Alfred Heaton Cooper was born in Bolton, Lancashire, in 1863. His parents worked in the town’s cotton mills — but their eldest son had other plans. As a teenager Alfred escaped the puffing chimneys of his hometown to sketch the Lancashire moors. Later he studied art in London. Many of his peers felt the lure of the south, evoking hazy Italian belvederes with their brushstrokes, but Cooper packed his paintbrushes and boarded a boat north, to the cold waters and endless sightlines of the Norwegian fjords.
Looking for a contemporary guide to the fjords, I accidentally ordered his illustrated volume The Norwegian Fjords from the British Library — not realising it was published in 1907. With a sailboat on the cover, it is both a travel book and a visual record of a remote and mysterious nook of the continent. Cooper tells of poor villages that reverberated with mournful violin music, and stable doors painted with crosses to ward off witches who kidnapped horses after nightfall. He sees flotillas of rowing boats sailing to Sunday church — though in the margins are murmurs of Thor and Odin, and Vikings who wake and wander from their tombs for 13 nights after Christmas Eve.
In the intervening century, Cooper’s land of “primitive peasants” became one of the richest countries in the world. His advice on travelling the pony tracks is of limited use. But his watercolours are recognisable when I visit Norway in mid-April, perhaps because Cooper mostly painted during spring, the traditional time of weddings, apple and pear blossoms — “when the snows are melting, the warm and still air is palpitant with the music of countless waterfalls”.
I can see this much from my plane during descent. Above is a mountain plateau wreathed in winter ice. Below, the Gulf Stream is breathing its promise of summer into the fjords. Mountain brooks are rushing, traffic is inching along roads cleared of Easter snowdrifts. The northern sun has left its winter harbour on the horizon and is sailing in a wide arc across the sky.
On final approach into Alesund airport, the plane swoops past the headquarters of Devold — a manufacturer of outdoor clothing since 1853. The company is famous for woollen sweaters — the sort used by polar explorers, and traditionally accompanied by sea charts and frostbitten fingertips. The owner, Knut Flakk, says that costs meant he and his family decided to move production from Norway to Lithuania in 2003 but, keen to contribute to the local economy, they founded 62°Nord, the tour operator with whom I’m travelling. It offers fjord encounters from various angles and speeds: skiing and cycling itineraries, a chance to fly along mountain roads like a Valkyrie in an electric Porsche, or soar above them in a helicopter. The company owns three hotels across the family’s native Sunnmore region — a nook of the western fjords whose splendour, Flakk says, has yet to be fully discovered.
“Our company had not worked in hospitality before,” he tells me. “But we wanted to tell the story of this place, and we followed our hearts. In a way, our hotels are an extension of ourselves as a family.”
Precisely one century before the Flakks started 62°Nord (and three years before Cooper published his guidebook) a cow is said to have kicked a candlestick one windy night in Alesund, and the town burnt to the ground. Kaiser Wilhelm II had memories of holidaying there, and dispatched German architects to rebuild the port. The result is pretty: Jugendstil town houses arranged across a smattering of islands, some adorned with seashell motifs and turreted like mini-Neuschwansteins. I stay at 62°Nord’s Hotel Brosundet — an Art Nouveau fish warehouse, which still has sloped floors to drain the saltwater. Alesund remains a fishing capital of Norway: the turn of the seasons defined by the changing catch. Herring in early spring; mackerel on sunlit midsummer nights.
“But the king of them all is the skrei,” says Thorbjorn Thomas Hansen, who guides visitors on fishing trips. “This is the one the fishermen fight hardest for. You can sometimes catch a 25kg fish in the harbour.”
Skrei is the Atlantic cod which makes a marathon migration from the Barents Sea every spring — leaner and more flavoursome at its journey’s end. One sunny morning, I set out on a fishing trip from the harbour aboard Havstar — a veteran boat helmed by Thorbjorn and Mats Grimsaeth (both live on boats and sometimes struggle to sleep on dry land). The water changes character as we navigate the islets and sounds. Some coves are Caribbean blue. Narrowing straits eddy and swirl like Highland rivers. Further out rags of surf crest the dark waves: here we drop our lines into a plume of bubbles. Thorbjorn explains his ritual for a good catch — waltzing the rod up high in the air, stilling it to court the fish. He also follows superstitions.
“There are certain words that you should never say on boats,” he says. Like what? Thorbjorn looks at the deck. “I cannot say them.”
Later, with one foot on the quay he whispers: “The word is horse.” Myths — like the ones Cooper encountered — linger on these waters. Alesund fishermen speak of the wreck of Spanish tax ship, Castillo Negro, whose timbers sometimes appear in nets, and whose treasure lurks in the fathoms. But the proudest ship in Alesund is Uraed — an 18ft-long, egg-shaped lifeboat launched in 1904, the summer after the town burnt down.
The experimental design was meant to cross the Atlantic bound for the World’s Fair: the egg cast off, sprang a leak, meandered in erratic zigzags past Greenland and five months later was thrown on a beach in Massachusetts during a storm. Its crew of four opened the hatch and were welcomed as heroes. It would be many decades before covered lifeboats like Uraed became commonplace, but the pioneer stands on a hilltop overlooking Alesund harbour. “[The egg] is the first home for everything” write the curators of Alesund museum, “it is also the strongest. A stroke of genius on the part of our Lord that nobody can outshine”.
The crew of the Uraed reeled in cod when they got hungry on the high seas. Cooper’s guidebook describes fishermen on this coast struck by a “calling [to catch skrei] fraught with many dangers”. But in the century since, Atlantic cod stocks have crashed. Thorbjorn says this year has been bad. It might be for the best that we returned to harbour having caught nothing but the spring sunshine on our faces.
From the hilltops around Alesund you can see the Sunnmore Alps assembling on the southern horizon. They are described in the final chapters of Cooper’s guidebook: “Majestic scenery is this, of the sharp peak and pinnacle type . . . of its kind no grander is there in the whole of Norway.” Cooper describes waterfalls flowing skywards in a stiff wind, and paints newfangled steamers puttering through the vastness of the fjords.
He reserved the greatest praise for Hjorundfjord, which I travel through in a little motorboat captained by Per Ove Stølen. Above us, sharp peaks thrust above passing clouds: the fjord below plunges deeper than the surrounding seas. It is a riot of ecosystems: cliffs where eagles have their eyries plummet to sightless depths where jellyfish swim. Pods of orcas sometimes breach among orchards. It is too early for most cruise ships: instead islands of compacted snow from spring avalanches sail aimlessly about the fjord. The scenery is sublime. The story is a melancholy one.
In the century since Cooper folded away his easel, many fjords emptied of their villagers — as Norway’s economy boomed some turned from the hardships of farming. Steep pastures where shepherds grazed their flocks have been reconquered by pine and spruce. Per Ove points to the ruins of farmsteads to port and starboard, and idles the engine where nine farmers were buried under an avalanche trying to bring home their goats in 1971. Rescue dogs pulled two out alive.
Right across Sunnmore, abandoned farms are marooned high on sheer cliffs: in one farm, the children played tied to a rope so they didn’t fall to their deaths. Cooper describes another farm only accessible by ladder — hauled up when the tax collectors rowed past. Some near-inaccessible farms have been preserved as museums. They have a romantic allure: places where you might pull up the drawbridge on the rest of the world, and live off a precious slither of land between sky and sea.
Near its southern end, Hjorundfjord branches into Norangsfjord and at the end of that we dock at Oye: a hamlet hemmed in by leviathan peaks. Mariann Oye greets us on the pier, and points to a blue sky above.
“The mountains mean we have no direct sunshine here between October and March” she says. “So today is a special day.”
Mariann spent her childhood in the village: she remembers skating on the fjord in winters past. Not long ago there were over 70 villagers in Oye — in her lifetime that number sank as low as the 20s. She hopes that will change with the redevelopment of Hotel Union Oye — a grand 19th-century hotel of which she is the manager — under the ownership of 62°Nord.
Its blood-red gables are decorated with dragon heads in the manner of a Viking longship. Its interiors are filled with beautiful clutter in a welcome rebuke to Nordic minimalism: stags heads, ceramic Swedish stoves, dusky oil paintings and antique smoking pipes. The long corridors also bring to mind the decks of a ship, lined with rooms named after famous guests — Ibsen, Grieg, Amundsen — who once dined on food stored in mountain ice. The expanded hotel will include new rooms and cottages, a vegetable garden and a sunny conservatory. Mariann — who ran through its corridors as a child — is excited about the prospect of new staff settling down here, some of whom are bringing their children.
“I hope it means that the village is reborn in some way.”
Just outside is a spot where Alfred Heaton Cooper sat with his back to the hotel and painted the fjord. This country cast a spell on him — he married a Norwegian woman, returned with her to England, and shipped a blood red, dragon-headed cabin from the fjords to the English Lakes to be his studio. The fjords’ dance of land and sea inspires other artists. My three-year-old son knows them from Disney’s Frozen. I first saw them in The Snowman — where the boy glides over the fjords in a flapping dressing gown, on his way to meet Father Christmas.
Not long ago, a suited evangelist handed me a leaflet outside a London station — adorned with a gaudy depiction of the promised land. It showed righteous souls reaping plentiful harvests and the lion laying down with the lamb — but the geography was familiar. This heaven was guarded by sheer cliffs, waterfalls slipped from celestial heights and a low sun flared over a safe harbour. It could be Yosemite or Lake Lucerne. But I think I know where the artist found inspiration.
Oliver Smith was a guest of 62°Nord (62.no). Double rooms at the Hotel Brosundet cost from NKr2,470 (£210); doubles at the Hotel Union Oye start at NKr4,690 (£399). Itineraries with other activities are tailormade and prices vary; as an example, a full five-night itinerary with all meals, helicopter, boat and fishing trips, and a day driving a Porsche Taycan, would cost from NKr51,712 (£4,434) per person, based on two sharing