Baltic Coast: Luleå to Skellefteå

Gammelstad (“old town”, near the modern town of Luleå) was very impressive; a fifteenth century church surrounded by over 400 little wooden cottages crammed together in narrow little streets:

This is the church town for the parish of Luleå. Of the 71 church towns built in Sweden, all but one were in the North (for reasons that will become clear) and only 16 survive to the present day. Gammelstad is the biggest and best-preserved, a stark contrast to the small collection of Sámi buildings we saw a few days ago at Lappstaden in Arvidsjaur.

Back in medieval times, the Church was extremely powerful in Sweden. A huge chunk of land around what is now Luleå was given to an archbishop back in the 1300s on the understanding that he would promote settlement of the region (it was thought to be a good idea to settle the North of the country in order to delineate what was Sweden and what belonged to other countries).

Fast forward a few hundred years and by the 16th century, the farmers of Luleå parish were prospering. At this point, the population was only around 1500 thinly spread across a parish the size of Belgium, Holland and Luxembourg combined.

In the 1520s, the King of Sweden (Gustav Vasa, the “father of modern Sweden” who founded Sweden’s hereditary monarchy; I’m sure we’ll come across him again at some point) fell out with the Roman Catholic Church, ostensibly over the Pope’s refusal to approve any of the candidates Gustav put forward for Archbishop of Sweden. It was at about the same time that our Henry VIII was having his own troubles with the Pope over the small issue of a divorce….

The result was similar in both countries. Reformation: a break with Rome, switch to protestantism, and the seizure of the church’s assets and income. Sweden went with Lutheran Protestantism. Showing up at church was a big deal, so much so that later in the 16th century church attendance was made compulsory by law. Ah, not so convenient up in the North, particularly if you lived in a parish the size of Luleå 🤔

The law was relaxed in the late 17th century such that you only had to show up every week if you lived within 10km of the church, fortnightly if you lived up to 20km away, and every 3 weeks up to 30km away. Still a bit of a logistical problem in the North of the country though – and so the church town was born.

Owners of homesteads (ie farmers) were allowed to built a cottage in the church town where they could stay at the weekend when attending church. They would build the cottage at home on the farm, leave it for the wood to settle, then take it apart and transport it to the church town in winter (when there was snow on the ground so things were easier to move). Ingenious – it’s little wonder that Sweden is the country that gave us IKEA…. Later, “church weekends” became a focus for all kinds of festivals and social events.

Nowadays, the houses at Gammelstad church town are all privately owned with the exception of one that is used to show visitors how they would have looked inside. This one is much larger than average, having been built for a particularly rich farmer.

We especially liked the double-decker beds in cupboards!

Right next to the church town is an open air museum with old buildings from around the region plus some animals to keep the kids happy. It seemed to be working; there were lots of families out and about enjoying themselves.

There were, as you’d expect, a lot of barns and storage sheds. Among the other exhibits, we particularly liked the town shop (set out inside as it might have been in the 1940s) and the ‘phone box next to it:

One of the farm buildings:

The most photogenic of the animals:

We spent a second day at Gammelstad on Wednesday, making use of the free wifi at the visitor centre and visiting the nearby nature reserve.

The nature reserve turned out to be a wetland, which could mean only one thing – mozzies! It wasn’t long before emergency measures had to be taken, all very fashionable! (no, I haven’t come over all religious….)

We only walked about a mile into the reserve before turning around and retreating fast. Those mozzies are no fun!

As we were leaving Gammelstad on Wednesday evening, we drove past the church to find that the place had filled up with old cars, mainly American (plus some more modern Corvettes and Mustangs).

We stopped and had a look round, but didn’t figure out what the actual event was. The star of the show for us was a little 1947 Volvo:

We’d picked out a familiar kind of camping spot for Wednesday night: the car park outside a garage:

Kampington had a date with a new set of rear brake pads lined up for 7am on Thursday morning (Swedish garages do seem to enjoy getting us out of bed early). He’s done about 34,000 miles since he had new brake pads all round in August 2013; the front ones are still good so we really can’t complain.

The brake warning light had actually flickered on for the first time as we were driving Kampington to the garage in Gällivare last week. Mark did mention checking the brakes to the young lad at the garage, but it never happened. Lost in translation, perhaps? By the time Friday morning arrived, we agreed that if they hadn’t done anything about the brakes, we weren’t going to mither them. It wasn’t urgent and we didn’t really want to end up hanging around over the weekend…

Brakes sorted, we did some food shopping, booze shopping, then LPG and diesel shopping as we trundled South along the Baltic Coast from Luleå to Skellefteå. It was time to go see church town number three 😃. This one is called Bonnstann (peasants’ town).

The 114 houses here are much newer than the ones at Gammelstad: following a fire in 1835, Bonnstann was completely rebuilt (slightly further away from the church this time, just in case….). The houses are bigger and set out in five neat rows.

At Bonnstann, they don’t have electricity (whereas Gammelstad has been “modernised” to a certain extent, so the houses there do have power). We’ve decided that neither town has running water in the houses; there are far too many toilet blocks for them to just be for visitors, no signs of drains from the houses, and as I’ve been writing this I’ve been watching a steady stream of folk filling plastic water containers at a communal tap (we’re rather upset that we don’t actually need any water and so can’t take advantage of this unexpected freebie😊)

The current church dates back to 1800:

That’s it for our tour of the church towns of Northern Sweden. We’re planning a night at the beach, then Friday night hopefully at a marina we’ve identified with a washing machine (hurrah! 😀). After that the plan is to loop back inland for a few days in search of some big beasties 😯

One comment

  1. The churches are so much more ornate on the inside than I thought they were going to be.

    ‘Big Beasties’? Super mozzies??….. I’m intrigued


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