The fascinating village of Lydford

The first time I drove into this little village on the western edge of Dartmoor I adhered to the speed limit and was out of the other side in less than thirty seconds without it really registering with me. I may have spotted some very attractive old houses, but picked up no clues to what makes Lydford unique.
However, on my next visit I got out of the car, strolled through the village, and the sense of history became overwhelming.
The Saxon kings of Wessex created a number of fortified towns, called burhs, to protect the borders of their kingdom. During the time of King Alfred in the late 9th century, Lydford became a heavily fortified burh. The location was perfect for the defence of Wessex against attacks from both Danish raiders and the warlike tribes from what is now called Cornwall, not just because of its position on the Wessex western border, but because natural features made the site easy to defend.

Lydford Gorge, part of the natural defences

Lydford Gorge, part of the natural defences

On three sides, deep steep-sided river valleys formed effective barriers to attack. Along the fourth side a large earthwork was constructed. Walking into the village from the north along the main street, near to the village hall the earthwork can still be seen heading off in both directions at right-angles to the road. The area within the defences was approximately 40,000 sq.m. – that’s my estimate from aerial photographs.
In the 10th century a mint was established at Lydford for the production of silver coins. It has been estimated that 1.5 million coins were struck here from silver mined locally. They became known as Lydford pennies. Hoards have been found as far away as Russia, but in Britain only a couple of dozen are known to exist – which includes four that are displayed in the village pub. The lane opposite the village hall is still called Silver Street, but that wasn’t the only metal contributing to the wealth; Lydford was also a stannary burh – a centre of the tin industry.
DSC_0005Here’s a fine Anglo-Saxon silver penny. Or is it? Well, no, it isn’t. It isn’t 1,000 years old and it isn’t silver. It’s made of pewter and I made it two days ago at Widecombe Fair – but that’s another story.
In the year 997 a powerful Viking force appeared at what is now Plymouth, travelled up the Tamar and then across land to attack Lydford, drawn no doubt by the wealth. P1000119The Lydford defences held and the thwarted Vikings headed back to the coast, plundering Tavistock monastery on the way. The battle is commemorated by a metal plaque at the side of the road at the southern end of the village showing a Danish axe over a Saxon shield.
There are a striking number of wide bridleways set at right-angles to the main street. These actually mark the position of the streets of medieval Lydford when it was an important town with its streets laid out in a grid pattern.
Shortly after William the Conqueror successfully laid siege to Exeter in 1068, the Normans occupied Lydford and built a simple castle in the western corner of the enclosed area. Excavations show that five wooden buildings were protected by timber and earth ramparts inside a deep ditch. The site is now owned by the National Trust. The importance of the town continued to grow when it became the administrative centre for the Forest of Dartmoor.
In 1194 King John authorised the building of a stone castle. It was built about 150m east of the earthwork and its function was to act as courtroom and prison for both the stannary and Royal Forest activities.P1000101 It was two storeys high, 15m square, with walls 3m thick. It was re-built 100 years later. A deep ditch was dug around the tower and the soil piled up against the building to form a rampart up to first floor level. The upper storey was demolished and a much taller building erected using the thick walls as foundations. The old ground floor was filled in, except for a small pit used for the most despised prisoners.
The harsh stannary ‘justice’ meted out was infamous. Among its prisoners was Sir Richard Strode, MP for Plymouth, who made the mistake of complaining that mining waste washing down in the moorland rivers was silting up Plymouth harbour.
The Tavistock poet, William Browne, wrote in 1640:

‘I oft have heard of Lydford law,
How in the morn they hang and draw,
And sit in judgment after’
In the Civil War the Royalists used the castle as a military prison, but thereafter, as the stannary laws lost their effect, Lydford gradually lost its importance and the castle fell into disrepair. It is now maintained jointly by the National Trust and English Heritage.
So, the now tiny village of Lydford has two castles.P1000105If that isn’t enough, between them stands the solid church of St Petrock’s (also written St Petroc). It’s one of around thirty churches in the Westcountry dedicated to the Welsh monk. This one was dedicated in 650 and it may have been newly built or the dedication of an existing church. It was a Briton/Christian wooden structure that in time became a Saxon/Christian church before being replaced with a Norman stone structure in the 12th century, enlarged in the 13th and had the tower added in the 15th. P1000100The pew ends are beautifully carved, each one different. They show animals and flowers about a, presumably, saintly figure. Renovations were carried out in 1873 arranged by the splendidly-named Rev W.H.W. Chafy-Chafy. The churchyard is full of interest, too. One of its occupants, George Routleigh, was a watchmaker. The inscribed lid of his tomb has been fixed to the wall inside the church. It reads:
“He departed this life
Nov 14 1802
Wound up
In hopes of being taken in hand
By his Maker
And of being thoroughly cleaned, repaired
And set-going
In the world to come.”

I can’t write about Lydford without mentioning the Castle Inn. Standing next to the castle this is the perfect village pub: good food, good beer and central to village life. It is the home of the best pie I have ever tasted: steak and stilton fully enclosed (of course, no puff pastry lids here) in crisp shortcrust pastry. Magnificent.

In its heyday, Lydford was more important than Exeter, Barnstaple or Totnes. The first has grown to become a city and the other two have developed into regionally important towns, while Lydford has withered and is significant for its past, not its present.
But at dusk walk along any of the bridleways that trace the course of a long-disappeared medieval street and that history screams that it should not be forgotten.

Bath – an extraordinary city (3)

Ralph Allen.  Image displayed with permission of National Portrait Gallery.

Ralph Allen. Image displayed with permission of National Portrait Gallery.

This is my third posting in a series on the delightful city of Bath. In my second post I wrote at some length about that remarkable man, Ralph Allen, who is largely responsible for the way the city looks today.
I am indebted to Harry of Bath who has contacted me to point out that I failed to mention one of Allen’s greatest achievements, so I’m putting that right. I’m also indebted to Brenda Buchanan whose detailed records have helped me rectify my omission.
The River Avon flows through Bath and on to the port of Bristol. It is a big enough river to provide a useful transport link between Bath and the sea and should have facilitated the movement of goods in both directions. By Allen’s time in the early 18th century the river wasn’t navigable, not because of any natural factor (such as silting) but because man-made structures along the river blocked the movement of boats. Numerous landowners had constructed weirs to use the water to power mills of various types.
This situation had developed over some 300 years. During the 17th century the Corporation of Bath twice secured the required Act of Parliament granting it the powers to return the river to being a useful transport link. As early as 1629 land had been set aside in Bath for the construction of a harbour when the Avon was again navigable. However, the weir/mill owners proved to be both intractable and to have an appetite for litigation. The Corporation made little progress and in 1724 it transferred the authority for action to a group of entrepreneurs from Bath and Bristol.
The group met for the first time on 31st December 1724. Allen was appointed one of the treasurers. They met again the following day and the minutes show his position had already been enhanced. He had become Chief Treasurer.
Those minutes give an insight into the way business was conducted. It was agreed that a newly-purchased iron chest should be ‘lodged in ye poste offis or in ye dwelling hous of Mr Ralph Allin as he Shall find moste Convenient’. So it was Allen’s responsibility to collect money from backers and control payments made. During the project thousands of pounds passed through that chest and his name appears on many of the letters and contracts that record progress.
By the end of 1927 the Avon was once again navigable between Bath and Bristol. The weirs were avoided by cuts and locks. Wharves were constructed at numerous points to allow the loading and unloading of goods. In only three years Allen and his fellow entrepreneurs had achieved what the Corporation had failed to achieve in over one hundred years. And he had done it while he was revolutionising the Post Office, expanding the quarrying operations in Bath stone and being heavily involved in the re-building of the City – including the new hospital that he paid for. A truly remarkable man.
When the Kennet & Avon Canal was constructed subsequently it linked the Avon, Kennet and Thames rivers, meaning that it was possible to travel from Bristol across England to London on waterborne transport.
In my posts I’ve concentrated on the buildings and history of Bath, but the city’s parks deserve a mention. There are eight formal parks. The largest is Royal Victoria Park whose 47 acres are close to the Royal Crescent and include the 9-acre Botanical Gardens which is a beautiful area, especially in the spring.
Parade Gardens is probably the best known park because of its prominent location between the Abbey and the river. It provides lovely views of the famous Pulteney Bridge and the weir.
Both of those parks do tend to be busy, but it isn’t hard to escape the crowds. At the end of Great Pulteney Street stands the imposing building of the Holburne Art Museum – free admission. Go straight through the museum, through the gate behind and you will enter Sydney Gardens which offers twelve acres of gently-sloping lawns, ancient trees and attractive cast iron bridges over the Kennet & Avon Canal that runs through the park.

Kennet & Avon Canal in Sydney Gardens

Kennet & Avon Canal in Sydney Gardens

Strangely, in Sydney Gardens you’ll find a copy of the Roman Temple of Minerva that carries a plaque saying it was erected to commemorate the Bath Royal Pageant of 1909, but that Pageant took place in Royal Victoria Gardens which has its own replica of the Temple of Minerva. I’ve not been able to find out anything about the Bath Pageant except that it lasted for six days in July 1909. Maybe Harry can tell me all about it.
I can recommend a delightful walk.

Temple of Minerva in SAydney Gardens

Temple of Minerva in Sydney Gardens

Sydney Gardens provide access to the towpath of the Kennet & Avon Canal that leaves Bath following the valley of the River Avon. If you walk along the towpath for about three miles you will reach the Canal Visitor Centre at Limpley Stoke. The route takes you through stunning scenery and includes crossing the Dundas Aqueduct that carries the canal over both the railway line and the river. If you don’t fancy walking back you can catch a bus from Limpley Stoke to Bath.
If you’d like a break with a difference in Bath, spend a few days strolling around the city looking at the bridges. As a compact city built on hills and crossed by a river, a canal and railway lines, Bath has an extraordinary number of bridges catering for pedestrians, trains and road traffic. It’s not just the number that is impressive, it’s the variety of design, ranging from the elegant stone arches of Pulteney Bridge and the delicate stonework of the Palladian bridge in Prior Park, to highly ornate cast iron structures that are imposing works of art.
For Barry's blog 2015.01.23 022This photo is taken from Halfpenny Bridge (pedestrian, where a toll of one halfpenny was once charged) and shows the iron rail bridge over the Avon just outside Bath Spa railway station. Behind the railway bridge you may be able to see the top of a building that stands on the river bank. It’s a building with an interesting history.
In Victorian times it housed a sailmaking business, but as steampower became prevalent business dropped off. There used to be a whaling industry based in the Severn Channel. The enterprising sailmakers acquired a large quantity of baleen left from whaling activity, baleen being the hard plates in the whales’ mouths that sift out the krill. It is often incorrectly described as whalebone, but it’s actually made of keratin. So, equipped with baleen and sailcloth the sailmakers switched to making whalebone corsets. Examples of such garments can be seen in the Bath Clothing Museum.
The company traded profitably for many years until whalebone corsets fell out of fashion. They didn’t give up and tried to use their women’s clothing trade connections to move into the manufacture of bras.
This didn’t work so well. Pretty soon, yes you’ve guessed it, the bra firm went bust.

Graveyards and the wonderful yew.

Many years ago, when I first learned that yew trees are poisonous I was puzzled about their frequent presence in graveyards. Anyone in a graveyard is either already dead, or visiting the dead; either way it seems unnecessary to be reminded that some things can prove fatal.
The English yew (taxus baccata) is a remarkably poisonous tree. The name means ‘poisonous, bearing red berries’ and it is poisonous to an extent that few trees/plants can match. Leaves, roots, bark, sap and seeds are all deadly. Fifty grams of the leaves would kill you or me. A handful would kill a large horse. It works by stopping the heart.

Yew arils

Yew arils

Strangely, the only part that isn’t poisonous is the soft red flesh of the ‘berries’. I use apostrophes because although they may look like berries from a distance, take a closer look and you’ll see that they have a cup-shaped form with the seed nestling inside the open fleshy structure. They are called arils, rather than berries. The seeds have a very hard skin and pass through the digestive systems of birds to achieve dispersion, but human digestion is made of sterner stuff and will break down the seeds, releasing the poison. So don’t put an aril in your mouth with the intention of eating the fleshy part and spitting out the seed – it isn’t worth the risk. The fleshy bit is watery, vaguely sweet, but with no real flavour.
That may not sound to be promising material for a medicine source, but 1,000 years ago the Persian intellectual Avicenna wrote a medical book that included a yew extract for cardiac treatment and in recent years leaf extracts have been used in the development of cancer drugs, such as Doxetaxol.
When first cut the outer sapwood is white; the inner heartwood is a vibrant red-orange. Both are very strong and springy, but the sapwood is excellent under tension and the heartwood is excellent under compression – which makes a stave cut to have a layer of each the perfect raw material for making a bow. In 1991 the body of a man believed to be 5300 years old was found in the Alps. He carried a yew bow. The skeleton of an extinct species of elephant thought to be 85,000 years old was found at Lehringen in Germany. Within the skeleton was a spear made of yew wood. That spear could have been hurled by a Neanderthal. The oldest piece of worked wood found anywhere in the world is a yew spearhead found in Clacton in 1911 and believed to be 450,000 years old. That pre-dates the true Neanderthals by about 200,000 years. It seems that the benefits of yew wood have been known to us, and our distant cousins, for quite a while. The advantages over other woods must be striking given the poisonous nature of the sap that makes working the wood a hazardous business.
Perhaps the most important characteristic of this remarkable tree is its ability to live for a very long time indeed. There are hundreds of yew trees in Britain more than 500 years old.

The Stoke Gabriel yew.

The Stoke Gabriel yew.

Stoke Gabriel is a village on the River Dart. The current church dates from the 15th century and was built on the site of a much older church that is listed in the Domesday Book of 1086. That listing mentions that alongside the church stood a yew tree that was already ancient in 1086. That tree is still there – and a magnificent sight it is. Modern testing has shown it to be about 1400 years old.
There are a dozen yews in Britain that are more than 1,000 years old. Analytical techniques are constantly improving and that means that the tree thought to be the oldest keeps changing. As of July 2014 the title is held by the tree in St Cynog’s churchyard at Defynnog near Sennybridge, Powys, which is believed to be 5,000 years old. I find it so hard to get my head around the idea of a living thing of that age. It was alive when the first stones were put in place at Stonehenge. It was already 1,000 years old when the Bronze Age began.

A rooted branch.

A rooted branch.

The long life can lead to trees of enormous size: not in height, as it’s rare for a yew to exceed 12 metres high, but in spread. As branches grow away from the central trunk they sag towards the ground. The point where a branch contacts the earth can root into the soil, which gives a boost to the growth of that branch. A single branch can root at several points along its length as it grows longer, so the tree steadily spreads out. The canopy of a yew in the grounds of Shugborough Hall in Staffordshire, a relative youngster of 350 years, now has a circumference of 175 metres.
Like all trees, the yew trunk tends to split when it reaches a great age, and eventually the central core will rot. But unlike other trees, a yew branch from above may grow down into the rotting core, root and feed on the rotting material, producing fresh growth – effectively a re-birth of the tree.
So, there we have a quick look at the properties of the English yew. Is there anything in those properties which could explain the close relationship between the yew tree and graveyards? That close relationship certainly exists.
From the Middle Ages to Victorian times when a new church was built yew trees were usually planted in the surrounding graveyard. There were no set rules, but yews were often planted in pairs, one next to the lychgate and one near the church door. Larger churches may have had more of the trees, perhaps lining both sides of the path from the lychgate to the church door.
An internet search throws up a variety of suggested reasons for this yew/church connection.
It is often commented that the trees are planted because the deadly poisonous nature of the yew will deter livestock from venturing into the churchyard causing damage and nuisance. It’s implied that some instinct in the animals will keep them away, but that clearly isn’t the case – if livestock has such an instinct it’s not strong enough to save lives. Every year horses die from eating yew leaves – and from eating ragwort. It’s more likely that farmers seeking to keep their animals well away would ensure that the wall/fence around the graveyard was well-maintained. But churches in towns also had their yew trees, with no farm livestock around. The yew by the lychgate often overhangs the wall and is well within reach of passing horses that are being ridden or drawing carts/carriages. To me the poison hazard feels more of a liability than a security measure.
The fact that yew is the perfect wood for bows throws up a couple of somewhat contradictory suggestions. Firstly, that yew trees were planted in graveyards as they thrived on corpses and were then readily available to make excellent bows for the King’s armies. Secondly, that yew trees were planted in churchyards (where they were protected) to prevent local archers from procuring suitable branches for making bows and thus having good weapons to oppose the King’s men.
Anyone fancy either of those? No, nor me. When the yew longbow made English and Welsh archers the battle-winning component of Henry’s army he quickly realised that there wouldn’t be enough yew trees to meet demand and imported huge quantities of yew staves from Spain and Northern Europe. He wasn’t going to wait 100 years for newly-planted trees to grow. At one stage all ships bringing cargo into this country had to pay an import toll, not in cash, but in the form of ten bow staves.
It is suggested that some of the yew qualities have particular resonance with the tenets of Christianity. In particular, the red and white colour of the freshly-cut wood represent the blood and body of Christ, and the ability of the yew to regenerate from its dying central core represents the death and resurrection.
I don’t think it can be that straightforward.
The tree in the Stoke Gabriel churchyard is considerably older than the original church. It grows in the middle of the churchyard and stretches from the churchyard walls to the church walls. The path to the church passes through the tree. Throughout Britain there are more than 500 examples of ancient yew trees being older than the adjacent church. There are half-a-dozen examples where the tree even pre-dates Christianity. So, we have churches being built close to existing yew trees, rather than the trees being planted in the grounds of the church.
Whatever the possible mystical properties of yew trees that exert such a strong spiritual influence, they have been appreciated for a very long time. In many ancient cultures the yew was central to the philosophy of life and death. In pre-Christian Britain the locations where yews grew were apparently sites of spiritual, if not magical, significance.

P1000038Folklore about the yew abounds. This beautifully made wooden plaque stands next to an ancient trunk. The wording reads:

“Walk ye backwards round about me

Seven times round for all to see

Stumble not and then for certain

One true wish will come to thee.”
I’d like to suggest a purely practical reason for the connection between yew trees and religion. Let’s imagine that you are a Druid in pre-Christian Britain. Druids worship outside where they can see the natural world. So, you are looking around your local countryside for a suitable spot where you can gather with co-believers – and it’s a cold, wet, windy winter day.
Trees would provide some shelter, but the deciduous ones have lost their leaves.

Flat needles provide good shelter.

Flat needles provide good shelter.

There are only three native British conifers present in that time – yew, juniper and Scots pine. Of those only the yew provides adequate shelter, so if there’s one around you’ll head for it. In fact, the closely-spaced, flat needles and the growth habit make the yew ideal for this purpose. A hundred people could gather beneath a mature yew and be well sheltered from the weather.
People live and die, but the yew seems to go on for ever. After a few hundred years that yew has become well-established as a religious meeting place.
When the new Christianity appears and starts to take hold, adherents do not suddenly abandon all of the old beliefs, but blend the old and the new, retaining their gathering place. When the new Church is ready for a permanent structure in which to worship, it is built next to that wonderful old yew. As the centuries pass, the connection between Christianity and the yew becomes so established that when the growing population requires a new church be built in an area without a yew, then yew trees are planted next to the new building.
Well, that’s a purely practical analysis, but I have to admit that standing next to, or even within, one of the ancient yews is a moving experience. The sensation of living antiquity is almost overwhelming and the aura of calm solemnity is ideally suited to a graveyard.
One final thought: someone came up with the name Operation Yewtree for the investigation into Jimmy Savile. It’s a shame that something so wonderful should be associated with something so sordid, but I suppose the poisonous nature and the spreading habit suggested the connection.

 

Hungerford and the Tutti-men.

We’ve just returned from a few days in the Cotswolds from where we made an excursion south-east to visit a relative in Hungerford, which is an attractive town located pretty much at the centre of the North Wessex Downs AONB. Several water courses run through it, including the River Dun, the River Kennet and the Kennet & Avon Canal. The busy A4 also runs through it, but fortunately it doesn’t form the High Street, which is wide and lined with many fine old buildings containing appealing independent shops, cafés and pubs.

One can’t spend much time in this country without being aware of the host of local traditions, enthusiastically upheld. We have, among many, the Helston Furry Dance, Padstow’s ‘Obby ‘Oss, Cooper’s Hill Cheese Rolling, the lethal-looking Ottery St. Mary burning tar barrels and the mystical Abbots Bromley Horn Dance.

We found that Hungerford has its own tradition and it’s one that truly celebrates the English appetite for eccentricity.

Close to the canal bridge we found the Tutti-Pole Teashoppe and went in for an excellent lunch, drawn, at least in part, by the curious name. The business has been owned and run by Norman and Barbara Barr since 1981. They were joined by daughter Fiona and son-in-law Stephen in 2001, so it’s truly a family affair. They are clearly accustomed to being questioned about the name because as soon as I raised the topic I was presented with an A4 sheet of paper. I’m reproducing below the information it carried.

 

“History and Interesting Facts about the Tutti-Pole and Hocktide.

Hocktide dates back to pre-reformation, when it was the time for sports and festivities and collecting of Parish rents. Today, Hungerford still celebrates Hocktide. Commoners enjoy certain rights given to them by John 0’ Gaunt. Tutti Day is the second Tuesday after Easter. A jury to preside over the Hocktide court is selected by commoners, names being drawn from a hat. Office holders are responsible for the ancient Borough. Serving office holders meet at the Watercress and Macaroni Suppers to choose officers for the following year, these names being taken to the Court. Ale Tasting is held on the Monday preceding Tutti Day, commoners are invited by the Ale Tasters to sample the local Ales.

8 am Tutti Day, the Bellman, who is the Town Crier, appears on the balcony of the Town Hall blowing an ancient bugle horn to summon the commoners to court. Just before 9 am the Constable appears with two Tithing men (Tutti-men) and an Orangeman. The Tutti-men visit all the commoners establishments during the day. Each Tutti-man carries a Tutti-Pole. This is a long pole with an arrangement of spring flowers, blue ribbons, topped with an orange (a replica is in the window). The word Tutti comes from the word for “nosegay”. For many years these poles were made in the house where the Tutti-Pole Teashoppe is; they are now dressed by Fiona who is very proud to have taken over from the family that has made them for 128 years.

The Tutti-men collect a penny from each householder and in return for a kiss from the lady of the house, they give her an orange supplied by the Orangeman. Children follow these three men scrambling for money and oranges. The day is also enhanced by wenches parading the town selling balloons and nick-nacks.

Meanwhile the Hocktide court has commenced at 9 am. The roll of commoners is called. New officers are officially elected. The years accounts are presented and business voted on. Officers of the Borough include The Constable, Portrieve, Bailiffs, Overseers of the Common, Ale Tasters. Tithingmen, Blacksmith and Bellman. Summons are sent to all new officers to attend a Court Leet on the following Friday where they will be sworn in. A luncheon is presided over by the Constable who gives a report on the year’s activities. Any new guests to the luncheon are called “colts” and are shod by the Blacksmith. The Tutti-men arrive at The Three Swans around 9 pm their duties accomplished. The Constable invites all commoners and organisations of the Town to attend a Church Service the following Sunday.

We are very proud that Barbara was the very first female Tithingman in 2001 and also the very first female Constable to serve the Town & Manor of Hungerford and Liberty of Sanden Fee, taking up the office on Friday 20th April 2007 & served for three years. Fiona followed in both her parents’ & her great grandfathers’ footsteps 100 years on and was Tithingman in 2013, being the first Tutti Wench to be a Tithingman.”

 

Our relative confirmed the local enthusiasm for the tradition. She also pointed out that the Tutti-men carry a ladder so that they can collect kisses, and deliver oranges, to ladies in first-floor windows.

I don’t think I can add anything to that. I’ll just say the whole mad business makes me proud to be English.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A day out at Widecombe Fair.

Dartmoor_WidecombeWidecombe-in-the-Moor is a tiny village that nestles in a hollow in the heart of Dartmoor. It has one church, two pubs, two tea shops, three shops (catering mainly for tourists) and a dozen cottages clustered around the village green. Having said that, the village is bigger than it looks at first glance as dwellings are dotted along the lanes out of the village for some distance. The church (St Pancras) is huge for a village of this size. It is often referred to as the cathedral of the moor. The Church House and Sexton’s House are owned by the National Trust.

If you’ve been following the Tour of Britain you’ll know that in yesterday’s Devon stage the route crossed Dartmoor, passing through Widecombe. Unfortunately, they’d completed that bit before the live television coverage began, so the nation didn’t get to see the riders plunging down the terrifyingly steep lane that drops from the high moorland into the middle of the village.

Widecombe may be small, but it has long been an important agricultural centre. For hundreds of years it has hosted an autumn fair. Farmers on the high moor, who knew that they wouldn’t have enough winter fodder for all their stock, brought their surplus animals to the fair to sell them to farmers from the more lush lowland areas who could fatten them on through the mild Devon winter.

Nowadays, the fair is not about the sale of stock, but more a celebration of Dartmoor life. Animals still play a large part, but they are present either for judging in the show ring or to take part in displays and light-hearted events.

Not all the trade stands were traditional

Not all the trade stands were traditional

This year we went by coach which, apart from dodging traffic jams and avoiding long queues at the park-and-ride, allowed me to sample the beers and ciders on offer without inhibition. I admire coach drivers who manage to cope with our narrow roads, heavy traffic and disorganised passengers while retaining a sense of humour. Our driver happened to know the first lady to get aboard and greeted her with a kiss. He then cheerfully repeated the service for any female passenger who requested it. Before we set off he apologised for the lack of air conditioning and said he’d open the skylights which would let in a draught powerful enough to blow our hair about – “I can see that won’t matter this morning as none of you have bothered.” Continue reading

Broomhill Art Garden

As I know you are a person of discernment and refined tastes, I’m sure you will be holidaying in Devon this year. While you are here give yourself another  treat and visit Broomhill Art Gardens a few miles north of Barnstaple on the B3230. In fact, as a hotel lies at its centre you could spend some of your holiday on site.

Broomhill nestles in a heavily-wooded, steep-sided valley through which a stream flows from pool to pool. When we visited a couple of weeks ago the woods were ablaze with spring flowers and filled with birdsong. The hotel is set up on the hill with views down the valley. Even if it were only a hotel set in such a picturesque place it would be worth a visit, but it is much, much more.

Dutch couple, Rinus and Aniet van de Sande, have run Broomhill since 1997 and have pumped all their energy and enterprise into creating a centre that  not only supports developing artists, but provides an extraordinary experience for all visitors.

We arrived mid-morning and went in search of coffee. Within the hotel there is a large gallery where exhibitions are held on a continual basis. One such exhibition was about to open and the main lounge was full of people waiting to go in. We were served coffee in the library and for the next thirty minutes I don’t think we said anything except, ‘Look at that!’ The room (and as we found later, the entire hotel), is full of extraordinary artwork: paintings, drawings, sculptures, pottery, wood carvings – even the furniture we were sitting on had to be studied. The whole place is a feast for the eyes. If you’re in need of further feasting there is a restaurant called Terra Madre serving delicious and very reasonably priced food.

DSC_0024I suppose what we had seen inside should have prepared us for what came next, but it didn’t. Outside the paths meander through flower gardens, rock gardens and natural woodland, with running water seemingly everywhere. In total there are more than 300 sculptures: some huge and overwhelming, some tiny and easily missed.

IMG_2029I love Flat Man by Giles Penny. Standing about fifteen feet high, only two feet thick and carved from a pale grey stone, he maintains a melancholy watch over the access lane. I must get back there on a clear night to see him by moonlight.

DSC_0073

At the other end of the size range there are tiny bronze figures by Carol Peace perched on top of fence posts. They may be tiny, but they are big on character. We found later that some of Carol’s work was also featured in the exhibition in the gallery. I found them utterly charming.

There are creations that work on all of the emotions, from impishly humourous to the rather terrifying. Three are shown below.

 

Three ladies enjoying a dance.

Three well-built ladies enjoying a dance.

Three fashionable youg women with a zombie quality.

Three fashionable young women with a zombie quality.

What appears to be a 5-ton rock balanced over the path.

A 5-ton rock perched on a branch over the path?

'Familiar' by Dorcas Casey.

‘Familiar’ by Dorcas Casey.

One area is used to display work in the National Sculpture Prize event with a prize fund of £15,000. Each year a panel of art experts selects the proposals of ten sculptors. Each receives a grant of £1,000 and is given three months to complete the proposed work. They are then displayed at Broomhill. The eventual winner is chosen by experts, but the public can also vote for the ‘Public Speaks’ award. IMG_1992 Interestingly, the two selections very seldom coincide. Entries for the 2014 prize will be displayed from 1st June. When we visited we found past finalist and winning entries on display. Dorcas Casey’s creation of three figures is quite spooky and I can easily understand how it came to win ‘The Public Speaks Award’ in 2013.

DSC_0047Joseph Hillier’s human figure is fascinating. It’s made of many small surfaces set at differing angles so as I walked around it there was a constant change of shadow and light that gave the impression of movement.

With over 300 sculptures on display it’s impossible to take everything in. Looking through my photos I’m reminded of many that stopped me in my tracks. There is such a range of material from those that made me laugh out loud to others that exude emotional intensity. One that really appealed is a piece called ‘Permanently Temporary’ by Graham Guy-Robinson which won The National Sculpture Prize in 2012.  It’s about three feet high, four feet square with slightly wavy sides. DSC_0041The inside surface looks for all the world like that orange plastic temporary fencing much loved by builders and farmers, but the piece is actually made of thick steel and the outer surface is highly polished and reflective. Because it’s set within a wood in deep foliage one sees the foliage behind the piece through the holes and the outer surface reflects the foliage behind the viewer, which has the effect that one can almost make the entire piece seem to disappear by adjusting the viewing angle – all of which makes it very difficult to do it justice in a photograph.

If your appetite still needs even more whetting, here are a few more photos.DSC_0014

DSC_0018DSC_0079Allow yourself plenty of time for your visit. One day may well not be enough. Just in case you suspect that this sounds like a place full of arty pseuds talking garbage with evangelical intensity, let me assure you that everyone we met was warm, welcoming and cheerful. This is a fun place.  But a word of warning – you may well leave the Broomhill Hotel filled with the desire to go home, throw away everything in your house and re-stock only with beautiful, fascinating items. Sorry, I forgot for a moment that you are a person of discernment and good taste, so your home, unlike mine, is no doubt already like that.

Bath – an extraordinary city (2)

IMG_2100This is the second in a series of blog posts about the city of Bath, a place my wife and I visit several times a year.

In my first post I mentioned that the city provides street entertainment of unusual quality. Here’s another fine example. This chap walks backwards and forwards along a slack wire while playing the fiddle. As you can see from the paucity of spectators, the local citizenry do not appear to be impressed even by such rare skills. I watched him for quite a while, but he didn’t take a break so I never discovered how the hell he gets up onto the wire.

One cannot spend long in Bath before encountering the name of Ralph Allen. He was born in Cornwall in 1693. His grandmother was Postmistress in St Columb. When she was ill the 14-year-old Ralph ran the post office. He caught the eye of a Post Office official and was found a job as a clerk in the postal service in the city of Exeter. In 1710 he moved to Bath, again as a clerk, but in 1712 at the age of only 19 he was appointed Postmaster of the city.

At the time the postal system was hopelessly inefficient. All mail was taken on horseback along one of the six Tudor mail routes into London for sorting and then re-distributed. The Post Office was keen to introduce a new ‘Cross and Bye Posts’ system that would involve regional sorting and distribution centres. Ralph signed a 7-year agreement with the Post Office to set up and run the new system in the Southwest.  The agreement meant him paying £6,000 p.a. – a colossal figure in those times. Over the first seven years he barely broke even, but he had turned it into a money-making machine. For the rest of his life he continued to sign 7-year contracts, gradually extending the area under his control until he was running almost the entire postal service outside London.

Prior Park

Prior Park

The money was pouring in when architect John Wood arrived in Bath and the Georgian reconstruction of the city began. Ralph wisely spent some of his first fortune buying up all of the stone quarries and mines in the area – and made a second fortune when the City Fathers were persuaded that all new development must use Bath stone. That restriction continues to this day. It may have been partly aesthetic, but there was also the economic consideration that it guaranteed work for thousands of local quarrymen and stonemasons.

Ralph built a terrace of fine houses (with front gardens!) for his senior managers, another terrace (without front gardens) for more junior managers and rows of cottages for the rest of his workers. He also paid for the building of a new hospital in the city centre. On the hill to the south of the city he built his own house, Prior Park, in a spot where he said, ‘I can see all of the city and all of the city can see me’. It was initially a squarish Palladian house, but he put up another building sixty yards to the east and then a third sixty yards to the west. Finally, he joined them all together to make a house some 300 yards long! He was a sociable, popular man counting among his friends/visitors Henry Fielding, David Garrick, Alexander Pope, Thomas Gainsborough and William Pitt. He probably had room for a few more. That house is now a school, but the gardens running from the house down to the city, complete with a Palladian bridge over a lake, are owned by the National Trust. The bridge is a Grade 1 listed building and a Scheduled Ancient Monument.

IMG_2110The Trust only acquired the gardens 20 years ago when they were totally overgrown. Recovery work is still ongoing, but it is a very pleasant place to visit. There is no car park so you have to walk up from town or catch a bus. It is, of course, quite impossible to visit a National Trust property without eating cake and here the cake is rather wonderful. Even sharing two slices between three of us, we were defeated.

The most spectacular building in Bath is the Abbey, built with the beautiful, honey-coloured Bath stone long before the days of Ralph Allen. From the moment that the hot springs were first discovered by mankind this area must have held mystical significance. According to legend, in 863 BC Prince Bladud of the Ancient Britons returned from Athens with leprosy. He avoided the royal court and became a swineherd in an isolated part of the country. In search of acorns he drove his pigs across the Avon at a spot which became known as Swineford. He discovered that some of his pigs had contracted leprosy from him, but after rolling in the hot mud around the hot springs they were cured. Bladud also rolled in the mud, was cured and went on to become King of the Ancient Britons. He was the father of Shakespeare’s King Lear. Bladud founded a settlement at Bath and ascribed the curative powers of the waters to the Celtic goddess Sul. 1,000 years later the Romans respected the legend and retained the name: Aquae Sulis. The acorn has become the symbol of the whole saga and stone acorns can be seen on many Bath buildings.

IMG_2102The Anglo-Saxons built an Abbey on the site that was so impressive that Edgar had his coronation there in 973. He had actually become the first King of All England fourteen years earlier and the coronation at Bath was more a celebration of his reign than marking its beginning, but it nevertheless established the practice of coronations that continues to this day.

The Normans demolished the Anglo-Saxon Abbey (they’d severely damaged it during the power-struggles between the sons of William the Conqueror) and built a Cathedral. It took 60 years to build. It was completed around 1160 and was much bigger than the current Abbey. It was too big, impossibly expensive to maintain, and gradually fell into disrepair.

Oliver King, the Bishop of Bath and Wells, decided in 1500 that the site should be cleared and a new Abbey built. He reputedly had a vision in which he saw angels ascending to heaven via ladders, a scene that is depicted on the outside of the Abbey. The timing was unfortunate. It was finished just in time to suffer from the afflictions of Henry VIII and it again fell into disrepair. However, Elizabeth I set up a fund to pay for its restoration. In fact, work continued for another 300 years. The flying buttresses were added in the 1830s and the magnificent stone fan-vaulted ceiling installed in late Victorian times.

Angels climbing ladders. I have no idea why they can't fly.

Angels climbing ladders. I have no idea why they can’t fly.

It really is a wonderful building: the Bath stone and many windows make it light, airy and rather overwhelming.

I must confess that when I’m inside gazing up at the roof so far above me, I feel a niggle of unease. No spiritual qualms about the destination of my soul, but the presence in my head of two facts that keep intruding. First, Bath stone did not catch on elsewhere as a building material as it is regarded as too soft. Second, an estimated 6,000 bodies have been buried in the ground beneath the Abbey and subsidence is threatening the structure. Still, I think you should take the chance and look inside – even if you hasten back out and have to nip around the corner for a reviving bun in Sally Lunn’s.

 

Bath – an extraordinary city (1)

We’ve just returned from a few days in Bath. It’s a treat that we give ourselves on a regular basis. I’m essentially someone who is happier in the country or on the coast, rather than in the city, but Bath is a city like no other in Britain. It’s compact, easy to navigate on foot, stunningly beautiful, packed with thousands of years of fascinating history – and it’s fun!

IMG_1756Even the buskers and the street theatre are out of the ordinary. ‘Living statues’ are rather old hat these days, but the chap above has an original approach. He sits on an invisible chair, pouring water unceasingly from a bottle into a mug. We also found a rich mix of buskers including folk musicians, a blues guitarist, an operatic soprano, an elderly crooner with a lovely voice and a didgeridoo player who had clearly mastered circular breathing.

A few words of practical advice – traffic jams and parking can be a nightmare. The railway and bus stations are both in the city centre. If you have to arrive by car, use the Park & Ride service. However you get there, head straight for the TIC next to the Abbey and buy a ticket for the two sight-seeing bus tours. National Trust members get a discount. The City Tour stays in the city centre; the Skyline Tour crosses the river and goes up into the hills to the south. Both have commentaries, but they don’t just provide information. Showing your bus ticket gets you a discount off the admission price at ten museums and in various shops and restaurants. Tickets are valid for 24 hours. Buy them at lunchtime and you can catch the buses that afternoon and the following morning.

220px-Pulteney_Bridge,_Bath_2The beauty of the city derives partly from its position in the steep-sided valley of the River Avon and partly from its Georgian buildings of Bath stone. It is the only place in Britain where the entire city has been granted World Heritage status. Florence is the only other city in Europe to achieve this. There’s another link with Florence in that Robert Adams’ Pulteney Bridge over the Avon strongly resembles the Ponte Vecchio, each having shops on both sides of the road crossing the bridge.

Much of the layout of the city’s squares, boulevards and open spaces are the result of the work of Georgian architects John Wood the Elder and his son, John Wood the Younger. Two of their most famous developments are the Royal Crescent and The Circus built in 1754-1770. Even if you’ve never been to Bath you may well be familiar with both as they have been featured on numerous television programmes, but I’ll say something about The Circle as it gives me the chance to drop in a little joke.

The Circus It’s a circular development of three-storey residential houses, divided into three equal terraces, the diameter being the same as the diameter of the largest stone circle of Stonehenge. Three roads lead into The Circus, each entering directly opposite the centre of one of the terraces, so as you enter you should be faced with the striking architecture that includes Doric, Ionic and Corinthian columns on each house, large decorative acorns (ancient Druidic symbol) at roof level and a row of Masonic symbols at first floor level. The Woods wanted the centre to remain an open space so their architecture could be seen, but in the early 19th century it was planted with London plane trees. When the trees are in leaf the view across The Circus is blocked – a classic case of not being able to see the Wood for the trees.

Bath has so much on offer (the Pump Room, the Assemby Rooms, museums, art galleries, river, canal, Thermae Spa, the Abbey, Jane Austen, Prior Park, Ralph Allen, Sally Lunn, Guildhall, shops, restaurants and character-filled pubs) that I can only pick out a few choice morsels in a blog post. Maybe I’ll make this the first of a brief series and just mention one more attraction today.

If you have to choose just one place to visit make it the Roman Bath Museum – and allow plenty of time. We can easily spend three hours in there. The administrators have managed to combine the excavated ancient ruins with modern technology to bring history to life. Their excellent website tells the full story. I’ll content myself with commenting on what has most impact on me. The Victorians built a terrace around the excavations so that the public could look into the site. Standing in one corner of that terrace, looking down into the fully excavated Roman Bath with the Abbey as backdrop is absolutely stunning.

The hot spring that lies at the root of the development of Bath isn’t fairly described by the word ‘spring’. Some 240,000 gallons of water surge to the surface every day at a constant temperature of 46 deg C. It’s the only hot spring in Britain and someone has calculated that the water coming out of the ground today fell as rain on the Mendip Hills 10,000 years ago. People travelled from all over the Roman Empire to visit the bath and temple complex that the Romans built.

IMG_1776There are two things that make me feel in touch with the Roman users of the baths. One is the display cabinet pictured on the left. When the drain from the baths was excavated a large number of precious and semi-precious stones were found. The hot water expanded the metal of jewellery, loosening the stones to the extent that they fell out. The stones only average about 1cm in diameter, but each is exquisitely engraved. I’m guessing that the wearer of the stone with the chariot engraving was a soldier. It’s so easy to put oneself in the position of a bather discovering the loss of a very expensive ring. The language would have been blueius maximus.

The other endearing display features a collection of curses! The pool where the spring emerges was sacred, dedicated by the Britons to Sulis and by the Romans to Sulis Minerva. The Romans appealed to the goddess for help by scratching messages on thin squares of lead which were folded and dropped into the pool. Excavation has found a lot of these lead pieces on which the writing is still legible. The messages are often curses directed at a suspected wrong-doer, but with a degree of subtlety. For example, if Antonius had his best toga stolen from the changing room and suspected that Brutus was responsible, he would give his toga to the goddess and urge her to recover it from Brutus punishing him in the process.

It’s a fascinating place in a fascinating city.

Iceland: home of elves, trolls – and authors.

Photo of Iceland glacier

Glacier – plus Night Troll on the skyline.

I came home from our Iceland holiday very impressed by both the country and its people and I’ve already posted about some impressions. Several books of Icelandic folklore came home with me and as I’ve read my way through them my fascination has grown. 

Trolls and elves feature regularly in the folklore. Trolls come in all shapes and sizes and are creatures of the night – sunlight turns them to stone. Driving around the island it’s impossible to miss the spectacular mountains with the columns of rock ringing the summits. Many of those columns really do look like figures and are called ‘night trolls’, being those creatures caught in the open when the sun rose. Every mountain seems to have its own legend about how a local character, pursued or captured at night, managed to confound the trolls and trick them into being outside when the first rays of the sun turned them to stone. Trolls, it appears, are not very clever. Elves, however, are very different. 

Elves are known in Iceland as ‘huldufolk’ or hidden people. The traditional story is that Eve, the mother of all humankind, heard that God was going to visit. She set about washing the children, but some were still dirty when God approached and Eve hid them. God praised the children that were in view and asked if Eve had any more. Embarrassed, Eve denied the existence of the hidden children. Having had their existence denied before God, the hidden ones have stayed hidden forever, although they can make themselves visible to us if they want to, and when they do we find that they are, of course, very beautiful and highly intelligent. 

Given that Icelanders are one of the most highly educated races on Earth, the level of belief in the huldufolk is surprising at first glance. A recent study of supernatural beliefs throughout Western Europe found that 41% of Icelanders claim to have had contact with the dead and 53% believe in the huldufolk (or at least refused to deny their existence). These beliefs are less surprising when one remembers their extraordinary tradition of storytelling embodied in the Sagas. Those long, long winter evenings spent gathered around the fire, entertaining each other with stories have embedded the folklore in the subconscious. 

It’s not a belief that they are reluctant to share. 20th Century Trade Union leader, Tryggvi Emilsson, was happy to talk publicly about his experiences. As a young man he fell down a cliff face and lay injured in a gully. He was rescued by a huldufolk maiden whom he described as hauntingly beautiful. 

A steel sculpture depicting a traditional folk tale.

Sculpture commemorating a traditional folk tale.

Neither is it a belief that is without practical implications. All over Iceland are spots where the huldufolk are believed to live and that is taken into account in development projects. Roads turn sharply to avoid disturbing those areas. On a road in Grundarfjordur there is a gap between houses numbered 82 and 86. Number 84 is a rocky outcrop where the elves live. When the new road and tunnel were being built to the town of Akranes the heavy-duty construction equipment kept breaking down in one area. A woman known for her ability to talk with the huldufolk was called in. She confirmed that the huldufolk lived there, but said that they were prepared to move and only asked for a little more time. Construction work was suspended until the woman returned and announced that the elves had gone. Work was then completed without problem. 

It’s not surprising that this cultural, storytelling background leads to a love of books and writing, but an article on The Guardian Book Blog suggested that 10% of the adult population will be a published author – and that is traditionally published, in print format. If that is true, it’s a staggering statistic.

photo of food prepared outdoors.

Rye bread, boiled overnight in a hot spring, pickled herring, boiled eggs – and ice-cold Icelandic schnapps.

Iceland – a miscellany.

photo of geysir spouting

Iceland geysir

After a very enjoyable holiday there I thought I’d record some impressions of this extraordinary land and its people, with a few comments along the way on the place of women in Icelandic society,  their love of books, ghosts, their horses – and the Northern Lights. 

The Country

It really lives up to its tag as the land of ice and fire. Snow-covered mountains tower above vast glaciers, but many of those mountains are volcanoes and eruptions are frequent. Some of the volcanoes lie beneath glaciers, which means that eruptions can not only create devastating ash clouds and lava flows, but also very destructive floods.

Near-boiling water bubbles out of snow-covered ground. Pools of boiling mud lie a few metres of frozen ground from geysirs spouting into the sky.

It is so strange to see a borehole on a farm producing free hot water to heat the farmhouse and greenhouses, while a nearby borehole produces pure, ice-cold drinking water.

Along the south coast what were once sea cliffs now stand well back from the sea, separated from it by a stretch of flat land created from ash, lava and debris that has flowed down from the mountains.Iceland 019

If the volcanoes and weather were not enough, the land is riven with geological fault planes and there is the constant threat of earthquakes. The Silfra Crack extends across the Thingvellir National Park in the south-west. On the west side one is standing on the North American tectonic plate of the Earth’s crust; cross the crack and one stands on the Euro-Asian plate. It is one of the few places on Earth where the crust is so thin that the tectonic plates are visible on the surface. 

The People

The land area is roughly 40,000 sq. miles compared to England’s 50,000. The population of Iceland is only 320,000. Over 99% live along the coast with 200,000 in the area around Reykjavik that is the northernmost capital in the world and the westernmost capital in Europe.

There is no mistaking the fierce pride with which Icelanders face and overcome the natural disasters their country throws at them. In 1994 an eruption under a glacier resulted in a flood of water, ice and rocks that carried away everything between the glacier and the sea – including the coastal road and a bridge over 100 metres in length. Within two weeks the road was restored and the bridge re-built.

They are friendly, welcoming and tolerant. The following quote was about Iceland’s First Lady, “She was born in Jerusalem, spent her teenage years in London. I think she follows the Jewish faith. All that matters is that now she is an Icelander.”

I warmed to their attitude to life. For example, “People must be free to visit Iceland and be themselves without interference. We have many famous visitors and no paparazzi. If any of them turn up they will find the waters of the fjord very cold.”

And this tale about angling:

“There are a lot of foolishly rich people around the world. They will pay us £2500 a day to fish for salmon. They seldom catch anything. But if you haven’t got much money, and want to catch fish, for £30 we will sell you a year’s permit to fish in over 60 lakes that are full of brown trout and char that taste better than salmon. We don’t tell the foolishly rich. Why should we? Their pleasure is not in catching fish, but in spending money.”

We heard a lot about trolls and elves that play a large part in Icelandic folklore. They certainly believe in ghosts, which I suspect is related to the close connection they feel with their ancestors. One ghost story has official ratification. There is an attractive building in Reykjavik that stands in its own grounds overlooking the fjord. It is best known for being the location of the historic talks between Reagan and Gorbachev in 1986. It was originally built for the French consul in 1909, but by 1952 it was owned by the British Government and housed the British Embassy. The then Ambassador, John Greenway, insisted that the house be sold and the consulate moved elsewhere because it was so haunted that no staff would stay in the property overnight. The Icelandic government bought it and it is used for formal receptions and festive occasions – but no-one ever stays there overnight. 

Women

The Althing was first formed in 930 A.D. and is the oldest still existing parliament in the world. Icelandic women have been consistently ahead of Britain in all aspects of women’s rights. 43% of members of the Althing are women. Their current Prime Minister is a woman. She had two sons by a conventional first marriage that ended in divorce. She subsequently entered into a civil partnership with another woman whom she eventually married in 2010. None of which seems to have had the slightest impact on her popularity, which is rather refreshing.

photo of two pottery figures

Interesting pottery!

The Bishop of Iceland is a woman.

Icelandic women do not take their husband’s name when they marry.

Fertility rates are the highest in Europe and Iceland is one of the four safest countries in the world in which to give birth.

90% of children in the 1-5 age group are in nursery day-care with local councils paying 85% of the cost.

Icelanders are obsessed with education. Twice as many women as men obtain degrees. 

Books

Icelanders love books. Their consumption of print copies per capita is the highest in the world. Their language hasn’t changed, apart from the addition of modern words, for over 1000 years. This means that they can all read the old Sagas and their history is very important to them. There are several excellent bookshops in Reykjavik. It is common for there to be a sample copy on display and if you choose to buy one it comes shrink-wrapped so that you get it home in pristine condition.

Books are passed down the generations. My Kindle was greeted with disdain. “It’s OK if you need to read something once, but it’s not a proper book to be cherished.” 

Horses

Almost unbelievably, the movement of horses into Iceland has been banned since 980 A.D. The ban has been maintained to protect the Icelandic breed from both cross-breeding and disease. They have the height of ponies, but they are classed as horses. They are immensely strong with a double coat. They are unique in that they have their own extra gait. In addition to the usual walk, trot, canter and gallop, the Icelandic horse can naturally ‘do’ the tölt. It is a form of rapid trot. Take a look at this clip on YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3bQU5pnOi7o  Note how the rider’s head doesn’t bounce up and down at all.

They take horses abroad to competitions but, as they can’t then take them back into Iceland, the horses have to be sold. This gives rise to an Icelandic expression about their horses: “We ride the best, sell the second best – and eat the rest.” Yes, Icelanders eat horses – and so did we, inadvertently. We ordered the peppered steak in a restaurant. It was delicious and very tender. It was only after eating it that we discovered it was horsemeat. 

The Northern Lights

Seeing the Northern Lights was the main objective of our holiday. We had planned it well in advance so that we would maximise our chances. Solar activity goes through 11-year cycles and this is supposed to be a period when that activity is at a peak. We also chose a week when there was no moon, so that we would have dark skies. Finally, we arranged a tour so that we would only have two nights with the light-polluted skies over Reykjavik and five nights in remote locations far from any man-made lights.

The one thing we couldn’t plan was the weather, but even if we had the luck to have some cloudless night skies, there was still no guarantee that they would coincide with bursts of solar activity.

In the event we were extremely lucky. We had seven days and nights of cloudless skies – unheard of in Iceland in October. We saw the lights on four nights, two of the displays filling the sky. The unexpected outcome of it all was that I was disappointed!

All of the photographs of the Northern Lights, and TV film, show the lights to be bright green, occasionally with red as well. But, unless the solar activity is very intense, the lights appear white to the naked eye and the colours are introduced by an optical effect of the photographic process. It is very strange to stand looking at white lights in the sky, take a photo and see the image appear as bright green when reviewing it on the screen.

Seeing the lights was the cream on our cake, but the cake itself with its ingredients of whales, sea eagles, geysirs, waterfalls, glaciers, glacial lagoons, volcanoes, steep-cliffed fjords, black sand beaches and the Icelandic people, is deeply satisfying. 

Northern Lights