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

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

This article appears in Volume
22: The Design Issue

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

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

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