The charcoal burners of Västmanland
Kolarbyn Eco Lodge
Central Sweden is a paradise for anyone who loves the outdoors. Vast forests, stoking fires, swimming in lakes, farm life, and rich history. The province of Västmanland is the place to keep in mind for your next trip. We went on an adventure in this lovely, easy-going part of Sweden and discovered, by the way, that our Golden Age was born here.
The ax splits the block of birch wood entirely in two. The scent with a hint of resin wafts through the fresh forest air. I pick up one of the two pieces and put it back on the chopping block. When I have chopped enough wood, I walk to the fireplace and put the smaller pieces together. With the tip of my knife, I pick off strips of bark from the birch. The white bark is full of oil and therefore highly flammable. I place the strips of bark in the open space under the pieces of wood. I rub my tinder against each other. The sparks burst out. Two of the sparks land on the bark. I blow gently, and boom, fire. It is not long before I can also place the larger pieces of wood against the flames. Then I put the blackened kettle with the water that I have just drawn from the well on top. It is almost time for coffee.
No electricity, no running water. Well, running water in the stream then. In Kolarbyn Eco-Lodge, you really live as they must have lived here a hundred years ago. We are in the south of the central Swedish province of Västmanlands län, about an hour and a half’s drive from the Swedish capital Stockholm. Kolarbyn is hidden in the vast forests of this region. Coniferous and deciduous trees sway gently in the wind. The forest floor is covered with berry bushes. At any moment, you expect to see a gnome or an elf.
Kolarbyn is a kind of paradise for those who really want to be one with nature. You cook on your own fire, which you make yourself. Do the dishes in the stream. Water comes from the well. The toilet is a wooden house in the forest. You go to the bathroom in a hole and cover it with earth so that there is no smell and the feces compost immediately. I have been to many so-called eco-lodges, but this is eco in its purest form.
Kolarbyn is a paradise for those who want to be one with nature
“Wow, are we going to sleep there,” says my friend Silvia, pointing to a kind of plagiarism hut. And that’s what these charcoal makers’ sheds actually are. A few planks, coated with tar and covered with earth where plants grow. Effective against cold and rain. With a small fire inside and two beds covered with piles of woolly sheepskins. More cozy than cozy. Just what the charcoal makers needed. Because they could not leave.
Charcoal, lots of it, was needed for the ubiquitous iron industry. And the charcoal makers fulfilled that need. In the middle of the clearing, when you enter Kolarbyn, a large pile of tree trunks stacked against each other. The raw material for charcoal. “One covered the wood with peat and earth,” says Malin Bruce, owner of Kolarbyn. “Then they lit the wood from the top at the center. The trick is to let the wood smolder very slowly and not to let it burn,” Malin knows. “That is why the charcoal makers had to stay close to the smoldering wood. Going home was not an option, so they built these little houses and lived in the forest during the season.”
A film by Stan Lennips for WideOyster Media
Charcoal and the Swedish iron industry
As beautiful as the forest is now, it was not then. Barely 100 years ago, it looked completely different here. Then Västmanland looked like a lunar landscape with the smoking chimneys of blast furnaces here and there. All the trees disappeared into them.
Västmanland was the epicenter of the Swedish iron industry. Because what do you need for iron mining? A river for power, ore in the ground, and forests for wood to stoke the fires. Västmanland has it all. And in abundance. Swedish iron was sold by traders all over Europe. And who were the biggest traders in Europe at the time? Precisely, the Dutch.
You could say that our own Golden Age has its basis in these parts. For traders such as De Geer, Trip, and Mommas, the wealthiest families in the Golden Age, reorganized the Swedish iron industry. Iron was used for many things, but mainly for weapons: cannons, small arms, swords, and halberds. And weapons meant power.
One historian even claims that the Dutch and English trading companies’ colonization of Asia and America was only possible thanks to a handful of Swedish cannon foundries. And at a certain point, almost all of them were owned by the De Geer family, one of the most significant arms dealers of the 17th century.
As a result of the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648), the king of Sweden was in financial difficulties. The Republic and De Geer lent large sums of money to the Swedish royal house in exchange for all kinds of privileges. De Geer thus became a large landowner in Sweden and acquired the entire production chain, from iron ore to the finished product. The wood on which his furnaces burned came from his own forests. He drew energy from the water power of his own streams. He brought in craftsmen from Holland, tinsmiths from Wallonia, and tin-grinders from Germany. And he started producing cannons and other armaments like crazy.
With a rather clever trick, he earned even more from the combative Swedish royal family. He sold all those cannons he had made himself in Sweden to Amsterdam. In Amsterdam, the items were then offered on the arms market to purchasers from the Swedish army and sold off with generous profit margins. In the last 24 years of the Thirty Years’ War, from 1624 to 1648, De Geer thus supplied King Gustaaf Adolf with many millions of florins. And the Dutch East India Company, strengthened by those iron cannons from Västmanland, plundered the whole world.
Nowadays, the forest is the source of income, and iron and charcoal production are stories from the past. It takes a few decades, but then a bare forest has fortunately grown back to its former glory. A fairytale magnet for nature lovers.
For a few days, it is great to be entirely at one with nature. Making a fire, chopping wood, fetching water. It will keep you busy all day. The slowness of life is the luxury here.
The thermometer now reads 90 degrees and sweat drips from every pore in my body
Kolarbyn’s floating saunas are also pure luxury. A large wooden barrel and a black tarred hut floating on pontoons in the adjoining lake. Each on its own side of the lake. Nice and private. You heat them with wood. Of course. “Shall I put another block on it?” asks Silvia. The thermometer now reads 90 degrees, and sweat drips from every pore of my body. The oven door opens, and I pour a splash of water over the coals of the stove. The steam falls over us like a boiling blanket. “Aaargh,” we shout in unison and sprint out of the sauna to dive into the refreshing water with a splash.
Back at the camp, the blackened cauldron is still half full on small glowing coals in the fire pit. I add some pieces of birch wood, and soon small flames lick around the kettle. Would the charcoal makers have also known the luxury of fresh coffee?
Glamping in a poor man’s hut?
Back to basics, where running water comes from the stream and you prepare your food on an open fire. It sounds primitive, but all comforts have been thought of. Let your primal instincts triumph and immerse yourself in the Kolarbyn experience.