King Haakon’s cabin

Eric Kendall, 15 October, 2019
Buckingham Palace it isn't, but this northerly royal 'residence' has its own particular charm, and a fascinating place in the history of Norway.

Of all the royal residences around the world, King Haakon’s cabin on the slopes of Ruten, the 1500-metre summit south-west of Fefor, must be the most minimal. I can only put its extreme austerity down to the fact that it was built before Norway hit oil and the country’s sovereign wealth fund reached one trillion dollars. Even in a wintery world where cabins tend to be basic and simply about respite from the elements, this cabin stands head and shoulders above the crowd in its lack of anything other than four small walls and a roof.

Actually, that’s not quite true. There’s technology here, of a basic sort, in the form of a double door arrangement and tiny hallway, aimed at keeping the ferocious weather on the outside. While good in theory, it doesn’t work. So a reasonable quantity of snow is to be found inside the hut at any given moment during winter. This may in fact be a design feature, as there’s also a small woodstove, matches and firewood with which to warm the space and - potentially - to melt snow in a pan, with which to produce tea. Why go all the way outside to get your frozen water when you can have it delivered just where you need it, by wind-power? Already I’m sensing King H’s green credentials; and I understand he has a cousin who talks to plants.

There’s also a table and bench inside, sporting, along with the wooden walls, some etched graffiti. Being beyond my meagre grasp of Norwegian, these might be cheery “Thorleif woz ‘ere” scratchings or more likely the final desperate messages of adventurers who thought they’d found a safe haven only to discover its limitations – drafty and full of snow – and good for little more than delaying the inevitable. “I leave my skis to my faithful reindeer, Rudolf; the rest I put in trust for the refurbishment of King Haakon VII’s cabin etc. etc.”; that sort of thing. There’s probably a bit of “I am just going outside and may be some time”, as well.

None of which makes it sound like a place to visit voluntarily. But the view is tremendous, and – what with the stiff climb to get here – the sense of achievement on arrival is not to be sniffed at. And if you pick the right day weatherwise, the chances of making it back to the hotel above lake Fefor, for tea and cake, are pretty good. Probably the biggest challenge, unless you really fancy your downhill skills on cross-country skis, is the descent to the lake. Even choosing the gentlest way down, impressive speeds are reached: it’s Wallace & Grommit go skiing, but with consequences, as demonstrated by occasional human-shaped imprints in the deep snow beside the track when a combination of skill and nerve failed and a skier bailed out.

Back at the Fefor Hotel the story of the King’s cabin and much more is told in the historic photos which line the old log walls. King Haakon – a Danish prince brought in to be king of the ‘new’ Norway in 1905 when its union with Sweden was dissolved – knew he had to get his skiing up to speed if he was to be fully embraced by Norwegians. Fefor was where he practised, along with his British wife Queen Maud and their son Crown Prince Olaf. Hence the hut.

Among their entourage was Fridtjof Nansen, celebrated polar explorer, Nobel peace prize winner, scientist and diplomat. He was responsible for bringing Robert Scott and his team to Fefor to train for their infamous 1912 expedition to the South Pole, testing out their motor sledge and practising eating ponies. Though it didn’t end well for Scott and his men, he didn’t hold it against the Norwegians or Fefor, writing in his expedition diary, “I long back to wonderful Fefor – of all the places I have visited, Fefor is the best”. It’s a popular sentiment proven by the more loyal visitors who manage not to freeze to death in the Antarctic and continue to return year after year.

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