Tucked into the dunes on the northern tip of Denmark’s Jutland peninsula is a tiny house of wind-worn clapboard. There’s a coffee table constructed of old beer crates, oil lamps hanging in the windows, a yard of books on the shelf and a well-trodden footpath to a vast sandy beach. Everything from the coffee grinder to the hammock seems well-made and dependable, stylish in an understated way. I throw myself into a chair next to a neat stack of precisely cut firewood. My Scandinavian summer starts here, in an idyllic cabin, a mile from Hirtshals, the nearest town.
Most British summer holidays abroad involve the Med, or its surrounding countries, but I reckon the cooler attractions of the north need to be sampled. A reputation for being expensive, particularly for eating and drinking, deters many, but I’m hoping large doses of self-catering and camping will help on my five-week mission to discover the essence of the perfect Scandinavian summer. I’ll also be relying on the concept of naturens skafferi (nature’s larder), the laudable idea that the great outdoors is a pantry for everyone. The fishing rod is packed. The cloudberries are in season.
My cabin combines all that’s best about the region: comfort, style, simplicity and a whacking great hot tub. I’ve got sun, sea and stacks of food. I’m ready.
The British relationship with Scandinavia is not complex. We are in awe. They are better-governed, better-dressed, better-looking and write better crime novels. Of course, we can always claim a bit of shared ancestry. Many of the quiet Danish villages I had passed through on the train to Hirtshals had names that would fit seamlessly into the Lincolnshire or Yorkshire Wolds. In fact this rolling rural landscape dotted with woodland is not dissimilar, though cleaner and neater. As I’d gazed out that train window, I’d wondered: what if the Vikings had persisted a little longer with their civilising ventures into Britain, would London have the unhurried cool of Copenhagen, could Essex be tidy, and might there be no need for Luton at all?
On my first day I wander along the massive west-facing beach towards Hirtshals, half an hour away. The great sweep of sand is dotted with driftwood and shells. It’s one of those big bracing strands where you either find a suntrap in the dunes to get out of the wind, or go running for miles. The waves are substantial and sprinkled with eider ducks, who chug along regardless, apparently not minding the breakers at all.
At first sight Hirtshals is a tough little fishing port with few obvious attractions, but it soon proves fascinating. The harbour is full of busy boats and there is a wonderful chandlery, its cafe furnished with tables and chairs made from crates and driftwood. Nearby is a fiskehus, an outdoor fish restaurant, a common feature of Danish seaside towns, with a serving hatch, a blackboard menu and picnic tables. It does fish and chips, but the Hirtshals speciality is stjerneskud, which means shooting star: the dish was apparently invented to mark the visit of Yuri Gagarin to Copenhagen in 1962, a year after he became the first man in space.
It’s an example of smørrebrød, or open sandwich, but this one is a spectacular assemblage of cod, smoked salmon, roe, shrimps, asparagus, dill, poached egg and rye bread. I wash it down with hyldeblomst saft (elderflower cordial). Danish cuisine has been criticised for over-reliance on dairy products and sugar (not by me), but these are not in evidence here. As for the sky-high prices: eating out is a little more expensive than in the UK, but I know I can bring overall costs down with canny supermarket shopping and days of self-catering.
In a nearby shop I meet Johannes, a sprightly 96-year-old local who drives a Jaguar and sports a nifty waistcoat and neckerchief. “The Danish summer means beach, sunshine and fun,” he tells me, “but no wind.” I think the latter is a special request among the people of Hirtshals.
Johannes recommends going to the museum to get the flavour of the town. This, I realise later, should be taken quite literally: the museum appears to double as a distillery and off-licence, making and selling various types of a “heritage” drink called bjesk, a kind of schnapps.
Christian, the director, tells me that a local nurse, Signe Hansen, revitalised the tradition in the 1950s, collecting old recipes and inventing new ones using local herbs and flowers. “They say she had a syringe in one pocket and bjesk bottle in the other, and it was the bjesk that got people better more often.”
I’m getting the sense that Denmark, under a composed and tranquil exterior, has hidden depths of eccentricity. They just don’t market it. In fact, they seem not to market anything. The country is a wonderful detox opportunity for the capitalism-worn Brit, weary of hard sell and shouty slogans. There is little advertising here. Perhaps predictably, the country’s most successful export of recent years has been the much-hyped concept of hygge, which seems to involve wearing hand-knitted socks while drinking homemade alcohol and eating homebaked cake by the light of candles, also preferably homemade, with family or friends – and not those met on Tinder. But when I ask a local what hygge is, he says simply: “It’s a sense of wellbeing, of belonging.”
What does he think about the recent international interest? All those books and magazine features? He makes a face. “Hygge cannot be bought or sold.”
In my cabin that evening I test the hygge potential. Candles? Tick. Alcohol? Yes, thanks to Christian at the museum, and it’s homemade too. Cake? No: just a few squares of left-over chocolate. Hand-knitted socks? Not a chance. But then at night, by the glow of the lamps, the wooden cabin steps up to the mark. There is no television or radio, which helps. I read. I fire up the hot tub. I lie back and listen to the wind rising. I get me some authentic Danish wellbeing.
Next day, as though the Norse gods had heard Johannes and felt obliged to taunt him, it is fearsomely windy. Despite its cool, blowy weather, Denmark is regularly listed as the happiest country in the world. Cynics might point out it also has the highest per capita consumption of antidepressants, but the survey includes factors such as income, life expectancy, freedom and trust.
I think, however, that there is more to it than those cold statistical measurements. For example, when I get on a bicycle and try to follow a cycle path, there are just some tiny waymarking signs, sparingly positioned at the most key points. I’m expected to be observant and to use a map and some common sense. Later, when I go to the station to ask about trains, I also ask if there’s a buffet car. The assistant smiles indulgently: “There is no food or drink sold on Danish trains.” I’m astonished. I’m used to British trains, where the arrival of the refreshments trolley is more reliable than the actual train itself. “People take their own smørrebrød,” says the assistant. “Or they wait until they reach their destination.”
Self-reliance, I am realising, is a key Danish attribute (while, by European standards, obesity is not). I leave my Jutland cabin eager to discover more. At the station there is, of course, only one departures board and one sign pointing to the correct platform. Already I am feeling more alert, lighter and somehow less cluttered, perhaps a little bit Danish? I’ve even got a smørrebrød in my bag – admittedly from Lidl, but at least I remembered.
The Scandinavian summer magic is beginning to work.
• Accommodation was provided by Airbnb , which has cabins worldwide from £10 a night. Its Hirtshals cabin sleeps six from €120 a night. Travel was provided by SAS (flysas.co.uk), which has flights to Copenhagen from Heathrow and Manchester from £95 return, and Trainline.eu – Copenhagen-Hirtshals cost €63.60 one way. Holiday Extras (holidayextras.co.uk) offers airport parking, lounge access and travel insurance
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