Devon Sunset

I know how people love sunset pictures, and I’m pretty lucky as my camera takes some good ones. So here’s a couple from my recent holiday in North Devon. We were staying just outside a picturesque little village called Witheridge, between Tiverton and South Molton. Witheridge is remote and very quiet, and set deep amongst rolling hills, midway between the National Parks of Exmoor to the north, and Dartmoor to the south. It is therefore often referred to as the ‘Gateway to the Two Moors Way’. The name Witheridge originates in Old English, and means ‘weather ridge’, probably because it is situated about 600 feet above sea level, on the top of a hill, in a very exposed position. If you do pass through Witheridge, the sixteenth century Mitre Inn is worth a visit, with lovely food and friendly service.



Norway – the best bits

I’ve just about got back to normal again after my cruise to the Norwegian fjords. I was so tired when I got back – out doing touristy stuff during the day, then great entertainment in the evenings – that I needed another week to recover! Last night I had some friends over, and was showing off my photos, and I was asked what I liked most about Norway. In some ways that’s a hard question, because a week seems such a short time in which to make a valid judgement. But in other ways it’s also an easy question – it has to be the scenery. The mountains were quite stunning, and with the snows melting in late spring, the waterfalls were at their best – simply spectacular. The smooth blue-green water of the fjords perfectly reflected the mountains in all their glory. The tranquil evenings, as the sun gently sank behind the mountains, a silhouette against a sky slowly turning to salmon pink. And the sky at midnight, still with a touch of colour when we went to bed. All of these, and many other sights are memories to treasure. I think cruising down the fjords has to be the best way to appreciate the grandeur of the mountains towering high above us; so that what is in truth a huge cruise ship (carrying about 5500 crew and passengers), seems tiny in comparison. It gives me a tiny glimpse of how truly huge and magnificent God is in comparison to us.

Norway – On to Alesund

The coastal town of Alesund (pronounced ‘all’ as in ball) is a popular tourist destination, well-known for its Art Nouveau architecture, the beauty of the surrounding fjords, and the stunning views of the Sunnmore Alps. Alesund is built on a row of islands that extend towards the Atlantic, on a narrow, sea-bound peninsula shaped rather like a fish-hook. The municipality covers 93 square km, and includes seven outer islands. The picturesque old town centre is tightly packed onto the islands of Aspoya and Norvoya, and surrounded by water. Most of the population of just over 45,000 (in 2013) live scattered across nearby peninsulas and islands. There are now tunnels connecting some of the islands.
Like many Norwegian towns Alesund was built predominantly of wood, and on 23rd January 1904, in the middle of the night, the town was almost completely destroyed by fire. A strong gale aided the flames, and with only a few minutes notice the whole population of over 10,000 had to flee. After the fire Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany, who had often stayed in the area, sent four warships with building materials to erect temporary barracks to house the townspeople, who had been left without any shelter in the midst of winter. With other international aid, and much planning, the town was rebuilt using stone, bricks and mortar, in the Art Nouveau architectural style of the time, involving about 20 master builders and 30 Norwegian architects. Alesund is the most important fishing harbour in Norway, and the home base of Norway’s largest cod fishing fleet. In the 1950s and 60s it was also a prominent herring fishery station. In the 1970s oil was discovered in the North Sea, and local fishing fleet owners seized the opportunity to rebuild and adapt fishing vessels so they could be used for oil exploration and production. Soon purpose-built vessels were constructed and off-shore supply ship owning companies became a cornerstone industry in and around Alesund.
After a leisurely breakfast we took the short walk into Alesund, and were soon recommended a good coffee shop by a couple of friendly Norwegians, and sampled a large piece of Kvaefjordkake – Norway’s national cake – some say the best in the world! A sponge cake, topped with meringue, filled with vanilla custard and whipped cream, and sprinkled with nuts – all my favourite things in a cake!


Back to the cultural experience! The Art Nouveau architecture of Alesund is certainly quite striking. The facades are geometric and brightly painted, and the overall effect is one of consistency, and rightly so, as most of the buildings were built in a short space of time, straight after the fire, between 1904 and 1907. Unfortunately the Art Nouveau Centre itself was closed.

Having done a bit of research, I had already decided I wanted to climb the 418 steps up Aksla Hill to the Kniven viewpoint; so having sampled the cake, and had a good look at the buildings, off we went. It was a tough climb, but well worth the effort. Alesund and the other islands were laid out almost like a map below us. Unfortunately it was quite a grey day, with rain at times, so the tops of the majestic Sunnmore Alps to the east of Alesund, were shrouded in cloud.
I’ll leave it your imagination which I enjoyed the most; the architecture, the views, or the cake!


Norway – Third stop – Olden

The third stop on our Norwegian cruise was Olden a small Norwegian village with a population of under 1000. It is about 95km inland, at the inner end of the Nordfjord. The Nordfjord ends in three branches, and Olden is situated on the most southerly, at the mouth of the Oldeelva river.
A short walk from the ship took us into the village of Olden, and an 18th century church – Olden Gamle Kyrkje. There has been a church on this site for over 700 years, and it is mentioned in documents dated 1308. The original stave church (of a post and lintel construction) was built in about 1300. Excavations in 1970 revealed stone foundations over 1.2 metres thick, and old carved timbers, some with paintings dating from 1600 and earlier. In 1746 the stave church was demolished, and replaced by a timber church, which was destroyed by a gale eleven years later. The present church was built in 1759, in the shape of a Greek cross (of five squares), making it more resistant to strong winds! The aisles form a Roman cross, and each of the wooden box pews has a door, some bearing a farm or family mark. As the church had no heating or electric lighting, in 1934 it was decided to erect a new building, and the old church is now used only for special services, and more recently for summer concerts. As you can see from the picture, the outside is painted white, but inside it is quite dark, but very quaint, with a quiet reverence about it, as suits an ancient place of worship. Men and women sat on different sides of the church – notice the hat stands on the men’s side!

After lunch we went on a coach tour, passing first through the Olden Valley, or Oldedalen, which stretches for approximately 20km, between steep, snow-capped mountains. Nearby, about 25km south of Olden in the Briksdalen (the Briks valley) and the Briksdal glacier, or Briksdalsbreen, which I visited on my last Norway trip (see May 2012 posts). Briksdalsbreen is in the Jostedal Glacier National Park, and is a glacial arm leading off the northern edge of the Jostedalsbreen. The Jostedal glacier itself is over 95km long and is the largest on mainland Europe. The Briksdalsbreen falls from a height of 1200 metres, down into the narrow Briksdalen valley. The coach took us on through the Stryn Valley (Strynedalen), and Stryn itself, and then round tight hairpin bends high up into the mountains, where there were some glorious views. We then went back down to the Jostalsbreen National Park Centre, where we saw a video about the glacier, and visited a small museum.





Norway – Second stop – Flam

The Independence of the Seas left Skjolden at midnight, and cruised back down the Sognefjord until we reached the Aurlandsfjord, a tributary of the Sognefjord. Nestled at the end of the Aurlandsfjord, and surrounded by steep mountainsides and deep valleys, is the little village of Flam, (pronounced Flom), which means ‘little place between steep mountains’. Since the late 1800’s Flam has been a popular tourist destination. English and German visitors first came by steam ship, and then travelled through the steep rugged mountains in two-wheeled buggies. The Bergensbanen Railway had reached Myrdal in 1909, joining eastern and western Norway, but only a rough, narrow road, with 21 steep hairpin bends joined Myrdal to Flam, and the fjord below. So in 1923 work began on the 20km long Flam Railway. It employed 400-500 workers, and when it opened in 1940, it was considered to be a masterpiece of Norwegian engineering. It is Europe’s steepest normal gauge railway, climbing over 850 metres from the fjord to the mountaintop, and the gradient is 1:18 for almost 80% of the track. There are 10 stations, 20 tunnels (18 built by hand, using a combination of drilling and dynamite blasting), and 1 bridge. The biggest challenge was of course the tunnels. The Nali tunnel is the longest at 1341 metres, and the 880 metre Vatnahalsen tunnel actually makes a 180 degree turn inside the mountain! In 1999 a new cruise terminal was opened, able to receive the largest of cruise ships, making Flam one of the most popular and successful tourist attractions in Norway. The Flam Railway – Flamsbana, is one of the world’s most spectacular railways, and in 2013 had over 700,000 passengers.

We arrived at the Flam cruise terminal at 7am, but we were in no rush. We had a train trip booked for lunch time, and I was really looking forward to it. I had a leisurely wander around the tourist shops, and met up with the others at the station in plenty of time for our train ride. It was every bit as good as I had expected. The scenery was incredibly wild and beautiful. The train twists and turns through steep and rugged mountainsides, in and out of tunnels, cliffs above, sheer drops below. Most of the 20km is single track, but at one point there are two tracks, where we waited for the ‘down’ train to pass.

At Kjosfossen Station the train stopped, and from the platform we were able to see the magnificent waterfall, with a free-fall of 93 metres, as it plunged down the mountainside; and feel the spray in the air. As the thunderous cascade hit the rock-face, the foam was pure white.

At Hylla (or ‘mountain shelf’) there is an opening in the tunnel wall. During construction the tunnel wall became so thin and so close to the edge of the mountainside, it was considered safer to create a ‘window’. So between some uprights, there are narrow, but panoramic views of the landscape. You can see the river winding way down in the valley, and in places you can also see the railway track cut into a ledge in the steep mountainside.
HyllaBefore arriving at Myrdal, you can look down into the valley and see the old road, with its tight hairpin bends, winding up the Myrdalsberget mountain. At Myrdal station there were pockets of snow still lying by the edges of the platform, and as it is high up in the mountains, and spring comes later, the trees were just coming into leaf.
FlamIt is an amazing train journey, and one not to be missed. The Flam Railway, or Flamsbana, travels through stunningly wild and beautiful scenery, with snow-capped mountain peaks and deep ravines, valleys with lush pastures and precariously placed hillside farms, snowy slopes and sheer cliffs, rivulets and waterfalls. And all this is crammed into a train journey lasting barely an hour! And then to have it all repeated on the way back down again!

Also worth a visit, is Flam museum, showing the history of the railway. And there is a nice, and not too strenuous walk to a view-point, overlooking the fjord and village.




Norway – First stop – Skjolden

Hello again, I’m back after a fantastic week cruising the Norwegian Fjords. It’s the second time I’ve been to the fjords, and this visit was every bit as good as the first (which you can read about in my posts for May 2012). Over the next few days I’ll be telling you about some of the places I visited. This time I sailed with Royal Caribbean, on The Independence of the Seas. one of their largest cruise ships. The Independence of the Seas is huge. It is 1112 ft long, and 185 ft wide, has a total guest capacity of 4375, and a crew of 1360. All together that is somewhere in excess of 5500 people on board. My main criticism of The Independence of the Seas, is that it is just too big, there are way too many people all trying to find somewhere to sit down, all at the same time. And it is all too easy to get lost, even after a week on board. That said, the cruise itself was fabulous. The scenery was stunning, the food was great, and the service was impeccable.

We left Southampton on Sunday afternoon, and on Tuesday, after a full day sailing we entered the Sognefjord, the deepest of the Norwegian Fjords. The Sognefjord stretches 200 km inland, and is the world’s longest navigable fjord. We were on the way to our first stop, at Skjolden (pronounced Sholden), which is found at the end of Lusterfjord, a branch of the Sognefjord, and is Norway’s innermost cruise port. Once merely a small fishing village, Skjolden now has a brand new cruise terminal which opened in 2010, and is at the very heart of the Norwegian Fjords.

To reach Skjolden we cruised the smooth, emerald-green glacial waters of the Lusterfjord. The fjord is fed by meltwater, which tumbles down the steep mountain slopes from the glaciers, in anything from spectacular waterfalls, to tiny rivulets. Along both shores were lush landscapes, beautiful villages, and small picturesque farms, dwarfed by the towering mountains above, and interspersed by rushing waterfalls and deep valleys. Finally we reached Skjolden, the innermost point of the fjord, surrounded by sheer valley walls, steep hills swathed in vibrant green, and huge jagged, snow-topped mountain peaks. Skjolden is nestled at the foot of the highest mountains of Northern Europe, the Jotunheimen (which means ‘Home of the Giants’), part of the Jotunheimen National Park. To the west is Jostedalsbreen, the largest glacier on the European mainland.

When we had disembarked, we decided to walk up to a viewing point that overlooked the fjord. We followed the signs, and crossed the bridge over a swift flowing river, and then up a steep roadway. After passing some houses on our right, we turned off onto a thickly wooded path in amongst silver birch and mountain ash trees. By the edge of the path were tiny violets, violas and the flowers of the alpine strawberry. The path was uneven and rough going, but we soon reached a rocky outcrop, from where we could see Skjolden and the fjord stretched out below us. Fabulous!











The Australian Royal Tour and Good Friday

Prince William, Kate and George, have finally finished their royal tour of Australia. I have to say I’m quite jealous; Australia is a beautiful country, and they’ve certainly seen some of the really good bits! A few days ago I watched a TV news clip of their visit to the Blue Mountains of New South Wales. The royal party was standing at the edge of a cliff face, admiring the view from Narrow Neck Lookout. Kate was keeping a respectable distance from the edge, but Will was of course right at the very brink of the precipice, looking down. I wondered what I would do if I were there. Would I be standing at a safe distance appreciating the view, or would I be close to the edge, looking down?
A few days later I was at a Good Friday church service, and the royal scene at the Lookout popped into my head again, and I wondered why. I felt God prompting me to think about it. And I thought that if we walk through life, always looking down, then we only notice the rubbish that collects around our feet, and the filth that lurks in the shadows where we walk. Kicking around in the dirt we see old discarded drinks cans, sweet wrappers, crisp packets, and the chewing gum that has been trodden into the pavement. And in looking down we also miss all the wonderful things of nature all around us, the trees, the birds and butterflies, the sky, and people’s faces. I felt God say that I should keep looking upwards, and I would see His hand working in creation all around me. I remembered too that it was Good Friday, and I felt that I would only see how Jesus gave up everything for me, if I stopped looking at the ground, but looked up at the cross.

Kate and Will at Narrow Neck Lookout