It may be around 600 years since anyone attended a service at Hvalsey church. Even if you are in a hurry, and I wasn’t, the journey to this outpost of Nordic life still takes a little while.
So I set off from Scotland for some days of travelling. The first was on a large jet plane full of visitors going home to America but, in the middle of the second day, I arrived with 30 or so others on the twice weekly little flight to the nearest airport. The sun shone from a clear sky, and a warm and persistent breeze blew from the higher ground. Low willow bushes covered the hill sides like grey-green fur. The ground was covered with a profusion of yellow, blue and purple flowers and icebergs glistened in the bay.
Harebells (Campanula Gieseckiana) at Narsarsuaq
That night I spent near the airport and next day took a boat across the loch, for there is no road around it, to the small village on the opposite side. This is where, some 1,000 years ago, Eric the Red set up his farm and called it Brattahlid, though they now call it Qassiarsuk. It is set in an area of gentle slopes where it catches the warmth – sweet peas are to be found growing wild – and is now the centre for the area. There are three or four sheep farms. There is a well-stocked shop selling groceries and ammunition, a primary school and a dormitory as well as a bright modern church. Behind the village there are hay fields and some turnip crops. Scattered amongst all this, are the foundations of the Norse buildings. They must have been made of turf above a couple of courses of stone. It is these stones that remain and that trace the outlines of the long house, the farm buildings and the original church.
But, it was still a long way to Hvalsey. The slow boat, more of a miniature ship, takes around 5 hours to go down the loch to the small town of Narsaq. It is both a charming village of brightly painted wooden houses set under a steep and striking mountain, and something of an industrial centre with its abattoir and fish processing factory. We will hear more of it in years to come as the valley behind has strategic minerals which have attracted the attentions of the US and China.
The journey continued the next day on the regular boat to Qaqortoq. In the second Nordic colonisation of Greenland this was known as Julianehåb and was a centre for the whalers, some of whose houses remain around the central square. A kayak regatta was in progress and later some of the participants were to be found celebrating. Their resilience had almost matched that of the children paddling and splashing in the sea while their parents watched the races.
The next day was the final leg of the journey. Early on there was some mist but this had cleared during yet another calm, sunny morning. Dressed in stifling survival suits, the few passengers set off in a small rubber dinghy equipped with an enormous engine. It roared at a tremendous speed along the coast jumping between the crests of the, fortunately very small, waves. We weaved between the icebergs but then, after an hour or so, entered a large, ice-free bay backed by high, and surprisingly green, hills. At the very head of the bay, almost hidden by a substantial island, stands the church.
The Church at Hvalsey
It is a modest enough building. A rectangle of thick dry stone walls, now entirely lacking a roof, set in flower filled grassland a few yards up from the shore. There is an arched east window, and a small west window above the door way, but it must have been a dark place when it was used. No tower nor grand pillars nor flying buttresses. It was built for the local people. Archeologists tell us there were maybe 30 farms in the neighbourhood and there are some traces of the main one close by the church. Despite its favourable position, only one small, isolated farm remains today some way off to the east.
They say that the last record of the old Norse colony in Greenland concerns a wedding here at this church in 1408. And then silence.