Iceland, January 2009

The arrival of my parcel from Iceland containing a set of Yule Lads has set me up for the festive season and called to mind a little excursion that Chris and I took a couple of years back. Of course we didn’t see the Northern Lights, we’d have been extremely lucky to do so with that much cloud cover and a full moon but we did enjoy the Winter Lights. For the scarcity of daylight means that Icelanders tend to leave their Christmas lights up for the whole of January rather than whisking them all down on twelfth night as we do here.

The first surprise was that Reykjavik was warmer than London and the second was how much cheaper everything was than it had been in Norway, calling to mind their recent crash of the Icelandic banks during which the British Government had made the (to my mind) disgraceful misuse of anti-terrorism legislation to prevent their assets from leaving the country. But still, more about the economy later, let’s meet Lief.

An imposing statue of Lief Erikson, the tenth century Norse discoverer of America, stands in front of the Hallgrimkirkja cathedral looking out over Reykjavik Harbour. This heroic rendering of the outlaw’s son who actually set out on his journey from Greenland was presented by the people of America in 1930. It is probably only slightly less accurate than many of the others that were placed all over United States by a people who seemed more than a little anxious to claim their heritage from the fair races of Northern Europe. The 19th century statue in Duluth actually has a winged helmet and the one in Boston appears to be dressed as a Roman legionary.

What makes this craze all the more unlikely was that it dates from well before 1960 when the first definitive archaeological evidence for the landing was found at l’Anse au Meadows. It was in Newfoundland – and that’s in Canada. The discovery, made by Norwegian couple Helge and Anne Ingstad, was a masterpiece of painstaking detective work with consequences which far outreached their own narrow field. The references that they took as their starting point, two of the Icelandic Sagas, were not actually written down until about four hundred years after the events that they described, meaning that the discovery verified in great detail the accuracy of the original oral narrative.

Heroic it certainly wasn’t and I don’t think that the American newcomers did much progenitor-ing as they huddled in their sod covered dwellings, hiding from the hostile natives and abandoning this remote settlement after a single generation. After the obligatory photograph, marred by all the scaffolding on the cathedral, Chris and I made our way to the National Museum where we learned a great deal more about Icelandic history in the warm. The Museum does not permit photography so I have borrowed a couple of reference shots.

Attempts to see the northern lights that evening were abandoned due to cloud cover and so the next day we set off before dawn for the Golden Circle tour which had to be fitted into the five hours of available daylight. I’m not sure that twilight might not be a better description, given the way in which the low sun played upon the landscape, creating a whole gallery of impressionist paintings of unforgettable loveliness. But it kept its tour de force for the finale, flooding the volcanic scenery of Thingvellir National Park with a fiery red light and delineating the place where the continental plates divide like a laser pointer on a wall chart.

A thousand years ago, Icelanders travelled to this spot once a year for their Parliament. Disputes were settled by the word of a Law Giver and so it may not have been completely democratic but it kept the peace amongst these rugged individuals, many of whom had been outlawed from mainland Europe for serious crimes, for eight centuries. All that marks this spot today is the white flagpole just visible in picture 060. Well, that’s not strictly true because while we were standing on the rocks above this point, voices travelled up to us from people who were mere dots in the snow beneath, their clear audibility demonstrating the remarkable acoustic properties of the surrounding cliffs.

I should have mentioned that the first place we visited on this tour was a geothermal power station. How remiss of me. It had all the worthy-but-dull appeal of a school outing and we thought it was put into the itinerary in order to use up a couple of hours of darkness but actually it turned out to be key in the understanding of this bleak and remote outpost of civilisation, up there dangling from the Arctic Circle like washing hanging from a line. Much of the fresh produce that had brightened up our supper table is home gown, hot water is piped to every household, the down-town pavements are kept ice-free by underground heating and, perhaps most importantly, power is being exported to the rest of Europe. And know-how to the rest of the world.

If Iceland’s past is fascinating then its future is exciting.

Categories: Arctic, Europe

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