Castles in the Air: A Creative Retreat in Fleinvær, Norway

This article appears in Volume 22: The Design Issue

It's 2PM and I'm watching the sun set over Norway from my plane window, the wings outside gold-tipped while the horizon burns orange. The day is draining rapidly. By the time I've disembarked in Bodø, picked up supplies and been driven down to the dock, the sky will already be inky.

I'm heading north of the Arctic Circle to Fordypningsrommet, a name I've had to repeat multiple times to remember. Meaning "room for deeper studies" it's made up of 11 angular buildings perched on the edge of a small island called Sørvær in the Fleinvær archipelago. Although the archipelago is composed of more than 300 islands, few are populated - and given that it's early December, only the hardiest of those inhabitants are still in residence. For the next four nights I'll be one of them.

I'm going there to write. It's a rather remarkable prospect: taking two planes and a ferry to spend my week somewhere very cold, very isolated and with about five hours of daylight, all in order to open up my laptop and see what happens. Fordypningsrommet is partially billed as a creative retreat. Its founder - the composer Håvard Lund - is keen to see it used as an escape from the rhythms of everyday life, with the stark setting spurring on artists and creatives (who can apply to stay free of charge). Apparently I'm the first to be left to my own devices in midwinter.

First, the boat - an hour over choppy black waves and several stops before Sørvær. When it's my turn to disembark an elderly man sitting in the next row starts speaking rapidly at me in Norwegian. I panic, say the only thing I can think of - "I'm English, I don't understand!" - and we spend a short while futilely talking at each other in our respective languages as I try the door that leads to the exit. It won't budge. I have sudden visions of the boat pulling away with me still on it, careening off to god-knows-where in the dark. Now I'm panicking. Eventually the only other passenger, a teenage boy, comes to my rescue. I thank him and dash down the steps, clutching my suitcase and bags of groceries in a fluster. There I'm met by Håvard, and catch my first glimpse of the retreat.

It's extraordinary, even in the shadows. All the buildings are clad in Kebony, a sustainable alternative to tropical hardwood. Designed to have a minimal impact on the surrounding landscape, the effect is at once otherworldly and weirdly organic, with cubes scattered up the hillside as though they sprang from the rocks. Each has one function - the kitchen, studio, bathrooms and sleep spaces are all separate.

Håvard is here to show me the ropes for the first night. He is ebullient, immediately instructing me not to be too polite: I must ask questions and be frank. We end up talking all evening about writing, music, creative endeavours, mental health, language, the addictive thrall of phones and the need to disconnect and recalibrate. It's obvious how much this place means to him - it is a remote hideaway and a rich source of inspiration for all those who stay. After dinner we go for a walk, wind-scoured, our path lit by the moon.

The following afternoon the boat picks Håvard up and suddenly I have the whole place to myself. It is exhilarating, but also nerve-wracking. I feel almost unmoored, so I sit down and write, anchoring myself in words. There's a snag though. In advance I'd been thrilled at the chance for undistracted work. So much to do - a poetry collection to add to, articles to file, sample chapters of a book to revise. I'd imagined myself smug as anything after several days of productive, solitary Nordic bliss. But now, being here, all I want to write about is this place - strange, majestic, eerie - where the weather tilts from frenzied to calm at a disorientating pace and daylight is made pearly precious by its scarcity. I want to write about being this remote and alone, about the geography of this self-enclosed world hemmed in by water, a world that will get increasingly elemental as the week rattles on.

Days pass. I slip into routine. I get up, dress and head over to the kitchen to make coffee and breakfast, enjoying the slow pace of cooking, eating and reading as the morning stretches to something languorous. The general business of living takes longer here. No surprise when all the areas usually under one roof are separate, and the cold necessitates an endless process of pulling on and shrugging off layers. After breakfast I head outside, keen to grasp every shred of daylight. Then I write, punctuated only by meal breaks, loo breaks, phone breaks (I still feel the lure of mindless Instagram scrolling) and the occasional escapade. One day a neighbour turns up on his speedboat to take me to feed his brother's sheep. We skim across the pewter water with snow whirling. Afterwards I get the wood-fired sauna going, sitting in candlelit gloom until my bones feel sufficiently thawed to brave the outside for a brief, screeching plunge in the sea. On another I wander out from the studio to make a cup of tea and stand astonished at the green, shivering veil above me, the aurora putting on a dazzling show. Towards the end of my stay as the wind picks up to something savage I explore more of the island, buffeted sideways while peering in through the net- curtained windows of houses, trying to imagine them in summer.

Each of these episodes becomes a poem. I want to pare the island down, to distil the wind and snow and disorientation of the sky's quick brightening and dimming. I inhale book after book, reading greedily, kept company by Derek Jarman, Ted Hughes, Kathleen Jamie, Jeanette Winterson, T.S. Eliot, Helen Mort, Denise Riley and Virginia Woolf.

Over the week I switch up where I sleep, from a tall, slender structure where the bed is reached by ladder through to the Njalla, or "tower for big thoughts". Reached by a flight of wooden steps, it hovers above the other buildings, looking like a tiny, illuminated chapel. Before bed I sit up there, counting the various types of light visible: stars, snow made bluish by the moon, blinks of green and red out at sea, pinprick dots of glow from windows on other islands, the lamps with their metallic, football-pitch glare over the dock, the illuminated porches in each of Fordypningsrommet's buildings. There are no curtains here. It's strange. I'm so used to closing the blinds as dusk descends, shutting out what lies beyond glass. Here one is required to live in close proximity to the dark. Come daylight, the views are astonishing - I lie in bed and see islands scattered as far as the eye can reach.

On Friday I scramble up the hill behind the Njalla and breathe it all in for a final time - the bitter air, the mountains, the sky patched rose and tangerine. I suddenly feel proud of myself. It's been a resilient, imaginative, demanding week, more challenging than expected, but also more extraordinary. Then again, I didn't really know what to expect. That was half the adventure.

It's only after my ferry ride back to Bodø that Håvard informs me how those winds the day before were strong enough to close the airport and stop the boats from sailing. It's lucky I even got back to the mainland. I'm glad I didn't know, instead spending my last 24 hours pottering in the kitchen, writing, taking pictures, occasionally braving an icy battering outside. But it underscores how rugged a setting it is - unpredictable, singular, ridiculously beautiful and entirely reliant on the weather's munificence. Now, back in the thrum of a busy city, it's still all I want to write about.