Why so many castles?

Stephen and I have travelled around the UK on holiday three times now, and each time we have structured our trip around visits to castles, abbeys and other ancient monuments.

The main reason for this is simply that we both love history and get immense enjoyment from being physically present in this history. It’s just magic being able to walk around a castle and imagine what it would have been like to be a labourer carefully placing stones. We marvel at walking in the same rooms as Kings and Queens and heroes from the past.

There are also side-benefits of this approach to travel.

Culture: we are often visiting sites that are off the beaten track and out of the way. We go through (and stay in) small villages as well as big cities, which we find is slower, less stressful and more likely to lead to interactions with locals. There is nothing like popping into the local establishment, sitting down with a baked potato and eavesdropping.

Exercise: visiting castles means climbing, since fortifications are typically on top of hills. It’s great to break a 2-3 hour drive with a good trek up a hill, usually combined with hundreds of spiralling steps.

Nature: a lot of the locations we visited are out on peninsulas or in out of the way places. We get to walk through some beautiful countryside and enjoy amazing views. And because it’s winter, some lovely sunsets (at 4.15pm!).

History: we get to learn a lot about a place by reading about the sites we visit. The UK historical societies provide really good interpretative guides and panels, and we do some of our own research on the areas we visit. We’ve learned a lot about the history of the region, and it’s really brought to life when you are standing on a city wall, walking through a cobbled street, viewing a village from a castle tower.

Connecting the dots: visiting one important site teaches you about that place, but visiting lots of places all over the UK, Ireland and Iceland has allowed us to connect the stories together. The same people appear in the stories but from different points of view – the invader and the invaded.

Slowing down: It’s not a fast way to travel – we have been here almost 5 weeks and needed every minute! We’ve covered a lot of ground – by car, bus, train and plane. it’s quite slow (veering off on side quests constantly) but it’s a lot of fun to be spontaneous.

The good news is that after three visits (technically six for me), I feel like seen everything I need to in the UK. Now I’m thinking about the next round of trips … maybe Scandinavia to connect up the Viking part of the story. Better start saving!

Impressions of Iceland

When we travelled in 2015, I wrote a daily blog about our trip. It was a lot of effort, and I didn’t feel like repeating this time. Instead, I’m doing a quick top five each day on Instagram. Much easier! But I felt compelled to write down my thoughts about Iceland. It was a “bucket-list” country for both Stephen and I – on our must-see list. In the back of my mind, I was a bit worried I might be disappointed. I was not…

What a place! We arrived from Edinburgh via London-Birmingham-Manchester, so immediately experienced the culture shock of being in a country about the same size as the South Island, but with only 360,000 residents. We jumped off the airport bus in the mid-afternoon to a quiet, clean and empty village square. 

In many ways, Iceland has a European vibe, but it also looks and feels a lot like New Zealand – it’s a small, remote island. And like New Zealand, Iceland sits between two tectonic plates that are slowly moving away from each other. Volcanoes, hot springs, mud pools, geysers and earthquakes are the norm here. 

We based ourselves in Reykjavík, and had four days to really take it all in. It was nice to be able to wander around and really absorb the place. Lots of things stood out…

  • At this time of year, the sun rises at about 9am and sets around 5pm. It’s really weird to be eating breakfast at 8am with the sun still firmly asleep. To compensate, the streets and buildings are brightly lit – it makes for a pretty morning stroll. 
  • The days were pleasantly sunny, but still cold of course. The sun had no warmth, and at midday, was barely over the horizon. By the middle of winter, there will be only four hours of daylight each day. 
  • Everyone speaks English in Iceland. Like, everyone. We didn’t come across anyone who didn’t have perfect English, and with very little accent. And most of the street and shop signs are also in English – they are effectively a bilingual country. 
  • This might be in part due to the vast number of tourists visiting  each year. This year, they’ve had two million guests – imagine that! That’s the equivalent of New Zealand having 25 million visitors every year (we had 3.8 million in 2018).
  • Although they are inundated with tourists every year, the locals don’t seem annoyed about sharing their resources with the visitors – everyone we met was super helpful and friendly. 
  • They have fairly good infrastructure to support the influx of guests from what we could see. The public transport is really good – heaps of buses going all over the island, and the government is considering putting in electric trains. There is a lot of building underway – mostly high density hotels to support the growing demand.
  • While we were there we saw workers laying pipes on the roads and a quick google told us that they are under-road heating pipes. They have had these for around 10 years – the heated roads and footpaths means they don’t need to clear the roads when it snows, and makes it safe when it’s frosty. What a genius idea! And it’s eco-friendly too, since Iceland uses 100% renewable energy. 
  • It certainly isn’t a cheap country to visit, with food and accommodation being very expensive compared with European countries. Understandable though, when you think about how remote it is.
  • They grow fruits and vegetables all year round, in glasshouses kept warm with geothermal energy, which also enriches the soil. Smart people!

I was completely charmed by Iceland, – like I said, it certainly did not disappoint.

And just because I found them interesting, here are a few fun facts we learned along the way:

  • Before the tourism boom started in 2010, Iceland was having a tough time – it was hit hard by the global financial crisis and its banking system collapsed in 2008, necessitating an IMF-funded bailout. 
  • The reason for the tourism boom seems to be the eruption of Eyjafjallajökull, which disrupted air traffic all over Europe closing air traffic in 20 countries and affecting 10 million people. The Icelandic tourism office swung into action, and the charm offensive paid off, with tourist numbers increasing every year since 2011 (from less than 500,000 to over 2 million last year).  
  • If you want to know how to pronounce Eyjafjallajökull, just say “hey you forgot your yoghurt” really quickly and you’ll be close. Apparently.
  • Iceland was settled by Vikings almost 1000 years ago, and they have the oldest legislature in the world – founded in 930. 
  • The Icelandic language has had very little influence from other languages over the past 1000 years, because of the remoteness of the country. Modern Icelanders can read ancient Norse texts more readily than people from Norway or Denmark.
  • The remoteness also makes Icelanders one of the most genetically homogeneous populations in the world, since they haven’t had the same co-mingling as the rest of us. Everyone’s your cousin!
  • A recent genetic survey found that 80% of men are of Norse origin, but only 40% of the woman – the remainder are Gaelic. The probable explanation for this is that when they were settling the country, the Vikings stopped in Ireland and picked up slaves – mostly women. So the majority of Icelandic women are descendants of Irish slaves. 

Next stop, Ireland…