The stories in the earth – Walking the Mols Bjerge

The final stretch of Denmark’s longest mediaeval road stretched out along a causeway, the polished stones leading to what had once been an island and home today to the ruins of Kalø Castle. It had been built some seven centuries ago, an impenetrable fortress to protect a King not necessarily from the threat that might come from overseas, but from enemies a little closer to home. Indeed, it had been in the aftermath of a peasants’ revolt that the castle was built; a testament in stone to the paranoia and insecurities of an unloved ruler.

Over the centuries the importance of the castle waned. For a while it was a prison. Then a stately home. Since the 17th century it has been slowly crumbling, and today it is a place that attracts day-trippers and birdwatchers, those curious about the history of this corner of Denmark and those who simply like the idea of crossing a causeway to reach an island. After all, there is something about islands that cannot help but stir the imagination, especially when there’s a ruined castle waiting to be explored.

But if the guards and the gateposts have long been removed, as we arrived and prepared to cross, it seemed like the castle was still being protected. Not that the steady stream of families, hikers and other visitors seemed all that bothered about the herd of cows stretched out along the causeway, nibbling at the grass on the verge of the ancient road. Perhaps we’d heard too many stories and read too many statistics. Carefully we made our way across, giving each cow a wide berth as we went.

On the way back, the cows having moved on to a field on the mainland, it was easier to take in the rest of our surroundings. Across the curve of the bay we could see the low hills of the Mols Bjerge against the sky. Between us were a collection of half-submerged stones, all that remains of a Stone Age settlement preserved by the sea that spoke to a time more than seven thousand years ago, when people fished from these shores. The sea level was lower then, the tidal flows delivering a bounty directly into the bay. As the sea levels rose and the sands shifts, the settlement was swallowed. But the history was preserved, including fishing implements such as wicker traps, that help us understand the long history of this part of the world.

Heading inland from the bay, into the hills, we were moving into a landscape that had long been shaped by human hands. The Mols Bjerge were initially formed during the Ice Age, a moraine landscape left behind as the ice retreated. Stone Age settlement followed, both on the shore and in the hills, where graves were dug and chieftains buried. That the hills became something of a sacred site continued into the Bronze Age, and a could number of the lumpy hills that we could see were not a result of glaciers or the retreat of the ice at all, but were burial mounds that gave new shape to the landscape.

The aim of our walk were three of these  three tumuli – the burial mounds at Trehøje, 127 metres above sea level and almost the highest point in the Mols Bjerge National Park. White tracks carved out of the grassland led us there, to a lookout point back down towards the bay and the castle, with the harbour and tall buildings of Aarhus shimmering in the distance. 

In the other direction, the view took in the Mols Bjerge landscape as a whole. A rumpled sheet of rolling hills; a grassy moorland speckled with juniper and sloe bushes, the odd conifer plantation here and there offering a patch of deep green. Cattle grazing had long given the hills their bleak and bare look, but appearances can be deceptive. Today, the Mols Bjerge contains almost half of all of Denmark’s wild plant species, with all manner of bird and other wildlife calling the park home. 

At Trehøje we stopped for lunch, our view taking in the grasslands and the burial mounds, the sea and the sky beyond as a red kite hovered in search of a meal of its own. The Mols Bjerge might be modest as mountains go, but we live in a place where there are similar low altitude peaks have a cross and a summit book, so we know all too well that altitude is not always the deciding factor when it comes to the appeal of a hilltop. The Mols Bjerge were at once both familiar and unusual, a place shaped by stories that are contained in the earth, the cobblestones of an ancient road and the tracks along which the dead once made their final journey. 

56°12’28.0″N 10°31’58.3″E
Photographs: Katrin Schönig
Words: Paul Scraton