‘I switch off and surrender to my location’
Am I stressed? It seems an odd question to ask myself. Sure, there have been deadline pressures of late, but not in any way that would cause Woodward and Bernstein to lose sleep. Yes, I have been travelling a fair amount, to outposts as far-flung as Sudan and Ethiopia – but hardly in the nerves-edge way of Patrick Leigh Fermor, embedded with the Cretan resistance in the Second World War.
Am I tired? Well, that much I know. It was an early flight, the before-first-light taxi inching across the torso of London in the sticky black tar of an autumn night; the flight; the long drive at the far end. But worried? Weary? Who can say? And is it really possible for a travel writer to be stressed, anyway?
It is even stranger to be having this internal discussion in this context, at this hour – 6am, with the new day starting to slither over the surface of Lake Animmen in Sweden. It comes in stages, a reluctant grey initially, turning to a less bashful silver as the dawn grows in confidence, and finally an exuberant gold as the waking sun breaks the tree line on the opposite bank. The water seems to shiver in pleasure. I can understand this instinct, and wonder if this vicarious satisfaction is doing much for my own happiness level. It is 14 hours now since the assessment – where my blood pressure was gauged, my heart rate recorded; the first moments of my three days as a guinea pig in a relatively remote part of southern Sweden.
This location is key. Perhaps more than any other nation, Sweden relishes its connection with nature. It is a love match that is even enshrined in its constitution. Allemansratten – The Everyman’s Right – has been written into the Swedish legal fabric since 1994. It is a right to roam freely across the land mass (with a few exceptions – private gardens, in sight of homes, fields under cultivation); to hike, cycle and camp in the jigsaw puzzle of water and whispering branches that defines much of Scandinavia’s largest country. It is a freedom, too, that is intrinsic to the country’s feted sense of well-being; to its reputation as a place of quiet and tranquillity, where fresh air rouges the cheeks and gladdens the lungs.
And it has effectively set me a challenge. The “72-Hour Cabin Project” is a simple idea. In an experiment devised by the Karolinska Institutet, a medical university in Stockholm, I am tasked with accepting Sweden’s leafy hug – specifically by staying and sleeping for three nights in a small, timber-framed hut in a woodland setting, alone, with nothing for immediate company beyond the chirp of birdsong and my own thoughts on the scenery about me. And I am defied not to emerge from this process calmer, more relaxed and in a placid state of mind. On this score there is, it transpires, lots of room for improvement. The results of my health check reveal a blood-pressure reading of 151/97 and a pulse of 61 – not exactly signs of a man on the edge yet also hints that I could learn to slow down.
I am not completely alone in this. We are five in all, we walking casestudies – all with supposedly highpressure jobs. We are a group that also comprises Steffi, a police officer from Munich, Marilyne, a Parisian taxi driver, and Baqer, an events organiser from New York – as well as the television presenter and adventurer Ben Fogle. Together yet separate, cocooned within our individual cabins, we are supposed to switch off and surrender to our location – Henriksholm, an island some 100 miles north-east of Gothenburg in the fervently forested and distinctly under-populated province of Dalsland.
Four miles wide yet barely half a mile across at its broadest, densely gladed in areas yet given over to grassy meadows and antique farm machinery in others – with a large manor house at the top of its east-towest slope – Henriksholm is easy to surrender to. And while the lake in which it sits, Animmen, is but a puddle compared with Lake Vanern, the biggest in the EU, which spreads out some five miles to the east, the effect is much the same – rippling shallows, an insistent aroma from the pines on its flanks haunting the breeze. It is even a beauty that I can enjoy, as that first dawn seeps in, without raising my head from my pillow. The cabin’s design ensures this. Both its sides and roof are made wholly of Perspex – allowing the view outside to resemble a landscape masterpiece in a pale frame.
In essence, the cabins are a family affair. Henriksholm is owned by Staffan Berger, a former Gothenburg resident who bought it in 1993, bringing his family north away from urban life. The cabins were drawn up by his daughter, Jeanna – now an architect back in the city, but inspired by the memories of her childhood. “I was raised on Henriksholm,” she says, “and I wanted to pay homage to typical Dalsland nature. I decided that the cabins would stand on pillars so that I did not leave a permanent footprint. I like to think the people that will stay in them will share this same approach to nature. You can climb up into the cabins just as I used to climb trees here on Henriksholm, when I was a child.”
I am not, of course, confined to my cabin for the duration of my stay. The plan is for me to be as active as possible in these glorious surroundings. At the south tip of the island, bright orange kayaks are pulled up on to the ancient bedrock of the shore, there for use at any point. To forge out from here is to realise how big the island is – its west side rearing swarthily above the lake, its many millennia of geology visible in layers of rock like piles of untidily stacked newspapers, slumped and tattered in a forgotten library. But a morning on the water is not about racing from one end of Henriksholm to the other. It is about the basic joy of motion, of finding a forward rhythm, of dipping the paddle repeatedly into the water and hearing the gentle plip and drip noises of its entry and exit. A soothing experience. As is an hour in a rowing boat, inching out to check crayfish pots, weighed down and baited to lure these scuttling crustaceans – or a session on foot, ambling along rutted tracks, pine cones crunching under boot, mustardyellow chanterelle mushrooms growing haphazardly at the base of trunks. There is a sauna, too, behind the main house, where steam and sweat can be alternated with breathstealing leaps into Animmen’s arms.
“I do not miss my previous life. No, not for a moment,” says Andy Van The five Henriksholm cabins are now available to rent as holiday retreats. A three-night stay costs from 3,995 Swedish krona (£377) per person, based on two sharing, on a full-board basis (visitsweden. com/72hcabin). Four further cabins will be on offer in two other Dalsland locations (see dalslandsaktiviteter. com and baldersnas.eu) from spring 2018. Cabins will be available for single-night stays from next summer.
The manor house on Henriksholm (stenebynas.se), which sleeps up to eight people, is also available for hire – from Skr 40,000 per week. The price includes towels, linen and the use of canoes.
Sportfishing Dalsland (sportfishing dalsland.com) offers trips from Skr 3,000. Falkholts Dalslandskrog is open for dinner in Asslebyn (falkholt.com).
BA (Heathrow; ba.com), BMI Regional (Birmingham; flybmi. com), Ryanair (Stansted, Edinburgh; ryanair.com) and Norwegian (Gatwick; norwegian.com) all fly to Gothenburg.
visitsweden.com and vastsverige.com Assema, who runs Sportfishing Dalsland in nearby Ostersbyn. I have been asking him about running an IT company in the Netherlands – an existence he gave up to move to Sweden, to help people to fish. He is trying his best with me.
In half an hour, I learn the basics of casting off, watching the spiky lure arc through the air and splash into the lake. We continue for another hour, in a low-slung boat, the many trout and pike in Animmen’s depths spurning my advances – but my failure does not matter. It is, again, about the deceleration of the moment, the unhurried contemplation of space and time. And, besides, there is lunch – a feast of crayfish, marinated salmon and zander with asparagus, prepared by Christer and Carin Falkholt, whose local restaurant, Falkholts Dalslandskrog, deals in such banquets.
It all, though, comes back to the view. My cabin delivers another perspective at night – still looking to the east, but now at the lake shining
The cabins are made of Perspex, so the view from them resembles a ‘landscape masterpiece’
Chris Leadbeater embraces the 72-Hour Project