Swedish Birthday

With the school summer holidays in full swing not many days pass without us having the company of Lucas, Ellis and Harry while Charlotte is busy with her gardening business. Usually, Sue entertains the boys while I keep Harry distracted with walks and treats. Occasionally when Sue has a U3A activity that she doesn’t want to miss, I have all three, which entails Lucas and a reluctant Ellis accompanying Harry on his necessary regular  ‘poop’ walks.

On the 9th of August Sue’s little Suzuki went into the garage for its annual MOT. It has only done just over 2000 miles since last year and it wasn’t a surprise that it passed with flying colours. My Fiesta developed a fault on the air-bag sensor quite a few months ago, a common fault with the connection on the front seats and solved by cleaning up the contacts (which I did) but resetting the warning light had to be done by a garage or the purchase of a machine that would have done the job. I opted for the garage and it cost me £65 to switch a light off!

On the 11th Sarah and Lee invited us over to Newbold Verdon for Sunday lunch. It was a lovely warm day and a good chance to see the hard work that they have been putting into their garden, we also discovered that they had been very busy in the house with an outhouse being converted into quite a plush hi-tech gym with a lot of fresh painting, furniture and new artwork in other parts. They have been busy little beavers! Lunch was all the yummier as we didn’t have to cook it or wash up afterwards.

On the 15th the Rothwells went to the East Coast for a four-day stay in a caravan. They were lucky with the weather and managed to get out onto the beach and visit a few of the local attractions. A welcome break for the family. Harry stayed with us as they weren’t sure he could cope with caravan living (he’s too big and energetic). He adapted well staying with us for a few days, he has quite a laid-back attitude, but like Mia, I am the one imprinted on his mind for walkies! This means, that wherever I am, Harry is. However, unlike Mia who insists on sleeping on the bed, Harry prefers a more civilized dog mattress at the side.

On the 17th Sarah and Lee spent a few days in Durham enjoying the sights and cuisine of this northern town.

Jamie’s Peugeot decides to break down after a day out in Derbyshire visiting the Peak Cavern. As with my vehicle, the problem was electrical and controlled by the engine management system, a new part was needed. His solution was to borrow my car to get to work as his Audi R8 makes far too much of a racket at 6am in the morning for the neighbours (and I guess also uses a lot more fuel than mine!) However, on the 21st he was forced to swap to Sue’s less macho pink Alto as we drove down in my Fiesta to Mountfitchet Castle, near Stansted.

We were staying that night at the Days Hotel before taking an early morning flight to Nykoping in Sweden, the castle visit was an interesting way of using up the afternoon before checking into the hotel. The castle is the only authentic reconstruction on its original site in the world. It is very well done, quite authentic and a fun day out for all ages. We were lucky that our mid-week visit wasn’t as busy as I am sure that it is at the weekends. We could sample the sights at our own leisure and the weather was perfect. It was a laugh watching the catapult being fired by eager bunches of children pulling on ropes, lobbing water balloons at a fierce cardboard Viking. The historical signage was abundant and both Sue and I (ex-teachers) learnt a few new things. For one, we didn’t know that often there was a trough full of vinegar at the entrance to a castle in which merchants had to wash their coins to prevent the spread of disease.

The site is also home to a brilliant toy museum that spending a whole day perusing the exhibitions wouldn’t have begun to do it justice. It was a shame we didn’t have the time as it brought back such wonderful memories of our childhood. We also took a turn through the Haunted House and what a laugh that turned out to be too (click on the link to experience it yourself).

Before travelling to our accommodation for the night we had a pleasant walk through the town to visit the windmill set above this very amenable  London commuter settlement, stopping on the way back to the car to have refreshments in the sunny beer garden of a town centre hostelry.

We caught our 8.30am Ryanair flight the following morning to Stavaska Airport in Nykoping, Sodermanland County, Sweden without any hitches. It is around an hour’s drive south of Stockholm and a popular weekend holiday destination for Swedes and was once the capital. Our pre-booked taxi to the hotel was late and it took a phone call to the office to chivvy the driver up, the excuse being heavy traffic. Nonetheless, we arrived at the aptly named Good-Morning Hotel around 1pm and checked into our room after first consuming several cups of coffee and croissants, freely available in the lobby.

The hotel was sited nearby several fast food outlets and a supermarket and a leisurely 30-minute walk into the centre of Nykoping (pronounced: neesherping). Like Holland, the Swedish love their bicycles and the road system reflects this with a myriad of cycle lanes snaking alongside, over and under the tarmac set aside for less strenuous vehicles, not surprisingly, predominately Volvos. It was a long one of these cycle/pedestrian ways that we soon followed on our meander into the centre of the old town. We first passed through a light industrial area before entering the suburbs consisting mainly of clean and modern housing blocks made up of tiers of apartments. In this country heating is free in most towns, they share a communal system of heating pipes and thus the need to have such a regular design of apartment development. As we entered the older part of the town, buildings became more traditional and colourful. The Vastra Storgatan is a pedestrianised street running through the centre of the town and is where you find the shops, banks and restaurants. It is an interestingly pretty thoroughfare, where we came across smartly dressed locals going about their business, many on cycles weaving in and out of bollards, street flower displays and those on foot. The machine of choice seems to be the ungeared sit up and beg type that is not often seen in the UK, we seem to prefer the meaner, cooler, low handle barred variety, I think we are missing a trick as the Swedes do look so elegant as they perambulate over the cobbles.

Our target was the Tourist Information Office in the central square. Here we attempted to book a train ticket to Stockholm for the following day, but as we didn’t have our passports on us they suggested we went to the station and booked the tickets there. Before leaving we ascertained that we could hire cycles from the centre as this was our plan for a couple of days time.

Walking further down the Vastra Storgatan we passed over the appropriately name Nykoping River, as everywhere else along this road, the bridge was covered with brightly coloured flower displays. We stopped and sat here a while and watched the passing locals and the wildlife down below on the river, we spotted a heron sitting thoughtfully on a branch, oblivious to the passing humans just a few metres away (he wouldn’t get away with that under the bridge in Harborough!) There were four groups of rotating seats set alongside this overpass, a very comfortable and convenient place to rest tired feet after a hard shopping spree and we took advantage of them.

Suitably rested we moved on down to the end of the thoroughfare where it seemed to end in a park and the front of a large educational establishment. Returning to the heavily cobbled central square we had a look around inside a large white and imposing church set into one of its corners. It wasn’t particularly ornate or decorated, but it was cool out of the sun and was a welcome break for that. Using my mobile’s GPS we followed its instructions towards the train station, stopping briefly to ogle at a building set on top of a rocky knoll that might have been a church or fortification or a what?  It was a striking feature of the town but the lack of signage didn’t give any indication as to its significance so we left it to its own devices. Everywhere we seem to go there are historical, geographical, and communal information boards, none of which is in English, so other than the pictorial representations we remain ignorant as to the content. I find this surprising as everyone seems to speak perfect English, the only ones that do not are those such as our Somalian taxi driver and obvious immigrants (but no doubt their Swedish is pretty ok).

Arriving at the station we were disappointed to find that it was unmanned and tickets were purchased at a machine. Again, there was no leaning toward the English language so fumbling through the menu in Swedish I managed to reach the payment screen for what I thought was the right train on the right day. However, I chickened out when I had to put in my card as there was no one around to help and confirm what I was about to do. We timed our walk back to the hotel in order to gauge our return for the following morning, amusingly Sue timed it at 32 mins and I at 28 mins.

We ate that night at MAX, a fast food Macdonald like fast food outlet near the hotel. We greatly confused the staff as I insisted on paying in cash. It has become apparent that the Swedes pay for everything by card. Everyone else here used the 8 totems/terminals where you selected the meal or items that you wished to consume and then paid by card. A numbered slip was then spewed out and you waited until your number appeared on the screens above the counter. Yes, the totems only displayed Swedish. Hence, we fowled out again and paid in legal Swedish currency and in keeping, our selection was chicken!

I mentioned the problem with booking a train ticket to our English hotel receptionist and she kindly did it for us, printing out the tickets on reassuring paper.  We only booked our outward journey as she reliably informed us that the Central Station in Stockholm was manned 24/7, she did not envisage there being a problem with the return ticket, and this proved to be the case.

The 23rd was Susan’s birthday. We took a celebratory breakfast in the hotel at 6am and a very good and substantial fayre it was. Our trek to the station took 30 mins, a satisfactory split on our timings of the previous afternoon. There were quite a few waiting for the train and we had no problem finding seats, though I am afraid I cannot recall much of the 50-minute journey as I soon gauged that the scenery was much the same as we had experienced on the Polar Bear Express up to Moosonee, forest and yet more forest, so I shut my eyes and dozed until we arrived in the suburbs of the capital city. Sue informed me that I only missed a few lakes, I can live with that! The carriage was larger than those back in the UK, but the décor and fittings were quite dated, they must have been old rolling stock. I did see a few much more modern examples flash by, but at 190 krona (£15.93) for two, one-way tickets of a journey of around 50 minutes I think that was excellent value.

We were planning to rendezvous with a free walking tour of the old town at 10am. I had logged in to the meeting point outside Gamla Stan Subway station into my phone GPS, so followed its guidance.  Frustratingly, it didn’t take us to the exact location, so after 15 minutes of searching and passing by several other foreign language walking tours I asked a waiter in one of the restaurants and he pointed us in the right direction. There was a group of 15 or so other tourists waiting patiently for the English-guided tour among a similar amount waiting for the Spanish one. Despite it being up to now a pleasant and sunny morning, disappointingly it began to rain. It wouldn’t stop the whole time we were in the city and at times it became a downpour.

Our guide introduced herself as being from India, she had been studying Urban Development at the University and had liked Stockholm so much she had decided to stay, her English was very good (not sure about her Swedish). She proved to be very knowledgeable about Swedish history and in particular (as you would expect) about the architecture of the buildings we were to pass by.  Even though Sue and I were appropriately dressed for inclement weather, we still managed to get soaked, I am not sure how the less well-equipped of our group avoided drowning! Despite the unpleasant walking conditions with water gushing over slippery cobbled lanes and alleys, our guide managed to keep our interest and over the 2.5 hours no one slunk off seeking dry refuge. When the tour finished near the Parliament building we generously tipped her for her fortitude and then found a suitable undercover location from where we could observe the daily changing of the guard.  I am not sure what I expected to see, but it couldn’t have been anything like the ‘pomp and circumstance that we did witness. The ceremony lasted for a good half hour and concluded with a brass band concert on horseback. There was much marching, saluting, brandishing of swords, shouted commands and of course music from the mounted bandsmen. A wonderful spectacle, not even spoilt by the rain and many umbrellas. Eventually, with the concert party riding off, presumably back to barracks, we too made our way off the island of Gamla Stan to the National Museum on the southern bank of the river.

The name ‘Stockholm’  splits into two distinct parts – Stock-holm, meaning “Log-islet”. The most established explanation for the name is sharpened logs driven into the strait passing north of today’s old town (Gamla Stan) that prevented entry to boats (without payment) into the large commercially important lake to the north.

We sought refuge in the museum for warming drinks and dry exhibits. After partially drying out we visited the galleries on the top floor which held the earliest displays of Swedish artwork, each floor covering a different time period. We both thought it a very well laid out and organised museum, full of magnificent paintings, a great place to visit on a wet day. After completing our examination of the top floor we left the building, consigning the other four floors to a possible future visit. We were eager to revisit some of the locations visited on our earlier tour before we dissolved completely in the still-falling rain.

We quickly retraced our steps to the old town, taking our own time to absorb its bustling atmosphere as well as the continuing precipitation from above. As I expected, Sue completed our time here with the purchase of a Christmas tree bauble.

Late in the afternoon, we took our time returning to the Central Station whereas assured by our hotel receptionist there was a manned ticket office who very obligingly printed out our return ticket. Again, comfortable, warm and drying I dozed throughout most of the journey. On disembarking in Nykoping we noted that it seemed that the rain hadn’t bothered to visit here!

For convenience, we ate again that night in MAX, though this time we did it the Swedish way. Using a terminal we guessed our way through the selection procedure and braved the card payment process and it was a smug ‘joy-oh-joy’ when what we thought we had ordered was presented to us on a tray. I think we have cracked Swedish!

After a later breakfast (8am), under clear blue skies and a promise of a hot day ahead we made our way back to the Tourist Information Office. Back in the UK, the day was also turning out to be a warm one, in fact, the hottest day on record for an August Bank Holiday weekend. We hired a couple of bikes for the whole day at a very reasonable 100 krona each (£8.37). I was very impressed with our machines, typical Swedish style with a basket and a very nifty bike lock that pinned the rear wheel with the turn of a key. As well as just having one gear, it also had a single brake lever operating on the front wheel, the rear brakes were internal and operated by a backward movement of the pedal (very clever). It took Sue a while to get used to this very different configuration of bicycle, so we practised in the cobbled main square before venturing down to the end of the Vastra Storgatan.

The first stop was at the very pretty harbour bedecked with troughs of flowers, the restaurants seemed busy with people taking coffees and patisseries. There were many small yachts laid up in the marina and just a few small motored craft were out engaged in sunny day antics chugging their way across the water course. Despite it being a lovely day, it is the end of the Swedish summer season and I suppose Vikings don’t plunder in the off-season. We made our way along a cycle track that followed the coast of the Baltic for a few miles to a small and pretty settlement of colourful wooden houses before turning around and retracing our route back to the harbour. Here we sat enjoying the sun at a small restaurant and scoffed the most scrumptious flavoured ice creams we have had in a long time, with the remains of the cone we amused ourselves feeding a friendly sparrow until a couple of rooks decided to take centre stage. As we passed by the larger waterside restaurants again I noted that they were now filled with patrons drinking wine and beer and taking lunch.

Just a few hundred metres from the harbour was Nykoping Castle, situated next to the river flowing through the town. After parking the bikes we made our way inside this free museum and ancient monument. The internal exhibits are housed in the White Tower and attempt to show life in the castle soon after it was constructed, nothing here is in English but there is a small pamphlet we could read which gave us a clue as to what we were looking at. The displays are done authentically, with imagination and with more than a little sense of humour. Like a couple of local children there, I enjoyed looking for the rats which the authorities had secreted among all the exhibits, encouraging young minds to take notice of the displays! We discovered that there was a tour of the castle scheduled for 4pm in English, but we expected to be occupied elsewhere by then, and we were. The rest of the castle is in a ruined state but enough remains to give you more than a vague idea of what it once was like. Well worth a visit.

We spent the rest of the afternoon exploring the side streets of the town, discovering interesting buildings and regretting that our Swedish was nonexistent as everywhere we went there were information boards. As usual, Sue was more persistent than I was and did attempt to figure out what was being imparted. I resigned myself that they are missing an opportunity by not including a bar code that would display a website containing the information on your mobile phone or tablet as we have come across so many times in the UK. I could have used my google translator app, but I was unsure of how to.

Late in the afternoon we pedalled back towards the hotel but carried on passed for just over a mile to a historical site that I had spotted on the map. It turned out to be an old farmhouse and associated buildings dating back to before the 1800s. As we stood outside a friendly dog came to greet us with a sock gripped firmly in its mouth, closely followed by its lady owner. We briefly explained why we were there and she replied that she was the farmer, the farm itself was owned by the government and she was the tenant. With not much to see we moved on to a large information board, we had spotted back down the road and set next to a field gate and woods. Part of it was in English! It is a conservation area and part of a national hiking trail. After a short walk down the path to get a better view of an old restored wood-cutters cottage we re-mounted our steeds and headed back towards the hotel. It was our intention to call into Willy’s (a large out-of-town supermarket) in order to see what the price of things was compared to back home, however, as we arrived, everyone was filing out of the building, we soon worked out that the fire alarm had gone off and this was an evacuation. We moved on.

After a necessary chill-out in the hotel, we opted to cycle back into Nykoping for our evening meal. It was 7.30pm on a Saturday night and the town was deserted! We ate alone in a Turkish Pizza restaurant. Was Swedish ‘Strictly Come Dancing’ on the TV? We have discovered that it is nigh on impossible to eat authentic Swedish food here, all the food establishments base their menu on either burgers or sausage (hamburgers) or are one of the international chains of fast food outlets or a rip-off of one. On passing many restaurants over the last few days it has become obvious that the patrons are devouring either burgers, hamburgers or pizza! Very disappointing. At breakfast, the only leaning towards Swedish cuisine I have found is a small jar of pickled herring, of which I appear to be the only one dipping into.

It was late but still light when we returned to the hotel and after storing our bikes away in a utility room we had coffee in reception and then headed off for bed.

Charged with a full intake of breakfast calories in readiness for the day ahead, we made our way back to the Tourist Info’ and booked our cycles out for a further half-day. Heading down to the harbour we again lazed in the warmth of the Swedish sun licking on ice creams from the same vendor as the previous day watching energetic locals going for a mid-morning run along the many paths that crisscrossed at that point. I noted that they seem to run in singles rather than the more familiar pairs, as back home. Perhaps Swedes don’t need the encouragement of another to exercise, or perhaps it may be an indicator of the psyche of the average Scandinavian who according to our Indian Stockholm guide seem to prefer to exist alone, hence the atrocious and concerning suicide statistics in this country.

Just a few minutes cycle away from the harbour was the Sormlands Museum, a large modern industrial-looking building that Trip Advisor had recommended as a worthwhile visit. Again, the exhibit info was only in Swedish but we were given an English pamphlet and there was a tour in English scheduled for later that day. However, this museum is unlike any we have ever been to before, it is a celebration/reflection of the lives of the people of Sormland. Stretching over two floors in defined rooms and spaces are the life paraphernalia of a selection of local individuals. Some are long deceased and others still breathing (I guess). There appear to be a few who have achieved fame (of sorts) but most appear to explain the lives of ordinary folk. Their photos, clothes, personal possessions and accoutrements of their existence are imaginatively displayed and racked behind glass for your observation. There are those with connections to the Romanovs as an athlete who took part in the  1936 Berlin Olympics as well as ordinary farmers, factory workers etc. of the present day. The above link opens a YouTube video of this fascinating alternative museum. I found that by sitting and watching a slide show of an individual’s life, surrounded by their possessions and in some cases reconstruction of their ‘living space’, leaves an impression that you can’t help but reflect upon. Even better than hunting for rats.

At midday we returned to the hotel to check out of our room, leaving our luggage in a lock-up before heading back into the town.

Next, we scooted off upriver, towards a lake as indicated on my google map. We mostly had the track to ourselves as it meandered alongside the watercourse, crossing randomly from one bank to the other. At one spot we stood on a narrow wooden bridge fascinated by a canoe slalom course, built for some serious canoodling! It was a Sunday afternoon and there was no one taking advantage of this wonderful amenity, why? Our route then took us through woodland that is predominant in this area and the undulations and twists and turns of the track started to get trickier. We pressed on noting that the cob/hazel nuts were in abundance on the trees that we passed, we resisted the chance for a free snack as we couldn’t be bothered to stop and pick them. We were probably less than half a mile away from our target when the going got even tougher and we opted to abort our mission rather than risk an accident, particularly as we were flying that night and we still had yet to return the cycles.

On the ride back we stopped for a while at a lovely little café set on a hillside that we could hear music emanating from as we neared. It turned out that a band was playing in the pretty flower garden in readiness for a concert at 4pm. The music was much to our liking but unfortunately, 4pm was when we had to return our steeds, we sat and listened to them practise for a while before reluctantly pressing on.

We did indeed return the cycles at the designated time and then walked leisurely back to the Good-Morning Hotel, why do my feet always seem to drag when they start the long journey home?

We had planned to do a spot of geocaching to pass the time waiting for our taxi transfer and our first hunt turned out successful, it was a magnetic micro cache located under the huge MAX sign that we could see from our room window each morning. The second was sited a little way down the road on the opposite side, in a field that was presently being combined. The amount of passing traffic made the road crossing hazardous and the dust kicked up from the harvesting made the atmosphere quite unhealthy, so we decided it was a cache too far and returned to reception for coffee, croissants, fruit and juice and waited for our transfer.

Our 8.30pm flight left on time and arrived 20 minutes early, I slept most of the way, and Sue was less fortunate. We arrived home just after midnight to an oven of a house. The hot spell endured in the UK over the previous few days had taken refuge inside Willow Bank!

On return the family informed us that they too will be off on jaunts in the coming weeks, Jamie to Turkey, the Rothwells to Thailand and the Verdons to France, which means Sue and I will be having the pleasure of two dogs and a rabbit for the company at various times! As a riposte we booked to sail down the Amazon in January, hopefully, we have better luck than the last time we attempted this two years ago.

Since returning Peter and I had planned to lay some slabs on Jamie’s driveway, but despite reminding him to leave his garden gate open so we could access the slabs we were going to lay, he went to work without doing so. Instead, we enacted plan B and went to Charlotte’s and cut down a large willow tree that was leaning dangerously over her hen coop. Whilst there I had a surprise call from Brigitte who was in the country after returning grandchildren who had been staying with them in Cyprus.  We arranged to meet later that afternoon when I and Sue (who was at the cinema) returned home. Brigitte was flying back to Cyprus the following day and it was nice to catch up on news etc. It seems that they are contemplating returning to the UK permanently and are looking into selling their Cypriot property and there is the possibility of a job being available for Brigitte at her previous employment in Leicester.

Ashton has now moved out and Jamie is now living in Desborough with just Maddie (rabbit) for company. He is very busy with work, this weekend he is conducting a training seminar in London for his fxLearning clients.




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