A saga of Northern exposure

Katharine Quarmby visits Iceland, a land of hot springs, glaciers, and ... William Morris ICELANDIC OPTIONS
"But why Iceland?" people asked as we told them about our holiday plans. "It's freezing and expensive." We wanted to go there because it is the land of sagas, hot springs, volcanoes and glaciers. But most of all we wanted to go this year to mark the centenary of the death of William Morris, who travelled to Iceland 125 years ago and drew much inspiration from it.

Morris went north to escape his wife's affair with the artist Dante Gabriel Rossetti, andhad rejected, in the words of Louis MacNeice (another improbable English writer to travel to Iceland), "the frills and fuss/Harps and arbours, Tristram and Theseus/For a land of rocks and sagas."

My companion and I met in Reykjavik - I came from London and he from New York. We set out the next day in a rented car and drove along Route 1, Iceland's ring road, south-bound for saga country and Thingvellir, which Morris had called the "heart of Iceland". Thingvellir, meaning the assembly plains, is the site of the oldest democratic parliament in the West. Icelanders first assembled there among the grey rocks in AD930. We walked up the pass between the rocks to what remained of the Law Rock, where each year the speaker would recite laws to the people below on the plain.

Here, Morris had lain on the grassy rock and eaten heath berries, happy that "the thin thread of insight and imagination, did not fail me at this first sight of the greatest and most storied place of Iceland". Nearby is the pool Drekingarhylur, into which women convicted of serious crimes were thrown to their death. During the annual meeting, people had fought mortal combats on small islets in the river and the place was busy with trading and gossip. Now all is tranquil and unmarked.

The next day we made for Gulfoss, Iceland's most spectacular waterfall, and the world-famous hot spring, the Great Geysir. It does not spout any more but its neighbour, Strokkur, obligingly erupts every 10 minutes or so, in a clear column of water about 20 feet high. When Morris camped here, complaining about the mutton bones left by other travellers and the sulphurous fumes of the springs, they had to feed Strokkur with turf to get it to blow and, when it did he described a brown column of water with turf in it.

Back on Route 1, we travelled deeper into saga country. In 80 kilometres we saw 10 cars at most. Our destination was a farm, Seljavellir, just past Thorsmork, a valley beloved of Icelanders and mentioned in the sagas. We walked a steep path to find a lido on a mountain. It seemed an almost ridiculous experience lying in a warm pool on a mountain, trying to decide which one of seven waterfalls was the prettiest.

We drove on to Hlidarend, where Gunnar, the hero of the Njal saga, was murdered at his farm. We came across a dirt road leading across a plain of volcanic ash, which Morris called "an awful dead grey waste of lava". No other cars, humans, houses or animals in sight. We looked for Gunnar's barrow on the little hill in the hamlet, but the grave was unmarked, so we paid our respects to several grassy mounds.

Still on the trail of William Morris, we headed back to Reykjavik and a flight to Akureryi, capital of the north. Morris came here on his second trip to Iceland in 1873. He thought it similar to Wapping, so one of the two places must have changed, for Akureryi is a beautiful self-contained town among snow-covered mountains. We arrived in howling wind and driving rain and took shelter in the cafe of the local garden centre.

That night we rode to our northernmost point, Olafsfjordur, away from clouds and into the sun, a village on top of a fjord with only water between it and the North Pole. Half an hour before midnight, we walked north to the headland to watch the sun go down into the clouds.

Our last stop was the volcanic area of Lake Myvatn on the mid-Atlantic ridge, famous for its geothermal activity and bird life. Every one of the lake's inlets is a shelter for ducks and waders. Many of the 50-odd grassy islands in the lake are pseudo-craters, where hot lava has flowed into the lake and the earth has thrown up a crater. An 18-mile walk in the district started off with a hike to the Hofthi headland. Find your way through the birch trees to the lake and you are rewarded by spectacular views of the pseudo-craters at Skutustathagigar and twisted pillars of lava emerging from the water. We walked inland to the eerie Dimmuborgir, "land of black castles", emerging through a perfect circle in the lava at the bottom of the volcanic mountain, Hverfjall. Then we stumbled back across an unpleasant plain of lava and just caught the bus to Akureyri.

Expensive, yes. Cold, sometimes. But you can see why Iceland had such a big appeal for William Morris.

Getting there

The only airline flying between the UK and Iceland is Icelandair (0171- 388 5599). It has several services weekly to Keflavik, near the capital Reykjavik, from Heathrow (pounds 353) and Glasgow (pounds 286). If you're on the way to the US, you could stop off in Iceland: companies such as Airline Network (0800 727747) sell flights on Icelandair to Baltimore, Boston, Fort Lauderdale, New York or Orlando and to Halifax in Canada for pounds 300-400 including tax.

What to read

Iceland, Greenland and the Faroe Islands (Lonely Planet, pounds 10.95).

Who to ask

The Icelandic Tourist Information Bureau shares an office with Icelandair and can be contacted by post at 172 Tottenham Court Road, London W1Y 9LG.

It does, however, have a different telephone number from the airline: 0171-388 7550.

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