The place of place in fiction

Sometimes it seems as though there are only two types of books: those that can be described as plot-driven, and others that are seen as character-driven. But what if still others are as much driven by place, in which character and plot emerge fully formed from the landscape?

I recently read Halldor Laxness’s Independent People (I’m working on a novel largely set in Iceland) and was struck by how present the landscape was within the writing. In fact, I would go so far to say that the story is a story of place above all else. The human and ovine characters (there are a lot of sheep) feel transient, incidental. They are formed of the black peat, and their stories are rooted in the marshy turf. Their hopes and tribulations meander on the sticky beck at the valley’s floor. The valley itself has a history, and previous events, centuries old, cling to the stones, ominous and foreboding. The menace that drives the book lurks under the cairn marking the pass above the perennially dismal Summerhouses; menace hangs from the blue mountains that fade into and out of view with the weather.

For me, the evocation of place is one of the most direct routes into a novel’s universe. This is unsurprising: all stories take place (the word is everywhere) in space as well as time. When we visualise a character, the ground they stand on is solid. Every dark and stormy night rages somewhere.

That is not to suggest that good novels are always set in real places, either now or in the past; just that the ground on which they play out should be able to bear the reader’s weight. Nor does it equate good writing with lengthy descriptions of landscape, any more than strong characterisation can only be achieved through the detailed description of a protagonist’s moustache. As with a character, we need to recognise a place, either from our memory or our imagination; as with plot, place needs to be solid, believable.

From sweeping landscapes of Icelandic moors to the more mundane environs of a West Midlands shopping centre: in Catherine O’Flynn’s 2007 debut, What Was Lost, place is almost indistinguishable from character and plot. The characters do not simply occupy the space, they are occupied by it. The missing girl ghosts through the darkened arcades and service corridors as if buried in the foundations. But while the evocation of a space I occupied relentlessly in my own teenage years was powerful enough, it is the ghost of the derelict industrial landscape that lies beneath it that stays with me most powerfully. To this day I do not know to what the title refers, what it was that O’Flynn most feels was lost.

Grounding stories in place, rooting them in landscape and the myths they hold, has been a central concern in my own writing. My first novel evolved from a story told to me amid the dust and noise of a city street in India; my second begins as an attempt to discover anew my own city, but in the end emerges from the weathered stones of a small Scottish island. I took a trip up to the Small Isles in search of my eponymous ‘cursing stone’ and, while I didn’t find it, the landscape of Canna did give flesh to a hitherto minor character and also sparked an unexpected plot twist.

Place is no substitute for character and landscape cannot replace plot. But nor is it an also-ran, simply a setting for people and action. The best fiction – or at least, the fiction that I want to read – makes place an active participant in the story. It is how memory works. Madeleines might have been enough for Proust, but for me it is the light on the hillside, the glugging of the brook, or a glimpse along an empty city street that takes me to the heart of a story.

A version of this piece originally appeared on the lovely BritFic blog

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Canna’s Cursing Stone

Along Canna's south coastIt’s hard to get lost on Canna. At only five miles long and one mile wide, you can pretty much always see the sea, usually from the tops of tumbling cliffs. It’s a good thing because, especially at its western end, the island itself is fairly featureless moorland, a rising and falling strip of grassy undulations reaching out into the western ocean. And aside from a million rabbits, thousands of birds, and hundreds of sheep, it is empty once you leave the clutch of houses that cluster around the natural harbour.

Only three of us got off the good ship Loch Neibhis when it tied up briefly at the concrete jetty, and the other two disappeared into a waiting Land Rover almost immediately. They were the last people I would speak to until we were reunited on the 6.30pm boat back to Mallaig and the mainland. I’d come to research my second novel, The Cursing Stone, to smell the smells, feel the winds and absorb the light of this tiny island: I like at least to taste the air of a place before I write about it. Because Canna was going to help me construct the frankly made up island of Hinba, the setting for much of the novel’s action.

St Columba's Cross at A'Chill, CannaNot entirely made up. Because the island of Hinba is where St Columba established one of his first monasteries, back in the sixth century – it’s just that no-one knows where it is. Some believe that Hinba is Canna, and when a bullaun or cursing stone – the first in Scotland – was found on the island in 2012, it underlined the Columban connection. The Canna cursing stone also pulled together a set of ideas I’d been kicking into something like the shape of a novel.

Canna is the western-most of the quaintly named Small Isles. Its near neighbours – Rum and Eigg and Muck – are familiar names, but Canna is a little off the beaten track. Owned by the National Trust for Scotland, its few inhabitants croft or raise sheep and a few cattle. The island boasts a post office, in a garden shed; there is also a community shop and tea room. But there is precious little else: just a clutch of houses, and a thin strip of green stretching off to the west, until a burnished sea swallows every solid thing.

Canna's Post OfficeThe road from the jetty skirts the inlet that sits between Canna and its mini-me island of Sanday, passing the Rocket Church (just as bizarre in real life as its name suggests), until it arrives at the gates to Canna House. From there, a sign indicates straight on for Tarbet and Sanday, or right for A’Chill and its 1500 year old Celtic cross. Through a stand of conifers, past a newish grave among the trees, I came into clearing where the cross stands, along with a small slender standing stone (described as the ‘punishing stone’). There is a small ruined chapel nearby, its graveyard full to bursting with daffodils, as was every garden in the little village.

Canna's 'Punishing Stone', under Cnoc Bhrostan under I planned to reach the far end of the island by lunchtime to eat my sandwich under the shadow of an ancient fort, so I left the houses and the graves behind and set out along the track: high cliffs to my right, the sea racing into the clusters of basalt columns to my left. Every so often a little beach was cut into the black rock, notches scored by fiercer seas: the sand bore no marks other than the footprints of oyster catchers fishing at the gently lapping water’s edge. Everywhere I looked inland, a flashing bob tail raced away.

The coast 'road', heading westMore gates, more track, more blue sky. The road snaked around under a small cliff, from which white-tailed eagles launched themselves onto the wind, and then it dropped into a shallow valley that bisects the island from north to south: Tarbet.  The stone walls and lines of wire that parcelled the flat land, the set of farm buildings, were all unexpected: the island had become wild already despite the closeness of everything.

The road, such as it is, stopped here. There were cows as well as sheep in the fields; and then I spotted the bull: a massive chestnut mountain of a beast, with horns that were visible from the best part of 150 metres distance. I scanned the greenery to trace the lines of wire and wall, to make sure that he was on the other side of something.

Canna's western moorsPast Tarbet and up over open moorland. The grass was longer, the ground wetter, spongier, and the terrain turned into a series of ever-climbing ridges. I stayed close to the south coast in as far as my haphazard route and the tricky terrain allowed – there were no paths and the need to weave through marshy patches and hummocks made sticking to a line difficult. There is a ruined convent at the bottom of the cliff, and to see it I needed to arrive at the cliff’s edge at just the right point. I took a back bearing from the church at Sanday, some 3 miles behind me, cross-referenced it with a stream and took an anxious final line to the cliff top: bingo, the convent of Sgorr nam Bàn Naomh was directly below me.

Looking down on Sgorr nam Bàn Naomh The archaeology came thick and fast after this, just as I had hoped. I passed the remains of an old settlement (perhaps the outlines of houses or maybe simply of sheep folds) and then just headed westwards, keeping my shadow on my right hand side. Across a line of rusted wire and then it was two, three ridges, a sodden foot, and I could see the end of the island.

Dun Channa at the western end of the islandI had not thought that the old Dun would be at the bottom of the cliff, some 100 metres below me. How had I missed the contour lines? The sun was still out (just) but the wind was fierce, so I took my lunch in the shelter of a little crag and looked out across the grass and the blue of the ocean. Aside from the blue-grey bulk of the Outer Hebrides there was not much to interrupt the horizon and I had the sense that I was at the edge of the world. It struck me that I hadn’t seen another person since passing the post office.

For my return, I decided to shadow the north coast, hoping the ground would be a little less marshy. It wasn’t. I skittered through the mossy clumps trying to pick higher, firmer ground; what appeared to be paths were nothing of the kind, simply peaty streams. Snipe launched out from under foot as I walked; the birds seemingly playing ‘chicken’, leaving their escape to the very last minute.

The remains on an ancient townshipAbove me I spotted a large collection of ruined buildings, an ancient township according to the map. I picked my way through the swampy ground to explore, then further up onto higher ground. The going got easier and the view down and along was spectacular. I reached the land’s northern edge once more and followed the cliff top until I reached Tarbet again. The bull watched me as I scuttled back onto the track I had left behind 3 hours before.

I had some time yet, before the CalMac ferry returned, so I walked on to the eastern end of the island. On a beach of large pebbles, under a rambling cliff, I scanned the serrated profile of Skye, the purple mass of Rum and the distant snowy peaks of the mainland. Terns screeched overhead, hanging on the wind. The walls of an ancient castle clung to a rocky stack at the south end: Coroghon Mor. Later I would read that it had become a prison and it would find its way into my story.

Dun Mor looms over Duncannon's farm, eastern CannaThe green-doored farm up on the cliff overlooking the beach would become the home of Duncannon, and its shaggy buildings flowed into the character of the man who would wield the cursing stone. My cursing stone, not Canna’s. Because my book is not Canna; it is a fiction. But it’s a fiction born, at least in part, of the moors and myths of this Small Isle clinging to the edge of everything.

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Northampton in the eighties – free fiction

I’m between novels. My first, Being Someone, was published in May last year and my next, The Cursing Stone, will be published in May 2016, again by the lovely Urbane Publications. So there is something of a lull in output and, to fill the void, I’ve published a short story, Fuse, which you can read for free here. It’s inspired by my home town, although any resemblance to real persons or events is purely coincidental. I’d love to know what you think.

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Beer World (part nine): Bhutanese brews

Chillies drying in the sunshineBhutan is an odd place. It’s tiny, not even twice the size of Wales and with about as many people as Leeds, which makes its position, squeezed between the behemoths of India and China, all the more precarious. And yet it has never been successfully invaded. The British, of course, made some token efforts. Tibet was more determined, sending waves of armies into the country over centuries. Yet neither managed to subdue the place. And more recently, when some Assamese separatists chose to base themselves in the south of the country, the better to wage their insurgency in India, the Bhutanese army chased them out.

Things you might know about Bhutan include the fact that it is tricky and expensive to visit as a Westerner. Tourists were first allowed to visit in 1974, but it wasn’t until 1981 that you could arrive by plane, rather than on foot. They recently started experimenting with democracy – the first elections were held in 2008, a gift of the fourth King to his sceptical people, most of whom would appear far happier with monarchy than voting. You might also know that TV and the internet were only allowed in 1999, another gift of the fourth King, but one that was embraced with far greater enthusiasm than politicians. The fourth King also decided that the country should measure its progress not by GDP, but by Gross National Happiness.

A pot of ema-datseIndeed, Gross National Happiness is probably the most famous thing about Bhutan. That, and the national obsession with chillis, especially stewed in cheese sauce as the signature dish of Bhutanese cuisine, ema-datse. There may be a link between the two. Maybe. There is cheese in just about everything, not just the chillies, so it’s no surprise that there are a lot of cows too. But instead of lush pasture, it is the green and gold of rice that stirs in the breeze. And yet the country still has a very Alpine feel, with snow peaks and pine forest – about 70% of the country is still forested – and the valley floors turned over to agriculture. Even the ubiquitous painted buildings have a Swiss feel (except that in Bhutan the paintings are of dragons and penises). Indeed, a number of Swiss nationals have made the Himalayan kingdom their home.

An elusive Red Panda basks with some Bhutanese Swiss cheeseOn my first night in Paro, an uninspiring buffet dinner – the first of many – was significantly improved by a Red Panda, an accomplished weissbier, brewed by one of those Swiss émigrés: he also makes cheese, but not the kind that goes into ema-datse. The beer itself is sweet, but no more so than most weissbiers, and it is well-balanced: perfect for one, a little cloying after the second.

So, I soon hunted out other offerings. My first Druk 11000 – the favoured pony in the limited stable of Bhutanese beers – didn’t happen until I reached Thimpu, the capital city. Or more accurately, a dusty patch of ground above the city, outside the gates to the Queen Mother’s Palace.

A Druk 11000, a pony and a stray dog convene outside the PalaceWe had just finished our trek over the mountains from Paro, during which I had been moaning about wanting a beer; our driver greeted us at the trail end with a box of momos, some vicious chilli paste and a couple of bottles of cold, golden beer. 11000 has a hefty ABV, but while it is undoubtedly maltier and more flavoursome than most south Asian lagers, it still lacks the kind of presence you would expect from an 8% brew. Later that day I would drink another and think that it was nothing so much like a weird tasting Carling, but there, on the roadside, among the ponies and dogs at the end of a trek, it tasted of heaven.

A bottle of Druk Lager - for once the beer was worse than the foodAnd for all its limitations, 11000 is still a much better proposition than the 5% Druk Lager. Despite its ABV, it is thin, slightly metallic and essentially wet – it is however very fizzy, although that doesn’t help. Think bad Budweiser (the US kind) and you’re almost there. Of course, the fact that the worst beer made in such a tiny country is not dissimilar to one of the best selling beers in the world is some achievement. And that I had a choice was not to be sniffed at: later in the trip, especially when the great Red Panda drought* began, the 11000 became a reliable tipple. (*For some reason, the nearer we got to Bumthang, where the stuff is brewed, the bottled Red Pandas became as hard to spot as their namesake animals; when I made it to the brewery shop, I made sure of a few bottles to accompany the cheese – cow and yak – that I bought.)

A bottle of Druk Supreme, getting ready for bedTowards the end of trip, while the Black Necked Cranes danced in the marshy bottom of the Phobjikha Valley, I finally found the last of the local beers: Druk Supreme. Another 5% brew, it has infinitely more presence than the similarly powered Druk Lager, and compares well to a Kronenbourg 1664. While that sounds a little like damning with faint praise, the Supreme and the rest of the handful of domestically produced beers are infinitely better than most things I’ve tasted in neighbouring India or Nepal – and that even includes the underwhelming Druk Lager. Aside from the Red Panda, I had had no expectations and I actually felt quite blessed. And that was before the whisky.

Yes, whisky. Without an ‘e’. Because Bhutanese whisky draws a fairly straight line to Scotch, and not in an ‘embarrassing in comparison’ kind of way. I was trepidatious at first and, leaning on the bar at the Dewachen Hotel, I ordered the safety of a K5 – five Scotch malts blended in Bhutan. It was good. Better than many of the more popular and ubiquitous blends found on bars across the UK. It was actually special.

Emboldened, over the next days I moved onto the Bhutan-originated whiskies. By the time we were back in Paro, I had decided that Coronation was my favourite: a little peat (the mossy, old carpet kind, not the antiseptic kind) and lots of flavour. After that, Special Courier deserves a mention: peatier, but without the depth offered by Coronation. Then there is the evocatively-named but thin tasting Bhutan Highland, which had just a little too much raw grain spirit about it to be pleasant. But three out of four is not bad.

While Bhutan has unexpected pleasures for beer and whisky drinkers, wine drinkers beware. Not because the quality isn’t there – everything is imported, of course, as there is nowhere suitable for growing wine in this vertical country’s thin air, so you will find a good range of reliable New World single varietals, almost always by the bottle. No, the problem is the price, which goes up rapidly the further east you travel: there is one airport in the west, at Paro, and one ramshackle road to haul everything eastwards on panting trucks. Those haulage costs fall heavily on bulky wine destined for wealthy foreigners. Stick to an 11000 with a Coronation chaser and you’ll be fine.

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One morning in Reykjavik: drinking coffee, talking Icelandic music

‘Are you looking for anything specifically?’

‘Thank you, no. I’m just looking around. But thank you.’

‘No problem. Would you like an espresso while you look?

‘Um, actually, that would be lovely. Thanks.’

‘OK. Our recommendations are on this table. Some are new releases, some are older. Take a look while I get you your coffee.’

The 12 Tonar shop in ReykjavikI had booked the guesthouse in part because it was around the corner from my favourite bar in Reykjavik, in part because it was just up the hill from Mal og Menning. But mainly because it was across the road from the mighty 12 Tonar record shop. I was only passing through, on my way back from walking in Hornstrandir, and would only have an evening and a morning in the city before my flight left Keflavik. I had wanted to make the most of my time.

After breakfast at Kaffibrennslan on the main drag, I had taken a brief loop about the city. I have been to Reykjavik a few times now, but not for three years, and despite the compact familiarity, I still found charm gilding every street and building. I had planned to end my morning at 12 Tonar, before picking up my bags from Thor’s. I had allowed myself half an hour.

Before my look of bemused wonder had attracted the attention of the guy behind the counter, I had already done a couple of turns around both floors. I had listened to a few unknown tracks on the sofa-side players and lingered over a Rökkurró t-shirt before reminding myself I was here for records, not clothing.

I don’t know exactly when Icelandic music became such a thing in my life. I suppose it crept up on me in stages, like the midnight sun on a long summer’s evening. I remember swooning over the Sugarcubes in the 1980s like everyone else, but was more drawn to the clashing, barking voice of Einar than to Bjork’s elfish range: if the more famous Sugarcube sounded on the verge of madness, Einar seemed well past the line. After that? Sigur Ros in the 90s, of course, but not so much.

Then in 2012, driving around the West Fjords in a hire care without any records, we stopped at a cafe. They sold a handful of records on the counter next to the cakes. We bought an album each by Bjork and Sigur Ros and, on the recommendation of the woman making the coffee, a copy of Í Annan Heim by Rökkurró. My current obsession, if it can be dated at all, started in the next two or three days of driving, listening to that on loop.

Back in the UK, while filling in other Rökkurró records, I stumbled across Sudden Elevation by Ólöf Arnalds, opening up a whole new set of possibilities; a half-remembered hankering for a band called Mammút led me back to 2008’s Karkari, and then to Oyama. Fortunately, 12 Tonar deliver to the UK, but what I really craved was another recommendation over coffee.

By the time the guy with coffee and a calm reassuring beard returned, I’d already picked up an unknown EP of covers by Ólöf Arnalds (to satisfy the completist in me). He pointed me straight to the new-ish Mammút record, Komdu Til Mín Svarta Systir. Then, without being asked, and based on just my few minutes of me gushing about Icelandic bands I liked, he picked up a record from the recommendations table, a record by a band I had never heard of, let alone heard, and simply said, ‘This is a great record.’

Now, I’ve worked in record shops. I know how the ‘recommendations’ rack works. The staff, generally speaking, do not have strong feelings either way about the greatness or otherwise of its contents; it is merely a promotional tool to shift new or stubborn product to unfocused punters like me. But something about the shop, about the guy, about that recommendation in a cafe in the West Fjords, made me believe. So when he led me, my records and my empty coffee cup to the counter, I followed willingly. He was already removing the outer sleeve from the nameless record I had yet to say I wanted; he rang it and the other two through the till and I paid, full of the most glorious glow of retail happiness.

The next morning, back in London, while I tipped dirty waking gear into the washing machine and tried to adjust to an additional 20 degrees of heat, I put on the record. I eventually worked out that it was 0, the second record by Low Roar. I played it again, and I am still playing it while I type this. It is a great record. And he’s not even Icelandic.

12 Tonar deliver: buy records from them. And if you’re ever in Reykjavik (seriously, why aren’t you?) then stop by for a coffee and some seriously good recommendations.

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Hornstrandir – Return to the Edge of the World

Looking over Hlöðuvík to AlfsfellPeople abandoned Hornstrandir in the 1950s, on account of the lack of work and the appalling winters: once the herring swam off to other places, the ferocious darkness lost whatever charm it might once have had. But in summer, Hornstrandir is rich in charms, not least its remoteness and seclusion. Made a nature reserve in the 1970s – the only mammals permanently in residence are the protected Arctic Foxes – it is a beautiful place, popular with Icelanders and walkers in the brief summer (mid-June to mid-August). I visited for a day walk in 2012 and determined to return. In June 2015, with a group of five friends, I made it.

My journal and some pictures are here:
1 Hesteyri to Hlöðuvík
2 Hlöðuvík to Hornvik
3 Hornvik to Veiðileysufjörður
4 Veiðileysufjörður to Isafjordur

A fuller set of photos will be on my Flickr page here, just as soon as I get around to sorting them!

I’ve written about other walks in Iceland, including the Laugavegurinn and the Fimmvörðuháls pass.

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Hornstrandir Day One – Hesteyri to Hlöðuvík

26th June 2015: Hesteyri landing stage to Við Hlöðuvíkurós in Hlöðuvík (13km), over Kjaransvikursgard (c.430m)

Boarding the Bjarnarnes, our 9am boat from IsafjordurAt last, I have made it back to Hornstrandir for three days of serious walking; the edge of the world again. And it is serious walking, as the first day has shown despite the short distances involved.

The trip has been a long time in the making: I first heard about the place in 2009, from the guide when I walked the Laugavegurinn; then I came here for a day walk in 2012 on a road trip around the West Fjords. Here I am again, along with five friends who rashly said ‘yes’ to an email last December. I am not sure all of them quite knew what to expect.

Landing in Iceland was reassuringly familiar; the transfer from Keflavik cut through the lava fields on the way to the city as it always does, only this time there were a thousand-fold more of the pretty but invasion Nootka Lupins thronging the roadside, blue heads bobbing. Another change: instead of the journey ending at the BSI, the bus rolled on to the domestic airport for a harum scarum flight up to Isafjordur, the gateway to Hornstrandir. From the plane, we had perfect views of Snaefellsnes and its glacier-clad volcano, of Breiðafjörður and tiny Flatey island; of the West Fjords covered in far too much snow. A night in Isafjordur: food and drinks at Húsið, then a sleepless night at the blameless and lovely Gamla guesthouse, before the 9am boat this morning.


Coming ashore at HestyriThe skies were clear blue as the Bjarnarnes cut out of the harbour and into the fjord; the forecast was for more of the same. At Hesteyri, the boat could not tie up, so we were decanted into a Zodiac to carry us and our gear to shore. Hesteyri was busy for an abandoned village, with a launch-load of cruisers over from the massive ship at anchor outside Isafjordur. But we were quickly away, crossing the stream below the Doctor’s House and heading up into the hills; Kagrafell to our left, Kisturfell ahead of us and the water to our right. The path was easily discernible, way-marked by cairns fairly soon after Hesteyri was left behind. Our course was clear, as was our first obstacle: a massive, seemingly vertical, bank of snow where the path should have been, rising about 100m above us.

We took a detour, heading north beneath the icy slope until it was a more manageable 30m to climb. Kicking steps into the crystallised snow, we climbed to the ridge before turning back south to rejoin the path (we would later find that this snow bank was not much of an obstacle, relatively speaking, and that we should simply have taken it in our stride, instead of losing an hour on a detour.)

Climbing the first snow bankAWe found the path easily, running along the shelf above the north west flank of the fjord. Under the mass of Kisturfell, a line of cairns stretched out ahead of us across a rising landscape of snowfields and loose rocks, formed into islands in the white. Occasionally, the path was a path rather than a trace of wind-blown footsteps through the snow, or a guessed-at line through the rocks. But the cairns were always there to pull us on and upwards to the fjord’s head and the final abrupt ascent to the pass at Kjaransvikurskard (c. 430m).

Cairns lead off to Kjaransvikurskard Again the last section was a snow bank and we paused beneath it before the final push, debating who should lead the line and who should follow, in what order. A French couple skittered down the slope, bored of following the line of the traverse; an Arctic Fox ranged nimbly across the snowy fellside above us, unconcerned by neither us nor his footing. Then on and up, a daunting track through the snow to the pass. Just before I reached it, my already quaking legs (I’m not good on steep snow…) were rocked by the first blast of wind curling over from the north. It blew harder at the top and, recovering among the rocks, my coat got its first outing while I admired the view back down the fjord to Hesteyri and out towards the town of Bolungarvik on the ‘mainland’.

Coming up Kjaransvikurskard On the other side, the path picked a steep descent through rocks before the already familiar pattern of snow fields and rock islands resumed. The snow fields were easier going on the way down, but soon the terrain became a series of marshy terraces, stepping down over the strata, all the while following the rapidly flowing brook towards the sea. By the time we had to cross one of its tributaries, it was a fast moving river, cascading over low falls.

Our first dubious ice bridgeWe avoided our first foot wetting by cutting nervously over a slender ice bridge; in two weeks it would have disappeared completely, but for now it held. It was here however that our trusty cairns ended, and with them any trace of a path, so we picked our way through marshy, florid turf under looming Alfsfell.

On the shore at HlöðuvíkThe imminent beach was announced by the stacks of drift wood, tree trunks logged in Russia, giant pick-up sticks thrown into crazy tangles. Some tents appeared beside the river’s final approach to the sea, but we were the wrong side of the mountain for this to be the campsite at Vid. The French inhabitants told us that the real campsite was indeed 1km further along the shore, that theirs was a ‘fake’ campsite (we would learn soon why they had decided to make camp there). They also suggested that the best way to cross the river was to balance across one to the tree trunks perched precariously across the stream. Two of the group followed the advice, while the other four unbooted and strode through the fierce and icy flow.

From there we traipsed (it was nearing 7pm) along the sandy beach, ready for the comforts of camp. An Arctic Fox sauntered past, between us and the surf. At Vid, the fake camp made sense: a persistent wind blew from the north east, along the coast, making pitching our tents interesting, keeping a stove alight more so. But tents were pitched and dinner was made and eaten, whisky was drunk, and sleeping bags rolled out, even as the daunting prospect of tomorrow’s route hung over us, literally and metaphorically.

The campsite at Hlöðuvík

I’m now in my tent, the nagging wind pulling malevolently at the fabric. The sun is still shining, even though it is half past eleven. It will shine through the night, but after today’s exertions, even it will not keep me from sleep.

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Hornstrandir Day Two – Hlöðuvík to Hornvik

27th June 2015: Hlöðuvík to Hornvik (Höfn) (10km), over Skalakambar (310m) and Atlasgard (327m)

The north coast of Hornnstrandir (the cliffs at Kjalararnupur)It’s 10.30pm and the sky is overcast, so we have retired to our tents. Alex is shouting muffled trivia questions from his, as others sort themselves for the night, moving packs around sleeping bags, trudging for a last visit to the latrine, or to brush teeth, back to the breeze. It has been a hard day’s walk; apparently only 10km, but it felt like twice that. As a consequence, the original plan – to walk around the bay for another 3km to the campsite at Hornsá has been abandoned and we have landed at Höfn campsite instead. In doing so, we have also opted out of the night walk up onto the cliffs at Hornbjarg, but the low cloud (the tops are buried under a thick grey mat) has made that prospect less appealing in any case.

The daunting start to the day turned out to be much less daunting in the execution, but was still hard going. We started out at 10am, leaving Vid to our only neighbours, two Icelanders who pitched up around 9pm yesterday. Almost immediately, there was a river crossing, so the day began in wading shoes. It was a broad river, very cold, and we crossed on the beach, at the top of the surf line. Boots back on, we skirted a grassy path above the beach until we reached a clutch of houses above a landing place, marked by two traffic signs, arranged one behind the other so that boats can determine the safest way in by aligning them from the water.

The path edges upwardsBeyond the colourful houses, the path rose to meet a waterfall, crossing just below the last full fall. Then the track snagged its way up to a little flat-bottomed cove, set around a tarn that fed the waterfall; above us, the steep walls of the cove hung like an amphitheatre. Our path snaked up above us to the where the strata bared their teeth in cliffs under hanging snow. But there was a problem: Mark’s leg had given way on the way up to the plateau, making such a climb – any climb – difficult if not excruciating. Alex valiantly offered to walk his own pack up to the ridge with Theo, a 180m climb, before returning alone to take Mark’s. It was a feat of considerable stamina and greater generosity.

Halfway up to Skalakambar Following him, the four of us zig-zagged up a reasonable path until the exposed strata, where things became a little trickier (much trickier for Mark), the path picking its vertiginous way through the rocks to Skalakambar. The last 10m of the climb was over loose gravel and a scramble over the cliff’s lip between two cornices, more a summit than a pass. Over the lip, the wind snapped in and the valley behind Haelavik spread out below us, all white and dark grey blotches as far as the next pass, Atlasgard, off in the distance.

The route to the Atlasgard passBefore the first snow field, we bumped into an American couple who had been on our boat. They were essentially doing our route in reverse – they gave us an optimistic account of what was to come, and we described as best we could how to approach Skalakambar from this side. Then we were off across a long stretch of level snow. A rocky island, more snow, more rocks, all under the rising walls of mountains and ridges; behind us, the sea. Blobs of Lambagras appeared in the rocks between the snow.

A sketchy ice bridge below AtlasgardAnother couple, two Germans, gave us an even more optimistic account of the path ahead, alerting us to an ice bridge, a little off the path, that would save us wet, cold feet: the river here was again wide and fast following, but now its banks were cased in snow. The ice-bridge had seen better days and looked precarious, deeply cracked at both ends, its span simply resting on icy hinges, a keystone. In days, it would be gone, but we knew it had been crossed only an hour before and it was marked with fresh foot prints to prove the point. We took our chances, and no misfortune befell us. Before beginning the gradual climb up to Atlasgard, we stopped for lunch in a sheltered spot by the river and a friendlier pool of ice melt. Hidden from the raking wind, it was idyllic.

The path rose, first on a snow bank, then through rocks and stony heath (the Icelandic kind), crossing a few streams along the way. So gentle was the ascent that, by the time we reached the final rise, there was only a 30m traverse to make through loose gravel, but avoiding the snow that filled the rest of the pass. The views back down to Haelavik were stunning, the rivers lacing the valley floor silvered in the weak sunlight.

Starting the descent into RekavikThe way ahead was a short zig-zagging descent onto a gentle grassy valley floor under the jagged ridge of 667m Darri. This was Rekavik, and the meadow revealed the first orchids, along with clutches of marsh marigold, saxifrages and roseroot too, and a hundred more varieties that I couldn’t identify. The path rolled down towards the sea, closing on the river as we reached its end at a beautifully isolated beach.

Driftwood cluttered the beach and the river’s bank, seagulls and swans bobbed it the bay and Harlequin ducks wave-jumped in the surf near the river’s mouth. The water was much less cold than the day’s earlier crossing and much less forceful too: it felt almost like paddling at the beach and we sat and chatted in the sun, watching the ducks as we rebooted.

The view down to Rekavik beach with the Hornbjarg ridge in the backgroundIt was going well: a reasonable path on the brink of a low cliff passed basalt stacks and a striking basalt wall; stacks stood a little out to sea, clustered with seabirds, safe from the foxes. We could see the camp at Hornsá across Hornvik, below the dragon’s teeth ridge of Hornbjarg and there was talk about curtailing the route, camping at Höfn instead: we had made slow progress and the additional 3-4km did not appeal to some. What happened next sealed the question.
The path took a turn for the worse, descending rapidly, rudely, around a gully, before becoming an undulating, narrow, unreliable ribbon. A couple of landslips made things even more interesting, before the path dropped onto the rocky beach. A large spur from the cliffs above blocked the way, but fortunately two ropes had been suspended, one to haul yourself up, the other to slow your descent: it was actually a lot of fun, especially abseiling down the other side.

Basalt stack on the beach at HafnarnesOnce down, we followed the rocky shore for maybe 100m before a thin path appeared in the turf behind the beach. It followed the coast around, sometimes fraying, sometimes even, until the campsite at Höfn came into view. Above the delta that spreads behind the beach at Hornvik, a sand cloud rose on the wind and drifted; the snow on the mountains behind caught the light of the lowering sun. Across the bay, the peak of Midfell, the emblematic mountain of Hornvik, looked on, but the cloud never shook free from the saw-teeth of Dogunarfell, and I had to fill in the omission from memories of pictures.

The party was very strung out by this point – we had largely given up on keeping in eye contact. Each was keen to arrive and used whatever energy we had remaining to achieve that. The path passed the remains of a 19th century turf house, slumping back into its elements. Then I was there. The campsite.

An Arctic Fox, at Hofn campsiteWe discussed with the warden (a rare and reassuring presence on Hornstrandir) where we might best pitch our tents; as we did so an Arctic Fox scampered along the grassy ridge above the warden’s hut and toilet block (there is a flushing toilet at Höfn, and two taps – the water still comes direct from the streams, but it felt very much a modern convenience; there was even a picnic bench, although most people chose to sit on the ground or on the tree trunks littered about). By the time we had set up camp and had begun making dinner, the fox was back again, trotting this way and that between the clutches of tents (there were maybe 15 tents in addition to ours but scattered over a wide area) causing excitement wherever he went.

It is midnight now, and the birds are still singing joyously. Tomorrow should be an easier day – just the one pass to get over – and the weather forecast is good.

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Hornstrandir Day Three – Hornvik to Veiðileysufjörður

28th June 2015
Hornvik to Veiðileysufjörður (Botn) (11km), over Hafnarskard (519m)

The beach at HöfnIt is almost 8am, but I am still the first up, at least in our group. Some other groups are eating breakfast, others still are already striking camp. It is cooler than yesterday and a slab of grey cloud hangs low over the peaks of Hornbjarg. The cloud masking the mountains at the back of the bay are whiter; this is our route and I am grateful for it. The rush of surf and the plumes of sand, snatched in gusts from the dunes, are more intrusive than the nearer German party packing their things. Despite the presence of more people than I’ve seen for almost 48 hours, this is the epitome of peaceful solitude.


It’s evening now, and the weather has turned. It turned, to be honest, with the wind that first ripped into us just below Atlasgard; a vicious, remorseless wind, racing in from the north east [later, back in the UK, I would see the gale warnings on the weather websites], that even here, in a campsite by the sea, batters the tent angrily. It has brought a little rain and much colder temperatures, and it refuses to die, despite our curses.

Setting off across Hornvik valley floorThe day’s walk began calmly enough, stretching out along the valley floor, behind the dunes of Hornvik. The plumes of sand said that there was already a strong wind in valley, but it did not trouble us and the ramble through the meadow slid by. There were even little board bridges over the criss-crossing streams. A broad waterfall cut a gash in the hillside ahead of us, and I prepared myself for the day’s first foot wetting.
But the path rose up to the right before we reached it, zig-zagging then traversing the sharp slope; a narrow track, but perfectly navigable and not too testing of the lungs or legs – we hardly realised that we had gained 150m by the time we reached the lip of the ascent.

It was clear that we had left behind the gentle greenery below; instead, a plateau of snow and rock and chaotic surging rivers stretched out ahead of us. The rivers made sense: from below, we had seen their product in the gushing waterfalls that lined the valley walls, cascading over the strata, white and energetic; one, hanging on the distant opposite wall, fanned out broadly, almost pillared, and was named by Theo as the temple falls. It remained visible to our left, then over our shoulder, as we set off across the gravel and rocks, the low cloud becoming a more immediate concern.

Setting off towards AtlasgardSnow field, rocky island, cairn, stream, snow, always rising: the pattern of the next few miles was soon set. Almost without noticing, we were at 400m. We paused, just below the cloud, to take on some snacks and water before the pass. The intention was to have lunch on the other side, once we were out of the wind, not realising that we would never be out of the wind.

Another snowfield, another solid reserve of jumbled rocks, then a rising snowfield seemingly without end, its far shore lost in cloud. Visibility was poor, maybe 30m, but was to get worse. We reached the next rocks and another plateau, then more snow. Useful visibility was now 10m ad we had only the tracks of others in the snow and the ghosts of cairns to guide us. We walked in slow measure, keeping the person in front of us about 5m distant, no more no less; the whole caravan pausing when it became too stretched.

Where the visibility started to get tricky...Eventually, we hit a snow wall, maybe 10m high, marking the pass. It was maybe only 50 degrees steep, but the snow was ice, the wind was gusting wildly and the top was only sometimes discernible: it was another daunting prospect. Alex and Theo went first, soon to disappear over the lip. I went ahead of Mark, to kick out steps in the ice to make his ascent easier (and mine more secure), while Adrian and Simon waited below. Kicking out the steps was hard work, but for the last few metres I was effectively on all fours, although upright, crawling up like an inelegant Spiderman, stuck to the wall be the now driving wind. It was the wind that carried me over the lip and onto a narrow ridge of ice – I simply had to let go and let the wind pick me up.

Visibility was still poor, but the wind had taken on demonic proportions, raking the pass malevolently; it should have shredded the cloud, but the stubborn opacity clung about us. The footsteps beyond the cairn at the pass led off to the left, leading down diagonally into the thick unknown. As we traversed down, the murky shapes suggested some dimensions to this limitless world of white and eventually we reached a rocky outcrop and the reassurance of a cairn. But the wind continued to whip down.

Looking down into Veiðileysufjörður We snaked together a path as other cairns emerged and receded into the cloud, and slowly an actual path on the ground formed itself. Visibility returning, we let the wind push us downwards. At about the same time that the vegetation returned, the shape of Veiðileysufjörður appeared through the murk, lifting the mood greatly, if prematurely. For a time, the path behaved itself, interrupted by largely benign snow fields on its gradual descent. Only the wind lessened our enjoyment of the beauty unfurling around us.

And it was beautiful. Stunningly so. Even when everything turned to water underfoot and the path became stepping stones through a million streams, it remained beautiful. A fast-flowing river crashed down the valley to our left, spouting over falls and rapids; our tamer streams gurgled and chuckled over rocks and cut caves through the ice.

A stream cuts through the iceWe neared the bottom and turf returned. The path cut close to one of the incalculable waterfalls and we crossed our last snowfield; soon we dropped inelegantly onto a little stony beach. A group of teenagers, guided by a bullish Icelander, overtook us gradually, inveigling their way into our now strung out line. Just after a hinge of snow, hanging over the beach, the path climbed again to roll along the lip of the low ledge above the shore, then cutting out across marshy ground to the campsite at Botn.

There was no shelter from the still strong wind, which punched us with sudden gusts; the ground was rough and stubby, uneven. It was a disappointing place then, and offered no obvious respite. We debated our options: there was another campsite further along the fjord, but that could only be reached at low tide and there was no guarantee that it would be any more sheltered than Botn; a boat was coming – the teenagers were taking it – and the idea of trying to sneak aboard was muttered. Eventually, we reconciled ourselves to a night here and sought out sheltered nooks, in which to hide from the wind’s attentions or wrestled with it for control of our tents: a light rain washed through and hastened our efforts with the tents.

On the beach at BotnCamp was set and, while others cooked and ate in their tents, I walked around a low rise to a little beach, somewhat sheltered, to watch the sunlight play among the clouds in the fjord. Eider ducks with their ducklings did their thing on the rippled sea, and I became convinced that this spot, under high crags and streaming waterfalls, a ledge of precarious snow at the back of the beach, was the finest place on the face of the earth.

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Hornstrandir Day Four – Veiðileysufjörður to Isafjordur

29th June 2015
Waiting for the boat at Veiðileysufjörður (0km), (0m)

The campsite at BotnOne of the few merits of Botn campsite is that it is exactly where the boat arrives: just below the latrine, the Zodiac comes ashore on the beach to shuttle you out. It is 9.20am and most of our gear is packed in readiness for the 9am boat that will take us back to Isafjordur. The wind still rips through Botn in powerful gusts, as it did all night. I did not have a lot of sleep, a half-open eye watching for the first sign that the tent’s fly-sheet was about to be ripped from the earth and flung across the fjord on the angry air. And yet, despite the lack of sleep, the thought of return, of buildings and of reliable ground, of not having to walk for miles with 15kg on my back, has lifted my spirits.

It’s not even raining. I know that tomorrow, or maybe in two days’ time, I will find myself missing this, longing to return, but for now I have no regrets to be leaving. A bed and food that has never been dehydrated are strong lures; getting out of this wind at last, more so.

Sitting among the bog bilberries waiting for the boat
Simon has spent much of the morning down on the beach watching two families of Eiders cosset their ducklings; Alex and Theo are still in their half-unmade tent, taking the last of its shelter, watchful for the first sign of a wake line in the fjord. My own nook, in the crease of a ridge, is among ripening bog bilberries and creeping birch.

Out boat on the fjordIt is 9.30am and the 9am boat has yet to make an appearance in the bay. I contemplate a morning tot of my remaining whisky – the prospect of passing from Zodiac to boat still make me a little anxious – but decide against: there is a wake line in the fjord. Time to help Alex and Theo strike their tent, and make final preparations for the beginning of our return.

Loading the Zodiac

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