Modern Day Vikings

“Are we going round to Dave’s to get the spears?” “Yeah, might as well.” Probably not quite how the Norsemen of yore prepared for battle.

It was a dry, overcast afternoon in the mid Welsh university town of Lampeter as I stood on the pitch facing my opponent, Gerard. He certainly looked the part with his long hair and solid body, wielding his sword in one hand and shield in the other. I faced him with axe and similar shield, surprised by the weight of the wooden disc. He told me to hold it as I thought I should to defend myself, so I raised it directly in front of me and stood braced. “No!” Thwack! Ting! Bang!He came at me suddenly and scored a couple of hits before I knew what was happening, then showed me the correct stance; the shield held forward at an angle and axe braced diagonally against it. This forms a maneuverable defensive block which can be transformed into an attack instantly.

 

Dave fends off a two-pronged attack by Gerard and Ruairidh

Dave fends off a two-pronged attack by Gerard and Ruairidh.

The band of students had taken me in the previous day when one of their number found me stretching by a tree in the university grounds. I’d been terribly sick all day, something I put down to a combination of possibly contaminated river water and the egg+bacon sandwich from the Co-Op bin the night before. I suppose it might’ve also been the icecream from the same place. I figured it wasn’t such a big deal, given that it’s the first time I can recall getting sick in almost 4 years of eating from dumpsters. I’d cycled feverishly for about 20 miles before reaching town then thrown up violently in the public toilets, and was just regaining my energy when Scott adopted me for the evening, taking me directly to the armoury where a gang was preparing for battle the next day at an international historical re-enactment in a castle.

Scott brandishing a couple of weapons at the university armoury.

Scott brandishing a couple of weapons at the university armoury.

While Scott valiantly got a ride to the Welsh Border to do battle, the others promised I could join them for training if I hung around, an offer I couldn’t really refuse. After my brief induction on the axe and shield, the five of us formed a ‘circle of treachery’ and battle commenced. Although the weapons are blunt and there are some rules (no hits above the shoulders, please don’t go for the groin etc), people don’t hold back! I felt myself get in the swing of things, quite literally, immediately, as I relished the feeling of duelling worthy opponents. The sound of steel on steel as swords clanged, of spears on wood as shields blocked their thrusts, the satisfying feeling of penetrating my enemy’s defences and scoring a hit. “Oh shit, that’s four. I’m dead!” We carried on for a couple of hours with training exercises, one-on-one duels and all in battles. I inferred that people were accustomed to seeing these warriors at their university as not many heads turned.  After hefting those weapons and shields about my respect for anyone who did battle in that way has increased. I usually feel fairly fit on a bike but not as a viking; they’re bloody heavy! And I wasn’t even wearing chainmail. By the end of it I was sore all over and remained that way for a few days.

Ruairidh blocks a thrust by Max.

Ruairidh parries a thrust by Max.

Historical Re-Enactment (not to be confused with Live Action Role Play, or LARP, lest you wish to find a dull swordpoint at your neck) battles take place around the world, attracting hundreds of international participants. Some choose to adopt their role not only on the battlefield, setting up camp, eating seasonal foods and living as they would have done in that era. The various groups span thousands of years worth of history, with some opting to act out Roman battles and others firing guns from WWII. I found it a brilliant medium to get out and fight, channeling that urge which many, if not all of us have inside. I know I’ll jump into battle again if the chance arises, so why not have a go yourself? Try searching and see if you find a local group – you never know where it might take you!

Advertisements

The Campervan Cook and his (two) minute idea.

“I’m really not a very good cook. It looks bad but I reckon it’ll taste pretty good.” said Martin Dorey apologetically as we sat in his kitchen near the beach in Bude, Cornwall. It was the first omelette I’d eaten made my a TV cook and he was right about the taste. The curly haired surfer, writer and father of four (including Bob the dog and Dave the van) is an author with two published books and presented the BBC2 TV series ‘One Man and his Campervan‘. When I met him though he was picking up bits of rubbish from amongst the pebbles on the beach, a reflection of his focus more recently – the 2 minute beach clean.

Martin and Bob alongside the herb garden.

Martin and Bob alongside the herb garden.

“It’s nice, simple and a great idea because people get it, and it understands that people are lazy. The 2 minute beach clean is just that. That’s it. The idea is that every time you go to the beach you do two minutes. People complain at the beach, saying ‘this is disgusting’ then do fuck all. It’s easy to rant and rave but harder to get off your arse and do something about it.” He tells me the idea stems from an old one of his which was to pick up a bottle from the beach for every good wave he got surfing; a way of thanking the beach. It’s so simple and bypasses beaurocracy, insurance and any other obstacles that can get in the way of public events. He hopes that through the use of social media, picking up trash will become not only socially acceptable but an activity to be encouraged, and suggests taking responsibility for your own bit of territory at your local beach, your own patch. Of course this applies anywhere, whether you live deep in the forest, by the coast, in the desert or at the foot of a mountain.

I’m amazed at the amount of plastic bags full of rubbish I pass by the roadside whilst cycling, thrown out of car windows. I always strap my trash to my bike and carry it until I reach a bin, whether that’s 3 or 30 miles down the road; it’s not hard. So why can’t people driving cars, using fossil fuels instead of their own effort, do the same? While cycling in Sweden my friend and I made food money by collecting cans from the side of the highway, which adds up at the end of the day considering each can or bottle has a 1kr (10p) deposit on it. We met a fellow cyclist with the same idea who made £ 35 from one 120km stretch of road leading from a national park to the nearest town with very little human settlement along the way.

In the space of one hour, twenty people filled this trailer with rubbish from a beach.

In the space of one hour, twenty people filled this trailer with rubbish from a beach.

I hope the idea spreads. And as Martin says, cleaning up the beaches is effectively cleaning up your food.

Visit Martin Dorey’s website here and read more about the 2 minute beach clean here.

Surfers Against Sewage

I awakened amongst rabbit warrens in the dunes of a Cornish beach on the morning marking 2 weeks since the journey began, and as if to celebrate the bakery bins of the first village I came to offered up my first Cornish pasties in Cornwall. I almost whizzed past The Bike Barn and it’s a good thing I went back for a closer look as I spent most of the day there tinkering and finally fitting mudguards off an old German tandem, thanks to the kindly owners of the joint. Back on the road I had the idea to link up with a charity I read about in an inspiring publication entitled The Surfer’s Path , a gem of a magazine amongst a sea of glossy advertising that recently published it’s last issue. By chance I was just a few miles away from the Surfers Against Sewage office, and made it there in time for an impromptu interview with Dom Ferris, their Campaigns and Education Manager. Here ’tis!

Sorry Dom! He usually has his eyes on the prize. Click his name for a much better photo.

Sorry Dom! He usually has his eyes on the prize.

Me: Could you tell us how, when and why SAS began?
DF: SAS was born in Cornwall in 1990. Literally it was a group of local surfers who were sick of getting sick every time they went surfing. They’d had enough. We’ve expanded over the last 24 years into 2014 where we now are a group of environmentalists and beachlovers who look to protect the UK’s oceans, waves and beaches for everyone to enjoy safely and sustainably.

Me: Wow. I’m very lucky in that I’m from pristine parts of Australia where we can go surfing and bodyboarding and not even have to think about this kind of thing. So could you tell me what the situation is like in Europe for surfers, anyone enjoying the beach and the oceans themselves?
DF: The sad fact is that no oceans are pristine right now, however pristine they may look. We’re all struggling hugely with the marine litter problem, marine litter crisis. Marine plastics are increasing year on year; in the UK there are now more than 2000 pieces of marine litter for every kilometre of our coastline. So every step you take along our coastline you’re encountering marine litter. And that’s the same for the entire world.

A friendlier photo.

A friendlier photo; Mr Ferris in action

Me: When you say ‘marine litter’ does that refer to any man-made object?
DF: Yeah. Anything that shouldn’t be in the ocean-man made object- but unfortunately..the vast majority, nearly 70% is plastic.

Me: Ok. Could you tell me some of SAS’ achievements to date?
DF: Well like I say we started in 1990 with the express aim of getting real quality sewage treatment around the country, ’cause up until that point we’d been discharging raw, untreated human effluent into our oceans, be it a great  surf beach or bathing beach. So we apply pressure to the water industry, the government and say ‘ look at the beauty of these environments, look at the value of them to coastal communities. You need to do more.’ Off the back of that we’ve now got, at bathing waters around the UK, what’s called tertiary treatment’ which means the sewage is treated to a safe level. We’ve still got some battles on that front because the sewage system isn’t big enough, doesn’t have enough capacity. And when it rains we’re struggling with sewage discharges, what they call ’emergencies’ but these ’emergencies’ are happening way too often.

Sewage outfall at Delray Beach, Florida. Photo by Steve Spring.

Sewage outfall at Delray Beach, Florida. Photo by Steve Spring.

Me: How many members does SAS have?
DF: We fluctuate around the 10 000 mark, which is fantastic really for a small charity. We’ve got a fantastic number of followers on our social media and it builds year on year. We’re increasing every year.

Me: Is that worldwide?
DF: There are members worldwide but again we are a UK only agency; we’ve got enough issues to deal with in the UK. We’ve got loads of great partners around the world that we work with such as Surfrider Australia, Surfrider Europe, Surfrider USA and many other organisations we work with who are doing similar work to us.

Me: If there’s someone reading this who wants to do something and get involved?
DF: …There are really simple things, like you can do yourself a mini beach clean…you know, walk along your local beach, you want to make a difference, picking up 3,4,5 items of marine litter will make a difference. If you want to organise your own community beach clean, go on to http://www.sas.org.uk/  and you can follow some simple steps there. And once you’re on our website, learn more about our marine litter and sewage campaigns. Because [through] every single one of them we offer people sustainable, achievable solutions. We offer them ways to get involved, to help us. Because we’re a small charity and rely on the UK’s many, many beach lovers.

Me: Great. Anything you’d like to add?
DF: Yeah-good luck on your trip mate!

 

For further reading see the SAS website and http://www.unep.org/regionalseas/marinelitter/publications/

 

Solaris

Overlooking lake Volgsjön in Vilhelmina stand blocks of apartments housing people from all over the world who for the moment at least now call southern Lappland home. In one of these multicultural flats lives Solaris. The moment I was seated at the kitchen table he began pouring out stories from his life to the point my stomach eventually intervened and I interrupted him to make lunch.

Peter Petrus Solaris.

Peter Petrus Solaris.

Never before have I heard such fantastic tales from someone’s own experience. From Idbacka, the paradise he created together with his late wife which included ant bridges, mouse highways and quite probably (for good reason I might add) the only mosquito breeding ponds in Sweden. I was perplexed as to why anyone would want more swarms of these highly aggressive flying bloodsuckers living around them until he explained that they were food for his beloved friend the swallow. These same birds would make the return journey every year from their summer home in Vilhelmina Kommun to wherever it is they live over the northern winter; quite likely somewhere in Africa according to tracking research.

One of his thousands of wooden sunflowers.

One of his thousands of wooden sunflowers.

Through his escapades in Colombia where he had a bounty on his head by the local guerilla militia, Senegal where he’s hailed as an incarnation of a holy man, Egypt where he became a Christian Coptic priest, Norway where he dances like mad and is a semi-famous artist, Netherlands where he offered to marry a man from Afghanistan to prevent his deportation, to Sweden where he was a teacher in the art of fishing+hunting guiding and never tolerated lateness to class from his pupils.He’s grappled with the energy called god in many forms and is in love with a mother of three in the Phillipines. Their love can’t bloom into a live-in relationship however because no matter how hard, or soft he tries she won’t stop beating her children. So he’s now considering a move to Mexico this August.

The knife Solaris made himself.

The knife Solaris made himself.

He has even figured out that puzzle which keeps people guessing throughout their lives. Recounting the time he showed a local priest some of the flowers at Idbackan, he asked the priest what he saw. “I see the beauty of god’s creations.” replied the priest. “No, you see thousands of pussies screaming for sex, even if it’s with insects or wind.”, was his response. Life, he tells me, is simply about more life.

Wooden sunflowers at Idbacka. Photo courtesy Solaris.

Wooden sunflowers at Idbacka. Photo courtesy Solaris.

“All my life I’ve had only two gears; zero or full speed. When I was working in carpentry I used to run between the machines, dancing and singing. I’ve never done anything in my life for money, only for the joy. I’ve never been willing to sell my time. But luckily enough most of the things I’ve done for joy have given me money!”

6 years and about 24 layers of paint have gone into this artwork.

6 years and about 24 layers of paint have gone into this artwork.

To connect with or find out more about Solaris, find him on facebook at https://www.facebook.com/petrussolaris.bendtsen.5

Jämtland

Lake Kallsjön in late March.

For approximately half the year this northern region which can proudly boast it’s own language, jämtska, as well as republican movement, is white. With the first snow falling on the mountain tops as early as September, the long, harsh and incredibly beautiful winter opens up normally inaccessible terrain to all different kinds of transport. The aptly named Kallsjön (cold lake) freezes to a thickness of over half a metre while the northern and southern ends remain open water, often steaming. This links both sides of the lake by foot, skis, snowbmobile, car, and I can happily testify still horse and cart. The drive is cut from the otherwise 30km around the south point to only 2km when the ice road opens.

Between two mountains, the foraging is rich for this hen once the snow melts.

In a mountain valley, the foraging is rich for this hen once the snow melts.

The growing season is much shorter this far north and it’s common for people to add two more seasons to the year; ‘winter-spring’ and ‘autumn-winter’ because the winter is so drawn out and the snow remains for months after the temperature rises above freezing. Summer felt like it began in mid May this year but the sun determines a lot; it swings from the mid twenties to sub ten degrees depending on whether the clouds let it through. I feel like I’ll never take for granted wearing simply shorts and a shirt again. Despite the short time period there is an abundance of gardening to be seen with the humble greenhouse playing it’s important role. The annual ‘kosläpp’ or letting out the cows is a family event with hundreds of people in attendance on a sunny day in June this year to observe the cows at their happiest, frolicking, headbutting, chomping and generally having fun in the fresh green grass they’d been away from for so long.

Don’t stop in the deep snow!

Out in the forest, no other people around. Pure white. If you stop you hear absolute silence. Looking around you can see various animal tracks winding through the trees. You smile to yourself hardly daring to believe that it’s real. And then a noise cuts the air, so harsh. It certainly doesn’t sound like it belongs out here where survival knowledge still matters. Then in the distance it roars into view and soon enough flies past, gliding, floating on the soft covering. The driver doesn’t even notice you standing in the trees. A minute later and the noise has subsided. Snowmobiles. Noisy but fun! And after cars the most common personal transport in the winter time.

They didn’t seem too bothered by our presence as long as we kept movement to a minimum and didn’t get too close.

There are however certain parts of the remarkable fjällmiljön, mountain environment, that are off limits to the snowmobiles. These are demarcated as protected reindeer areas. Reindeer husbandry has long been part of life for many of the indigenous Sami people of the north, whose traditional territory stretches as far south as Dalarna County in Sweden and north all the way to the coastal regions of Norway and Russia. They have been living on and from the land however since long before any of the national borders we know today were created, and their lands can be approximately divided along linguistic lines which traverse the earth horizontally. The creation of the nordic nation states and their borders has dramatically changed the Sami way of life, with religion playing a key part as it so often does in the colonising of new lands and oppression of the traditional inhabitants. Reindeer husbandry is still practised today by a minority of the Sami.

A birch branch in winter.

A birch branch in winter.

The björk, or birch tree is an iconic symbol of the north and for very good reason. The trees can be found in abundance and are the most common type used for firewood. Their bark when dry is an excellent firestarter and can get a warming blaze started from a few sparks on flint. As the winter begins to fade away each year the sap rises through the tree and for a period of around one month before spring kicks in properly it’s possible to harvest this by boring a small hole into the trunk, or cutting a branch. The resulting liquid can be drunk straight as a kind of spring tonic or frozen for use later. It can be brewed into a kind of wine with excellent results, or boiled down to create a strong and delectable syrup as is famously done with the maple. The sap of the birch contains a far lower sugar content however and so from 100L about 1L of thick, dark syrup can be obtained. When the sap stops flowing and the buds open into leaves telling everyone around that spring has sprung, these can be eaten and are great in a salad. They often have a sweet sticky coating which means that you’ll have plenty of competition from the small, winged locals when picking them.

The gondola rises up Mt Åreskutan, making an otherwise lengthy hike into a speedy 20 minute journey.

The gondola rises up Mt Åreskutan, making an otherwise lengthy hike into a speedy 20 minute journey.

Åre is one of the, if not the most well known ski resorts in Scandinavia. Mt Åreskutan and several surrounding mountains have been developed over many years into a modern resort equipped with high speed chairlifts and a gondola. Many thousands of wealthy tourists flock here each winter to enjoy the powder and many other attractions on offer at quite a price, so that among many locals it’s earnt the nickname “Little Stockholm”. The train station has been renovated into a complete three storey shopping centre and lies opposite the large hotel ‘Holiday Club’ which is situated right on the shore of lake Åresjön. This hotel incorporates several shops into it’s main hall too which gives the impression of wandering into a shopping mall. There are a multitude of bars with the usual apres-ski offerings. In short it’s a glitzy, expensive mountain town.

But just on the other side of the mountain in Kallsjöbygden, the surrounds of Lake Kallsjön, lies an entirely different world. Villages so small they don’t even have a shop with dirt roads leading the way to them (the result being that the road is much smoother in winter when covered by ice and snow) on which two buses a day run. The undeveloped rural life, so close to Åre yet so far removed.