Friday, May 21, 2010


Stockholm is, for the immediate future, the eastern limit of my travels - I now had to make an about turn and head almost due west towards Oslo, as I am hoping to circumvent the Gulf of Bothnia via Norway and Finland. My dilemma, therefore, was to devise an itinerary to get me there. My first stop was easy to choose: not only is Uppsala an erstwhile Swedish capital, but more importantly (for me), it was home to a certain Carl Linnaeus. He may not be a household name, but to biologists he is up there with Darwin and David Attenborough, for having devised the binomial system of classification of all living things which is still in use today. The town is cashing in on its famous son and there are a myriad museums and sites connected with his life and work. From Uppsala there are no obvious stops before Oslo and so I consulted The List. I find UNESCO world heritage sites a useful way to form a rough outline for a travel itinerary, which can then be fleshed out with more places as I do more research. I'm not overly dogmatic about them and do not feel I have to tick every single one off in each country that I visit, but I do feel that they are a useful starting point from which to begin investigating potential places to visit. They are invariably unique places and often they are either aesthetically beautiful or culturally and historically important or maybe even a combination of the two. Northwest of Uppsala (so roughly in the right direction) are two such sites, at Ängelsberg and Falun, that characterise Sweden's unique industrial past.

Even Falun's slag heaps (the detritus from the copper smelting process) are considered part of the World Heritage area.

Of all the world heritage sites I have visited (over 230) there are some that I felt were more or less worthy of the distinction, but I am confident when I say that not a single one of them matches Falun for sheer ugliness. The word slag is not the most melodious in the English language, by any stretch of the imagination, and feels vaguely onomatopoeic. The negative impression isn't helped when you think about the words colloquial usage. There is, nevertheless, a more prosaic meaning for the word: the waste by-product which is formed during the smelting of metal ores. Falun was the site of the world's largest copper mine (at one point it was producing two thirds of Europe's supply of the metal) which was continually in production from the 8th century AD until less than 20 years ago. As such it formed the backbone of the Swedish economy for the vast majority of its history and at times even produced some two thirds of Europe's requirements of copper. Whilst making all this copper the mine also produced a lot of slag. A hell of a lot of it. So much that many parts of the city are built on several metres of the stuff and the houses themselves are even made out of it. There are even many dunes of the scree-like slag strewn about the town. And whilst such slag heaps would be landscaped over in most other towns, here they form an integral part of the UNESCO site and so are protected - they even have a team of gardeners employed to remove any plants that have the temerity to decide to take root on them.

Even though the pit is no longer operational the mine still defines the city in many ways, not least because it is its only reason for existence, otherwise the landscape is dominated by birch and pine forests as far as the eye can see. This was not always the case, as when the mine was in full swing in the 17th and 18th centuries, the noxious fumes from the smelting ovens killed off all wildlife within many kilometres of the town - an almost impossible idea today as the town is almost entirely engulfed by forest. Perhaps that's a good sign as no matter how badly we manage to damage the environment, with some time and patience it will come back as strong as ever. Let's hope that's true!

No comments: