Friday, 4 June 2010


It’s a hot topic right now, over here. It’s been in the news again today. It’s also one of the most beautiful and unbelievable places I have ever seen.

Lofoten is the name of a string of islands that stick out of the north-western coast of Norway like a crooked finger pointing into the Norwegian Sea. Until we went there, I had no idea of the scale and majesty of the place. It’s as though someone thought, ‘hmm, let’s have a big, cool, high mountain range that sticks right out of the sea and slap it onto the side of Norway.’ Did someone move the Alps, or what? These are seriously big, steep mountains that you really can’t believe when you just see a photograph.

Not everyone would choose to go inside the Arctic Circle for their summer hols, but this time of year is a great time to go, thanks to the Midnight Sun I mentioned the other day. The mountains have scatterings of snow on them, and fall down to open meadows and glorious kind of beaches, with nobody else is on them. You are more or less sure of having the beach to yourself, which is useful, because you must not miss the opportunity of swimming in the sea within the Arctic Circle and you might want to do some very loud screaming.

Right now, if you happen to live in Lofoten, there’s a very good chance you make your lolly through fishing. If not, you will no doubt be indirectly involved in an industry that has created a vibrant economy for the area for centuries. Rich fishing grounds have been created by the meeting of the warm waters of the Gulf Stream and the icy Arctic Ocean, creating an excellent habitat for spawning arctic cod from the Barents Sea. The cod stocks have dwindled in recent years, but as you can see from the multitude of drying racks on which the fish are ‘hung out to dry’, this is still Lofoten’s largest industry. The product, known as ‘stock fish’, is sent to Spain, Portugal and Italy to make ‘bacalao’. Meanwhile, the cod heads are exported to Nigeria where they are boiled with peanuts and hot peppers to make a soup. Lofoten children can earn a krone or two by removing the cod tongues which are, at a later date, boiled up in salt water and served with gravy. Something to try on a dark night, I guess.

It is an industry that has survived for centuries, but the future is uncertain. So now, a very different industry is being discussed, hence Lofoten is in the news. Several oil and gas companies are waiting for the area to be opened up to allow them to drill. They estimate there could be rich pickings, and that a whole new way of life could support the local population and the Norwegian economy as a whole. However, with the disaster in the Gulf of Mexico on everyone’s mind, the environmental lobby has stepped up its argument against drilling off Lofoten. They argue that should such a disaster ever happen here, it would not only be tragic for the ecology of the area, but icy waters and dark winters could make an oil spill even harder to clean up.

It was around this time of year that we sat on a Lofoten beach at midnight, each of us wrapped in a reindeer skin, watching our children dart in and out of the punishingly cold sea with the sun never quite disappearing but bouncing off the horizon like a ball. Time concertinaed into nano-seconds. Stone Age Man, Viking children, medieval fisher-folk, whaling families must all have done exactly the same. The sense of time and space that such a place can present is awe-inspiring. It was as though those Vikings and all the others had only just left the beach...who could guess what might be coming along next?

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