Iceland Ring Road: an enchanted evening.

The church in Akureyi is lit up at night and it is easy to see that it was designed by the same architect Guðjón Samúelsson, who designed Hallgrímskirkja in Reykjavik. Unfortunately I did not manage to have a look inside during the time we were there.
After dinner at the fish & chip restaurant, we drove out of town to avoid light pollution and to try and catch the aurora borealis or Northern Lights. Despite there still being some cloud we arrived at our spot just as the moon was rising and managed to see some lights.
The Icelandic Met Office website is very useful for travellers as it provides not only weather forecasts but avalanche and earhtquake warnings and even aurora forecasts up to a week ahead. We passed several of their weather stations on our trip. There was cloud cover for the rest of our trip and no more sightings. I suspect that you would need to be further north in Norway or Sweden to be more certain of seeing them although I do remember a sighting from Aberdeen when I was a student there about 35 years ago. Two of our co-travellers had been in northern Scandinavia before coming to Iceland and had plenty of snow and aurora sightings.

Iceland Ring Road: a diversion to Hrísey Island

A slightly later start this morning meant we had time to see the sculpture by Jón Gunnar Árnason down at the waterfront before leaving Akureyi for the day.
It is a 35km drive to the little village of Árskógssandur where the ferry to Hrísey takes off every 2 hours in summer for the 15-minute crossing. On Sundays and holidays, it must be ordered and the ferry is less frequent in winter. While waiting for it in the harbour we spotted some Eider Ducks, a juvenile Black Guillemot, a Long-tailed Duck and starfish in the very clear waters.
On the island, we met our local guide who showed us around the small community including the museum dedicated to shark fishing. We were given a sample of dried salt cod which I found too leathery but enjoyed the traditional fish and rye bread lunch. Ptarmigan nest on the island and in summer it is a good place for bird watching with several footpaths you can follow.
Back on the mainland we visited the first microbrewery in Iceland which began in 2006 and sampled the varieties of Kaldi beer produced there.
It was then onto a farm where we met Icelandic horses and sheep.
We were served slices of Marriage Cake which has a crumble-like consistency and is filled with rhubarb jam and were entertained by our guide from Hrísey who also turned out to be an opera singer. We heard a traditional Icelandic song and a rendition of ‘O Sole Mio’. On the way back to the hotel in Akureyi we debated whether conditions would be right to see the northern lights that evening.

Iceland Ring Road: craters and a modern church

After visiting the lighthouse in Akranes we continued on the Ring Road (R1) through farm land. At Bogarnes we had some views over the fjord.
Icelandic horses and sheep were grazing in the fields which is most unusual in February. We also saw some Greylag and Pink-Footed Geese that had not migrated. Heading north, we left the farmland behind and drove into the northern hills and lava fields. The only native tree in Iceland is the Downy Birch (Betula pubescens). It has a maximum height of 2 metres and most of the trees we saw were considerably shorter. This has given rise to the saying that if you get lost in an Icelandic wood, stand up. Juniperus communis also grows on the lava fields with succulents. There are other trees in the country which have all been imported. 33 km beyond Bogarnes are the Grabok Craters. They are a National Monument and there is a stepped path up to the rim of one crater which you can walk around and also a path between them.
Running alongside R1 are some remnants of the old road and its bridges. Some are painted (we passed a blue one) and our guide told us that an artist had asked the authorities if she could paint the bridges. They agreed, assuming that she intended to paint pictures of them. She actually painted the bridges blue, purple and yellow. We continued into a valley between mountain ranges which reminded me of driving north to Wyoming between the Rockies and the Medicine Bow Mountains last summer in upland prairies. This is a road with numerous landscape photography possibilities but very few places to safely stop a vehicle. Tourism has mushroomed in Iceland and some thoughtless tourists have irritated the locals by stopping anywhere, blocking roads and one-lane bridges.

In Blönduós, there is a modern church designed by Dr. Maggi Jónsson to resemble an erupting volcano which was consecrated in 1993. It is unusual as most churches in Iceland are older or built in a traditional style.
Continuing along the road we found ourselves in Öxnaladur, a 540m hanging valley where the snow was melting. Again, this is unusual in February. There used to be farms here but the communities were moved to the coastal towns. Our guide pointed out the almost invisible remains of farms, homes and a tavern which being made of turf, have decayed. Some of their descendants have summer houses in the valley.
We were also told about the pressure and tensions as schools in towns place on people in rural communities who prefer to attend their local schools even if they are only just outside the town. All too soon we arrived at our hotel in Akureyi.

Iceland Ring Road: to the lighthouses

Akranes merits just one small paragraph in Lonely Planet’s Iceland guidebook. It is a port and administrative centre for the region. Fishing is one important industry and there is also an aluminium smelter. Some people will visit the Museum Centre or hike up Akrafjall (572m) but we were here to see the lighthouses. The oldest and smaller of the two was one of the earliest made of concrete, built in 1918 and deactivated in 1947. It has been nominated as one of the six most iconic and picturesque lighthouses in the world.
The larger lighthouse was built in the 1940s and is still in use. Hilmar, the lighthouse keeper is a local amateur photographer. It is open for a few hours each day during the week and even has a Facebook page.
You can climb up to the light and enjoy the views.
It hosts exhibitions of photography and on our visit also monoprints. In the summer, concerts are held and in 2016 30 members of a local male voice choir entertained an audience of 200.
It was very windy outside but we walked along the beach where there are old fish-drying racks. I even found a piece of sea glass for my collection.

To the Land of Fire and Ice

It was trying to snow as we left home in the dark and there was a light dusting at the airport. A couple of days before we left there had been a photograph of a train in a snowy landscape south of Inverness in a newspaper where it was described as ‘battling through the snow’. As there only appeared to be a couple of inches this generated great discussion with contributions from Ken Bruce on Radio 2. It reminded me of trying to leave my first job in Inverness to travel to the next one in Stirling in January 1985. Inverness was cut off by deep snow on all the surrounding roads and I was phoning the station every day to find out whether the trains were running as they had been sliding back down the icy track at Aviemore. Eventually I did leave and arrived in Stirling on a train completely covered in snow. That amount of snow might lead to ‘battling’. I was hoping for snow in Iceland as we have had very mild winters for the last few years. As we descended into Keflavik there were some snowy hills peeking through the cloud. Having landed, our baggage took a long time to emerge so I could not resist pressing the ‘grumpy’ emoji button on the feedback post which asked how satisfied we were with the speed of our baggage arrival. We took the Grayline bus to our hotel as taxis are around £95 one way from the airport to Reykjavik. The Flybus is a bit cheaper but just takes you to a central point in the city. The next day we had the morning to explore some of the city before meeting up with the rest of our group in the afternoon. We headed down to the harbour first.
The Harpa Concert Hall was started before the 2008 financial crisis and completed later.
We then wandered around the streets admiring the street art and discovering that there is a punk museum.
All the usual fast food outlets are here as well as Irish pubs and American bars. The only exception was McDonalds which was odd but I later found out that they had left in 2008 and not returned. It was soon time to walk along the sea wall path to meet up with our tour leader. Here is the sculpture ‘Sun Voyager’ by Jón Gunnar Árnason.
Our tour leader told us that Iceland was having an unusually mild winter which was a little disappointing but yet another indicator of climate change. He said that some birds had not migrated and that farmers were keeping some of their animals outside which was unusual at this stage of winter. We met the rest of the group and then went for a dip in the Blue Lagoon. It is busy and booking is essential. We only just managed to find empty lockers and after the obligatory shower, sampled the water. I did not take my camera into the rain, steam and silica but there were plenty who did and we had to dodge the selfie sticks. Facials and other treatments are available and there is a bar in the pool but we just relaxed before I took a few shots through the windows of the cafe and along the path around the edge of the pool.
Back at the hotel, we met the resident cat who was lounging on the doormat but was a little camera-shy. James was delighted to find Sky Sports on the TV in the room and live football in the bar. There was even a school trip from Liverpool watching the match to make us feel at home.

Two cities and a woodland walk in one weekend

On Friday morning, I had a meeting to attend in Liverpool. Although I have retired, I still sit as a lay person on the Ethics Committee of the Fertility Unit at the Women’s Hospital. It is only four times each year and I enjoy meeting former colleagues again and engaging in what can be quite challenging discussions. On arrival at Lime Street Station I noticed that the block on the corner of Skelhorne Street and Bolton Street was being re-developed. There was a 24-hour convenience store there and I wondered where the guys I used to see at 8 am sitting on the station steps with their cans of Carlsberg and a morning cigarette were getting their supplies from now.
The meeting finished a little early so I headed back into town to pick up a couple of things. I always enjoy walking down Bold Street. There are independent shops including two bookshops, one of which is the radical bookshop, News from Nowhere. There is an art materials store, two outdoor shops, some vintage emporia and coffee shops amongst others. On Friday, I had to limit myself to popping into the Oxfam shop. It has had a re-vamp since my last visit. I did find a few National Geographic volumes to fill in the gaps in my collection. This comprises a few bound volumes given to me by my uncle which start in 1948, some my parents had from the 1960s and 70s and others I have picked up at various times. I currently subscribe and am filling in the gaps. I wonder if it was one of the drivers for my wanderlust as I have been reading it and enjoying the photography since childhood. I read the current issue on the train into Liverpool and learnt about the mistreatment of widows in Uganda who are expected to give up their children, land, homes and themselves to their in-laws when their husband dies. This is a cultural tradition, not a law so charities and others are working to challenge this.

In the city centre, a busker was playing Bruce Springsteen songs. I found what I needed quickly. I got back to Lime Street just as my train was pulling in and a group of guys from Glasgow were arriving all wearing T shirts announcing Lewis’s Stag Do. Back in Crewe, I saw a few slightly unusual vehicles. A Morris Minor was parked next to me in the car pack and had a sticker from the Annual Morris Minor Rally 2016 in the window. This is not an event I have heard of before. I passed a Landrover Defender with so much equipment stacked on top of it, it looked like it was about to embark on major trip in Australian outback, not drive through Crewe. Perhaps the owner runs off-road driving experience events. On the A534 I passed a vintage fire engine and have no idea where it was going. I was happy that I had clocked up 4.3 miles of walking as there were 250 miles to do in the car later that evening.

We hit the road as soon as James got back from work. There were numerous accidents incidents and roadworks along our stretch of the M6 so I took the A50 north in the dark & rain. Joining the motorway on the slip road at junction 20 was the first of three occasions where a vehicle (this time a truck) moved out of his lane sideways and almost pushed me into the crash barrier. I managed to avoid him, another HGV and a car who also tried to shift me sideways into the outside lane when I was overtaking. Otherwise, the journey was uneventful and we got to Edinburgh before midnight.

We were in Edinburgh this weekend as the Six Nations Rugby Tournament begins and the Scotland-Ireland match was at Murrayfield. Here is the ground just before the match started:
Scotland won after a very exciting game. That evening we went to our local cinema to see Trainspotting 2 relaxing on their sofas and had walked 8.4 miles.

On Sunday morning, I popped into the Secret Herb Garden at Old Pentland to pick up a new lovage plant and then continued south to Dawyck Botanical Garden which has just re-opened after its winter closure. It concentrates on trees, shrubs and woodland plants.
As we entered, the woman on the welcome desk congratulated us on having brought the sun with us. The snowdrops were out and other spring plants were starting to emerge.
The leafless deciduous trees made their trunks more prominent. This is Betula utilis from the Himalaya. Lichens were also prominent:
A research project was underway and I need to learn about the relationship between lichens and the trees they grow on.
I spotted a sculpture which has been installed since our last visit ‘Gentle Presence’ by Susheila Jamieson.
We continued south on a B road which parallels the motorway as far as Gretna Green and then picking up the A6 in Carlisle. I am looking at the route I will walk next summer, spotting things to visit, great views between Penrith and Shap and places to stay. By the time we were back on the motorway the sun had set and we had a quiet run home.