Tag Archives: foraging

France – Our first house-guest, the Birthday Girl

We invited Nicky’s mum Margaret to visit us, for the week spanning the occasion of her 71st birthday.  Sorry, 51st, she reminded me.  She was to be our first non-neighbouring visitor to see our new home and we were delighted to pause works and play at hosts.

LaJourdanie - (alfresco eating)

This was her fifth visit to see us since we headed off on our travels back in September 2016.  She first joined us in southern Spain to visit the area around Murcia and Cartagena.  We saw Roman amphitheatres and medieval cathedrals as we explored the back streets of the cities, and had long, peaceful coastal walks ending with sea swims.  Next up was a jaunt to the Lofoten Islands in northern Norway, taking in Viking festivals, wind-swept beaches and wild mountain walks.  When we made it back to France, she enjoyed joining us for a wintery Christmas break at La Reole whilst we were house-sitting, for riverside strolls and mulled wine picnics.  Most recently she joined us for a week at Lake Vassivière to watch our first SwimRun event and enjoyed lots of cooling lake dips alongside us.

LaJourdanie - (chilling)

LaJourdanie - (By the pool)

All very different times, places and experiences.  But this time she was to be the first guest in our new French house.  We had endeavoured to complete the redecoration of one spare room in time for her visit.  Her arrival also gave us an excuse to down tools and enjoy a very welcome and much needed rest from our on-going renovation works.  We drove to nearby Limoges airport and collected our visitor, exactly as we had done before our Lake Vassivière week.  We returned home and, once settled, offered the grand tour of the property with glass in hand.  We explained what it was like before, the works we had completed, began or are planning to do, likely boring in our obvious zeal.  We then sat together on our patio, overlooking our glistening pool, and chatted the day away in full catch-up mode.

LaJourdanie - (Birthday cake)

LaJourdanie - (Birthday evening)

We had dips every day in our pool, with ice creams and bubbles or beers as we relaxed and chatted in the afternoon sun.  We had short, local walks and foraged lazily for plums, blackberries and greengages that were later consumed or baked into yummy cakes.  We lazed in hammocks or dipped our feet in the pool, reading and relaxing.  Later, after an alfresco dinner, we sat outside watching the moon rise over our garden as the sun slowly disappeared behind our boundary trees.  Once suitably dark, we presented a surprise, home-baked birthday cake, made with freshly picked blackberries and replete with candles, to mummy Margaret. The candles, once lit, became dancing sparklers that stubbornly refused to be extinguished despite multiple, breathless efforts from the laughing, excited Birthday girl.

LaJourdanie - (bubbles arrive)

LaJourdanie - (girls in pool)

LaJourdanie - (time for snails)

For lunch one day, as a mini-treat and a new experience, we offered a serving of the very French dish of roasted snails.  The plate served up was not the treat Nicky remembered from her previous work visits to Paris.   These snails were not as tender, instead were more like garlic-flavoured chewing gum.  We chewed them valiantly, but the gastronomic results were definitely not worth the jaw-straining exertion; they would not be remembered as one of our finer kitchen moments.  We spent the afternoon in the pool, staying cool and being silly. We have an inflatable wallaby, called Wally, a legacy from the trip to Australia where we initially caught the campervan bug.  This naughty wallaby liked to hitch a ride on Margaret’s head as she swam along.  We’re not too sure what she thought of it all.

LaJourdanie - (pool play)

LaJourdanie - (Wheres Wally)

One cloudless day we planned a Brantôme trip, an historic town about 40 minutes away.  This was a repeat stop for us, as we had visited prior to returning home a few months before.  The central aire, solely for motorhomes, was the best option for the busy town and charged only €1 for five hours, perfect for a day visit.  Even out of peak season the aire was busy, more than half its eighty spaces filled with visitors.  We walked through the park and into the central canals, pausing to watch enthusiastic kayakers balance then slide over nearly-dry weirs with difficulty.  We explored the tiny medieval streets and busy shops, the artist studios, farmers’ market stalls and troglodyte caves, before returning along the river to the peaceful surroundings of the aire enjoying our picnic lunch with a lovely cup of tea.

Brantome - (by the abbey)

 

Brantome - (lazy lunch)

We had planned two special dinners, with two groups of neighbours, for during Margaret’s visit.  The first was a fully French occasion, with Lionel and Isobel and their three year-old son, Laundrie.  Margaret had previously lived in France for several years and could chat and tell her stories to our guests, making the evening fully inclusive.  We cooked roast duck and all the trimmings whilst Laundrie happily scoffed, between bouts on his mini-tractor, all the honey-roast carrots and ice cream we had.  The second event was more cosmopolitan, featuring English, Welsh and German neighbours.  This time we served lamb with copious amounts of veg and wine, and everything was a louder, more raucous affair.  Both nights were deemed a success, although the stress of hosting and cooking certainly took its toll.

Espace Hermeline - swim lake

 

LaJourdanie - (patio drinks)

One quiet morning we had a visit to Bussière-Galant to check out the swim lake at Espace Hermeline.  We parked up as one of only three visitors, to find the building all shut up and the usual ‘Baignade Interdite’ signs in place.  We walked a loop of the lake on easy forest trails, passing one lonely fisherman, taking in the tree-top activity courses and the long zip-line scooting out over the water.  On returning to Benny we decided to ignore the signs and have ourselves a swim dip.  The water was about 23 degrees, comfortable and clear, and we all enjoyed swimming a few lengths parallel to the beach.  Heading home, we stopped at a large brocante store for a browse, marvelling at the worthless junk that others pay fortunes for, before buying some French novels that were priced by the kilogram.

LaJourdanie - (evening dinner)

LaJourdanie - (pool time)

It was a wonderful week of light adventure, walks and socialising.  We swam and walked, explored and foraged, turning local wild fruits into cakes to share with the neighbours.  We cooked huge slabs of duck and lamb for the first time and enjoyed serving them to the neighbours who had welcomed us to the hamlet.  We visited historic towns and local swim spots and tried snails for the first, and likely last, time.  We bought books by weight, chatted to curious cows in bright meadows, sat on the edge and cooled our feet in the pool as we enjoyed a drink.  All were varied aspects of an easy, fulfilling life of casual leisure; time well-spent, company well met, simple pleasures well earned.

A&N x

SE Sweden – Kalmar & Almö

Sweden’s South East coast – Kalmar & Almö

Crossing the long bridge from Öland, we returned to revisit the town of Kalmar, the inescapable point where the island’s only bridge meets the mainland.  We parked near to the 13th century fairy-tale Kalmar Castle, proclaimed as the best preserved Renaissance castle in Sweden.  A large anchor marked the beginnings of the castle’s defences, set on the banks of its deep protective moat.  We entered the extensive grounds, a purpose-built island complex, via a flag-lined wooden bridge over the moat, taking in the views in all directions.

Kalmar - (approaching the castle)

Kalmar - (on the bridge)

The original tower was constructed in the 12th century, with the ring wall fortress following in the 13th century, making the tower one of Sweden’s most impenetrable fortifications.  Due to its status as a key strategic site over the straits leading to the Baltic Sea, the castle faced many wars over the centuries.  The defences were strengthened again in the 16th century with four cannon towers added.  The 18th century saw the castle utilised as a prison, distillery and supply depot.  It is now managed by the Swedish National Property Board, as a site of important cultural heritage.

Kalmar - (n and the castle)

Kalmar - (defensive cannons)

Kalmar - (castle and moat)

We circled the castle grounds at both low and high level, enjoying the first hints of blue skies we’d experienced in a long week dominated by little but muddy grey rainclouds.  We passed cannons on the ramparts, had views out to sea over strategically important islands where other formidable forts had once sat, and learned of the important, formative history of the site’s defenses.  It truly was an impressive place, balancing the precarious need of strong barricades with a wish for elegant beauty.

Kalmar - (internal courtyard)

Kalmar - (castle and moat view)

Leaving Kalmar and its fairy-tale castle behind, we drove on south to the celebrated, historical naval town of Karlskrona, on the south coast of this region of Sweden.  We first visited services on the edge of town, where we filled and emptied, and took time to wash the worst of the filthy sprayed mud off Benny, the wet roads having turned his pristine white coat a muddy grey-brown.  We then turned our attention to the town, it looking very industrial and initially unappealing from our outsider’s perspective across the grey water.  We arrived in the town centre at 4pm, just when the town’s parking restrictions end, so we had our free choice of places to park.  We found the nearby tourist office and were helpfully gifted a town walking route map and proceeded to follow this route, to gain a feel for this nautical town.

Karlskrona - (Main square)

Karlskrona - (church in square)

Karlskrona - (statue and church)

There was certainly a more interesting architectural and cultural dimension in the heart of the town than the rough, industrial feel our first impressions had offered.  Created from scratch on uninhabited islands, the stone fortress was built in the 17th century as a necessary Naval Port on the Baltic Sea, to act as an efficient centre of excellence for the then dominant Swedish navy.  It built and maintained ships, it trained, fed and housed sailors and organised the navy crews.  Karlskrona was added to the UNESCO World Heritage list in 1998, as the most complete example of a European Naval base planned in accordance with the ideals of 17th century maritime knowledge.  It remains the sole active naval base in Sweden, still producing modern submarines and renowned surface vessels on site, the island neatly divided into a civil north and a military south.

Karlskrona - (street with flags)

Karlskrona - (maritime musuem front)

Karlskrona - (diving boards)

We began in the main square, Stororget, before moving along flag-strewn streets of pretty timber buildings all housing boutique shops or cafés that reminded us both Bergen and Stavanger.  Our route crossed to another small island, Stumholmen, where the new Maritime Museum, completed in 2014, was situated.  It had closed for the day, but we looped around its stainless steel clad walls and passed by the moored ships outside, then through to the adjacent grassy picnic park with its public swimming spot, complete with high diving boards.  We saw Sweden’s last remaining wooden aircraft hangers, in use for storing and maintaining military seaplanes from 1914 until 1949 and now simply preserved for future generations.

Karlskrona - (maritime museum gardens)

Karlskrona - (timber aircraft hangars)

Karlskrona - (clock tower)

We followed the coast-hugging path past small lighthouses, impressive municipal buildings and statues of notable local dignitaries to reach the Admiralty Church and the pyramidal clock tower in the nearby park. We returned to the Great Square, Stortorget, and revisited the facades of the impressive Trefaldighetskyrkn and Rådhuset.  The vast, elegant square was originally conceived as a monumental public space to rival the grandest of those in France or Italy, set out to classical architectural ideals.  Unfortunately, the twin requirements of modern convenience and tourism have turned it mostly into a very grand car-park.  We examined the centrally positioned statue of Karl XI, watching possessively over the busy square, before tailing off our walking tour and returning to Benny.

Karlskrona - (Admiralty church)

Karlskrona - (n with preacher)

Karlskrona - (main square carpark)

There were a lot of other places of interest to see, but time was pressing on and we wanted to arrive at our next aire before nightfall.  After months of midnight sun and long, bright evenings, we were struggling a little with the sudden arrival of dark, gloomy nights.  Sweden in sunshine has been the perfect outdoor playground for us, our favourite country for swimming, hiking and canoeing, but in dreary, persistent rain under dull, grey skies, it holds only the sadness of potential unfulfilled.  We drove out of the town on the main road to Malmö and turned west, before cutting south on a small road to reach the island of Almö.  A large portion of this thin island was designated as a protected nature reserve and we had hopes the weather would lighten up and allow us to explore it, at least a little.

Almo island - (rocky headland)

We found a grassy aire with its own beach and direct access to walking paths to the south, and decided to sit here a few days as we awaited some drier weather.  We undertook a short walk on the first night, to take in our local surroundings.  The moss-covered rocks and tall, twisted trees tangled with pistachio-coloured lichen had the feel of an ancient landscape, something from the age of dinosaurs.  We followed the well-worn footpaths that led to areas fully set up with fire-pits and makeshift benching; clearly a popular summer hang-out on the shores of the lake, but there was no one here but us on this damp, grey September day.

Almo island - (a on walk)

Almo island - (rocky moss)

We had a longer walk the next day, following the rocky, moss-covered coastal path past several fenced off military zones and through more dark trees heavy with hanging lichen.  We saw and picked blackberries, a reminder we were at the beginning of autumn.  Some trees were beginning to turn, a hint of golden yellow on their leaves.  We reached a long causeway at the end of the Nature Reserve that led to the next island, but there was no obvious way to walk further other than on the road, so instead we turned and retraced our steps along the rugged coast.  We considered a swim in the chilled, choppy lake, but on this occasion our lazy sides prevailed and we opened a bottle instead.

Almo island - (lakeside wander)

After a slow morning under more rain clouds, we slowly packed up and left the grassy aire, heading on westwards, in search of a quiet campsite to sit out the weather in relative comfort.  After some deliberation, we headed in the direction of Långasjönös, a nearby ACSI campsite, with our committed intention of relaxing there for a little while.

Sweden’s Central Lakes

Spending some quality downtime playing in and around a few of central Sweden’s many lakes, enjoying the simple cathartic pleasures of a life lived outdoors.

We had a leisurely start with a short over-breakfast conversation with our neighbour, a retired structural engineer who, travelling in a small van with her dog, was heading in to see Oslo for the first time.  We talked up our favourite bits of the city then said our goodbyes, wishing her well on her travels.  We left Oslo heading east, briefly stopping in the town of Ski to swap our almost empty Norwegian gas bottle for a full one that should see us back to the UK in October.  We drove east on a monotonous and unchanging road to reach the nominal Swedish border, where we said our final farewells to majestic Norway after a full 60 days of in-country exploration; Tusen takk, Norge.

Camp Grinsby - (pontoon walk)

Camp Grinsby - (lake stillness)

We soon arrived at Camp Grinsby on the shores of lake Stora Bör, a spot we decided would make a good place to rest up and relax for a while. As converse as it seems, this life of constant travel is a tiring endeavour and we occasionally need a break from the trials of the road to recharge and re-calibrate.  Our brains needed the downtime to file away, make sense of and solidify the memories of all the grandiose scenes, spectacular activities, enthralling experiences and fascinating historical facts we had amassed over the last few months.  We physically checked in to this pretty, exceptionally quiet campsite then mentally checked out.  We saw this time as being a break from the normal, hectic rush of exploration and discovery; a true holiday.

Camp Grinsby - (forest cycle)

Camp Grinsby - (running trails)

Camp Grinsby - (nicky sunset lake)

We had nothing to do and nowhere to be. Switching off and taking all of a very pleasant, slow day to do two or three tasks that would not normally take longer than an hour was cathartic and renewing.  We enjoyed early morning mists, warm days and cooling sunsets.  We cycled many empty, peaceful forest trails, following the shores of the lake or cutting through thick copices on well-tended paths.  One day I ran the trails instead, with Nicky cycling alongside for company.  We swam, short dips and long lengths. Exercise may not be everyone’s idea of a relaxing time, but having the quality time to run, cycle, hike or swim meant there were no other pressing or distracting tasks eating up our time.  We slept so well, sucking up copious amounts of fresh air and quiet stillness, and felt supremely rested.

Camp Grinsby - (early monring mists)

Camp Grinsby - (morning mists)

Camp Grinsby - (butterfly visit)

At this slow pace, we appreciated the little things so much more.  Out canoeing, a dark, velvet butterfly landed softly on Nicky’s hand, happily remaining there a minute of more as we watched, marvelling at the deep, surrounding silence and the enveloping closeness to nature we were being gifted.  It flitted off to be replaced with a large pearlescent dragonfly that hummed closely alongside us as we slowly paddled. We made tiny, perfect whirlpools in the still, clear water, each lasting long after the paddle stroke was complete. We drifted carefully through shallow areas with tall, stiff grass rasping on the metal sides of our canoe, with peaks of large rocks only millimetres below.

Camp Grinsby - (island canoeing)

Camp Grinsby - (canoe beach)

Camp Grinsby - (canoe beach chilling)

Camp Grinsby - (canoe beach swim)

We found a tiny secluded beach on a small island and landed, ready for a break from paddling.  It was a south-facing suntrap and we sun-bathed, swam, read and dozed for a few lazy hours, whilst snacking on our packed lunch.  We saw no one during this time and heard only a small boat engine, distant and faint, somewhere far across the lake.  Stora Bör seemed huge when floating in the centre in a small, fragile canoe, but at 14 sq km it was hardly a blip on the map in comparison to the sea-like proportions of other nearby Swedish lakes.  We paddled on to explore another group of islands in the centre of the lake, finding easy landings on several and gaining differing perspectives of our glorious watery neighbourhood.

Camp Grinsby - (lake canoe explore)

Camp Grinsby - (n in canoe)

Camp Grinsby - (changing to swim)

From one vantage point, we saw three other canoeists pass nearby, heading back towards a small red cabin on a nearby island.  We later paddled a lazy circuit around this island, seeing the cabin and an additional four other tents discretely hidden away in private corners, barely visible but for rows of colourful washing hanging brightly in the trees behind. It was good to see others out enjoying both the great weather and the natural beauty of this lake.  We waved as we passed, then continued back in the direction of our campsite.  We stopped at a small tree-covered rock about a mile from home, where Nicky decided to hop out of the canoe and swim the remaining distance back.  The water was a warm 21 degrees and crystal clear, providing an embracing silky glide as she flowed alongside my canoe.

Camp Grinsby - (ready to swim home)

Camp Grinsby - (n swims home)

Camp Grinsby - (n swimming in lake)

We spent four glorious sunny days at Camp Grinsby, a very welcome rest away from the daily rigours of the road.  From here we drove through Karlstad, stopping only for supplies, before turning south and checking into another small campsite at Otterbergets.  Here we had a kilometre long sandy beach on hand and several new forest trails to hike or run.  The lake was shallow and the bottom sand continued out as far as we ventured, swimming smooth lengths from pier to pier, parallel with the shore.  We walked and ran the pretty forest trails, enjoying the burn of some steep off-road rises.  We filled tubs full of foraged wild blueberries on our forest walks.  We considered picking some of the multitude of wild mushrooms growing in the forests, but were unsure which were safe for eating.

Otterbergets - (easy hiking trails)

Otterbergets - (foraging for wild blueberries)

Each night we cooked an unhurried meal in their central kitchen, revelling in having so much space to work in and a comfortable social area to then eat our dinner.  We caught up on laundry.  We swapped books in their mini-library, ensuring we had enough reading material to see us home.  We returned to the beach again and again, with Nicky enjoying swimming more long lengths as I jogged along the shore for company, my recently and annoyingly damaged rotator cuff prohibiting my participation in the water.  Even with the wind picking up force and the sun deserting us, we still had a wonderfully relaxing few days in Otterbergets under moody, cloudy skies.

Otterbergets - (pre-swim horseriding)

Otterbergets - (starting pontoon)

Otterbergets - (long swims parallel to shore)

Otterbergets - (contemplating a swim)

Spending a lazy week in campsites was a little out of character for us, so we headed off north the next morning and found the very comfortable free aire in Karlskoga.  It was possibly the best provided free aire we had ever stayed in, with each generously-proportioned parking place provided with not one but two electric points (why?).  All services were freely available, including WCs with warm showers and, to top it off, a dedicated free WiFi network.  We happily parked up looking out over a stormy lake and decided this would make another great spot to linger a while.

WorkAway – Ringstad (Part 2)

Ringstad Part 2:  Cooling swims at local lakes, foraging for berries on local islands, midnight camp fires and mountain hikes.

Ringstad - (Seahouse from sea)

Ringstad - (island across still bay)

Our work continued day to day, with each day a simple variation on a theme.  The weather stayed bright and clear, the views out to sea remained spectacular, the beauty never diminishing with familiarity.  The restaurant was busy and the house and apartment turnover high, so there was always plenty to be done.  I chipped in with cleaning a house when required, but managed to avoid the kitchen or restaurant in favour of more outdoor gardening work.  Each night Nicky and I drank and chatted late with Karina, learning more of the history and future of their busy lives and business.  The more we heard of the wild beauty of the Vesterålen islands in winter, its pristine snow glistening bright under green aurora skies, the more we vowed to return.

Ringstad - (setting sun over sea)

Ringstad - (barbecue hut)

Ringstad - (pink clouds)

One night, after closing the restaurant, we all walked a short way around to a comfortable timber shelter and spent the remainder of the late evening barbecuing on an open fire.  The site was kitted out with woolly blankets, cushions and lots of seasoned firewood, all we needed for a good night.  The sun turned the sky pink over the barbeque place, reflecting the lines of coloured-in clouds on the still, dark water of the adjacent sea.  When the flames died down a little, we devoured tender slabs of steak and pork straight from the metal grill, with sides of various potato salads.  Afterwards we sat around the dying fire sipping red wine, chatting into the small hours under the midnight sun.  Nicky and I were the last to leave, reluctantly abandoning the fire and the mesmerising pink skies around 2.30am.

Ringstad - (firestarters)

Ringstad - (barbecue hut chat)

The next morning, after a few hours work, the full group of Workawayers decided to take kayaks out to visit a few small islands to forage for berries, and perhaps wild mushrooms if they were ready.  We all paddled as a group out to a nearby spit of sand joining two small islands and exited our kayaks, with empty tubs in hand.  We walked through the low, springy bushes searching for ripe cloudberries, but we were a week or so early, as we could only find hard red fruit on each plant.

Ringstad - (view from beach)

Ringstad - (foraging beach spot)

Ringstad - (a kayaking on calm sea)

To compensate, there were many ripe wild blueberries, so we picked those instead.  We then kayaked to another grassy island, again landing on a small sandy beach between pointed rocks.  We all foraged for blueberries and found there to be an abundance, and ate many as we picked.  The collected blueberries were later made into very enjoyable sweet dumplings by our lead kayaker and resident chef, Xervin.

Ringstad - (A & N kayaking)

Ringstad - (second beach stop)

Over the week, we had a few short sea dips to cool off from the heat of the day, lasting only a few minutes each time but we emerged from the chilly sea water cooled and refreshed.   One afternoon we had a quick cycle to a popular sandy beach set on the end of a local lake.  It was only 3km away, an easy free-wheel down past a few other small lakes, huge expanses of wild lupins and a neat strawberry farm.  The tiny stretch of beach was packed with families, the parents sunbathing and the kids playing raucously in the water.  We slumped onto the short grass at the side of the sand and lazed a while, then tried to have a swim in lake.  The only issue was the shallowness of the water, and we had to walk a long way out to get deep enough water to cover our knees.  It was perfect for small children to splash around in, but not ideal for a proper swim.  Still, it cooled us down very nicely in the warm afternoon sun.

Ringstad - (sunset on seahouse)

Ringstad - (pre-dinner drinkspot)

On our last day in Ringstad, we worked through the busy morning shift to help out, even though it was a scheduled day off for us. Mid-afternoon we borrowed our host’s battered old jeep to drive a short way around the coast to where we could begin a climb of a nearby peak.  The 467m high hill, Vetten, had formed the solid backdrop of our stay and we had long talked of standing on its top to look down over the islands we had kayaked around, and the time was now.  It was a short walk, around an hour and half up to the top, with an initial steep climb turning into easy walking for most of the well-worn route.  We passed and examined a neat green cabin available for hikers to use before continuing up to the top of the hill where another small hut had been built for walkers to seek shelter.  We sat inside out of the chilling wind to eat our lunch, signing the scrappy visitor book as we took in the expansive view.

Ringstad - (view from Vetten)

Ringstad - (hut on Vetten)

Even on this rather dull, cloudy day, the setting was incredible; below us there were calm, protected bays scattered with rocky islands covered with green vegetation and nesting sea birds. It was an eye-opener to see the scale of the area in one vista.  Ringstad, where we had based ourselves, was visible on the end of a small peninsula, and we could just pick out Benny awaiting our return in the car-park behind the main house.  Ringstad was positioned on one of many small inlets scattered throughout this small tongue of the mighty fjord, with many other stretches of water and tall dark hills stretching to the horizon and beyond.  We could see why boat traffic and travel was so important here; a thirty minute jaunt on a fast boat to cross the fjord could be a three hour drive around the difficult, winding coast road.  Our high overview literally gave us a different perspective on the terrain we had immersed ourselves in.

Ringstad - (climbing Vetten)

Ringstad - (from top of Vetten)

Our ten days in residence in Ringstad proved to be a wondrous experience.  We worked hard, and played just the same, taking all kayaking opportunities, swims and hikes whenever possible.  The eagle viewing on the rib-boat nature safari was a visual treat, and the calm, ever-changing views of the surrounding inlet and far-away mountains were a constant delight.  We enjoyed the long chats with our hosts and our quiet, contemplative row boat trip under a cloudless sky.  We were hesitant to leave but equally hesitant to stay on, as we could easily have become trapped by the visual enchantments of such a place.  It was sad to drive away, but life is but a series of meetings and partings, that is the way of it, as a wise frog in a muppet movie once reminded us all.

WorkAway – Ringstad (Part 1)

Part 1:  Arrival at our WorkAway in Ringstad and settling in with our hosts, our allocated jobs and our responsibilities.

We left our fjord-side aire in Årstein and headed west, deep into the Vesterålen islands.  The weather was incredible on the way over; clear, bright skies with light wispy cloud and the temperature stuck around 24 degrees.  The bodies of water we passed as we crawled our way through to the Vesterålen islands were of such luminous light green colour, mineral rich with blonde sand visible below, each framed with brooding, dark mountain peaks.  We passed through the main town of Sortland on our way, pausing for a quick look at the famed blue houses at the harbour.  We also passed the town’s bronze statue of their recently retired, very dedicated and much loved litter-picker.

Ringstad - (beautiful route in)

The winding route we followed hugged the coast, avoiding any of the large, jagged mountains that formed the ever-present backdrop to our scenic drive. We arrived into Ringstad , at Huset på Yttersiden, after around three hours driving, where we met the proprietor Ian, originally of Cornwall, and several of the other current WorkAwayers, who were mostly young students from various places around Europe.  The WorkAwayers were all living in the same house and we were offered a tiny room with bunks alongside them, but politely declined, deciding to live in Benny instead.  The house’s clutter, grime and noise was just a little too much of a reminder of our own student days, times we had left behind us twenty years ago, and we didn’t want our old, grumpy heads to cramp their laid-back student style.

Ringstad - (first kayak tour)

Ringstad - (n on the water)

After having been on site for less than an hour we got invited to join a beginner’s kayak trip, out around the local skerries, but with only one spare kayak remaining Nicky bagged the only available spot.  She was to be trained up to perhaps lead future kayaking trips, once she learned how the site was set-up and where the standard local route goes.  She followed the group out, led by Ian, taking in the direction of the route and learning how best to deal with novice kayakers in what could be a dangerous environment if the winds or weather were to quickly change or someone went over.  The trip took a leisurely three hours or so, and Nicky enjoyed every minute on the calm water.

Ringstad - (kayak store shed)

Ringstad - (the setting)

That evening we finally met the lady of the house, Karina, when we all sat down for dinner.  Ian and Karina had met many years ago in Germany, before returning to Karina’s homeland of Norway where they had now run their hospitality and tour business for over ten years.  Along with many kayaking trips, Ian led rib-boat bird-watching and photography tours, local hiking tours and hired out fishing boats to guests.  There were bookings to manage for their houses and apartments, along with all associated house cleaning, laundry and daily maintenance.  On top of that, they ran a busy bar and restaurant, the only one in the local vicinity.  No wonder the welcome assistance of keen, hard-working WorkAwayers was something they relied upon.

Ringstad - (row boat at night)

We all sat on the external decking as we ate dinner, looking out to sea, the night still and beautiful.  Seagulls were nesting on a nearby island and they were the only disturbers of the peace, with their raucous calls and squawking the main background noise.  With the skies entirely cloud free the views out to the far mountain ranges were simply incredible, but the temperature had cooled dramatically and we shivered in the cold air for a while, until thick, woollen blankets were brought out to help warm us.  Even in the summer, being this far north we should have expected to experience cold, crisp nights.  Wrapped up well, we talked late into the night as we continually stared out at the island-filled view, enchanted by its simple, still beauty.

Ringstad - (cutting the grass)

Ringstad - (site plan sketch)

I was put on gardening and maintenance duty, a job that suited me just fine.  I strimmed edges and pathways, raked off moss, trimmed hedges, weeded and cut grass all around the site on their sit-on mower.  It was sticky work under the hot afternoon sun, but it involved a level of pleasant effort that kept me very active and produced immediate, satisfying results.  I also engraved a couple of fishing gaffs with personal messages, to be presented as a small token of their appreciation to long-term returning guests.  I was also tasked with sketching up a quick site plan for both WorkAwayers and customers, so they would know where each property was located for cleaning or visiting respectively.  I was later asked to help with producing fire plans for each of the properties, and sketched up quick floor plans of each, noting escape routes and positions of fire extinguishers and break glass points, that were later to be framed and hung in the properties.

Ringstad - (a kayaking)

Ringstad - (nicky in kayak)

Nicky had been on cleaning duties, either in the kitchen or turning over apartments between guests.  But with our host Ian feeling rather ill one morning, Nicky was tasked with leading her first kayak group, with my back-up support.  Nicky led them out of the bay, after explaining all the basics; how to put on spray decks, how to get in and out of the kayak safely, and how to paddle correctly and efficiently.  I followed behind, carrying the safety tow line, medical kit and spare paddle, staying at the back to keep a watchful eye over the novice paddlers.  I had to correct a few, those somehow using their paddles upside down or back to front, and taught several how best to steer their kayak, but generally they all managed to muddle their way through the peaceful island tour with no real issues.  The sea was mirror-calm and the warm sun glimmered lightly off the flat surface, making the whole experience quite idyllic, perfect for their first ever sea paddle and for Nicky’s first kayak guiding experience.

Ringstad - (nicky on rib-boat)

Ringstad - (island lighthouses)

Afterwards, as we hadn’t lost any paying guests to the sea, we were rewarded with seats on the rib boat for a Nature Safari trip.  There were ten paying guests so we sneaked on at the back as the last two extras.  Before setting out we were all dressed in full fleece overalls and life vests, with hats and gloves optional. The powerful rib could run at over 60 km/hour, bouncing smoothly over the small waves.  We visited Hellfjorden, a spectacular, narrow strip of water with high cliffs, and the site of many nesting arctic terns.  We watched the very pretty but highly territorial birds until they grew slightly irate with our presence, then moved off before we disturbed or upset them too much.

Ringstad - (arctic tern)

Ringstad - (cormorants)

After a fast crossing of the wide Eidsfjorden, we reached a scattering of small rocky outcrops where a large colony of cormorants nested.  They sat dramatically on the top of rounded bumps thickly coated with guano, their bodies neatly silhouetted against the greying sky.  We next travelled to view a colony of yellow headed gannets, where they similarly stood around in large groups, resting in the afternoon sun.  We cruised past many small lighthouses or stone day-markers, and later passed a very remote house on a small island that the current owner was transforming into a hotel to offer an exclusive, peaceful experience.  It was perched precariously on a steep, rugged cliff and reachable only by boat.

Ringstad - (gannets on rock)

Ringstad - (sea eagle swoops)

On our return leg, close to home, Ian suddenly veered the rib boat violently to the left, turning a sharp bend and then cutting the engines to glide towards a small island.  He had spotted the main focus of the trip, a sea eagle, watching us from its high perch.  Ian threw a fish into the water, knowing that an eagle could spot it from up to 2km away, and we sat back with pregnant anticipation. In only a few moments, we saw the huge sea eagle take off, with its wing span of two and a half metres, then elegantly swoop down and take the fish from the water, talons first.  It was the definite highlight of the rib-boat trip, and we felt privileged to have witnessed it at such close quarters.

Ringstad - (a rowing)

Ringstad - (n rowing)

That night we were offered a la carte in the restaurant, and we both chose to have peppered steaks with frites from the menu, which was a very tasty, richly sublime and rare treat. We later celebrated our wonderful day, and dinner, with a fun trip around the sheltered bay in a small rowing boat, peacefully floating around and absorbing the view.  After a few days we have expected the beauty to wane and our enthusiasm for it all to wear off, even a little, but we were both still deeply enthralled by the subtlety of the changing light on the islands and on the extensive saw-tooth mountain backdrop.  We could see the peaks of the Lofoten Islands far to the back, with the island of Hadsel standing tall in front, set just across the deep blue Eidsfjorden.

Part 2 to follow.