Lights at the End of the World
“The End of the Universe is very popular,” said Zaphod. … “People like to dress up for it. … Gives it a sense of occasion.”
Douglas Adams, The Restaurant at the End of the Universe
The End of the World is actually rather small. In this age of over-hyped marketing, it probably comes off as anticlimactic.
But it does have a restaurant, and when I visited the spot, it was open.
On a map, the site appears as tiny point on the end of series of islands at the mouth of Oslofjorden, on the western side, looking into the Skaggerak: Verdens Ende, a little place on the island of Tjøme, two isles south of the historic city of Tønsberg in Vestfold. In the early 1900s it gained popularity as an area for Norwegian summer holidaymakers, drawn to the fishing, the swimming, and the beautiful landscape of smooth, rounded stone jetties reaching into the islet-studded sea.
It was the tourists who bestowed on the location the moniker “World’s End” – presumably because, in those days, it was the farthest point on land they’d reach for vacation. Or perhaps it symbolized the holiday termination of involvement with a contentious workaday world that, much like our own, had grown too tiresome to be tolerated any longer.
When the Vrengen Bridge finally connected the island of Nøtterøy to Tjøme in 1932, the little restaurant, a saltwater aquarium, and a replica of a vippefyr – a beacon to aid ships in navigating the rocky straits – were constructed as attractions for the influx of visitors. (The aquarium closed in the 1970s.) And even then, the name Verdens Ende was encouraged as a “brand” for the site – though, as the Norwegian Wikipedia entry emphasizes, it reflects only the vacationers’ worldview. Tjøme’s natives were fisherfolk and whalers who, until the late 20th century, viewed the entry into the sea as the beginning rather than the end.
Like the proverbial light at the end of a tunnel – another marketing concept that was being employed widely this June to sustain Norwegian hopes that road and rail work might someday actually be finished – it was the vippefyr that attracted me to Verdens Ende. My Norwegian companion emphasized that Tjøme (nowadays nicknamed Sommerøya, “the summer island”) is largely home to some of the country’s wealthier vacationers, who are the principal landowners on the isle. Included among these are the Norwegian royal family, with all its quirks.
Being principally interested in seals, gulls, and the landscape of hvalskrottberger (rocks reminiscent of whale carcasses) that have been curved over millennia by the passage of glaciers, I was wary of the intrusion of human luminaries onto the scene. But this is Norway, where “celebrity” does not mean paparazzi and stretch limos and motorcades. After all, we once sat but a table away from NRK television personality Torkjell Berulfsen, in the café at the old Holmenkollen ski jump four years earlier, and no one was flustered.
It seemed a safe assumption that the rich and famous wouldn’t be in the way.
In fact, it was this year’s wet Norwegian summer that caused us the most on-site difficulties as we scrambled for views and angles on the beautiful scenery. As we trained our cameras toward sea birds, skerries, and sailboats weaving among them (where an elusive seal allowed me a very distant silhouette), behind us marched a grim bank of dark clouds in a determined procession.
But there was always the vippefyr for shelter.
Being only a replica, the little stone beacon had never seen actual use to light the passage from the Skaggerak into Oslofjord – and just as well. Though widely employed in Scandinavia, especially in Denmark, before the 18th century, the bascule system of counterbalancing a basket filled with a coal or wood fire and angling it as required was never terribly effective as a navigational aid. Neither, I suspect, was the iron pot with fire in it that constituted the beginnings of the first lighthouse in the Tjøme area, Store Færder Fyr.
Still, to look today across from the vippefyr to the Færder Lighthouse out in the Skaggerak is to summarize the history of seafarers’ passage among the shoals and skerries of the region. While today’s intervening pleasure craft boast GPS systems, radios, and lights, on either side of their passage are reminders of a lonelier, less comfortable, and less crowded time in which life at the End of the World was no holiday jaunt.
Finally the rain came down, rendering sculptor Nina Nesje‘s controversial 2004 bronze “Sjømannshustruen” (Seaman’s Wife) all the more appropriate as she trudges with her children along the harbor. (The controversy had centered on Nesje’s being self-taught, with no association to a formal arts organization. Happily, an elitist passion for name prestige didn’t get in the way here either.)
I was determined before leaving to go up to the restaurant. To abandon it because of a little rain would have been an affront to, well, Life, the Universe, and Everything.
Far simpler than what Douglas Adams dreamed up, the restaurant looks much the same as it did when constructed by Tjøme local Petter Appelsvold in 1933. Though thoroughly modernized inside and now boasting a Web camera on the roof, it remains a site leisurely inhabited for 80 years by coffee-drinking summer visitors (and, during World War II, by occupying Germans), providing a fantastic view over the finale of their land-bound world and the start of the unknown.
Just how unknown, I discovered afterward in going over my photographs; for it seems that the camera, like the Hubble Telescope, picks up elements the eye can’t make out while shooting. I had largely avoided a rather unpleasant digging machine on one of the skerries, until a barge pulled toward it and provided an interesting, if not wholly scenic, photo op. When I reviewed those pictures, I was startled to see what were clearly photographs of women – exotically and elegantly clad women, no less – scattered on pedestals around the digger.
A little research turned up that I had arrived at the End of the World just before the beginning of a Chanel photo exhibit. Created by photographer Peter Farago and his wife, stylist Ingela Klemetz-Farago, selections from the portfolio “Northern Women in Chanel” are being presented at Verdens Ende from June 30 through September 30. It seems I didn’t escape celebrities on Tjøme after all.
I’m not sure they’re dressed for the weather – but they’re definitely keeping the Milliways spirit alive.