Heathrow Central Bus Station is a wonderful spot for people watching. It’s late afternoon, and I’m sitting on a bench by stand number 13, watching the world go by. The air is filled with the heady aroma of diesel fumes as an endless stream of National Express buses arrive, load up and head out again, bound for such exotic destinations as Oxford, Worthing and Brighton. All around me a hundred small human dramas unfold – an elderly couple argue quietly together about their luggage, a young mother loses her patience in her struggle to control a wayward toddler, two young backpackers sit on their rucksacks holding hands ….and all to a soundtrack of the roar of jet engines, the neverending drone of London traffic and the chatter of voices in a dozen different tongues. Over the years Heathrow Central Bus Station has played a vital role in many of my travel adventures – the expectancy and anticipation of arrival, knowing you’re off somewhere new and exciting, the joy of coming home to see old friends and loved ones, and occasionally the blank exasperation of seeing your coach pull away just as you reach the stand.
Sitting there as the skies darkened and the pigeons pecked listlessly around my feet, I couldn’t help thinking that the scene stood in stark contrast to the view I’d been looking at earlier that day. Just a few hours before, shortly after breakfast, I had been sitting on a jetty on a small island. It was still quite early, and the morning mist was clearing to reveal a bright blue sky and the promise of a warm September day. A full moon still shone faintly overhead and on a neighbouring island an osprey came in to land on its nest at the top of a pine tree. A few minutes later a flock of cormorants passed over in perfect V-formation like a small black aerial display team, and behind me a field vole emerged warily from the forest undergrowth, sniffed the air for a few seconds, got startled by the flutter of a dragonfly and disappeared from view. As I watched the last of the mist evaporate in the gathering warmth, I caught a glimpse of a very large bird of prey as it flew into view from behind the trees. Another few minutes’ patient waiting and what I could now see was a Golden Eagle glided into view and circled lazily just 20 metres or so above me before heading off to the horizon to try new hunting grounds.
All around me the world was full of life – in the air and on the ground, but still all was calm and quiet. Apart from the distant tak-tak of a small outboard engine and one or two characteristic red and white summer cottages peeking out from the forests of surrounding islands, there were no signs of anyone else being around at all. Somehow it seemed as if the whole scene was being played out just for me, that the world had stopped whatever it was doing and decided to sit back and enjoy things for a while.
What made the sensation so surprising, and in a way so much more special, was that I hadn’t journeyed to a remote and undiscovered part of the world, spending hours bumping along dusty country tracks or slashing my way through impenetrable forest to get here. This was the Stockholm archipelago, and I was on one of the 24,000 or so islands that make up this stunning marine landscape on the east cost of Sweden. Just over an hour away by boat lay one of the most beautiful capital cities in the world, home to around 800,000 people. This combination of wildness and accessibility has always, for me, been one of the great attractions of Sweden – the country offers some of the most spectacular and wildest landscapes to be found anywhere in Europe, yet the swift and efficient transport networks and the attention paid to planning and design mean you don’t need to travel for days to reach them.
My reverie was interrupted as I glanced at my watch and realised it was time to get going. Lifting our luggage into the boat, we gunned the engine and headed out across the dead calm waters. Ninety minutes later we were sitting in Arlanda airport, the sights and sounds of the archipelago still fresh in our minds. As Douglas Adams wrote in Long Dark Tea Time of the Soul, “It can hardly be a coincidence that no language on Earth has ever produced the phrase, ‘as pretty as an airport.’ Airports are ugly. Some are very ugly. Some attain a degree of ugliness that can only be the result of a special effort.” But perhaps he’d never been to Arlanda. While nothing compared to the sweeping majesty of the landscape I had been in earlier that morning, Arlanda would probably do rather well in a world airport beauty contest, and is certainly a lot more attractive than Heathrow Central Bus Station….
Bob from The Nature Travels Team
Nature Travels is the UK specialist for wildlife, outdoor and adventure holidays in Sweden. Our sea kayaking experiences take place in the beautiful and wild Trosa archipelago just to the south of Stockholm.