On World Poetry Day, Sarah-Jane Dobner shares a scrapbook of observations, sensations and memories from a trip to the spectacular Lofoten islands in Arctic Norway, taking the reader on a tour of the archipelago's classic climbs (Bare Blåbær, Vestpillaren Direct) and its quaint fishing villages.
Lofoten grabbed me like a fish hook. The place flips casual UK norms - that towns are built on land, bedtime is at nighttime, and that moss is a modest, easily overlooked, small blob of vegetation. Last summer I spent a fortnight there, climbing and writing and reading Mary Wollstonecraft's travel journal from 1796. The landscape clearly affected her as it affected me - and is largely unchanged in those two hundred-plus years.
Poems from Lofoten
The Song of Bare Blåbær (Djupfjord)
Granite is fashioned for symphonic performance
Here in ice-cut Djupfjord
Cracks and slabs keep time
At this moment
In high summer
Human feet and hands clap along
Sliding into the Song of Bare Blåbær
Kick-drum of toe jams with extra reverb
A melody of finger locks
And always the deep chanting hum
Of the mountain
On the narrow valley floor
A saltwater fjord and
Recline amongst the bilberries and applaud
The buildings amphibian
Half in water, half on land
Decks and jetties project into the
Kitchens dangle over water
Yachts and motorboats
Lashed alongside as
Fifty percent of the accommodation
Onshore, the structures
Teeter on frameworks of granite
Whilst seaward sections
Prop on top of
Seaweed-covered, rotting, wooden poles
And corroded metal piles
Listing and murmuring and dripping
Between each semi-diurnal dunking
And so the houses balance
On the edge of the sea, the edge of stone
Never quite belonging
Dwarfed by the mountains and the Arctic Ocean
Cod is worshipped
Carved in wood
Painted on canvas
In each coastal town
Prayer flags of air-dried flanks and heads
She hooked the big cod onto deck
Like an old God hauled into modernity
Scales from the deep, eyes for the dark
Who will be saved?
An hour later his stripped body
Still spasming, ecstatic
Deck running blood
How is the flesh so white?
Raw fillets wait in a dish
Loaves and fishes, wafer and wine
An Arctic diet where
Cod is the lamb
Vestpillaren Direct (Preston, "The Priest")
I wouldn't have dared
But the N6 leader hadn't heard of the route and
Was ignorant of our limitations
And so we set off
At 8am, three of us
Seven litres of water, snack bars and waterproofs
Approached the granite sweep of vestments
Started at the hem
I have spent so much time recently
As we got higher noticed the little islands gathered at the foot
Felt my faith mustering
Even started volunteering
Pitch 8, N5+, forty metres of laybacking
A rosary of gear you can trust
With your life
And still more pitches
The N6 leader rising up the crux fingertip dihedral
We all believed then, the tiny cams
Flexing like prayers, like angels
Pitch 11, a wilderness slab traverse
Glossed over in the Rockfax bible, protectionless
I backed off, lost
Again, our N6 leader saved us
We topped out in the miraculous, midnight sunshine
Robes of the Priest flowing down in stone folds
In amongst the featured, flawed and broken faces
This pillar stands
Boulder Beach (Paradiset)
A boulder hop!
Just ten minutes!
This granite amusement park
Of up-and-under snakes and ladders.
A 3-D obstacle course
Marked up in lanes and counter spots
By bladderwrack and brine.
Crawl under this chockstone as big as a house!
Leap over this crevasse!
Giants' game of dot-to-dot,
Maze-elements avoiding the dead ends
Of precipitous blocks or sudden zawns,
Back-tracking and finding the
From the West to the East end of the beach
where the rock climbing is.
We get there, eventually
Whilst the boulders chortle
comfortably with the sea
Poems on reflection, back in the UK
July in Gloucestershire
The sky quintessentially British
Fluffy, ivory clouds piled in a basket of blue
A sky for English afternoon teas
The clouds look like scones
The clouds look like cream
Laid out on a pastel, paisley pattern of
Cath Kidston flowers, William Morris hedgerows
Laura Ashley leaves
Around Lofoten the summer skies
A twilight-dawn of stripes and blocks
In lurid pink-yellow-orange-purple
An exhibition of Scandi design
Taste in the air of cod's heads and ice
Defiant. Bold. Warlike. Unsentimental.
It is time to start collecting beautiful things from my travels
Stepping on to the homebound plane, took a
Last breath of Arctic, snowmelt, razor-lung air
Back in the lounge of my daughter's apartment, unwrapped
A turquoise, handblown tumbler from Henningsvær
Turned it in my hands, the criss-crossing glass ripples
Like wind-shear cirrus or the patterns of sand under the sea
Looked closer, spied one tiny bubble near the lip
Importing Norwegian air. Clean and crisp. So near.
The towns seem to comprise 70% water (Solvær, Henningsvær) - like the human body;
It's light at midnight. Locals walk their dogs and climb and socialise in the early hours. Time is odd;
There is no gesture towards taming the wilderness. It would be foolish, given the scale of the landscape. People perch on the edge;
The sea is full: crabs, cod, sea-urchins, jellyfish. And crystal clear;
On Preston, watched a sea eagle gliding above, then one flanked the cliff just below our belay stance. They're big;
Sizes are warped, by a British measure. The trees insignificant - stunted, rumpled, buckled silver birches. Many other things are larger-than-life - towering mountains, Alice-in-Wonderland clover, immense moss-cushions, huge starfish, vast hyper-colourful skies;
Water out the tap is the best I've ever tasted.
Literary quotes - Mary Wollstonecraft, 1796
"Before I came here I could scarcely have imagined that a simple object (rocks) could have admitted of so many interesting combinations, always grand and often sublime."
"Once, in particular, after mounting the most terrific precipice, we had to pass through a tremendous defile, where the closing chasm seemed to threaten us with instant destruction, when, turning quickly, verdant meadows and a beautiful lake relieved and charmed my eyes."
"I am delighted with the romantic views I daily contemplate, animated by the purest air."
"Never was a southern sky more beautiful, nor more soft its gales. Indeed, I am led to conclude that the sweetest summer in the world is the northern one."
- From "Letters written during a short residence in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark" by Mary Wollstonecraft, 1796