps if you can hold your drink, too, so I practice at every opportunity. Rejoicing in the invention of the cinnamon bun seems a little silly by comparison.

Spring and early summer in Sweden can be a mixed blessing. Time spent in the wide open spaces and lengthening days are often tempered with a chill in the air. May was cold but with clearer weather, on balance, than in England so we ended up spending most of the month there, indulging ourselves in the richness of Sweden coming to life, anticipating a warm June and looking forward to the next celebration.

As a measure of how important the return of the long, light days are midsummer’s day was at one point considered a candidate for National Day. It’s always a very social occasion but dancing around the maypole, singing traditional songs and holding hands with people you’re normally only on nodding terms with doesn’t come easily to a bloke from London’s east end. Prodigious amounts of alcohol can be consumed but tales of drunken abandon and debauchery tend to mythologise a national treasure and are not entirely true. That being said, anyone with a modicum of concern for their liver will avoid the traditional celebration of Midsommarafton. Anecdotes involving alcohol tend to define the occasion, the essence of which was captured perfectly in Ikea’s German TV ad. It was banned on the grounds of implying inappropriate rectitude but, that aside, most celebrations are far less riotous. Nonetheless, each of Sweden’s traditions is observed with great seriousness.

As a foreigner I’m very happy to go with the flow but somehow, though, I don’t think I’ll ever get the hang of that singing.

The village invokes fertility
The village invokes fertility
Signe and Henry Ekelund and our magnificent fire
Signe and Henry Ekelund and our magnificent fire
Visitors drop in
Visitors drop in

Midsummer murmurs

Midsummer is on us and the Scandinavians are preparing to celebrate it in customary fashion. Here in Sweden the ever-practical locals take a pragmatic and serious view of the occasion so Midsommarafton or Midsummer’s Eve is a holiday and celebrated on the nearest Friday to the sun reaching its zenith; something to do with managing the effects of drinking copious amounts of snaps and dancing around a maypole in national dress, I suspect. The celebration demands a lot of singing, pickled herring, strawberries and neighbourly back-slapping and, after a few years of practice, I’m doing well on my personal journey towards mastering the effects of caraway-flavoured alcohol.

The celebration of midsummer is founded in pagan ritual when the white Scandinavian sky makes the evening shimmer with magic. In Sweden it’s said that if you put seven varieties of wild flower under your pillow at midsummer you will dream of your future spouse. I tried that after some of my early flirtations with snaps but all I dreamt of was falling down a deep, dark tunnel. Maybe you have to be Swedish. It’s also said that herbs and water taken from springs at midsummer will bring health to people and livestock so a tradition of ‘greening’ sees flowers and greenery hung over houses or barns. The gathering, feasting and dancing around the maypole can be joyous – to say the least – and have ancient echoes of fertility rites. I don’t know if that’s based on fact but I do know that as the evening wears on and the alcohol warms the northern clime a certain mellowness sets in.

In Sweden midsummer is an important holiday that ranks with Christmas as the principal festival in the year. For our part, we’ll make the ninety-minute ferry crossing to the island of Bornholm, Denmark’s easternmost outpost, where there will be friends, family and a midsummer chef’s competition – Sol over Gudhjem.

Denmark also considers midsummer a big occasion. It’s celebrated with bonfires and is called Sankt Hans aften or St John’s Eve. The fires, especially when placed alongside the sea or bodies of water, are a traditional measure to drive away evil spirits or witches. I’ll maintain a keen lookout for spirits heading south but until then I’m taking stock of the real magic of midsummer; wheeling Red kites, birdsong and the wealth of wild flowers filling the fields and margins at this time of year. Skål!