24 April 2022

On Oak Hill I

It's good to be in Norway again on Norse and Viking business and today I had a free day in Oslo. I'm almost ashamed to say that despite coming here regularly for many decades and even living here a long time ago, I had never been up to Ekeberg. Until, that is, when, on a previous trip in a brief Covid lull last December (on different Norse and Viking business), our group was taken up there for dinner one night, and a very fine dinner it was too. Seeing what a fabulous view there is from up there of the city, particularly the newer parts of the city in Bjørvika, I decided I really needed to go back up that hill on my next visit. So there I was today in Ekebergparken, on a slightly chilly but still beautifully sunny spring day, ready for both friluftsliv and cultural experiences. And, wow, there are certainly a lot of those!

Today, most of Ekeberg is a part of Ekebergparken, which is primarily a sculpture park, and more about these in a moment. But the area has associations and antiquities from the Stone Age to the twentieth century, all within a fascinating morning's walk. There's a good website explaining it all here. In the Stone Age, the plateau was actually an island, but as the ice receded and the land rose up, gradually it came to be the prominent hill it is today, rising up to 200m. above the sea level of the Oslofjord. There are rock carvings galore, including a helleristning (petroglyph) with hunted animals, and quite a few cup marks, those slightly more boring but still mysterious rock carvings. There are burial mounds, some possibly from the Bronze Age, most probably later, into the late Iron Age (early Viking Age to you and me), all as far as I know still unexcavated. Mostly they are not particularly visible except with the eye of archaeological faith (or expertise). Easier to see are a stone circle (or what remains of one) and a ship setting (ditto, and now reconstructed, as it was destroyed in the war). I particularly liked the way the ship setting was set off by a metal structure drawing attention to it and explaining it, even down to the little ship-shaped holes (click on the photo above to enlarge it and see!). There are dry stone walls from 2000 years ago and a cemetery wall which relates to the second World War. The Germans used a part of the area as a memorial cemetery for their fallen soldiers, with some monumental steps. These steps were removed and replaced with modern steps, and the spot has the most glorious view of the blue Oslofjord. 

Two nineteenth-century houses in the 'Swiss Villa' style beloved in Oslo at the time, and the slightly Art Decoish restaurant from 1929 complete that strong sense of travelling through time. All of these are to be seen in a glorious wood carpeted (today at least) in wood anemones. Now you might just wonder about the name of the place, for Ekeberg (Old Norse Eikaberg) means 'oak hill' but there are very few oak trees about. I could identify spruce and birch, and the lovely (free) museum on the site informed me there are also willow, ash, pine, black alder and maple. Oak is of course a very useful timber and so most of the oak trees which once distinguished the hill enough to give it this name were felled and used to build things. The whole area was opened as a scuplture park in 2013, and there are currently 43 sculptures dotted about along the paths that wind through this wood (as well as a 44th, a horrendous enormous red Santa at the bottom of the hill).

The sculptures are both traditional and modern, and it's fair to say whoever chose them has a fondness for the female form (by both male and female sculptors), as these seem to predominate. There are some pretty big names here, ranging from Salvador Dali to Damien Hirst via Gustav Vigeland, and many other names that even a non-sculpture person like me has heard of. The sculptures themselves are a pretty mixed bunch, as might be expected, but they often appear in unexpected places, or in startling ways that certainly make it an experience to walk around and look at them. Some of the best ones are by female sculptors:  Louise Bourgeois' couple, dangling from the trees, and Tori Wrånes' traveller both surprise and delight, while Ann-Sofi Sidén's self-portrait urinating is more engaging than you might think.

My favourite sculpture though was Sean Henry's 'Walking Woman', slightly larger than life, and confidently striding along the footpath as her slightly smaller real-life counterparts were doing around her.

From the Stone Age to the twenty-first century, with glorious views and a wonderful place for a walk, there is certainly something for everyone here. If you are ever in Oslo at a loose end, I highly recommend jumping on the no. 19 tram to Ekebergparken and checking it all out.

'On Oak Hill II' to follow in due course ...

19 March 2022

Tooley Street Delight


On academic business in London the other day, I chanced upon Tooley Street, just near London Bridge Underground station. Now, I've known about Tooley Street for a long time, but never actually visited it, which was clearly remiss of me, as you will understand below.

Tooley Street takes its name from St Óláfr of Norway, or rather from a church dedicated to that saint, as explained by Bruce Dickins in a classic article in Saga-Book in 1940 (pp. 67-68). As Dickins shows, there are quite a few churches dedicated to the saint in London, but this one is special, since its site is very close to one of Óláfr's youthful exploits, as recorded in the poem Víkingarvísur by the king's Icelandic poet Sigvatr Þórðarson, and edited by yours truly some years ago.

The poem recounts, in a numbered list of battles, the future king's youthful adventures in England and across the European continent.  Stanza 6 is as follows:

Rétts, at sókn in sétta,
(snarr þengill bauð Englum
at) þars Ôleifr sótti
(Yggs) Lundúna bryggjur.
Sverð bitu vǫlsk, en vǫrðu
víkingar þar díki;
átti sumt í sléttu
Súðvirki lið búðir.

It is correct that the sixth battle [took place] where Óláfr attacked the wharves of London; the valiant prince offered the English {the strife of Yggr <= Óðinn>} [BATTLE]. Frankish swords bit, and vikings defended the ditch there; some of the troop had huts in level Southwark.

At the end, he returns to Norway to become king and eventually martyr, Scandinavia's first royal saint, and rex perpetuus Norvegiae (Norway's forever king). 

It is of interest that stanza 6 mentions two specific place-names, giving the location of the battle, firstly Southwark and then the bryggjur of London. I have argued that this does not refer to London's bridge(s), as one might think, but to the wharves of London (as depicted on the cover of the book pictured above; follow the link above to read more about this question, there are also some comments there on the name Súðvirki and on the possible meanings of the word víkingar in this context).

But getting back to Tooley Street, imagine my delight to discover that one part of London Bridge Hospital is the unbelievably splendid (and grade II* listed) St Olaf House. This was built on the site of the old church, which stood until 1737, then was rebuilt and eventually demolished in 1928 to be replaced by this amazing edifice in 1932. It was originally built for the Hay's Wharf Company and became a part of the hospital in the 1980s. It's a lovely example of Art Deco, with lots of gorgeous details and quite a splendid entrance. I'm surprised it hasn't appeared in one of the Poirot episodes (or perhaps it has?).

An inscription on the corner of the building gives a brief history of the site and mentions Óláfr's military activities in the vicinity. However the exact history of all this is difficult to determine. Back in 2013 I wrote: 'Although Óláfr appears to have fought for the English King Aðalráðr (Æthelred) after the death of Sveinn tjúguskegg ‘Fork-beard’ in 1014, Snorri’s claim that Óláfr’s earlier battles were fought in support of him ... is probably erroneous ... His earlier English campaigns seem rather to have been fought alongside Þorkell inn hávi and the Danes ..., and it appears that Óláfr ‘like his friend Þorkell, changed sides and became a supporter of Æthelred’ (A. , 12). The skaldic stanzas do not in themselves clarify who Óláfr’s allies and opponents were, nor exactly where and when he fought; even when they are considered in conjunction with the English and Norse prose sources much remains uncertain ...' And it goes without saying that the idea that Óláfr’s exploits are commemorated in the nursery rhyme 'London Bridge is falling down' is most likely fanciful.

The other corner of the building depicts the royal saint in all his regal majesty, rather than as a young attacker (or possibly defender - the stanza is a bit ambiguous) of a muddy ditch. It is this subsequent saintly and regal figure, rather than the youthful warrior on his gap year abroad, that is commemorated in this very fine building. I'm glad to have discovered it for myself and can recommend it as a must visit for anyone who loves both Art Deco and royal Viking saints....