Hærvejen, Ochsenweg – the Military Way or the Oxen Way. In Denmark’s Jutland it has one name, in northern Germany another name. But it is the same route. In medieval times, the Danes thought of it as route for armies to transverse, while the Germans saw it is a cattle route. Both are true.
These days, it has been revived as a walking and cycling trail, running from the north of Jutland down to the German border and through to Hamburg. My partner and I had ridden some of the German parts in 2018, but now I had a tent, it was summer in Denmark, and I was keen to explore the northern parts, up (almost) to the tip of Jutland.
My partner is not such a keen camper, so this was my chance to get away and explore – on my blue Brompton foldup bicycle. I had never before camped in Europe, let alone Denmark, and I had the impression that one had to pay a fee and stay in official camping areas, wherever they might be. This impression turned out to be completely wrong – to my great pleasure.
Day 1: Christiansfeld to Vejle, 46 km
First, I had to get up to Northern Jutland where the cycling route begins in Frederikshaven. This entailed an initial 46 kilometre ride northwards from our small unit in the historic village of Christiansfeld (in southern Jutland).
Why the initial ride? There is no train station in Christiansfeld and the easiest link was to get myself to Vejle and take the train north, via Aarhus, to Frederikshaven. The ride was uneventful, along main roads, but it helped in terms of being a ‘positioning ride’, as they say. I was able to adjust my loading of the bicycle, to accommodate tent, sleeping bag and mat. And I was to become accustomed yet again to longer rides on the Brompton.
In Frederikhaven I did not camp, staying in what the Danish call a ‘youth hostel’. No dormitories here, the Danes being greatly invested in one’s personal privacy, which sits a bit at odds with its collective history in other respects. But then, toilets are similar, for they feel like a small armoured room, closed off entirely from the outside world. The ‘youth hostel’ was what you would expect in Denmark, by which I mean it was not cheap.
Day 2: Frederikshaven to Pall, 114 km
Indeed, bargains come in unexpected ways in this small country. The first of these would come the following evening, after a very long day in the saddle. The very northern parts of Jutland are – a little surprisingly – quite wild by Danish standards. Upon leaving Frederikshaven, I was soon taken onto the Jutland Ridge. In what is supposedly a largely flat country, I found myself peddling up and down one rise after another. Not enormously high, but the cumulative effect is much the same. And I am sure that I rode along every available dirt track in Denmark, which usually meant pebbles and stones – just the thing on a bicycle with small wheels.
I peddled and peddled and peddled – for 114 kilometres. Why? I was looking for the fabled camping shelters. I had seen one in the past and I had heard they were dotted all over Denmark. But I could not find one. Later, I was to find that they are truly hidden. One might be a corner in a forest that one misses on a turn of the head, another might be down a dirt track on a remote beach where one’s only company is swarm of the tiny flies that come out at dusk, or another might be in the backyard of a village Praestegaard (priest’s garden). Today I could find none of these.
As the sun was setting, I wearily rode through the village of Pall, only to find that the few locals had recently constructed a camping shelter in the village’s midst. A small lake, a sexagonal structure of raw timber with a fireplace as a retreat from inclement weather, lean-to shelters should one not have a tent, and a fresh water supply in someone’s backyard. A gift from the Nordic gods, I thought, or perhaps from the ancestors who had dug the many barrows I had passed, or from the iron-age settlements that had sought to make the most of the fertile soils of the North Jutland Ridge. Who knows. But I lit a fire, drank a beer and dug into my reserves of food for an evening repast.
I did not have to pay a cent for my night’s accommodation, which may – due to my background – have had something to do with the fact that I slept long and hard that night.
Day 3: Pall to Vammen, 86 km
I was up at the glimmer of dawn, which I tend to do when camping. Soon the bicycle was packed, with a few readjustments in light of the previous day. This day’s ride would turn out to be the shortest of this initial foray into Danish camping, a mere 86 kilometres.
Early on, I stooped in a clearing, lit a fire and began making coffee. Two young men were slowly packing their tents away and preparing to hike on for the day. Beer bottles almost filled the timber table at which they sat. It turned out that they had a summer with no plans and had decided to hike the Hærvejen in a northward direction. Their daily routine: drink beer all morning until noon, break camp and – literally – stagger for 10-15 kilometres until the next camping site. The next day they would repeat the same. I was intrigued, but realised it may not work so well on a bicycle.
As it was, I knew I was not riding at my best today: I chased sustenance rather than fortifying myself before I needed it. In the tough port town of Aalborg, with its beer halls, kebab outlets and ‘night-time entertainment’, I contemplated the town’s camping area for a moment or two at the 60 kilometre mark. But I was determined to continue.
I was aiming for the lakeside camping area of Vammen, on the Kjele Langsø, a lake formed by glaciers in times long past. With my legs gone and supplies bought already some 20 kilometres earlier, I struggled up 6 climbs before arriving wearily at … a Danish summer holiday camping place. Dutch, German and Danish were the languages used here, and I was told that after dinner there would be fireside singing around the main fireplace. Was I interested? I smiled and told them I was totally buggered.
After pitching the tent and pulling out my sumptuous repast of red kidney beans (in the can), cheese and ryebread, a fellow camper espied my fare and came over. In his hand was a plate of freshly cooked potatoes, vegetables and some unidentifiable meat. As I gratefully ate, I watched people – adults and children – playing various evening games. All had a beer in hand, or at least the adults did and the children wanted to drink beer. As one does on holidays in northern Jutland beside what used to be a glacier.
Day 4: Vammen to Vrads, 87 km
On the fourth morning, I watched the pre-dawn mists swirl around the lake before the summer sun burned them away. A substantial breakfast and a couple of hand-ground coffees set me up for the day; 10-15 kilometres of slow riding focused on my riding position; and I ensured I had regular food stops before my energy drain away.
My route took me through the ancient seat of power in Viborg, with its remnants of the age-old ‘Sortebrødre Klostret’ – literally the ‘Black Brothers Monastery’ but usually known in English as ‘Blackfriers’. All that is left now is the church itself, still known by the name of ‘Black Brothers’. In these parts, sites of religious pilgrimage abound, which developed after the Christianisation of Denmark by Harald Bluetooth 1,000 years ago.
By now I was seeing camping shelters on a regular basis, in corners of towns, along a narrow path to the water’s edge, in the midst of a forest. But when I actually began looking for a place to camp near Funder Kirkeby (it was listed on my basic map), the camping spots chose to conceal themselves once again.
On I peddled, and finally the village of Vrads appeared, with its ancient church still sporting the original boulders, an old-style Købmand, and a small park beside the church. With the memory of my experience in Pall, I thought that must be the camping spot.
Up went the tent, and I searched for water. A toilet sign! I made my way over a stone fence to what turned out to be not only the church toilet, but in villages like this it was actually the public toilet. Open all day, cleaned regularly, the church was still seen as a source of social goods in the village.
As I finished the last of my meal and was staring intently at the flames of the fire, I heard a bell ringing. Surely not! Indeed, it was the Hjemismand, the Danish home ice cream truck. But in a village, in Jutland? Yes indeed. Did he have an ice block? No, I had to buy a box of 10. What about that litre of chocolate ice cream? Yes, I could buy one of those. Without a fridge, I simply had to eat the lot.
At this point, a tall man with long grey hair and pipe-smoke billowing behind him appeared. He said he was ‘going to check the children’s swing’, but he was of course checking on the camper on the green. It turned out that I had missed the camping shelter on the edge of the village, but he said it was perfectly fine to stay where I was. He told me of the 26 residents in the village, who all volunteered to keep the Købmand shop going and maintained the ancient village church.
After his visit, I felt perfectly safe, since everyone in the village would know of my presence moments later.
Sauntering over to the church, I looked at the various announcements: the church was one of three covered by the local Danish Lutheran priest. Service times in each church accommodated a busy schedule. In one corner were a series of pictures from an event with local children, with the priest in her robes. At another point was an announcement of a music concert in the church. More community events were listed and it struck me that the priest’s role was as much religious as it was community building. Increasingly, the church in some parts was seeking to recover its ancient role as the hub of communal activities. This was taking place precisely in the countryside, while the city churches that could be found a stone’s throw from each other were mostly empty.
Day 5: Vrads to Christiansfeld, 99 km
Rain pattering on the tent at night is an extremely cosy experience; rain pouring down when breaking camp in the morning is not. South of Vrads it continued to rain and by Nørre Sunde I met again a man called Lars. We had passed each other few times already. Coffee? I asked. Around the corner.
We sat and talked for more than an hour waiting for the rain to ease and sipping rather good but expensive coffee. He was retired and living most of the time in a summer house on the Djursland Peninsula (near Aalborg). His wife was still working in Roskilde, so they would from time to time spend time together in either place. His practice was to drive a car to a new place and ride 20-30 kilometres in one direction, before retracing his route back to the car.
I set my sights on Kongernes Jelling, clearly the most important historical site in Denmark. Here are buried under massive mounds both Gorm den Gamle (Gorm the Old) and Harald Blåtand Gormsen (Harald Bluetooth son of Gorm). At a time when life expectancy was about 30, Harald lived to ripe old age of 76, from around 910 to 986 CE. But this is not his claim to fame.
Harald not only united Denmark under one kingdom (as narrated in the large runestone), and made the crucial decision to adopt Christianity. During a long reign of 30 years, he had many churches built across the country. These are the typical whitewashed village churches one sees in these parts. He also had one built between the two burial mounds of his father and himself. Obviously, he was not his own mound as yet. But he insisted that his father’s bones be exhumed and put in the church. Why? Gorm had been a ‘pagan’, a believer in the Norse gods, buried in a massive stone ship and mound. Harald had converted, so – just to make sure his father had the right type of afterlife – Harald ordered his father’s bones removed to the church itself.
The Danish monarchy claims its line from Gorm. Like all genealogies, this one is rather flexible, but even so it makes the Danish monarchy not only the oldest continuous line in the world, but also rather inbred.
As I pondered such matters outside the church, the clouds began to build again. I knew it was about 50 kilometres to Christiansfeld from here, but I also knew I was somewhat sore and tender from too many hours in the saddle. Yet ride I did, soon enough throwing off my tender pace and storming home at breakneck speed. I arrived at dusk and as the first drops of rain began to fall again.
The ride turned out to be 432 kilometres in five days, including the modest distance of the first day. More importantly, I had discovered what free camping meant in Denmark. Indeed, I was later to discover that the country is dotted with hundreds, if not thousands, of such places. I would soon be on my way again.