In love with a fish.. at Djupavik
An abandoned herring factory might not be your idea of fun; especially if I tell you reaching it involves driving over mountains, clinging precariously to cliffs on miles of remote washboard gravel road. But it does make for an adventure and an interesting journey into Icelandic fishing heritage and Icelandic spirit. If you’re in the Western Fjords with a few hours to spare then you should drop by the village where herring came and went…
A love written in the stars
This is a love story. Of two people who didn’t want to fall in love. Who fought it, ignored it, talked about it and then finally followed their destiny. “It was fate,” says Eva Sigurbjornsdottir who is one part of the story. “I think it was written in the stars.”
It’s also a story about fish. Of course it is. We’re in Iceland.
The end of the story
Ok, it’s weird to start a story at the end, but here we are, in a darkened room. As the door slams shut it echoes around old concrete walls, bouncing around the rusted hulks of old machinery. I am inside the abandoned herring factory at Djupavik with hotelier Eva Sigurbjornsdottir, who also owns the factory, curates its exhibition spaces and from time to time shows people around.
Standing in the machine room waiting for her to turn on the lights, enormous black and white photos on the walls watch over me, ghosts of this once busy factory. I begin to try and imagine them and the work they did here. When the lights lift the gloom, Eva begins to bring the ghosts to life as she recounts the story of this once fine Icelandic Herring Factory and the fine fisherfolk of Djupavik whose story it is.
She tells how the women processing the fish received a token for each barrel of herring they prepared and salted, how they stored their tokens in their shoes, how they sometimes dropped them between the wooden planks of the salting piers. She tells of finding lost tokens, shows us how sacks of meal were laid out so they didn’t catch fire, shows us graffiti scribed upon the walls.
Eva breathes life back into the place with her stories and her quiet passion for the building, its workers and for the fishing industry and village she was never a part of until she became entwined with a herring factory and village that had all but died.
How does a herring factory come to be in the middle of nowhere?
The story starts many life cycles ago in 1917, when a herring speculator, Elías Stefánsson, arrives to start a herring salting station in the Western fjords. He builds some houses and fish changes the lives of people here. For a few years. But then recession hits, Elias goes bankrupt and all is quiet again. In 1934 another boom begins, more people arrive and build a factory using just wheelbarrows and makeshift cranes. It is the biggest and the best herring factory in Europe, a thriving business catching, salting and exporting herring products. In 1944, the factory has its best year ever producing barrels of salted herring, herring meal, and herring oil (especially good for making bombs). But, in the 1950’s the herring move East. And the profits head south; the factory is abandoned and falls into ruin.
How did Eva end up buying an old herring factory?
Ok, I did promise a love story. Fast forward a few years and the media announce that the last people are leaving Djupavik. Eva’s husband sees this on TV. His grandfather was connected with the factory, which makes him curious to know more. So he makes enquiries, visits the village and factory, learns about his grandfather and then thinks nothing more of it. Until the phone rings and he is invited to buy the factory. It makes no sense to him or Eva so he says no and tries to think nothing more of it. But deep down he has already lost his heart to Djupavik. And after several more phonecalls is persuaded. Some time after that, Eva loses her heart too.
The story that starts with fish ends somewhere very different. Over the last 10 years the couple have brought life back to this remote village. They run the thriving Hotel Djupavik and offer daily tours of the factory to guests and visitors. The factory sucks up money and time (just patching the roof up with 8mm thick tar cloth cost 4 million kronor) but this doesn’t put them off. There may be calcium stalagmites hanging from the walls and birds nesting in the ceiling but Eva is in love with it all. “We chase the baby birds around to help them out of the building when they leave the nest.”
The end and also the beginning
She says it will always be a herring factory and it probably won’t change – it’s a memorial to the fishing industry and a testament to how hard the people worked to catch and produce their food in this remote part of Iceland. But it won’t rot away like it did in the past. They are putting in new windows to shed light on the old machinery, and inviting international artists to use it as a gallery.
Musicians come to play music in the special acoustics of the large concrete drums that once held fish oil. We sneak in to one of them after our tour, taking our recorders with us. Three of us play a tuneless version of London’s burning we ceremoniously retitle ‘Fish oil’s burning.’
Playing music in the fish oil tank
It sounds like a marching band as the notes hauntingly pipe around the vast, dark sphere. If the ghosts of the past were here earlier, we’ll definitely have scared them away.
This post is part of our 2012 Adventure Islands Season. We spent summer 2012 visiting Iceland and The Faroes, exploring the wilder parts of these adventure islands and reporting on attractions and activities on offer to adventure seeking families. We’re grateful to DFDS Seaways and Smyril Line for their support in getting us and our vehicle to Europe, Iceland and The Faroes, enabling us to bring you this season of posts. And to Berghaus and Thule who helped equip us for the journey.
You can follow see our journey on The Family Adventure Project Punkt and get some exclusive behind the scenes photos and video of our journey.