Friday, 6 November 2020

Dramatic winter light and a stormy escape from the city

We were struggling to work in the city—perhaps it’s the fact that suddenly everyone is working from home, and peace and quiet just became impossible to find, or maybe it’s just the darkness, ever-increasing at this time of year. I managed to find a wee cabin out in the sticks, just before the highlands begin and since yesterday when we arrived I can already feel my mind beginning to calm. I can't believe how lucky I was, managing to find something in our price range, and it’s better than had dared hope for. 

The winds were whipping as we left Reykjavík and threatened to blow us sideways as we crossed Hellisheiði (the high heath between Reykjavík and the south). Bands of rain came in from the sea at Selfoss but we made it, unlocking and fastening gates with numb fingers in the wind and rain. 

It was a wild and windy night, and like two weary travellers, we sought refuge from the storm. We woke up this morning to see our surroundings for the first time, covered in a thin layer of fresh snow. Ravens tumble around the house, and more thick flakes descend diagonal and (with any luck) make safe the plan to prevent our escape. 

We sit at the table and work, continually sipping from tea and coffee and looking out of the window. The view changes on average about once a minute, from eerie dark blue clouds against a sun-speckled mountain, to gentle dog-paw flakes of snow, to full-on sideways blizzard. We’ve had all this in the space of a few hours. One moment it looks benign and calm, the next, positively inhospitable. 

It's eerily beautiful. We even have our own mountain. The luxury of big windows and sitting in the warmth watching the storms go by is just fantastic. The mountain, Bjarnarfell, is increasingly snow-covered as the day goes on, its runnels and gils, filling with snow drifts and glinting periodically in the low sun. Sometimes the whole fell is there, its summit silhouetted against the sky, sometimes only half, its top obscured by cloud, and pretty often we can't see it at all, our view totally obstructed by the sudden encroach of blizzard. 

Now... to try the hot tub!

Tuesday, 6 October 2020

Exploring "Fossagil": More Water Than Rock

Public transport mishaps and a claggy mess on the mountain

In connection with the last few posts on my "proper" blog, I went on another adventure with the aim of writing up the route, but it didn’t quite turn out as intended. Making use of Iceland’s public bus system, Strætó, I had a 25km circuit planned, from Laxness in Mosfellsdalur (east of Reykjavík, on the way to Þingvellir), up Móskarðshnjúkar (the two rhyolite peaks on the eastern side of Esja), and then along the Esja plateau before descending down Gunnlaugsskarð and to the busstop at the bottom of Esja. Clearly, this was an ambitious day with not only a lot of distance and elevation, but extremely tiring ground conditions (the plateau is mile after mile of treacherous boulder field). Moreover, I was wedded to the bus schedule, which meant I could only arrive in Mosfellsdalur by about 12.30 in the afternoon. The forecast was mixed, with rain in the morning but sun and little wind in the afternoon. I decided to go for it.

The morning didn’t look good; the rain was heavy and didn’t let up even a little bit. The bus into Mosfellsdalur is so seldom used that you have to order it in advance, and true to Strætó’s lousy record, my ordered ride never showed up. After several phone calls, a ride eventually materialised but when I arrived at the start of the hike, it was 1.15pm and still chucking it down, though thankfully with no wind.

Autumnal colours beneath Kistufell, late September 2020.

Trying to make the last bus from Esja at around 10.30pm was now pretty ambitious, and this, coupled with the weather, made me less than keen to try. After hiking 6km along a track into the shadow of the mountain, Esja’s flanks and summit were still cloaked in clag, and I was wet to the bone. My planned route clearly wasn’t to be, but it was still a chance to explore the southern and eastern slopes of Kistufell, the subject of a previous blog post. I wanted to explore the valley of Grafardalur between Kistufell and Hátindur as well as get a closer look at the numerous waterfalls that poured over Kistufell’s craggy southern cliffs.

Map covering Grafardalur, east of Kistufell and north of Leirvogsá. Map after Landmælingar Íslands. Kortaflokkur: NGA C763; Kortanúmer: 1613-3; Safnanúmer: 146.13.1

These cliffs proved bountiful subjects of inquiry (more on this later), and I stumbled upon a gem of a gill with a riotous beck at its centre, lined with waterfall after waterfall after tumbling waterfall, so many that the mountain was more falling water than stone or rock. In my head, I think about this place as “Fossagil” or Gill of Waterfalls. Note the one L in Icelandic and two in English. "Gill" is a borrowing from Old Norse and features in several dialects of English, including the topographical terms of Lakeland, where I grew up.

I will write more about the route in a separate post, but for now, enjoy a picture from towards the end of the day, when the clag was still rolling in bands but the rain had stopped. The cloud cleared in sporadic bursts to reveal a blue sky and warm evening light. I had to cross several rivers on the march back, but one in particular caught my eye. I was struck by this perspective on the mountain, with a lone tree eking out its living on an isolated rock at the edge of a beck, with no one to sing its praises.

Friday, 2 October 2020

Tendrils of awareness--of being in the world and walking on it

When I plan an expedition or hike I sometimes spend hours, weeks or even months planning and thinking about the routes. What will the conditions will be like? What do the place names reveal? Will there be any unsuspected treasures, cultural or natural or something in between?

When I return I write pages and pages about the trip, what I saw, discovered, felt, experienced. But I also write technical information, a precise record of the route taken, the conditions underfoot and any points of interest, topographical, geological, ecological or historical. I’m endlessly fascinated, too, by the weather (even when soaking wet after hours of horizontal rain, an Icelandic speciality drenched), a fascination that both British and Icelandic cultures seem to share. The clouds and skies here and endlessly variable and consistently beautiful. 

Wisps of cloud looking south in Friðland að Fjallabaki towards Áltavatn and Eyjafjallajökull. August 2020. 

Getting out and about like this is part of how I feel connected, and how I strive to maintain that connection, to the world around me. As I explore both by mind and foot, I feel my awareness seeping outwards, tendrils of knowledge and experience snaking their way through time and space and constantly enriching my experiences.

Sunlight sparkles on glass in glisten of cloud. Hrafntinnusker, August 2020.

I enjoy the wonderment of natural beauty or cultural interest equally as much as the technical elements of map-reading, navigation and all-round survival in places off the beaten track. It’s a nerdy appreciation for both statistics (distance travelled, elevation gained) as well as equipment and how to use it. For me, this is about combining the desire (the need?) to get out there and see with the limitations of the human body (and mind). If it’s blowing 60mph will I be able to gaze in one direction long enough to see the landscape I’ve come to experience; if I’ve hiked 20km through mist and snow and hail, will I have gained anything from the experience, other than being able to sleep like a log at the end of it, and really enjoying that burger? I fully believe that desk-bound knowledge is only one element of the things we have to learn and share; the rest of it comes from getting out there, being, feeling, talking, seeing. This is true for someone like me, who researches landscape and place names, but really for anyone who is interested in people and place, no matter what your specialism. Can you really be said to understand something until you’ve seen it in the flesh; can you understand a person until you’ve seen the place they live(d) in and walked their landscape with your own feet? 

Exploring the fjord just north of Qaqortoq in south Greenland, close to the Hvalsey church, one of the most striking and lasting remains from Norse Greenland. July 2019.

Despite all this, it took me a long time to put something together that I wouldn’t mind sharing. Surely all this research/thinking could be useful to others as well, right? Part of the final push was realising that I had nothing to lose, that if no one read or understood it, the world was no worse off than before; and if, by some miracle, it encouraged someone to head out their front door and explore somewhere new, then I would have achieved something. Also, like all creative people, producing material to share can feel like a huge pressure and the temptation is to make it perfect before letting even one person read it. This is of course a load of bollocks, nearly impossible to do, and even if you think you’ve achieved it, I guarantee you’ll read it again the next day and find something wrong with it. No. Experiences and knowledge are to be shared, and by sharing, we can keep some of the things we experienced; we can develop our thinking, our analytical skills and make it clearer in our minds what we know and what we think. 

So last month, I wrote up a small piece about hiking on of the lesser known routes on Esja, Reykjavík’s city mountain. This was an obvious choice, as I’d hiked the route countless times before and had a wealth of knowledge and stories to draw upon. Also, being back in Iceland, but only ever temporarily, I have to make do with public transport and Esja is one of the most accessible places from the city.  It's not perfect, but it's out there, I did it. You can read the post here, on my "proper" blog.

Exploring the Esja plateau. August 2019. 

Saturday, 26 September 2020

Friday September 25th; Clear Skies, Cold Wind and the Onset of Winter

The last month has been full of autumn colours. The mountains were speckled with reds and pinks as the berry plants shed their fruit, turning the fellsides crimson as if bathed in the light of the setting sun. In the city, the leaves turn yellow and brown and gold, and to open the front door is to risk admitting a gust of wind and a flurry of leaves


Autumnal Bláberjalyng (Bilberry)
Near Landmannalaugar in Friðland að Fjallabaki

The air has been clear, the sun bright, but the wind bitterly cold, descending straight out of the north and over the mountain, frosting windscreens and chilling bones. This northerly wind bears winter on its back, ushering in snow on the mountain tops and heralding the end of autumn, though the leaves have not yet finished falling. 

With northerly winds come clear skies, low temperatures and the season's first frosts. This combination is peculiar; the blue skies and sun lure you outside, but in reality it's so cold you wish yourself back in the comfort of home the second you leave the house. These conditions even have their own name in Icelandic, gluggaveður, or window weather. It looks clear and bright outside, but really it's best viewed from the window. 

These conditions, while not ideal for walking, are perfect for sitting in the pool, and for the first time this side of summer, I could sit in the 40° pool for a whole hour without overheating. I had to run from the changing rooms to the hotpot, but once in the water I sank to my neck and really luxuriated, breathing the cool breeze and basking in the low evening sun. It's fascinating how much the pool experience varies from one week to the next, depending on the air temperature, and of course the wind, the rain, the hail and the snow. It was only last week I had to to duck beneath the water to avoid the descending hail stones, though bizarrely the air temperature was warmer and I was forced into the cooler and shallower pool before long. 

Despite the reds and golds, autumn, which in most countries lasts a couple of months at least, seems to have bypassed us this year and we've gone straight from summer to winter. Sunglasses are replaced by hats and gloves and dripping noses; and as tyres are switched from summer to winter, the streets resound with the sound of thousands of small metal studs rolling on tarmac. Summer coats are pushed to the backs of wardrobes and out come winter parkas, with big fluffy hoods and inches of insulating layers. Gone are the months of activity and light; sunset arrives earlier with each passing day and the time for keeping warm has come.

Thursday, 24 September 2020

Thursday 24th September. The wind from the north; cold, clear skies and the Northern Lights.

Thursday 24th September. The first northern lights this side of summer. My fingers ache and tingle with cold but my eyes glint green with light and colour. 

Clambering onto the shed behind the house, we are amidst gardens and rooftops, away from the streetlights, gaining height and perspective and framed with treetops and gable ends, there was the sky, alive with a streaming, a flowing trail of green haze. Flickering and moving with every second, the lights mutate and reform effortlessly, changing beyond recognition in an almost imperceptible moment of transition; but then, it can never have been just one moment because it is all transition, never the same shape or form from one minute to the next. In the same way that no two persons’ fingerprints are the same, no second in the life of the aurora borealis exactly resembles the one that came before it. 

The stream twists and doubles back on itself, flowing along its length, then pulsing and stretching, before curling up like a frond of fern, before changing again and fanning wide across the sky. The ribbon twists around itself before becoming a bedsheet, filling up the entire sky with a pale green glow.

We head to the seafront, climbing over rocks and boulders to see the lights over the bay, isolated in the darkness of sky and water. But we return to our shed rooftop before bed, and see 4 streams flow from a single point, slaloming in unison, echoing and mimicking each other. These streams pulse with flowing light for several minutes before they blend together and begin an effortless sweep across the sky. 

Some bands are thicker now, like stray lines of cloud, scattered and elusive, others mere wisps of vapour, but as if on some unseen, unheard cue, all distinct paths suddenly fade to leave the night sky with only a pale pastel hue, soft and wide and calm. 

Seeing something like that stays with you, something so beautiful, so simple and so unmoved by anythings occurring on the planet’s surface all those miles below. It doesn’t appear for show—a performance for applause—it merely is. And how lucky are we to witness this perverse accident of physics, that just happens to be beautiful. 

Picture taken in September 2020 by Marc Daniel Skibsted Volhardt, teacher of Icelandic at the University of Iceland. You can see more of his pictures on his instagram account here

Monday, 21 September 2020

September 21st 2020; Autumn waining, Winter waxing

I went for my second Covid test since arriving in Iceland in June. Voluntarily, this time, in a bid to improve the data that the Icelandic government has to work with. In the morning the sun is shining and I stand outside drinking my coffee and soaking up the rays. En route to the testing centre we get a glimpse of Esja and she’s covered in a fresh coat of snow, only a light dusting, nothing like a full layer, but still, the first hint of winter. The sun shines for most of the morning and allows for a short “walking meeting”—the safest form of face-to-face meeting in Covid times—though even after half an hour, my cheeks are beginning to feel the chill. And then this afternoon, the sky darkens completely, electric lights go on and hail descends, blown diagonal by the wind. Office-workers look up from their computers, and pedestrians grimace and lean into the wind, their faces shining in the shower of hail. The wind whistles through window cracks and ice splatters the panes. The browned leaves of trees turn cloudy white and glistening; and flagpoles rattle, their slackened ropes tapping out the beat of the storm.

The end to our hopes for automatic promotion. Can we even do it in the playoffs? Yet another League One draw.

 Blackpool drew to Accrington Stanley for the second time this season and weren’t allowed to play the sort of passing, free flowing football...