Retreat centre.
240 km north of Oslo, Lia Gård lies high up in the mountains with Lake Storsjøen below. Image: Lia Gard.

Beryl Burton escapes London for a week to experience living high up in the mountains

As soon as the vehicle turned on to an unpaved road leading through a large pine forest, I knew I had made the right decision to come to Lia Gård. All I knew was that it was a retreat centre in the middle of a large forest in the mountains of Norway. Living in Central London, just off Oxford Street, it sounded just the sort of place for a week’s break. I was not disappointed.

The journey to Oslo was over in no time. I had been a bit apprehensive. I had never been to Oslo, but needn’t have worried. The train north left from right beneath the airport. I enjoyed the high-speed journey through the beautiful countryside, full of red houses. I had discovered on an earlier visit to Norway that many houses are painted red because in the early days, only the rich could afford white. The poor had to make do with the cheaper red made from ochre and fish oil.

There was no trolley service on the train; a vending machine served the purpose. About two and one-half hours later, I was picked up at Koppang Station along with two other guests.

The sunlight filtered through the trees as the vehicle drove along. After about 20 minutes we came to a clearing and there in front of us was a building. It seemed to climb the hillside. I caught the blue glitter of a lake below in the distance. I enquired about the grass growing on its roof. I was told it is a common form of insulation in the countryside.

Inside, I was faced by an almost vertical slate stairway. A room opened on either side of each step. I looked at my suitcase, then at the stairs, and wondered how high I would have to go to reach my room. Maybe to heaven? But no, my room was but two steps up and very comfortable. All had French windows, either overlooking the lake or the hillside.

I was fascinated by the centre’s architecture. Wherever possible, glass walls/windows took full advantage of the spectacular view. A cloister-like passage of glass walls linked the public rooms and formed a square in the centre of the building, overlooking a garden. The rooms all had beautiful wooden floors, while the passageways were made of slabs of slate.

On the other side of the passage, the rooms overlooked trees, the lake, and a large mountain. There was all-year-round under-floor heating, supplied by water from a well through a closed system of pipes which went down to hot rocks deep below.

At dinner I met the others who had booked for this prayer and painting retreat in English. There were seven of us: from England, Sweden and Norway. The food was very good, sourced locally where possible. For example, the moose was from the forest.

I later learned that Lia Gard is run by ‘husfolk’ (house people) who live, work and pray together, guided by Ingeborg and Sigmund, the owners. All they did was undergirded by prayer. The service was second-to-none. Nothing was too much trouble. The only desire was to please. To give an idea: at breakfast there were about five different kinds of milk. I asked for a special popular Danish honey, and hey presto, there it was the next day.

The farm on which Lia Gard is situated has existed since before the Black Death. It became deserted during this time due to its isolated position. It came back into use when a large number of Norwegians moved to the United States. It was not until the 1970s, that its potential was seen and the place started slowly to evolve to a place of retreat.

While the others painted, I sat reading in the sun on a bench placed on a hill near the house, which took advantage of the view of lake and forest. The only sounds were birdsong and the wind in the trees. At other times I explored the forest, making sure I stayed on well-trodden paths for I was warned that I could get lost. It seems that the bears and wolves are returning to the forest but are no threat to humans. I still did not wish to meet either.

The days were long, as the sun never really set. A bright twilight took the place of night. One evening, after dinner, Sigmund kindly invited us to see the little stone Orthodox chapel he had built (he was Lutheran). It was one of seven chapels scattered throughout the forest, each with a different theme. The idea was that people walking through the forest would have a place to shelter and rest wherever they may find themselves.

The Greek Orthodox chapel was tiny, the only stone building on the farm. It was painted white. A large wooden stove had its own alcove, while another alcove held the altar. Sigmund explained that when he had started to build the chapel, he had no idea of what he was doing. Help came just as he needed it: an architect turned up, so did a glass-designer and someone put him in touch with an ikon painter in Damascus. The latter later brought the ikon and installed it in the chapel.

Another evening, Sigmund took us to see the wooden cabin where the foresters used to work. The cabin, built of fat logs, had not been altered since it had been built in the 18th century. Next to it was a cabin where the men used to live in the winter months. There was no form of transportation out of the forest. During the winter snow made it impossible to leave.

This cabin contained one low bunk bed, built along three of its walls, and a wood-burning stove. Sigmund decided to make us pancakes. He explained that the idea was started to entertain visiting children. The place has been dubbed ‘The Pancake House’. We were ushered in and before you knew it, he set before us delicious pancakes.

All in all, I had a wonderful time. Never have I experienced a place which I felt was perfection: location, accommodation, food, hospitality and weather all came together to form a perfect package. As the leaflet says, among other things, Lia Gard is a place ‘Where one can just be.’ I was.

Lia Gård, Koppang, Norge