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A ‘Blue Fox’ runs off with a kittiwake wing (Mike Watson)

Ivory Gull, Nordenskjöldbreen (Mike Watson)

Previously I have always been in a rush to get around the island of Spitsbergen within a sixteen-day timescale so that usually means turning left out of Longyearbyen and heading for the open sea. However, to the right lie the upper reaches of Isfjorden, an often-ignored wilderness of Arctic tundra, huge escarpments and remote glaciers. In fact, the fjord extends so deep into the island of Spitsbergen that it almost cuts it in two. For instance, the large glacier Nordenskjöldbreen that flows into the head of Billefjorden leads directly to the ice cap of Olav V Land on the east coast. I felt sure that some of the wildlife that is commoner on the east coast probably uses these routes across the island and whilst we couldn’t find any bears during our time in Isfjorden (there had been at least one around two weeks earlier) we did see Sabine’s and Ivory Gulls here.


Worker’s accommodation building, Pyramiden (Mike Watson).

Passing this way also allowed a not-to-be-missed opportunity to visit the abandoned Russian mining settlement at Pyramiden (after the mountain of the same name that overlooks the town). I must admit to finding post-industrial decay fascinating, maybe it goes back to growing up on Tyneside in the 1970s surrounded by similar scenes but I also know that such places usually very quickly become havens for wildlife. I heard that Pyramiden was very good for Arctic Foxes and this proved to be worth the admission price alone.

Arctic Fox, Pyramiden (Mike Watson).

Kittiwake colony on the workers’ accommodation building and the covered mine shaft railway line (Mike Watson).

The rickety old wooden jetty gave an idea of what was to come, a ramshackle decaying Arctic town, much of which is being allowed to lie where it falls.  Pyramiden and its coal rights were bought in 1926 by Russia but it was not until after WWII that it flourished as a coal mining community. By 1989 there were 715 men, 228 women and 71 children living there. However, it was abandoned in 1998 owing to poor coal reserves and quickly fell into disrepair. We were picked up in a rather smart Russian bus and transferred to the hotel, which acts as the hub for the tourist activities, which are obviously growing in popularity. Our expedition leader, Phil Wickens, remembers only a couple of people living here not so long ago but there are now 30, employed as guides and hotel workers.

Opposite the hotel, there is a large kittiwake colony nesting on the old workers’ accommodation building, occupying every window ledge and with every ledge now occupied the colony has overflowed onto surrounding buildings and even onto the swings in the adjacent derelict children’s playground. The settlement is a fascinating step back in time to the Soviet era and we were lucky to be allowed inside five buildings: the workers’ canteen, Yuri Gagarin Sports Centre, Swimming Pool, Cinema and the school. Most are now in a state of decay, minus much of their furniture and some have been tidied up a bit unfortunately, presumably to make them a little safer. I particularly liked the canteen and its awesome polar scene mural in the main dining hall. It struck me that whereas I am usually amazed at how much older than expected other artefacts are in Svalbard, I was equally stunned to learn how comparatively new the derelict Russian buildings are, thanks to a combination of shoddy Soviet era workmanship and the harsh winter environment.


Kittiwakes on the workers’ accommodation building (Mike Watson).

Kittiwake playground, Pyramiden (Mike Watson).

Workers’ canteen entrance (Mike Watson).

Mural in the former workers’ canteen (Mike Watson)

Lenin outside the Yuri Gagarin Sports Centre (Mike Watson).

Sports Hall in the Yuri Gagarin Sports Centre (Mike Watson).

Pyramiden (Mike Watson)

Kittiwake colony, Pyramiden (Mike Watson).

Mine shaft railway, Pyramiden (Mike Watson)

Phil Wickens in the school building at Pyramiden (Mike Watson).

It was not just the old buildings that were of interest, a pair of Long-tailed Jaegers flew over the jetty. We saw four separate Arctic Foxes, including two dark morphs (or ‘Blue Foxes’). Those up by the mine workings were taking numerous bits of kittiwake presumably to stash for the winter and the one that walked up to us by the jetty was particularly tame. The flora was good too, with Woolly Lousewort common (although now over) and of thistle proportions! Polar Dandelion and Arctic White Campion were growing everywhere among the buildings and Yellow Mountain Saxifrage was even to be found in coal deposits. A few of us had an evening in the bar of the restaurant sampling some nice Russian beer before hiking back to SV Noorderlicht and the 21st century. Thanks to Captain Floris Spikermann Immink and his crew of SV Noorderlicht and also to our expedition leader Phil Wickens for making the Pyramiden visit possible.

Phil Wickens at Pyramiden Jetty (Mike Watson).

Arctic Fox, Pyramiden Jetty (Mike Watson).




Long winter shadows fall over the Westbury White Horse in Wiltshire.

THE CHALK DOWNLAND OF WILTSHIRE has numerous fabulous historical sites and on Boxing Day we visited the Westbury White Horse on what is thought to have been the site of one of the most important battles in English history, Ethandun. In early May AD878 Alfred’s force of maybe as many as 4000 Saxons of the Somerset, Wiltshire and Hampshire fyrds defeated the ‘Great Heathen Army’ of Danes (or Vikings depending on the author) led by Guthrum the Old. This was the last major conflict in a long series between the Danes and The Kingdom of Wessex and after their defeat a treaty resulted in the Danes more or less ceasing large scale raiding and saw them settle in East Anglia. Meanwhile much of the ancient Kingdom of Mercia was absorbed into Wessex and Alfred became the first king of most of modern day England. The presumed site of the battle is a formidable Iron Age hill fort (Bratton Camp) between the villages of Eddington (Ethandun) and Westbury, although other historians have suggested alternative sites.  Bishop Asser’s ‘Life of King Alfred’ written in AD893 included the following account of the battle:

‘Fighting ferociously, forming a dense shield-wall against the whole army of the Pagans, and striving long and bravely…at last he [Alfred] gained the victory. He overthrew the Pagans with great slaughter, and smiting the fugitives, he pursued them as far as the fortress’.

The Battle of Ethandun took place outside the fortress and afterwards, the surviving Danes took refuge inside it, from where they were eventually starved out by Alfred and forced to surrender. The terms included leaving Wessex and the Danes' leader, Guthrum had to agree to be baptized. He ruled as King of East Anglia until his death in AD890. I wonder if the result may have been very different had the three sons of Ragnar Lothbrok (Ivar, Ubbe and Halfdan) not parted company with the Great Heathen Army and depleted their numbers in the process. The history of the Vikings in England has been in fashion lately with TV Series like ‘Vikings’ and Bernard Cornwell’s ‘The Last Kingdom’ and the Lothbrok brothers feature in both of them. It was interesting to have a closer look at one of the sites of the action and imagine the Viking shield wall lined up on Bratton Camp.

The 55 metres tall Westbury White Horse was constructed in the late 1600s to commemorate the battle, as was a trend at the time in the south of England and it was maintained until the 1950s when it was preserved as white-painted concrete. More recently its surface was restored in 2007. It is a shame they couldn’t get rid of the unsightly joints in its surface. Even though I left my binos at home today it was hard not to notice a Peregine that cruised effortlessly past over the white horse at eye level, followed closely by a raven. Fantastic stuff! Just to the north at Avebury, we also had a walk in the late afternoon sunshine around part of the Neolithic henge monument belonging to the UNESCO World Heritage Site that includes Stonehenge.  Amazing that somewhere like this should only be in the ‘also’ category!

Alexander at Avebury Ring.