Wednesday, June 12, 2013

The oaks of Sweden-Finland: bikepacking to Porkkala, west of Helsinki.


 
This is a nice video you can also see on the Visit Finland cycling pages, that good give a good impression of some of the areas I write about below.

An old colleague and friend, who masqueraded as an international relations analyst but I always felt was really old-school liberal historian at heart, taught me a lot about how to see Finland. When I was studying how Finnish security policy has changed since the end of the Cold War, he was always telling me to really understand it I had to look backwards.

Disaster strike early! My rack breaking - but necessity is the mother of invention, the rack was binned and my dry bag strapped reasonably well to my saddle.
There's nothing radical in that of course, and I was always fascinated by the unique and often uncomfortable position Finland found itself in after WWII. But my friend kept telling me to look far earlier than that: before independence, before Finland's time as a Grand Duchy of the Russian Empire, to when it was part of what he always called “Sweden-Finland”.
Your correspondent, proud in his unique "Duckboards are evil" bike cap.

Packed up for the second day of riding.

Great riding on forest paths in Porkkala.
Nationalism is a modern phenomenon, we tend to see history through that prism but it is invariably inaccurate to do so. Just like most countries, there is very little natural about “Finland” as a socio-political entity despite what the nationalists would have you believe. “Finland” as an idea is a product of writers, poets, artists and philosophers. The idea was built in response to Russian rule over these lands in the 19th Century, using the intellectual tools provided by the concepts of nationalism that swept through Europe – at the time a radical and often progressive idea that emancipated people from old feudal bonds to kings, princes and clerics.
Of course evidence of Sweden-Finland is on most signs still in Finland.
Espoo Cathedral, an obvious way point on the King's Road.
What came after "Sweden-Finland".
My colleague's point was always that it was wrong to think of Finland before Russian-rule as simply being under Swedish rule; there was no Finland then as we think of it now, it was an integral and important part of the Swedish kingdom, hence “Sweden-Finland”. Arwidsson's now famous saying of “Swedes we are no longer, Russians we do not want to become, let us therefore be Finns!” will be linked forever with the rise of Finnish nationalism, but it is perhaps a more plaintive cry than it might at first sound. Russian rule ripped people away from their past relationship to the Swedish crown. A near-century of Russian rule, and the urgent need to create Finland as an independent entity in response, means the past of Sweden-Finland retreats into the distance, often lost in the nationalist gaze. But it is still there if you look and here we finally get to the bikepacking.

Simple supper for a lightweight ride.
Last week I went out for an overnight ride with the aim of reaching the nature reserve and camping areas at the Porkkala, the peninsular jutting out into the sea west of Helsinki. Porkkala's history is interesting in its own right – the Soviet Union demanded it as part of the peace treaty to end it war with Finland during WWII, so from 1944 to 1955 it was under Soviet control. Finns who lived and farmed the area given to the USSR were evacuated.

Camp for the night.
 But before getting to the peninsular, my ride took me through other areas. First I skirted north west of the Greater Helsinki sprawl, riding mainly on forest recreation tracks and back roads, ending up in Nuuksio national park. Coming out of Nuukiso's southeast corner there was no more obvious off-road route to take to get me down towards Porkkala.

 
A massive flock of some water birds I couldn't identify, but quite a sight, near the end of the Porkkala peninsular

Instead I started following the King's Road, through the fringes of Espoo (really just a series of suburbs to Helsinki but due to the idiosyncrasy of Finnish municipal politics, it gets to call itself “Finland's second city”) and back out into the countryside towards Kirkkonummi. From here it was more empty country roads all the way down to the beautiful nature reserves and recreation areas at the end of Porkkala where I camped for the night. The next day it would have been nice to carry on westwards on the King's Road towards ultimately Turku/Åbo – the capital of the Finnish realms during the time of Sweden-Finland – but that will have to wait for another trip. Rather, I had to turn back north taking roughly the same route back again, although skipping some of the forest riding closer to my home in favour of some less interesting urban bike paths to save time and make it to an event at my kids' school I had promised to attend.

But what of the oaks and of Sweden-Finland? Well, as some might have guessed by now the king of the “King's Road” was the king of Sweden. The road ran from the eastern fringes of the Swedish medieval kingdom, roughly the current Finnish-Russian border, all along the southern shores of Finland to Turku, over the sea and Åland Islands, to Stockholm and on westwards to the Atlantic in what is now Norway. Now set up for tourists, particularly cycle tourists, the King's Road west of Helsinki shows that half forgotten Sweden-Finland past. Helsinki is mainly a city built in the Russian era and after during independence, but just a few miles to its west, out in the countryside, there is much to remind you of the links to Sweden and for me the oak trees are central to this.

The total for a 24 hr, one night trip.
Go north into the Finnish interior and there are few deciduous trees beyond the ever present birches. But along the south coast of the country, often clearly planted centuries ago, lining old roads and driveways to manor house for example, you find oaks much like I've seen in the areas outside of Stockholm. Buildings like the manor houses and churches – Kirkkonummi church for example – are also clear indicators of those earlier times, but I love the long rows of oaks. Like the English countryside of my childhood, they are both beautiful parts of the natural world and also constant reminders of how people have for millennia managed and shaped that natural world. The oaks of “Sweden-Finland” are both beautiful trees, on the very geographical limits of where they naturally can grow, but also texts in which to read our social history.

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