The chance to see some of the world’s great landscapes — areas where the built and natural environments come together in often spectacular fashion — is one you don’t pass up when the opportunity arises. Just two short weeks ago, I was fortunate to have that chance, participating as one of the study leaders in a National Trust Tour of Scotland and Norway.
It was a remarkable experience.
During the tour I spoke with our travelers about the different approaches to heritage conservation and preservation in the U.K., Norway, and the U.S. and considered what helps build thriving and sustainable communities. Another study leader from Tufts spoke on efforts to support green energy in Scotland and Norway. These topics worked surprisingly well together. Trying to understand the history of the cultural environment helps us see the various intersections — historical and environmental — between past, present, and future.
This cultural environment is a part of our shared heritage as global citizens, worthy of preservation and conservation. Norway’s Sognefjord — with traditional farmsteads and villages flanked by soaring mountains and glaciers — can take one’s breath away.
We had the opportunity to not only admire this cultural environment from a distance, but to also see these mountains, cascading waterfalls, intriguing hamlets, and individual farmsteads up-close from our seat on the Flam Railroad branch of the world-renowned Bergen Line.
The natural landscapes were the main attraction for many of our travelers, yet we also visited several special communities along the way; places that are very different in many respects from our hometowns but that also share characteristics and histories that we can learn from and perhaps be moved by.
As one of urban Norway’s most picturesque spots, the historic wharf area of Bergen ― known historically as Bryggen ― is a UNESCO World Heritage Site with a long history linked to German bachelor merchants, traders, and the Hanseatic League.
Individuals of the Hanseatic League came to Bergen some 150 years after a port was established. And much like Garrison Keillor’s fictional Norwegian bachelor farmers in Lake Wobegon, these real-life German bachelor merchants were good at what they did, and they soon established a thriving German colony within Norway.
From this foothold, their presence and influence began to grow. They acquired ownership of the Bryggen area, constructing more buildings for trade and homes for their workforce. What we can see today is enough to get an idea of how the area must have been like for those who lived and worked during the Middle Ages.
The structures that remain perpetuate the memory ― the stories ― of one of the oldest large trading ports of Northern Europe.
These are stories that tell of ingenuity in design. The two- to three-story buildings are spaced apart with only narrow, covered passageways between them that run in a grid system alongside the docks, making the best use of scarce land. During the winter the bachelor merchants lived in the wooden buildings with the covered passageways serving as private courtyards.
We also learn stories of resilience. Small stone communal storerooms or warehouses were located at the back of the district to protect the most valuable goods against the risk of fire. Bergen has been damaged by a number of fires through the centuries and has been rebuilt each time, closely following the previous property structure and plan as well as building materials and techniques.
Living conditions in the early years were dark and cramped. Yet community was important, so the Germans built assembly rooms to gather, relax, and enjoy warm communal meals, games and religious ceremonies.
King Olav III helped establish Bergen as an important center of life in Norway through the twin power of the church and state. But it was those German bachelor merchants and their backers who had a vision for a commercial hub that could import items from other parts of the world while sharing goods from northern Europe. Their vision for the community grew through the Industrial Revolution, as the area’s bounty of wood and fish was traded via the new steam ships. As a result, Bergen became Norway’s most international city. Surnames of German, Dutch and Scottish origin are plentiful, many originating from the Hanseatic era.
But there has also been a vision for the future that protects and celebrates the past. The traditional pattern of rebuilding the community after its many fires left the main structures preserved as a working reminder of the ancient wooden urban structures once common in Northern Europe. Today, some 62 buildings remain of this former townscape, a vision that has turned the community into a tourist magnet.
And nearby, the Fantoft Stavkirke, a rebuilt 12th century wooden stave church, showcases another important piece of the Norwegian past.
We were on a tour where one of the sponsoring organizations was the National Trust for Historic Preservation in the United States. You may or may not have heard of the U.S.-based National Trust, but chances are good that are aware of the National Trust of England, Wales, & Northern Ireland. The British National Trust, as it is commonly known, is the largest such group in the world and one of the oldest.
But the title of oldest National Trust actually goes to The National Trust of Norway. Established in 1844, Fortidsminneforeningen has had a central role in the creation of nationwide heritage management programs in addition to focusing on the protection of many of the country’s remaining stave churches.
In Bergen today we see a mix of public and private investment working to save historic buildings and landscapes, serving local residents in the fishing, shipbuilding and associated industries along with visitors coming to the area for tourism. Norway’s Directorate for Cultural Heritage — overseen by a professional in the field with the wonderful historical title of “National Antiquarian” — has special responsibilities for heritage conservation in the medieval towns of Oslo, Tønsberg, Trondheim, and Bergen.
It is a delicate balance at the best of times. And with Europe coming out of the pandemic, growth pressures are sure to increase.
But in using “cultural environment” to describe the focus of their work, Norway emphasizes the importance of an integrated approach to conservation and preservation. Environmental, cultural, and land-use planning go hand-in-hand.
It is a good lesson to take back to the places where we live.
More to come…
For other posts on my reports and impressions from the Scottish Islands and Norwegian Fjords National Trust Tours trip click here for Glasgow and the Scottish Highlands, here for Orkney, and here for the Edvard Grieg home.
Image of Sognefjord by DJB