Wanderings in western Norway
by D. L. Snellgrove, Kew Guild Award Scheme recipient
As a result of the Henry Idris Mathews Scholarship and a travel award from the Kew Guild I was fortunate enough this summer to be able to spend three weeks in Bergen in western Norway at Bergen Botanic Garden and the Norwegian Arboretum.
Bergen is Norway’s second largest city(after the capital Oslo) with a population of around 200,000. It lies in the south-western part of the country and compared with the rest of Norway enjoys a mild wet maritime climate. In fact soon after my arrival I was given an umbrella and quickly discovered that umbrellas are to Bergen what bicycles are to Amsterdam – essential items!
Called the “Fjord Capital” it is surrounded by countryside indented with fjords, dotted by islands and topped off with mountains. The city itself is built around seven hills and many of the older parts consist of narrow streets and wooden houses clinging to steep hillsides. Above this the hills rise to 650 metres, mostly wooded to 300 but always providing excellent recreational areas for walking, swimming and other outdoor pursuits.
The Botanic Garden, founded in 1897, is situated just south of the city centre next to the natural history museum in the University quarter. The University of Bergen is responsible for the scientific activities of both the Botanic Garden and the Arboretum. Although the garden is small and modest by our standards (0.9 hectares in size) it contains 5,000 species displayed and laid out in an attractive manner. From the small public glasshouse sited on a small hill at the south end of the garden good views are afforded over Bergen toward the wooded hills beyond.
The Norwegian Arboretum, established in 1971 as a Nordic cooperation venture, is 12 miles south-east of the city on the edge of Fanafjord. Its area of 30 hectares comprises a rugged topography with hills, rocky gorges and a small lake providing not just attractive naturalistic planting areas but also amenity and recreational potential. Walking is combined with educational nature trails and on the long shoreline there are many excellent bathing places including facilities for the disabled. Most of the arboretum consists of informal plantings, sometimes bordering on the “wild” whilst only a very small area is planted formally as one might expect in England. Various collections are grouped including Nothofagus, Rhododendron, Acer, Betula, Ilex and Asiatic and North American conifers. The Ilex are being assembled to form a decorative selection programme using plants from all over Norway.
In addition to visits to the Botanic Garden and Arboretum I took the opportunity to visit the surrounding area from which two trips in particular stand out.
The first is well known in western Norway and despite suffering from a mouthful of a name – “Norway in a nutshell” -It is a splendid scenic journey travelling about 100 miles west into the fjords and mountains. A quick itinerary is Bergen-Voss-Myrdal-Flam (all train), Flam Gudvangen (fjord steamer), Gudvangen-Voss (bus), Voss-Bergen (train).
The train leaves Bergen and is soon passing alongside fjords and small villages, hamlets and isolated farms. On the approach to Voss the train climbs and snow covered mountain tops appear. From Voss the train continues to Flam the changing point for the Flam line. Here there was some delay but bathing in the warm mountain sun only 100feetor so below glistening snow patches, who cared? The train arrived and moved off to make the most spectacular train journey I’ll probably ever make. Through the carriage window there appeared an ever changing panorama of unique scenery, snow capped mountains, thundering waterfalls and peaceful green valley meadows. A few facts and figures will emphasize this. Myrdal station lies at 865 metres and in45 minutes the train travels 12.4 miles down to Flam station on Aurlandfjord. Some of the gradients are heart stopping (the steepest is one metre in 18) and it comes as quite a relief to know that the carriages have five separate braking systems anyone of which can stop the train. From Flam a steamer is taken to Gudvangen at the head of the neighbouring Naer.0yfjord, one of the narrowest fjords in Norway. This journey was made in brilliant sunshine and only spoilt by the fact that the steamer was packed full of tourists and it’s literally standing room only. Nevertheless the majesty of sheer rock hundreds of metres high rising out of the water was on occasion enough to shut anyone up! From Gudvangen buses leave for Voss through the Naeroyvalley and then up the Stalheim curves where the road achieves gradients of one in five whilst twisting around numerous hairpin bends and where(if you’ve the courage to look) yet more awe inspiring scenery reveals itself. After all this It’s quite a relief to gently nod off to sleep on the train back to Bergen.
My second trip was to fulfil a long standing ambition to see a glacier. Here I was quite fortunate in that the Hardangerjokulen glacier is within reasonable travelling time from Bergen, being only a good hour’s walk from Finse railway station midway between Bergen and Oslo. This area lies within the newly founded national park Hardangervidda (vidda = mountain plateau), established in 1981 and encompassing an area over 3,000 sq. kms all above 1,000 metres. It is also reckoned to contain the largest wild deer population in Europe, estimated at 1 0,000 head in 1973.
Finse station at 1,222 metres is the highest railway station in Norway (it is inaccessible by road) and lies along a 60 mile section of track above the tree line on a bare and windswept plateau. Just before Finse the railway reaches 1 ,290 metres at Taugevatn, the highest point on the line where the land is largely covered by snow and any water by ice. By this time I was definitely having second thoughts. The train then stopped at Finse. Why was I the only person to get off? The rain then started to fall and it seemed especially cold and wet as a glance at the station thermometer told me it was 5C, wonderful! But then I got lucky, the rain blew away, the sun came out and in the distance the glacier dome gleamed, shone and beckoned.
So off I went, past remnants of dirty snow left from last winter’s heavy falls which still lay two metres thick in one place at the roadside. Vegetation was scarce and any plants in flower were all the more brilliant for their rarity. Yellow Compositae, some blue Geraniaceae and pink Caryophyllaceae was as far as my botanising went! But all formed handsome showpieces as I tramped towards the glacier jumping from rock to rock and crossing charging streams of fresh meltwater. With some trepidation I crossed several large crisp snowfields (my ice axe hadn’t featured in my original summer plans!) while watching a family happily ski-ing on the slopes in the summer sunshine. The edge of the glacier proved a bit of a disappointment as dirty grey fingers of ice ended in ten metre walls surrounded by a landscape of broken and barren rock in deep valleys gouged out by previous glacial advances.
Nevertheless the day spent here wandering around streams, snow and ice in perfect sunshine and almost total isolation was the most peaceful and restful day I’d spent in a long time.