My favourite place: Arctic Norway

In the August 2017 issue of BBC History Magazine, Eleanor Rosamund Barraclough selects Arctic Norway as her favourite place. History Extra caught up with her to find out more...

The northern lights over a house in Arctic Norway ©AWL Images

When did you last travel to Arctic Norway and why were you there?

I’ve been in Arctic Norway twice already this year, both for holidays and work, and I’m going again in a few weeks. In January I stopped there before travelling on to Svalbard to make a programme for BBC Radio 4. It was mørketid (‘dark time’, when the sun never rises) and I made the most of the snow – snow-shoeing at night, fat-biking through the forests outside Alta, and cross-country skiing with friends in Tromsø (they have an extensive selection of photographs where I’m falling down hills and getting caught up in my skis – not very intrepid!).

In April I was back in Tromsø for work, because I’m part of a research group at the Arctic University of Norway. I’m hopefully going again in a couple of weeks because I’ve been in Oslo over the summer. The plan is to stay with friends in their hytte (‘cabin’) near the Lofoten islands.

 
Why do you love the location?

What’s not to love? The dramatic landscapes, extremes of light and dark, the history, the people who live there, the culture, the wildlife. On a research road trip around Finnmark a couple of years ago, I saw more reindeer than cars on the road. That’s my sort of location.

 

What top 3 sights would you recommend people visit there, and why?

In Alta, the World Heritage Rock Art Centre, which not only explores the history of the prehistoric rock carvings but also Sami culture and scientific research into the northern lights. Surely one of the best museum locations in the world, it sits high up on the bay overlooking the fjord and mountains.

In Tromsø, the Polar Museum. It doesn’t make for easy viewing, because it’s the history of arctic hunting as well as the history of arctic exploration. The stuffed baby seals are particularly distressing. But this was the reality of life in the Arctic, and it shouldn’t be forgotten or sugar-coated.

In Vardø, the Steilneset Memorial to those burnt as witches in the 1600s. The memorial is particularly effective because it uses the court records from the trials to show the victims as individuals, not statistics.

 

During what period of its history would you most wanted to have visited Arctic Norway and why?

Firstly, during the late-ninth century, so I could experience the Viking Age world inhabited by Ohthere (the Norse explorer who ended up at King Alfred’s court in Anglo-Saxon England). Secondly, in the 1890s, when the polar explorer Fritdjof Nansen set off in his ship, Fram, in an attempt to reach the North Pole. He’s my hero, and his account of the expedition, Farthest North, is essential reading. A couple of weeks ago I visited the Fram in Oslo, which was a pretty moving experience.

 

Where else in the world would you most like to visit and why?

So many places! I’d like to visit the UNESCO World Heritage Site at L’Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland, Canada and cycle along the 500km ‘Viking Trail’ that leads there. This is where, in the 60s, archaeologists discovered a number of Norse buildings from around 1000 AD. For centuries, the only real evidence that the Norse had travelled there from Greenland was the Old Norse-Icelandic sagas. To find physical evidence to back these stories up was extraordinary.

 

Eleanor Rosamund Barraclough is associate professor in medieval history and literature at Durham University and author of Beyond the Northlands: Viking Voyages and the Old Norse Sagas (OUP, 2016)

You can read more about Eleanor's experiences in Arctic Norway in the August edition of BBC History Magazine – out now
 

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