Working in Sweden is fine. It's a very pleasant place really. Full of surprises sometimes. The title reflects one of my favourites - a shop in downtown Stockholm that sells clogs. Loads of them (wearing your outdoor shoes indoors is a social crime second only to flatulence - people therefore wear these ridiculous clogs at work). And, for some bizarre reason, condoms. Hundreds of them ; different sizes, styles and possibly flavours etc. All being sold by two old ladies. Weird.
Anyway, to get to the point. Caving is quite different from England. Contacting the local cavers was easy - one of my new colleagues is a caver. This was a pretty amazing coincidence given that there are only three hundred in the whole country. 'Active caver', incidentally, seems to be defined as more than five trips a year. They are a friendly bunch (I have to say this because they'll be reading this) and communication is no problem. However, a few critical differences between caving English style and Swedish style soon became apparent. Culture shock number one came at the first meeting of Stockholm's Grottklub that I attended. This was the first time I think I've ever been to a gathering of more than three cavers when no alcohol was available. Those of you who know my personal habits will agree that that this is not my style at all.
The Stockholm area itself has no limestone caves, but quite a few granite caves, which are fun. Granite caving is a form of speleological masturbation, fine until you can get to the real thing. Granite caves tend to be very sharp, with lots of squeezes and well ventilated. One in particular was really cold with minus 7°C air temperature. Occasional surprises lurk - I would be grateful if anyone could explain to me how a passage 20 metres long, 4 metres wide and 4 metres high with a solid roof forms in granite. There is an excellent granite cave not far from the centre of town, with 300 metres of mixed passage, squeezes and a really airy traverse along a rift about 30 metres off the ground. All a subway ride (admittedly quite a long one) from my flat. All in all, Stockholm can be said to be better than Cambridge in that one can go caving at all.
However, culture shocks two and three come when you want to go to a real (read limestone) cave. Firstly, they are a long way from anywhere - lots of them are in fact in Norway. Secondly they are not, with a few exceptions, very big. I made a strategic cock-up one weekend: "How big is this cave we're going to on Saturday then?" "Oh, its one of the biggest around...I think it's the biggest in that area"....visions of caverns measureless to man... "How big is that then?" "Oh, about 100 metres I think". Polite pause. What he didn't tell me was that it was 100 metres of nasty, tight water-filled passage, the like of which I haven't done since the rash days of youth, and even then I used to avoid if at all possible. I was woefully ill-prepared for this, but (wave union jack, sing Rule Brittania etc., etc.) it had to be done, as they're all staring at you to see if you're going to wimp out because you're English. Bit cold though.
There are (very) roughly speaking three areas of limestone caves in Sweden. The above-mentioned cave is in the least significant of them, on the mainland south of Stockholm. North of Stockholm are other caves, although a sad accident of history, for which the Swedes cannot blame anyone other than themselves, placed the Swedish-Norwegian border on the wrong side of the caving areas. The distances involved in getting there are about the same as Cambridge-Bad Aussee. It's all very pleasant driving through pine forests for an hour or so but, call me a Philistine, see one you've seen the lot. And there are one hell of a lot of them. After 14 hours or so they begin to pall somewhat. Swedes in fact seem quite proud of the fact that there is bugger all else. I think this probably reveals a flaw in the national psyche. Never feel guilty about buying some pine furniture from Habitat, that's what I say. Ranting apart, I spent a very pleasant few days staying in a cabin buried in 1.5 metres of snow, next to the longest cave in Sweden. Korallgrottan is 5 kilometres long, and is mostly deserted phreas. It is excellent caving. Due to its geographical location (immense drive plus cross-country skiing to get there) it's relatively unspoilt - sadly unlike some of the granite caves in the south. The main way in involves sliding on your belly (yes I know there's a lot of it in my case) on ice for about 50 metres. Another entrance a 30 metre, 45° ice slope (wheeeeeee!!!!). There are loads of ice formations of great beauty (see accompanying photo), and an excellent spirally descending phreatic passage. Best way of describing it is a cross between parts of Magnetometer and parts of Easegill - complete with the occasional "oh fuck I'm inside a sump" feeling. Probably a bit damp come the spring melt.
The other major region is the island of Gotland. This is one of Sweden's home-grown tourist resorts - in the Baltic about six hours from Stockholm, five of which are spent on the ferry. The best cave there (apparently) is Lummelunda. This is a 4 kilometre stream cave, the front of which is a show cave. Since it's a show cave access is a little problematical: I missed last year's trip but should get there in a few weeks time. There is also, and perhaps predictably, a Major Dig (à la Mendip) in the vicinity. This is a particularly squalid and definitely long-term project. It started out as a 4 by 3 metre shaft 2 metres deep. Fifteen years later it's a 4 by 3 metre shaft 15 metres deep. It struck me that getting the kids who nick car radios to dig digs like this for a couple of weeks would be an extremely effective, not to say suitable, punishment. It looks as if it will go soon - they are starting to find boulders sideways rather than mud down. It offers a pretty good prospect actually as it's the only entrance for miles. Hopefully this year's digging season will get it.
All in all, Sweden is not exactly the Picos de Europa. Nevertheless, it does offer something to keep you amused whilst dreaming of caverns measureless. Not to mention taverns measureless. I can't honestly recommend it to anyone looking for a caving holiday, but it has exceeded my expectations. Norway, with all it's bigger stuff, is not too far away after all.