Landscapes of the Norwegian Fjords

As time goes on I become more and more inspired by nature, observing increasingly stronger connections between garden design and natural landscapes. So whilst our recent trip to Norway didn’t leave me under any illusions that Norwegians, on the whole, are mad keen gardeners, it did leave me that little further along the learning curve when it comes to garden design.

The park around Lille Lungegårdsvann lake in Bergen: the best horticultural planting I saw in Norway

The park around Lille Lungegårdsvann lake in Bergen: the best horticultural planting I saw in Norway

You can’t blame the Norwegians for having little more than a lawn, a few shrubs and, occasionally, the odd block of carpet bedding at the average suburban home. Having visited in mid to late August, we discovered many restaurants and hotels had already closed for the season, with others imminently following suit. They told us how they will now paint their properties over the winter, before opening their doors again in late May or early June. I found it quite impossible to get my head around this.

Hanseatic commercial buildings in the Bryggen area of Bergen; one of many UNESCO world heritage sites we saw on this trip

Hanseatic commercial buildings in the Bryggen area of Bergen; one of many UNESCO world heritage sites we visited on this trip

But it did explain a lot. Not least of which was the cost of holidaying in Norway. They literally open their doors for three months a year in the western fjords. One can only assume the gardening season has a similar fate and indeed when the wind picked up, showers of golden leaves gave a very foreboding August autumnal feel to the place. As we drove out on our last day, the temperature gauge was reading 4.5 degrees.

Birches and heathers growing in the wild; so perfect

Birches and heathers growing in the wild; so perfect

Rowan trees on our walk between Stoltzekleiven and Mount Floyen in the mountains surrounding Bergen. After climbing what we were told is the steeping running track in the world it was beautiful to enjoy these serene scenes

Rowan trees on our walk between Stoltzekleiven and Mount Floyen in the mountains surrounding Bergen. After climbing what is apparently the world’s steeping running track we felt very well rewarded by these scenes

The funny thing was, as we hiked around Bergen, Balestrand and Geiranger the vegetation was strikingly familiar. Rowan trees, birches and the odd oak tree stood above wild foxgloves, Achillea and pink clover. It could easily have been the UK. The only discerning difference was the abundance of conifers; spruces and pines standing tall for mile after mile after mile. It very much reminded me of our trip to Canada last year and of that unmistakable smell of Christmas!

Conifers at their very best in their natural surroundings

Conifers at their very best in their natural surroundings

The pure scale of the landscape was also very Canadian; almost impossible to capture on ‘film’. The fjords, not generous rivers as I had envisaged, but vast open lakes, or even more sea-like in scale, even quite far inland. I was reminded how nature on a scale like this makes you feel so insignificant and yet so good. Almost as though the mountains are giving you a reassuring hug, just like huge parental arms comforting you as a small child. Problems seem so small and trivial and you can’t help but feel a real connection to the world.

The view from our room at Geiranger, another UNESCO site. We weren't the only ones there that day!

The view from our room at Geiranger, another UNESCO site. We weren’t the only ones there that day!

The glassy Kjøsnesfjorden in the distance was quite a sight

The glassy Kjøsnesfjorden in the distance was quite a sight

A connection that is so different to anything you can feel in the city. A connection not to newly built structures, but to landforms that – in the case of the fjords – were created some 400 million years ago.

There's something very soothing about water this calm

There’s something very soothing about water this calm

It also made me a little homesick for Australia. I adore the rolling English countryside, but you can’t call the green patchwork of fields ‘natural’ as such. The scenes in Norway held that same captivating rawness that so much of Australia possesses: genuinely untouched wilderness. Something that is much harder to find on my small island.

Gorgeous, gorgeous Balestrand in the western fjords

Gorgeous, gorgeous Balestrand in the western fjords

Grey skies or blue skies, the colours are still fantastic

Grey skies or blue skies, the colours were remarkably vivid (both photos taken from our hotel balcony)

And it struck me that the colours of Norway were almost as glorious on a cold, wet day, as under bright, blue skies. The reflection of all that green vegetation keeping the water glowing as the rain came down. The mustard, cream and burgundy coloured buildings popping brightly between the conifers, no matter that thick, white cloud sat only metres above. It was a revelation that views could be that bright and spectacular without a glowing blue sky, if only sufficient greenery is present.

Another photo that looks quite fake; just spectacular colours in pouring rain

Just spectacular colours in pouring rain: it looks almost fake

Even as the rain pours down, the colours of the fjords were just stunning

Even as the rain pours down, the colours of the fjords were just stunning

Have you ever seen cloud so close to the ground?

Have you ever seen cloud so close to the ground? The somewhat wet weather actually added to the spectacle of our holiday

We saw the fjords by car rather than boat, enabling us to experience a few special, non-coastal places as we travelled. We found ourselves negotiating rather tight, rather winding roads in a rather large, rather luxurious BMW 5 Series to our immense surprise, having booked an ‘A3 or similar’ and expected the key to a small KIA to be placed in our hands. It turned out neither aircon nor heating were offered in this ‘luxurious’ car and cursed AVIS as we drove from 26 degrees in sunny Bergen down to 4.5 degrees on the very chilly Trollstigen mountain plateau, realising we were paying them an extortionate ‘one way’ fee to relocate their car back to the service centre at Oslo for repair.

Urnes 12th century, UNESCO listed, stave Church: the staves were carved from 300+ year old pine trunks, meaning they were saplings in around 800AD! The timber is so hard it is impenetrable to insects

Urnes 12th century, UNESCO listed, stave church: the staves were carved from 300+ year old pine trunks, meaning they were saplings in around 800AD. Fortunately, the timber is so hard it is impenetrable to damaging insects

But nonetheless, we did get to see the UNESCO stave church near Kaupanger, built in an incredible 1140, with a highly enthusiastic and knowledgable archeologist as our guide. The town around it had disappeared in the fifteenth century – a combination of the Black Death and a civil war – but is now alive and kicking again and the tight community pack into the parish church on Christmas Eve and special occasions. Services still run every Sunday, with the heating being slowly activated from Thursdays to avoid cracking the timber.

Trollstigen mountain plateau: bleak but it didn't half grow on me quickly

Trollstigen mountain plateau: so bleak but its beauty grew on me incredibly quickly

And the drive through the deserted Trollstigen plateau was quite surreal; way above the tree line, possibly the bleakest place (and coldest drive!) we had ever experienced. But as we continued along the empty, winding roads we started to pick out more and more features of this stark landscape. More variation in the colours, an absorbing mix of textures and forms. Having wondered where on earth I had brought us, I quickly warmed to this most desolate of places (as I rubbed my hands together in an attempt to avoid frostbite; I dread to think what winter would be like). It really made me open my eyes to what was in front of me.

The uniform palette of paints in Norway provides such a sense of place

The uniform palette of paints in Norway provides such a sense of place: Balestrand at dusk

But what of garden design?

A typical scene as we drove through the western fjords

A typical scene as we drove through the western fjords

The key take away, for me, was that whilst I adored the untouched nature of the fjords region and thought back with fondness to the rawness of Australia, I realised that, in fact, it was scenes of contrast that actually made me stop the car in amazement. It wasn’t just water and trees, it was water and trees set off against cleared areas with large lawns and typical Norwegian houses that had me transfixed by its beauty.  The contrast between the new and the old, the wild and the tamed and the inhabited and uninhabitable, that most caught my attention. You appreciate each so much more for seeing it in contrast with its opposite.

The rich colours of Norway were unforgettable

The rich colours and contrasts of Norway were unforgettable

Just as herbaceous borders are set off to perfection by very solid stone walls or manicured yew hedges and clipped topiary looks stunning amongst otherwise vertical, loose meadow plantings, the same thing rang true on a much larger scale. Seeing the effect of contrast play out like this across a whole landscape makes sense of how we design; it consolidates the learning and helps refine our approach. To realise for yourself why something works so well is the most robust form of learning.

Wild flowers, pretty huts, natural forests and mountains: just idyllic

Wild flowers, pretty huts, natural forests and mountains: just idyllic

I’ve just started reading Arne Maynard’s delightful book, ‘The Gardens of Arne Maynard’, this week. He talks of ‘relaxed confidence’ as a style of garden design, going on to describe:

‘Looking back over the development of my ideas about garden design, I recognise that the older I get, the more confident and relaxed I want my gardens to be (with the maturity that comes from not trying too hard), and the more I want to work with nature.’

Loved these cute mushrooms! You can get a sense of the richness of vegetation in Norway from this photo (and the average rainfall!)

Loved these cute mushrooms! You can get a sense of the richness of vegetation in Norway from this photo (and the average rainfall!)

I simply couldn’t agree more; it’s funny when a book comes up just at the right time to take your learning to the next stage. Having cheated a little and flicked through many of the photos in this glorious book, I find his work simply exquisite. I’m just itching to read on!

If I hadn't taken this photo myself I wouldn't believe a colour filter hadn't been applied

If I hadn’t taken this photo myself I wouldn’t believe a colour filter hadn’t been applied

14 thoughts on “Landscapes of the Norwegian Fjords

  1. kate@barnhouse says:

    Marvellous photographs of an incredibly beautiful and barely tamed place, isn’t nature inspiring? If you like chasing clouds as they snake their way through complex valleys try looking up The Dragon’s Breath, a phenomenon of South Wales (land of dragons, of course). I shall be ordering Arne Maynard’s book, thanks Janna!

    • jannaschreier says:

      Gosh, The Dragon’s Breath looks incredible. I definitely need to find that slot in the diary to come over to Wales. Every weekend just seems to be full at the moment though. I hope you enjoy the book; would be great to compare notes!

  2. David Marsden says:

    Lovely, Janna. I’ve planted three Himalayan silver birch at the Priory (love them) but the owner complains that they make the garden look like Poland! (which to my mind isn’t a bad thing). Norway, eh? Yet another country to add to my ridiculously long list.

    • jannaschreier says:

      You’ll just have to stop those (German) repeats if you want to get through your list of countries! Although I adore the region along the Rhine, too, so I can’t blame you for wanting to going back. Never possible to visit all the places we’d like to. You’ve got me thinking though. Birch forests in Poland. Hmmm….they may need a visit! Oh, how to prioritise?

  3. rusty duck says:

    It is ridiculously expensive isn’t it, for visitors at least. Last year we were paying £9 per single glass of wine and that was in a hotel open all year round. Brexit exchange rates must make it even worse.
    But it’s a stunning country and your pictures made me wish I could be back there. You would love it in the far north as well, just as picturesque but you would need the car heating to be working for sure. And up there, even less gardening!

    • jannaschreier says:

      Obviously, I wouldn’t know how much wine was in the western fjords. OK, maybe I succumbed! You did have to think twice though.
      Could I really cope with the cold of the far north in November, though? I’m not sure which of us is softest! I’d love to see it but snowy roads and those temperatures are things I may need to build up to! We have friends in Oslo who told us there is a good chance of seeing the northern lights not far from them, so I was tempted by a slightly easier option. But it must be fascinating to see the area you visited. And I’d also love to visit Iceland. Oh, dear, I’ll just have to dream about all these places for the time!

  4. Louise Dutton says:

    Oh my Janna! How wonderfully and beautifully created this place is. Truly spectacular scenes which would have given you some divine moments to be captivated by. The pictures give a sense of peace and calmness, so majestic. So much to experience out there in nature. I am glad that you have been able to experience this transformation in your thinking through this experience. My 16yr old son discovered nature, the rolling hills and mountains surrounding Canberra this year. He now daily experiences nature as he rides around on his mountain bike. He has been so inspired and transformed that he has an Instagram account with magnificent photos of his findings. He talks non stop on his returns home. He has realised how important getting out in nature is to his mental health. That beautiful old old church sitting amongst such beauty……just gorgeous! Thank you for allowing me to see a little what awaits my travels one day.

    • jannaschreier says:

      Oh, Louise! That’s so lovely that your son has ‘found’ nature. I feel it’s such a shame it took me so very long. He’s clearly a more mature 16 year old than I was! I’d love to see his Instagram photos if it’s a public account; perhaps you could email me the details? You certainly live in just the right place with just the right views and just the right bushland to be inspired by it all; you picked your house plot with much skill! And what a wonderfully complementary passion for him to have alongside his excellent technology skills. I’m quite sure I won’t ever achieve the latter, however long I live! But that’s really lovely news to hear.

  5. Adriana Fraser says:

    Stunning Janna – it is interesting that you found some of the rugged areas reminiscent of Australia. Strangely though, I relate to the rolling hills of England, because where we live (in Australia) it is so much likeyou see on English TV programs – – green, green grass and rolling hills; gentle country. Yet there are also many rugged areas in the UK too. When I visited Tasmania for the first time it was what I expected to find there too only to be met with the most rugged and extraordinarily beautiful wilderness I had ever seen. What a wonderful opportunity for you to visit this untamed landscape.

    • jannaschreier says:

      Of course, you are right. Both the UK and Australia have such immense diversity. But I suppose you tend to default in your mind to a few select images. I did say to Paul that Norway reminded me a little of Scotland, which I know quite well as I lived there for three years in my twenties – actually at the same time as Paul, although we hadn’t met then. But we concluded that Norway was a little more dramatic. Everything just on a slightly larger scale. How lucky we are to be able to compare all these places! And how lucky you are to have green, green views where you live!

  6. germac4 says:

    What an absolutely stunning country! As a child I remember looking at photos of the Norwegian countryside as I sat in a hot classroom in Africa, wishing I were there! That is before I had experienced much cold weather of course! The landscapes are breath-taking. It does remind me, a little, of New Zealand. I enjoyed every photo…keep travelling, it is wonderful being the armchair blogger!

    • jannaschreier says:

      Thanks so much! I certainly intend to keep doing as much travel as I can. I’m off to see the High Line in New York before the year end, so very excited about that! And actually also looking into South Africa, so it would be great to get your take on it, if I manage to get there. It’s funny you mention that contrast of temperatures. When I pack to visit a much hotter or colder place, whilst I know full well what the temperatures are and what they feel like, I still find it incredibly hard to really believe that it can possibly be so different to that which I am currently experiencing. Logic doesn’t quite seem to kick in! And yes, mountains and water…very new Zealand (one of my very favourite countries)!

      • germac4 says:

        I know exactly what you mean about packing for different countries…it seems very strange to put sandals into a suitcase when it is frosty and cold at home! South Africa will be a joy, lots of contrasts. Also look forward to High Line in New York.

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