Countryside Wanderings

It's amazing how things develop. After all, this blog started out as a news section for the rest of the website. With encouragement from readers, it has become a place for relating my countryside wanderings and musings about the world of outdoor activity. Walking, cycling and photography all are part of what I do out of doors and, hopefully, they will continue to inspire me to keep adding entries on here. Of course, there needs to be something of interest to you, dear reader, too and I hope that's the case. Thanks for coming.

Category: Europe

Incidental ambles

Thursday, January 18th, 2018

The start of a new year can be a useful time to take stock of life. January can be a month that some find too quiet but it has its uses as I am finding out for myself. A current career break means that I have added occasion to think over what I would like to do for a living. After five years of family bereavements followed by responsibilities added through inheritance, there is plenty of reason for this. What had not been obvious to me is that my last job was not a match and the experience left its mark, one that needs to be overcome.

Throughout all of this, I am not forgetting that I am an explorer at heart. There has been time to catch up on reading and I now have my fill of travel writing so I will not be lured into book purchases as easily as before. More discernment could be the way of things for me and that cannot be so bad when finances need to be kept in check during times like this hiatus from work.

Also, I have been travelling around England and Wales collecting ideas for walking trips like Roseberry Topping and Pumlumon Fawr. Surveying the countryside about the latter brought me the added benefit of a short if muddy stroll around Llangurig. Visiting nearby Rhayader is another thought and a short stay in Aberystwyth could facilitate more than initially had come to mind. Other parts of the Welsh River Wye are ripe for exploring too and the hills of the Black Mountain in the western side of the Brecon Beacons could be another tempting idea.

City visits to Edinburgh and Cardiff have come to pass. In the middle of the latter, the banks of the River Taff offered an oasis of calm with Llandaff Cathedral feeling as if it is in a country rather than where it is. Bute Park was another delight that makes me wonder why it took so long for me to make an independent visit to the place and there is Cardiff Castle if I wanted to include that as part of a return visit. There is plenty there for cyclists too and I am not surprised that bicycle hire is available.

Those city wanderings remind me that there have been times during the last few years when energy for more strenuous outings has not been as readily available. Edinburgh has featured quite a few times and there are regular haunts nearer my home in Macclesfield. Knutsford’s Tatton Park, Disley’s Lyme Park together with Macclesfield’s Tegg’s Nose Country Park and Dane’s Moss Nature Reserve all have been places where quick visits offered respite from life’s tumult when enthusiasm for longer trips was not to be found. The same could be said for more urban spots like Buxton, Chester, Sheffield and even Manchester. Anywhere where a coffee can be enjoyed away home has had its uses.

Strolls on my own doorstep like circuits taking in Prestbury all had their uses when my head needed clearing, like on Christmas Eve during my first ever Christmas spent in Macclesfield. That was a stormy affair, as much in my mind as it was out of doors. When a brighter interlude offered, it did not need much persuasion for me to head out on a longer round that linked Tegg’s Nose, the Saddle of Kerridge and the White Nancy. It became just the breather that I needed at the time.

The last few months have been as much about exorcising hurtful memories as anything else. That included the past Christmas and New Year period when it felt more normal than others. Trips to Tatton Park, Manchester and Lincoln all broke up the flow and I also got learning that camping stoves should be used out of doors too, a misadventure that I have no relish for repeating.

Getting past that was like everything else in life in recent times. 2017 became a year when I lightened some of life’s load so I need to think ahead now. Getting an enjoyable and fulfilling work life is one thing and my zest for exploring countryside continues. Overseas excursions could restart yet since I am making my way through Kev Reynolds’ Walking in the Alps at the moment and there is his The Swiss Alps, The Pyrenees and Trekking in the Alps after that. That lot should keep me going for a while yet and I am not overlook what hill country is nearer to hand either.

Uphill strolling from Grindelwald to Kleine Scheidegg

Sunday, December 31st, 2017

Flushed with satisfaction after a spellbinding day spent around Zermatt, another Swiss walking excursion became inevitable and the weather held up for this one too. My destination became Grindelwald and the lure was a possible sighting of the Eiger. Quite how I selected this is lost to recollection now but I suspect that a BBC television documentary about the first successful ascent of the mountain’s north face might have had something to do with it.

On the way there, I took the chance to see Bern again and my time there this time around proved short but it was good to potter about the city in sunshine rather than the greyness of the preceding Saturday. Just as on the way to Zermatt, the sunlit surroundings enlivened the train journey all of the way to Grindelwald and not just my flying visit to the Swiss capital.

When I finally arrived at my destination, a bit of bumbling around the place ensued. It was an unplanned affair probably caused by own inattention or an unwillingness to lose height at the start of my walk but it handily got me oriented. With my bearings obtained, I then set off downhill towards Grund and it was all uphill walking after that.

Wetterhorn & Mättenberg, Grindelwald, Bernese Oberland, Switzerland

There was no doubt about the way ahead once the course of gaining height had begun. Swiss efficiency with regards to signposting and continued attention to the map saw to that. The mix of road and off-road walking was heavily swayed towards the latter there never was any recourse to threading on bare pasture like what you would find in Britain or Ireland. The investment in path maintenance bested what is found in those other places and the views over Grindelwald opened out more and more as I continued higher and higher. Even so, steady progress ensured that I was going strong until at least Alpiglen.

Though it was the Eiger that may have drawn me, it was the rocky pinnacles of the Wetterhorn and the Mättenburg that held much of my attention as long as I had sight of them in pleasant sunshine. Wisps of cloud graced the mountainsides as if to foretell the way that the skies would fill with them in the afternoon before breaking up again at evening time. Seeing such craggy fastnesses as I did among landscape that is much tamed was no contradiction. All appeared to fit together surprisingly well.

Burg & Bira, Grindelwald, Switzerland
Winteregg & Retti, Grindelwald, Switzerland

As I continued higher, other views began to attract my notice. The north side of the valley leading to Grindelwald was green in appearance in spite of its steep slopes and cragginess. On the other side of this lay Brienzersee and its environs though all of that lay out of sight. My hike never was to take me above the altitude of the intervening summits and I was surprised to spot a mountain hut (more like a hotel really) perched on a mountain top around 2500 metres above sea level in a photo months after my Swiss escapade.

The railway line never was far away on this stroll and often provided chances for stopping early if the need arose. There are those who probably use it to gain height before walking downhill again, the reverse of what I was doing. Steep inclines mean that it is a cog railway but they did not scare me at all when I eventually used the train to return to Grindelwald, quite unlike what cable cars can do.

Cloud started to take over as I plied the woodlands between Brandegg and Alpiglen so my cloudless views of the Eiger were not to be. All I got were glimpses through wisps of cloud before then and that was to be my lot. Beyond Alpiglen, my memories are of overcast skies and barer countryside with views of Kleine Scheidegg ahead of me. Its buildings looked so near that the thought of their being my final destination felt unreal.

Having set aside the idea of finishing my walk at Alpiglen, I was now to go along the track as far as I had intended to travel. With the sunshine absent, there was a certain chill in the air and my course was to take me past idle cable car stations. The out of season feel lent an added sense of desolation to this part of my saunter.

Height was being gained all the while and I noticed a certain shortness of breath descending on me. Unlike the previous day around Grindlewald, the altitude was making its presence felt. Progress just had to slow to what my lungs would allow. That my legs still were more than willing did not help matters. A pair of walkers coming down from Kleine Scheidegg shared words of encouragement and I was well in time for the next train down to Grindlewald.

The views that I hoped to enjoy were denied me and the lack of metalled streets surprised me. The chill in the air was enough to stall any thoughts of dallying and places felt closed down when I might have liked to stop somewhere for a while if I was to hang about the place. In the end, catching the next train was my priority and I got on the next one once I had a ticket for the journey.

Once in Grindelwald, I stayed a while instead of taking the next train to Interlaken Ost. Aside from the fact that cloud cover was breaking to all some evening sunshine, I also needed time to collect myself after being over 2000 metres above sea level and ascending over 1000 metres to get there. Though I was flying back to Manchester the next morning, what I did not need was any rushing about and it had been a great introduction to where I was. It is true that I learned a little life lesson about what altitude can do to you but there was much satisfaction too so that is how I will remember my day in Berner Oberland.

Unfinished Business and Other Possibilities

There is much to savour around Grindelwald and Kleine Scheidegg and I still fancy seeing the sight of the Eiger uninterrupted by cloud cover. Other lofty eminences like Mönch and Jungfrau are nearby and there is the prospect of a railway excursion as far as Jungfraujoch, a costly escapade with views to match the outlay. Less outlandishly, other hiking possibilities are their to be savoured and it helps that nearby Lauterbrunnen also is well served by trains. Enjoying a longer walk would less in the way of height gain or more altitude acclimatisation sounds more than a good thing to me.

Travel Arrangements

Return train journey between Geneva and Grindelwald with changes at Bern and Interlaken Ost. Train from Kleine Scheidegg to Grindelwald.

Seeing much more than I expected around Zermatt

Monday, December 25th, 2017

In early September 2015, I got to make good an intention to savour some alpine scenery. When I pondered the option in July of the same year, the predicted heat looked offputting so I chose Iceland instead. In any case, summer temperatures among the Alps can be such that shoulder seasons are preferable so long as winter conditions neither linger late nor arrive early.

Exploring Cities

In my case, waiting until the end of the summer holiday season paid dividends. What I was hoping to do was to keep the cost of my Swiss escapade under some sort of control and the weather did not disappoint either. Within a single week, temperatures had declined to more comfortable levels so it was with some pleasure that I wandered around Geneva on my first day in the country. The city’s famous fountain on the edge of Lac Léman was in operation as I strolled along the lake’s shoreline as far as the city’s botanic gardens where I stayed a while before retracing my steps to my hotel near the train station. As I did so, I passed the buildings occupied by the United Nations under now clouded skies.

The cloud broke again to leave a ravishing evening to be enjoyed by all who were out and about. Though I could not pick out Mont Blanc either through lack of visibility or lack of knowledge, there were other French slopes to see as I crossed the River Rhône to the other side of the lake where views of their Swiss counterparts were to be gained. All this ensured a late finish in spite of any shortening in the hours of daylight and I still diverted around by the city’s main cathedral church as light failed. Later again, I returned to the shoreline to try my hand at some night time photography.

While this kind of thing scuppered arrangements in Iceland, there was little such impact in Switzerland. For one thing, the next day came dull and cloudy and the country enjoys an efficient if expensive public transport system. In any case, I was bound for Bern where I spent some time sauntering along the banks of the River Aare that partially encircles the heart of the Swiss capital. There was more exploration than that and I got to seeing the improbably larger clock on one side of the Zytglogge too though overhead wires for powering both trams and trolley buses do not help photographic compositions. Nevertheless, it was good to explore another Swiss city and sample more of its famed rail network than that between Geneva and its airport. Returning to the former at a reasonable hour allowed for planning of the next day’s outing among other necessities.

Seeing the Matterhorn

Macclesfield’s proximity to Shutlingsloe means that I have stood on top of it more than a few times. The distinctively wedge shaped hill also manages to earn the soubriquet of being Cheshire’s “Matterhorn”. It is a comparison that flatters other hills with Yorkshire’s Rosberry Topping and Wales’ Cnicht falling into the same category. As ever, the real Swiss mountain is a very different prospect though its profile is known to many. The obvious difference is a summit height that more or less guarantees the presence of snow and ice together with the need for hiring a mountain guide.

My own encounter was not to need such things since I stayed low and looked up from there. Though the summit lay over 2000 metres above me, its 4478 metre altitude meant that I too was up higher than I ever had gone before. Even so, I did not notice the altitude as I strolled up and down Zmuttal in the bright sunshine. My own route’s highest point was at around 2179 metres above sea level, a height gain of over 500 metres above that of Zermatt itself. This became a pleasant day trip would bring many rewards.

Once I had paid for a train ticket using cash withdrawn from an ATM, I was set to commence a sunlit journey to Zermatt. Weekend computer system maintenance had put paid to my acquiring a Swiss travel pass as much as buying a train ticket using a credit or debit card. All that was left after me with wonderful views across Lac Léman to occupy much of the travel time. After rounding the lake and seeing views sampled the day before in better weather, we left the waterside at Montreux in a French speaking part of Switzerland to head east to Brig in a German speaking one. From Brig, a cog railway conveyed us through often narrow valleys to its terminus at Zermatt.

Zermatt is a car-free town with car travellers needing to park up at nearby Täsch before using the railway to get the rest of the journey. There were additional shuttle services so Brig-Zermatt trains are not doing the work alone. Coming out the station, I noticed some horse-drawn carriages for conveying visitors to their hotels and electric vehicles shuttled about too.

Even with some vehicles going about their business, the place felt largely pedestrianised so I could walk freely. The sunny day had caused others to visit the place too but that was no intrusion. The strength of the sun was enough encouragement for me to address an oversight so a set of sunglasses was acquired and much used.

Matterhorn, Zermatt, Valais, Switzerland

It took me some time to get clear of Zermatt and the track towards the village of Zmutt was what I sought. The unmistakeable beacon that is the Matterhorn lured me in the right direction and I sated my appetite for capturing it in some photos of my own. There were other sights to savour too for the light remained so glorious that many photos were made. For the whole day, I was going to be in my element taking in what lay around me.

In the midday heat, I was appreciative that my route was to take me through some tree cover. There are times when trees obstruct wider views of a landscape but this belt of woodland was not to outstay its welcome. Any shade while breaking the back of an ascent had its uses and others were going the same way. This was no intrusion and any concentration of humanity petered out the further along the valley that I went. My pace was to be mine alone.

Looking towards Zermatt over Zmutt, Valais, Switzerland

Looking back on it now, I reckon that Zmutt was the chosen destination for any fellow travellers because continuing beyond the place had me meeting with scarcely anyone at all. Eateries were open in the aforementioned village and I was tempted to stop a while but decided to keep walking. My desired loop was larger than the one that I nearly made through error. Others could enjoy the smaller circuit while I carried towards and beyond the closed hut at Chalbermatten.

Strahlhorn, Adlerhorn, Gornergrat & Monte Rosa, Zermatt, Valais, Switzerland

The longer that I continued along the trail, the wilder things felt. Having open mountainside brought ample views of mountains all around me. However, what I had not realised then was exactly how much I could see; that only became apparent while I was creating a new online photo album afterwards. When naming photos, I just had to counter my usual scepticism to admit that lofty heights like Gornergrat and Monte Rosa had come within my sights. Such was the collection of mountain tops that I passed that a very long list would appear if I was to mention them all here.

Unter Gabelhorn, Zermatt, Valais, Switzerland

Much of my time on this hike, my eyes were led back down the valley along which I had come. It was not just the developing sights but the fact that the sun was in the way for photos in other directions. That included the Zmuttgletscher at the valley head as much as the Matterhorn itself. While the other side of the valley was clothed in tree cover, the steeper aspect of that where I was walking made both for barer surroundings and for loftier sights less accessible to my camera. The latter was to be resolved among the trees where I was turn to start on my return to Zermatt.

Leaving the path that would have taken me to Schönbielhütte, I made for a crossing of the Zmuttbach without much in the way of any sign of the pools shown on my map. Any views towards the Zmuttgletscher and its neighbour glaciers were to be left behind me too as I made for the track that was to carry me through woodland for much of the way back to Zermatt. After all that I had enjoyed, any restriction in views was no irritation as I passed Stafel and Biel. Others linger in those spots and I was left the trail to enjoy because not so many were using it. It seemed that visitors to this valley dissipated in the late afternoon much in the same way as their counterparts would in Britain and Ireland.

Dom & Taschhorn, Zermatt, Valais, Switzerland

Loss of height was not a thing that the track did rapidly so I was granted views overlooking the village of Zmutt and other parts of the valley below. Enjoying these may have involved peer between trees but that felt like a mere triviality. Eventually, I was to leave tree after me and regain views on the way to the Furi cable car station that looked resplendent in the evening sunshine. Cows were grazing in what would be an improbably high pasture if it were to be found in Britain or Ireland. The shelter of high mountains has raised this as much as the tree line.

Dropping some 100 metres of height, I passed Zum See on the way towards the path that I had used on the outbound leg of my walk earlier in the day. My mind was by now focussed on reaching Zermatt’s train station to start the return journey to Geneva. Everywhere lay quieter compared to earlier in the day and I made steady rather than hurried progress. The day had been pleasant and memorable for all sorts of good reasons and I still marvel at the number of photos that I made and how well they look. All the effort proved more than worthwhile.

Further Possibilities

It may be that this could become a start of a series of visits because there remains much more to see. For one thing, there is a higher level walk around Zmuttal, at least on the valley’s northern side, that could reward any added exertions. More leisurely pursuits like taking the train up to the Gornergrat remain tempting prospects as could making use of cable cars in spite of my sense of exposure every time that I have used one. After all, they could give me a leg up for exploring other lofty spots such as Stellisee. Zermatt is surrounded by wonders and there are enough hiking trails to keep anyone going for a good while.

Travel Arrangements

Return air travel between Manchester and Geneva with Easyjet with rail connections to and from Geneva. Return train journey between Geneva and Zermatt with changes of train at Brig.

Revisiting Lathkill Dale

Saturday, December 2nd, 2017

Currently, I have been catching up with quite a bit of reading. Between books bought with good intentions that were left unattended and magazines that have lain in wait for attention, there has been a backlog awaiting clearance. Among all this is a collection of writings by the renowned Scottish outdoorsman John Muir, a profound inspiration for the National Parks system that you find in the U.S.A. today. There have been others like Henry David Thoreau’s Walden and Fiona Reynolds’ Fight for Beauty. Some have proven easier to read than others with John Muir’s Picturesque California lying between these in difficulty. Such is the lucidity of his writing that it seems a shame to rush through it so taking it slowly is exactly what I am doing. The evocative descriptions need to be relished and allowed to soak into memory, especially in tumultuous times like what we have today.

Though I have yet to visit them myself, Muir’s detailed descriptions of the glaciated landscapes of the High Sierra strike a chord with me. In one sense, they remind me of the glens cut into the Cairngorms plateau in Scotland but there is another landscape that also comes to mind for similar reasons. It too feels like a sort of plateau with valleys cut into it though the outline is far less lofty and dramatic.

To give you a hint as to where these are to be found, the valleys themselves are called dales but this is not Yorkshire but Derbyshire. Recent years have seen me explore them more since they are not so far away from where I now call home. Some can be very narrow and their names include Dove, Wolfescote, Biggin, Monsal and Chee. All of those named have seen me explore them at some point or other with some reflecting the names of the rivers that flow though them while others don’t.

One of their number that I have not mentioned so far apart from its appearance in the title of this piece is Lathkill Dale. My first encounter was on a hike I did in December 2013 just before a Christmas visit to Ireland. Though limestone outcrops abounded on slopes around me, there was no winter sun to make them more photogenic. While sunshine did appear later in the walk, I always fancied the idea of a reprise on a brighter day.

That second visit followed a trip to Iceland whose account on here took a fair bit of time to write. It was not so much having to withdraw everything from an unwilling memory as has bedevilled other recent trip reports but the fact that there was so much to be recalled. The account here requires more effort but the previous Icelandic outing has its uses.

A hike around Landmannalaugar thrust me into countryside wilder than I had encountered before then so the chance of sampling something more familiar had its place. The contrast between dusty mountainsides and leafy valleys could not be more striking. It is the latter to which I am accustomed so I was happy to be among them again.

St. Leonard's Chuch, Monyash, Derbyshire, England

My walk began in Monyash and, following arrival there, I spent some time around its parish church before continuing onto Lathkill Dale. The way that I went is hazy to me now for it is a faint recollection that I followed part of the Limestone before dropping down through Fern Dale but that could be imaginary. It maybe that I followed the road towards Bakewell before picking up a public footpath that did the same, much as I did on that December Sunday in 2013.

Waterfall, Lathkill Dale, Monyash, Derbyshire, England

Limestone outcrop, Lathkill Dale, Monyash, Derbyshire, England

Tributary dale, Lathkill Dale, Monyash, Derbyshire, England

As I went down the dale, milky skies bubbled up with clouds that obstructed the sun at times. That limited chances for photos but did nothing to take away from the wonder of see the limestone outcrops that line the sides of the dale. When they were fully lit by the sun, any wait was more than well rewarded. It was sights like these that delighted me on walks around Dove Dale, Wolfescote Dale and Biggin Dale so I was little surprised that they did the same for me here.

River Lathkill near Over Haddon, Derbyshire, England

Woodland strolling was my lot for the next section of my stroll. Back in December 2013, the River Lathkill was swollen and barely kept within its banks. The dryer time of year meant that it was not as readily seen as on that previous visit and I was glad of the tree cover. Though I have something of a love/hate relationship with woodland, what it takes in views is given in shade from strong sunshine so I was resigned to my lot and I soon enough came to break where others were gathered by the riverside. The promising weather had drawn others out and about so I was happy to share in between interludes of solitude.

Looking down on Haddon Hall, Bakewell, Derbyshire, England

After Conksbury Bridge, I went to the other side of the river and frequented quieter parts. The approach to Alport was where I enjoyed some winter sunshine the last time around but there was more in the cloud on this occasion. After Alport, I chose to follow Dark Lane and started to feel the summer hear as I rose above the surrounding dales. Beyond some farm buildings, a public bridleway conveyed me across Haddon-Fields and down to the banks of the River Wye. Views over Haddon Hall opened out before as did a curious sight of a field of what appeared like wheat, barley or oats being harvested like grass silage. It might have been a mistaken impression so I continued to enjoy other more familiar sights.

Weir on the River Wye near Bakewell, Derbyshire, England

To get to the banks of the River Wye, I needed to get across the A6 near the gates of Haddon Hall. Once past that difficulty, I strode along the footway beside the estate wall until a public footpath directed me to quieter surroundings again. Like the River Lathkill, the Wye was swollen on my winter visit but was quieter on this late summer outing. After a stretch of woodland, there were more fields to be crossed on the final approach to Bakewell. It was mid-afternoon so I was glad to be reaching my destination given the heat. After spending a little time pottering around there, I started on my way home and that offered a fleeting trot around Buxton too. There had been familiarity and that suited just fine after the unfamiliar sights of preceding weeks. There were more to come in the following ones but these were not to feel so alien.

Travel Arrangements

In tune with the general haziness prevailing throughout this post, my recollection of how I got to and from my walk is similarly afflicted. From photos, it appears that a return journey on service 58 between Macclesfield and Buxton was involved. Because this was a Saturday, getting to Monyash would have involved travel on service 177 (since withdrawn) while travel between Bakewell and Buxton most likely made use of the TransPeak service.

Unfamiliar sights, unfamiliar surroundings

Wednesday, November 15th, 2017

For now, any thoughts that I may have about exploring other countries have been put on hold. Instead, I am rekindling my enthusiasm for British hill country wandering by catching up with unread issues of TGO magazine. My overseas attentions have caused a few of these to pile up.

The results are plain so far with a few walks around Cheshire, Derbyshire, Shropshire and Yorkshire having happened. Completion of the Sandstone Trail was among these as was revisiting Calderdale and the Peak District. This is a habit that I should like to continue.

None of this means that I am about to cease heading overseas and one of those excursions is the subject of this piece. It became a possibility following a life change at the start of 2015 and began a series of Scandinavian explorations that have continued since then.

New Possibilities

A sad life event in January 2015 was to be a life changer for me and outstanding work resulting from this still continues as I write these words. The new circumstances bring additional responsibilities that are set to persist for a few years yet. It also opened up other avenues for I now could consider overseas hiking trips and they were not realisable before then.

Strangely, the event in question also elicited a sense of release now that the sense of added burden over two years had ceased. It was this that allow my thoughts to turn to overseas ventures during February 2015. The possibility that came to mind was an extensive one: the Alps. After some months, my research resulted in an article elsewhere on this website.

The aforementioned compilation took quite a while and brought home to me how I had forgotten how unnoticed the build up of my knowledge of British hill country had been. It was the effort expended in doing this all at once for other parts that drew it to my attention. The same could be said for my subsequent collations of car-free explorations of American wilderness as well as the delights of the wilder parts of New York state.

Even before the prospect of self-powered explorations of other countries was realisable I still compiled some articles on here that were intended to be useful for planning visits to Scandinavia. It was a business trip to Sweden that got these going and the resulting collection also features Norway, the Faroe Islands and Iceland. Magazine inserts and other inspirations caused me to build up what is there.

All of these give me something from which to draw inspiration for various outdoor escapades. For the first of the lot, Switzerland was in contention until I saw predicted temperatures of 30° C for places like Geneva so that thought was postponed until September. Somehow, Iceland then came to mind and fitted in with a habit of going north for a summer break that has sent me to Scotland so many times.

Heading for Alien Shores

Not being someone that is guided by fashions of the day, my eventual choice of destination is an interesting one. After all, Iceland is one of those fashionable if expensive countries to visit at the moment. The feel of the place also is so very different from that with which I am familiar in Britain and Ireland. First, volcanism is ever present and ensures bare countryside in some parts. Then, there is the latitude so you find icefields and glaciers too. The mix is as exotic as it is alien and that is before the winter appearances of the aurora borealis even comes to mind. Lastly, you also get long hours of daylight during the summer and these kept me out of doors well into the evening while I was there.

One thing is more familiar though: the vagaries of maritime weather. This is where I came up better than I might have expected; going north does not guarantee fine weather all that often as my Scottish incursions have taught me over the years. A tentative drizzle around Landmannalaugar was as wet as it got during my stay and sunshine abounded much of the rest of the time of my stay.

Things looked cloudy enough when I looked down from my flight as it reached the end of its journey from Manchester to Keflavik. Those initial glimpses of Iceland revealed just how rugged, barren and empty the landscape of its south-western corner actually is. Seeing signs of human habitation and endeavour in this very different setting was a contrast that will not leave me easily. Trees were going to be a rarer sight here than the comparatively more lush corners of Britain and Ireland.

Getting Bearings and Other Necessities

It had been a while since I arrived somewhere where I had such scant knowledge of its layout so one of my first tasks was to find my way around Reykjavik after arriving from Keflavik by coach. This was mixed with other needs like getting something to eat, buying maps and checking into my hotel. All took place as the sun played hide and seek among the clouds over my head. The weather had brightened since my morning arrival in the country.

Somehow, I had come to Iceland without a full set of maps. While I had seen maps stocked in the U.K., the scale typically was 1:100000 and I wanted to see if I could do better. In the event, what I found in various shops (including tourist information centres) was the same and even applied to IÐNU’s own shop too. There were some exceptions such as the 1:75000 IÐNU Sérkort map of Suðvesterland but I was to find that a GPS receiver would have been more useful for hill walking in Iceland than elsewhere and that thought would have applied even with default Garmin maps.

While my quest for maps was not as successful as I might have liked, my traipse around Reykjavik itself unearthed far more treasures. Along the city’s coastline, I found an art installation called the Sun Voyager, Harpa concert hall and Höfði House (where there was a major summit between then Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev in the 1980’s that formed part of a process paving the way for the end of the Cold War).

Across the sea, there was Esja and the hills that lay about it acting as a lure that never caught their quarry. Looking at the aforementioned 1:75000 IÐNU Sérkort map of Suðvesterland reveals a variety of paths and tracks criss-crossing the area so that makes it a good place to visit on another visit. Sometimes, you collect possibilities as well as seeing sights and gathering experiences.

Traipsing hither and thither took me to such varying sights as Reykajavikurtjörn, Hallgrímskirkja and Hljómskálagarður. All inspired photos as and when the sun allowed. Even with spells of sunshine, I still got to other needs like checking in at my hotel to offload my luggage and enjoying an evening meal in between map hunting. My arrival there might have been early but my room was ready so I could be accommodated at that stage. After a little organisation, I was on my way again and my base was to see little of me over the course of my stay aside from sleeping and breakfast.

A First Incursion into Icelandic Countryside

What suffered from staying out of doors so much and until 23:00 was planning and the late bedtime caused a little oversleeping too. Neither of these were helped by dopey confusion regarding the time caused by the Fitbit on my wrist not being set up to synchronise time zone with my phone. It was a setting that I had yet to find before it could be fixed.

While the morning disarray ultimately meant that I had to choose between Þórsmörk and Landmannalaugar for the hill walking outing of my trip, the alternative choice of a tour that took in sights like Þingvellir National Park, Geysir and Gullfoss was more than enough compensation. It helped too that this happened on the sunniest day of my stay in Iceland.

Armannsfell, Þingvellir, Iceland

The outing that I was to enjoy began from Reykjavik’s BSÍ coach station, the one where I arrived the day before. Though it was part of Iceland on your Own (IOYO) bus network, the journey was accompanied by a recorded commentary. Even so, we were to have lengthy stops too and the first of these was at Þingvellir where those who dared could cross the rift between the European and North American tectonic plates to meet again with the coach on the other side. Though even this sounded a tad risky, I still fancied a spot of further exploration so I took up the option and was rewarded with ample views. This was not a solitary stroll though for this is something of a honeypot. Even so, there remained quieter corners where you could photograph pleasing parts of the landscape without intrusion.

In the end, I found myself awaiting the coach and not the other way around and that is the better way to have things. A day spent around Þingvellir would not have been so bad but there were other sights that I would not have seen. Our next calling point was Haukadalur where there were geysers to be seen. On the way there, we travelled along an unmetalled stretch of road that was the first of my trip to Iceland. There would be more to come the next day.

The one that gave its name to all these gushers is less active these days so everyone awaits the action of Strokkur, much newer than the celebrated Geysir that only gets activated by earthquakes nowadays. Apparently, the underground tubes conveying the superheated water under pressure get clogged over time. The water temperatures are such that getting too close earns more than a scalding so it is best to keep a safe distance and it is surreal to see streams of steaming water running along the ground.

Another result of the spectacle apart for a slight sulphurous stench is that life cannot get a foothold so bare ground is what you get. Seeking aspects that looked more green, I continued up the slopes of Laugarfjall and that provided the required visual relief. There were wider views of the surroundings too as I pottered about before descending again. We only had so much time and I got to feeling that I had my fill anyway.

Gullfoss, Iceland

Gullfoss was our next port of call and was where the coach turned to retrace its journey back to Reykjavik. It is here where there were connections with coaches going north to Akureyri, an all day excursion through the Icelandic highlands that could be done faster with an internal flight. Going slower along the ground might reveal more though.

It may not be Iceland’s biggest but the sight of Gullfoss was to amaze me and it is little that it draws so many. Such is the amount of water cascading down precipices that it wets both visitors and their cameras. My own camera should have been wiped more often than I did but the photos remain memorable even if some post-production was needed on some of them. Dettifoss in the north of the island is supposed to be even more impressive than this and it is difficult to see that could be.

When the coach began its return journey, there was a different ambience to that on the outbound journey. It was more chilled and it was no waste to pass previously experienced sights again. Spending some more time around Þingvellir granted differing sights because the sun had moved during the course of the day. That made photos of Þingvallavatn, a very large lake, all the more successful and it was a quieter time to visit too.

After a pleasing outing, there was a chance for more strolling around Reykjavik in the evening sunshine. It was a good way to finish a day of seeing a variety of landscapes that many see as part of a Golden Circle tour. My exposure to Icelandic countryside had been boosted but a walk around nearby Esja and its neighbours would have compensated if I missed the opportunity that gave me so much. A further hill country incursion remained outstanding and I was not about to muddle that.

A First Immersion in the Icelandic Highlands

It was difficult to pick between Landmannalaugar and Þórsmörk but I somehow plumped for the former and there was an early morning start because the outbound coach that I needed left at 08:00. The day ahead was going to be duller than the one preceding it but my course was set, probably by a guidebook that I consulted.

The journey ahead was a long one as it stopped at Selfoss and Hella before leaving metalled roads for the gravelled F-numbered roads for which it would need both its four wheel drive and ground clearance, especially at river crossings. It was this section stage of the journey that both took most of the time and took us through the most isolated countryside with next to no human habitation to be found. There were some good reasons for this because we were passing near Hekla, one of the island’s volcanoes. The cloudy skies made the empty landscape about us appear even more desolate.

When it came, Landmannalaugar’s wildness was striking. The presence of a mountain hut, ablution facilities and a campsite is about all there is to the place. It really felt like a seasonal settlement solely there to serve outdoors lovers and the sense of isolation was unmistakeable. In some ways, the place reminded me of photos of Everest Base Camp in the Himalaya even if they are very different locations in many ways.

There were patches of grass and a natural geothermal pool but this was no domesticated holiday camp and the weather added its own share of rawness under overcast skies. Having limited time, I started on my walk with one of the 1:100000 scaled maps that I had with me. A 1:25000 scaled one might have been available from the mountain hut but I had some experimenting to do.

My walk took me back along the only road into Landmannalaugar towards Nåmshraun but I found a track leading uphill onto my first summit of the day before that point. That top was both unnamed and unpeopled while I was there but it got me up to 710 metres above sea level so views of my the surrounding hill country opened out before me. What was missing was sunshine so I must admit to feeling somewhat deprived, even after the delights of preceding days. Other photos had spoiled me and raised expectations that little bit too high.

After some height loss, the walk to the top of Suðurnámur began in earnest. My surroundings grew ever wilder as I continued and finding progress on such the small scale map that I had was difficult. A chat with a fellow walker who had the larger scale map show the wisdom in having that item but I still had to trust the path as far as a reassuring signpost. Hikes often are better off not being completed in short spaces of time and this was one of those. It did not help that the time for my planned return to Reykjavik loomed larger in my mind and that never speeds up the passage of time.

It was around Vondugiljaaurur that I decided on a later departure even if the only one in my head was at 20:30 and meant an after midnight arrival in Reykjavik when I was flying home from the city later that morning. The first thing not to be rushed was the descent to the valley floor because of its steepness and the seemingly fragile surface on which I was threading. Then, the sun broke through the cloud cover to light up what surrounded me on the valley floor and there was no way that I could rush away from that. Lastly, there was no sign of the human habitations from which I had started walking. They were not that far way but it felt as if I was in another world. It is amazing what a craggy upland pavement can do to obscure such things.

Nordurbarmur, Landmannalaugar, Iceland

Even so, the distances were not as large as I had grown to accept. Arriving at Landmannalaugar’s facilities just ten minutes earlier may have kept me running to my planned timetable but I was to seeing my coach leaving as I neared the end of my hike. With more time available, another walk may have been in order but one felt enough for me that day. As things stood, I now had time to survey and photograph sights like Norðurnámur and the sun emerged again to do its magic as I pottered about. There were spells of dampness too and the chill in the air became apparent after I stopped being so active.

When I found that another company offered an earlier return journey, I was more than tempted to use that. After all, there is no cafe in Landmannalaugar where one might linger and depending on a later bus with a flight next day did not seem prudent. Leaving at 18:00, it was good to be on the way back to civilisation again. My first taste of Iceland’s wild country certainly felt more of adventure than I expected and there is much here that could draw me back again.

Unfinished Business

A first visit never gets you under the skin of a place and that is what I found in Iceland nearly as much as Austria and Norway. My time there was short too so I naturally needed to pick and choose between different options that were in my head. Other destinations have drawn me to them since then so a return to Iceland remains outstanding.

Seeing Landmannalaugar with more sunshine remains one possibility and it helps that I have a better for how wild it feels. My first encounter needed the longer day that I spent there and that lesson will not be overlooked if there is a repeat visit. Other spots like Esja near Reyjavik or Þórsmörk deserve exploration too and Akureyri in the north of the island looks promising. A cross country coach trip is another idea so a longer stay might do no harm on any future visit. Who knows what delights such a thing could bring? For now, I have photos from the last trip as a reminder of the rewards of such a venture.

Travel Arrangements

Return journey between Manchester and Keflavik with EasyJet. Scheduled coach journeys between Keflavik and Reykjavik. Coach tour with Reykjavik Excursions that included visits to Þingvellir National Park, Geysir and Gullfoss. Coach travel from Reykjavik to Landmannalaugar with Reykjavik Excursions and return journey with Trex.

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