Thursday, February 16, 2017


The flight took us from Sumburgh Airport in the Shetland Islands across the North Sea to Bergen, a distance of about 370 kilometres (230 miles). It was the ‘Shetland bus’ route, the sea crossing used during the second world war to drop off resistance agents and to pick others up. The plan was to board our bus at Bergen Airport and drive to the end of the Hardangerfjord, the fourth longest fjord in the world; the second longest in Norway. It was an unusually sunny, clear, cool day. The journey was much anticipated. After a couple of hours in Bergen, browsing the waterside fair with the Saturday crowds, the drive along the fjord began. Bergen was busy. It was only a couple of days before the celebrations of Constitution Day, the National Day of Norway that is observed with much fervour by all - a day of national dress, parades and feasting.

Stunning vistas were revealed at every hair-raising bend and twist. The road to Ulvik was at times too narrow for two cars let alone buses, but with subtle, unspoken negotiations, the impossible was achieved with millimetres to spare between vehicles and beside long, multi-metre drops into depths of cold, fjord water. Tunnels appeared time and time again, plunging into raw, grey, fractured rocks that dipped into bright reflections. These mountain thoroughfares were always a surprise, plummeting one into a cool dimness of indeterminate length that eventually blazed into the surprising glare of a fresh vista.

The unusual roundabout tunnel

New bus shelter at the Steinsdalsfossen Waterfall

New visitor information centre at the Steinsdalsfossen Waterfall

The fjord was impressive. Distance did not reduce its size or impact, or its astonishment. There was one stop on the way to see the Steinsdalsfossen Waterfall. This tourist attraction was impressive, not only for the natural features, but also for the new, what appeared to be the recently-completed, park and information centre. Even the bus stop shelter had been uniquely shaped for the novel development. The traditional souvenir shop was an older building with a small, cluttered interior, completely filled with every conceivable souvenir and trinket. Trolls of all sizes and poses stared at one at the entry as they aligned with the decorative mugs marked with more of the same images, while moose models, reindeer skins and jumpers accumulated in amongst the massed array of all of the usual and unusual kitsch that these places seem to have to stock. Why is it so difficult to get something either meaningful or useful, or both, as a reminder of place? - see: and

Ulvik in the distance

Ulvik - the hotel is on the left foreground, the church is on the right.

The drive took the whole afternoon. After a few false guesses at various bends in the fjord that kept on opening up to stunning new depths as the evening light softened, Ulvik finally appeared at the terminus. It was first seen as a small, grey smudge, a fuzz at the water’s edge. As the bus got closer, the details fragmented into recognisable village parts. Our hotel was the large building directly at the end of, and on the edge of the water, behind and around which rose the hills that encased the fjord. Mountains reached up beyond these limits into the snowline. The population of Ulvik seemed to cluster at the water’s edge and up these slopes, using the locations for red-painted boathouses and cosy timber homes. A small stream gushed into the fjord through a deep gorge. Was this the beginning of the fjord, its source, rather than its end? The hotel room looked directly across the water mirror down the depth of the fjord into snow-capped mountains that were catching the last rays of the sun. Cool air drifted into the over-heated rooms with a refreshing draught. It was a splendid end to a day’s drive: a calendar view that one had seen many times before. Was it this acquaintance that dulled one’s senses to this astonishing beauty that was easily dismissed for its cliché ‘postcard’ quality? Was it simply too grand a prospect to contemplate? Does too much exposure to the hype of beauty make one blasé?

The next morning revealed a new view – well the same vista in a new light. The mountain glowed crisply with golden splotches of sunlight reflected perfectly into the face of the glistening waters. Occasionally fine ripples from the light breeze or a small boat distorted this mirrored perfection into an interesting patchwork. After enjoying the standard Norwegian buffet breakfast that is always an excessive delight - or is it a delight in excess? - we left the hotel to explore the village that tucked itself around the water’s fringes and up into the hills. Directly opposite the hotel entry was a small shopping complex - ‘CLOSED’ - beside the formal council buildings that seemed to define the core of the village. Between this civic complex and the water to the south, was a small white church that looked almost insignificant; hardly worth the effort to get there. We strolled in the morning warmth along the roadway and down to this sanctuary that was surrounded by a small ring road that followed the alignment of the enclosing fence. The aim was to get to the water’s edge, but we paused to peruse this place. The church stood in the centre of this green, with graves in the grassy surrounds and a large tree on the west. There was an eastern gate and a western approach to this churchyard and its modest building. The church had an axial tower on the west, and a set of stepped gables that reduced in scale and height to the east. The roof was grey slate; the walls were brilliant white; the windows and doors were simplistic, classical forms, almost diagrammatic. It was an unusual composite massing, a collage of forms.

Sadly, one was not welcomed into this zone that was well secured, even on this Sunday. Had church attendance dropped off? It was only later in the day that we found out why: the church had been too much loved by tourists who were over-zealous, too keen in their enthusiasm to visit this place on their ‘bucket list.’ It was their usual disrespectful self-interest in their search for entertaining distractions that had caused the problems that resulted in the locks being engaged to exclude the careless impact of the wear and tear: see - This protective stance that appears to have grown out of pure frustration, was a shame, not only because it is always enjoyable to discover a welcoming, open church – is not this the essence of Christianity? - but also because it was discovered later how the simplicity of the exterior was in stark contrast with the wonder of the beautifully painted interior revealed in the Internet images: see note below. One would have liked to have seen the interior spaces and their decorations.

It was not clear just how one might approach this building, as both east and west ends had doorways off paths from gates. Finally it was decided that the west was the main entrance, the formal promenade to worship; and that the eastern path led to what was possibly the informal, ‘service’ entry used by the minister.

The western entry

There was something here that was difficult to understand. This was a simple little building, but it held authority and power. The basic collection, collation, of almost awkward, naive forms seemed to give it a humanity that was enriched by the grave markers and the decorative metal gates and fence. The glory of the declaration of the western tower standing tall above the quirky, neighbouring brick chimneys, shared the marking of this place with a grand old tree shedding and spreading dappled markings onto the path. (One is reminded of the chimney on Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris; and its unusual clock too.) This prominence contrasted with the modest, domestic scale of the east. Here the small porch-like appendage read more as part of a home than a church. This was a transition that fitted well into the little village: from church tower to home in one place. It gave the kirke a feeling of being involved not only in the proud and pompous world of mystery, majesty and power, but also in the ordinary, humble world of the everyday. It made the place appear accessible; friendly; caring. It looked like a good place for worship.

Note chimney on northern transept

The more one walked around this church, the more one was drawn to it, its innocence; its uncontrived assemblage. The building was no grand cathedral; it was not a remarkable form; nor did it have any unique or splendid external decoration. It was the standard church seen in most villages in Norway: but it held a special power in place. Was it its ‘island’ setting? Was it the graveyard surrounds that held history as time and memory in pretty markers that layered into a filigree of form and shadow, highlighted by the contrasting gleaming white of the church walls? Did it appeal just because of the beautiful day with its clear morning splendour? Whatever it was, this little place was an exemplar. It showed how simple traditional forms can be beautiful, inspirational, without struggling to be different, or unique or special in any particular manner. The church showed that sacred place is more than grand cathedrals; that beauty and spirit can be touched in the ordinary.

For a discussion on the boat as a symbol of the church see:

The interiors, as revealed in the Internet, revealed how the extraordinary can be captured in care and dedication, in simple colours without extreme distortion or smartly slick manipulation. One needs to look closely at this place. There is much to admire and much to learn here. One recalls the Princess Theatre at Wooloongabba, Brisbane with its ordinary simple massing and expression; and the Rialto Theatre at West End.

Note chimney on southern transept

Princess Theatre, Wooloongabba, Brisbane

Rialto Theatre, West End, Brisbane
The similarity in the theatre form is the formal front with the stacked sheds behind

The bus left later in the morning and headed for the mountains. The snow still lay metres deep, higher than the bus that funnelled its way through the white cliffs. Distant roofs occasionally peaked up above the fluffy white wastelands as they waited for the melt to get ready for new habitation. Occasionally one passed people walking or skiing. It was indeed a grand day. As the snow thinned on the descent, clusters of small cabins were revealed with their marker flag poles used to declare occupation. Norway was proud of its flag. There were not many flags flying this early in the season. Things seemed to have paused, to be on hold, waiting for more spring sunlight to highlight the possibility of summer enjoyments.

Typical Norwegian village churches

Stave church

Our trip took us through little villages with more churches like that at Ulvik. One needed more time to look closely at these. It was an intriguing model that had beginnings suggested in the old timber stave churches of Norway. Even its simplification into this standard massing and its familiarity did not modify the impact of the form. Why do we constantly struggle for difference, the bespoke, that cannot even get close to this authority, this ordinary beauty? Do we baffle ourselves with our own cleverness? Do we pervert our expectations and hopes for feeling with our own blind ambitions for personal glory and recognition?

Typical Norwegian village churches

Stave church


Then we saw our first stabbur, the traditional Norwegian storehouse in its original farmyard context. These picture-postcard structures always surprised and delighted. Sadly, there were just too many to stop at and stare; admire; to marvel at. These iconic buildings seemed to touch on something that echoed in the little churches, something homely, straightforward and simple – unpretentious and humble. They stood as references for form, function and place, for things Norwegian: measures for wonder and its effortless possibilities.

It was a memorable day.


The church of Ulvik was consecrated in 1859. The interior was decorated with the traditional rose painting in 1923 by the artist Lars Osa.

For more on Norwegian timber buildings, and a corrugated iron cathedral, see:

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