We booked a house in Sweden more or less at random. We knew we wanted to be somewhere north of Vimmerby, and within a couple of hours of Stockholm. The house we found by the Järleån river was about halfway between the towns of Nora and Lindesberg, less than an hour’s drive north of the university city of Örebro. We made that drive for the first time through driving rain, the windscreen wipers working overtime to keep the street ahead somewhat visible. What we could see, through the blurred windows and the spray of passing trucks was a landscape of thick forests, the occasionally rocky outcrop, and the knowledge that somewhere, amongst the trees, were hundreds of lakes, great and small.
What was not immediately clear was the influence on the landscape of centuries of mining, of forestry and iron production, that made this region – known as the Bergslagen – the resource-rich heart of Swedish industry. The Bergslagen is a place where Alfred Nöbel had a dynamite factory, with three-metre thick walls to survive an accidental explosion of the product, and which was used to excavate the earth. In the eighteenth century a quarter of all of Europe’s iron production came from hundreds of small foundries in the region. We met an English guy who is working in the region, and he told us that mines and mining remain an important industry, although the number of employees needed is down from its peak and many of the mines have been long abandoned and the scarred landscape returned to some form of nature.
Not far from our house was the Pershyttan mining community, a small settlement amongst the trees that was home to mining and iron production from the 1300s. The village is still occupied – much of the old miner’s cottages or shareholder’s residences are in private hands – but the functional buildings of the mines and foundries have been restored and preserved as a museum and a reminder to the golden age of the Bergslagen. We walked along tracks on a drizzly day, picking through overgrown borders for wild strawberries between the slag heaps, the elevator towers of the mines, and the foundry building itself. We could see how the mines and the foundry could utilise the other natural resources to hand – namely the wood and the water – that made this part of Sweden so uniquely suited for the industry, and we could get a sense of how the place must have looked in its heyday. But as with our trip earlier in the year to the Völklingen ironworks in the west of Germany, what we could not get a sense of was the smells and the sounds of the community at work.
Often these reminders of early industry – such as the Llanberis Slate Mines – can be found in areas of wonderful natural beauty, and you have to be careful not to romanticise what you are seeing. Sweden might seem like a wonderful beacon of social democracy (and of course that in itself is an over-simplification), but in a restored and preserved open-air museum like Pershyttan, with its painted wooden buildings, gently rolling waterwheel, and neatly mown grass embankments, it is all the more important to remind yourself of the hardships that must have been involved in working there, the whole families down the mines or working the foundry, and the disparity in wealth between the shareholder’s in the grand houses at the top of the village and the worker’s in the cottages at the bottom.
Mining remains important to this part of the world, but as the number of mines has decreased and much of the landscape is – like Pershyttan – under some form of cultural or environmental protection, the Bergslagen is turning to other means of making a living. Whole networks for walkers, mountain bikers and canoeists have been developed, including the Bergslagen trail – and 200+ kilometres staged walking route through the heart of the region, and like with most of the country that we experienced, it is a wonderful place to get out and into the landscape. But even the remotest corners of the Bergslagen region you can still, if you are aware of it, discover further traces in the landscape, from old mining or forestry roads that are now part of marked walking or cycling trails, or lakes formed in old quarries or by dams erected to harness the power of the river.
We met the English guy who lived in the region when we took the old steam train from Nora to Järle station, a ride of about half-an-hour that is popular with kids and rail enthusiasts, but which also speaks to the social history of the region. This was the first standard gauge railway in the country, and Järle was the first train station. We debated whether that made Nora the second – after all, a train has to go somewhere – but again it was hard to picture the need for such a railway until you consider what was once going on amongst these trees and lakes until very recently.
Many of the mines closed in the 1970s – apparently you can still find abandoned mining equipment that was just left in the forest when they closed down – and certainly, away from the more picturesque towns of the region, it was clear that parts of the region were struggling as former mining communities have done throughout Europe. We spent most of our time in the Bergslagen away from the towns and even the villages, but it was an important reminder that even the most peaceful areas of solitude and beauty have a social history, that it was not always pleasant, and that the solitude we enjoy now is because people have had to move away and abandon their homes to the forest once more.
Words: Paul Scraton
Pictures: Katrin Schönig