What originally was a news section for the rest of the website soon became a place for me to write about human-powered wanderings in the countryside. Photography inspires me to get out there, mostly on foot these days, though cycling got me started. Musings on the wider context of outdoor activity complete the picture, so I hope that there is something of interest in all that you find here. Thank you for coming!
Over this weekend, I have been watching Life of a Mountain: Helvellyn on Vimeo. That meant renting the title for 24 hours at a cost of £7 and I have a copy of the DVD on order from Striding Edge too. The latter action was a result of watching the online version though I somewhat mourn the loss of SteepEdge where I used to buy digital versions of such wares.
The film was made by Terry Abraham and is the last of a trilogy concentrating on best loved Cumbrian fells. Scafell Pike and Blencathra have featured before now and I have copies of those too. The latest installation is long with a running time of nearly two and a half hours but it is packed with such visual delights that the length is deserved. This still feels a much tighter and less padded out piece of work. The others had me going back to The Cairngorms in Winter with Chris Townsend, Abraham’s first accomplished effort and he also has shorter films introducing parts of the Lakeland Fells.
The Helvellyn film re-uses contributors from earlier films like Alison O’ Neill, David Powell-Thompson, Stuart Maconie and Mark Richards but there is a host of other new ones like Peter Gibbs, Mary-Ann Ochota and Julia Bradbury among others. Even the Royal Air Force and Ordnance Survey get included. They all complement the backdrop of dramatic scenery accompanied by a stirring soundtrack, especially the action sequences involving the RAF, skiing down to Red Tarn from the summit of Helvellyn or paragliding off the same starting point. That the footage came from a time before the present pandemic was a reminder of how things should be.
The whole combination has re-ignited a desire to walk around Helvellyn that has lain dormant for too long. What that needs is determination and opportunity to accompany ongoing patience needed by the course of the ongoing pandemic. After all, I have visited Patterdale and Ullswater a few times now and they were so heavily featured in the film that I at the time wondered if it was about them and not very much about the mountain (that probably is what happens when you need include something on the lives of people living in the area). Nevertheless, 2020 did not involve a Lakeland visit for me so a return is not before time and having a lure to draw you through darker times has to be a good thing.
Many events are becoming virtual these days. My first notice of the ongoing trend was with business conferences in my line of business but it has not stopped there. As it happens, the pandemic means that large gatherings of people are not the wisest right now so this is perhaps less of a surprise. That last point had me questioning the sense of even delaying events like the Photography Show for six months but even that is going virtual next month as well. This is a trend that applies to both business and lesiure.
After all, Wanderlust have a YouTube channel with recordings of a few of these collected. Some are recordings of live events from before the start of the current pandemic but others like Incredible Iceland or Uncover Guyana are entirely virtual affairs. In fact, I got to join the two events that I have mentioned and would not have got to them if in-person attendance was a must because they often have been held in London.
That last point has not gone unnoticed by organisers either. Regardless of the professional or leisure character of the subjects being covered, attendances are higher with more joining from different parts of the world. The ongoing pandemic may be keeping us apart in some ways but it is bringing us together in others.
There also is the matter of travelling virtually as well. This year, I might have hoped to get to Colorado but that became totally unrealisable and that reality even applies to the matter of getting to and from Ireland too. Normally, I should have gone to my home country at least twice by now and there should be two more before the year is out. 2021 looks more feasible now and it is hard to say how that might go at this stage. Given that, it is little wonder that services like Trek Ireland are turning up for those of us restricted to armchair explorations.
In my case, those home-based global explorations have cause me to survey Backpacker’s Get Out More TV on their own YouTube channel. It is true that these feature a lot of product placement as well as segments from outdoor retailers but keeping our attention on a hiking film possibly demands a lot of patience anyway. Still, they do show something of the areas that each episode showcases so that probably will be enough to get me watching more than the first three episodes that I have seen so far.
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.
A major 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 allowed 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 who 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 ice fields 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 Reykjavík 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 Reykjavík 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 the 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 the 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 of a tour that took in sights like Þingvellir National Park, Geysir and Gullfoss was more than enough compensation. It also helped that this happened on the sunniest day of my stay in Iceland.
The outing that I was to enjoy began from Reykjavík’s BSÍ coach station, the one where I arrived the day before. Though it was part of the 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 from 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 feel that I had my fill anyway.
Gullfoss was our next port of call and was where the coach turned to retrace its journey back to Reykjavík. 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 amazed 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 Reykjavík 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 the 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 departure that I needed was 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 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 the 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 Reykjavík 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 Reykjavík 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.
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 see 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 café 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 an adventure than I expected and there is much here that could draw me back again.
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, yet 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 Reykjavík 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.
Return journey between Manchester and Keflavik with EasyJet. Scheduled coach journeys between Keflavik and Reykjavík. Coach tour with Reykjavík Excursions that included visits to Þingvellir National Park, Geysir and Gullfoss. Coach travel from Reykjavík to Landmannalaugar with Reykjavík Excursions and return journey with Trex.
Over the past few years, I have fitted in visits to Iceland, Norway and Sweden. The one to Iceland concentrated on the south-east of the country and I now wonder what could draw me back again. With Norway, there is no such quandary after two visits that took in Oslo, Stavanger and Bergen. In the case of Sweden, last month saw me embark on my third visit there and it was my first leisure trip after two business ones too.
Iceland is something of a fashionable destination now and I took in Reykjavík, Þingvellir, Haukadalur, Gullfoss and Landmannalaugar on my first trip there. They were easy pickings in a sense, so next steps would take more effort. Þórsmörk is one spot that I did not get to see on that summer 2015 encounter and there is the Laugavegur if I really get adventurous enough to go for a multi-day trek; in any event, there is unfinished business around Landmannalaugar because there is more to see around there and sunshine was scarce on the day that I visited. Continuing along the south coast would bring me to sights like Jökulsárlón and Sellalandsfoss while there are mountains near Reykjavík itself that would reward exploration. A northern excursion to Akureyri would be rewarded by its nearby mountains while the celebrated Mývatn and Dettifoss are within reach of Iceland’s second city too. The whole collection should give me enough options to build up motivation for a return sometime and there also are those things that you only uncover by actually being somewhere that you have not been before.
In many ways, Norway is laden with excuses for return visits to follow the pair that I already enjoyed. For instance, there are hiking options to the north of Oslo that deserve a share of my time. Bergen only saw me for a few days and there are possibilities that I had to exclude because of this. The chance of a fjord cruise was one exclusion that I had to make and I would like to know that part of Norway a bit more, much like what I did around Stavanger when I took in Lysefjorden, a few of the city’s lakes, Preikestolen and Revsvatnet. Of course, Norway’s long mountainous profile allows for other places to visit and that includes going north of the Arctic Circle to places like Tromsø and Lofoten as well as Trondheim and Jotunheimen National Park. It could be that a list like that could keep me going to Norway and I certainly feel as if I have made a foothold in the country already.
My recent Swedish excursion was long overdue and basing myself in Stockholm meant that I spent much of my time pottering about its varied quarters. The city centre was known to me from a business trip in 2010 but I also got to explore a few of the many parks, like Djugárden and the nature reserve on Lindingö together with Drottningholm Palace and Tyresö National Park. There was a lengthy walk along the Sörmlandsleden from the latter that brought me to the outskirts of Stockholm. That first taste of Swedish hiking needed an easier day afterwards, so a short sortie to Gothenburg was the result so I got to see even more of the Swedish countryside through the window of a high-speed train.
Though Finland and Denmark have been omitted so far and there remains the possibility of a visit to the Faroe Islands, I am more inclined to pursue further explorations of Norway and Sweden. For me, the prospect of cooler Scandinavian summers is a bonus since I see temperatures near the Alps can reach 30º C or above and that cooler high places can be plagued by thunderstorms. What I have been doing already is finding my feet in a manner similar to my explorations of Scotland’s wilder corners. From those beginnings, further incursions are possible and it feels that I might be on the point of doing just that.
There also are added rewards from all of this and that, ironically, is because of a lack of hiking guides in English. That hits home when you see a series of eye-pleasing walking guides in Swedish and most of them available only in the language of the country that they cover. German speakers do well too with Rother offering good coverage of both Norway and Sweden with some English translations available too. Cicerone offers good coverage for Iceland, but their guide to Norway appears preoccupied with multi-day treks rather than routes for day walkers; it could do with the mix of day walks and treks included in its Icelandic stable-mate. Independent publishing also abounds with coverage of Noway’s Stavanger region and Sweden’s Kungsleden.
Maps are another matter and that trip to Iceland uncovered the deficiencies of a 1:100000 scale around Landmannalaugar and that is why a GPS found its way into my possession within months of the experience. Thankfully, Norway and Sweden are better served. In the case of the former, 1:50000 is the dominant scale with 1:25000 used for popular areas; the Oslo branch of Tanum has a comprehensive selection. Mountain areas of Sweden can be covered using 1:100000 while 1:50000 pervades elsewhere and the Kartbutiken shop in Stockholm is well worth a call.
For much of the first ten years of the century, I had a Scotland project on the go and, though there is more to see in that part of the world, a Scandinavian project has got going. Various trips are allowing me to find my feet there and they really are a break from my everyday world too. There also is much more to see and savour that is all very new to me. Quite how things go from here is anyone’s guess. They may send this blog down an intriguing course followed by no one else and that cannot be a bad thing.
After last year’s overseas excursions, I finally got to internationalising the photo gallery. Photos from two visits to the Isle of Man are in their own album and ones from a business trip to Sweden are in another. My trip to Iceland last July yielded a bumper crop of photos as did that to Switzerland in September.
Stories of my Manx excursions already appear on here because I was following the coastal path around the west and south-west of the island. More urban sights are there to complement the in the gallery. There is not so much of the outdoors on view in the Swedish album since it was a business trip allowing evening walks around Södertälje and Stockholm. Also, I could have done with a better camera too but went without many hopes and with a life change in front of me. The tale of those wanderings is to be found in the travel section of the website so it has not been lost to online posterity.
In contrast, the Icelandic and Swiss escapades came after an even bigger life event. There are plenty of views of Icelandic countryside to go with those of Reykjavik even though the level of outdoor wanderings was not as extensive as those that have taken me around Britain. The Swiss outdoor incursions were more so thanks to the efficient public transport system that got me from Geneva to Zermatt and to Grindelwald, albeit at a cost. The sights that I got to see easily compensated for this though and I hope what is on view shows them at their best. Their stories has yet to be told in full on here and I already have the beginnings of those entries in place.
What I also hope is that more overseas explorations follow these. Norway, Germany and Austria are in mind and, out of curiosity, my mind has taken to explore the prospects of American, Canadian and Kiwi escapades. With what I have ahead of me already this year, I need to temper any soaring ambitions. Once outstanding personal matters are settled, only then can I really begin to dream about heading outside of Britain and Ireland again. In the meantime, the home countries still have a lot to offer me and parts of Ireland as yet unvisited by me may see my footfall. Reining in dreams can be good.