Step back in time

After the half-metre of snow that fell this time last week, the weather backed off a bit, only to throw an other foot or so of snow at us yesterday, followed by what appears to be the prompt start of a small thaw today.  The city is wall to wall slush but with daylight hours spent outside the office being a rare and precious commodity here at this time of year, we always find an excuse to get out during the weekend.

The most commonly heard exhortation is “go skiing” and there are times when it does sound a bit tempting.  We hear almost as frequently though that so many folk head for the slopes over the weekend that there are queues everywhere: not so attractive.

Today we plumped for a walking tour of the Akerselva – the river that runs through Oslo – and it transpired to be the complete opposite to the reported slopes experience, with only the two of us accompanying our guide (luck – last week’s group apparently numbered twenty).  She was a sprightly woman who teaches German and Art History to A-level students when not leading tours and she clearly takes pride in her work.

During a scenic two-hour stroll down the river banks, we learned how a wealthy businessman had gone to Manchester in the mid-nineteenth century to study the cotton mills and met an other Norwegian there, after which the pair of them essentially imported the British industrial revolution to Oslo and planted it on the banks of the river.

The Akerselva is too steep and narrow to be navigable.  It was used instead to provide motive power for the machines that worked cotton and canvas and the mills that ground grain to flour along its length.  Parts of the river still bear terracing and sluice gates that were no doubt created to drive the now-departed water wheels.  Many of these surviving features stand next to the original buildings and it is clear that not only the technology but the architecture of the British experience was imported: all tall red brick and curved windows.  Many of the buildings have been converted into offices and some apartments.

As one might expect, very little of the original industry remains today.  We started the tour in a place called Nydalen which translates as New Valley.  Now it is nick-named Silicon Valley in recognition of the fact that IT companies are the majority of those that have moved here during the area’s rejuvenation.

Shortly after we set out, we were pointed towards a factory that still produces nails as the sole ‘intact’ survivor of those times.  Further downstream the administrative offices can still be found of a soap manufacturing company (production having moved out of the city), the city’s staple beer, Ringnes is still being brewed by the riverside and there is a flour mill that has been bought by a (whisper it) Swedish company.

This latter example provided a slightly deeper insight.  Our guide related that during her childhood, Norway used to look to Sweden as a great place where everything seemed to be better.  Now apparently the tables have turned and 25,000 Swedes a year come to Norway looking for opportunity.  She attributes it to Norway’s discovery of oil in between times.  With the political history of the last few centuries as a background, it looks like the change is being received with mixed feelings.

We finished the tour drinking hot chocolate by an open fire in an attractive new restaurant at the foot of the Old Aker Church.  While the business was new, the premises were an old building from the mid-nineteenth century that had been carefully restored by a father and son team.  Looking at the number of Sunday dinner diners who were starting to arrive as we left, it appears that industry will continue to succeed in this area in one form or an other.

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