Jimi Hendrix was right when he said life on the road wasn’t always a bed of roses. I may not be reporting him word-for-word but you get my drift. Relying on public transport has its ups and downs. On the one hand, you are at the mercy of the rail, ferry or bus timetables and there may be only one service a day. You can be hanging around frustrated, wondering whether you’ll find any accommodation at the other end when you get there. But it also means that you slow down and discover things you wouldn’t have whilst waiting for the next leg of the journey. There’s time to contemplate things going on around you and philosophise over the important questions of life like, “I wonder why that man over there doesn’t make a feature of his nasal hair and make plaits of them?”
One of the things Sue was most looking forward to in Sweden was their design and textiles. On our way south, we noticed that one of the famous linen weaving companies, Faxbo, had its factory and museum not too far off our route. It meant a bit of a deviation off the main rail-line to Stockholm to a town called Bollnas. A Swede Sue mentioned this to turned up his Nordic nose and said, “Why would you want to stay in Bollnas? They didn’t have enough things interesting enough so they had to build their own artificial lake.” A bit like coals to Newcastle. Indeed, at first sight, Bollnas did look dull. The town centre was a celebration in concrete. The Tourist Information lady was ever so helpful but you got the feeling that her talents were wasted through lack of raw materials to work with.
We booked in to a “hostel” which was actually a cosy small house with 3 bedrooms which we had to ourselves. Ingred, the owner, lived in the big house next door and was very welcoming. There was only one bus a day on the 15km route to the Flaxbo mill which didn’t leave much time to look around but she found out for us that the local camping site hired bikes. So off we set the next day.
The road was deceptively ever-so-slightly uphill most of the way and the bikes only had 3 gears with saddles of concrete left over from the town centre. This, plus the fact that we took a wrong turn and had an unnecessary extra 6km detour meant that a sense of humour failure pervaded the atmosphere by the time we finally got there. Thankfully, the restaurant was still open for lunch which turned out to be one of the best we had experienced so far. The complex was very well designed with the original mill and supporting buildings wonderfully restored in the beautiful river valley that supplied the water power and flax in the old days. The current factory was higher up the hill and employing just 8 people now. The exquisite linen cloth is still woven on traditional machines which were manufactured by James Mackie & Sons, Belfast - the firm that my Uncle Sammy worked for in the days when Belfast was king of the linen industry.
From Bollnas, we headed to Stockholm by bus. Up until now, we had got used to just turning up at the Tourist Office and finding accommodation there and then. Stockholm was different. Everywhere in town was full. We spent ages ringing around various agencies, all to no avail. Park benches were beginning to look like the only option when, finally, at 6 in the evening, we found a cabin in a camp-site on the outskirts of the city. Not exactly luxurious but we had our own kitchen bathroom and bunk beds. It was a suburb of medium-rise flats with lots of immigrant families. Lots of football being played in the plentiful green spaces around. As elsewhere, everything was very clean and tidy. No graffiti in the pedestrian underpasses - instead, public art including large paintings by local children. I daresay that graffiti was quickly removed by council employees, but you got the feeling that there is more respect for public places that you wouldn’t get in an equivalent housing estate in the UK.
Stockholm looked resplendent in glorious sunshine for the whole of our stay. With the inlets and canals of the Baltic Sea lapping the historical buildings with their many spires, it is a unique city.
As soon as they started taking their kit off, you just knew there was going to be trouble ...
During our stay, we visited Ingegard. For many years now, she has been working as a nurse in the hospice on a voluntary basis for 3 months every year. Like the swallows returning from South Africa, we know that summer is here when Ingegerd’s Swedish-registered bright red Alfa Romeo Spider (convertible) appears in Dorchester every June. She lives in a beautiful apartment in Stockholm’s equivalent of Knightsbridge with many beautiful paintings surrounding the rooms. She is a very interesting lady - adventurous, well-travelled and with a real zest for life. We sat drinking tea and eating Digestive biscuits English-fashion whilst she brought us up to speed with various aspects of Stockholm life. It’s fascinating to visit someone you have known for a while in their own surroundings and be better able to see their life in context.
We asked her about the many islands near to Stockholm which we might visit and she recommended Gotland and Faro to the south-east in the middle of the Baltic. So that’s where we will be reporting back from next.