Evening Standard – Weekending: The Gulf of Finland
Katie Law explores the author Tove Janssons island hideaway in the eastern
archipelago of the Gulf of Finland
The Finnish novelist and painter Tove Jansson, best known for the Moomins, set
a lot of her adult fiction, most of it written in the form of short stories,
in the eastern archipelago in the Gulf of Finland. It was here that she spent
almost every summer of her life, coming first with her family to a rented
summer house in the Pellinki islands and then later to several smaller islands
further out to sea.
In 1947 she and her brother Lars built a house on the island of Bredskär, and
in 1964, when she was 50, she and Tuulikki Pietilä, her long-term partner,
decided to build a cottage together on the even more remote and smaller island
of Klovharu. For the next 28 summers they came to read, write, paint, fish and
swim in this beautiful, primitive place there was no running water or
electricity and her novel The Summer Book (1972) contains some wonderfully
evocative descriptions of these islands. Finally, in 1992, too old to cope
with the rigours of the sea and the unpredictable weather, the couple tidied
their belongings and shut the cottage door for the last time. They retired to
Helsinki, where Jansson died in 2001 and Pietilä in 2009.
Theres growing demand to visit Klovharu, especially with Janssons centenary
looming in 2014, but the local association that looks after the island allows
only a tiny number of visitors each year. Added to these restrictions,
prevailing winds can make it impossible to land, the birds mustnt be
disturbed during nesting season, and the island is rented out in high summer.
With careful planning, however, I was lucky enough to go there, and, as I
discovered, the journey proved as enjoyable as being there.
I took the Runeberg Ferry from Helsinki harbour to stay overnight in Porvoo.
Its a three-and-a-half-hour trip on a charming 100-year-old boat, all wooden
decks, brass fixtures and old-fashioned service, with bowls of steaming salmon
soup and rye bread for lunch. Porvoo is a picturesque town on the Porvoo
river. It dates back to medieval times, and has a thriving arts scene and lots
to see, not least the rows of old painted wooden houses they look like a
Farrow & Ball paint chart, only better.
The next day I was introduced to Mina Westerholm, who runs the nearby
Strandhagen B&B. She had organised a day-long programme, including
introductions to the locals on Pellinki whod known Tove Jansson. First I met
Gerda Englund, who still runs the village shop and says she regrets not having
kept the illustrious writers shopping lists. Then Greta Gustafsson, now 90,
who lives in the house the Jansson family rented on Pellinki. She proudly
showed me the outdoor wooden loo where the teenage Tove would pin her doodles
on the walls. The original paper drawings have been removed for conservation
but the family has facsimiles. There were other acquaintances, too, but it was
time to visit Magnus Nyholms seaside fishery for a full-blown traditional
Baltic sauna. After reaching almost boiling point in the dry heat and
thwacking my limbs with birch twigs, I ran into the sea and plunged naked into
the freezing cold water. It was exhilarating, and afterwards I was rewarded
with home-cured salmon and herring and shots of local aquavit (a potent
Eventually we set off to Klovharu in a small motorboat belonging to Jorgi,
another of the local fishermen. It may be remote and treeless, but, as Tove
Janssons lucid prose makes clear, the island is teeming with natural life.
Wild pansies, chives and dog roses were flowering, and as I climbed on to the
lichen-covered pink and grey granite rocks, I almost trod on a fluffy chick,
while adult gulls and terns screeched and swooped overhead. We sat above a
small lagoon, looking out to sea, listening to the waves, the wind and the
birds, while we ate a picnic Jorgis wife Johanna had prepared.
Then we went up to the cottage, opening the door with a rusty key that still
hangs on a piece of driftwood. And inside? Everything was just as they had
left it: a life lived well together, beautifully preserved. It was