A Dangerous Beauty

Europe’s largest waterfall in terms of water volume lies in Norway. The Sarp Falls has always been a mighty sight, and it has many a spectacular story to tell.

Welcome to Sarpsborg, one of the oldest towns in Norway. Founded near the Sarp Falls in 1016 AD by the king Olaf II Haraldsson, later known as Saint Olaf. Borg was built on a promontory in the river and were protected by a high defense wall.

As seen in the picture above, there are tremendous forces in action. Sentenced to death, there was little chance to survive for prisoners, when pushed out into it, as imaginable.

But Sarp Falls may even had destroyed the last remains of the Viking town Borg.

More about that soon.

Calm and nice with ice, just 878 cubic metres per second. Photo: Tom Thowsen 2021

Today the industry has taken control over Sarp Falls and tamed it, mainly by the compagnies Borregaard and Hafslund. Both started as two neighboring farms on each side of the falls. Now they are two successful businesses.

Borregaard employs 1100 man-years in plants and sales offices in 16 countries throughout Europe, Americas, Asia and Africa. Has one of the world’s most advanced and sustainable biorefineries. By using natural, sustainable raw materials. Produces advanced and environmentally friendly biochemicals that can replace oil-based products. Also holds strong positions within ingredients and fine chemicals.

Hafslund Eco owns and operates hydropower plants over large parts of the country. Produces enough renewable energy to be able to supply half of all Norwegian households with electricity.

Borregaard Manor. Photo: Wikipedia

Borregaard Hovedgård is a former royal and manor house in Sarpsborg. According to the Icelander Snorre Sturlason, it was built by Olav II Haraldsson, as a royal estate. In 1312, King Håkon V gave the farm to his son-in-law Havtore Jonsson.

Although the town was moved in 1567, the manor remained here by the waterfall and the ownership of the waterfall provided opportunities for mill and sawmill operations. The last Borregaard manor, before the one pictured here, was described as a magnificent timber and half-timbered building with a tower and spire. Which sounds awesome, almost like a Norwegian Adventure. Today, the building is used as a course and representation centre for Orkla ASA—a Norwegian conglomerate operating in the Nordic region, Eastern Europe, Asia and the US.

Hafslund Manor. Photo: Wikipedia

The first known family at Hafslund were members of the Gyldenhorn family (15th century). Hafslund was a manor house of international format, located by the Frederikshald royal road to Christiania. The farm is centrally located by the old ferry resort Sandesund, and kings, cultural personalities and other great people preferred to come here on their passes. There was a lot of prestige for the owners in just this, and they were happy to invite famous people to Hafslund even though it could cost large sums of money.

Hafslund Hovedgård (Manor) has played a role as a cultural bridge-builder to Europe and has been a field of impact for art, culture and competence in the broadest sense. As crown estates, privileges and the large industrial activities, several owners have played an important role in society and politics.

The old town Borg, however, lasted for 551 years.

Then came destruction.

During the Nordic Seven Years’ War between Denmark-Norway and Sweden, the Swedes burned Borg in 1567 AD. This was not the first time, and the city’s population felt so insecure that they sought King Frederick II to move the city further out to the coast. The wish was fulfilled by King Fredrik II of Denmark-Norway, who decided to rebuild the city 14 kilometres further down the Glomma, to make it easier to defend against attacks from the Swedes. In 1567, the new city was founded at the mouth of the river. In 1569, the new city changed its name to Fredrikstad.

Back at Sarp Falls, only a small village remained among the medieval ruins.

Sarpsfossen Painting by Erik Pauelsen (1749–1790)

In this painting from 1789, the crater appears like a valley on the other side of the river.

On the night between 14 and 15 February 1702 at Borregaard farm, they wanted a midwife. The lady on the farm was about to give birth. When the midwife came, she saw that the field had cracked, and the barn was about to collapse. The farmers and their servants were notified, and a hasty evacuation began. Gathered on the safe ground west of the farm, they realised that they had left the animals behind. They have only managed to save an iron chest with some silver and some documents. While the lady was rowed over to Hafslundsøy and taken to Hafslund manor, and the servants tried to rescue the animals, the crack suddenly widens up, and it all slid out into the river. Fifteen people and nearly 200 animals died in the landslide, which had a length of 380 meters and a maximum width of 340 meters. Large parts of the old town were also gone.

Was it Sarp Falls to blame?

Due to Quick Clay, this kind of natural catastrophes occurs in old glacial terrain in Canada, Norway, Russia, Sweden, Finland, the United States, and a few other locations. The clay is so unstable that when a mass of quick clay is subjected to sufficient stress, the material behaviour may drastically change from that of a particulate material to that of a watery fluid. Landslides occur because of the sudden soil liquefaction caused by external solicitations such as vibrations induced by an earthquake, or massive rainfalls.

The flood in 1995. Photo: SA—Jarl Morten Andersen

Today’s Sarp Falls is developed according to all the rules of engineering art. But sometimes, however, it will show itself in its former glory. The last great flood was in the early summer of 1995. Then ministers stood with worried expressions on their faces and experienced what hydropower can be at its most dangerous – and most magnificent way. Roaring and shaking the ground.

This amazing place has served Norway well

But do you know where it is?

Besides having rescued the land from enemy forces several times, it is also a continuous cultural inspiration source. Hailed in Ja Vi Elsker, Norway’s national anthem. Quote from the 4th verse:

During summer months there are concerts and TV shows and so on. But Fredriksten, the Fortress of Halden, also has its legends who fascinate people worldwide. Basically, it is a story from the 1800s where a lieutenant vanished during inspection—a presumed murder case without a body—at least at the beginning.

More about that soon.

Photo: Wikipedia, moderated with GIMP

Denmark-Norway constructed this fortress in the 17th century as a replacement for the border fortress at Bohus, which had been lost when the province of Bohuslän was ceded to Sweden by the Treaty of Roskilde in 1658. The fortress was named after King Fredrik III of Denmark and Norway, and the town of Halden was also originally named after him. Known as Fredrikshald between 1665 and 1928.

The name Halden means slope, and slope there is.

Festningsgata. Photo: Tom Thowsen 2020

Here`s a street view of Festningsgata, with mighty Fredriksten Fortress lying there on its cliff. The white Bell Tower at the top lies 122 metres above mean sea level. And local lore tells of a secret passage between the Fortress and the town, with an entrance in the basement of one of these houses. So far, this is an unsolved riddle.

Photo: Wikipedia

At the top of Fredriksten Fortress you have good view towards the Swedish side of the fjord. But you can also see, far out in the horizon, the snowy mountains of Telemark.

The Bell Tower. Photo: Wikipedia, moderated with Gimp

Another story tells about a lieutenant who vanished during an inspection at the Bell Tower, one cold winter night in the 1800s. In 1926 they found, by chance, the body of a soldier buried near the tower. But there is more. Some connect this murder case to the local ghost who haunts the fortress—the White Lady. She`s a beautiful young Lady in a long, white dress. Many claims to have seen her among these walls.

Is she looking for her lover—the murder victim?

We`ll probably never know.

Nevertheless, have this shady lady almost overshadowed the Swedish warrior king Charles XII, who was shot during his attempt to take the Fortress in 1718. The White Lady has been highlighted on TV, theatre, music, and literature. More than ever.

Back in 2010, Ghost Hunters International tried to capture her in one of their TV episodes.

All in vain. She did not reveal herself, of course.

However, if you are intrigued by The White Lady, there is a novel about her on the international book market—Barnes and Noble, Kobo, and Amazon. Both English and Norwegian editions. Also eBook and Paperback.

And who knows, maybe you`ll plan for a trip to Halden too when the better time arises.

There`s so much more to show, and there is more to come.

Subscribe and stay tuned.

Thank you for your attention. 

Pre Viking-Age Fortresses

Often when I take a walk in the forest, where it is peaceful and relaxing, I get a reminder of a troubled past. Ancient fortresses from the Migration Period. They`re almost everywhere, on every natural stronghold, typical steep mountains. Hard accessible and with a stunning panorama, like a lookout tower.

These silent witnesses were mostly used around 400-500 A.D. Most of them appear like piles of stones which many people today would hardly notice. Back then, they were the best protection the local people could get if they were under attack.

Basically, they were probably built by “doomsdays preppers”. Maybe frightened by the “breaking news!” at that time. Huns who invaded and raided large parts of Europe. Barbarian invasions who made the Western Roman Empire falling apart. All that stuff.

But the Scandinavian peninsula was a stronghold too. Surrounded by the ocean, it was likely spared from the worst. Still, like with anything else nowadays, the academics have a lot of theories regarding its possible purposes. Like: fortress for soldiers or a Safe Haven for the local farms. Some have even suggested a spiritual explanation — a cult place of some sort.

I find them intriguing, anyhow, and they trigger my imagination.

Stenerødborgen, Sarpsborg. Photo: Tom Thowsen 2020

A portion of the wall at Stenerødborgen fortress in Sarpsborg. Located on the weakest point, where the mountain was less steep. Inside, the mountain top was relatively flat—good space for houses and storage. I can imagine this wall had those pointy timbers poles. The same system as illustrated on three pictures below.

Stenerødborgen. Photo: Tom Thowsen 2020

The view is stunning at the edge of the cliff, who sticks out in Tune lake. In the background you can see Tune church were the famous Tune runestone was found. And to the left side, around three kilometres from the church founded the Viking king Olav Haraldson his town Borg in 1016 A.D. Today Sarpsborg.  We`re on an island called Tunøya — slightly larger than Manhattan with its 82 square kilometres — located in Norway’s largest river Glomma. An old highway so to speak.

Photo: Tom Thowsen 2020
Vestvannet lake, Sarpsborg. Photo: Tom Thowsen 2020

Lake Vestvannet lies about 500 meters from the fortress, and here you can travel on Glomma river up to Mjøsa, Norway’s biggest lake, and further up to Lillehammer if you want. As I already stated, there are a few records here. Besides the fact that the Glomma is the largest river and Tunøya is the largest freshwater island in Norway, the Sarp Falls has one of the greatest flows of any waterfall in Europe.

Nevertheless, I feel grateful to live here in this district where some of the smallest things amaze me as much as the big ones. Throughout this winter, if there is no snow, I will go looking for more of these fortresses. There`s more than 70 in my old county Østfold, they say.
It looks like I have some heck of mountain climbing ahead of me.

Greatness in the Small

In that very moment, Mother Earth was speaking to me.

Kornsjø, Norway. Photo: Tom Thowsen 2020

Sounds a little bit odd in your ears, I guess. Mine too, for that sake. Like a hippie or a member of the alternative society.

However, it is comforting. Healing, as well. It could protect you from anxiousness and depression. I highly recommend this medicine. To walk in nature and listen to mother earth. It is where we belong. It is where it all began. Not in a humanmade artificial environment, remote from everything natural. So, let us get back.

Kornsjø, Norway. Photo: Tom Thowsen 2020

Late September, I woke up early in the morning, curious to catch the rising sun. Not all mornings are the same; the light conditions can differ a lot. It could be too bright or too cloudy. But this morning was outstanding. No wind at all, the water lies like a mirror. The mist over the lake. The bright clouds. The clean air. The smell of autumn. And the silence was overwhelming. Lucky me, I thought. What colour cascade. What a magic moment. And there was I equipped with my iPhone 11. My only camera.

Kornsjø, Norway. Photo: Tom Thowsen 2020

Everything glows—the contrasts between light and shadow. In the east, from the Swedish side of the lake, I can hear a wolf scream in the far distant. Besides that, just silence.

Kornsjø, Norway. Photo: Tom Thowsen 2020

Look at the tiny cabin, floating on the mist. It lies on its small islet, separated from the island where I stood.

Kornsjø, Norway. Photo: Tom Thowsen 2020

The clouds sailed in convoy over the sky, stretching out its fingers from Sweden towards Norway.

Kornsjø, Norway. Photo: Tom Thowsen 2020

So near, but still too far distant – some places I can toss stones at Sweden – nevertheless Covid-19 makes us parted. That is a surreal situation.

But if the very bedrock under my feet could speak, it would say this is a small and short-lived problem. A glacial period of hundreds of thousands of years made a more significant impact when this bedrock was lying under the pressure of a two kilometres layer of ice. A vast amount of frozen water that melted away just some ten thousand years ago.

Quite impressing to know.
It makes me realize that Mother Nature is a strange mother, indeed, and we must live our lives under her conditions – follow her rules. We need her, but she does not need us. We`re just lucky to be here.


Heddal Stave Church.
Photo: Tom Thowsen 2020

I`m talking about the biggest Stave Church in Norway, where some of the wooden structures have survived since it was ready in the mid-1200s — some 800 years ago — which is quite impressing

Due to the ongoing worldwide pandemic that hunts us all, I decided to travel in my homeland this summer. I went back to my roots in Telemark, to visit the Church where some of my relatives lie buried. The Amazing Heddal Stave Church.

Once seen, never forgotten.

Look for yourself

A chair from the church.
Photo: Anders Kvåle Rue

Some features in this monumental building are breathing Viking age. Did I hear someone saying WOW? — Yes it`s true, in this once a Roman Catholic Church, there are traces of the old paganism. The dragonheads, for instance.

Furthermore, there is a legend telling about the erection of the church. And fasten your seatbelt, please — it was a troll who built it. Just three days of construction!

Oh, by the way, Finn Fagerlokk(Fairhair) is his name. He could not ever after stand the sound of church bells, so he moved along with his family to Himing (Lifjell). In case you need an extremely efficient house builder.

Another pagan features in this church, is Sigurd Fåvnesbane, the dragon slayer, and the shieldmaiden Brynhild.

The heads at the top of these columns are also pagan decorations.
Photo: Christian Barth
Old taggers, using runic letters.
Photo: Tom Thowsen 2020
A door decorated with Viking style patterns.
Photo: Tom Thowsen
A thick layer of tar for preservation.
Photo: Tom Thowsen 2020

Though it can feel magical with the troll, he owes us an explanation of how he managed to build this church, in just three days, which have lasted for almost eight hundred years.

Psst, here you have a clue for the durability. Tar galore.

Another thing – he cheated. It demanded years of preparations. He had to choose the right trees in the forest, take the bark off them, let them bleed resin while they were still growing. And finally, after several years of waiting, he cut them down – with other words: A time-consuming prosses beyond our modern people’s imagination. That is the real story. Thankfully for us, someone cared, thank God.

Heddal Stave Church in its surroundings.
Tom Thowsen 2020