Sam Kinchin-Smith braves arctic Svalbard to follow in the footsteps of Philip Pullman’s gutsy heroine. Read the full guide here…
The C&TH Guide to Svalbard, Norway
I haven’t been able to find out whether Philip Pullman ever visited Svalbard before he began writing the His Dark Materials trilogy in the mid-Nineties. In my experience, these novels represent the main reason why people in the UK have heard of the Norwegian archipelago – if they’re not one of his many readers who assume it’s a made-up place. Pullman recently told NPR that he doesn’t ‘like travel very much… I’d rather sit at home and make it up,’ so I guess not.
But if a certain amount of ‘making it up’ went into Pullman’s Svalbard – from the beautiful witches and the hideous ‘cliff-ghasts’ his protagonist Lyra encounters on her way there, to the polar bear palace where she’s briefly imprisoned – its fantasy turns out to be rooted in a remarkably close reading of the archipelago’s historical reality.
It’s not just mountains, mines and northern lights; one of the most dramatic chapters in the archipelago’s story, told by the Svalbard Museum, describes a race to the North Pole won by the airship Norge, which took off from Spitsbergen in 1926. So that’s why Pullman has Lyra get there in Lee Scoresby’s hot air balloon, pursued by Mrs Coulter’s zeppelin. And when I hear about Kristian Birkeland’s auroral experiments with a magnetosphere in the far north of Norway, during a boozily atmospheric slideshow at Hurtigruten Svalbard’s Camp Barentz, I recall the ending of the first book, Northern Lights, in a flash: the indelible image of Lord Asriel crouched in the snow with his dæmon and a sledge full of apparatus, tearing open the Aurora-painted sky…
The World’s Northernmost Small Town
I’ve come to Longyearbyen, the world’s northernmost small town, because Pullman has written another novel set in the parallel universe of His Dark Materials, the first for 17 years. And while none of the action of The Book of Dust takes place any further north than Uppsala, in Sweden, with Pullman the (golden) compass always points to places where it’s ‘cold and blank and wild’.
The Scandinavian travel industry is not unaware of his uniquely potent articulation of the particular charms of the far north, but Best Served Scandinavia take it further than most, offering a specific Philip Pullman itinerary. He’s everywhere in the brochure but nowhere once my surprisingly busy plane lands: nobody seems to have heard of the books, perhaps because British tourism is still pretty new for Svalbard.
Great Curtains of Delicate Light
No sign of the stars of Pullman’s show – that is to say, polar bears and the Aurora – either. As I’m driven the short distance between the airport and Longyearbyen, via the glittering entrance to the Global Seed Vault, the plant diversity stronghold to which the world will turn when the apocalypse comes, my brilliant guide Ida explains. While much is made of the ever-present risk of polar bear raids – nobody leaves the town without a high-powered rifle, many of them antiques from the Second World War, when the archipelago was a Nazi outpost (the soldiers stationed here were the last to find out that they’d lost) – a tourist’s chances of encountering one are vanishingly small.
As for the Northern Lights, a proper show requires such a coincidence of factors – the position and intensity of the auroral oval, clear skies and a willingness to be outside in the (-15°C) cold, looking up at the right time – that Aurora hunting can be a frustrating business. Your chances improve (but not much) during the polar night, between mid-November and late January, when the sun never rises and Pullman’s ‘great curtains of delicate light’ can be witnessed during the day.
This is what keeps the phenomenon phenomenal, of course, so no complaints, not least because spectacular compensation arrives in the form of the last supermoon of the year, which illuminates Spitsbergen’s landscape of white peaks and dark seas with an enchanted clarity that’s brightest at midnight. Set against this glow-in-the-dark backdrop, Longyearbyen’s many comforts feel like the stuff of magic.
The Midnight Sun or the Polar Night
Base camp for the weekend is the Radisson Blu Polar, the world’s northernmost full-service hotel, which started life as journos’ lodgings for the 1994 Winter Olympics in Lillehammer, before being dismantled, packed onto boats and reconstructed at the top of the world.
It houses a pub selling pints of the island’s own microbrews, a restaurant offering a smörgåsbord of Norwegian Christmas fare and pickled seafood (including whale and treacly seal), hot tubs, generous suites and a 24-hour Aurora alert service. Other restaurants in town include Rabalder Café & Bakery for flat whites, cinnamon buns and nourishing soups, and Coal Miners’ Bar & Grill, a classy conversion of the mess hall where Longyearbyen’s miners used to eat, before they were replaced with the town’s new generation of scientists and tour guides (a taxi driver I chat to mourns the departure of these men who ‘lived like there’s no tomorrow’).
Only one Norwegian mine remains active, ‘No 7’, which glows red and looms over the valley, 10km out of town, where much of Svalbard’s organised fun takes place. There’s a community of Russian and Ukrainian miners in Barentsburg, only accessible in the winter by boat or snowmobile. I don’t go that far on my own ski-doo adventure but I do spend a morning accelerating into the dark blue fog of the wilderness, skating past frozen lakes and buzzing through mountain passes.
It’s a hell of a trip, only surpassed by another journey straight out of Northern Lights, this time pulled by huskies. Green Dog Svalbard offers guided tours for wannabe mushers, and trusts me with my own team of heroic hounds shockingly quickly. As I slide away from the deafening racket into a sudden and complete silence, save for the padding of the dogs, for the first time I feel I understand why, for Lyra, the Arctic Circle feels like a homecoming; her ‘sleepy thrill of perfect happiness, to be speeding north under the Aurora’.
Best Served Scandinavia’s four-day Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights break, from £1,220 per person inc flights and three nights’ B&B at Radisson Blu Polar Hotel, a husky sledding excursion and Northern Lights evening at wilderness Camp Barentz inc transfers and dinner.
For more information on Scandinavia, visit best-served.co.uk.