Iceland

I went to Iceland last year. With 70 kids. I keep thinking about it. Here’s a thing I wrote.

From the distance of a few days, we thought we’d look back at what was, where we were; where we called from in those days of ice and fire. Bear with us, for the nature of these things, thanks to the ragged nature of our collective memory, means a certain amount of crevasse and elision. But, for the record, it went a bit like this…

Day 1
It starts, naturally, with a shower. We gather in groups under grey skies and board the coaches. The laughing and singing starts at the motorway junction; it doesn’t stop for five days.

The airport is, weirdly, a breeze. We’re through, drifting through the shops and salons like wraiths, for what feels like hours. We board the plane and, after the briefest collective dreaming, we’re over the umbral plains of the south, craning for snow, for sustenance…

Our first trip is out onto a peninsula; our first experience the impossible geometry of lava, the enormity of the blue evening under spreading skies. Everything is everything else, rock upon rock, all coated with a green veneer of moss and lichen. Besides this, nothing grows. We’re used to the teeming land: rabbits, birdsong, woodscape, flurries in the leaf litter; here the silence of rock dominates everything.

We learn that the island is still young in geological terms – just 20 million short years, a foundling, a babe in arms – and this peninsula the youngest part of all. At Gunnuhver, you can feel this coming into being; you come to realise the silence above masks the enormity of what lies beneath: the roil of the land, the gouts of steam piercing the fractured surface, outpourings of the disturbances below. It makes a mockery of that which is supposed to be solid. We huddle in the steamscape, the stench of sulphur everywhere.

Later, after a swim under cold black skies, we head back to the hotel. A rumour starts that the northern lights are dancing above us. We sneer, but, slowly, we all tune in and there, there: a curtain of faintly falling dust, a hushed shadow of some other, greater celestial drama. We hold our breath, wanting time to stand still.

Day 2
Today, at Kerið, the collapsed crater of an ancient volcano, we learn that the sun rises late, but rises just enough to light up the earth: the iron red of basalt, the deep blue of trapped water, the sharp refraction of light across the crater’s outer lip. At Gullfoss, we learn that there is more water on the face of the earth than we had previously imagined and that most of it crashes over these falls, into this deep canyon. At Geysir, we learn that all geysers are named after this one – the daddy, the progenitor, the uber-geyser – and that geysir is Icelandic for ‘a good bloke that always gets his round in’ and that a cup of tea in Iceland costs roughly a month’s wages, and hell, it’s Earl sodding Grey.

We also learn that Mrs Brown knows everything there is to know about Icelandic horses (let’s be honest, she knows everything), that they’re smaller than other breeds of horse, but are definitively not ponies and that they can open 5 different types of gate. Something like that. We also find out, watching dense, muscle-bound fish hanging in the river’s breeze at Thingvellir, that Will H knows everything there is to know about Arctic Trout – their breeding habits, the fungus they wear on their broad backs, their habitats. They turn out to be Arctic Char, but we won’t hold that against him.

And, also at Thingvellir, we learn what it’s like to stand between two continents, on land that is no land, made of ice and fire and the blood of the ancients, on land that is belched into being beneath our very feet and which grows at the same rate as our fingernails, on land where the first parliament was created and where democracy was enacted in its purest state since Ancient Greece and where we are humbled at the enormity of what we see, what we are, and what we might become. We give a huge Icelandic roar to the heavens, the fibrous wall of our voices carrying into the murk of lowered sky, to the hills, to the ancient ones, watching from the spaces in-between. On the way home, we sing louder than ever, singing ourselves into being.

Day 3
It all starts to blur into one. We’re behind a waterfall, blinking through rainbows and spray at the spreading land. We’re at the foot of a mighty glacier, a glacier reaching for the sea, but never quite arriving. A glacier shrinking by the year, retreating to its mountain hideaway and the secret pact with the volcano over which it presides. We scale its massive, creaking back, the sun out now, creating tiny rivers in the impossible plurality of ice. We dodge crevasses, stopping to lap at the melting ice, and head for the summit, pausing to hack lumps out of the ice, each imagining our own antagonist. It’s not until we’re on our way back down, decked out in warpaint (OK, volcanic dust) that we notice the baroque nature of what we’re climbing: here, at the ablation area nearest the lagoon, the glacier is at its most operatic: cornice over dome, crenellation over cupola, over frenulum, over canyon, over coulee. And it’s not until we stop that we notice that glaciers talk to themselves – listen to all that chatter, that creaking and moaning, the chuckle of water, the whisper of ice on ice. No wonder the Icelanders believe so strongly in the hidden people.

Finally, we go to the black beach and stand agog again at the power of water. It’s no wonder that Iceland produces its electricity entirely from green sources: they are surrounded by the sublimity of nature, the awesome forces of the Great Other. Fire and ice, water and wind. But, being Icelanders, they have learned to listen, and have learned to harness this power, forging a fragile pact with the forces of nature. At the beach, we see the dark side of this and learn about sneaker waves. These aren’t waves that want to gatecrash your party or nick your stereo, no, these are waves that want to nick you. We think we’re far enough back, but the sneak is true to its word, and a few get wet. It’s when we see a couple nearly get swept from the basalt cliffs that we realise it’s time to go.

Day 4
Today is about sky and water, water and sky. We scream at mighty Skógafoss waterfall, hiding in rock clefts, hiding in rainbows. We climb to the top and gaze at the tipping point, wondering, wondering at what it would be like to sail over, reborn in water.

The folk museum is an odd highlight. We get a true sense of the kinds of lives Icelanders have lived, how modernisation came so late, and how many lived harsh, rural lives for so long – bypassing the revolutions that gripped continental Europe. This isn’t a glimpse of the age of Kings, the age of industry, so much as a glimpse of the Neolithic alongside something like the Victorian – a style of living that lasted into the late 19th century.

We drive the coast road, the sun fierce through the afternoon haze. Here, under a wall of cliffs, it’s more apparent than ever that we’re driving on what is essentially the bottom of the ocean, the land borrowed from the sea, and that Iceland is a drama of this play between opposites: land and sea, fire and ice, ghost and living, family and ancestors, rock and air. We exist between this play of elements, rumours ourselves, grasping at eternity while trying to make sense of the present, the ground shifting beneath us.

Then, post-lunch (ham and cheese sandwiches, always ham and cheese sandwiches) we walk into the hills. The day blazes about us. We can see from the monumental drama of Eyjafjallajökull in the interior, right out across the flat coastal plains to the sea – knowing that there is no landfall between here and the Antarctic. In terms of the autumnal ochres and pale green of the hills, this might be Scotland, but in Scotland the very land doesn’t seethe and broil, jets of steam rising out of the ground to form layers of cloud about your feet. We climb toward the sun, and there, buried in the hills, we find a stream warm enough to swim in. From a distance, the sound of singing and joyful shrieking is like the music of the spheres.

Day 5
We finish in the Blue Lagoon, pasting ourselves in silica. In our own private dramas, we’re hoping for younger, clearer skin, for a dewrinkling miracle, for a new head of hair; instead, we get ourselves the warmest of baths, held as if in the chambers of the earth’s beating heart. And this will do.

Later, we take off into the shimmering blue. We leave the dense, lavaic planes, the long, barren solitude of the interior, the creaking glaciers, the hidden currents of fire at the island’s dark heart. And, in the long lines of our leaving, we notice the rhythms of our own blood and fire and realise we too have new ground on which to stand, from which to regard ourselves, and, best of all, at the centre of our own soft workings, maybe, just maybe, we know our hearts that little bit better.

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Winter is icumen in

Very happy to say I’ve got a piece in the new Winter anthology from Elliot and Thompson – part of the ‘Seasons’ series, edited by the fab Melissa Harrison. It’s bizarre being in the same book as Coleridge, Robert Louis Stevenson, Gilbert White and Kathleen Jamie but I’ll take it. Buy ten copies! Or one.

Avebury, Ridgeway, West Kennet, Silbury

The over-riding memory of this long winter will be that of a ceiling of grey clouds, dense and close. It has been cold, but not piercingly so; but it has been overpoweringly empty of colour. I’ll be glad to see the back of it. On a day of sudden and sharp sunlight, I went out to Salisbury Plain and the sacred landscapes around the Avebury stone circle.

Sarsen stones, Avebury

Sarsen stones, Avebury

First time this year we’ve had conjoined days of sun. Glare on the roads, glare in the rutted side paths, where water sits in silty pools. As I approach Avebury, through the wide streets of Marlborough, the clouds begin to gather. I wonder if that’s that.

Henge
Everyone has had the same idea: go somewhere, go anywhere – just to get out. The car park is a scrum of chalk-whitened tyres and wild children, wild dogs. On first glimpsing the stones, it’s impossible to get any sense of orientation, of scale – you squint at the map, unsure where to go next. Following an inquisitive line, I end up in the ‘north west sector’ of the henge, or outer circle, though I only make sense of this later (the entire henge, though not perfectly circular is the largest in the world, and some 420M in diameter). Driven by an almost frantic desire to get some perspective, I rush past the immense twin stones of the cove and out of Avebury, up onto the Ridgeway.

Ridgeway
A slow steady ascent on a deeply furrowed chalk and flint-strewn track. A field on the right hand side houses the last of the standing stones, the exposed roots of an oak cradle yellow primroses. The noise bleeds away as Avebury recedes, the stones soon out of sight behind the natural whorls and hollows of chalk. The wind, easterly, picks up, brittle and penetrating. The landscape opens up, Salisbury plain broad green and various under the now opening clouds. Densely-coated sheep and isolated beech copses punctuate the broad sweep of the land, which, despite being made of simple greens and whites, is impossibly plural in its gradations of form, of colour. Cresting the hill and finally: the Ridgeway.

The path is thought to have been in use for more than 5000 years, part of a longer trade route that ran from the Dorset coast stretching north east toward Aylesbury and its final destination on the Norfolk coast. The chalk lands, across which the path traverses, were created some 100 million years ago when large parts of the southern UK mainland were submerged under a network of inland seas. A mixture of microscopic algae and animal skeletons were layered and crushed into the sea bed, which was in turn exposed as water levels changed, and the land uplifted as part of same orogenic activity that caused the monumental uplift of the alpine region of central Europe. Thus the path’s height, riding the chalk uplands, afforded safety from potential attackers, and avoided the watery perils of the boggy lowlands. Over time, the path has been used as a trading path, a droving path, and, more enigmatically, an access point to the sacred landscape of Avebury, West Kennet and Silbury. Standing atop it now, looking south towards the round barrows of Overton Hill, and east onto Fyfield Down and the fields strewn with massive stones, stones of sarsen, similar to those used at Avebury and somehow transported the same route I’d just walked, time seemed to stretch and warp, as did the land – unable to govern what it sees, the eye fails to make a complete purchase and perspective is jumbled: sheep resemble sarsen boulders, domed beech copses look like uncovered barrows. I huddled in the lee of a newly planted beech hedge and ate. The wind carried the far-off explosions of wrens and the first of spring’s skylarks, both obeying the imperative of seasonal time, ignoring the brute chill of the air.

Copse
Rutted path full of leaf litter, muddy pools reflecting the harsh glare of the sun. I enter a beech copse, no more than 20 meters in diameter, raised on a bolus of roots. The wind is fierce, whipping through the trees, howling and keening. The interior is dark, damp – a cave, a roofless chapel, the grey trunks like buttresses. At the centre lies a smooth altar of sarsen stone, surrounded by bared beech roots splayed like arthritic fingers.

I come to the end of the path, the modern entrance to the Ridgeway, next to the shock of the A4. The clouds have all but cleared away and it’s warm in the sun. Across the road is the Sanctuary the site of a former stone circle, dismantled for grazing. In one reading of the landscape, it’s thought that travellers for Avebury would come down off the Ridgeway and wait here before entering the ‘Avenue’ the narrow causeway leading to the central drama of the henge – attendees at, what, a ceremony? A gathering? I avoided the question by turning away from the avenue and joining a narrow path that led across the swollen river Kennet and up a steep chalk hill to the long barrow of West Kennet.

West Kennet long barrow chamber   Flickr   Photo Sharing

Long barrow
I hadn’t been wholly aware of West Kennet long barrow. It was a name with a few murky associations. The same was true of Silbury Hill, now dominating the horizon to my right hand side. I slogged up the incline, the barrow darkly shadowed on a high green ridge; I could see silhouetted figures black against the afternoon haze – they danced, parted, embraced. Alongside the barrow, the impact was significant – aside from the obvious gravity of the massive sarsen stones that guarded the entrance, there was a weight in the air, the weight of focused, accumulated time, of the fact of our simple connections to the deep past: grief, the whirl of the seasons, the mysteries of connection to the earth.

The long barrow, at 100 metres, is thought to be one of the longest in Britain, and is more than 5000 years old. It’s precise function is unknown, but it’s thought to have been used as a burial chamber for a good while, as the bones of more than 50 separate skeletons have been found on the site. Other more esoteric claims have been made for such sites, that they were chambers for meditation, places for deeper communication with the earth-mother, literal womb-like entrances into the body of the earth. Everything seemed possible from where I stood in the soft yellow glow of late afternoon, the wind pouring from the east, gritty and bitter; and walking into the damp cold of the interior, into the folds of stone, did feel like an entering, a thresholding – the earth close and gravid, the interlocking slabs of stone suddenly shocking in their immediacy, their proximity. Alongside the main chamber, no more than an arms width wide, stood dank chambers, completely closed off by darkness. They didn’t hold horrors, as such, more they represented the colossal fact of our unknowing. Shining a light into them didn’t lessen the impact. It didn’t do to linger – again, not because of some spurious sense of horror, but because of something indefinable, something too close to the sacred glimpse of death-in-life. On reaching the main chamber itself, it was apparent someone had lit 3 incense candles. There was the soft scent of rosewood. I smiled, thankful that the mood had been broken. I turned and left.

Silbury Hill

Silbury Hill

Silbury
Walking back down the steady chalk gradient from the barrow, it was impossible not to stare at the tumescent green hump of Silbury – squat and implacable against the cold blue horizon. As a simple landmass it draws the eye, but the knowledge that it’s man made, and the largest of its kind in Europe adds gravity and portent. The simple act of walking towards it increases the drama and the questions of why and how come crowding in. And the truth of it is, beyond the simple fact of its creation, starting in distant 2400 BC, no one really knows the hows and the whys of Silbury. It could be a burial mound, it could be a statement of intent, it could be a simulacra, a simple fact of building over time to mimic and celebrate other aspects of landscape. The hill has been probed and defiled in search of definitive answers and it refuses to give up its mystery. Shafts have been dug (and collapsed); tunnels excavated; samples retrieved. And? Nothing. It’s been so thoroughly pawed at and cored that it’s now closed to encounter, a bare monument for the eye to explore. Which is fitting, in honesty, because, from distance, Silbury is so alluring that you are drawn to its bare, green flanks from wherever you stand. It dominates the eye and so dominates the mind’s eye. You wonder at how must have looked in the years after completion – massive in context, stark white with chalk. It must have imposed as much then as it does now. As I walked away, along the alder-lined fretful wash of the Winterbourne River, I regularly stopped to turn back to it, drawn to its silence, its hunched and brooding presence.

Sarsen stone, sunfall

Sarsen stone, sunfall

Avebury
Avebury had quietened. I passed into the first ring by exactly the same route that I had come earlier, but now the atmosphere was indolent – people tarried with idle, wan looks on their faces. Many of the stones, warmed by the sun, were given over as seats or simple leaning posts. Shadows pooled in the ditches and declivities. I climbed a steep bank and looked across the expanse of several adjacent fields. In the scope of the wider area of the plain, it was now possible to grasp a sense of the stones and their significance – or at least their place in a a grander scheme. It may have been a trick of the mood, but there suddenly seemed to be scores of children around, running, blaring between the stones; and from that vantage point, hovering above the glare of that cagouled tumult, it was possible to forget the ‘mysteries’ or the need for these ancient sentinels, this broad collection of ancient sites, to be mysteries at all. It was enough, buoyed on the onrushing noise, to peer back across millennia to another, similar life.

July, Winchester Hill

Reaper

Reaper

Up

July evening, the first good weather since March. March. For 3 months we huddled under grey skies in front of glaring screens, staring bemused at long range forecasts. When the weather came it was like a spell – that strange figure of speech ‘a spell of good weather’ suddenly making sense. Even then the world seemed oddly deserted, as if people didn’t trust what they were seeing.

Winchester Hill was ablaze – the low lying barley fields almost painful on the eyes. As I climbed, the ground released trapped heat; it pooled around my feet which burned in a state of surprise.

Winchester Hill

Winchester Hill

July, the last of the bird song. Skylarks, the strange whirr of the yellowhammer, the chuck of blackbirds. Over everything the calls of the lambs and the dry answering barks of the ewes; and behind this, the evaporating roar of planes, so high in the blue as to look like bone shards. Goldfinches peep and tinkle, dashing between low stands of wind-beaten hawthorns. No people. No people.

Down

I enter a chase of yews, the light colder out of the sun. Ivy-clad trunks, lichen-clad. The sheep are incessant. To the right, a meadow, knee deep in sorrel and grass over which hover ragged globes of midges. To the left a fallow field smoulders; a few lone poppies totter in the light breeze. The field edges are a tangle of brambles and bindweed; boulders of chalk the size of fists, the size of giants feet, line the path margins. A spooked pigeon rises, angling into the sun.

A gravel riverpath at the foot of the hill. I have been here in winter when it is often impassable; now in this wettest of summers it rushes and chatters across the stones, inviting hot feet. I splash for a time then climb the steepening sides into a field of crops. Last of the sun: light slants across the plant heads, illuminated strands of webs like fine hammock strings between the individual stands of wheat – out of the sun they become invisible, in its glare they are like retreating filaments of bowed crystal. The water is just in earshot, a comforting babble. A green woodpecker yaps, sheep call across the pasture. Jackdaws call, abed in a stand of oaks, their cries like answering chimes, answering in a higher register.

Sunfall

Back into the hollow way of the riverpath, the sun dips behind Beacon Hill. Heat-trapped smells rise in the cooling air. Months of rain have saturated the ground so even in this landscape of drained chalk there is the smell of damp, of rot, of contained water. In the crook of a massive three-trunked ash I pause and listen to the onrushing stream.

Nearing the end, I realise my boots are like autumn boots, winter boots – mud-clagged and heavy. A new moon through the crown of a thinning ash. A buzzard cries. The swollen river flows faster than I can walk.