No – not that saccharin -sweet Hollywood epic about Edvard Grieg and Nina Hagerup (his lady wife – and cousin) that even Harry Secombe was unable to rescue from the miasma of schmaltz – but, instead, Song in Norway. And who is to provide the said song(s)? None other than a rather good little chamber choir from Lewes.
So – Norway. Why Norway?
Well, why not? We’ve done the other side of the English Channel quite a few times, so why not direct our attention Eastwards – across the North Sea?
OK. But tell us a bit about Norway – what makes it so special?
You see, there’s an old story that when God was creating the world He got his proportions a bit wrong and ended up with a great deal of coastline to spare. He had this rather long (1300 miles from North to South) country on the Western side of the Scandinavian peninsula handy and thought He might be able to use up some of his surplus coastline there – and so He did, all 15 715 miles of it!!
Again, OK. Nice picturesque country – but why should we be interested in it, and – more specifically, why should we be interested in this little town of yours – Halden – or whatever it’s called?
Historically we have been tied up with Norway for much longer than any of us would care to recall. In fact it was the Norwegians that King Harold defeated at Stamford Bridge before being beaten on his home ground by the visiting team from Normandy (also Norwegians, by the way, but acclimatised, honorary Frenchmen after having eaten all that Camembert and drunk rather too much Calvados over the years). Our histories have intermingled right on down through the centuries right until after the last big global confrontation (WWII) when the city of Oslo started to send us a thumping great Christmas tree each year that was far too big for the sitting -room at Buck House – so they had to put it up in Trafalgar Square.
Fair enough – we’ve ticked the Norway box, but you still haven’t told us about this little town called Halden? What’s so special about it?
Halden is a small town – numbering some 28 000 inhabitants. It nestles in the far south -east corner of this huge country, next to the Swedish frontier, in the county of Østfold. It is overlooked by the largest system of fortifications in Northern Europe (and the fourth largest in the entire continent) and is the only Norwegian town to which specific reference is made in the country’s national anthem – due to the fact that, in 1716, the good citizens of Halden (or Fredrikshald as it was known then) set fire to their own town rather than let it fall into the clutches of those rather nasty warlike Swedes.
Yes – understood – it’s got some history. But why should we go there?
Ah, forgot to tell you. From among its 28 000 citizens it has a total of 8 (that’s eight) choirs! Each one of its many schools has its own musikkorps or band – including primary schools. Music runs through the veins of the Norwegians, and Halden is no exception. It has a cultural programme throughout the year that would put most English towns of similar size to shame. This country of 4.8 million has a literary and musical heritage that is second to none and boasts some of today’s leading international musical talents such as Leif Ove Andsnæs, (pianist), Truls Mørk (cellist), Arve Tellefsen (violinist) and Tine Thing Helseth (trumpeter) to name but a few – and who can forget that amazing operatic diva, Kirsten Flagstad?What’s there to do in Halden?
I suppose, if the truth is known, not a very great deal – at least, not if you’re planning to stay there for a few weeks – which we’re not.
But first of all there’s the fortress – looming grandly over the town. It has witnessed some of the more spectacular aspects of Norwegian history (including the death of the Swedish warrior king Charles XII when he laid siege to the town in 1716 -18). There are some fascinating museums up there behind the battlements.
The Halden version of a barbershop quartet – but are they all that they’re ‘quacked’ up to be?
Then there’s Rød Herregård – usually translated as the Red Manor, even though it’s actually white – a splendid repository of memorabilia from the last three centuries and surrounded by landscaped gardens in the English manner. In fact, if you’re feeling a little homesick, those same gardens are actually based on English soil, specially imported. The manor is well worth visiting and we will be able to arrange a tour with an English -speaking guide at a very reasonable cost.
Just a 40 minute bus -ride away is the Swedish coastal resort of Strömstad – yes, you get two countries for the price of one! Don’t worry about remembering to take your passport with you – there are no border formalities for the purpose of crossing from one Scandinavian country to another. The bus ride takes you over the Svinesund bridge linking the two countries and, at 67 metres, the highest bridge in Northern Europe.
A short train -ride in the opposite direction will take you to Fredrikstad, a town at the mouth of Norway’s longest river – the Glomma. Its wholly preserved walled old town will transport you straight back to the 17th century. Myriad art and craft galleries and ateliers offer a wide range of wares and you can rest your weary limbs, and inspect your purchases, at any of the numerous cafés.
What about feeding the inner man/woman?
There’s no gainsaying that Norway is an expensive country – part of the price to pay for being very affluent. But, as we discovered, you can eat out well in Halden at a cost that would not seem at all unreasonable in our own familiar milieu. And, strange though it may sound, you have to go a very, very long way to find a better pizza than at Peppe’s Pizza.
The town also boasts Norway’s oldest patisserie – Erlandsen – founded in 1865. Not the cheapest of places for a coffee and cake – but the quality is excellent and well worth the kroner! And if your taste follows rather more carnivorous lines, then there is the delicatessen known as Bergstrøm just opposite where an exceedingly good hot -dog may be procured for no more than 10 kroner – that’s a smidgin over £1 in real money – and we know of nowhere in England where you can get that sort of value!
Fine. So far, so good – but where do we sleep?
We’re coming to that bit..! Halden lies at the end of the Singlefjord which separates Norway from Sweden. Right at the end of the fjord there is a marina and jetty, together with some attractive eateries (not too expensive – as long as you don’t order beer at nearly £7 a pint). Overlooking this idyllic scene, with the fortress as an imposing backdrop, is the Thon Hotel with whose management we have negotiated an extremely good weekend deal. For NOK 350 (c. 37 of your English pounds) a night you get to share a twin/double room in an excellent high -grade hotel with an extensive buffet breakfast that will keep you going right through to the evening, possibly bolstered by a cake and coffee at Erlandsen or a hot -dog at Bergstrøm.
And the small matter of a concert venue? We are a choir, you know...
Berg Church lies about 5 km outside the town proper. It dates largely back to the 12th century (just look at those thick walls!) and has a wonderfully carved alter -piece and pulpit. More important than that, however, is the fact that it is used! There is a vibrant, active, regular congregation waiting to welcome us – together with a concert committee dedicated to ensuring that this kind of cultural initiative actually works – an excellent acoustic and, believe it or not, a resident English organist!! Transport to and from the church will be taken care of by our generous hosts.
Berg church – interior, from the chancel
(Find more pictures of Berg church online at: http://niku.pdc.no/index.php?seks_id=73819&m=7 and click ‘OK’ on the box labelled ‘BILDEGALLERI’).)
Twenty five members and friends spent a thoroughly enjoyable weekend in Brussels at the beginning of July 2007. Travelling by Eurostar was a first for many of the choir members, and proved very popular. The concert took place in the concert hall of the Musical Museum in the centre of Brussels. An impressive venue with a beautiful Steinway piano and spotlights. The audience and the management of the Museum all seemed impressed with our performance. The concert was followed by a day or two of sightseeing in this fascinating city.
After a frustrating journey through the Kent countryside, St Omer was a good place to relax for the weekend. The Saturday market was a particularly good place to pick up a bargain. John Rutter went down well with the appreciative audience in this fantastic church.
This was our second tour to Lille, but it is always a popular choice. The Festival of the Giants was the main attraction in Lille that weekend, which despite the rain proved to be a bigger draw than our concert. But the small yetenthusiastic audience thoroughly enjoyed John Rutter's 'The Sprig Of Thyme' and Mendelssohn's 'Hear My Prayer' in this glorious setting.
The choir spent an enjoyable weekend in Amiens during July 2003. The visit included socialising drinking and eating as well as singing on the Saturday evening. About 30 singers and several friends and relations took part in the visit. The concert took place outdoors on the cathedral steps on a glorious sunny evening. The appreciative audience of about 500 in number, sat in the square enjoying the music. The choir was amplified by about 25 microphones and enormous speakers. All enjoyed a most amazing experience, as the sounds of John Rutter's 'Feel the Spirit' reverberated around the cathedral square. The pictures show the choir both at rehearsal and during the concert