Rebel farmers, portals to the cosmos, and a prisoner king

We leave Årø harbour at around 0930 and head south-eastwards for the island of Lyø. The wind is from the west, so we enjoy a pleasant broad reach, with the First Mate helming most of the way. At the appropriately named Sønderhjørne promontory (Southern Corner in Danish) of Fyn we turn due east. With the wind now directly behind us, we roll the mainsail away and use the genoa alone. Our speed drops, but we still make about 4 knots or so.

Leaving Årø for Lyø.

We approach Lyø and enter the narrow entrance to the marina, its width only about twice our beam. I always feel apprehensive entering unknown harbours, but we make it through and into a box berth on the far side.

In the evening, we hear a knock on the bow. It is the harbour master come to collect the fees. The First Mate goes to pay.

“I’ve found out a lot of useful information from him”, she says on her return. “It seems we can hire bikes here. You just put 20 kroner per bike per day in the honesty box just up there next to the ferry terminal. It’ll save us from getting our own bikes out.”

She has a point. Getting our bikes in and out from the storage cabin is always a bit of a hassle with the risk of damaging the woodwork. It’s easier to use bikes that are already on land. The disadvantage is that you are never quite sure what you are getting.

In the morning, we select a couple of bikes that look reasonable. Mine needs the saddle putting up. I loosen the clamp and raise it to the right height, and tighten the clamp again. I sit on it to test it. The saddle goes down to its lowest point again. I select another bike and try it. This time the saddle is OK, but it won’t change gears. The island is a bit hilly not to have gears.

“Perhaps we should get our own bikes out anyway”, I say.

“Mine’s OK”, says the First Mate. “Here, try this one. It looks in reasonable condition.”

The saddle is fine, and the three gears seem to work. But the brakes don’t.

“You don’t really need brakes”, says the First Mate. “Mine don’t work very well either.”

We put the money into the honesty box, and set off. It’s about a kilometre to the main village of Lyø By. We make it on one piece, mainly because it is slightly uphill and we don’t need to use the brakes.

The village is clustered around a few small ponds. The story goes that it was established in the 1540s when 24 families who had been involved in a failed uprising against their landowner on the mainland were told that they could choose between execution or exile. They fled to Lyø, where the previous population had died out from an epidemic, built the village more-or-less in the centre of the island, and divided up the land into farms running radially out from the village, a bit like spokes on a bicycle wheel. Most of the current islanders are descended from those 24 families, and the houses and land arrangement has remained pretty much the same ever since. The ponds were apparently constructed to provide water for the fire service.

Map of Lyø showing Lyø By village in the centre.

We come to a rock in the middle of the village. The inscription translates as 6 May 1223. A night of sorrow over the land for 1864-1920, however, for our cause God advises and leads everything to the best. Travelled 6 May 1923. Another reminder of the time that this part of modern Denmark was under the rule of Germany for more than half a century. It’s not only the rock that it is etched into, but also deep into the Danish psyche.

Reunification memorial stone, Lyø.

“I wonder what happened on the 6th May 1223?”, says the First Mate.

“I have no idea”, I say. “Remind me to try and find out.”

“Look, here’s the village shop”, she says. “The harbourmaster said last night that his wife runs it. Let’s have a look at what they have got.”

It is a typical island village store that stocks pretty much everything.

Lyø village shop (photo used under VisitFyn Terms and Conditions)

“You can order bread for the morning here”, the harbourmaster’s wife tells us. “I bake it myself, so it’s as fresh as you can get. I can particularly recommend the oat bread.”

“Why don’t you get yourself some for your breakfast?”, asks the First Mate. “I have plenty of rye bread, so don’t worry about me.”

I order and pay.

“My husband delivers it to the communal room down at the harbour in the morning”, says the woman. “You can pick it up there at 0830. It’ll have your boat’s name on it.”

We return to the bikes and explore the village.

“It’s just so picture postcard”, says the First Mate. “I could almost photograph every house in the village, they are so beautiful.”

“I think you have already”, I say. “I am surprised you have any space left on your camera.”

Traditional house in Lyø.
Another traditional house in Lyø, this time around the village pond.
And yet another one.

A little bit further on is the church. It is immaculate with its orange-tiles roof, stepped gables, whitewashed walls, and circular graveyard. A man is trimming the little hedges around each grave with a hedge-trimmer while another sucks up the pieces with a garden vacuum cleaner.

Church in Lyø.

We take the small road Vestensvej to the west of the island. On the outskirts is the old mill standing on the highest point of the island. Although there had been mills there for centuries, this particular one was built in 1876 based on a Dutch design. It is now a private residence.

Mill on Lyø.

“You go on”, says the First Mate. “I’ll catch you up. I want to take a few photos of the windmill.”

I continue to the end of the road where it gives way to an unpaved track, and come eventually to the dolmen nestled in a small grove of trees. It is old – built around 5,500 years ago during Neolithic times, not long after the introduction of farming to this part of the world. Although originally it would have been covered by a mound of soil, that has long been eroded by the wind and rain, or removed by local inhabitants for other uses, and all that remains now are these four standing stones and their massive, horizontal capstone, pockmarked by cup-shaped hollows made much later during the Bronze Age.

Klokkestenen dolmen on Lyø.

I lie on one of the seats, staring at the scudding clouds, and try and get my head around how old it is – 1000 years before the Egyptian pyramids, 3000 years or so before the Greeks and Romans. Who were its mysterious builders? What sort of people were they? How did they see the world around them? Why did they build it?

I feel drowsy and close my eyes. I am back in the Neolithic. I look around me. The island’s woods have been largely cleared to grow crops and to domesticate animals. Nevertheless, there is still game in the remaining woods and fishing around the coasts is good, so many of the farmers continue to hunt and fish. Brushing away a tear, I refocus on the burial chamber in front of me. The soil is still fresh from where it has been laid to cover the stones containing what remained of his body and his few possessions – his bow and arrow, his favourite drinking vessel, his flint blades, and battle axe. A farmer, hunter and warrior, my father had been respected by all, and had done much to nurture and protect the small settlement on the island against the marauding neighbours. But now he is gone, journeying through this portal and on to the Otherworld, to the third tier of the cosmos, to take his place with the other ancestors. I will not see him again until I myself also travelled that way. It is as it always had been and always would be.

Until then, it is my duty to continue what he started and to care for my people, ensuring they continue to prosper in this benevolent landscape. The Earth Mother will give me the strength and means, and the spirits of the ancestors the guidance to achieve this. I had chosen the site of my father’s burial mound for that very reason – in view of the fields and woods behind, the beach and the sea in front, the fishing spit to the north – the source of all our wealth. It will always be a sacred place – for our storytellers to hear the Earth Mother as they sleep and refresh their tales of our past and our place in the cosmos.

“It’s not a bad view, is it?”, says the First Mate, getting off her bike. “I can see all the way across the Lillebælt, across to Horne Land on Fyn, and down there to Lyø Trille spit.”

“That’s probably why they chose this spot for the dolmen”, I respond, emerging from my reverie. “They would have seen it as a significant point on the landscape, connecting the world of the living and the world of the dead.”

“Did you read the information panel?”, she says. “It says that there were once 52 barrows and dolmens on Lyø, but now only five remain, including this one. Apparently it’s called the Klokkestenen, or Bell Stone, as it makes a sound like a bell if hit with a stone in the right way. If it rings, you can make a wish which will come true.”

“I’m not sure if we should do that”, I say. “If everyone who had seen it over the last 5000 years had bashed it with a rock, then there would be nothing left of it.”

“I guess you are right”, she says. “It’s bad enough that the other 47 have been destroyed. Better to leave it for future generations to ponder over. Anyway, let’s go. I’d like to see the other end of the island.”

We head back to the village in the middle of the island. From there, we take the road Østensvej eastwards along a tunnel valley formed during the Ice Ages. It is a gentle slope all the way down to the coast and the bikes gather speed. With the brakes hardly working, we whizz along, the trees and bushes on each side of the road just a blur. Luckily there is a small knoll at the end which slows the bikes to a standstill. We rest for a while looking across to the island of Avernakø and further south to the lighthouse on Ærø.

Looking across to the island of Avernakø.

“It’s so peaceful”, says the First Mate. “Denmark really is a beautiful place.”

We carry on along a rough track around the eastern coast of the island through fields of barley and grazing cows, until we come to a farmhouse and buildings. There the track seems to peter out.

“Here it is”, I say, spotting a small arrow pointing to the west. “There’s a road here called Smedegyden. According to the map it should get us back to the village.”

Working out where we are.

Sure enough it does.

When we get back to the harbour, we see a tall ship tied up to the edge of the ferry wharf near the entrance to the marina. Day trippers line the gunwales as the boat prepares to leave.

“That doesn’t look right”, says the First Mate. “Wouldn’t he be better to reverse straight out?”

She’s right. For some reason, the skipper has decided to turn around in the narrow entrance and has become stuck, only able to move forward and backward about a metre at each end. The entrance is completely blocked and no one can enter or leave. There is a sound of splintering wood as the small tender on davits at the stern smashes into the wharf guard rail. The passengers who realise what is happening look bemused, while others continue tapping their phones, oblivious. Eventually the skipper manages to swing the bow around to clear the piles at the entrance, and is free.

“Phew”, says the First Mate. “They made a bit of a mess of that, didn’t they?”

Chaos at the harbour entrance.

In the morning, I wander over to the harbour communal block for my shower. Sure enough, along with several others, the oat bread is lying on the table as promised, still warm from the oven. I take the one marked Ruby Tuesday back to the boat, and we toast it for breakfast. It’s delicious with marmalade.

“Mmmm, this is good”, says the First Mate. “You can’t beat freshly baked bread.”

“Hey, I thought you were supposed to be eating your rye-bread!”, I say.

“I just wanted to try this to see what it tastes like”, she says.

Freshly-baked oat bread.

In the afternoon we get some new neighbours. They are Jan and Marien, a retired Dutch couple who are heading northwards towards Copenhagen. They have sailed this area many times and know it well.

“Yes, Lyø has to be one of our favourites”, they tell us as we watch the sunset in the evening. “There’s a lot of history here. Did you hear the story about Valdemar the Victorious?”

“No”, we say. “We can’t say we have. Tell us.”

Learning about Valdemar the Victorious.

“Well, Valdemar the Victorious was the king of Denmark back in the 1200s”, says Jan. “He started as the Duke of Jutland, and by beating off various challengers for the throne, he was proclaimed Valdemar II, King of Denmark, in 1202.”

“We saw a castle called Valdemar’s Slot in Svendborg”, says the First Mate. “I wonder of that was the same Valdemar?”

“No”, says Marien. “That was a different one. He was about three or four hundred years later.”

“Anyway, Valdemar II invaded and conquered quite a bit of northern Germany and eventually controlled all the land along the south coast of the Baltic from the Elbe to Danzig”, Jan continues. “He even conquered Estonia to the east of the Baltic.”

Lands under Danish control in Valdemar’s reign (from Wikimedia Commons).

“Then, to cut a long story short”, says Marien, “Valdemar was here on Lyø on the 12th of May 1223 hunting with his son Valdemar the Young. They had had a successful day hunting, and had had a large feast in the evening. Then after they had crashed out for the night, he was captured by one of his German nobles, Count Henry of Schwerin, who took him, probably through this very harbour here, back to Schwerin near Hamburg, and imprisoned him. Henry demanded that Valdamar give up all of the land along the south coast of the Baltic and that he became a vassal of the Holy Roman Empire.”

“Of course, the Danish weren’t very keen on that idea, so they declared war”, Jan says. “But they were soundly defeated, and lost all of their German territories. Valdemar even had to pay 44,000 marks to secure his release. He spent the rest of his days back in Denmark developing a code of laws and introducing feudalism to the country, which was good for the nobility but not for the peasants, as they lost all the freeman rights they had had since Viking times.”

“Ah-ha! The 6th of May 1223 explains the date on the memorial stone we saw in the centre of the village yesterday”, I say. “I wondered what the significance of that was.”

“Yes”, says Marien. “The Danish see it as the day marking the unravelling of their ‘Baltic Empire’. They have been a bit sensitive about what is in and what is out of Denmark ever since. It’s not helped by having a large neighbour like Germany right next door.”

In the morning, I set the table for breakfast.

“Do you know where the oat bread got to?”, I say. “I can’t find it anywhere.”

“Ah, I meant to tell you”, says the First Mate. “It was so nice that I had another slice yesterday, then another, and before I knew it, the loaf was gone. I am really sorry.”

The day doesn’t get better. On the way out of our berth, I catch the stern flagpole on one of the rear posts, snapping it off at the base. As it falls towards the water, I manage to grab it before it disappears. I feel a bit like one of those soldiers you read about who risks his life to protect his country’s standard and honour.

“I think I’ll write to the Queen”, I say to the First Mate. “I might even get a medal.”

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