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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.

NEARLY 800 YEARS OLD AND STILL STANDING TALL

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

CROSSING THE BORDER

Midsummer 2020 has been one of the strangest in my life, filled with silence and a lack of cheeriness. I even got a sense of breaking the law.

The Channel.
Photo: Tom Thowsen 2020

The Channel

On the brightest day of the year, when the sun barely goes down, there was a shadow hanging over me. All thanks to the Covid-19 virus, which has parted us Norwegians from our dear neighbours in the east. The Swedes, known for their joyful midsummer celebrations, were almost absent at Kornsjø — a lake on the border.

Well, I must confess: Yes, we crossed the border. More than once. Most on the lake. We even went into a narrow channel, under a bridge, where some of us got worried.
Flying trouble in the air.

«Look out! There’s Batman!»

«Oh, is he that small. I’m not impressed.»

Not quite like that, these quotes were from another trip, but we joked about it now as well. Nevertheless, this time it was different. Now there was mention of bats and Covid-19 virus, and we decided to turn back to Norway again.

Should we have been sentenced to a 10 days quarantine?

No, I do not think so. We did not meet any Swedes, other than on a safe distance, only on the water.

The Batman bridge in the background.
Photo: Tom Thowsen
The Channel from another trip where we used canoe, in the happy days before the virus came.
Photo: Tom Thowsen

The Signs

Two border signs.
Photo: Tom Thowsen 2020

Some places Sweden is exceptionally near, so close that we can toss stones at each other. The island to the left is Sweden. The pole in the foreground, and the cabin as well, is in Norway. Hey, you`re bound to break the law when travelling by boat. There are no markings on the waves.

Hisøya island

Hisøya island.
Photo: Tom Thowsen 2020

Next day we visited «riksrøys» number one, a border marker from 1752, situated on Hisøya island. As you can see, the trees are chopped away along the borderlines — all the way down to the watershed.


Here some noblemen greeted us. — Yes, it is true. We saw their monograms carved in stone, placed at the top of the cairn. Strong guys? Yeah. It must have been a difficult job for them, to stack all these rocks into this fantastic pile. Just look at the photo, how proud they look.


The guy to the right, he with the sword in his hand, is the reflection of Frederick V. He was a freemason who loved to party. Besides that, he was king of Denmark and Norway. He would surely have joined our midsummer celebrations if he could.


Hm, one other thing that caught my attention — his sword. Did he cut down all those trees on his own? All by himself?


The guy to the left, Adolf Frederick, was also a freemason. But as a Swede, he loved snuff. His favourite hobby was to make snuffboxes, which he allegedly spent a great deal of time doing. Supposedly a good husband, a caring father, and a gentle master to his servants. Besides all that, he was also king of Sweden. A hard-working man!

Hisøya island and the borderline.
Google Earth.

To make borders is a troublesome business—no wonder why they look so strange. Danes, Norwegians, and Swedes have argued about them for centuries. They have fought numerous wars and have been moving them back and forth and back again. Somewhere it follows a creek, and otherwhere it follows unexpected turns.

However, as this monument show, they came to an agreement in 1752, or more precisely, one year previous, in 1751.

These kings did neither know that a crazy author of suspense books should pass this border 268 years later – illegally! Almost 1400 metres into Sweden. Still, nothing compared to get illegally into Belarus. But that is another story.

Lake Kornsjø marked with a red square
My wife at the beach of Hisøya island.
Photo: Tom Thowsen 2020

After we met with the kings, we headed back to our boat and left Hisøya island while the wind whispered gently in our ears: “Everything will be fine. One day the borders will open again.”

One year later

A Swedish farm at Lake Kornsjø, which could resemble a typical summer residence for Norwegians.
Photo: Tom Thowsen 2021

Since last year, the borders are more closed than ever, not since WW2. Both our government and our citizens have got tired of the whole situation. It is a living nightmare for those who live in one country and work in the other. They really have a hard time these days.

But it is not easy for those who have summer houses on the wrong side of the border, either, which they have not visited for many months.

In the media, we heard of a desperate Norwegian caught while illegally travelling by helicopter to his summer residence in Sweden. Apparently not a good choice. Noisy and expensive.

A few weeks ago, loads of police forces were hunting a 60-year-old woman who had received a briefcase on the border. The poor, terrified woman left her car and ran 20 kilometres into the woods before they caught her. Mostly cigarettes, which are much cheaper in Sweden.

A big drama certainly worth the efforts …

From the Norwegian side of Lake Kornsjø. With a view towards Sweden.
Photo: Tom Thowsen 2021

In the meanwhile, I improve my self-discipline with stone balancing. This one lasted for five minutes. It was blowing in the wind, who whispered: It will be over soon …

PS. I have to confess that this sculpture would normally have fallen over to the right due to gravity. So why didn’t it? — The secret lies in the foundation. The bottom stone has been placed into a crack in the bedrock, which holds it fast.

A well-kept oasis of history and culture

Here do I live, and I feel privileged to live here, next to Northern Europe’s best-preserved fortified town. Gamlebyen, as we call old town Fredrikstad.

Founded in 1567 by the Danish king Frederick II, this is Norway’s first renaissance town. And it has a strategic location in the delta of Glomma — Norway’s largest river. Not far away from the Oslo fjord, too. Or Sweden for that sake.

For me, as an author of articles and fiction books, is this environment a gold mine. Hence, I often stroll along these ancient walls. As a matter of fact, this is an oasis for many artists, and the town has a few galleries and cafes, well worth a visit.

The Fortified Bridge and the Glassworks Factory.
Photo: Tom Thowsen
Old Fredrikstad and Glomma river. Photo: Xalzlos (Wikipedia)
Sunset through one of the small gateways.
Photo: Tom Thowsen
One of the Portals.
Photo: Tom Thowsen

Thick walls of rocks and bricks, dark, narrow gateways, moats, and wooden bridges – once a robust defence system from the past, built after Dutch standards.

A section of a map from 1776
Along the walls by the riverside.
Photo: Tom Thowsen
The Main Gate.
Photo: Tom Thowsen

Fun with literature

A reused telephone booth where people can change books – the sign says: take a book, give a book.
Photo: Tom Thowsen

Since I am an author, I could not resist taking a picture of this funny little thing. Next time I make sure that it also contains at least one of my fiction novels. Perhaps the Sea Lion, where some of the action takes place in this town. During the Napoleonic wars in the 1800s.

Here is the current assortment of books. Photo: Tom Thowsen

More fun

This is a private home where the owner obviously had something to tell you and me.
Photo: Tom Thowsen

I do not know exactly what the person meant by this sign. Maybe not to take things too seriously. Humour is nonsense, it says.

Another private home with a creative soul.
Photo: Tom Thowsen

Art galleries and cafes

Some of the galleries and cafes. Photo: Tom Thowsen

These old military buildings serve today as art galleries and cafes. Under normal circumstances, there would be many people here. Sometimes even with musicians entertaining. But this photo is taken in early May, where the situation was influenced by the covid-19 restrictions.

Fancy ceramic art leading to the open door.
Photo: Tom Thowsen
One of the city’s clothing stores.
Photo: Tom Thowsen

Here you can apparently dress like a royal. Kong Fredriks damer, says the sign. King Frederick`s Ladies. Hm, quite impressive.

The town square.
Photo: Tom Thowsen

A statue of King Frederick II himself, throning high on his pedestal, in the midst of the town square, with a proud expression on his face. That old Dane! We owe him some gratitude and respect, I guess.

Photo: Tom Thowsen

There is an easy escape through one of these gates on the riverside for those who eventually get enough of all that ancient stuff. The modern Centre lies on the other side, and you can reach it by some ferries.

One of the ferries.
Photo: Tom Thowsen

The best thing about these ferries is that they are free. They take you right into the modern world in just a few minutes.
But I have only shown you a glimpse. There`s so much more.

Thank you so much, and please subscribe if you will join me on another trip.


Tom Thowsen