hidden europe 3

A tundra sketch

by Nicky Gardner


Eighty years after the mine closed: a note from the Arctic island of Bjørnøya.

The entire length of the little railway line is no more than fifty metres before it disappears down the incline into a small cave-like opening cut into the rocky hillside. Little sections of the original rails are still there, never more than a metre or two at a stretch, warped and rusted. The wooden sleepers on which the track was laid are mildewed, eaten away by frost and microbes. All around the remains of the track, tiny splintered fragments of ice sharp rock, the debris of a thousand tundra winters. This is Tunheim on Bjørnøya.

If anyone were still here in Tunheim, there might well be a little commemoration this summer of the eightieth anniversary of the closure of what must surely have been one of the remotest coal mines in the world. It had been a tough summer, temperatures often not rising much above freezing, and in mid August 1925 the few remaining miners packed up and left for good. So for eighty years, the railway has been left to rest, and the entrance to the old mine sealed off to deter the casual passer-by. Not that passers-by are a regular feature of life here in Tunheim, where in theory the summer sun might shine for exactly one hundred days each year if our little island were not cloudy and shrouded in mist for so much of the time.