Here and There – Norway

Norway holds a special place in my heart, for reasons that go back to my school days.  Recollections from when I went to Norway at the beginning of the 1960s take me back to a world long gone, with attitudes and values that seem out of place, and even uncomfortable today.  Of course, that implies we can ‘know’ the past, but we can’t.  What was it L P Hartley said in The Go-Between: “The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.”  That means that what you are about to read is a story from another place, written by someone who doesn’t even know how he has translated what he recounts.  You’ve been warned.  I will try to start with ‘facts’, but very quickly we will be far from anything as solid as that.

It was towards the end of the first year of sixth form (‘sixth form’ conventionally referred to the last two year of senior school in the UK), when I was encouraged to apply for a Trevelyan Scholarship.  These scholarships were aimed at people applying to Cambridge or Oxford University, and I wanted to have a go.  The scholarships were an experiment, a joint venture between several industrial companies and representatives of the two universities.  The idea was to provide financial support to enable selected boys (sic) to attend either place, subject to successful candidates securing admission to one of the colleges.  The Oxbridge system was unlike that for other universities, as you applied to individual colleges, although you took a common entrance examination at either place.  I was going to have a go at the examinations, but these scholarships required I got to work on a project well before they took place.  The scholarships in the 1960s offered £500 per annum for three years, and, unusually, they were not dependent on parents’ income or any other kind of means testing.

The idea was “to encourage boys to pursue a broader range of studies in the sixth form, whether related to their own special subjects or not.  An applicant had to show that he had undertaken some exacting task or project. This might be a purely intellectual inquiry or one involving personal observation and travel”.  You had to submit a written account of your project, and your school headmaster had to submit a report.  I suppose £500 sounds rather pitiful today, but back then this was a significant sum.

It was perfect for me.  I decided to undertake a geology project.  I would collect a particular variety of long extinct fossil, graptolites, from areas where they were to be found in limestone rocks (graptolites seem to have died out some 350m years ago).  The next step in my plan was to dissolve the limestone, leaving the chitinous exoskeleton of the graptolite.  Once I had the exoskeleton, I would bleach it (geologists reading this today would be horrified!), and finish by drawing the growth rings that this process would reveal.  It might add to the view that graptolites were, in effect, colonies, each creature (like a reef polyp) growing in its own small carapace.  There had been some papers written at the time, suggesting this was what happened, and I might be able to contribute to this emerging area of research.  To do all this, I would have to find some suitable specimens.  One promising location was Laggan Gill, near Girvan on the west coast of Scotland, where graptolites were to be found embedded in the right kind of rock.  I could also plan to go to a second promising location, in this case in the southern part of Norway, in hilly country located between Oslo and Kongsberg.

I began by going to Girvan with a couple of school friends, John and another I don’t recall.  It should have been an easy trip, catching a coach from London to Glasgow, and then another local bus to Girvan.  In a moment of over-excitement John and I decided we could hitchhike to Glasgow.  We managed 40 miles to Baldock, just north of Welwyn Garden City, and then walked some five miles to Biggleswade.  At that point, we gave up, and caught the coach!  The rest of the journey was uneventful, and, after some time, we found the fossil site, although collecting the fossils we were seeking proved to be a real challenge.  More to the point, I couldn’t find any graptolites in limestone.  In fact, of that part of the project, my major recollection is being chased … by sheep!  Okay, I was a bit of a wimp, but there were a lot of them, and I had no idea about sheep, (“no opinion’ as Benjamin Bunny’s father said in Potter’s Peter Rabbit).  I suspect they thought I was bringing them a bale of lunchtime hay.

Travelling to Norway was a far more serious matter.  As planning for this expedition grew, so did the team, and eventually, with parental agreement, it was decided that I would go to Norway with the other two geology students in my year, John and Neil.   We arrived there in July 1961, at the beginning of the summer holiday period, leaving from Newcastle and landing in Bergen.  The next part of the trip was simple:  we were going to walk across the southern part of the Jotunheimen range, through the Hardangervidda National Park, and over to Oslo.  This was to be our holiday.  Once we arrived in Oslo, I would scoot down to the south to collect my specimens.  As we walked, we would stay at the huts of the Norwegian Trekking Association, Den Norske Turistforening (DNT).

It was a great plan.  Each day’s walking was demanding, but not overly so.  John and Neil were sportsmen, both tall and strong, striding along the tracks, and I was the wimp, slowly following along behind them.  As the days unfolded, so the walk fell apart.  We got blisters, and then, meeting up with one of Neil’s brothers in the evening on one of the days of our trip, we left our walking boots to dry by a fire in one of the DNT huts.  Promptly neglected, the roaring fire burnt the backs of the boots.  They were unusable, and we spent to rest of the trip walking in plimsolls (the English name for light canvas sports shoes).  It was almost a major disaster, but we soldiered on:  all I recall is that the days walking were hard work!

The food was different, too.  A highlight was mouldy cheese, a ‘delicacy’ we were told when we arrived at the hut on the top of Skaupsjøen, a mountain and the highest point we reached on the trip.  John and Neil ignored the offer, but I had to try it.  To my surprise it was tasty and quite pleasant.  We split up for the last part of the journey to Oslo.  Neil and I hitchhiked – independently – and this time I got lifts all the way, arriving at the youth hostel just before Neil (we had decided it was better to hitchhike independently).  John was far more sensible and had an enjoyable train and bus journey.

Once in Oslo, for some of our time there we went off on separate trips.  However, John and I did go down to the south, travelling by bus to Kongsberg.  I think Neil wanted to rest and enjoy life.  I was only vaguely clear about where we needed to go, but found a quarry near Rud, which I knew was one of the sites listed in articles I had read.  I am fairly confident it is one that is still in operation: it is called Damåsen Pukkverk.  We got off the bus and managed to collect some specimens.  Limestone/chalk quarries were familiar places for would-be young geologists:  great places to find fossils (provided you were willing to climb and bash away at the rocks), and a source ready to ensure you ended up with incredibly dirty clothes and shoes (wet chalk is, well, a sticky, messy goo).

Suffice to say that when we returned from the trip and caught the train back down from Newcastle to London, the reception was telling.  I returned from the trip with my rucksack containing the precious fossils, looking much the same as when I had left for Norway: still a wimp.  I got in dad’s car, and went home, as if I had been away for a weekend.  As I recall, when John and Neil returned home they looked as though they had been through a tough experience.  Both had lost a lot of weight, and both were no longer walking with a spring in their step!  Recently John reassured me, telling me he “was very fit and much quicker round the school gym and the rugby field. I am not sure whether my parents met me at the station, but my mother was shocked by my weight loss.”  Neil’s parents were horrified, and I got the impression that, for some reason, they blamed me for what had happened.  All I could think was that being good at sport wasn’t everything; in my case I could do a lot simply by knowing my limits and having the will power to just keep ambling along.

The rest of the project story was relatively straightforward.  I managed to dissolve the limestone away from three graptolites, and the acid also cleaned the chitin to the point they were almost transparent.  With the aid of a microscope and a great deal of patience I managed to get three drawings completed.  The drawings, the specimens and the report of the project were all sent off to the Trevelyan offices.  I am not sure what impressed them, but it was enough to obtain a scholarship.  When I arrived at university, I made an appointment to tell the head of the geology department, a leading scholar on graptolites, what I had done.  The confidence of youth!  He was polite, interested, and I never saw him again.

The reason for going to Norway had been very specific, but most of what I recall when I think about that trip is neither the project not the graptolites, not even the walking, but the beauty of the place.  I seem to recall it was raining when we got to Bergen, but once we left, we were travelling through an astonishingly beautiful part of the world.  The early part of our travels took us close to Veafjorden, one of the stunning Norwegian fjords, inlets that cut into the western Norwegian cost all the way up to the top of the country and north of the Arctic Circle.  This is a world of ice-worn hills and valleys, and deep fjords, the water often looking remarkably blue in the summertime.  I couldn’t have seen the country at a better time and from a better place.  In contrast, Oslo was rather boring, another European city sitting around a harbour.  OK, not boring, but lacking the astonishing raw beauty of the west coast.

The region, Vestlandet, covers an area of around. 60,000 square kms.   Today the spectacular fjord and mountain country has ensured the region has become a tourist mecca (in fact, but in smaller numbers, tourists had been visiting there for centuries).  It isn’t just the stunning mountains and fjords, as further north from our path there were glaciers, and in the winter the whole area is covered in snow.  Even in sunshine and without any evidence of snow or ice, the contrast between mountains and deep water around islands creates an apparently unique setting.  Of course, slogging along with a (heavy) rucksack, I didn’t spend all my time goggling at the scenery, but I did take some photographs.  Film back in those days, of course; sadly the negatives and prints have disappeared.  Perhaps a reflection of the time we were there, the local Norwegians always seemed friendly and helpful, until we were away from civilisation and there was no-one around to offer us guidance (or carry my rucksack)!

What kept that sparsely populated part of Norway going?  Most people in the Vestlandet region live in cities near the coast, Bergen, Stavanger, Kristiansand, and some smaller fishing centres.  Inland, there were some farms and lumber operations.  Two features of the area today didn’t exist when we were there.  The first is hydroelectricity, with dams and hydroelectric plants all across the region, and especially closer to the major cities.  Far more dramatic in terms of impact has been the oil industry, which was to transform much of the west coast of Norway.  I doubt I would recognise the world I had seen in the 1960s if I was to return there today.  I am happy to live with my nostalgic image of the ‘real’ Norway.

In another sense, for seventeen-year-old, Norway was truly ‘foreign’ to my inexperienced eyes.  The language was unintelligible, and it was rather fortunate that most Norwegians learnt English as their second language.  Food was a combination of challenges and delights – ranging from brown cheese, pickled herring, gravlaks, fish balls, to ‘lefse’ ( traditional Norwegian soft ‘flatrod’  or flatbread).  I thought everyone was very friendly, but this was sixty years ago, and I was a schoolboy.  Perhaps they aren’t quite so easy going and accepting now:  this was before North Sea oil had an impact on Norway people and land.

Although I didn’t know it, Norway was to set a standard for me.  This was a country of stark and beautiful scenery, and relatively few people.  This was the same environment I was to find when I moved to Scotland.  Norway, and Scotland later, made me rather envious.  These were quiet, beautiful places where you felt close to nature.  Of course, if I had been to Norway in the winter, I might have developed a rather different image of the place.  Perhaps not:  five years cold weather, snow and rain in Scotland didn’t diminish my love of that country.

However, the time in Norway marked another, really important transition.  Prior to that trip, I had always travelled with adults around.  A school organised three week visit to Europe the year before had been by coach, with teachers to keep an eye on us.  Prior to that, I had been to France several times, but always with my parents.  In Norway, the three of us were on our own.  No mobile telephones.  In fact, once we left Bergen, any communication was rather limited:  telephones were scarce, most newspapers were in Norwegian, and once we entered the inner Jotunheimen, even they were often at least one day out of date.  Of course, to say we were on our own implies we had some sense that this was about self-reliance, about being responsible for ourselves in a way that hadn’t been true before (except for the odd 2 or 3-day scout camping exercise).  Most of the time we were more exercised about getting to the next tourist hut or to Oslo than we were reflecting on independence.

That visit to Norway changed me.  I had never been close to my parents, always a little independent.  Both parents were working by the time I went to grammar school, and although a brother appeared, he was nearly 10 years younger than I was.  My main concern was to keep him away from me and my stuff!  After Norway, I was (using a bird image appropriate to a Shelduck) ready to use my wings and fly off.  I didn’t, as I had nearly two more years of school to complete, but now my self-contained nature had full scope to shape my life.  I was even less forthcoming with my parents, even happier to be up in my attic study/bedroom, even more embedded inside my own world.  I must have been a difficult teenager, and now I was even worse.  Pity my parents, but then remember they had a new son to offer some solace.  Did they learn from dealing with me?

Paul Watkins, writing about Norway, said “The word hytte can too-simply be translated as ‘hut’, but it holds a more vaulted status in Norway than the English word implies.  A quarter of the population own such hytte.  They are usually buried in the forest or up above the treeline  and offer Norwegians a place of escape from their lives down in the valleys. Sometimes the huts are located so close to the main residence that it doesn’t seem to make sense that someone would abandon the comforts of home for a woodstove-heated, out-housed cabin.  But that is exactly the point.  This change of gears toward a simpler life, where tasks like boiling water on the woodstove or chopping wood with an axe, tasks that might take only minutes with the help of more advanced technology, may fill the day in your wilderness retreat.  These places are sacred to their owners, because they make a balance of the old world and the new.”   Just so, and that desire to return to something simpler, like the life I saw in rural Norway, has never left me.  Of course, it is easy to be foolishly romantic, so perhaps I should end on another quote.  This one is from Mark Kurlansky who observed: “Where there are Norwegian communities, there are cod clubs.”