WorkAway – Solbjerg & Øster Hurup
After visiting Aggersborg Viking fort and having our lovely walk near Skørking, we drove on to a quiet, rural location near to the east coast of Denmark. The nearest town was Bælum, but we were to be based around 5km away, just south of Solbjerg. With nervous anticipation, we met our hosts, Synnøve and Jens, and their dog Ollie, in late afternoon. We made our introductions and felt instantly at ease with this friendly couple, and suddenly felt eager to be involved with their ambitious renovation and art project.
We walked the large gardens and workshops of the old saw mill they owned, and were shown the progress that previous WorkAwayers from Chile and Austria had assisted with. The project was explained to us and we started to formulate ideas of how we could best support. Later we had beers on the terrace as we chatted about each other, our travels to date, the project and the help required from us. We also learned that we would be joined the following day by two fellow WorkAwayers, young brothers from the USA.
The concept of WorkAway is a simple one; hosts, who require some assistance with their business or a special project, offer meals and lodging to registered WorkAwayers who wish to visit, in return for 3-5 hours of work each day. This arrangement is generally targeted at young backpackers as it offers a way to visit foreign countries very cheaply, whilst having worthwhile interaction and learned conversations with your hosts. The reciprocal curiosity between travellers and locals allows a powerful cultural exchange to arise, alongside the practical help given. The freely given labour of the visitor is exchanged for a peak into the world view, and cuisine, of the host country; it’s a win-win for both parties.
Our first full day in Solbjerg was a Sunday, and we were not expected to work. So, with well-received local advice, we decided to cycle to the coastal town of Øster Hurup then north to Lille Vildmose, a nearby nature reserve. We saw the quiet harbour and long, flat beach before cycling to the visitor centre built just south of Dokkedal. It was filled with information and exhibits on local wildlife that we enjoyed browsing. We spent a long while learning about the reserve, before cycling on to the village of Kongerslev to buy some supplies and then back to Solbjerg on a cycle path that ran directly past the WorkAway property, closing our 44km loop. Even though officially a day off, we couldn’t resist completing a few small jobs around the property, along with providing a few initial sketches for consideration.
We spent our first true work day cutting back intrusive long grass and painting the vertical planks of a large timber barn in bright sunshine. It felt good to be out in the sun, working under our own initiative to help our hosts and to earn our dinner. We enjoyed the hours of painting and watching our progress, feeling the low burn in muscles not often used in our normal travel lives. This was a large and slow job, and one we returned to a few times during our stay, but we still only managed to complete one full façade. The welcome monotonous nature of painting gave us time to fully consider other portions of the works and to plan out how best to help recreate the host’s vision.
The following day there was rain in the air, so we switched to dismantling, sanding down and re-staining or painting some old benches. An inside job with periods of drying involved, this was again one that got spread out over several days as we wanted to ensure a proper, thorough job was done, rather than rushing. We took some pride in making sure the works were completed correctly, as we would if the bench was our own. When our arms ached too much from the sanding, we sat in the garden and sketched out plans for planting, pathways and timber cycle shelters, as per the brief. This was where our professional experience could really offer the greatest value work to our hosts.
On another day off from work, we gratefully accepted a lift into the nearby town of Aalborg with Ronja, the oldest daughter of Synnøve and Jens. After being dropped off in the centre near the bus station, we walked into the historic centre and on to the harbour. We walked along the waterfront, passing a Jørn Utzon building, his last. It was more modest, grounded and robust than his iconic Opera House in Sydney, but the roof forms were equally inspired by maritime endeavours that similarly reflected his deep love of sailing and the ocean waves.
We passed large sailboats moored along the sea edge as we meandered to a pedestrian bridge, built adjacent to a railway line, that led across Lim fjord to the northern portion of the city. From here we walked several miles to visit the Viking burial site at Lindholm Høje. An active Viking site from 400CE to 1000CE, the entire area had been buried below several metres of drifting sand until excavations in the 1950s uncovered its extent. We looked around the visitor centre and walked amongst the ancient standing stones, trying to imagine how life was here 1500 years ago.
One evening we experienced the generosity of a post-dinner ice cream trip, where the younger family members, Ronja and Holger, got involved and drove all four of us WorkAwayers to the beach at Øster Hurup. They got to practise their already excellent English, we got exposure to the attitudes and music of a different generation whilst enjoying typical Danish treats. The queue for the ice cream was long (the Danes eat more ice cream than any other nation) but the wait added suspense and the topping of guf, a sickly and sticky marshmallow-like coating, completed the tasty showcase cones. We chatted and walked to the marina to take in the sunset as we ate through the multiple flavours and layers.
Nicky spent a free afternoon baking cakes that were soon devoured by grateful hosts and guests. Another evening after work I went for a run, with Nicky in tow on her bike for company, around the local forests trails. We had remarked more than once that it was so quiet in the location, and the run encapsulated that fully, where nothing other than birdsong disturbed us. It was a little like being at home again; pottering in the garden, undertaking cleaning and maintenance where required, fitting in runs and cycles where we could before enjoying a glass of red and watching the sun go slowly down. They were relaxing but still full days, shared and open, lived well and with a smiling heart.
We felt we experienced the spontaneous kindness of strangers, and were building easy friendships through our shared experiences. We walked into Solbjerg one evening under a setting sun with Will and Eli, the other current WorkAwayers from Michigan, US. We talked of inconsequential things, exploring our experiences and the subtle differences between our cultures and that of our hosts. Rural Denmark has so many similarities to midlands England, down to the beech hedges and the gently rolling fields of luminous rapeseed. Eli said the same, that the villages and countryside here reminded him of the rural upstate Michigan that he was so familiar with; it truly was a home-from-home for all of us.
There is a transformative power in constant curiosity-fuelled travel, but an equal interest and energy exists in standing still, taking a lasting interest in local people and the everyday details of their lives. The eight days and nights we spent volunteering in Solbjerg was the longest we have stayed in one place since we began our travels nine months ago. We had previously spent seven nights in Serre Chevalier when skiing in the Alps earlier this year, but this stay topped that. Interaction with passionate and knowledgeable people and being an active part of something beyond our everyday circle of experience was a welcome prompt that we should all slow down sometimes, to listen more intently, and re-learn the restorative value of change.
There is such a different dynamic and feel to knowing you will be stationary for an extended time, and a guest rather than a customer. It offers a welcome break from the usual daily schedule, filled ordinarily with packing up to travel, research into where we could stay and how best to get there, as well as what to see along the way. Several weeks into this tour, the break and the change of focus for us was very welcome. The challenges of completing our designated tasks, finding inspiration and formulating ideas to assist future WorkAwayers was a timely reminder of the simple joy and satisfaction that can be found in honest application and endeavours.