The Polar Express

Snow and trees, trees and snow, snow, snow, trees and more snow. it’s just as well that I chose to stop off and wander around the ravishingly beautiful University city of Uppsala for a few hours before picking up the overnight Arctic Special. My pictures can explain the glories of this medieval centre of academia better than I can, especially as I have access to no reference material with which to check my facts (I gave most of my leaflets to a French journalist who that I met in Kiruna on her way back down South in the opposite directon).

Amongst the fascinating memorabilia of St Erik’s, the Domkyrka, largest cathedral in Scandinavia, is the tomb of Carl Linnaeus. Close examination of a photograph of the inscription tells me that the father of botanical classification died in MDCCXCVIII (1798 by my reckoning) by which time the atmosphere of investigation and debate that flourished in the town was already renowned throughout Europe. it was a generation before this that the beautifully designed Anatomical Theatre was built in the neighbouring university, the only one of its kind to be still in use and a far cry from the grimy, twilight world of the English resurrectionists. Fortunately, so I was told, the only lectures given there nowadays are of the “clean hands” variety.

Uppsala is a place just stuffed full of superlatives: the only this, the first of that, the biggest whatever but the finest artefact on display has to be the Augsberg Art Cabinet, an early seventeenth century cabinet containing thousands of exquisite curios, representing the world in miniature and, in its day, reputed to be worth the cost of building an entire new castle. Today it is priceless, being the only complete collection of its kind in existence and providing a unique understanding of the tastes and intellectual preoccupations of the period. Its continued perfection is owed to the fact that its Royal recipient died shortly afterwards and willed it to the University before the grandchildren could get their hands on all its fiddly little accessories.

I lingered in the almost deserted Gustavianum Museum for hours, soaking up the atmosphere and finding out something more about Vendal and Viking ship burials, taking in the suprisingly extensive Egyptology collection and learning about the admission of female students in the nineteenth century. A contemporary painting shows them having riding instruction with the young men and the foonote complains that they were not permitted to wear the traditional white caps. Come on Girls, if they respected your minds enough to let you attend lectures alongside the chaps at a time when education and ovaries were widely believed to be mutually incompatible then surely such outward trappings were of secondary importance.

And now for all the railway enthusiasts who are asking “but what about the train?”. You are in luck as I met a Swedish rail buff who explained that the fastest route to the Arctic was built very early in the twentieth century by British engineers to serve the iron ore mines of Kiruna, right at the top of Sweden, and extended to Narvick on the coast of Norway to provide year round, ice-free access. A regular visitor to the North, he also chatted about his Sami (he called them Samish) friends and the problems that they faced in the modern world. But more of that later because, while he was telling me not to miss the railway workers’ memorial at Kiruna Station, I missed the Arctic Circle sign on our way past. “The ceremony is only for the first time you cross, anyway. Maybe you can get a picture on the way back”.


Categories: Arctic, Europe


  • Bea says:

    Snow. In Sweden that’s a surprise……

    Just read out a few extracts to mum. She was pleased to hear from you. She seems okay, but not very chatty.

    I love the photos.

  • Chris says:

    It sounds as if Uppsala is your sort of town but I’m not so sure about Kiruna.

  • Sandy says:

    looks like your student companion is very friendly! It will be 84F today here, so I am jealous now of the ice and snow!

Leave a Reply