Wednesday 19 February 2014

Seltjarnarnes: to the lighthouse

It was light by 10am in Reykjavík but only a tourist or two seemed to be up and about on Sunday morning. I was determined to excurt in my only extended time free of the many admirably mixed events in the Dark Music Days Festival - report imminent on The Arts Desk - but had been thwarted in a desire to see the tectonic plates at Þingvellir, the site of the old Icelandic parliament which we hadn't visited in the summer of 2011: road possibly too icy, taxi too expensive. Fortunately the wonderful Hilla, aka a gem among fellow critics, Hilary Finch, who's been coming to Iceland for 30 years now, had a few recommendations, one of which was a bus to the peninsula at Seltjarnarnes.

I wanted to walk, and the extremely helpful, friendly folk at my waterfront hotel furnished a big map which would enable me to do so. Daftly, this excursion isn't in the usually dependable Rough Guide; in fact the Ness, with the lighthouse at Grótta on its northernmost tip, isn't in their city plan at all, even though Seltjarnarnes is a suburb of Reykjavík.

So I struck out for the harbour, so very different from its summertime incarnation. The wind was furious; I was glad of the reindeer-patterned hat and gloves J had bought in Oslo the previous week, even though the ear-flaps wouldn't stay down. I walked out to the jetty, with views across to Harpa and the city skyline, with what looked - and continued throughout the day to look - like a sunset or sunrise behind it.

The whalewatching kiosk was open, but would there be any takers? It seemed unlikely. Nor were any of the bars open, so I just started walking. There's a proper path for walkers, cyclists and joggers, though the impression was one of ribbon-development desolation on the left, with uniformly ugly new housing. You just have to avert your gaze and look out at the beaches, the Atlantic and the snow-capped cliffs beyond.

Soon the city is just a series of silhouettes on the far horizon,

the apartment blocks become low-level houses and signs of the seafaring past, the wrecks and the shacks, punctuate the route.

At last you're on the peninsula, with 360 degree views of nothing but sea and mountains. To my left there were fresh, even more sunsetty views - at 1pm - of the Reykjanes peninsula and the ridges beyond.

Tides mean care in crossing to the old lighthouse at Grótta

but I was clearly fine. I stepped down on to the beach, alone with the local birdlife (the area is closed to the public in the nesting season).

Eiders male and female were bobbing and making their peculiar cooing/sighing noises (I took a little film, but the sound can't be heard against the tearing of the wind). This isn't the sharpest of closeups (there's a better eider shot - mamma and babies - here) but you can see the markings well enough.

From what I can make out, Grótta is mentioned in mid-16th century accounts. A colossal storm changed the landscape dramatically in 1788. A lighthouse was built here in 1895, dismantled, rebuilt after the Second World War and soon abandoned. I understand it and the adjacent building are used as local schoolrooms. What fun to have all the marine life of the Ness at your feet.

This all felt especially desolate. I was liable to be spooked out because I was reading the latest thriller of the masterly Yrsa Sigurdardóttir, I Remember You, about a couple and their friend who go to a deserted village in the West Fjords to renovate an old house, with disastrous consequences. We'd also been talking the previous evening about angelica used in soups, when I remembered that one of the characters in the book gathers it. I think this is a dried-out remnant of angelica flower.

I did a quick circuit of Grótta,

rejoined the mainland and walked south west along the edge of the frozen inland lake, the Bakkatjörn,

gaining views across to the conical Keilir which you see very clearly en route to Reykjavík from the airport.

Whooper swans - the lazy ones who decided not to overwinter in places like Welney in Norfolk - were gaggled around the frozen lake's south-eastern corner.

And now the low-lying suburban houses reappeared and, with no sign of a bus for at least half an hour, I retraced my steps as briskly as I could back to the city centre. Which on a Sunday afternoon, perhaps because the weekend package tourists have left, was more or less deserted. I walked past the Tjörnin, where the swan and duck feeding frenzy was continuing as usual

past my favourite part of town

and up to Skólavörðustígur, the street that climbs to the cathedral. I'd had my eye on a fish place the previous day when I sat in Babalú opposite, the quirky cafe recommended by Hilla, waiting in vain to be served (the boy playing chess with his mother at the next table turned out, I think, to be the son of the waiter, who appeared after 20 minutes, by which time I had to leave for a lunchtime concert; no problem, I'd enjoyed sitting there).

The Fish Cafe's freshest cod melted in the mouth; its accompanying salad was amazingly good. And Iceland is no longer the money-sink for tourists it was when we first visited: this was lower than London prices. So to a late-afternoon nap in the hotel, then on to three more concerts to open my ears and eyes on the closing evening of the festival. I had had my vision.

On which note - vision, or not, the film Blue referenced here - 19 February can't end without my commemorating Derek Jarman's death 20 years ago today (I'm sure the gay owner of Babalú, who came to Reykjavík to marry his Icelandic boyfriend, would join me). This is more of a holding notice until I gather my thoughts together, and perhaps see the films of his I've so far missed (The Last of England and Caravaggio, chiefly). Peter Tatchell reminded me. He's written an eloquent tribute in the Huffington Post UK, which serves us nicely for now.


Anonymous said...

Brr! David, it looks and sounds as cold there as it has been here lately. But just look at those views! 360-degree views are hard come by to us city-dwellers, and your photos really recapture that feeling of being alone in the grandness. Your stroll through the part of town you call your favorite reminds me of the multicolored Victorian houses called Painted Ladies. I wonder whether they have a name for the brightly painted buildings there, or is that just the normal look? Brave you, venturing out so far all alone, with your head filled by your current scary read. You remind me of when I was reading Jane Eyre - the section about the mad woman from the attic, suddenly appearing in Jane's bedroom; and an unexpected knock on my door made me jump right out of my skin. Such a relief, that your thoughts turned to angelica, and you found the lovely angelica silhouette. It calmed me right down! -- Elizabeth

David said...

It's funny, Elizabeth, you'd think from all these Icelandic and indeed other Nordic thrillers on TV and in novel form that they had nothing but trouble. In reality Reykjavik seems the safest of places - it's where I'd go if Britain and the continent imploded - though I'm sure that like everywhere it has its murky side.

As for the houses, I don't know if they have a special name - I should try and find out - but most are made of corrugated iron which looks oddly attractive when painted. And the windows are full of plants, cacti, knick-knacks and Icelandic flags. They're all over Reykjavik but that little area has the highest concentration.

Your Jane Eyre experience triggers a memory of another such: playing my recording of Britten's The Turn of the Screw, newly acquired from the Aldeburgh Festival where I'd been scene-shifting as a Hesse Student, to friends in Dalry Cemetery Gatehouse where I lived for nearly a year. Just after Quint's second appearance one of the kids who used to mess around and sniff glue in the catacombs pressed his face up against the window. I can still hear my friend Debbie Padfield's scream.

Susan Scheid said...

You capture all the eerie beauty of this in both your photographs and your prose. I am curious, of all things, to know how far you walked.

The eiders remind me of seeing my first ones in Maine one summer not so long ago. A good-sized group were gathered so very close by, but hard to photograph, as they'd clustered behind some rocks and stubbornly stayed there. i thought them so exotic at the time. Well, really, I still do, for we certainly don't get them here.

I love your phrase, by the way, "I had my vision." You've used it before, and it always seems just right.

David said...

'But she had had her vision': last line of great Virginia's To the Lighthouse. I found a semi-reproduction of Woolf's draft for the end this impressive site. Lunch with our equally impressive friend Cressida on Sunday - great-niece, don't you know, I love to namedrop - revealed that the beneficiary of royalties, until a few years ago when the book came out of copyright, hadn't read it. Though Cressida's partner Paul and I agree that Mrs Dalloway is one of THE great 20th century novels.

We also saw some fab pictures of Bill Murray on Cressida's knee, and George Clooney looking absolutely charming when he greeted Olivier her ma (97, and still - also, it's the only word - impressive. I think he would have liked her 'I don't know who you are'. Apparently he replied 'I don't always know who I am myself'). This all due to the grand Leicester Square opening of The Monuments Men (Olivier was involved, though after the war, so sadly it wasn't her who got to be played by Cate Blanchett).

How far? I don't know, I'm bad at guessing these things but I'll err on the cautious side and say eight miles there and back. Hard going against the icy, blasting wind on the way back.

Did you hear the eerie cooing of the eider ducks? Somehow it added to the strangeness of the peninsula on the peninsula, as it were.

David Damant said...

"I don't know who you are"

"Know ye not?" ..."Know ye not ME? Not to know me argues yourself unknown, the lowest of your throng......"

A good reply, which a friend of mine is supposed to have given to a pompous don at Cambridge who on being introduced to the young man said "The name means nothing to me"

David said...

Ha, an apt phrase again - Biblical this time?

But Sir David, you MUST find a way of convincing the blogger that you're not just responding to the comments, and that his labour in uploading far too many photographs has not been entirely wasted.

David Damant said...

Paradise Lost - Book IV lines from 827. Powerful stuff. I would love to make an animated cartoon film of PL

Other point taken

David Damant said...

David, I have remarked before on
your intense attraction to Northern-ness. Your photographs and comments bring to mind C S Lewis :

'Pure "Northern-ness engulfed me: a vision of huge, clear spaces hanging above the Atlantic...remoteness, severity"

David said...

Yet another apt quotation, Sir D - your fund seems limitless. As for Milton, I wish my own Paradise Lost stock were richer than just Books 1 and 2 (A level texts, though I did read the whole thing while holidaying in the Satanic landscape of the Pollino National Park in Basilicata).

You must remember that I am a flighty Geminian, so my northern enthusiasm, though still vivid, was quickly complemented by the sights and smells of falling back in love with Lyon last weekend. I do also yearn for the Italian south.

David Damant said...

Books 1 and 2 are the ones with the most frequently known quotations (justifiably). And isn't Satan impressive?

Kennst du das Land, wo die Zitronen bluhn? Dahin ! Dahin!