Adventures in the Land of Vikings and Moose

My Year Abroad in Sweden

By Alexander Hibberts, 3rd Year History Student

The view from our kitchen window of the Northern Lights.

Having spent a winter in Sweden, I can partly understand why the Vikings were so keen to settle in England in the eighth and ninth centuries. Contrary to the popular image, the Swedish winter, at least over the last few years, is less about white fluffy snow and more about steel-grey skies of endless cloud. It was very dark and there were days when the sun rose after ten and set before three, or even two o’clock, in the afternoon.

The winter sun setting over the royal mounds at Gamla Uppsala.

And when the snow finally came, it kept coming and coming and coming. From December until March, and then occasionally in April, the landscape would be transformed into a sea of white, and, when out walking, you felt you had somehow accidentally stepped into a black and white photograph. The winter was hard. Yet, getting through the grey clouds and endless bounds of snow was definitely worth it.

Rune stones are everywhere around Sigtuna, including in Terminal 2 of Arlanda Airport.

A bit like their winter, Swedes can come across as a little austere at first but, if you keep trying, they will more than enthusiastic to introduce you to their beautiful country. Most of their Scandinavian home is dominated by the North (capital ‘N’ intended!), a vast area of boreal forests, lakes, rivers and moose. However, I was spending my year abroad further south, safe from any white walkers that could be lurking in the North, in the historic cathedral city of Uppsala.

Whilst similar to Durham in terms of having a castle and cathedral, Uppsala is far bigger in population and far further north. Northern enough, it turned out, to see the Northern Lights, not only once, but twice, flashing across darkened sky in wild greens and silver, from my kitchen window.

Uppsala is ideally situated for having adventures being only 39 miles from Stockholm. This dazzling metropolis is located at the centre of the Stockholm Archipelago, a vast collection of nearly 30,000 islands putting Scotland’s many archipelagos, with a total of only c.790 islands, in their place.

The ant hills are enormous in the woods around Uppsala.

Stockholm is the Swedish gateway to the Östersjön, the Swedish name for the Baltic Sea, literally meaning ‘Eastern Lake’ referring to the time when, in the 17th and early 18th centuries, Sweden controlled nearly all the land around the Baltic. Sailing across the Östersjön to Finland and Latvia has been a thrilling, and at times freezing, experience but allowed me, and my diverse travelling companions, to spread our mental maps to the frontiers of Europe.

But closer to home, near Uppsala, there has been much to explore and encounter. A little over 13 miles away from my temporary home is the small town of Sigtuna, a community which claims to be ‘where Sweden began’ having been founded in c. 970 AD by Erik the Victorious.

The rune stone erected by Sigvard ‘the England voyager’ in memory of Vitaro, his father.

This stad (Swedish for city) is famous for its rune stones and it is believed that up to 25 pepper the city’s streets. Often standing next to Viking Age roads these rocks were carved and erected to memorialise, to mourn, to self-glorify and to provide a lasting record of Sigtuna’s great and mighty.

Nevertheless, there is no need to travel beyond Uppsala itself which is surrounded by copious amounts of countryside. I have attempted to explore as much as possible whilst avoiding the snakes, ticks and, giant ant hills although, sadly, I’ve not encountered any moose. But, beyond all this stunning natural beauty, there is one place, not far from my accommodation that has become my favourite place in Sweden.

One of the many winding streets of the Gamla Stan (Old Town) in Stockholm.

Gamla Uppsala, contrary to what the people of Sigtuna claim, is really where everything Swedish began. This strange, almost ethereal site is centred around a collection of burial mounds, similar to Sutton Hoo in England, that contain the earliest kings of the Swedes and, as legend claims, is the burial place of Odin, the Norse god.

In the outside wall of the later Christian church built on top of the Pagan temple that once existed on this site, is the 11th century rune stone of Sigvard, ‘the England voyager’. This Viking, who once evidently travelled to England, reminds me that it is not long until I too shall be heading that way.

The descendants of the Vikings, the Swedes, have created a modern country that, although quite similar to England in some ways, has its own distinct differences and adapting to those has been a challenge. This year abroad has been hard at times but keeping going has been more than worth it. I’m sure I’ll be back amongst the Swedes soon.

Alex Hibberts is a third year History student who is currently on a year abroad in Uppsala, Sweden. He is looking forward to coming back for his last undergraduate year at John’s and has missed a proper cup of tea whilst he’s been in Sweden.

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