Land of Fire and Ice Cream
- An epic boys’ adventure in Västmanland
If you like vast forests, making fires, swimming in lakes, rural living and plenty of history, Västmanland is the place you need to keep in mind for your next trip. Dutch writer Marco Barneveld visited this delightful part of Sweden on an adventure with his three sons, and on the way discovered why this region could be considered the ‘cradle’ of his country’s Golden Age.
Text and photo: Marco Barnevald
The coals are glowing red. We are wearing thick gloves and holding a thin, iron rod above the near-white flames of the fire. Bhodin (age 9) holds out his arm towards the fire. “Wow, that’s hot Dad!” He’s quite right. Whenever I get too near the fire the hairs on my arm get singed. “Now you can take it out,” says Jussi Hynynen, the blacksmith who is instructing us on how to forge iron the old-fashioned way. “The iron is bright orange, now it’s easy to forge.” Bhodin, Bosse (7), Owen (13) and I (Marco, 45) pull our iron rods out of the fire. We beat the end of the rod again and again with a hammer, dull thuds on the metal, sparks flying off, until a point is formed. “Stop forging the iron when it has stopped glowing orange,” insists Jussi. “If you forge at too low a temperature, you’ll beat tension into the metal. Then when the iron gets hard, such as by quickly immersing it in cold water, it can tear or even shatter. Just place the rod back in the fire until it starts to glow orange, then you can continue forging it.”
We are in the the blacksmith's shop in Jussi’s garden, around 5 km from Kungsör, in the southern part of the central Swedish county of Västmanland, around one and a half hour by car from Stockholm. I have chosen this particular region of Sweden because it is the best place to have the ultimate boys’ holiday, and that is exactly what my sons and I are doing. The surrounding conifers and deciduous trees are blowing softly in the wind. The sun bathes Jussi’s characteristically red Swedish cottage in its light. A truly idyllic spot.
The entire county of Västmanland is certainly a stunning part of Sweden. All forest, dotted here and there with the kind of red, wooden country houses that Jussi lives in. A hundred years ago it looked completely different. Back then Västmanland had an almost moon-like landscape, dotted with the smoking chimneys of furnaces into which all the trees would disappear. Learning how to forge iron in Västmanland is therefore rather logical, as the region was once the epicentre of an area known as Bergslagen. Due to the large amount of mining that went on here, different laws applied in order to prevent conflict between farmers and miners. Here the ‘law of the mountain’ prevailed, which in Swedish is “Bergslagen”.
Mining here started in around the 10th century. Today there are only seven mines still in operation in Bergslagen, but in the past there were several thousand. They primarily produced iron, manganese, copper, silver, lead and zinc, but also cobalt, nickel, gold, selenium, bismuth, antimony, cerium, molybdenum, wolfram and mercury. The ground was, and is, full of riches.
Iron was the most prevalent however. And what do you need for iron extraction? A river to generate energy, ore deposits in the soil and forests for wood to keep the furnaces burning. Västmanland has all of this, and in abundance.
Dutch Golden Age
In the 17th century owners of the large estates in Bergslagen began to establish iron foundries. Organised immigration of smelters from Germany and Wallonia contributed to the improvement of the Swedish iron industry. Iron was sold by merchants all across Europe, and who were the greatest merchants in Europe at the time? The Dutch, of course.
You might even say that the Dutch Golden Age has its origins in this part of the world, as some of the Netherlands’ richest families during the Golden Age, invested heavily in the Swedish iron industry. Iron was used for many different things, but mostly for weapons: cannons, handheld firearms, swords, daggers, pikes and halberds. With weapons of course comes power, and one historian even claims that the colonisation of Asia and the Americas by Dutch and British trading companies was only possibly due to a handful of Swedish cannon foundries.
These cannons were sold in Amsterdam, where the Dutch East India Company bought vast amounts of them to plunder the world over. In which they succeeded rather well thanks to brutal power of the cannons made from Västmanland iron.
King of Sweden
The enormous manor house Färna Herrgård stands stately among the forests of Skinnskatteberg. Today this relic of the iron industry and its outbuildings are a stunning and very stylish hotel, where the classically furnished rooms ooze the wealth and opulence of the past in a contemporary fashion. Here is where the current King of Sweden stays during hunting season in between elk hunts. “Wow, Dad, try this,” cries Bosse as he passes me his bottle of rhubarb lemonade. It tastes incredible. “It’s made with rhubarb grown on our own estate,” says the waiter at the Färna Herrgård restaurant. “We also make our own ice cream with it,” which is immediately followed by the cry of “Dad, can we have some of that ice cream!” in unison.
Not much later we are walking through the grounds of the hotel. Alongside the rhubarb fields the forest is bursting with raspberries, wild strawberries, blueberries and wild cherry trees. There may have once been riches in the earth, but today nature’s riches are everywhere to be seen. High above us flies an osprey, the waters of the lake behind Färna Herrgård glinting in the summer sun. The crickets begin their chorus. In the field we soon discover the mausoleum of one of the estate’s previous owners. The mausoleum itself is rather fittingly decorated with turquoise and blue-tinted iron slag, by-products of the iron-making process, and it is not the only clue to Färna Herrgård’s iron-producing heritage. All across the grounds runs a long wooden pipe measuring hundreds of meters. Water flows through these pipes from one lake to the other, creating some 500 kilowatts of energy, enough for 500 homes. Färna Herrgård gets its energy from this and the rest is sold to an energy company. The pipes have been here since the beginning of the last century, when the factories needed the energy, and are still in operation. A hidden treasure indeed.
The perfect farm
The nearby woodland is also a hidden treasure. We are sat in a trailer attached to the back of Per Barrsäter’s Volvo tractor. Per runs Fallängetorp with his family, the perfect farm with lots of fields and land. Here you can stay overnight, do outdoor activities and take part in the farm’s day-to-day activities, something that the boys think is amazing. We wander through the dense forests. Suddenly we come across a large clearing, with little vegetation and a single large tree. “Was there a fire here?” I ask Per. “No no,” he says laughingly. “We cleared this area last year. It’s necessary in order to keep the forest healthy and provides a nice little bit of money on the side.” But why are there still a couple of large trees? “We’ve left those trees on purpose. They make sure the forest grows back naturally.” You learn something new every day.
The following afternoon we exchange the farm for Kolarbyn Eco Lodge, a paradise for children who really want to be at one with nature. “Wow, is that where we’re going to sleep!?” says Owen, pointing towards a sort of cottage, which is what these charcoal makers’ huts really are. A few planks of wood coated in tar and then covered with earth where plants can grow. Highly effective against the cold and rain, with a small fire inside and two beds covered in layers of fluffy sheepskins. Cosier than cosy. Precisely what charcoal makers needed, as leaving wasn’t an option.
Charcoal, vast quantities of it, was needed for the all-encompassing iron industry, and the charcoal makers met this demand. In the middle of the open space as you enter Kolarbyn is a large pile of tree trunks stacked up against each other. This is the raw material needed for charcoal. “They covered the wood with peat and earth” Malin Bruce, owner of Kolarbyn, tells us. “The wood is then burnt from the top down using a fire in the centre. The key is to let the wood smoulder very slowly and not let it burn,” says Malin. “That’s why the charcoal makers had to stay near the smouldering wood. Going home was not an option, so they built these houses and spent the season living in the forest.”
In Kolarbyn you live how those who lived here a hundred year ago must have lived. No electricity, no running water (well, except for the running water in the stream!) and you cook on a fire that you have to make yourself. Washing up is done in the stream and water is brought up from the well. The toilet is a wooden shack in the forest. You do your business in a hole and then sprinkle it with some soil in order to prevent odours and help with composting. I have been to many eco lodges in the past, but this is eco in its purest form.
Kolarbyn’s floating sauna is pure luxury. A large wooden barrel floating on a pontoon in the lake, which is fuelled with wood. “Can I chuck another log on?” asks Owen. The thermometer says 110°C and my sons’ foreheads are already glowing red from the heat. However, we are having a competition to see who can stand the heat longest so it’s ok. I pour another hefty splash of water over the coals of the stove. “Aaargh,” cry Owen and Bhodin, who both dash out of the sauna and plunge themselves into the refreshing water. “I win!” gloats Bosse.
The iron rod that we end up with at the blacksmith’s shop looks nothing like the initial rough material we had at the beginning. Through a continuous process of heating, forging, heating and forging again, the rod has now transformed into a hook. We heat it until it glows red once more. “Now plunge it into the water in one go,” says Jussi. “The iron will harden.” The boys’ faces glow orange in the light of the white-hot coals. Drops of sweat run down their foreheads. “Daddy, can we get another ice cream soon?” We certainly can.