Saturday, March 06, 2010

Norway Underground

At one point in the recent television series presented by Ian Stewart called "How the Earth Made Us", he visited an underground seed store on the Norwegian island of Svalbard. It looked a very cold place, the concrete walls caked with ice. If I remember corrctly I think he said it is maintained at a constant temperature of -18 degrees Celsius. Or perhaps that temperature doesn't have to be maintained. Perhaps it is just simply like that on snowy Svalbard.

Norwegians are very good at blasting and digging their way into the hardest ground. They have a passion for deep, long tunnels and many exist all the way along the coast of Norway, cut down into the most ancient and hardest rocks, diving far beneath the deep fjords that bisect Norway's rocky coast. Just north of Stavanger there are two, the first of which descends around 250m into the earth. It is so deep, the exhaust fumes of the cars which pass through it are difficult to extract by the overhead fans, making it a rather unpleasant journey. With the smell, the dim lighting and the steep descent, you feel distinctly as if you are descending into the bowels of the earth.

We ourselves live above a tunnel which contains the main E39 autoroute towards the south. It passes right underneath the hill on which we live, but we hear nothing of it. This will not be the case for some friends who have just discovered that a new tunnel is being constructed directly underneath their house this summer. They live on a somewhat smaller hill than us and they dread the thought of constant dynamiting. Some of the neighbours have already moved away and one old couple have become a local cause celebre due to the fact that the houses they built for their children have been forcibly purchased to make way for the tunnel and the children have had to move away from their parents in their dotage.

Another of Norway's undeground constructions are the mountain halls or "fjellhallen", which appear to have been, in some cases, constructed as refuges in the case of nuclear war, presumably during the cold war period. Today they serve as gyms and meeting halls. There is one near my office which has big blast shield metal doors on the front. Some of these halls are amongst the largest man-made caverns in the world, such as the Gjøvik Fjellhallen which was built inside the Hovdetoppen mountain near the centre Gjøvik at a cost of around 13 million pounds in the early 1990s to be used as an ice hockey stadium during the Lillehammer Winter Olympic games. It can seat more than 5000 spectators. The reason for building a cavern rather than a stadium was said to be in order to avoid the construction of a large and unsightly building.

The web site of the NFF, or Norwegian Tunnelling Society, gives more insight into the scale of Norwegian tunnelling activity, but sadly its "For the Public" web pages are only available in Norwegian. In the Norwegian section, however, I did discover what I hoped to find, which were references to the myths of goblins and dwarves digging their mountain halls. The following song by Henrik Wergeland (1808-1845) is sung at the annual Rock Blasting conference. It was written before the independence of Norway from Denmark, and so there are a number of old fashioned Danish words. I asked a friend to help me translate it, and as soon as I mentioned the first line about "Nisser og Dverge" (Gnomes and Dwarves), he began singing it and could remember practically the whole song. This was because he had learnt it by heart as a child from a song book which all the children in his class possessed. He said he wished he still had a copy of the song book, and that today they were difficult to obtain, being rather collectable.

He also told me that Wergeland is an important figure for Norwegians, one of the campaigners for an independent Norwegian language and culture at the time when Norway was united with Sweden. Wergeland's face has previously been represented on Norwegian bank notes and he is still celebrated today as a friend of the downtrodden Norwegian working class in the 19th Century.


      Nisser og Dverge
      bygge i Bjerge;
mem vi skal mine dem alle herud.
      Thi mens vi synge
      muntre i Klynge
sprænge vi Bjerget i Luften med Krut

      Ja lad oss bore
      Dybe og stor
Huller i Gråstein og Blåstein og Flint!
      Da, mens vi synge
      muntre i Klynge,
sprenge vi Bjerget i Stykker og Splint.

      Hurra! Det knalder!
      Satans Rabalder!
Hurra, Minerer! Du vinder tilsidst.
      Thi, mens vi synge
      muntre i Klynge,
sprenge vi Bjerget ved Makt og ved List.

      Fjeldet skal bæve
      under vor Næve,
Hurra, Minerer! Nu knalder dit Skud.
      Nisser og Dverge
      bygge i Bjerge,
Hurra, nu mine vi Nisserne ud.

Stone Breaking Song

      Gnomes and dwarves
      build in the mountain;
but we will mine them out of there.
      Because while we sing
      merry in the band,
our powder blows mountains in the air.

      Yes let us drill
      deep and wide
holes in greystone and bluestone and flint!
      Then, while we sing,
      merry in the band,
we'll turn hills into lumps and splinters.

      Hurrah! It explodes!
      Satan's racket!
Hurrah, miners! Finally you win.
      Because while we sang
      merry in the band,
we crushed mountains with brute force and cunning.

      Mountains shall tremble
      under our fists
Hurrah, miners! Now your charges blast.
      Gnomes and dwarves
      build in the mountain,
Hurrah, we've mined them out at last.

(translation by Jonathan Wonham)

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