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WSWC (3/3): The voyage home - John C. Kirk

Apr. 22nd, 2014

01:42 am - WSWC (3/3): The voyage home

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Previously in my blog...
In part 1, I travelled to Lapland for the Winter Swimming World Championships.
In part 2, I competed in races and survived exposure to sub-zero water.

Now it was time to go home. I basically did my original journey in reverse, but it took a bit longer in this direction and I looked for different activities at each stop rather than repeating myself.

Sunday 23rd March

We got a sleeper train from Rovaniemi, so everyone else would get off at Tampere at about 05:30 while I stayed on until Helsinki (due in at 09:00). There were 2 beds (bunks) per compartment; each bed had a power socket, and the whole train had wireless internet access. Each compartment also had an en-suite shower room, which was quite ingenious: the wall pivoted to swap the room from WC to shower.

Compartment 1 Compartment 2 Compartment 3 Compartment 4

Most SLSC people shared cabins, but I was in with a random guy because I booked separately. We did discuss whether it would be practical for me to take our injured person's empty bunk in an SLSC compartment, but decided against it, partly because we thought that someone else might have booked it from Tampere to Helsinki. Fortunately, lots of people went to the bar (on the train) so we chatted there until it was time for bed.

Monday 24th March

Helsinki was my longest stopover (8 hours), so I had time to do some exploring. I left most of my luggage at the station: they charged €3.00 per bag per day, and they're open from 06:30 to 22:00, which I think is quite reasonable.

Unfortunately, a lot of places were closed for the winter. Other places were open during the winter but closed on Mondays, e.g. the National Museum of Finland and the Ataneum (national art gallery of Finland). Others again were open during the winter and open on Mondays, but they were only open to women on Mondays, e.g. the Yrjönkatu swimming hall. Still, my loss is another's gain. Katie from Team Broccoli the Brockwell Icicles was also in Helsinki, and she did swim at Yrjönkatu: more info in her blog.

I did some digging online and found the Kuusijärvi centre: this has a sauna and an ice hole outside, similar to Hellasgården (which I visited on my way to Lapland). Unfortunately I didn't check the times carefully enough, so I arrived at 10:00 and the sauna didn't actually open until 13:00. It turned out that it was free to swim in the lake if you didn't use the indoor facilities, so I just did that. They had some sheds near the water's edge to get changed in: these are about the same size as the cubicles at Tooting Bec Lido, but they have swinging (unlockable) saloon doors. Most of the lake was frozen over, but there was an enclosed section with jets running to keep the water clear. It felt a bit warmer than Rovaniemi (possibly because I was further south), and I didn't need a hot tub or sauna to thaw out afterwards.

These photos show the lake area as I approached "my" section:

Lake 1 Lake 2 Lake 3

The first 2 photos show the same red buoy (?) frozen in the ice. Looking at the third photo, I swam in the left quarter. One set of steps is boarded over, and that's where they had the jet running.

When I got back to central Helsinki, I tried to get to the old Olympic Stadium, but I took a few wrong turnings and got lost, so I ended up having a general wander around the town instead. Still, this was better than sitting in the station all day, and I found somewhere to eat. In the evening, I took the train to Turku, then the overnight ferry to Stockholm.

My cabin on the ferry was similar to before, but this time there were 2 beds. (I still had the cabin to myself, as before.)

Cabin 1 Cabin 2

I didn't have a window in either of my cabins, but that was ok: I didn't feel claustrophobic.

This time I made sure that I visited the Duty Free shop before I went to bed, although that did mean extra stuff to lug around for the rest of the trip. They explicitly said that you weren't allowed to drink it on board, so for future trips I think I'll leave that until closer to the end of my journey.

I had dinner on the ferry; although it was the same company as before (Viking), everything seemed a bit smoother in this direction, e.g. they had English menus and I found a decent vegetarian pizza. Their ordering system was quite clever: rather than asking for my table number, they gave me something that resembled a smoke alarm. When my food was ready, the gadget beeped and I took it to the counter to swap it for my plate.

As before, I had a power socket in my room, and this time I got wireless internet access in there too.

Tuesday 25th March

When I arrived in Sweden on Tuesday morning, I had almost 4 hours before my next train left. I wanted to maintain my cold water acclimatisation, so I looked for somewhere else to swim. I could have gone back to Hellasgården but it opens at 15:00 on Tuesdays. I was only around from 06:30 to 10:20, so that was no good for me. I could have done the ice hole on its own, but if there wasn't a sauna then I figured that I might as well try somewhere else. Also, I preferred to get some variety, so this time I picked Ågesta nude beach.

My first job was to get back to the bus station at Slussen. There was a sign outside the ferry terminal offering bus tickets to central Stockholm for 45 SEK (about £4.20), but the driver only accepted debit/credit cards, not cash.

Bus ticket sign

I pay a £2.00 handling fee each time I use my debit card in a foreign currency. I avoid that with my credit card, but I foolishly didn't take it with me: I thought I'd be able to do everything in cash. I knew that it was only 1 stop on the local buses, but I also knew that I couldn't buy tickets for them on board. I'm sure the system works well for people who live there, but it's a bit tricky as a tourist. I wonder whether London will have the same issues when buses go cashless? Anyway, I walked to Slussen instead. This took me 30 minutes, including a 5 minute rest so that I could put my bags down.

At Slussen, I bought an SL access card, equivalent to an Oyster. You can't get these at machines, but you can top them up there; I got mine from the newsagent (Pressbyrän) inside the station. Note that this sign is slightly misleading:

SL access sign

As I discovered on my outbound journey, the (paper) single ticket that the machine dispenses is effectively just a receipt, so it won't work in the automated barriers. The card cost 35 SEK, and I think that tickets cost 30 SEK for a single journey vs. 80 for a 24 hour pass (equivalent to a London travelcard). I was only there for a few hours, but the pass seemed worthwhile if I'd make at least 4 journeys, and the convenience of the card outweighed the cost.

I took the T18 (subway) to end of line (Farsta Strand), which took about 25 minutes. Then I caught a 742 bus towards the beach.
NB Farsta Strand is in zone A (central) but Ågesta is in zone B. Again, this is similar to London travelcard zones, so if you go there then make sure you get the correct pass. You only have to scan it when you get on the bus, not when you get off, so if you accidentally travel outside your zone then you could get stranded.

I followed signs for "Naturistbad": I assumed that this translated as "beach" rather than being a value judgment! However, they led me to an area which didn't look particularly beach-like:

Road sign Car park

I don't insist on sand; after all, Brighton beach is covered in pebbles. However, I was hoping to be a bit closer to the water. Presumably people would park here and go the rest of the way on foot, so I continued along the road. I spent the next 15 minutes orbiting the lake without actually getting any closer. At that point I had to turn back: either I'd gone past it or it was so far away that I wouldn't have any time to swim when I got there. As I approached the car park again, a car stopped next to me and the driver offered me a lift to the bus stop: I think she felt a bit sorry for me having to lug my bags around. That was a kind offer, but I declined. I asked whether she could give me directions to the beach, but she'd never heard of it. Curiously, the road sign in my photo above is only visible from one direction; they don't make it easy to find!

Back in the car park, I had another look around, and I eventually discovered an unmarked footpath on the far side. Following that, I found an encouraging noticeboard:

Noticeboard First notice Second notice

I couldn't actually understand them, but I guessed that the first notice said "Welcome to Ågesta naturist beach". Running them through Google Translate now I'm home (and paraphrasing a bit), the first sign basically says "This is the only naturist beach in the Stockholm area and people come here from all over Sweden. If you prefer to sunbathe/swim with clothes on, there are lots of other outdoor pools to choose from, including 2 here in Magelungssjon." The second sign says: "Cats and small dogs are allowed, but they must be on a lead. They're only allowed on the grassy area (not the sand) and you mustn't wash them in the swimming area." So, I'm glad I didn't miss anything important, e.g. "Beware of sharks!"

I must admit, the beach wasn't quite what I'd expected, based on the (stock?) photo from the website.

The beach

Technically you could run happily across the sand, but it wouldn't take you very long. The iPad's built in camera app doesn't include a timer, so you're all spared from seeing a bum selfie. Anyway, the water was definitely warmer here: I'd guess at about 3°C. I was panting when I got in, but I was able to roll on to my back and float rather than continually thrashing around to stay warm.

Once I'd got dressed, it took me about 15 minutes to walk back to the bus stop, arriving at 09:25. I would have been ok if buses ran every 10 minutes (like my outbound journey). However, the timetable said that they ran every 15 minutes until 09:15 then every 30 minutes afterwards, i.e. the next bus was due at 09:45. The signpost said 1.6km to Farsta Strand (i.e. 1 mile), and I could normally walk that far in 15 minutes. On the other hand, I don't normally carry this much luggage. So, should I stay or should I go? I had to get to Stockholm for the 10:20 train to Copenhagen, and the subway towards Farsta Strand took 25 minutes so I ought to be back at the subway station by 09:50 at the latest. Either way, I'd be cutting it close.

I decided to walk to the next bus stop, then re-assess. (There were only 2 stops in total between the beach area and the station.) I left at 09:30 (after a short rest/snack) and I reached the next stop at 09:40, with the bus due there at 09:47. I decided to press on. There wouldn't be much in it, but walking would be safer if the bus was late. (On the other hand, sitting down is easier if the bus is on time.) I reached Farsta Strand at 09:45, and expected the bus to be 3 minutes behind me. However, the digital display said that it was 10 minutes away. I got to the platform about 2 minutes before the subway train left; I'm not sure how far the next train was behind.

I made it back to the station for my next international train with 5 minutes to spare, so I would have missed it if I'd waited for the bus. With a complicated route like mine, the chain is only as strong as the weakest link: if I miss 1 connection, it will cascade down the line. In hindsight, maybe I should have paid the extra money to get the bus from the ferry port! Still, I am getting better at navigating public transport in other countries.

When I reached Copenhagen, I had 3 hours before my next train out. I had a couple of ideas in mind, e.g. visiting the statue of The Little Mermaid or swimming at the Kastrup sea baths. According to The Guardian: "Just be aware that it's normal to go naked: it's just horrible when you get out of the water in a bathing suit because the water is zero degrees."

However, I got a bit lost again, so I wound up just having another general wander. In hindsight, if I'd planned this better then I would have got off the train 1 stop early (at the airport) and visited those places on my way to the main station. Ah well, live and learn. I saw a lot of people cycling on cargo bikes; I don't know whether they're available for hire (similar to Boris Bikes) but that would be a good way to get around the town with lots of luggage.

I did see a funfair opposite the station, but I'm not sure whether it was open:

Back at the station, I needed the sleeper train to Cologne. As before, I was in a 6-bed compartment, but this time I was the first person to arrive. The sleeper train from Rovaniemi used key-cards on the doors, as did the ferries. However, the Copenhagen/Cologne train just has a catch inside the compartment. The staff member on duty said that I should make sure to lock the room before I went to sleep, to stop anyone coming in and stealing luggage; this was a particular risk at Hamburg, since the train would stop there for half an hour, so someone could get on and go all the way along the train looking for valuables without getting trapped on board when the train left. On the other hand, I couldn't lock the cabin before the other people arrived, and most of them weren't due until 00:30. This was a pity, because it was an 11-hour journey and I'd been looking forward to an early night so that I could catch up on sleep.

A elderly lady got on at the next stop, and we chatted for a while, then I lay down to read while I waited for the other 4 people to turn up. I actually dozed off, but I woke up when someone came in: she put her bags down, and I said "Hello", then she picked her bags up again and left without saying anything. I don’t know whether she got the wrong compartment or just decided that the room next door looked more appealing. Meanwhile, I heard some noise from further down the carriage. The staff member was banging on the door, shouting: "Sir, sir, you must unlock the door, you are not alone in there!" Someone else (the guy inside) was shouting something back about calling the police. Anyway, that all went quiet so I assume they sorted it out.

I also saw a family get on with 2 young children, who promptly started crying, and carried on for the next 30 minutes. Fortunately they weren't in my compartment, and the background noise of the train mostly drowned them out; I only heard them because I was making an effort to stay awake. However, since the compartments aren't segregated by sex, I don't know whether they're segregated by age, so maybe I could wind up in the same room as someone else's young children. I waited for a while after the train left the station in case my roomies got on the wrong carriage and took a while to reach the right one, but I eventually gave up on them and locked the door. They never turned up, so it was just the 2 of us for the rest of the trip.

I realise that I may not be offering a very good advert for train travel here. However, this is really only an issue for a solo traveller. If you're going with friends (e.g. the SLSC horde) then you can have a room to yourselves and go to bed whenever you like.

Wednesday 26th March

On Wednesday morning, our train was delayed outside Cologne, so we arrived about an hour late. That wasn't a problem for me: I still had enough time to catch my connecting train. It's only a pity that I couldn't stay in bed for a bit longer. Ah well, no matter. This was my first train where I didn't get off at the terminus, so I had to be ready to get off before it left for its next stop.

I was supposed to have 1½ hours in Cologne; that shrank after my late arrival, so I just stayed inside the station and bought a pastry for breakfast. The train to Brussels had free wireless internet access, but no power sockets.

When I got to Brussels, I stayed inside the station again, since I only had an hour between trains. The Eurostar doesn't have wireless internet or power sockets; I tried using my MyFi device after we passed through the Channel Tunnel, but I couldn't get a signal.

I was back in Kings Cross St Pancras at noon. After that, I caught a train to Streatham, and made it to the lido in time for a quick swim/sauna before closing time. This was before I'd actually been home, so I had all my luggage piled up in the cubicle: well, you have to prioritise!

All in all, I had a good trip, and I'm very glad I went. Based on this, I certainly want to attend the Polish Ice Swimming Championships in December.