After the break with the Catholic Church in 1527, the Swedish clergy were determined to teach their parishioners the Lutheran fundamentals, with the result that, by 1681, church services had become compulsory. There was one problem with this requirement, though – the population in the north was spread over considerable distances, making weekly attendance impossible. The clergy and the parishes agreed a compromise: it was decreed that those living within 10km of the church should attend every Sunday; those between 10km and 20km away, every fortnight; and those 20–30km away, every three weeks. The scheme worked, and within a decade, church towns (kyrkstäder) had appeared throughout the region to provide the travelling faithful with somewhere to spend the night after a day of praying and listening to powerful sermons.

Of Sweden’s original 71 church towns, only eighteen are left today, found predominantly in the provinces of Västerbotten and Norrbotten. Each kyrkstad consists of rows of simple wooden houses grouped tightly around the church. The biggest and most impressive, at Gammelstad near Luleå, is included on the UNESCO World Heritage List.

Today, the church towns are no longer used in the traditional way, though people still live in the old houses, especially in summer, and sometimes even rent them out to tourists.

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