Monday, February 08, 2016

Weather,wood and wool

Having risen early to try to record again the first seven minutes of the seventh chapter of the second book of The Well at the World's End, (alas and alack, I fear I am verily fed up unto the back teeth with it, forsooth), I find that, while I have worked out that it is probably the laptop fan which is causing the interfering whine on the soundtrack, even if I position the mic and myself differently to avoid this, the escalating winds of storm Imogen are really making far too much racket round the house for a quiet recording environment, or at least one in which I can concentrate enough to read aloud. So as I'm up already I'll start a post, since, touch wood, we still have internet connection, power etc.

I dislike high winds. Some of my earliest blog posts, I recall, were expressing anxiety about this meteorological fact of life, it must have been another windy winter nearly ten years ago. Especially I worried about what would happen if Victor's trees blew down on our house, in particular his largest chestnut tree. Changing bedrooms, so I heard the wind less and we were not directly under the predicted downward trajectory of said tree, and accepting the futility of trying to communicate this concern in any effective way to Victor have to some extent alleviated the fears, but the source of them has continued to grow, as trees will.

A week or so ago I encountered his remaining sister in the village, old Hélène, who is 96 and almost totally blind, outside the house, and she entered into her usual tirade against her brother and his trees and how inconsiderate and irresponsible he was to let them grow so near our house. This was one reason I had stopped trying to talk to Victor about them, I knew he had his sisters on his back pleading our case, and he didn't listen to them so why would he listen to me? Or maybe staying on friendly terms with him so he might just be concerned with our welfare might be more effective. One of the reasons Hélène, and their other sister, Marcelle who's in the retraite and Marie-Thérèse who used to live next door, gave for the undesirability of the trees was the amount of leaf litter and the way they blocked the light from the house. The leaves are a minor nuisance to clear up it's true, and make the road untidy, but in fact the effect on the light, which really is more from the screening effect of the coppiced shoots than the big tree, is something I love. The dancing, ever-changing filtered glow and dappled shade that plays through our windows and onto our walls as the sun moves round the house through the year, green in spring and gold in winter, making it into a great seasonal sundial, is a joy to me.

So I agreed with old Hélène but tended to shrug and laugh it off anyway, but then a day or so later, just before these spells of stormy winds moved in on us, two burly blokes with a couple of mighty chain saws and a piece of robust wheeled agricultural plant with a massive extending arm thing arrived. They held the tree in place with the arm and made short work of downing it onto Victor's patch and cutting the thickest part of the trunk into a couple of pieces. This was done in the darkling dusk (hence I didn't photograph the operation), with no ear protection or any other safety gear. Victor watched from a few paces off, and we watched from the window, while I formulated in my head the French for 'the monsieur has been crushed by a tree/cut his hand/arm/leg off/himself in two with a chainsaw', figuring I'd probably be able to get to the phone more quickly than Victor.

The latter, all ninety-four years and four foot eleven of him, has been having a whale of a time with his own chainsaw, axes, wedges etc, chopping the old tree up, as well as clambering about on a flimsy ladder trimming the remaining smaller ones. His daughters try to keep tabs on him but they don't live there, and he's a stubborn old git and will do what he wants anyway. When I told him on my way out to be careful up there he chuckled like a wicked gnome and carried on hanging off the ladder with one arm while sawing at a branch with the other. Tom had just given him a bottle of wine as a thank you for dispatching the tree, I don't know if he'd been drinking it. It was Chilean red not cider or calva so maybe he wasn't really interested, but his daughter looked appreciative anyway.

I clambered up the bank and took a photo of the section of the tree, then enlarged it and tweaked the contrast to count the rings. I've a feeling it wasn't the full bole at the base, so may have been only a coppiced shoot of an even older tree, but even so I make it about thirty-eight rings. It first saw the light when I was doing my O levels, was a mere sapling when I left school, at which time Victor was probably contemplating his retirement, and I've marked some other points:

Interesting to note it must have withstood the 1987 hurricane which flattened swathes of woodland here and took the roofs off most of the houses in the village, and laid low many fine old beeches in the park opposite my parents' house in Brighton, which I remember looking out at for long sad hours the February after when my father died. But then it was still quite a young tree then, and must have bowed but not broken, like the reed in the fable.


Changing the subject, my first lopapeysa! The design, called Antipodal, came from a recent book and is quite modern and atypical in some ways (including the rolled turtle neck), though the construction is traditional. You knit a big tube for the body up to the underarms, two small tubes for the arms, then join them all together into one yoke which you decrease in size, changing colours and making the patterned bit, up to the neck. So there's very little making up or sewing to do and all the fun stuff, patterning and shaping, comes near the end, so you have it to look forward to and don't lose interest. They're also fairly inexpensive and quick to make, as the wool is quite bulky, though this is made from the thinner Lopi-lite version.

In fact the yoke is really too deep, so the sleeves join too low and if I wear a jacket over it that pushes it up under the arms a fold appears under the neck. I can now see how this might be avoided, and half-considered unravelling some way back and reshaping it, but decided I'd rather just wear it as it is and go on and make another one, which I have already set about doing, though from other wool than Icelandic, which is something of a come-down since lopi wool is extraordinarily gorgeous: tough, seemingly harsh but luminous, unique and surprisingly warm and comfortable once you're inside, just like Iceland in fact. However, I can't really justify sending away for more of it while I've stacks of stashed stuff already, but then there'll be satisfying possibilities of arithmetical adjustments to allow for the different yarn. The study and perfecting of this form of knitting is much appreciated and has a large and enthusiastic following; I can vouch for how compulsive it is.

Reading up on the history of Icelandic knitting, I've learned that while wool and knitted garments have long been an important part of their culture and economy, the patterned yoke pullover is not so very old, dating from the mid-twentieth century, and they were originally called Greenlandic sweaters, not because they came from Greenland but because the patterned yoke resembled the decorative neck elements of some traditional Greenland folk costumes. 

So there you go.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

January ticking over

I don't seem to have checked in here for a bit. An agreeable number of small, fairly constructive projects and events have been occupying me, here are one or two.

My first week or so of recording for Librivox. I've used them a lot over the last couple of years, and very much admire the aims and ethos of the project, an appreciation which has grown since actually becoming involved, it really is a work of patience and integrity. It struck to me as a worthwhile and useful outside activity to which I could commit some time and effort without in fact having to leave the house. It does demand, however, an early start - for quiet, solitude, concentration, lack of self-consciousness and free time on the big computer -  respecting external deadlines, learning some new technical stuff with the software which I find not intuitive and fairly challenging - they don't turn anyone away because of their reading skills or lack of them, but do insist on the recording quality being as good as possible and a level of self-editing with it. I also find that it's helping with the lack of focus I mentioned before; reading with a view to reading aloud demands an attention to detail and meaning, like making yourself chew small mouthfuls. I'm getting over my intense, if fairly normal, dislike of my own recorded voice, and possibly improving it a bit, trying, with care but not too much artifice, to smooth out the staccato crackle I always thought made me sound like a petulant six year old, and the occasional sliding into sloppy Estuary vowels (Hertfordshire isn't quite on the Thames estuary, it's true, but it's heading that way.).

All of which is doing me great good, and it's also rather fun.

Early morning recording session

As may be seen, my recording arrangements are rather makeshift. I very quickly realised that the flimsy cheap desktop microphone is unsatisfactory, or rather unsatisfying, since with a bit of fiddling with the software an adequate sound track can be achieved, but I find myself hankering for something better, more solid, more directed, which doesn't require balancing on a pile of books and total physical immobility other than moving one's lips, and, I admit it, which looks rather more the business. Another volunteer compared it to taking up tennis, at first you make do with your cousin's old cast-off racket, then when you start really enjoying the game you start wanting a good one of your own. So I've got a rather nice looking Samson on a little stand on order; it's cheaper than a tennis racket, honestly.

While with many of the more obscure texts one might be inclined to wonder why bother to record them and who will ever listen, I can see that that's not entirely the point, it's really more like archiving or even archaeology, a question of faithful and patient excavation and recording, in the broader sense of the word. Yet despite all the work that Librivox have put in over the last ten years (and they don't object to duplication anyway), there are plenty of interesting and delightful books still unrecorded.  So far, and it's been fairly slow going to get the hang of what I'm doing, I've recorded half a dozen Alice Meynell poems, one of a collection of Irish folk and fairly tales, collected by Yeats and Lady Wilde and others, about a smartarse atheist priest who gets his comeuppance, and I'm working on two chapters of the second book of William Morris's The Well at the World's End, of which I'm also listening to the first book. Odd to be immersing so in Victoriana, much of it so heavy, ornate, ponderous and melancholy, like some of the furniture I grew up with. Yet beyond the distracting noise of the language, Meynell's 'thees' and 'thous' and aura of religiosity, and Morris's sometimes quite impenetrable emblazoned mediaeval pastiche, sometimes some true and fresh psychological awareness or sweet originality of observation shines through. Good to be renewing my fondness for Morris too, apart from anything else, I think, despite the historical image he has sadly inherited of Rosetti's put-upon cuckold, consoling himself with beardy, romantic Utopianism and pretty curtains, he honestly liked and wanted to understand women in a spirit of real generosity, friendship and admiration.


Still knitting plenty, of course, amongst which my first foray into Icelandic wool, which was in fact three balls of the standard (ie pretty heavy) weight Lopi which I bought not in Iceland but Amsterdam back in September. I felted a sample of it, and went on to make a felt hat. Long ago I had a Nepalese round hat, a kind of pill box shape with a gold-yellow crown and a coloured patterned band around it, which fitted perfectly and always made me feel good. Don't know what happened to it, but I've often thought I'd like to re-create something like it. On this occasion I did not succeed.

The combination of the felting and the depth of the crown looked kind of nice off but wearing it feels like my head is being squeezed inward and upward (can't bring myself to enlarge this photo).  I made the design myself, tulips from Amsterdam, I'm fond of yellow tulips and like ochre shades but can't wear any great expanse of them. However, I have found another use for it as a receptacle for other knitting.


Trouble is the tulips are upside down, I should have stuck with an abstract pattern. It would work quite well as a busker's hat for collecting money in.

I've been on a mitten-making binge too, here are a couple of mitten still lifes.

I find homes for them or keep them.

Even more totally frivolous playing about with colour, I discovered this site, where you can make those kind of colour palettes I see all the time on Pinterest and elsewhere. You simply upload a photo URL, or use one they randomy generate, to pick out colours and make a palette selection, either by clicking directly on an area of the photo or using the grid of shades which the software automatically extracts for you. Here's one from a photo I took of the lake in Reykjavik in the twilight:

and another of a Reykjavik street view, I loved having mountains at the end of the street

and another of darling Molly in the garden on a summer day, not long before she left us

People use them supposedly for decorating schemes, or quilts, or their next season's wardrobe, or whatever, but while I like to imagine knitting handsome Icelandic wool pullovers from the colours of the townscapes, I probably won't get around to it, really it's just a way of pleasantly idling a few minutes when I doubtless ought to be doing something more useful.

Like pulling the school bus out of the ditch just up the road, where it finished up on a morning of scarcely visible black ice which took everyone by surprise:

Not having access to the heavy plant required for this task, I couldn't have done this, though I did go up and offer the lady driver shelter and a cup of coffee, and to commiserate with her on her vehicle's de-roaded state, sharing with her the memory of the time when a full cement mixer truck had done the same thing and had to be left there overnight, no longer turning so presumably the concrete within must have solidified and had to be extracted by heaven knows what process. She declined the coffee as she was waiting for her boss to come and sort things out, the children having been already transferred to another bus. Indeed, a surprising number of people appeared as from nowhere, offering their help and company and curiosity, including Victor of course, next to whose patch the event occurred:

Then Ludovic from next door-but-one who works for the municipality  in some capacity with gear and tackle and some other blokes with a van and the shiny blue commune tractor arrived and the consequent confab lasted a good hour or so, by which time I, like Victor, had retired back to the house, taking photos from the upstairs window. Finally the bus was removed from the ditch and driven off, and life in the village resumed its habitual January quiet.

Which quiet I am greatly enjoying, with some worthwhile projects and agreeable home-based activities, a few other plans still untroublingly small on the horizon. The ice on the road was exceptional, the winter is generally mild and manageable. I walk often, dance sometimes, scarcely visit the garden, mull but don't mope. Sic transit January. Time to go make postcards of my sister's quilts.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Speakers, 'phones, swifts and winders: in praise of stuff

In Jan Krul's Werel-Hatende Nootsaackelijke (On the Necessity of Other Worldliness) the poet wrote that "an overflow of treasures afflicts the heart and buries the soul in the deepest travail"... The playwright Vondel, no Calvinist, warned in similar terms that Amsterdam was "smothered and softened from such an overflow of goods [stof]"

The Embarrassment of Riches, Simon Schama.

I've been thinking about stuff. Interesting that almost the same word was used the Dutch at that time (early 17th century) with much the same sense as it is now: things you didn't need, worldly clutter, unnecessary material overload. And people had the same ambivalent relationship with it, seeking to acquire it and feeling guilty about it, or claiming to. Sometimes the guilt is about it being to one's spiritual detriment, sometimes that it will get in the way of our human relationships, or that it will soften up our collective moral fibre. It was ever thus, as the above quotes, and many more, way back to scripture and the Roman Empire at least, show; dualism may have been condemned as heresy but there has always been a tension for human beings between matter and spirit, it seems to me, with a fear that the former is the enemy of the latter.

I tend to think I'm someone who neither has, needs or wants too much stuff, but then don't we all? Yet I'm always somewhat wary when I hear tirades about the rampant materialism and consumerism the world is apparently sinking under, partly because I can't quite believe it, though I dare say it's true, that people are really so obsessively greedy and materialist and wastefully acquisitive, spending (like all the Athenians and strangers which were there) their time in nothing else, but either to tell, or to hear - or to acquire - some new thing. Also though, I often feel such tirades to be a rather knee-jerk, glib unsatisfactory reaction to our relationship with stuff. 

One of the most frequent truisms, and good money has been spent, I've heard, on studies to establish it, is that happiness is not to be found in the acquisition of goods, of the latest toy or piece of technology, but in joyful interaction with our fellow humans, and in enjoyable experiences. I'm a bit sceptical about the two things being necessarily related, but that aside, what's most of the stuff people acquire for, in fact? Communication, contact, furthering their relations with their friends and relations - indeed the problem often seems to be not that people are becoming remote and alienated from each other that they have too much unremitting connection and availability demanded of them. Otherwise, though, the stuff we acquire serves to help us enjoy the experience of music, film, reading etc, or to research and get closer to all the obscure and wonderful and fascinating things the world contains. Surely these things can be food for the soul? I know there are people who love and hoard useless trinklements, but I think mostly, as we get older anyway, that what we want is to pursue, experience and hold in the mind or the hand for a moment, our idea of beauty, whatever form that takes. I know this is the ideal, and that technology can also be used to further hatred and abuse and all things toxic and ugly, but either way, matter is no more or less than the means to the spirit. 

So I'm quite in favour of stuff I think, within reason. Among that which I personally acquired this Christmas (I order it then give the parcels to Tom to give to me at the appropriate time), was a small Bluetooth speaker - (it's only taken me about fifteen years to know what Bluetooth means)

(black object on the left)

This was in order to listen to podcasts, music and other audio from the small computer anywhere, usually while sitting on my backside making more stuff to fill the world, as can be seen. It's rather bothersome, and I'm a little embarrassed to admit it, but I find now that simply reading alone is becoming quite difficult; I grow restless and find it hard to concentrate, I need something in my hands, knitting of course, but it's not really so easy to do both. I don't know why this is, I fear too much knitting is quite literally scattering my wits (if wits can be literal, being an abstract concept...); I've grown too used to sitting and allowing my thoughts to wander. On the other hand, knitting alone, long tracts of time with just wool and my meandering, often repetitive and inconsequential, sometimes troubling, thoughts, can become heavy or just boring; improving listening is the answer, mind and hands being put to work at once.

The speaker was OK, good to be without the wires so I didn't end up tangled up in yarn and cable like a woolly-minded suicide bomber, or a knitting version of those telepathic people the Shadows put in their space ships in Babylon 5, or something, though the range isn't great. However, part of the point was for Tom and I to be able to retire to our own little bubbles of conciousness sometimes without disturbing each other, and having the speaker chuntering away didn't really serve this end. I found I could stick the cabled headphones into it, but that rather defeated the purpose, and anyway, doing so caused the speaker itself to pack up altogether, so I sent it all back and replaced it with a set of wireless headphones, which are so far so good, and a very cheap, supposedly waterproof, speaker for the odd occasion when it might be useful.

Our on-line retail haul of electronic-related stuff
In fact it seems to me that technology, rather than increasing it, is tending towards reducing the physical stuff, simplifying and minimising the volume of the hardware, aiming towards smaller and smaller units performing more and more functions, and more of these taking place directly on-line. I don't go in for very much of this myself; my 'phone is a 'phone, with an extra mobile one to be mobile, my camera is a camera, with a card which I stick in the big computer to download and edit the photos there, my e-reader is pale grey with buttons. This is because I don't care to replace things till I have to, am rather lazy about learning new operating skills till I have to, and while all these things are getting cheaper all the time too, I think I can still save more money by making do and mending and bolting on extra bits if I have to, which was how I saw the Bluetooth stuff. After all the excitement with that, as a gesture of frugality, I thought it would be a good idea to prolong the life of our fourteen year old dumbphones, which were needing to be kept almost continually on charge, so that I frequently forgot to take mine out with me, by getting them new batteries. Unfortunately, while the batteries were apparently unused, with their stickers still in place, I imagine they may be nearly as old as the mobiles, and don't seem to hold the charge much better than the old ones. Never mind, they cost little, and it puts off decisions about replacement a little longer. 

In fact I am wilfully reluctant about phones, or about vocal telephonic interaction anyway, as I may have said before, though I know a smartphone would allow me to avoid it by being able to text and e-mail anywhere, as well as other benefits. It turns out the main use of the wireless speaker is to use it in conjunction with one's 'phone, so one needn't can't under any pretext curtail a 'phone conversation. Awful idea, a kind of telephonic Sartrian huit clos, IMO. 

Or else people use them for Skype. 

'Skype's marvellous!', asserts my 80+ year old friend J, 'I can be on it with so-and-so for an hour, it's free, and you can see the person!'.

'I'm sure,' I reply 'but I don't want anything to do with it'. 

I've been dragged into Skype conversations with her family, I feel horribly trapped, self-conscious, intruding and intruded on, and everyone looks weird. I'm sure it's just me, and I'd probably get used to it if I had to. Most of the people I know who really love it are grandmothers. Pace Skype users, I know you're the normal sensible ones and I'm not.


Stuff, of course also has the old sense of fabric, cloth, which I suppose has always been one of the ways in which conspicuous consumption could manifest itself. I like stuff like that, too; though I really don't trouble with or spend much on clothes per se, I certainly accumulate more than I can ever use of the stuff that makes stuff. Some of this comes in skeins (or hanks, maybe there's a Brit/US divergence there), which are lovely and solid and feel like something very ancient in their design. Problem is you can't knit from wool in the skein, so it needs to be wound. Tom has always been very good about taking on the traditional tamed man's role of holding and moving the skein for me to wind, but he's not always available, and also, hand wound balls are round, the wool being pulled from the outside, so they bounce around and get dirty, and are a nuisance, even if you don't have a kitten around to do the archetypal kitten thing.

So, I treated myself to a swift and a winder.

The swift is the thing you stretch the wool onto, which takes the place of Tom. This one is an Amish design, very simple with just a stand, arms and moveable pegs, but remarkably smooth and fast in its action, and I do believe a thing of beauty.

The winder, well it winds. But it does it in such a way that instead of a bouncy round ball you have a delightful little cylindrical cake of wool, which remains stable while you draw the thread from the centre. This is formed in such a way that the wool is layered in a kind of honeycomb construction:

Boxing Day afternoon was spent in a blissful whirl, swift and winder spinning in hypnotic wise, winter sun through the window, colour and feel of yarn through my fingers. It took me back to childhood Christmases, when one had toys and things to make things with to set up and play with and put to work; till one put away childish things and only had books and records and such like, things where the interaction was, if not more passive, more within the mind. I had forgotten the pleasure. 

Sadly, I very quickly wound up most of the yarn I have in skeins, even resorting to turning the tapestry wool into tiny cakes, and have no more to play with. It's tempting to go out and buy more, or go internet shopping for it, just for the fun of winding it, but I'll have to knit some up to make room for it first. 

Enough's enough when it comes to stuff.

Turn it off and KNIT something!:
'Turn it off and KNIT something!'


Thursday, December 31, 2015

Iceland, sunsetting

The last Iceland post and the last of the the year. 

I spent my birthday on the Golden Circle tour, in a comfy minibus driven by a charming, funny, knowledgeable man named Thor, in the congenial company of a dozen or so others. Mid-morning, still in pitch darkness, we visited a town sitting on so much volcanic and seismic activity that they baked bread in the ground, grew peppers and tomatoes all year in geothermic greenhouses, and where one of the sights pointed out was a big hole where a house had fallen into the ground one morning. After that is was golden waterfalls, churning geysirs, the old site of the Allthing, and a lake so deep and clear that there are three separate species of Arctic char each evolved for a different depth of water, and scuba divers get vertigo. And much more besides. 

The following morning another minibus picked us up early and took us to the airport, where security waved through our souvenir heavy metal horseshoe complete with spiky nails when we said we wanted to keep it because of the wonderful time we'd had with the horses. We spent our last krona on miniatures of Schnapps, and as I was going through passport control the dour young man frowned at me as he looked at my passport.

'Did you have a good party last night then?'

Was I looking that rough? I wondered, then twigged; I'd been having such a good time for the whole time I kept forgetting about it.

'I had seawolf with lobster sauce, a candle in my ice cream and some very nice schnapps,' I replied.

We landed late but comfortably at Luton in the fog, and went through an hour or two's insignificant but anti-climactic hassle trying to get on a pre-booked bus to Stansted. Once on board, the comparative dreariness and the excruciating easy listening station (I never knew there were so many profoundly mind-numbing cover versions of already mind-numbing smoochy ballads...) was alleviated by exchanging text messages with my lovely niece and her chap waiting to pick us up at Stansted, so neither of us worried about the others too much, and with Glenn here at home, who reminded me that the day, December 13th, was St Lucy's day, and Radio 3 was playing some lovely music from Nordic countries.

I promised myself to look this up on the i-player when I next could, and found it was part of a whole Northern Lights season (most of the programmes are still available to listen), which I'm still relishing discovering, including the 20th century Icelandic composer Jón Leifs

I took so many, often rather haphazard and blurry photos of the Golden Circle and its sights and a few videos too. There is so much to photograph and so much to be said about it but so little perhaps that hasn't been photographed or said before or better, so I thought it best to stick them all together into one montage video, and was able to track down the Jón Leifs Requiem piece to put with it. I'm quite pleased with the video, but especially want everyone to hear the music; it's about five minutes long, so if you have the time, please adjust the volume, put on headphones etc as necessary, and maybe even view it full screen? 


So it only remains to wish everyone the very best for the coming year. The difference between my own blessed state and that of so much of the world can never be reconciled, I know, I've no new platitudes to shed on the matter. 

But I'd share my happiness and good fortune if I could. Happy New Year.

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Iceland, birding and icing (on the cake)

There were plenty of interesting things within a very short distance of our apartment in Reykjavik. Right next door was the National Gallery of Iceland, but I have to confess I didn't go in, in the plan-filled three and a bit days we were there there simply wasn't time, what with eating and drinking and wool shops and all, though it looks well worth a visit.

Then there was the town lake, the Tjörnin, which was just a step away. It was almost entirely frozen over while we were there, except for one corner,  which was densely populated by waterfowl. The lake, despite being in the centre of the city, is famous as a birdwatching paradise all the year round, and has become popularly known as the biggest bread soup in the world because of all the feeding that goes on. Generally it seemed at this time that Icelandic bird life is thin on the ground; the silence when we were any distance from the city was notable, and there were few perching or ground birds to be seen (another reason to return another season...). However, this corner of the 'Pond', as the name translates, was a wonderful exception.

There were ducks and geese a-plenty

the ducks mostly the ubiquitous mallard, but also some tufted ducks, and the geese were greylags:

the swans were whooper swans:

When I was an ornithologically nerdy teenage kid, these were something of a holy grail. While others of my peers were sleeping off their disco hangovers, I was known to get up at a quite unearthly hour of a Sunday morning, get my own breakfast and go and meet a few kindred spirits, others of my age and their worthy elders - fathers, geography teachers or whatever - and drive many many miles to the Norfolk broads to catch a glimpse of unusual water birds. To tick off all three species of British swan in one afternoon was a source of some pride. It was, of course, the appeal of train spotting, but not only, it was also the experience of the wildness and wet*, the openness waterlands, the big skies and the thought of the distances those birds had come to be there.

And here I was, having crossed those distances myself, to a place where the wild, outlandish whooper swans and greylags squabbled on a town pond with seagulls for crusts of bread. 

Waddled and shat on the pavement until, startled by a well-groomed pooch,

they'd take off in a cloud and a clap of wings.

The birds had clear moods and patterns in the day, at night they were sleepy and resting on the ice, in the day calm and alert, and at first light, at about 10 am, they were very lively, and doing a lot of whooping. 

By the time I took the videos they were calming down a bit. Our apartment was just behind the church in the last frame.

During the time we were there, we saw more and more people walking on the ice. Our last evening we decided it had to be done, so we made our way across to the tiny island. In the distance a pair of girls were skating like fairies, and a group of boys stood on the island chatting in Icelandic and stamping and laughing with the kind of elation that youth and icy weather and a Saturday night give rise to. One of them turned to us with glittering eyes and exclaimed in English 'This island is not safe! We are here to protect it from evil!'

We laughed and stamped too, then made our way back over the ice and left them to it.

There's a lovely live webcam of the Tjornin here.

Sunday, December 27, 2015

Iceland, riding

On the evening of the day we went to the Blue Lagoon we went out after the Northern Lights. We were lucky and saw them on our first trip out ( if you don't see them the first time the companies that run the trips offer to take you out again until you do, if you're available). Tom succeeded in taking one or two photos (no mean feat without special equipement), and the guy who took us, a well known successful Lights chaser and photographer, took more including one of us in front of the aurora where we look like a couple of stuffed owls who died of hypothermia, and I think Tom will probably use them - he's doing Iceland posts over at Gwynt and we're trying to avoid too much uxorious duplication. The funny thing is, it was initially the Northern Lights which drew me to the idea of Iceland in the winter, but while I found them impressive to be sure*, and while I'm very glad I did see them, they weren't really the high point of the trip. I think perhaps that was the horses.

In Iceland, we were told, no livestock or even fodder may be imported. There is but one breed of cow, whence cometh the excellent milk, butter and skyr - the yoghurty product of which two pots were left in the apartment fridge when we arrived as part of the next day's breakfast I'd ordered; it is, it seems, almost devoid of fat (presumably that goes to make the butter) and yet has a remarkably thick, rich texture. There is one breed of sheep, which furnish the rough thick Lopi wool with which I am currently besotted, which comes in all shades of earth but also every hue of jewel and berry too, taking the colour with the depth and luminosity of silk; they also provide delicious meat, which, along with the milk and the wool is one of the few things which are plentiful and inexpensive there. And there is one breed of horse, the Icelandic horse, of course, which, though not tall, must never be called a pony.

I hadn't initially thought about the possibility of visiting much less riding any of these marvellous creatures; for some reason I thought it would involve going far into the hinterland and perhaps wouldn't be possible in winter. However, it turned out there were plenty of companies offering visits and rides, even for the likes of us, neither of whom has sat on a horse since we were kids, since when our flexibility and weight have waned and increased in pretty much inverse proportions. We booked a 'Nature Comfort' trip with Ishestar, which was the first I came across, but there are other and smaller operators too.

This was about the most basic option, and included being picked up from the apartment late morning, a twenty minute drive into the frozen hills, an hour or so to mooch about at the centre - where we had an excellent roast lamb lunch for about a tenner, some of which Tom sneakily managed to share with the resident springer spaniel - and then an instructional video and an hour on a horse in the surrounding countryside before being ferried home again. As we were the only ones taking that trip that day we had the minibus and the ride entirely to ourselves except for driver and guide. A bigger group of young people, who I think were probably on a longer riding holiday, were just coming in from their morning out. One girl was saying to another something along the lines of '... oh, it was OK, the snow was soft, no harm done',  to which the other replied 'yeah, I came off yesterday, you just have to relax...'.

From where we were sitting we could see their horses just released in the paddock (Tom took these pictures).


Beautiful beasts, every colour known to horse, but somewhat rambunctious, I thought. The packed ice and lumpy volcanic rock didn't look too soft to me, and I decided not to relay the overheard conversation to Tom.

I needn't have worried. We were duly togged up with helmets and introduced to our mounts. I had Alder,

and Tom had Early,

(their names are as they sounded, not sure of the spelling). 

These two were clearly used to the geriatric shift, they plodded round good-naturedly with us on board, and while I appreciate what must be the wonder of the exceptional gaits of tolt and pace special to the Icelandic horse and often described as 'explosive', 'dynamic', 'fast' and other such alarming adjectives, I am happy to say we were not called on to experience them. Early on the young woman who escorted us turned and seeing Tom allowing Early to pick his own slow way over the icy road advised 'you may have to be a bit firm with him'. 

'To make him stop or to make him go?' I enquired.

'To make him go,' she replied, as though talking to an idiot and biting back the 'of course'.

Slow and easy it may have been, but it was altogether a magical experience in delightful company. Our guide (who wasn't really sarcastic) at one point turned around and said sweetly that she hoped we didn't mind that she wasn't talking much, but it was the most beautiful day she had seen in two years of working there, and she liked to just listen and enjoy the landscape, which was exactly how we felt.

It was truly listening to silence, no bird calls, scarcely any human sound except the odd distant engine of a vehicle coming and going, the occasional neigh of a horse from the stables, which made Alder prick up her ears and doubtless think about her nice warm box and sweet hay, but she clip-clopped on patiently. The sun had been up an hour or so and just skimmed along the horizon of the bowl of hills where as we made our circuit before making its way behind them again by the time we finished; it was windless and washed in glowing pink and lavender and gold. Contrary to expectations, Iceland in winter is full of colour, hard to catch in photos, in good weather anyway, and we were lucky with the weather.

A tour guide we had the following day, clearly another Icelandic horse enthusiast, told us that they are so comfortable, safe and stable that you should be able to balance and drink a full glass of beer while riding one without spilling a drop. Indeed, they were rather like big equine armchairs, even in these icy conditions. Now and then their hooves slipped, but they are built for this climate, know where to put their feet, and for good measure have special winter shoes on. Once or twice we experimented with steering a bit but mostly let them find their own way. Nevertheless, I wasn't quite confident to let go too often to take photos, and when I did getting straight horizons wasn't easy. 

But I was able to take some more when we got off. Up close it's clear why they are horses not ponies: they have a bulk and substance about them which just feels big, their height notwithstanding, there's nothing about them that's on a small scale. These two were so gentle and fun and friendly, though, lovely characters.

We had saved our breakfast apples for them, Alder cheekily snuffed at them in Tom's pockets. It turns out however that this is another regard in which Icelandic horses differ from other equines, they don't much care for apples. Alder turned mine down altogether, even when I bit off small pieces to tempt her; Early finally condescended to try one, but only if Tom would hold it and turn it so he could munch on it bite by bite, rather as a human might, then wipe his foamy sticky muzzle on his sleeve.

'He's a nice old fellah' I remarked to the girl (meaning the horse). She smiled, 'He's polite' she affirmed.


We scarcely saw any cows or sheep, they being tucked up by now in their winter quarters. The horses, however, can stay out of doors all the year round, even through the savage storm that had swept the island a couple of days before we arrived, subsisting on scant winter grasses and other vegetation; no animal feed is imported into the country because of the risk of disease, just as no livestock can be brought in, and any horses that leave can never return. On the following day we had a long tour of the Golden Circle, the popular tour from Reykjavik which includes the most spectacular and accessible geysirs, waterfalls, Thingvellir etc. Photos and impressions from that are still being sorted and mulled over, but the driver pulled in at short notice where some more horses had come to a fence to be fussed and petted.

That's my hand rubbing that one's nose. I jumped out of the minibus and in my excitement with stroking and photographing forgot to put gloves on; by the time I returned ten minutes later my hands were so cold it was much longer before the pain in my thumbs subsided.

There were some crusts of bread which they were willing to eat, and some people were pulling up handfuls of dry grass to offer them, 

but mostly they seemed happy just to stop for a chat and a pat.

and to pose in the afternoon sun against an impressive backdrop.

Handsome beasts, I think you'll agree.


* it was 'moderate' activity, but there were good views. I think, however, that the fault lay not in the particles but in my night vision, which, this rather confirmed, is not good, I felt I was peering to see it through a veil of poor sight, such as I don't experience with my corrected daylight eyes, it seemed rather indistinct and I couldn't really see the colours in it, though I suspect these show better in photos than the reality anyway.