Norsewood: Footsteps of the gods

Almighty Johnsons stars Emmett Skilton and Ben Barrington follow in the footsteps of their characters as they make a pilgrimage to the brothers’ hometown of Norsewood

Emmett Skilton from 'The Almighty Johnsons' at Little Norway in Norsewood.
Emmett Skilton from 'The Almighty Johnsons' at Little Norway in Norsewood.

We are excited to hear we were being sent to the tiny town of Norsewood in the central Hawke's Bay to explore the familial roots of The Almighty Johnsons. The show's creator, James Griffin, is staunchly proud of his Scandinavian lineage and it is a thrill to visit this early Nordic settlement so often featured in our scripts. Emmett's character Axl takes a road trip there in the new series, so we follow in his Norse God footsteps.

The Scandinavian people are rarely mentioned in New Zealand's history but in Norsewood you'll find Nordic mythology and customs preserved in street names, images of hammers and wagon wheels and, of course, the presence of trolls, the stars of Norwegian fairytales.

Night is falling as we arrive and, in these remote parts, night means darkness. We navigate towards the only source of illumination we can see: the Crown Hotel, where we are met with a warm welcome including a roaring fire and a well-deserved beer and game of pool while the resident cat looks on.

Our lodgings are nearby in Ormondville, in a charming railway station built in 1880 but now converted to a homestay. Though the station is no longer in use, the adjacent tracks are, so we are kept awake by freight trains thundering past at regular intervals ... all part of the experience.

A chorus of roosters heralds in the new day and we head back to Norsewood through postcard-perfect countryside to check out the sights. We chat with friendly locals, rich in knowledge and character, and take photos of everything Norse-related we see.

The little museum on Coronation St in Upper Norsewood (yes, there's an upper and a lower) is impressive, documenting the area's boom period in the late-19th century.
But the highlight is an attraction named Johanna's World - one woman's labour of love in preserving the heritage and culture of the area's early Nordic settlers. Maria Andresen, Fijian by birth but a longtime resident of Norsewood and one of the loveliest people you'll ever meet, has realised her late husband Oystein's vision of a "Little Norway" in their front yard.

The Johanna of the title is one Johanna Christiansen, who arrived with her family from Norway in 1872. A museum of sorts, the little outcrop of buildings includes a replica of the log cabin where Johanna was born in the Norwegian woods 160 years ago.

Maria knows everything there is to know about the early Scandinavian settlers and their lives and she keeps us enthralled with colourful stories from the period. It helps that she's a huge fan of The Almighty Johnsons, so maybe we are getting the special treatment. She keeps telling Emmett she wants to adopt him.

The funny thing is, as Maria expounds the details of life as it was for these 19th-century pioneers, we have the sense that it is our heritage we are learning about. Maybe that says something about staying in character, as neither of us is Scandinavian. However, as Maria delightedly pointsd out, we're both tall enough to be.

It is only now that we regrettably find out we could have stayed at Johanna's World, sleeping among the antiques and relics under the watchful eyes of the many wooden trolls. After Maria bides us (particularly Emmett) a tearful farewell, we take in the remaining sights of the upper town, including the primary school the Almighty Johnson boys would have attended, and a handsome replica Norwegian fishing boat, which they no doubt would have played in.

We then take Thor St down the hill to Lower Norsewood, where Norsewear socks are still made at the New Zealand Natural Clothing Company.

Later that afternoon, we venture further afield in search of Waihi Falls. Battling failing light and herds of cattle sharing the roads, we find a powerful cascade of water that would have looked at home in Asgard (home of the Norse gods). Since Emmett has brought his character's hallowed Sword of Odin he can't resist the photo opportunity.

After all this excitement it is time to retire to the cosy Destinations Motor Lodge in Dannevirke and some outstanding fish and chips from Wai Fayes Takeaway. Following a sound train-free sleep and a hearty breakfast, we say goodbye to the beautiful Hawke's Bay. Many thanks to the lovely people of Norsewood and its surrounds for your hospitality and kindness. We'll be back to see you soon. Skaal!

The new series of The Almighty Johnsons starts on Thursday at 8.30pm on TV3. The boys travelled in a Santa Fe courtesy of Hyundai NZ.

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