Sweden is renowned for its magnificent landscapes, rich culture and beautiful design. It is therefore no surprise that it has no less than fifteen UNESCO designated World Heritage sites to its name, including the fascinating decorated farmhouses of Hälsingland (Hälsingegårdar ). These houses are the most magnificent examples of farming complexes and house interiors created by the freeholder farming class between 1500 – the late 1800s. Their extraordinarily decorated rooms for festivities reflect a unique combination of timber buildings and folk art traditions, as well as the prosperity and social status, of the independent farmers who built them.
Hälsingland is in the heart of Sweden, around 300km (190 miles) north of Stockholm, which means a visit to the Hälsingegårdar farmsteads can easily be included in an itinerary that provides a perfect balance of city break and countryside retreat. For those who have longer the region is beautiful and a perfect place to spend an entire holiday. The region is fertile and the landscape varied with large forests, wide rivers and lakes, high mountains and pretty upland meadows and lush green valleys.
The Farmhouses, their design and folk art
The Hälsingegårdar farmhouses are examples of northern European vernacular building traditions; they are made entirely of wood and have magnificently decorated interiors. The painted interiors represent a fusion of folk art and styles that were favoured by the landed gentry of the time, including Baroque and Rococo. Nowhere else in the world can you find such a high number of farmsteads with such large and lavish buildings. The majority of the preserved houses were built in the 1700s and 1800s, but there are several surviving buildings that are several centuries older.
These large farm complexes were characterised by stylish architecture and unique interiors, they show well preserved examples of skilfully executed carvings and richly detailed painting. What is unusual is that the majority of the work would have been done by the ordinary people from the farming class of the time. Whilst some farm owners may have hired local artists or craftsmen, it would have been unusual to commission work from anyone outside of the region.
Individuality was important to the owners who wanted to express their wealth and independence through their property and the farmhouses can vary tremendously in style. For example in Voxnadalen wide multi-storey houses with mansard roofs were common, while houses elsewhere were narrower, with gable roofs. The Hälsingegårdar were generally made up of several buildings, each building having a clearly designated purpose including rooms specifically built for celebrations, festivities, sleeping, summer residential use or dwellings to accommodate different generations of the same family.
The entrances were a focus point and an opportunity for the owner to put their own individual stamp on a property. As a result entrances are very individual in style and character, showing off fine woodwork, decorative paintwork and small windows and many of the doors are elegantly carved and painted and reflected the local character of the parish and examples of local folk art.
The most elaborately decorated rooms where usually designated for special occasions or as grand guest rooms where the guests of honour would stay. To emphasis a room’s formal character and importance, large landscapes, townscapes and beautiful floral decorations were often painted directly on the walls, the idea being to show the visitor that they had finally arrived at the heart of the farmhouse and be impressed by the magnificent setting of the event.
The Hälsingland farmers used paint innovatively to imitate the expensive materials they could not buy. Stencilling was used cleverly to resembles silk wall hangings, spattering imitates granite and marbling and soft wood detailing was made to look like mahogany. Wallpaper became popular in the 1800s and the Hälsingland stencilling is a fine example of the combination of wallpaper and painting, this style of stencilling with its rich colour and variation is beautiful. The designs are renowned and still provide inspiration for the modern designers of today. The original Gästgivars wallpaper, which was designed and created by Jonas Wallström a renowned journeyman painter from Vallsta, can still be seen today at the Gästgivars Farm.
The people and history
The situation of the Hälsingland farmers was unique compared to elsewhere in Sweden and the Nordic region. These farmers were freeholders and owned their own land and property. This meant that they were highly independent and were not controlled or taxed by the nobility. This gave them a great deal of freedom to build larger and more ornate houses than other farmers. Hälsingland is a fertile region and even through it is in the north of the country the warm the Gulf Stream means that cereals can still be grown. However, the Hälsingland farmers did not restrict themselves to agricultural farming, they were also excellent business people and proved themselves to be highly creative in terms of managing their land and resources. They turned their hands to cattle rearing, timber trading, the cultivation of flax and manufacture of linen cloth and sold off tracks of forest. They travelled extensively throughout the Nordic region to sell their produces and as they travelled they saw different styles of architecture, design and art, which they incorporated into the designs of their own farms and houses, creating the beautiful Hälsingegårdar we see today.
General information for visitors
There are approximately one thousand Hälsingegårdar farmhouses, spread across 36 parishes. Around 50 are open to visitors and a handful allow guests to stay and experience the old style Hälsingegårdar lifestyle. Because most of the houses are privately owned they are only open to the public at certain times of the year or by arrangement, for this reason it is advisable to plan your trip in advance. Information about the farmhouses and opening times can be found at www.halsingegardar.se or click here.
There are four dedicated Visitor Centres which have small exhibitions about the Hälsingegårdar farmhouses and where one can find out more information about the individual farmhouses, tours, opening hours and accommodation.
The seven Hälsingegårdar that are considered of outstanding heritage value and have received UNESCO protection are:
BA (www.ba.com) and SAS (www.flysas.com) fly directly to Stockholm from London. http://www.visitstockholm.com is an excellent site to find information about the capital and accommodation. For more ideas of things to do in Hälsingland click here and here. For general information about visiting Hälsingland go to www.halsingland.se/en or www.visitsweden.com. The tourist offices are also very helpful and their details can be found on these two websites above.