The Cathedral


Saturday, 29 September, 2007

On the afternoon of this very day twelve years ago, Lotta and her aunt were about to start cooking and arranging and decorating the hospitality facility in the apartment complex where we lived.  It was in preparation for her father’s 75th birthday party, to be celebrated with family and a host of his friends.  As I had never before been to a birthday party and given that my cooking abilities could have been summarized on the back of a small postage stamp, I decided to disappear for a few hours in the general direction of the old city.

But the weather was awful, with strong blustery winds, a universal grey sky, intermittent icy showers and trees thrashing around, ridding themselves of dead and dying leaves.  In hindsight, it was a typical uninviting Swedish late-September day.  When it once more started to rain, I retreated into the relative calm of the cathedral.

But I was not the only one sheltering in the cathedral.  There were several young children running up and down the aisles, screeching and clambering over the pews, as if they were in an activity playground, their parents seemingly incapable of disciplining them.  A large group of Asian tourists, with enough camera power to film ‘War and Peace’, were taking their turn to be photographed in front of the altar.  And a young student, with a large backpack, marched up the aisle, dragging a noisy wheeled case.  He stopped for a second, then heading down the other aisle and out into the fading light; at least he could say that he had seen the cathedral!

Uppsala cathedral, as seen from the riverside

Of the current countries that comprise modern-day Europe, Sweden was quite late in becoming Christian.  In 1070, Adam of Bremen described the pagan temple of Uppsala and it was not until the 12th century that Sweden was converted.  In 1273, the religious seat was moved from the original pagan site at Gamla (‘Old’) Uppsala, some five kilometers to the north, to that of the current cathedral by the river .

In 1527, King Gustav Vasa proclaimed Sweden to be a Protestant nation and any catholic who refused to be converted, was subject to the death penalty.   From 1686, the Church was required to maintain all official records of births, marriages and burials.  In addition, all citizens were annually examined in their competence in Luther’s catechism.  Not only were their movements between parishes recorded, but even within parishes.  Swedes were a very controlled people.

Of the original pagan city of the Vikings at Gamla Uppsala, little is left, apart from some large burial mounds.  There were once many of these mounds, but most of the smaller ones gave way to the encroachment of agriculture.  The Vikings used to cremate their dead and the excavation of one of the Royal Mounds in 1874 revealed little, apart from bones and some metal objects.

Some of the royal mounds


Gamla Uppsala c1934 (photo by Oscar Bladh)


Excavation of one of the royal mounds in 1874 (photo from internet)

Today there are approximately six million members of the Lutheran church out of a total Swedish population of nine million.  In addition there about 0.5 million that follow Islam.  Yet less than 8% of the population today ever attend any religious services. According to the Global Index of Religiosity & Atheism (2012), Sweden is one of the least religious countries in the world.  Church and state have been separate since 2000.

Surprisingly, at least to me,  Sweden respects several ‘religious’ public holidays – Twelfth Night, Ascension, Pentecost, All Saints and of course, Easter and Christmas.  I wonder what would be the percentage of Swedes who could explain the significance of each of their religious holidays.

All members of each religion are required to contribute a percentage of their income to their church – about 1%, depending on where they live, unless they go through the procedure of removing their names from the rolls.  The deduction goes through the payroll and I suspect that most Swedes view it as not worth opting out of;  in a country of high taxation, an extra 1% is nothing to get excited about.

When the organ started playing, I was aroused from my train of thought, from my stroll through my limited knowledge of Swedish religious history.  I had a clear view of the organist, a dusty little man, badly needing a haircut.  He sped up and down the scales for several minutes and then started to play the most beautiful melody.  No longer could I hear the brats in their playground and I was oblivious to the presence of tourists and their cameras.  The music permeated every part of the cathedral, at times soaring, at times whispering.  For some time I was entranced.  My paternal grandfather was an accomplished organist.  He would have been thrilled to have had the opportunity to play that organ.

It was already almost dark when I headed home, to find the the cooking completed, the tables laid and all was awaiting the arrival of the first guests.


And when I saw the hospitality room, I was reminded of that wonderful scene from the Disney cartoon, Alice in Wonderland and the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party.

As I walked out

Monday, 17 April, 2017

I have just got back from a long walk.  When I set out, the sun was shining, albeit with a strong cold north wind and some dark clouds on the horizon.  It was not long before the storm started, and by the time I returned, I looked like a snowman.

There was no mention of snow in the weather forecast.  Of course, I should not have been surprised; meteorologists change their forecasts more often than Donald Trump changes his policies or his underwear; both meteorologists and Donald Trump can usually make fortune tellers look professional.

April in Uppsala

So here I am, sitting in my study in Uppsala, north of Stockholm, thawing out and watching the snowflakes flash by, and finding it hard to believe that a few days ago, I was walking in Portugal and Galicia, in shorts and shirt with glorious sunshine and blue skies.  With weather like that of Sweden and the long winter nights, one can understand why Swedes with money go south to the sun, for as long as they can afford.  Swedes with lesser resources tell one of how they love the winter.  My Swedish barber’s father once told me that he actually liked the dark.  Now how sad can that be?

With my recently completed walk still fresh in my mind, I find myself itching to plan another.  Should I try Geneva to Spain, or the more challenging Oviedo to Santiago across the Cantabrian mountains?  What about Canterbury to Rome?  Or perhaps just repeat one of the wonderful walks that I have already completed?  There are so many options.

As passionate as I now am about walking from village to village, I was not always aware of the possibilities.  It was in 1998, when I read Paolo Coelho’s novel – Le Pelerin de Compostelle, that the seed was firmly planted.  At that time, I was based in Neuchâtel, in Switzerland (hence the book was in French), but my work was demanding of my continuous involvement, and the possibility of my taking extended holidays was just not feasible at that time; the realisation would have to wait until I ceased to be a wage slave.

Paolo Coelho

Of course, I never envisaged that I would one day have a serious stroke – a brain haemorrhage, and after it happened in late 2005, all my focus was on surviving and recovering to the best of my ability.  The idea of long distance walking was forgotten.

Then in 2010, I read Laurie Lee’s book about walking in Spain, as a young man in the late 1930s – As I walked out one summer morning.  Reading it, I felt rejuvenated and longed to experience it myself, whatever the health risks might have been.  I tried a couple of short 4-5 day walks in Switzerland, and of course the rest is history.  To date I have survived to plan another camino.

Laurie Lee as a young man
laurie lee 2
And much older, in front of the house in Gloustershire, England, in which he grew up

So here I sit, about to start planning my next long walk, and very much reminded of a Paolo Coelho quotation: