Pushing the boat out in Norway

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01 November 2011

It has been over 50 years since I explored the backwaters and backwoods of Norway as a young man, spending two successive holidays there with a crowd of friends from Teesside. I was delighted therefore to receive an invitation from woodsmith Maurice Pyle, who runs a green wood workshop and training school in the old Flint Mill at Beamish Museum.

I was to go across as a guest course tutor for ten days in August, to build a fleet of coracles and help on various woodland tasks at his log built farmhouse outside the small mountain village of Holøydal. Holøydal is about 160 miles north of Oslo and near the UNESCO World Heritage town of Roros. 

Surrounded by slow growing Norwegian pine and birch (everything has a short growing season with snow present for at least five months of the year), the area is renowned for one of the richest traditions and cultures of living woodcrafts still being practiced in Norway today. Since buying the house in June 2007 Maurice and his family have been lucky to establish firm friendships with some of their Norwegian neighbours. Their neighbours have given their time to help the family and share their knowledge with the students and guest tutors from the UK, attending the diverse courses which Maurice runs over the summer season.

The students on the first of this year’s courses were all from the UK: three trainee greenwood teachers, a craft schoolteacher, an apprentice violin maker and an agricultural student on work experience at a Norwegian farm lower down the valley - quite a variety of backgrounds! None of them had built or paddled coracles before, but after two days of intensive work, six craft were completed and ready for painting before the grand launching ceremony. This was postponed until Thursday to allow the neighbouring farmer and his wife to attend, along with a local violin maker and a woodcarver who were intrigued by our ‘coconut shells,’ as they called them! All tried a hand at paddling and became instant converts to this ancient pastime!

Four days were spent with a local landowner neighbour helping to convert an old log-built building, previously a milking shed, into a boathouse in a stunning location with a superb vista across Lake Langstoen to the forests and mountains beyond. The tasks were: to prepare the floor area for a concrete screed to be poured, cut a frame for a double door at the front and a single door at the rear and, finally, making and hanging traditional barn type doors. Imagine our astonishment when we arrived on the site to find the whole building had been jacked up on car jacks to allow us to insert blocks around the perimeter to contain the concrete. After that was done, the jacks and wedges removed to allow the building to settle to its original position. The whole operation was achieved with the minimum of fuss, almost as if it was something they did every day!

Another very pleasant afternoon another day was spent with six of us in two Canadian canoes down the lake, where we spotted a colony of beavers working around an old dam and lodge, carrying out work presumably in readiness for the winter and managed to disturb a bull elk making his way across the marshy ground, disappearing very quickly into the scrubby undergrowth. Two of our party had brought fishing tackle with them and presented us with a bucket full of freshly caught perch and a 5lb pike from the lake, which were cleaned and put in the fridge for the following night’s supper.

The next day Axel, a neighbour with expertise in fungi and a farming historian, took the course on a wild mushroom gathering foray into the forest, when we quickly filled a large oak swill basket with over three kilos of several varieties of local edible fungi. By good fortune, the boat shed neighbour had already been around to drop off several cases of lager, so unanimously it was decided to forgo the evening meal in favour of a barbecue supper of grilled fish with wild herbs and fried mushrooms, finished off with charcoal baked waffles topped off with freshly picked blueberries and cloudberries and whipped cream - no rocking needed to get us off to sleep that night!

A memorable ten days which passed very quickly, and very satisfying as I was assured the coracles would be put to good use by the local fishermen on the lake, and everyone would be wanting to build their own craft to take part in Tolga’s annual water carnival later in the year.

Article by Dave Purvis. Photos by Gareth Thomas/Dave Purvis