Three forces have shaped the South Fyn Archipelago as we know it today: the glaciers of the ice age, the water of the seas and – last, but not least – man.
Exerting unimaginable force, colossal glaciers carved out the Archipelago as it looks today. Sometimes like a prehistoric bulldozer, at other times through the gentle insistence of the flowing meltwater – but every time making a lasting mark on the terrain, both above and below the surface. Even though the last ice melted away around 11,700 years ago, the result of the ice cap movements are still generally visible; not only in the shape of the hills, but also in the stones in the fields and on the beach, in the courses followed by the meltwater valleys, and in the brick and stone used to build the villages.
As you walk the Archipelago Trail, you will surely see and feel for yourself how violently the ice forced up layer upon layer of soil and rock millennia ago – because you will have to do a lot of walking up hill, which is wonderful for your leg muscles! Take the time to look at the colour of the soil in places where the underlying strata are exposed. You may sometimes notice that the upper layer consists of yellow clay and sand rather than soil. As you cross fields and beaches, look at the stones. They are not simply a collection of pieces of common flint, but a symphony of foreign blocks of rock, carried here by the ice like a kind of ‘calling card’. You will not even have to bend down to examine them: simply take a look at the burial mounds, the church walls or the manor house foundations. You will see the same types of stone there, bearing witness to the effect of the ice age on Denmark.
Water can be calm, ferocious, hot or cold, dark or light. It can take the form of a calm stretch of sea, a tinkling brook, or a capricious bog. You are never far from the coast in Denmark, but it is rare to have the coastline as omnipresent as it is here in the South Fyn Archipelago.
On the Archipelago Trail, you can follow the water all the way from where it lands as rain on the hilltops of Trebjerg, Lerbjerg, Bregninge Kirke, Egebjerg Mølle and Fakkebjerg. Sometimes, you will find yourself right next to the water as you make your way alongside streams and rivers (remember to pack dry socks!), and almost everywhere you go you can see the gorges and valleys that the water has been cutting through the landscape for more than 12,000 years. Syltemade Ådal Valley is a very special example of this. Down at the coast, you can see the water spread out in front of you. The South Fyn Archipelago was once the gateway not just to Denmark, but to the whole world. It is here that many a young boy and girl dreamed their way off to distant lands, and where many a seaman’s wife prayed for the safe return of her husband.
It is the water that created the islands of the Archipelago when, around 9,000 years ago, it suddenly began to rise, raising the sea level by more than 100 metres all over the world. It was at that time that the giant glaciers melted away, pouring enormous volumes of water into the seas. Hills became islands, and the world suddenly looked completely different. Take a walk along the beach, look for tools from the settlements that were flooded, and imagine the life of a Stone Age fisherman, paddling his dugout canoe away from the shore to spear eels in the shallow water.
Ice and water created the ‘canvas’, on which man has been painting his history for millennia, ever since the ice melted away. The landscape of man, i.e. the cultural landscape, has been created continuously from the time the first hunters made tracks through the flower-clad tundra, to the nature recovery projects of modern times. Human influence – conscious or unconscious – really came to have an effect when the population of this part of the world progressed to the Neolithic Period around 5,400 years ago. From that time onwards, people lived off the land they owned so they needed to present a statement of ownership to the outside world – by establishing hedges or monuments, for example. The most visible signs, however, were undoubtedly the clearances performed in the otherwise dense woodland, like islands in a giant sea of woods. In time, the separate clearings became a single, giant, unbroken stretch of open land – the Danish cultural plain.
The cultural landscape we can see today was largely shaped in relatively recent times, with changing villages, modern roads and huge areas of fields dominating the view. If you take a closer look, however, you are sure to notice traces of ages past: mediaeval churches, fortresses, villages and mills, Iron Age settlements or burial mounds from the Bronze and Stone Ages. The burial mounds are some of the oldest features in the landscape, and there were once 5–10 times as many as there are today. They are now primarily to be seen crowning local hilltops and other prominent points of the terrain, but in ages past they were to be found almost everywhere, reminding ancient peoples about their ancestors – as they still do to this day.
The Stone Age landscape exists both above and below the surface of the sea today. When the ice from the Weichsel Ice Age melted away around 11,700 years ago, Denmark was still joined to England, and neither the Baltic Sea nor the Archipelago existed. Where they now lie, there was a hilly landscape transected by deep meltwater valleys, covered first by tundra and later by forest, which provided a habitat for both large and small game. The last of the ice melted around 7,000 years ago, resulting in the sea level rapidly rising by more than 100 metres! The Bible relates the story of Noah and the great flood. Stories of this kind exist in different cultures all over the world, and may well refer to this rapid rise in the sea level. For the hunters who lived in the valleys on South Fyn and the islands, the whole world changed dramatically over the course of just a few generations, and people suddenly had to get used to living on the coast. They proved skilled at adapting, however, and excavations from the Ertebølle Period reveal a host of settlements and lifestyles that could not have existed without resources from the sea. The Ertebølle Period coastline is under 4–6 metres of water today.
When the Hunter Stone Age began, in around 3400 BC, the sea level was no longer rising as strongly and the coasts were more stable. The sea had not finished rising completely, however, and remnants from the time of the Stone Age farmers can still be found under the water. Near Siø, you can actually see a flooded long barrow: the burial chamber of a chieftain. As you walk along the Archipelago Trail, it is easy to spot burial mounds from the Neolithic Period, but try to imagine the world that existed before the islands became islands, and when people wandered through heavily wooded valleys, hunting for red deer and ancient oxen.
The Middle Ages (1050–1550) witnessed a period of technological development without precedent. Watermills in particular were a visible embodiment of this development. A great many aspects of society changed at the same time, and people of the age succeeded in laying the foundations for a completely new cultural landscape in a new Denmark. The villages with their churches play an important role in this narrative. Before the Middle Ages, villages had a tendency to relocate every few decades so. The houses were left to rot, and the soil became remarkably rich in places where people and animals had lived for a protracted period. This phenomenon is known as ‘wandering villages’.
This pattern of movement came to an end in the Middle Ages, because when churches were built, it was no longer possible to move all the buildings in a village – nor the dead buried in the churchyard. Every single stone church is thus an anchor, pinning an otherwise mobile village in one place since the Middle Ages. In a number of places – including Nakkebølle, Hvidkilde and Fårevejle – the route passes close by earthworks dating back to mediaeval times. These mark the places where a small fortress once stood on a mound of earth, surrounded by a moat. The fortifications are long gone today, and the stones reused in other places. Ørkild and Tranekær are the sites of large castles with the capacity to defend a whole region, and both were attacked more than once during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance Period.
Most people instinctively associate the concept of industrialisation with factories and towns, but evidence of this process is actually clear to see out in the countryside as well. Many of these traces are already disappearing, however, so you will need to keep a sharp lookout as you walk along the Archipelago Trail. Out in the open landscape, mechanisation contributed to changing the world as it was back then. Agriculture benefited from the technological advances. Infrastructure in particular was significantly affected by the advent of motorised transport on land and sea. With steam engines in ships, sailors were no longer dependent on catching a favourable wind, while on land the railways were making a huge difference.
When you follow the Archipelago Trail close to Rantzausminde, part of the route runs along the old railway line between Svendborg and Faaborg. Take note of how the railway cuts uncompromisingly through the landscape, without showing any consideration for old boundaries and borders. Railway lines demand a lot of space, but they made it possible to travel much faster than before. In Spodsbjerg, the arrival of the railway opened up all kinds of new opportunities for outdoor life, as it carried holiday guests from Rudkøbing to the fine beaches at Spodsbjerg. As you enter many of the towns in the region, you will pass through the distinctive workers’ quarters that were created when a large proportion of the rural population moved into urban areas to seek work in the factories and plants. The residences were tiny, and very different to the farms and smallholdings in the country. On the other hand, people had good opportunities to make money and perhaps climb the social ladder by moving into town. As such, industrialisation moved not only goods and machinery – but people as well.