Lofoten Islands, May 2014

My first visit to the Lofoten Islands was in February 2012. That visit was dominated by snow.

Svolvær , February 2012
There had been some snow before I got there, but as I arrived the snow started falling seriously.  The upshot was that I didn’t get to see too much of Lofoten. The tops of the mountains were mostly covered in cloud, and the roads were entertaining to drive on. I did, however, see just enough of the mountain tops, and just enough of the villages near Svolvær to ensure that the Lofoten Islands stayed firmly on my must-visit list.

This time I arrived in Lofoten, after crossing the Vestfjord from Bodø, in bright sunshine.   My plan (assuming typical island weather) had been to hire a car to provide both transport and shelter.  The weather that appeared meant that the only shelter I really needed was a sun-hat, so I reverted to a boot-and-bus travel plan.

Rorbu on Svinoya
My first base in Lofoten was Svolvær, the biggest town in the islands. This doesn't make it a metropolis but does mean a choice of places to stay, and a choice of places to eat.  Svolvær doesn't have the charms of some of the villages further down the coast, but it does have the administration, communication and industrial facilities that are needed to make life in a remote group of islands in the Arctic possible. It also has a fantastic setting that will set the heart-beat of any would-be mountaineer soaring.  For other tourists there is the draw of fjord safaris, looking for whales and white-tailed eagles, and the island of Svinoya linked by bridge on the other side of the harbour.

Fish drying racks (hjell) on Svinoya
Svinoya is covered with red-painted rorbu, and huge numbers of triangular hjell (mirroring the shape of the mountains) used for drying cod each winter to transform it into stockfish.

In the evening, there is also a museum in Svolvær, telling the story of the Second World War in the Lofoten Islands. It's a very busy, and fascinating, little museum. And why in the evening? Lots of towns along the Norwegian coast base their activities around the Hurtigruten ship timetable, Svolvær is no exception. Both the north-bound and south-bound ships call in the evening and for 3 or 4 hours the town is filled with Goretex-clad visitors eager to visit anything that's open.
Lofoten Cathedral, Kabelvåg 
Just south of Svolvær are the villages of Kabelvåg and Henningsvær.  Kabelvåg known for its unique island cathedral and for a pair of museums, the Lofoten Museum telling the story of the islands themselves, and the Lofoten Aquarium telling the story of the waters around the islands.

Harbour, Henningsvær 
Henningsvær sits a little further along the coast, on a little group of islands linked to the 'mainland' by high arching bridges. Henningsvær fits a lot of the Lofoten stereotypes.  A collection of mostly red-painted wooden houses around a harbour filled with boats, with snow capped mountains behind, and racks of drying fish on almost every available piece of ground.

The one piece of ground exempted from fish drying around Henningsvær, is the football field, and it’s surrounded by fish racks rather than terraces for the supporters.

Tunnelsyn, Skrova
A few miles across the Vestfjord from Svolvær is the island of Skrova. This little islands claim to fame is as home to one of few remaining whaling boats still active along this bit of coast. The island is, like many around Lofoten, reliant on catching and processing fish. I did see the whale boat when I was visiting, and was relieved not to see it at work.  The history of Skrova is told through the eyes, or more correctly the lenses, of local photographers in a wonderful exhibition called Tunnelsyn - Tunnel Vision - which really is in a (mostly unused) tunnel. It's a long time since I was encouraged to wear a hard hat to look at photographs.

Å i Lofoten
My southern base in the Lofoten islands was the little village of Å (or Å i Lofoten, if you want be sure not to mix it up with other places called Å).  This really is a small place. Especially out of season. There is somewhere to stay, the youth hostel. And if you’re prepared to walk the 3 km to the next village, Sørvågen, there is somewhere to eat. So why would you come to Å? You might come to visit the world’s only Stockfish Museum. You might come to visit the Fishing Museum. But for most people they come simply because it’s the end of the road.

The E10 starts at on Baltic Coast in Sweden in the town of Luleå, winds across northern Sweden and then into Norway where it comes King Olav V’s Road (as well as the E10).  From the Norwegian border the road heads to Narvik before crossing the Tjeldsund Bridge and onto the Lofoten Islands. A network of tunnels and bridges carry the road through the islands to a final tunnel just outside Å, which provides a dramatically situated car park and turning circle.  South of that are a few faint footpaths (not all suitable for the faint-hearted) up into the mountains but otherwise no way further south other than by boat.

Beyond the Road, Å i Lofoten 
Back up the road are a series of implausibly picturesque villages – at least they are when they are bathed in sunshine under blue skies and backed by snow-capped mountains.

Sørvågen boasts supermarkets, an excellent little restaurant and a telecommunications museum (at some times of the year).  This unlikely museum is a nod to Norway, Lofoten and particularly Sørvågen’s place in telegraphic history. In 1903, just four years after Marconi demonstrated wireless communciations, there were large scale experiments going on Sørvågen providing communications to the outlying Lofoten Islands.

Both Moskenes and Reine have been built around natural harbours. Moskenes has a seasonal tourist office, a single restaurant and ferry connections to the Norwegian mainland, and Reine on its own little peninsula at the mouth of the Reinefjord.  There are several isolated hamlets around Reinefjord, and the best (maybe only) way to see these and to explore the fjord is to hop on the little ferry that goes around the fjord two or three times each day delivering hikers, shopping and post as it goes. If you’re lucky you’ll also get a good look at the resident pod of orca that live in and around the fjord.

My second visit to Lofoten really did confirm my initial impression that this is a special place. The dramatic mix of mountains and fjords, of villages and harbours, combined with the clear, crisp air that gives the light a special quality makes Lofoten a wonderful place for photography.  I'm certainly going to be back again.  I've explored a few of the towns and villages but there are many more to explore.

I do think I'm going to need to do a little bit of personal expectations management about the weather ahead of my next trip.  The odds on getting another couple of weeks to match the two I've just had must be pretty long.

My photo diary for the trip (on Blipfoto) starts on 3rd May when I arrived in Svolvær, and there is a selection of images from trip on Flickr too.

If you want to revisit my earlier trip which had more snow and more aurora but much less sunshine is elsewhere on Flickr.

Thank You

This was the first year I've taken part in Oxford Artweeks.

In past years I've visited (and shopped) at various Artweeks exhibitions, but this was the first time I've hung my own pictures up in Headington and invited folks in to see what I've been doing.

I've thoroughly enjoyed the experience, I've had lots of people dropping in to look at the pictures and to talk about both travel and photography.  I've enjoyed hearing about other folks travel experiences to remote places (and some not so remote ones), and talking with them about where I've been. So, thank you to everyone who came along to look and particularly those who spread the word and encouraged others to visit.

I think the Outdoor Gallery was successful.  It gave me somewhere to hang bigger pictures than I'd have been able to show inside, and it certainly did lure in people, who might not have otherwise come in, to have a closer look.  It also provided a great place for push-chair visitors.

I'll be taking part in the pre-Christmas version of Artweeks on the weekend of 22nd & 23rd November, and I'll have more cards, calendars and other Christmas gifts on sale.

I'm still trying to decide if an outside gallery is a good idea in late November - I might need to sort out a suitable patio heater to lure folks in at that time of year.

Norway. There's an App for That.

My Norway App collection
In the distant past the 'must-have' list for a trip would be just credit cards and passport. On the basis that, in most places, the passport got you in and the credit card enabled you to acquire the other stuff you'd forgotten. In reality the list was always longer and did include at least include a camera or two.

Recently it's become more essential to add my phone to the 'must-have' list. This was particularly true on my recent trip to northern Norway - which was pretty much entirely managed via a collection of apps on my phone.

Pre-trip planning would certainly have been simplified using the Norway app from Visit Norway, if you want suggestions about where to go and when, and where to stay and what to do when you get there it's all in the app.

On this particular trip my flights with Norwegian between the UK and Norway were booked on their website, but after that all the check-in, boarding etc was done without a bit of paper being needed at any point. Actually that's not completely true. The automated bag drop does leave you with a small bit of sticky paper as a receipt. In the days of paper tickets and a person to sort out the baggage, this little of paper was stuck to the back of the boarding pass. I'm not sure where they think you might stick the bit of paper these days.

NSB to Bodo
Once I was in Norway my long distance travel was via NSB, the Norwegian rail operator. And again, although I'd booked the tickets via their website, I never actually needed a paper ticket.  The 'ticket' just got picked up in the NSB app, and the conductor was able to check that the ticket was valid by just ensuring that the right image appeared on the phone screen.

The Norwegian app and the NSB app got me from the UK to northern Norway (in my case to Bodo, where the main NSB service comes to an end) without needing any paper.

At this point, since I was doing the trip around the Lofoten Islands entirely on public transport I switched to the wonderful 177Nordland app. I've no idea why the number 177 is involved, but the app knows where you are and if you tell it where (in Nordland) you want to go, it'll figure out the walking, bus and ferry stages involved and help you to ensure that you get to the right place at the right time.  Once you're on the bus or ferry you do need to look up from the app to get your ticket.  You can pay by cash but in most circumstances it's easy (and expected) to pay by credit card.

Nordland to A
While I was in Norway, almost all of my hotel accommodation for this trip was booked through Booking.com. And their app provided all the information I needed to find, or communicate with, my hotel before I got there.

I did use two other apps regularly on the trip, one from Hurtigruten so I could figure out which of their many boats I could see passing as they shuttle up and down the Norwegian coast, and the xe.com app to keep track of the money I was spending (although with an exchange rate so close to 10 Krone to the pound, conversion is hardly a major mathematical challenge).

The final app in my 'Norway' set is the NorwayLights app, also from Visit Norway.  In the dark months this gives you an aurora forecast for where you are. In early May, northern norway is already getting at least 20 hours of daylight and no real darkness so the aurora isn't going to be visible. But I'm keeping the app ready for my next dark months trip to Norway.

My must-have list is now three items, phone, credit card and passport.  I suspect the credit card will eventually be absorbed into the phone, and maybe one day there will even be a Passport app too, and then I can do everything on the phone. 

I guess at that point the must-have list becomes just two items. The phone and the charger.

Do Come and Visit...

Having brushed the snow and ice off my Arctic boots, it's now time for Oxfordshire Artweeks.

For the next 10 days (starting on 17th May and running through to Monday 26th May), you can come and visit me to look at some of my recent images from cold and remote places.

I've got images from South Georgia and the Falkland Islands in the far South, and from Svalbard, Greenland, Iceland and the Faroe Islands in the North.

And of course there are pictures from the Shetland Islands.

There will also be some images from my latest trip - I've just spent a couple of weeks exploring the Vestfjord inside the Arctic Circle in northern Norway including a number of places in the Lofoten Islands.

Don't let the pictures fool you - it might have sunny in the Lofoten Islands, and close to 20 hours daylight each day, but the temperatures were usually not too far above freezing, and if it did rain, it was snow.

Svinoya, Svolvaer, Lofoten Islands
Reine, Lofoten Islands
May Bank Holiday Monday, Svolvaer, Lofoten Islands

For more information www.artweeks.org/festival/2014/ross-mackenzie

There is lots of information about all the Oxfordshire Artweeks activities on www.artweeks.org and about the activities in Headington and Marston on headingtonartweeks.blogspot.co.uk

Walking and Wandering

This article about purposeless walking on the BBC website struck a chord with me.

I'd recently been thinking about how mentally refreshing walking around some of the remote headlands on Shetland was compared with, for example, rural walks around Oxfordshire, and was trying to figure why there was a difference.

I think the difference really comes down to how easy is to give your mind the opportunity to wander at the same time as you're giving your body the chance to wander.

When the space is open, as it often is on Shetland, it's possible to allow your mind to do it's own thing. You might need to make sure you don't wander off a cliff edge or fall into a bog but other than that you don't need to spend too much mental energy figuring out the route you should be following.

In a busy farming area, like Oxfordshire, you are going to be constrained by footpaths and field boundaries, and the signs intended to keep you in the right direction are unfortunately often very badly maintained or increasingly just missing.  This means that you need to spend a lot of mental energy just doing the basics like figuring out where to go next and trying to ensure that you don't stumble into an irate, and occasionally, shot-gun-toting farmer.

I think this observation also leads me, when I'm in southern England at least, to seek out river-side or canal-side walks when I can.  At least with a feature like a river or canal you can set aside some of the navigational overhead, and just let your mind meander.

The downside is that it can be a real challenge figuring out a circular walk based on a river or canal, but that's another problem altogether.