Icelandic magic

Cleve West tilts the compass point towards the far, far north and journeys to a land of glacial lagoons and moss covered lava fields

Words & Pictures: Cleve West

“Take pictures of some good gardens and report back!”

This was the parting order barked at me by James Alexander-Sinclair (the brains behind this rather snazzy iPad app) when he heard that I was off to Iceland for a holiday.

Being in the excitable state he was with the app about to go live I forgave the fact that he ignored my emphasis on the word “holiday” and dutifully made a mental note to check if Iceland had the equivalent of the National Gardens Scheme when I got there.

The trouble is, when I got there, I forgot.

Here’s an iceberg at Jökulsárlón, a glacial lagoon at the base of Vatnajökull, Europe’s largest glacier

Granite grandeur

One of the first things you become aware of on visiting Iceland is that it is virtually treeless.

I imagined that this must have been because of continuous volcanic activity, thin soils, strong winds etc., but the sad fact is that the island once had abundant forests which were gradually depleted by settlers.

The thin soils and strong winds mean that current attempts to at reforestation are proving very hard.

I did, however, note that of all the front gardens I saw during our stay, none could compete against a landscape so impressive, so dramatic, so unique that it made the sheer notion of ‘gardening’ completely pointless by comparison.

Magic moss fields

The, unpredictable, to put it mildly, weather is more than compensated for by dramatic landscapes and the fascinating way that plants have adapted to survive.

The dance between micro and macro was a constant throughout our stay.  One moment you are in the world of mosses and lichens, the next it is all gargantuan rock scapes, volcanoes and glaciers.

Our journey to Höfn was so full of dramatic landscape that it was almost too much to take in one day.  We travelled through moss-covered lava fields, past waterfalls and then beneath the basalt rock stacks at Vik.

Garden designers often take inspiration from nature and I had every intention of soaking up anything that Iceland had to offer despite being slightly vexed that garden designer and conceptual artist, Tony Smith, had beaten me to it and  would be weeks ahead of me in getting an Iceland-inspired design into the Royal Horticultural Society Shows Department.

Into Mordor

In the north, 100km of Tolkienesque black rock, shale and ash have resulted in barren moonscapes that are stunningly beautiful in their desolation.

Neil Armstrong and the Apollo crew came here to train before their lunar adventure.  It’s easy to see why.

Our destination was neither Mordor nor the Moon but Mývatn nature reserve.   We planned to visit Leirhnjúkur where lava is still cooling after Krafla erupted in 1984, to take a whale-watching trip from Húsavík and, most of all to see the aurora borealis reflected in lake Mývatn.

It wasn’t to be. Unseasonal snow sent us scurrying back south through white-outs before the roads were closed.  We had to rely on fluorescent yellow sticks to keep us on track.  In such conditions it’s easy to spot the tourists from the speed and type of their vehicle and the look on the driver’s face, anything from intense concentration to sheer terror.

Really wild flowers

Although you might think that nothing could possibly grow in such conditions, the sub-arctic tundra is brimful of blueberries, cotton-sedge (Eriophorum angustifolium) and Alchemilla alpina.  Cotton sedge or grass grows in peat bogs and acid wetlands all over Northern Europe.  You can see it around Manchester whose county flower it is.

These are tough, resilient things capable of withstanding winds that blow up without warning.

Every town has a wind gauge telling you what speeds to expect over the next 50km or so (anything over 25 metres per second and you’re meant to stop and wait for it to subside).

Brave tufts of cotton-sedge (Eriophorum angustifolium)

On the edge of the world

In a place like Iceland how could there not be hidden people?  Iceland’s myths  are full of huldufolk – hidden folk – or what you and I might call elves – who live in the ground beneath the rocks and hills.  Some gardens even have little houses for them.

In winter elves are supposed to come into houses at Christmas and hold wild parties but at New Year’s Eve they move on and Icelanders leave out candles to help them find their way.

But it’s not just elves.  They have trolls and even their own Loch Ness Monster, the Lagarfljót Worm which lives in a glacial lake and is said to be longer than a football pitch.

Bubble bubble

Iceland is a relatively young island (a high point in the Mid-Atlantic Ridge) and still geologically active with many volcanoes, geysers and pools of bubbling mud.

This, more than whales, puffins and the northern lights, is what I had come to see; that raw energy which formed the earth as we know it millions of years ago.

The most difficult thing to comprehend is the scale.  In the south our vehicle was virtually sand-blasted on lava fields for at least an hour as we drove east from Vik, skirting the vastness of the Vatnajökull ice cap.

The sea and the sky

Birdlife is abundant during the summer months.  Most had left before our stay in September but there were still whooper swans, teals, cormorants and fulmars.  We also saw merlins, ravens and two gyrfalcons which was lucky as you’re more likely to see the northern lights than one of these.  Talking of which…

The disadvantage of going to Iceland in the summer is that the days are so long that it’s virtually impossible to have any chance of seeing the northern lights.  But even in winter when the nights are long a clear sky is necessary.

Towards the end of our two weeks we’d had only one semi-clear night and with no lights to speak of.  A beautifully clear day raised our hopes that this could be the night, and when darkness fell the sky was virtually dripping with stars.  Within quarter of an hour lying prostrate on a deck I saw at least five shooting stars, two of which streaked across the horizon from east to west, the most spectacular I’d ever seen.

When the faint light in the sky above me looked more like a cloud materializing out of nothing just 30 seconds later every pore in my body knew it was about to happen.  The universe seemed to rent in submission to my request.  Faint reds and greens eventually morphed into white light which moved, swirled I suppose, gently at first but then with increasing amounts of energy that ebbed and flowed as if to music.

We watched for two hours before retiring happy.

The three trolls

We didn’t see half of what Iceland has to offer, (whale-watching, glacial walks, geysers, volcanoes, riding on the most accommodating horses in the world by all accounts, summer bird-watching, swimming in hot springs) so we hope to return someday.

Abiding memories?  Too many, but one word springs to mind.  Purity.  The air, the water (the best I have ever tasted) and the fact that in many ways Iceland shows what the world was once like.

Obviously trees can enhance any landscape but the absence of trees here makes the landscape quite unique.  I can honestly say that at the end of our two-week stay I didn’t miss them as much as I should have.

On returning to questions about what Iceland was like, I say it’s a cross between the Cairngorms and Mars.

As Tony Smith put it, “It’s as close as you’ll ever get to going to another planet.”  He was right about that.

Walking on the beach at Vik with the basalt stacks on the horizon (said to be three trolls caught by the rising sun when dragging their boats out to sea)