After a December that was the coldest in Europe for 100 years – many of us dream of heading south to the warmth.
Some adventurous Britons, however, have moved in the opposite direction, setting up home in Swedish Lapland in a string of remote communities straddling the Arctic Circle.
The area (Lapland comprises the northernmost parts of Sweden, Norway, Finland and part of Russia) is sometimes described as Europe’s last wilderness, and it is certainly cold; this winter, the first snow fell in the first week of October. Temperatures can plunge to minus 30C, and snow covers the ground until at least April.
Patricia Cowern traded the West Midlands for the village of Porjus (population 400) after visiting the area in 1995 with her son, Toby, who was on an outdoor survival course.
“The space, quiet and proximity to nature just overwhelmed me,” says Patricia, a photographer who runs a gallery (pictures of the Northern Lights, or aurora borealis, are her speciality) and rents out four self-catering flats in the village.
Toby, 31, also decided to move permanently to Porjus, and now makes a living as a tour guide, taking visitors on snowmobile and dog-sledding trips. In the short Lapland summer, he offers canoeing and hiking, and helps out as a part-time fireman. His two daughters, aged six and nine, go to the village school and speak perfect Swedish.
“Lapland gives the girls freedom to be children,” says Patricia, of her grandchildren. “The village is simple, but it’s safe. Weather permitting, they are out on their bikes all the time, and only come home when they are hungry. In the winter, they love to ski. You could call it a rather old-fashioned kind of life.”
But Patricia has advice about putting down roots in Lapland: “First, you can’t live here and not like the outdoors. Secondly, you need to be resourceful and make your own job.” Meanwhile, brown bears, lynx, elk and the ubiquitous reindeer roam the hills and forests. In the warmer months, fields are full of flowers, and huge mushrooms and tiny wild strawberries abound.
David and Kerstin Carpenter, both from Essex, have helped a number of British expats set up home in and around Jokkmokk. With 3,000 people, it is the capital of a municipality of less than 6,000 permanent residents spread over an area larger than Northern Ireland.
Jokkmokk is well known for its Sami (indigenous Lapp) crafts fair, which has taken place every February for 400 years. The fair features reindeer racing and traditional singing. A wide selection of pelts and furs are on sale.
Homes in Lapland are traditionally painted red with white trimmings around the door and windows. “The vast majority of houses are made of wood,” says David. “They are not just timber-framed, they are made entirely of wood.”
Wooden houses can last for decades in the predominantly dry climate. Homes have large grounds, often with saunas.
Snow on the roofs might be picturesque, but it can be a problem because of the weight. “In the early spring, snow begins to melt in the day,” says David. “Then it freezes overnight. As a result, it turns to ice and of course becomes heavier and heavier if not removed.”
Transport problems experienced in Britain after a light coating of snow are unthinkable. Ploughs clear main roads as soon as snow falls, and locals use tractors to clear minor roads and tracks. And what about airports shut down because of wintry weather? “I’ve never heard that Lulea airport [115 miles from Jokkmokk on the coast] has had to close in the winter for any reason other than fog,” says Patricia.
While depopulation is a problem in Sweden’s far north, communities are becoming multicultural. There are up to 30 different nationalities in Jokkmokk town, which has about a dozen British residents. Patricia estimates that there are now 14 different nationalities in Porjus. German, British and Dutch incomers are the biggest national groups.
“In the long term, these communities are declining,” says David. “For every 200 people who move in, from southern Sweden and abroad, we lose 225 as the older generation dies, and young people move out to a University or job in the south of Sweden”.
In an effort to reverse the trend, the local council, a regional bank and Vattenfall, the nationally owned power company, have set up Emigrate2Jokkmokk to attract new residents, particularly young families, and offer help when they arrive.
David administers the programme: “We have a lot to offer here: lakes with water fresh enough to drink, wonderful fishing in all seasons, and peace and quiet. Prices for many things are similar to the UK.”
But some things you can’t easily buy in Britain, cold winter or not. In Swedish Lapland, for as little as £500, you can be the proud owner of a second-hand snowmobile.