Day Seven – All Good Things…

We woke on our last full day in Iceland to a shimmering conjunction of sun and moon. Once again the Northern Lights had delivered for us. Forget bars, cocktails and dancing, it’s nature in all its astonishing glory that turns me on. I sometimes look at my hands turning them over and over, how did these come about? Of course I know, but then looking at the complicated world around us we humans have created with our extraordinary brains, the roads we drive on, the ways we communicate, the clothes we wear…I am blown away by the very fact of our existence. Stripping back the view to the natural, unadulterated world I feel I can breathe more easily. We may not survive our ruinous ways but the world will get over us.

The Kast had been a good place to stay if only the staff had been a bit friendlier. We spread out the map. It was going to be a long drive south skirting past Reykjavik then west again and up a bit to the furthest tip of the Gardur peninsular – 3 hours give or take and a short hop to the airport.

“I’ll drive” said Tessa “my turn.”

“Ok, if you’re sure?” I suspected we’d end up on the motorway again.

The road hugged the coast. I scanned the sea for whales, it was our last chance to see a humpback. That would be the proverbial icing.

As we neared Reykjavik we were indeed on the shiny new motorway and sped along the long tunnel under the sea between peninsulas. I glanced at Tessa, she was doing really well. I kept shtum, judging it better to say nothing as there was nowhere to pull over. I’ve always admired that she can drive all over England on A and B roads selling her jewellery avoiding the heebie-jeebies the motorways give her.

Some places have an ‘end of the line’ feel about them even when they don’t have a railway station. Gardur is one of them, with bleak small-town charm. Supermarket, school, public leisure centre with gym and pool, not much else. It was easy to find the Lighthouse Inn, you basically drive to the end of the world before Greenland. For the second time on the trip the receptionist there was not only very friendly and helpful, he was Icelandic.

“Eyjafjallajokul” I said, “is that right? I’ve been trying to get it right all week. It’s a task I’ve set myself.”

“Very good” he said pronouncing it far better than I’d actually achieved.

“We’re early would it be alright to check in now?”

“Sure. I’ve put you on the righthand side down the corridor. You should get the best chance of seeing the Northern Lights from that side, they were amazing yesterday.”

Tessa wanted to walk into town to buy gifts in the shop. We could use the coast path and whale scan as we went and check out the swimming pool for later. It soon turned into a trudge through bleak suburbia, the wind buffeting us as we searched for the leisure centre. The shop was a supermarket and we stocked up on apples, instant porridge pots for the morning and smoked salmon for Lesley who’d driven us to the coach stop and would be picking us up the next day. The pool was an easy find with its tubes of coloured plastic coiling around the outside.

“Can we use the pool later?” The man on the desk looked alarmed and went to find a younger colleague. I don’t suppose there’s much use for English on the peninsular. It’s not exactly a tourist hotspot despite being just up the road from the airport and poking out into the sea offering a possibility for Northern Lights, whale and birdwatching.

“Sorry, closed for renovation. There’s another public pool in Sandgerdi? It’s only a short drive?” Strangely, though I’m practically mermaid, I couldn’t muscle up the enthusiasm. I think it was the call of the whales, all I wanted to do was walk along the coast path, binoculars at the ready, scanning, scanning, scanning.

Instead we saw ricks wearing hay nets that looked for all the world like a row of hairy mammoths bending over to feed.

And a wonderful old car that reminded me of the vintage car that drove me to my second wedding. The museum in the background, run by a middle aged Thai hippy woman, was quirky, stuffed with second hand ‘vintage’ clothes, cheap Thai jewellery, 70s dresses, battered leather coats, matted wool jumpers etc. It reminded me of the charity shop back home. Hard to see how come it was there and how it could survive on Gardur.

We walked along the coast path, both of us enjoying the desolation.

Wondering what was behind the old rusted door?

Show me a rusty door and I’m happy.

As for whales? There were none. Hard as we scanned it looked like it would be the one disappointment of the trip.

From the lighthouse you could imagine you saw Greenland if you looked hard enough. How many lives must it have saved over the years from the cruel north Atlantic seas?

Sadly the little cafe attached to the base was closed. A hot chocolate would have been just the ticket.

We dined at El Faro the cheery Lighthouse restaurant finding it packed and buzzing at 6pm. We probably weren’t the only ones with an early flight.

The waitress came to take our drinks order. Tessa, a flexitarian, didn’t hesitate a second to order a fizzy drink made with snail slime the waitress encouraged her to try. “Good for the skin” said the waitress “full of collagen.”

Tessa took a sip and beamed. “Mmm, super,” she said.

“Red wine please” I said.

We clinked glasses and toasted a highly successful trip packed full of adventures.

“Do you realise you drove on motorways, twice,” I said “and you were fine weren’t you?” She agreed that it hadn’t been a problem.

“So what do you think? Iceland? Great for a visit, but a bloody nightmare to live here permanently unless you’re in Reykjavik?”

“Absolutely.”

The long dark nights of winter, unpredictable weather and knitting would get to me in the end. According to one of those airport books that joke about a country’s characteristics Icelanders don’t talk to their neighbours. Perhaps that’s why there are so many Icelandi-Noir murder dramas.

Next morning we quickly downed our porridge and left the inn before dawn, collecting the packed breakfast the inn kindly provided; it would do for lunch. We left plenty of time to go through the rigmarole of returning the hire car and getting it inspected, which was fortunate because I got thoroughly lost driving round and round the car park areas in the dark failing to find our particular returns area. We had a map and it might have been fine in daylight but in the dark it was very confusing.

“Bet it’s over there” I said, “there are some petrol pumps. Didn’t the receptionist say there were pumps near the returns area when he advised us it would be cheaper to fill up in town last night?”

My intuition had worked before and it did again.

“Petrol at £80 for 3/4 a tank? How do people here survive?” I said bending double to treble check we’d retrieved all our kit out of the car.

“Um” confessed Tessa sheepishly “actually, might not have been that much. I think I was looking at the heat gauge not the fuel level.”

Whilst we might be novices at this hire car business, and getting used to driving on the ‘wrong side’ of the road we are both exceptionally good at going with the flow, getting along just fine, being flexible and making the best of all the opportunities that come our way when we travel together. Do I recommend Iceland to you? Absolutely I do. Just look at all the pictures. I’m already thinking “I wonder what the North is like? I understand there are spectacular geysers and excellent whale watching….

Day Six – Kirkjufell: ‘Iceland’s most photographed mountain.’

Kirjufell in early morning mist…see below to see it in all its golden glory

Kirkjufell (church mountain) snuck up on us. We approached it from the rear and didn’t immediately recognise what we were seeing.

“Wow, look at that slope, that’s really weird,” I said to Tessa and checked it out in the rear view mirror.

“Hang on we have to stop.” I saw a conveniently placed pull over. “That’s it. I can’t believe I’ve just driven past it …oh my god, it’s amazing.”

‘Iceland’s most photographed mountain’, could hardly have looked less photogenic in the dull mist however.

“Let’s hang about for a bit and see if it clears,” Ever the optimist, my photo juices were rising. “Is it getting a bit brighter over there?”

We went down to the shore and watched a couple of squeaky-clean black and white Eider ducks pottering about and waited for the weather to change. Why wouldn’t it? We’d been incredibly lucky so far, apart from the 90mph winds it had hardly rained on us, and we hadn’t had to contend with driving in snow. Some days had even been gloriously sunny.

Everything comes…our patience was rewarded with knobs on.

‘Arrowhead Mountain’ according to Game of Thrones Season 6 was birthplace of the Night King. I still prefer Kirkjufell, Church mountain. Gradually the sun came out. Kirkjufell gleamed golden against the blue sky. Climbable only by experts, because it’s so crumbly, I can’t help feeling it’s good to keep it that way, its pristine bare slopes are an extraordinary sight.

By miraculous synchronicity there was an article in yesterday’s Guardian (Why Scottish celts are key to Iceland’s past – Severin Carrell, Wednesday 4th January 2023) that neatly explains its name to me. Aren’t churches in Scotland called kirks? Carrell points out that Icelandic folklore has a Gaelic speaking warrior queen called Aud, who was among Iceland’s earliest settlers. Carrell writes: “a book by Thorvaldur Fridriksson, an Icelandic archaeologist and journalist, argues that Gaelic speaking Celtic settlers from Ireland and western Scotland had a profound impact on the Icelandic language, landscape and early literature”.

To me this explains the predominance of Icelandic redheads, sagas, poetry and come to think of it…wouldn’t it take a hardy Celt to have the bottle to settle in such a challenging land? I understand the first person to come across it called it ‘Iceland’ and hightailed it away as soon as he could.

To the side of Kirkjufell we were treated to a rainbow as the sky cleared.

Who was overdressed? Tessa and myself bundled up in our rain gear and walking boots or this dapper fellow? Or was he an airline pilot out on a jolly?

Click on the image to see a video of the falls beside the mountain.

We drove on along the peninsular and headed north towards the lava tube cave which was next on the agenda. David at Rickshaw had booked us on the Vatnshellir Cave tour with Summit Adventure Guides (helmets and head torches provided) and we needed to be there by 12.30.

Snaefellsnes presenting another National Geographic calendar view.

But Iceland has so many surprises and distractions. As we drove on across some of its most stunning, ‘ooing’ and ‘wowing’, we came across another extinct volcano.

“A cinder cone, Tessa, that’s a cinder cone…we have to stop… there’s a track to it.”

I climbed one once in Lassen National Park in California. They are the young pups of volcanoes, not yet sealed with vegetation, showing their makings. The Lassen cone was a taller than this one, more pointy. Climbing it was an exhausting experience, taking one step forward only to slide two back on the steep loose cinder. I thought I’d never make it to the top. Eventually when we got there, skirted the rim and climbed down into the centre of the caldera, we found three young men squatted down in the dip right in the middle discussing their investments. I looked at my ex and laughed. Californians eh?

Tessa spent a long time bent double taking artistic pictures of rocks for her Instagram feed near the car park while I wandered around the base taking pictures of the cone and feeling very glad she wasn’t suggesting climbing it, despite the fine stairway – the clock was ticking to get to Vatnshellir Lava Caves on time.

Lava caves form during the last stages of a volcanic eruption. The surface sometimes develops a frozen crust over a still flowing lava stream below. As the lava dwindles, molten material drains out from under the crust leaving long cylindrical tunnels. Gases from bubbles in the lava collect under the tunnel roof and support it. As the gas mixes with air from vents in the roof more intense heating from oxidation raises the temperature enough to re-fuse the ceiling rock which sometimes drips remelted lava, forming rough stalactites and stalagmites.

You are only permitted to enter the Vatneshellir Caves with a guide and I would have it no other way. We parked, gobbled up our ‘left-over breakfast’ in the car, fed the crows (waddling around us like they were wearing wet nappies) with crumbs and ran up to the visitors centre getting there just in time to get kitted up for our descent into the depths. As we were adjusting our helmets my phone jingled a news flash.

“She’s gone” I beamed at Tessa, “she’s out. Resigned. Woo Hoo.” The rest of the group around us looked quizzical. “Liz Truss, our truly dreadful Prime Minister?” They beamed sympathetically.

Imagine being the first person to discover one of these caves?

One part of the cave appeared to be dripping with chocolate sauce.

Other areas were green with sulphur or possibly copper.

There were some remaining stalagmites in places, sadly many had been snapped off by early explorers and taken home as mementoes.

Can you see the saw-toothed monster living in the depths?

“Will you be asking us to turn off our torches so we can experience total darkness and silence?” I asked our guide.

“Shh,” he said with a wink “in a minute.”

There was a man who worked in the caves at Cheddar Gorge in Somerset. My my mother took me when I was about 14. He’d been given the job of guide there after WWII because his lungs had been badly damaged in gas attacks and it was the purest air for him to breathe. He told us to switch off our torches and for a few minutes we experienced 100 per cent darkness, 98 per cent pure air and total silence. It was unforgettable.

Our guide stopped in a large chamber where we could spread out and stand safely on solid ground. “Now you are going to experience something very special. When I say ‘off’ I want you to all turn off your head torches, keep silent and just listen. Two minutes, that’s all. OK?”

Not an anorak rustled, not a drip dropped. No child giggled. We stood, and breathed and listened, even my thoughts stopped clamouring. Once again my whole body, all my senses thrilled to the experience.

It would be easy to spend an entire week on the Snaefellsnes peninsular, there is so much to explore there. Once again we had too many plans to fit in the afternoon. We drove on to Djupalsonssandur black sand beach on the south western prominence of the peninsular. Another place where you definitely don’t want to turn your back on ‘sneaky’ waves.

The path to the beach takes you through a corridor of lava rock formations of sea dragons and trolls.

Djupalonssandur used to be a large winter fishing port. Farmers would stay for weeks in tents or small shelters and brave the rough seas to fish in rowing boats. Djupalonssandur was chosen for its fresh water supply from a small pond behind the beach. Farmers-turned-fishermen from Dritvik, a half hour walk over the lava fields, also had to come there for fresh water. To prove their strength, and my god would they need it in those savage seas, fishermen held competitions to lift increasingly heavy stones, the largest weighing 155 kg. The stones are still at the beach near the remains of their shelters although fishing there gradually tailed off and ended around 1860.

As you approach the shore you walk through the wreckage of a British trawler, the Epine from Grimsby that sank there on March 13th 1948.

Chunks of metal from the wreck have been left there as a memorial to the drowned.

If ever there was a place to contemplate mortality, this is it. The rescuers were forced to wait until the tide came in as the Epine was smashed against the rocks. Of the 19 men on the boat 13 were lost. The others were rescued, one by tying himself to the mast, another was washed ashore by the tide, the remainder when a line was attached to the boat thrown to one of the trawler men still on the boat. The drowned had survived the war only to drown in the raging, ice-cold North Seas.

The beach was almost deserted. Were the two men in the video the ones who found my credit card? I’d fished in my pocket for my phone to take a picture of the information board about the shipwreck as we left and it must have dropped out. We ran back to the beach in panic to search for it, Tessa asked the first guys she came across if they’d seen it.

“This?” they said grinning and holding up my bright blue card. “It’s your lucky day.” Nowadays the card goes in a different pocket from my camera if I take it out with me. A lesson learned.

The freshwater pool behind the beach. I was tempted to have a dip. But honestly? All that faff getting layers of clothes off, and struggling back into them with nothing to dry myself on. Besides I had no cozzi. My swim friend Jo would have dipped and Mandy would have cozzi or not, I’m much more of a wimp.

From the beach we drove 2km south to Malarrif to explore the area around the splendid rocket-shaped lighthouse.

You have to admire the tenacity of nature. Pumice isn’t exactly the most comfortable of homes for a tiny seed to germinate.

An old cod curing hut that had been used as a schoolroom, now a visitors centre

Here is one of the kid’s sculptures. Penny for the snot man?

I don’t know who Steinn was but I definitely wouldn’t want to meet him on a dark night.

I imagine any child would develop a plutonian view of the world living in such a dramatic landscape. You certainly wouldn’t want to let your children pop down to the beach and play on their own.

Rough seas at Arnastapi

Always good to turn around and look behind you. Another cinder cone seen from the entrance drive of the Foss Hotel.

It was clear we wouldn’t be able to get a meal at the Kast and we were relieved to find the Foss Hotel in Hellna where we could have a cuppa and book into dinner,

If I ever return this is where I’d choose to stay for a night or two. A really fabulous hotel.

Best lounge area yet.

Views from the lounge down onto holiday homes where rich Icelanders have weekend breaks, not for the likes of the Hoi Polloi.

The Foss Hotel’s greatest asset – Matt, a fount of knowledge about Iceland and thoroughly nice bloke. It was Matt who told us the little cabins below the hotel were holiday homes for rich Icelanders, who apparently spend not a penny in the hotel. Same on the Gower Peninsular in South Wales and everywhere I guess where second homes mean people stocking up in the local supermarket on the way and contributing zip to the local economy. We sipped our Earl Grey tea and scanned the evening’s menu. I chose the veggie thing like a mushroom wellington and Tessa a fish. We both tucked into the national dish of superb bread with salt-grained butter served on black pebbles. Very stylish. Something I must remember to do at home.

“I know it’s not the end, I know there’s more crass misgovernment to come but I hope you’ll excuse me having a drink to celebrate?” I asked Tessa.

I can confirm Icelandic gin is deliciously fragrant and that eating in such a lovely place with mouthwatering food cost no more than anywhere else in Iceland.

Congratulating ourselves for coming across such a fine dining experience and comfortable hotel we drove the short distance back to the Kast Guesthouse. It was dark by the time we arrived.

“It’s absolutely freezing in here,” I frowned at Tessa “did you turn the heating off?”

“No. Must have been the cleaners.”

Tessa climbed on a chair to adjust the heating.

The night before we’d had no luck with the Norther Lights. Time was running out for a re-run.

“What if we set our alarms for quarter to midnight and go and look for them around that time? It’s when we saw them the first night?” As if there was any sense in that. They are totally random but it was something to try.

“If we leave the curtains open we might see them?” I went to bed in my woollen long johns, merino tee shirt and thick socks. I couldn’t sleep. Only two sleeps left. I tossed and turned for a bit then put on several more layers and went outside to look. Nothing. I still couldn’t sleep. I lay staring out of the window. I got up and looked. I kept checking the app. They were definitely in the area, it was tantalising. I went back to bed lay staring at the black rectangle of the window, slept briefly and woke and looked again.

“Oh my god.” I sat bolt upright and called out to Tessa.

“Tessa? Look. Lights. I think the sky is getting lighter or is it my imagination?” We started piling on extra layers. It was -5C with the windchill. We huddled by the side of the building to shelter from the brutal wind and stared at the hill behind the Kast.

“It does look a bit lighter. Try taking a picture with your phone” said Tessa.

I took a photograph.

“Yes. Yes. There they are. They’re here. I can’t believe it they are actually here.” Tessa was somewhat underwhelmed and I admit they weren’t the most spectacular, but for me they were still magical . It was a brief showing but to see them twice on our trip, well that was awesome.

Day Three – The Incredible Foss of Nature

Skogarfoss, Skogar Waterfall

Sometimes I think I travel to remind myself how small I am, a mere pipsqueak on the planet with less relevance than a grain of sand. I love volcanoes, deserts, wilderness, mountains, raging seas and waterfalls. Skogarfoss, a short diversion off the south west Golden Circle route, was filled with the possibility of that tingle. Back home in Stroud I’d managed to track down a friend of a friend who lived on an island off the south coast of Iceland for a couple of years, “what’s unmissable?” I asked.

“Skogarfoss,” she said “it’s easy to find, there should be a sign to it off your route.”

We had a long drive in prospect but it was on our way to Skogar anyway where the next guesthouse, the Drangshlid (for those Ds pronounce a ‘th’), within range of the black beach, and right by the Folk Museum. It was going to be another day packed with adventure but hey we had all day – or we would have if we’d set off in the right direction. We were on the right number road, Tessa was doing really well driving on a motorway again (I felt terribly guilty but still thought it best to keep shtum ). It was a little while before we realised we were headed north not south. We found an industrial estate to pull into, take a breath, look at the map and turn around.

Stopping by the side of the road in Iceland, unless at specifically designated pull ins, is illegal. Apart from the slick new motorways getting you in and out of Reykjavik the roads are two lanes wide, with drop offs either side and completely stunning National Geographic views all around. Without that law the roads would be full of people slamming on the brakes and taking photos. We had to make good with a lot of moving car photos. “Take that,” said Tessa and I’d try to hold my phone steady enough to get a shot. But we appreciated that because of that law and the moderate speed limit (90kph/55mph at the most) the roads are pretty much a dream to drive on, well maintained and very safe. (Which is more than I can say for Stroud, whose council borrowed a lot of money from Iceland back in the day before the crash and we’ve been paying for it in bust tyres and wrecked suspension ever since.) We had been worried about icy roads and the possibility of snow, it’s a risk you have to factor in if you go when when there’s a chance to see the Northern Lights – but look at the sky in this car picture. It was our luck that, although windy, we set out in gorgeous clear sunshine.

First sighting of geysers

“Geysers, Tessa, look.” Nothing like a geyser to get the blood flowing.

Once we were on the right track it wasn’t long before picked up the Golden Circle road. It was a relief when, after a few hours, we saw the sign to the Skogar Folk Museum. I ran in ahead of Tessa “Hello do you have any loos? Oh, are you Icelandic?” he had to be with that red beard “am I saying this right – Eyjafjallajökull?”

“Not really” he said and rattled it off. I tried again. “Better.”

Tessa and I ate fruit bars we’d brought with us from home and browsed the museum. (Sneaking a sandwich from breakfast hadn’t worked. After the two busy days in Reykjavik we’d slept too late and we’d arrived at breakfast just as they were clearing it away.) I loved the coils of ropes, saddles, a wooden ‘washing tub’ with a kind of rocking paddle to churn it – I lusted after the rows and rows of wooden spoons but I was itching to get outside and look at the reconstructed badstofas.

Wash tub and mangle

I’d recently read the prize winning book by Australian Hannah Kent based on a true story. Burial Rites tells the story of Agnes Magnúsdóttir (I can’t believe it took me all these years to cotton onto the fact everyone from here is either a dottir or a sson). Agnes, Magnus’s dottir, was a servant in northern Iceland in the 1800s who was condemned to death after the murder of two men, one of whom her employer. She was the last woman put to death in Iceland. Agnes was imprisoned in a badstofa with an understandably reluctant family in winter until she was tried. That seemed like an unusual arrangement to say the least. She was found guilty, beheaded and her head stuck on a stake. Here was a chance to see what a badstofa (traditional dwelling) looked like both inside and out to get a feel for that life.

Skogasafn Folk Museum. Badstofa with red roofed schoolhouse in the distance.

The row of badstofas look cosy from the outside tucked up as they are in living turf. But remember the winters are long, dark and freezing cold in Iceland.

Imagine being stuck inside with an unwelcome guest, thought to have murdered two men, in a remote badstofa. The legal system wasn’t exactly in a rush. Things might get a little bit tense spending all winter stuck inside your badstofa in normal circumstances, let alone with a murderess who fascinates one of your daughters. Knitting needles might clack rather more loudly, pots of skyr be thrown. But maybe not. Food would have been too precious to throw.

Outside at last I had a chance to snoop around the row of badstofas and see what life was really like in the 1800s.

I guess you’d want an entrance that keeps out the elements.

And a quiet place in the window near the light to read and write your poems. There aren’t many books published in Icelandic – the population is too small for publishers to bother – I understand it’s a land of poets and spoken sagas instead.

You’d need to be near the light to spin enough wool for all those jumpers.

And maybe send your dottirs early to bed to do a bit more spinning and wool winding.

If it all got too much you could go to the stable and sulk with the horses or sheep.

Or churn a bit of skyr.

Behind the row of badstofa’s we found little houses and a schoolroom that were presumably from the 1900s.

They were obviously able to make babies despite the lack of privacy. I bet they were glad of that potty on a chill night in December.

Schoolhouse

Such was the fascination of the museum it was almost four o’clock by the time we reached Skogarfoss, a short hop from the museum. We stopped at Mia’s adorable fish and chip van.

“He’s closing Tessa, but he’ll stay open for us if you like? What do you think?” It was getting late, nudging 4 o’clock, we decided we’d better go on to the Foss.

We soon forgot our hunger when we saw the Skogarfoss falls. It’s really hard to avoid cliches at this point. So I won’t even try. It was awesome, breathtaking, stunning and not remotely tempting to try and find the legendary chest of gold hidden behind it. Normally I can’t look at a body of water anywhere without thinking ‘oo that looks nice for a dip’. Not there. You’d be thrashed to death by a foss that powerful and this wasn’t even during the spring melt. Imagine. We put our waterproof over-trousers on and got as close as we dared.

Excuse the thumb. Computer says no, can’t edit the video.

We wanted to do at least some of the waterfall walk, a 45 mile hike to Prosmork along the side of the river running into the fall passing several smaller falls with glaciers either side. We reached the top and drew breath. There’s a natural law. Most people only stray 100 ft or so from their cars. As we thought the crowds thinned out and we set off along the path at the top. I just discovered another reason it was so crowded (apart from its beauty) it was one of the locations for filming Game of Thrones. Most people got to the top took a selfie or ten and went back down again. We set off and walked past a couple of other smaller falls, but sadly it wasn’t going to be a long walk for us. The light was already fading and I didn’t fancy those metal steps down in the dark.

Hunger and step fatigue got the better of me as the sun began to set over the fall. We still had to find our way to the Drangshild Guesthouse and we’d only eaten a fruit bar since our rather minimal breakfast and we’d not even got to the black beach.

“How about we get up really early tomorrow and go to the beach and the basalt cliffs first thing?” I said. Tessa was up for that.

As we turned out of the car park it was almost dark and very cold. I saw lights in the distance. “What’s that over there?”I said. “Looks like it might be a restaurant? Shall we check it out?”

Hotel Skogarfoss looked very posh. We waddled in in our soggy layers and asked if we could see the menu.

“Oh my god look at this? Vegetarian lasagne.” I did a quick calculation on my currency conversion app.

I had my second experience of being fed really well as a vegetarian in Iceland. Tessa had fish.

“I don’t care what it costs” I said. “Let’s do it.”

We arrived around 8pm at the Drangshild and saw through the window that the dinning room was packed. We couldn’t make ourselves heard at reception. After a while we gave up and found our way to the dining room to ask if we could check in. The manager looked embarrassed.

“I am so sorry we have no a la carte left” he said “we had a large group of Italians arrive by coach.”

“We already ate” said Tessa. He looked distinctly relieved. .

“I’ll take you to your room. It’s not in the main building.” He led us outside to a separate block. We were desperate for a cup of tea. Our room was very new and smart but bare.

“No sign of a kettle?” I flapped my Earl Grey Tea bag.

“Nope.”

Which was when I got very sweary again. We were both tired and cross and missing that small comfort. It felt like we’d been overridden by a coach load of unexpected guests and given a raw deal. The main building was warm and had a place to make yourself hot drinks.

“I’ll go and ask for a kettle” I said. The outside light wasn’t working. I slipped on the icy decking, more swearing, and made my way over to the main guesthouse. I asked for a kettle. Poured two mugs of hot water which was tepid by the time I got back to our room. We set our alarms for 6, I rubbed the damp off the windows and scanned the sky for lights. Nothing. My bed felt cold. I wished I’d done the sensible thing and brought a hot water bottle like Tessa.

Reykjavik Day Two – Snow on the Mountains

View down to harbour with snow capped mountains in distance.

The bad news from Elding the night before had confirmed that our whale watching boat trip for the morning was cancelled. We had new plans to make. We spread out the city map on the breakfast table. “Look at this Tessa” I showed her the weather chart on my app. The weather map for our area in UK usually maxes the wind chart at 50mph.

“Those gusts yesterday were 90mph,” I said “and last night with wind chill it was -5? Doesn’t look much better today.” Tessa looked happy. She loves cool as well as stark. (I had to watch she hadn’t surreptitiously sneaked the room thermostat down when I wasn’t watching.) Last night, while we sweated in our layers and waited to see the light in the mini-van Gunnar said “coaches and mini vans aren’t allowed by law to go out on the roads when the winds are over 50mph.” Interesting. Also interesting is that our instincts about the Jimini jeep looking like it might get blown over were spot on. I’ve since been told by a petrolhead friend Jiminis had a reputation for that when they first came out.

We weren’t surprised our whale watching trip was cancelled. Neither of us would have wanted anyone to risk taking a boat out in the weather we were experiencing, and I suspect if they had all we’d have seen was our own vomit. I’ve seen Fin whales (60ft long, the Formula Ones of the ocean) and the incredibly rare Right whale but I’ve never seen a humpback so it was still very disappointing.

“Maybe we could go and see the Whales of Iceland exhibition instead?”

“I’d like to go to at least one of the galleries in those amazing modern buildings” said Tessa.

I don’t share Tessa’s love of brutalist architecture. I wasn’t sure I could be bothered to schlep all the way over to the concrete block housing the Kjarvalsstadir art gallery which, though still a bit of a trek, was the closest.

“I thought I might make my way to the Penis Museum by the harbour while you do that,” I said.

“I think that might actually make me physically sick,” she’d said.

However, not really wanting her to have to set off on her own, I decided the Penis Museum could wait. We got lost trying to find the Kjarvalsstadir (of course we did) blown off course several times, but isn’t that how you learn about a new place? Or, in this case, come across places you’d wanted to go to anyway.

Ghost house

“Look Tessa, that’s the Sundhollin, that’s the spa we wanted to go to tonight. ” We went in to ask if we had to book. Whilst we are both ‘wild swimmers’ (how I hate that term) and happy to plunge into water of 8 degrees (ME! yes, I know!) and Tessa 12 degrees and up, the thought of lolling in an outdoor pool heated with natural thermal water to 38deg from the oozing lava beneath the entire island excited us both.

Sundhollin Spa outdoor pool

Mostly all we heard was the roaring of the wind, however in the suburbs on the way to the gallery we kept hearing birdsong. Flocks of redwings feasting on berries had moved into the city. I didn’t have my binoculars on me, but as they flew off there was the telltale rusty colour under their armpits.

Kjarvalsstadir Art Gallery

At the Kjarvalsstadir I learnt a sharp lesson in the benefit of ‘giving it a go’. I normally am a person who likes to say ‘yes’. And now I can’t think what got into me – unless it was the wind and cold – that made me hesitate to visit. Anyway, I can honestly say I enjoyed the work of Gudjon Ketilsson in his exhibition called Jaeja as much, if not more, than any in recent times. There was an actual Icelander on the desk. “Can you check my pronunciation?” I asked her. I was determined by the end of the week to get Eyjafjallajökull right – that big volcano that had all the news readers getting their tongues in a twist when it popped off in March 2010 disrupting air travel all over the world. Thought I’d start with the most difficult then everything else would be easy. “No, she said.”Not quite,” and rattled it off perfectly. “Tak,” I said (thanks) “bless,” (bye).

My attempts to remember how to say Eyjafjallajökull, hear that clucking sound?

Jaeja an untranslatable Icelandic word that means nothing on its own but can be used for almost anything…like: here we are. Or: look at this. In Gudjon’s case he means a found object, or any, put in a different context giving it a value. A man after my own heart. “Oh my god look at that” I am prone to say when I see something like discarded rubbish, plastic caught on a fence or beautifully coiled dog shit for instance, in a different way. Plus he loves hats, so what was not to like? We were first drawn to what looked like black calligraphy on the wall. A closer look revealed it was a collection of black plastic jetsam he’d come across pinned to the wall.

Here are some hats, carved in wood.

We thought this was folded linen and a pile of bones – but they were all ceramic.

He is also a very fine draftsman.

We lingered a long time in the gallery, it was warm and out of the wind, but eventually hunger sent us off to search for the vegan cafe we’d clocked by happenstance on the way.

Sky looking rather ominous at Plantan Vegan Cafe.

“My god look at those cakes.”

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But we chose the sensible option and feasted on a delicious brunch.

There was constantly a worry about how much everything might cost. We’d been warned by David at Rickshaw that a simple soup lunch might be £15 an evening meal £30…but that was before Truss and her crashing of the economy and sinking of the pound. This holiday was booked nearly a year ago in February when it came up on offer from Rickshaw Travel. Covid was still an issue. “Safest place,” said David “you won’t need to worry about Covid there.” Plus it is a relatively short haul flight so there’s less climate guilt involved. But then the £1 hit an all time worst ever low.

“That brunch looks incredible I said. Let’s have it as our main meal,” I said “and eat the sandwiches we assembled at breakfast for dinner tonight.”

I learned another lesson the Plantan. Tofu scramble can be delicious, and that it wasn’t necessarily going to be a week of Tessa eating fresh local fish (she’s a pescatarian) and me eating pizza every night. Reykjavik at least has heard of vegetarians, even vegans.

Harbour

By the time we’d walked back up to the top of the city and down to the harbour the Icelandic Phallological Museum was closed. Who knows what I might have seen? It was nominated best local attraction in 2015 and looks like it is run by a real weir…I mean eccentric, I had so many questions I’d have liked to ask.

We walked around the harbour to the extraordinary new concert hall and conference centre, the Harpa.

Harpa Concert Hall and Conference Centre
Windows that reminded me of a honeycomb
Harbour at night. We apparently just missed a showing of the Northern Lights over the sea.

By the time they, very politely, threw us out, it was dark, and time to go back to the Klopp, eat our sandwiches, grab our cozzies and make our way back up to the Sundhollim Spa. Exactly what we needed after clocking up another 22,000+ steps. It cost us next to nothing with our City Cards. Originally built in the 1920s it has been renovated recently. Lit up at night it’s a magical place. There are several pools outside, the smallest right on the roof top with rows of blasting jets. Tessa soon opted for a bit of time in the cool indoor pool but I spent most of the time cooking in the rooftop pools sky gazing. You never knew…. We reconvened in the shallow pool under a kind of mushroom thing which gradually fills with water and rains down hard on you every five minutes or so. (Best to turn on your front when it does this to protect your soft bits.) The pools were mostly filled with local folk. What a great thing to do after a hard days work rather than slump in front of the telly with a glass of wine.

Mushroom shower thingy just visible back left.

We wound our way slowly back to the Klopp drunk on relaxation and warmth. When we arrived there we saw there was an excited huddle on the steps.

“You just missed them” said a young woman pointing excitedly up at the sky “right here, we saw them right here…red and green and curtains and folds and look, here,” she showed me her phone. “Can you believe it? Right in the middle of Reykjavik. Amazing.”

“Bugger,” I said, forgetting how much Tessa hates swearing.

“Must have been while we getting dressed in the changing rooms,” she said.

“Sod’s Law,” I said.

We fell asleep listening to the Archers. For goodness sake Chelsea, make your mind up…time is running out if you do decide to have an abortion. It’s a great storyline, what with Roe versus Wade and all that, but come on….

Blown Away in Reykjavik – Ray-kia-veek

First sighting of Iceland, ice crystal on the window.

I’ve always thought it against nature to get up in the dark. 3am tested Tessa and me as we obeyed the alarm, downed our instant porridge and scrambled out of the Premier Inn Gatwick to catch a 6am flight to Reykjavik. We’d spent the night before listening to the Archers and watching ‘Have I Got News for You.’ Would Chelsea get an abortion? Would Truss see sense and stand down? I fell asleep imagining the emails the PM’s mother might be sending her: “Lizzie Darling, just come home…”

“Look Tessa, a glacier” I woke and gazed out of the frosted window of the EasyJet plane at a 3D contour map of Iceland. “There’s nothing there,” I said “can’t even see any roads.” The plane bumped down just after 9am. Half an hour of paperwork later we set out to search for our Suzuki Jimini (whatever that was). The minute the arrivals doors opened we were buffeted by the ferocious wind.

People who have been to Iceland are often glassy eyed about it. They mention its spectacular landscapes, whales, the Northern Lights, traffic free roads, glaciers, the Penis Museum, but no one, not a soul mentioned wind. Rain was predicted for most of the week and we’d packed for that, but wind? Nary a whisper to warn us. I understood snow would be a possibility (as it is almost any time of year) but I assumed that like most sensible countries they had plans for that. Tessa was sceptical. “It’s the law that they have to use winter tyres from October” I reassured her.

We battled our way to the furthest end of hire car parking lot where the Budget cars were parked. “Is this it?” said Tessa checking the numberplate, “this?” We stared with dismay at the little white jeep. It looked distinctly unstable for windy conditions. While Tessa battled to open the back door I chased my bobble hat which had been snatched off my head and was making its way back to arrivals.

“There’s no room for our suitcases in the boot area” said Tessa when I got back “see if the back seats slide forwards.” They didn’t. We tried manoeuvring our cases onto the back seats through the front doors. The only doors. It was worse than manoeuvring a truculent toddler and toddlers don’t weigh 10k+.

“This is hopeless” we agreed. “There’s nowhere to hide our luggage,” said Tessa “lets see if there’s something else.”

By 11 o’clock, our first morning in Reykjavik ticking away, Tessa who’d generously agreed to be the first to drive us in and out of Reykjavik (it’s two years since I’ve driven a manual and I thought it best to relearn on the open road) was trying to find how to start the Vitara. I scanned a huge guide I found in the glove compartment. “Wouldn’t you think ‘how to start the car’ would be easily found?” I said. We tried every which way.

Luckily a man arrived to collect the car parked next to us. “Try keeping your foot down on the clutch, then turn the key,” he advised. Bingo.We were off…on what looked remarkably like a motorway into central Reykjavik. Tessa doesn’t drive on motorways. “It’s Ok, “I’d said “Iceland doesn’t have any.” I kept quiet. Better not to say anything and spook her. Perhaps she wouldn’t notice?

Our phones refused to talk to the car system, and weren’t up to date with all the one way streets consequently we had a frustrating half hour driving around one way streets trying to find the multi story by our hotel which we knew was near but couldn’t get to. There was a horrible moment when, stopping to ask directions, my car door was snatched out of my hands by the wind and banged a bollard hard. Only after checking for dents I saw the sign on the window advising you wind down the window first in strong winds and use two hands to open the door. This seems like a great tip even for here.

It was a huge relief when we spotted the hotel and multi storey and drove straight down a slope to the basement and stopped. Tessa wanted to reverse to adjust our parking. Could either of us find reverse? On every attempt the car slid dangerously closer to the wall, at one point with me braced between car and wall to stop it crashing into it. We re-examined the angle we were parked at. “Looks fine anyway,” we agreed.

The Klopp Central Hotel in the old town, lived up to its description (thank you David at Rickshaw Travel) we couldn’t have been better placed. What’s more, Miro on reception not only explained how to get into reverse but also that there was cheaper parking on the street a short hop away. I put on a few extra layers to combat the wind, closed all the windows Tessa, who loves the cold, had opened and at last around noon we set out to explore.

Reykjavik makes up for its surrounding spectacular, snowy mountain landscape with a riotous paintbox of colours on its little houses. Most are faced with galvanised metal, many are decorated with fabulous graffiti. Every turn in the Old Town was a delight and had views down to the harbour, across to the mountains and up to the Hallgrimskirkja, that tall pointy church iconic to Reykjavik.

We had ideas of where we wanted to go: the jumper shop, the tall pointy church, Bakari Sandholt, (mouth watering review in the Lonely Planet guide), Sundhollm Spa with an outdoor thermal pool, the National Museum, The Old Harbour, the Penis Museum, the Harpa concert hall, and (particularly important to Tessa who loves brutalist architecture)Reykjavik Art museum: Kjarvallsstdir. Everything turned out to be within walking distance give or take 22,000 steps and quite a bit of getting lost. Checking the flimsy map in those winds was a pantomime palaver and my Icelandic pronunciation was clearly way off. You try Snaefellnes…the double ll in the middle has to have a clucking sound like a chicken, just to confuse those of us who know a little Welsh pronunciation where the double ll sounds like you are clearing your throat of phlegm.

As it happened the Icelandic jumper shop turned out to be just round the corner from the hotel. For years I’ve had a dream of owning one inspired by all those Scandi Noir dramas I watch on Walter Presents. I factored in the expense when I booked the holiday.

I gazed at the billowing piles of them and asked an assistant “did you knit some of these?” “Ah yes,” she said “I go home at night. I knit. Imagine, an entire life revolving around these gorgeous jumpers. Tall women looked stunning in them, but no matter how badly I wanted one they looked absolutely rubbish on me. I’m too short to carry them off. Besides, although they looked so soft, they were incredibly itchy. “Ah well,” I sighed, “I’ve just saved myself £300.”

Bakari Sandholt, our laudably frugal choice for lunch.
Bakeoff Perfection
First sighting of the pointy church.
Hallgrims church
Hallgrimskirkja

The priapic Hallgrimskirkja, dominating the top of town, is every bit as imposing as it looks in the picture. Built originally in 1945 its buttresses of concrete columns represent the basalt cliffs prevalent in Iceland. We may have staggered around like drunks in the wind, but to see it on such a sunny day set against puffy clouds was an unexpected bonus. Tessa loves stark, and stark it was in a magnificent way.

Mira at the hotel had been dismissive about the National museum “they don’t have much, and make a lot of what they do have.” Perhaps that was why no-one seemed to know where it was. Mind, it was difficult to find anyone actually from Reykjavik to ask. When we eventually got there I had to partly agree with Miro…see one metal stirrup, see them all, but I loved the reconstruction of life in a Badstofa (country dwelling of old), and Tessa loved it and especially enjoyed the intricate wooden carvings on crosses and bedheads.

Badstofa (interior of a dwelling past century)

We had a background worry all day that our Northern Lights boat trip booked for the evening would be cancelled and thought it best to go to the Elding Office to check at the harbour to check. Our fears were confirmed. “Sorry ladies it’s too rough. Probably the Whale Watching trip in the morning will be cancelled as well. I will call you tonight.” Our faces fell. Hadn’t I come to Iceland specifically in October to see the lights? “But you could go on a minivan trip to see the lights if you like? Our men know where to find them. I’ll see if there are spaces…you are in luck. Wear plenty of clothes.”

On the way back up to the Klopp we picked up a slice of pizza for dinner and ate it while we listened to the Archers. (They are still keeping us on pins about Chelsea.) I piled on more layers: merino wool vest, long sleeve tee shirt, wool polo neck, jumper, gilet, raincoat, wooden long johns under my trousers. At 8 we set out in plenty of time to find the mini van pick-up spot at 9pm and promptly got lost again. With 9 o’clock ticking ever closer, trying to follow directions on Tessa’s phone, we ended up following my instinct of where it might be and joined a long queue. We piled into Gunnar’s van with a dozen or so other people and set off to search for the lights.

It takes a lot of patience to see the Northern Lights unless you are incredibly lucky. Gunnar drove us here and there, stopping every now and then to park up and look. And look. We all rubbed condensation off the windows and scanned the skies around us searching for a sign in the dark sky. Gunnar kept calling his boss. We moved on, and on again. Gunnar kept us entertained with tales of Icelandic folk lore (children are threatened with getting an old potato from Father Christmas if they’ve been naughty) and with handouts of hot chocolate and cinnamon buns and subtle hints that we might not get lucky. A self educated, well travelled Icelander he quoted Dickens, Wuthering Heights and recommended various books – yet his day job was police dog training. Iceland is full of poets I understand. There is scant literature in Icelandic…the market is too small.

We wound up bouncing off road down a track in the middle of deserted heathland somewhere near the south coast, maybe near Grindavik, and piled out to shelter from the wind behind some abandoned buildings. I was thrilled, it couldn’t have been more Icelandi Noir if it tried. At last, quarter to midnight, just when Gunnar was about to give up, we saw a patch of lightening sky. “Check with your phones” said Gunnar “if you have an iPhone 12 and up you will see the lights in a photo before they become visible with the naked eye.” He was right. There they were. As we watched they got brighter and brighter and we could clearly see them with the naked eye. Ok, not the most spectacular showing with ribbons and folds and patches of pink, red and purple, but we saw them. Plenty of people come to Iceland and never see them. They are random. 90% of the time they are just green. They can last for hours or only minutes. Ours lasted for about an hour fading gradually. We watched, we froze and we probably bored half the minivan occupants waiting till the last fade.

“I can’t believe it” I said to Tessa “on our first night. We actually saw them.”

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The red colouring on the heath is from the tail lights, running to keep the less intrepid inside the van warm.

Riding to Rincon

 

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Chestnut Mandibled Toucan

I dunno, you spend hours tiptoeing through the jungle hoping against hope to see a toucan, binoculars scanning the canopy, and blow me if there isn’t one sitting on a garden fence at the minivan  station. And not just sitting there either, showing off like a Hollywood matinee idol whilst enjoying a shower from a garden hose.  “Toucans like it cool” Oscar had said – don’t they just. Forget binoculars, there he was, making sure his wing pits were thoroughly clean, improbable bill wiped dry back and forth, back and forth on the railings, then feathers tucked back in neatly for the admiring crowd that had gathered.  I got out my phone.

“Nils, it’s Granny… happy birthday.” What fabulous synchronicity to have the chance to impress this uber-naturalist, now 13 years old, boy.  “Guess what? I’m watching a toucan having a shower, and …oh my god… there goes a flock of green and red macaws. Are you having fun?”

“Yes Granny, thanks for the money, we’re all having tea now….”  Of course they were, they were 6 hours ahead in Machynlleth, and I was interrupting cake “I’ll take a picture for you” I said releasing him to get on with the important stuff.

Everything about the toucan is extraordinary.  Their giant bills, their huge size, their spectacular colouring – who wouldn’t want to use them to advertise a creamy glass of beer? They are jaw dropping. This one was a Chestnut Mandibled  ‘who likes to bathe in water-filled hollows high in trees’ says the bird guide.  9cm larger than the Keel-Billed which ‘makes harsh and monotonous croaking crick crick crrik, with a resonant wooden or mechanical quality like sound of winding an old clock’, in chorus, like a pond full of frogs’. Birders really go for it description-wise, like connoisseurs of fine wines, and I’d love to hear that and even more see it, as they apparently head-bang their great bills back and forth in all directions as they sound off.  Had it been less absorbed in its ablutions, the Chestnut Mandibled, on the other claw, makes ‘a shrill yelping KeeuREEK or yo-YIP a-yip, a-yip, and expresses aggression with a mechanical sounding rattle deeper than that of the Keel Billed’. No surprise that they dominate in the fruit trees, size matters in the bird world. Are you sensing a toucan obsession developing?

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Chestnut-Mandibled Toucan

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Keel-Billed or Rainbow Toucan

The ride to the minivan swap station had been a right old bone shaker, twisting round, up and down a roller coaster road, torment for Tessa and the little Russian boy whose parents seemed singularly unsympathetic to his toucan green face and gritted teeth.  I know that look well… the yawning that’s one step from an up-chuck. He gratefully chewed one of Tessa’s ginger sweets.   “Little boy sick” I called out to the driver, who immediately stopped for the poor kid to take a walk up and down and have a breather. His parents told him not to make such a fuss. I felt for the poor little chap.  I suffered terribly as a kid. For a while crisps stopped me being sick, then it was ice-creams.  Can you believe my parents bought that line?Image result for map of rincon de la vieja national park

It was good to shake off the journey with the Toucan show, and then be chivvied into a different van and set off due north west, almost to the Nicaraguan border, for another volcanic hot spot. Rincon de Veija is a volcanic area, not a pointy kind of volcano like Arenal, more a range of steaming, puffing ‘fumaroles’ that help to make Costa Rica the carbon neutral country it is, the steam cleverly piped and utilised.  It  has the added excitement of the possibility of firing off in any direction.

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Rincon de Vieja National Park

First the driver had to locate our accommodation and he’d not been there before.  When at last he saw a sign for Casa Aroma del Campo he dropped us off by some impressive iron gates with a drive leading to an imposing Spanish style house.  They were locked.  It didn’t seem right.  I rang the bell next to a key pad. Nothing happened.  I rattled the gates a little. Weren’t they expecting us?

“I can’t remember what Casa Aroma looks like, can you?” I said to Tessa.  “I don’t remember it looking like this.” I rang again. We stood there, somewhat forlorn, way out in the middle of the ‘campo’, suitcases at our feet, hot and dusty, contemplating the locked gate.  “Something’s wrong, stop the driver. Quick.”

A head popped out of an upstairs window.

“Casa Aroma? Up the track, over there” he waved us away, gesticulating at one of the roughest tracks I’d ever seen (though Gloucester County Council roads take some beating at the moment).

“Surely the minivan isn’t going to attempt to go up there?” Tessa said.

We bumped and swayed our way uphill, hoping to god that ‘Smell of the Countryside’ would be at the top. The driver was not happy; nor would I have been if it had been my vehicle.  In the kerfuffle of finally reaching the top and seeing a Casa Aroma del Campo sign and hauling our cases up the last few metres, I left my shade peak in the minivan. We watched the driver bump his way back down, ignoring our waves and shouts. Ok, it wasn’t the most fashionable object and my kids would die to be seen with me wearing it, but I’d found far more effective than sunglasses. It made taking a quick photo or raising binoculars far less faff.

We called out. Nobody came. We wandered around the hacienda style bungalow even more confused.  A bright green parrot, perched on top of its cage eyed us suspiciously.. A large black dog, seemingly completely harmless, thumped her tail a couple of times, setting up a cloud of dust from the concrete.

“Hola, hola…welcome, I am Eric, that is Liberty, and this is Coco…say ‘hola’ Coco.” Coco sidled away from him.

Eric showed us to the most orange room I’d ever seen “net is just for romantic” he explained when we noted only one of the beds had a mosquito net.  “Pool is down there, very natural. Liberty is friendly dog, Coco likes her neck tickled …come on Coco, Coco cop, Coco cop,” he  chivvied. Coco glared at us with her red eyes.  “Vegetarian, no problem” he said chalking up a seven course menu on the board. He checked us in and easily persuaded us to take up his offer of personally driving us to some hot springs “very natural, very nice, you can have mud, I only charge petrol.”  IMG_2840

Can I blame Christmas? Getting the decorations down and things prepped for my house sitter?  Woefully unprepared, Tessa and I realised we had miscalculated our cash stash, and hadn’t allowed for paying for evening meals. Everyone had been reluctant for us to pay for anything in colones and when we paid in US dollars, gave us change in colones.  Same old story.  I should have known. Now here we were, goodness only knows how many miles from a hole in the wall with mostly colones in the stash, and me with just $10. We really wanted to do the hot springs.  Would he accept colones? Eric sighed deeply, he shrugged OK.

With time to spare before the evening ride to the springs Tessa hooked up with her family on Skype, and wandered around with her tablet for an hour or so showing them all around.

“This is Liberty…we’d stroke her but she’s sticky with dust…and this is Coco the parrot…and this is our room, and that’s Mary reading in the hammock…”  I looked up from the New Yorker and waved at them.  There are times when the world shrinks beyond belief, and, seeing them all in Tessa’s Cotswold cottage sitting room was one of them.  Sometimes I look at the stars, an extraordinary thing that is a human being with eyes and fingers on hands, and my mind is blown. Really, who needs drugs?  Life is some weird trip. I wandered off to find the pool.

On the way to the springs Eric stopped for us to photograph a site that to me seemed to sum up Costa Rica. Why fell a tree when you can split the road around it? the hot springs at Rincon were much more like what I’d expected from my experience of hot springs in Thailand, though more contained.  There I’d just made my way up a hot stream, dammed from time to time to make pools, increasing in heat until it was so intense I’d had to clamber back down to where it was bearable.

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Over the road from the main springs were the ‘natural’ ones, so we thought we’d try them first. The stream trickled downhill through woodland, it was still and deserted. We  picked our way carefully along the paths till we found a shady pool we particularly liked.

“Ow, christ, ow, watch out” I shouted across to Tessa who was just picking her way in carefully.  I’d just swam right into the submerged branch of a fallen tree, and was having trouble escaping from more hidden branches.  No wonder it was so quiet. The natural pools were indeed natural, unkempt and set like traps for the unwary. Hightailing it back across the road to the main set up we were relieved to find a series of pools roughly fashioned out of concrete beside a larger stream with no overhanging branches.  They even had approximate temperatures chalked on boards next to each pool.  The place was heaving with people, chatting, taking selfies and generally having a ball shouting and splashing around.

“Come on lets get muddied” I said to Tessa and we joined the queue for an attendant to slather us all over with mud using a huge paintbrushes. We staggered away like zombies to wait for the mud to dry and absorb until we looked for all the world like a a row of  Gormley figures. Once we’d dried to pale grey and started to crack we slithered over to a row of cold showers set in the rocks. I found the ‘just perfect’ pool to wallow in, like Goldilocks porridge not too hot, not too cold, with only a smattering of other people. I floated on my back, eyes closed, thinking ‘this is the life.’ It seemed like I’d floated like that for an age when I had a very shocking awakening obliviously floating right into a bunch of young men sitting around the edge drinking beers. I spluttered my apologies and paddled away embarrassed. “Did you enjoy that” giggled Tessa, who had watched the whole incident unravel from a distance.

IMG_2856Eric diverted along a back road on the way back.  We were itching to see a puma, and he assured us they were regularly seen there, as the sign would indicate, but it was not to be. Truth to tell, puma’s don’t want to see people, and so well camouflaged are they that you could walk right past one and not know it. There are constant rumours of them living in my valley back home in the Cotswolds, carcasses of deer eaten from the hind quarters forwards found, but only rare sightings.

Back at Casa Aroma del Campo Eric’s seven course meal turned out to be the best we’d eaten so far in Costa Rica. Veggies fresh from the campo, bean soup, a kind of tasty scrambled egg with spring onions and herbs rounded off with a ‘flan coco’.  Paula’s description of Casa Aroma came back to me: ‘a little bit arty and funky’. “Perfect” I’d said.  And yes, we found it right up our unbeaten track,

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Still soporific from the spa, we both turned in early to read and for me to catch up on my journal. We marvelled at how soft our skin had become from the mud. There were curious night sounds I couldn’t identify, but it was a deep sleep nevertheless.

Coco woke us at the crack with a hideous squawking.  It only stopped when the cook arrived from the village and slip-slopped over to her with a piece of toast.  That bird is spoiled. I tried to ingratiate myself with her like Eric suggested “Coco cop, Coco cop” I said inching my hand towards her to indicate a neck rub. She made to stab it with her vicious beak

“She only like men” called out the cook, well thanks Eric, pity you didn’t mention that.  I felt sorry for the bird, the cage was filthy, partly because she seemed to spend all her time standing on top of it, crapping and clutching at her clawful of toast, glaring. Were her wings clipped? I asked Eric when he re-appeared.

“No she flies free.  Goes away sometimes and comes back.” Well I hope she goes off for hot sex with a secret lover and has some fun in her life.

IMG_2869 (1)The next morning our guide Freddie picked us up early.  ‘Rincon is famous for its tall trees’ said Paula…she wasn’t kidding, but I have to say that by then I felt that if I had to endure hearing about the lifecycle of the ficus tree once more it’d go crazy.  I’d come to realise that when guides are a bit stuck for something to show visitors they resort to this patter. Freddie was well meaning, studying hard to upgrade from minivan driver to full time guide, but when you hear an unusual bird call and ask “What’s that?” “A bird” doesn’t really cut it. Bernie the driver, a trained guide was actually more knowledgeable.  Freddie redeemed himself when he pointed out an anteater way up high in a tree.  Did you know they did that?  My vision of an anteater is of an animal pottering along on the forest floor hoovering up ants with it’s long snout. To see one eating high up in the canopy was a revelation, as was the sandpaper tree. Yes it is very wise to keep your arms to yourself in the rainforest.

We smelt it before we saw it – sulphur. Then we heard it. Plop, hiss, plop.

“Oh my god, look at that” steam was rising up among the trees. We’d reached the active area, and there was the vent of a fumarole right in front of us.  Crusts of colourful chemicals surrounded the vent, boiling water in it.  Nearby was a large mudpot.  Plap, plop, plop.

“They should have films of this showing in dentists surgeries” said Tessa. “And at the post office” said I.

I feel a bit guilty being so excited by volcanoes, especially when people in Hawaii are fleeing for their lives from one at this very moment while I write. But it’s like looking at the stars.  I am amazed that we can survive on a round rock, with a furious furnace of molten rock in the centre, barely contained in places by a thin crust, sicking up lethal rivers of larva.  The sharp smell of sulphur caught in my nostrils.  How can this be? Existence was blowing my mind again.

Tessa filmed it on her phone.  I stared and stared at it, mesmerised so I jumped when Freddie reappeared from making a phone call right behind me.  I turned around. He looked at me closely.

“Are those real?” he asked.  He pointed.

“My eyes? You mean green? Yes, they are. Cowpat green.”

“Beautiful,” he said and walked away. Curiosity or a come on? You decide.

 

Journey to the skinny bit in the middle.

Costa Rican Mafia and polyamory in the swamp

Type in something http://www.rickshawtravel.co.uk

Cute aren’t they? The White-Faced Capuchin monkey, as gorgeous to look at as a decorated cup of the brew it’s named after, as well as the hooded friars, is also known as the Costa Rican Mafia.  It didn’t take us long to go from ‘oo, wouldn’t it be amazing to see a Capuchin to ‘oh my god, it’s trying to steal the sugar.’ Sadly, where they are around easy pickings (i.e. tourists) they’ve developed a sugar addiction, making them relatively easy to snap, but a nightmare for restaurant staff. They are also extremely clever.  We were told about two beach capuchins putting on a bit of a show dancing for a charmed tourist, while their accomplice unzipped his backpack and necked a bottle of coke.

We arrived in Tortuguero well in time for lunch and, such was our lack of checking, had the unexpected delight of finding two tours were included as well as the canoe trip at dawn the next day. As we waited to go into the dining hall capuchins did their best to cement their reputation. Someone thought they saw a toucan, we missed it, only catching the post-seeing-a-toucan excitement.

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Oliver gathered us together at the dock to take us by boat down the canal for a jungle hike. Some guides, you can tell immediately, get it – have a passion for the environment, oodles of experience and are full of knowledge.  As soon as I heard him imitate the call of the rare Trogon, I knew we were in the hands of an expert. I used to help my ex (a warden with the RSPB) with bird surveys and that’s how you do it, especially in the UK where most of them are LBJs (little brown jobs). It worked.  Soon a pair of Trogons answered his call and came to check out the competition.  For those that are curious they were either Orange Bellied (4, below) or Elegant (No.7 below) close relatives of the iconic, extravagantly tailed Quetzal.  I have a particular interest in seeing a Quetzal because for years their truly crazy call startled my friends when I used it as a ringtone on my mobile.  The trogon however has a soft 5 or 6 descending note call.IMG_0091

Our little group walked quietly along the concrete path through the jungle – concrete because a law was passed a couple of years ago in Costa Rica to make everywhere accessible to wheelchairs. Whilst it might take something from the experience of adventuring in the jungle, it actually protects tourists from it in many ways and the rainforest from them. “Don’t touch anything, or lean on a tree without checking first” said Oliver “there are snakes, insects, and some plants have savage spikes, same are  poisonous. Be careful.” A row of leaf cutter ants flagged up a warning on the handrail.

One woman complained it was too dark to take photographs. rain drenched us, but as Oliver pointed out “it’s a RAIN forest”. Swathed in capes and waterproof jackets, binoculars and cameras (the lucky few with long lenses) at the ready, we hoped to see a jaguar slinking by or a tapir sloshing about. How can anyone live in a jungle let alone find time to build fantastic temples?

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The soggy forest floor was lit in places by a tiny fungus like glowing cups of fire; sap from the ‘blood tree’ bled a massacre onto the concrete path. A spiny nut had provided a good bite for a monkey or a possum.

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Blood Tree

I heard the young woman travelling with a woman around 80 years old, call her  ‘Nanny’. I was curious. As we boarded the boat to go back to Evergreen Lodge I asked if she was travelling with her grandmother. She was doing  exactly that, she said, and what’s more, they were having a great time. I was inspired. I resolved to offer to take each of my four grandchildren on a special trip, somewhere they really wanted to go, when they reached 18. How cool would that be? The plan risks it being a bit naff for the youngest of the four, who is only 10, if I’m a bit decrepit by then, but hey, what better incentive to keep fit?

The next trip  to Tortuguero village was an exercise in how to keep jolly in the rain. Easy for a couple of Brits, neither of us moaners.  ‘No such thing as bad weather, only wrong clothes’, we reminded ourselves.  We looked at the ice-cream stalls along the ‘high street’  (mostly a row of tourist shops) but it was hard to work up an enthusiasm for one under our umbrellas. No wonder Tessa and I are good travel companions.  She and I share a passion for hardware shops.   I’ve  visited hardware shops all over the world, and usually find something different to bring home, though I never did have the nerve to fit the squirty loo hose I brought back from Thailand.  (What was I thinking? A hose attached to the loo in a wooden floored upstairs bathroom with four grandchildren?) Sadly Tortuguero hardware shop had little to intrigue, though I regret not getting a picture of the leather machete sheaths hanging in a row.

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We headed for the beach instead, behind the row of shops, famed for the turtles who, in a spectacular event each November, heave themselves ashore in their many thousands to lay their eggs. “Don’t swim” Oliver had warned “there are crocodiles and sharks in the sea.”  A sea, despite being Caribbean, that churned and crashed angrily on the shore. Funnily enough I wasn’t in the least bit tempted.

As night closed in I went for a soggy walk alone along the path from our cabin. Always a good mimic I repeated the Trogon call.  Birds stirred nearby, but they weren’t coming over to play. The night shift was starting, and I stopped to listen to the ringtone frog, the alarm clock frog, the faulty smoke alarm frog and the dripping tap frog. It was another world, and I loved it.

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“Listen” I said to Tessa when I woke next morning “hear that?”

“No, what?”

“That’s it. Nothing. Nada. It’s stopped raining.”

The light was different, it was warmer, and in the far distance we could hear Howler monkeys call.

It couldn’t have been a better omen, for this was the day I’d anticipated for over a year when I saw a picture of my friend Amanda canoeing up a tropical river. It had been the stuff of my dreams for so long I can’t actually remember when it began but it was undoubtedly inspired by a plethora of wildlife documentaries and reading about female explorers.

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We assembled at the jetty at 5.45 a.m. and were introduced to our guide Ray Brown.  We wobbled onto the small rowing boat with a German and Swiss couple, Ray standing at the back doing the paddling.  A black vulture circled overhead. Someone thought they saw a shark fin.

“Possible, said Ray ” there are sharks and crocodiles in the canal here, manatees sometimes.” Ray explained he grew up in Tortuguero village.

“Did you swim in the canal?” I asked him.

“Of course” he said paddling across to the other side, “ask me any questions you like” he said “what do you want to see?”

“I’d love to see a tapir” I said.

“Ah, difficult” said Ray “but I’ll try my best.  They like to graze in the shallows.  They eat Water Hyacinths.  Look Howler Monkey” and he paddled us over to look. “Iguana” he said poking the boat into the canal side. Iguanas, explained Ray, change colour from green to orange, depending on what they eat. It reminded me of an acupuncture patient I had once who’d turned herself bright orange with her serious carrot habit. The iguana we saw was half way there. Ray knew where things hung out, poking the boat into the side canals and lagoons. The cayman’s lair was empty that morning.

“What are those ?” The trees on the banks looked from a distance as if someone had thrown tissues up them.  He paddled in close. They were exotic flowers, as big as a head with red stamens and phallic pistle (if I remember my biology right).

“I used to be a Rastafarian,” said Ray “can you believe that? But I had to cut my dreads off to get work.”  He picked a flower to show us close up. “This is what we used it for. Not allowed now, national park.” Tearing up and mushing all the parts of the flower into canal water he mixed it to a pink slime.

“There,” he said pouring it onto his head “makes your hair grow very nicely. Anyone want to try?”

“I will” said Tessa, to my astonishment “come on Mary, you too.” The others in the boat declined while Tessa and I rubbed it into our hair. I can report my hair has grown very fast this last month, though I’m afraid it’d take me till I’m 80 to grow dreads.

As he paddled Ray told us how there were no doctors or clinics in the village.  His father had helped in all the births of his brothers and sisters . Such was his natural skill, he was midwife to all the children in the village.  I wonder if he learned something from the amazing Feminista bird?

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Bobbing on a boat doesn’t necessarily make for great photos, so I share this with you from a bird guide.  The Jacana, with its improbable feet for walking on floating vegetation, has a habit I can’t resist sharing.  Ray said it was known as the ‘Feminista’ bird explaining she took no part in the upbringing of her eggs…but he left out half the story.  She is actually polyandrous, defending a territory of 2 – 4  males at a time. She puts in a bit of effort at the beginning, helping her first male to build a skimpy nest on the floating vegetation. Then she lays him 4 buff coloured eggs, scribbled over with blackish crisscrossing lines (like a very young child might decorate an easter egg).  He incubates them, (without any help from her, carefully tucking his wings under the eggs to insulate them from the damp of the floating nest) while she buggers off to make eggs with her other paramours.  He has even been observed rolling the eggs to safety over the vegetation if a flood threatens the nest.  They hatch after 22-24 days, when he carries them to safety tucked under one wing, like recalcitrant toddlers, legs dangling. ‘The mother may help to guard them’ says the bird guide.

Ray Brown steered us into the side canals, where crocodiles lurk and vegetation brushes the arms of the unwary. Honestly, it was one of the biggest thrills of my life.

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On our last morning in Tortuguero Tessa and I went for a bit of an explore on our own.  Walking to the far end of the lodge “do not eat in the wrong restaurant, stick to the one I direct you to” was clarified. Our pool was a rather sorry affair, even despite the weather it didn’t look at all attractive. The other half however had a luxury pool with bar and loungers.  No doubt the food was an upgrade too. But we were content without the luxury, we agreed we didn’t need clipped lawns and stylish ‘tropical’ planting. Our only regret was we hadn’t had time to take a couple of kayaks into the back canals on our own…but maybe that wasn’t such a bad thing after all.

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I

Journey to top right of the skinny bit in the middle.

“It looks a bit posh to be our hotel” I said to Tessa.

“It is though, look, ‘Don Carlos'”. We’d arrived at San Jose in the dark, impressed by the exorbitant display of Christmas lights, and cunning ways they’d created Christmas trees, surprised by how big the city was.

“Wow”. We trundled our cases into a 1920s lobby to be greeted warmly by the receptionist in perfect English. Formalities over, he reminded us our bus would leave for Tortuguero at 6.30 in the morning.

“I think it leaves at 5.30” I said. He smiled politely.  “Maybe”.  If there was one thing worrying me about our trip it was the knowledge that Tessa prefers a slow start in the morning. I know better than to call her before 9.30. I do too, but by that I mean back to bed with a cup of green tea, check Facebook, 10 minutes learning Spanish, 15 minutes yoga, 10 minutes trying to meditate, and half an hour breakfasting shouting at John Humphries on the Today programme….How on earth was I going to get her up in time?

I scrutinised the travel programme.  “He’s right, it does leave at 6.30.” Seeing an opportunity to justify 6 months struggling to learn Spanish I took myself off to the desk. Duolingo says I was 50% fluent after all.

“You are absolutely correct,” I said in hesitant Spanish “the bus does leave at 6.30” I beamed when he nodded a yes. “Was that OK ” I asked, ” my Spanish I mean?”  “Perfect” he said, his one eye twinkling.  I burst back into our room “I did it. He understood. My Spanish works.”

“How about I shower first in the morning so you can wake slowly?” Tessa readily agreed.  Too jet lagged to eat, despite our having researched several vegetarian restaurants in San Jose, we turned in at 8 o’clock. I felt guilty at passing up the opportunity to get a flavour of the city, but fell into a dizzy sleep, listening to the Archers on Tessa’s huddle.

“Aargh. Bugger.”

“Everything alright?” asked Tessa when I emerged from the bathroom.

“I forgot. I put loo paper in the pan. Just had to fish it out”

“But I didn’t flush in the night after I peed.”

“Neither did I, but better that than a blocked loo when we need it.”

“Eew,” said Tessa.

“It’s Ok, I washed my hand after.”

This was to become a familiar cry on our trip – Costa Rican plumbing is absolutely fine, as long as you remember to put the paper in the bins provided next to the loo and preferably not mistakenly reuse it like Margot in My family and Other Animals.

Rickshaw had warned us about ‘Tico time’ so our expectations were so relaxed about departure I was startled to find the lobby full of people and luggage at 6am and drivers calling out names and destinations. I hurried back to our room to warn Tessa. She’d been having a bit of a re-pack and the bed was spread with the contents of her suitcase.  “I’ll tell them you’re coming” I said and trundled my shamefully heavy suitcase stuffed with ‘might come in handys’ (50 years of travelling the world has taught me nothing) round to the lobby.

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Lobby, Don Carlos Hotel

Gallery image of this property

It’s never a good idea to do a long bus ride on an empty stomach, especially if you get travel sick like Tessa, so I lent her my acupressure wrist bands and we snacked on cashew nuts.  There was only coffee available, which neither of us drink. It was going to feel a long wait till the breakfast stop half way through the 2 hour bus journey.

The mini van called at a smart hotel to pick up more people, then an even smarter one where we were re-shuffled into different coaches.  I watched our cases like a hawk there being some confusion about destinations, which luggage hold, which part of the luggage hold. and which coach they went in. Stomachs grumbling, we set off into traffic in a slow trundle out of the city, tempted by distant views of mountains in cloud.”Look,” I nudged Tessa “rainforest.”

“It’s so green,” she said “just like England. We could be in the Slad Valley.”

“It’s meant to be the dry season” I said, as rain lashed the windows and condensation fogged the inside. The driver was peering through a small clear patch about the size of a football. “There’s something wrong with the air conditioning.”

“I might sue you for damages for misrepresentation of the weather” she said, shivering and fishing for her raincoat for another layer.

“Bet you’re glad you brought a fleece” I said, wiping a hole to see out of the window. No sooner had we left the suburbs than we were driving through tunnels of dripping, gushing, vine strung, creeper-clinging jungle.  It didn’t remind me of Laurie Lee country it reminded me of Tarzan. I kept my eyes peeled for Howler monkeys and toucans.

The breakfast stop, to our surprise, was at a smart cafeteria, with an enormous dining area, set up for tourists to be fed, coffee’d and redistributed into different coaches and mini vans. A kind of tropical Victoria coach station surrounded by rainforest, with breakfast buffet of rooster (fried rice and red beans), pancakes, rolls, eggs, meat and that dire stuff Lipton’s has the nerve to call tea.

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Noticing a crowd gathered on the path staring up at the tree tops with binoculars I lept up, grabbed mine, and slammed straight into a glass wall.  Fortunately the damage to my nose was slight, my pride took the hit worst. But like the slap on the wrist I once got from a jelly fish in Thailand when I swam out too far, it was a good reminder to pay attention. It was a false alarm.  Someone thought they saw a sloth, a crowd quickly formed and it turned out to be vegetation.

Sloths are like that, I was to discover, looking for all the world like a bunch of moss and moving just as fast.  Moss grows happily all over their fur, fertilised by the Sloth Moth. Since the sloth only eats leaves it’s digestion is very very slow. Once a week the sloth makes a torturous journey down from the canopy to have a shit. The Sloth Moth has a charmed life laying it’s eggs in sloth dung.  Next time the sloth takes it’s weekly dump emerging moths hop on, their mucky feet adding a little je ne sais crois to the sloth’s coat which grows an excellent disguise of green moss. It’s a win win if you can bear to be a moth farm covered in dung.

The next stop was at the end of the road to Tortuguero, a village buffeted by the Caribbean on one side with a quiet lagoon on the other. It’s accesible then by an hour or so boat ride along a river and canal. We were let out at a busy dock area by the river with cafe and loos near the waiting boats. Here I had my first experience of the confusing Costa Rican currency.  I handed over $10 to the loo attendant, and got a handful of colones coins in change.  I had absolutely no idea if it was the right change. Since the notes are for thousands and millions and I didn’t understand the coins, (I am dyscalculic) I often rely on other people to do the maths.  Tessa was baffled too however.  We no doubt tipped too much or too little, were constantly shocked by the prices and wondered why no one really wanted our colones. However it was a welcome ‘comfort break’ and I’d probably have paid $10 for it anyway. Dragging our suitcases down the rough ground to the river bank we were re-sorted onto different boats depending on our Tortuguero hotels, luggage loaded onto separate boats.

There was a kerfuffle from one of the other boats. A woman had mistakenly left her suitcase at the hotel in a pile set aside for temporary storage there. Oliver, our guide, is on the case, but has to tell her bluntly the only way is back.

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“It’s a boat” sighed Oliver on our Evergreen Lodge boat” don’t all sit on the same side.” The last boarders shifted over sheepishly, rocking us back level. “There are sharks and crocodiles…don’t trail your hand in the water please, and put on your life jackets. If the captain sees something interesting he will turn the boat for you to see it in turn, don’t all stand up at once.” Red Fingernails obviously didn’t listen.

We churned down a soupy brown river thickly lined on both sides with all the pot plants we’d ever known in the 60s and 70s, blown up to jungle height. It was a completely thrilling way to arrive.

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The river opened up to a broad canal for the last part of the journey, rather ominously called the Penitencia, and pulled up at Evergreen Lodge dock.

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“OK” said Oliver “I will give you your room numbers,some go to the right, some to the left, there is a restaurant each direction.  Your cases, if they were labeled, are already there. Do not muddle up. Eat at the restaurant on your side.” (We were only to discover why we were instructed thus just before we left.) And so we arrived at the fabulous Number 17, soaked, happy and thrilled to be so immersed in the forest, where, who knows, anything might come sliding, howling or creeping by?

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An inclement proposal

Letting down her hair

Bianca was at the door. I smelt her as soon as I opened it: rose and lavender with a hint of mothballs. Rose was that day’s theme. A floaty chiffon scarf around her shoulders, rose coloured. A gauzy print dress, rose patterned on deep purple, the asymetric hem falling  in as yet unfashionable waves. All topped off with a large straw hat encircled with faded silk roses, crowning shining plaited coils of fox red hair.

Purple was the background theme of my childhood, much favoured by members of The Order of the Cross. Their scriptures, invented in the 1930s and 40s by the Reverend J.Todd Ferrier (‘Our Friend’) were heavy tomes covered in …purple damask. Order members were all pacifists and vegetarian. On Sundays at the Sanctuary (an upstairs room above my father’s surgery) my parents and their friends, fellow members, would in turn transmogrify into preachers, cloaked in soft purple satin robes. During the long and incomprehensible services, with wheezing hymns pumped out on an organ, I watched the coils of incense rise. I listened to the caged budgies in Gloucester park opposite, and felt the hard rush seats barcode my bare thighs and dreamt of escape and the nut roast for lunch.

Bianca was just one of the colourful characters of my childhood, where a FatherMother was worshiped instead of god, Christ was ‘The Master’ and where angels hovered everywhere. Androgynous pictures of them in floaty garments hung over my parents’ beds. A Guardian Angel, I learnt, was always there to protect me. (A dangerous idea for an adventurous child addicted to the Famous Five books). Bianca, of all the members of The Order, transfixed me. She sits here by my desk. A little cloth sculpture by a fellow member. Her hands are suspended in front of her chest; the knitting needle pins that held a tiny ball of wool have fallen out of them long ago. Her neck is broken and her head would lol onto her chest without the strip of masking tape that holds it up, so you can see the coils around her head. Nevertheless she is every last stitch the Bianca I knew.

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A ‘grunge’ dresser long before the word was invented, before charity shops existed, she would trawl jumble sales to assemble her outfits; topping them off with gaudy paste broaches. She already seemed ancient when I knew her – but then most grownups did. By the hairs on her chin, and freckled arms, she must have been in her mid 50s or 60s when my five year old self opened the door to her.

In ‘reduced circumstances’, I believe Bianca lived in a grace and favour caravan in the woods next to Resthaven, an old people’s home near Stroud. On Wednesdays she would take the 56 bus from Pitchcombe to our house in Gloucester to help my mother with the ironing. Ours was a busy doctor’s household. In school holidays there would be shirts for four brothers and my father to iron, whilst my mother fed sheets through a rotary iron. But on quieter visits, when my big, rowdy, messy brothers were all away at boarding school, I would have quality time with Bianca. I would be ready for her with a little hoard of gold coloured hairpins clasped in my hand, pins that she had shed around the house the previous visit. Pins that held the coils in place.

Taking a break from the singeing hot kitchen, Bianca would retreat to the cool of the downstairs cloak room, which smelt of damp woollen coats and air-wick loo freshener.  There she would indulge me by letting down her hair. Hair that when released fell heavily down to her ankles in fiery Rumplestiltskin waves from the plaiting. She brushed and brushed it till it shone and crackled letting me feel it’s silky softness. How I envied that hair. My brother Ian once found me sobbing in front of the slightly foxed bathroom mirror after the savage haircut my mother favoured. “No one will marry me now” I wailed. It became the family joke for a while, making me blush to my roots each time it was mentioned.

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I asked Bianca one day “Did you ever have a fiancee? Didn’t you want to marry?”

“Oh dearie me. What a question. Well as a matter of fact I almost did. He was an emperor and a king you know.” My eyes widened. “Black and beautiful and his chest was covered with gold medals and chains. A neat silver beard – oh he was so handsome. “

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Emperor Haile Selassie

Emperor (and self appointed King) Haile Selassie was exiled during World War II to Bath, in the West of England. She told me that at the time she was a companion to *Lady Macaulay and often attended elegant social events with her. Presumably it was at one of these events she met Selassie. I found this picture of her in fancy dress. She stands on the far right, hair not yet ankle length, but well on the way.  I imagine him transfixed, like I was, by her long red plait, and graceful bearing.

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“He proposed to me darling, and gave me a black-stoned ring. I had to turn him down. He was King of Ethiopia. It’s very hot there. I didn’t think the sun would suit my complexion.”

Many years later, when I was in my 30s, it fell to my mother to clear out Bianca’s  possessions when she died. A kindly duty she often did for friends and one I was always eager to help with because who knows what treasure might be unearthed? Bianca had ended her days in a high ceilinged, but small room in Faithful House in Cheltenham. A home for elderly nurses who were on their uppers. The staff were rather keen for a quick and thorough clear out, she had piles of suitcases in her room and in their storage. I searched every little faded box, tissue paper screw and suitcase for that ring. I didn’t find it. Perhaps she gave it back? What I did find, however, was pure gold. In a long box, wrapped in tissue, tied at each end with a pale blue satin ribbon, was folded a fox red plait.

 

*A Wiki search for information on a Lady Macaulay has sadly revealed nothing.  However I did find this woman, a writer, Dame Rosa Macaulay, whose home was completely destroyed in the blitz. Might she have fled to Bath at that time? She too was drawn to deeper spiritual dimensions. Macaulay was never a simple believer in “mere Christianity”; her writings reveal a more complex, mystical sense of the divine. Her unusual take on Christianity would have been right up Bianca’s street, she would have made a perfect companion. Like Bianca she too was a pacifist and between wars was a sponsor of the pacifist Peace Pledge Union, until she recanted in 1940, after her home was flattened perhaps?

I want to believe this is the Macaulay that Bianca companioned in Bath.  Who could not resist someone who writes this memorable first line from her book The Towers of Trebizond: ‘”Take my camel, dear”, said my Aunt Dot, as she climbed down from this animal on her return from High Mass.’

 

 

Pictishwoman gets her placard out for Trump

On Friday 21st January 2017  I shared on Facebook:

“It’s like when a close relative dies.  You half wake and it’s a good day, a normal day.  And then you remember….It’s the worst reality show ever. (Or ever, ever, as Trump would say).”

I spent the day on a ‘craft project’ and kneading bread. The bread rose exceptionally well.

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Grannies against Trump

Next morning, Saturday 22nd January,  if not literally painted in wode, I rose fired with enthusiasm, shining out my inner wode, in Pictishwoman mode.  I travelled with friends to Bristol to share the love, communality, humour and determination of 1000 women, partners, children, grannies and babies because I had to add my voice.  I had to say this is not normal.  He is not normal.  Times are not normal.  But together we are strong and we won’t be silent.
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Knowing I was joining with millions of women all over the world,  made me feel just a little bit better.  I had to be with the truth tellers.  People who can count, and do count in more ways than one.  Who see black and know it is black.  Who see white and know it is white and won’t be told otherwise.  But don’t misinterpret this.  We know  a ‘race’ is something you run and is otherwise completely irrelevant to our friendships .Who know a combover con when we see one, and come on, really, we couldn’t give a fig about the size of your genitals Mr Precident (yes I meant that spelling).  As  one banner said ‘Melania, Blink if you need Help’.

Pictish Woman

Pictish Woman