In May this year I finally got to fulfil a long-held dream and visited Svalbard at the top of the world.
For those of you who aren’t familiar with it, Svalbard is an archipelago in the High Arctic, about 400 miles North of Norway, half-way to the North Pole.
The whole archipelago covers an area just slightly smaller than the UK I think but (aside from a few ghost towns and research stations) it has only a few small populated towns and less than 50km of road.
It’s a vast frozen wilderness. Human population (of whom I met a few) – 2400; polar bear population (of whom I met none) – 3000.
I can totally see that sub-zero temperatures are not everyone’s cup of tea when it comes to your average summer holiday; and I’m not entirely sure why I’ve felt such a strong pull towards magnetic North and the Arctic (although certainly David Attenborough has a lot to answer for and I confess to listening to David Gray’s song “Birds of the High Arctic” over and over on repeat).
Increasingly over the last few years I’ve been obsessed – its harsh environment; its history of adventure and exploration; the haunting myths and tales; the wonder of how life can survive in such a hostile place; the extremes of day and night, summer and winter; and the isolation and ghostly beauty.
It was a dream come true to finally see it with my own eyes and it did not disappoint.
When I arrived, in mid May, already there had been no sunset on Svalbard for about a month; the next sunset fell last month in August; and by November, polar winter will set in; the sun will go down and it won’t rise again till next February. I find it hard to contemplate the effect of such dramatic seasonal shifts but I am wholly capitvated by the lure and magic of this place.
The midnight sun held charge while I was there – and I found it incredibly mesmerising whilst also knocking me completely out of kilter with my body’s natural rhythm so that instead of falling asleep I would stay up, eyes wide open and alert just so I could watch the sun go round.
Svalbard was everything I dreamed it would be and more. I took a 3 day trip with Hurtigruten and would stand for hours in bitter cold on the deck of our expedition ship just so I could gaze at the landscape or the ice floes as we sailed past.
For me, this was the most beautiful place I have ever visited – from dazzling blues and whites to ghostly shades of grey and (on one pretty terrifying snowmobile journey), a total whiteout.
Highlights were: driving a dog-sled of huskies (with the brilliant Green Dog Huskies) across a pristine snowfield; riding the aforementioned snow-mobile-of-terror over melting sea ice and through mountain valleys in virtually no visibility; watching Northern fulmars swooping just inches above mirror-glass seas without ever breaking the surface (these are amazing sea-birds, related to the albatross – they live to be 80 years old and their life-cycle echoes our own); hearing the boom of a calving glacier falling into the sea beside me; and (best of all) sailing to the 80th parallel, to the edge of the sea-ice that surrounds the polar ice cap.
My fascination with polar regions started to creep into my art a few years ago when I exhibited a couple of paintings of (captive) polar bears swimming underwater.
To be clear, I’ve no desire to get close enough to a bear in the wild to be able to paint him en plein air. But I’ve wanted to visit, to experience Arctic light; to see for myself the wild landscape and to be inspired to paint a series of paintings for exhibitions in the coming year. In reality I saw so many amazing and beautiful scenes that the challenge will be to select the images that move and inspire me most – though that’s a pretty pleasant problem to have.
Since my return I’ve not been able to clear the time to truly start into trying to capture this amazing place in pastel. I’ve only been able to complete this very quick, small 25x20cm sketch of Lilliehammer but I’m really looking forward to trying to do justice to this epic landscape with some large scale paintings.
I know that I am incredibly privileged and lucky to have been able to go and see all that I did. But the experience has also inspired and challenged me. Svalbard is a temperature gauge for the health of the world we live in and it feels the impact of climate change more keenly than the rest of us. Whilst Svalbard is classed as a desert, temperatures and precipitation there are both rising, causing glaciers to melt and retreat and the icecap to shrink.
On board our ship I met Hilde Falun Strom, a Norwegian woman who in 2015 survived an avalanche in Longyearbyen (the largest town in Svalbard) which swept away twelve of her neighbours’ houses. For Hilde the avalanche was a deadly side-effect of climate change literally on her doorstep and it has prompted her to action. In 2019 she and another woman (Sunniva Sorby) became the first two women to ‘overwinter’ alone in a remote trapper hut on Svalbard. What started as a nine-month stay was extended as a result of covid. The two women started an environmental NGO, “Hearts in the Ice”, which is raising awareness of climate change and teaching people across the world to embrace b, through action. Throughout the time they were isolated at the hut, they conducted citizen science experiments on behalf of a wide range of researchers, including NASA.
Although I’m desperate to return, the polar winter, with its four months of darkness in temperatures of -30 degrees is something I can barely imagine and I was hugely moved and inspired by Hilde’s experience and her bravery. You can read more at www.heartsintheice.com But I’ve left Svalbard inspired and encouraged to do what I can to make my footprint on the world smaller; to be a more responsible consumer, to waste less and to try to protect this incredible world around us.