Wandering a Land of Ice and Fire

“Oh you’re going in winter? That’s brave.”

Sure, it averaged around -7°C the entire time we were out there, but when you book a holiday to a place called Iceland I would have hoped you’d have given up your idea of a relaxing beach holiday a long time ago. Might as well go the full hog and go in the dead of winter, right?

Honestly, I couldn’t recommend visiting this beautiful place in winter enough. I’m sure it’s as beautiful in summer and we probably would have seen a lot more as we only have roughly five hours of daylight a day, but there was just something about winter that seemed to seize the whole country in this magical atmosphere that went beyond the typical yuletide festivities. It was like something straight out of my books.

We ended up spending seven days in this wonderful country and in this piece I’ll outline some of the best sights, restaurants and things I would recommend doing that just felt so Iceland, you’d be doing the country an injustice by not doing or seeing them.

Day One: Reykjavik

The boyfriend and I got a very early flight out to Reykjavik with the mentality that we could actually make the most of our first day rather than arrive in the evening and have it written off. If you’re travelling to Iceland in the winter I would definitely recommend this more than anywhere else I’ve been – and I hate early mornings. This is because Iceland is on GMT time, same as the UK, and so the sun doesn’t actually rise in Iceland till around 10.30am. If you get an early flight you’ll be arriving when you can start to do things – like explore the capital, which is exactly what we did.

A lot of the hotels are a little out of town but we managed to walk to the start of Downtown in about 20 minutes from our hotel Reykjavik Lights. I don’t tend to give hotel reviews because I’m hardly ever in them but honestly for location this is one of the best hotels – if you book tours all of them will pick you up from the hotel front door, it’s an easy walk, and it’s surrounded by some of our favourite restaurants. It also has free parking for hotel guests which made our self-drive days a whole lot easier. If you are staying round here I’d recommend checking out Askur Brassiere and Bombay Bazaar, two very reasonable and delicious restaurants.

Anyway, back to Reykjavik.

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You’ll know when you hit downtown because the houses on the walk into the town center make you feel as though you’ve stepped into What’s the story in Balamory. They’re an assortment of colours and there is street art everywhere on the houses which haven’t conformed to the life of colour. It made the walk feel like a stroll in an art gallery, so I really recommend not taking public transport and missing this experience if you don’t have mobility issues.

Reykjavik is not like any of the capitals I’ve been to – it’s tiny. There also aren’t a lot of ‘grand’ buildings a lot of Europeans are accustomed to in their cities and it resulted in many tourists walking past these great historical places with barely a glance. It would be beneficial if you like history, but don’t want to read all about it before you go, to get a guide. As a history buff I’d already figured out what places I wanted to see just for the warm inner glow nerds like me get from standing in the footsteps of those before me. If you just keep walking down the main street (you’ll know what I mean by main street when you go… there is just one main street I promise. It’s always blue on the tourist maps) you’ll see everything you need to see including Aðalstræti 10, the oldest house in Reykjavik. If you’re use to going to capital cities to visit grand pieces of architecture like Westminster Abbey and Notre Dame, then you’re out of luck.

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Apart from Hallgrimskirkja. Hallgrimskirkja is probably the most well known structure in Iceland and is one of the tallest – you can see a lot of the city from simply standing on top of the hill it’s built on and if that isn’t enough for you then you can get tickets to go to the top of the church and see even more. It was designed by Guðjón Samúelsson and is said to resemble the ice fields and mountains of Iceland. It’s a rather stunning piece of architecture and is a must see whilst you’re in the city. If you’re hungry, just down the hill from the church is also the best bakery in the city: Braud & Co. Recommended to us by a friend, I shall recommend it to you – get one of their rolls which come in cinnamon, vanilla and liquorice flavour. Take your hot rolls and then wander past Menntaskólinn í Reykjavík – the oldest junior school in the city which traces its origins all the way back to the 11th century – and past Parliament House down to Tjörnin, a small lake in the middle of the city.

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Now this is one of the reasons I was instantly glad to have come in winter. The whole lake freezes over enough that you can easily skate, run and slide around it to your hearts content – which is exactly what we did. The locals tend to occupy one half of the lake with serious games of ice hockey and figure skating, but they’re happy to let tourists hang out with the local kids to play on the slip’n’slides. This was my first experience of walking on a properly frozen lake so it was kind of magical for me.

The city is bursting with museums and quirky shops – you’re constantly just popping in to one or the other to explore the strange shop windows. I would definitely recommend checking out their main museum Saga, which tells you the history of the city and their Viking inhabitants. It’s right by the harbour which is also a beautiful place to go and take a stroll around.

In terms of eating and drinking there are lots of places to pick from. I must warn you the rumours you’ve heard about the country being expensive are true – there’s no getting away from it unless you want to starve or are self catering. Here are some of my recommendations for bars and food in the city:

  • Durum Restaurant; this is a lovely fast food place on the main high street – very reasonable for Iceland and their kebabs will make you never want to touch an English sweaty kebab ever again.
  • KebabHusid; another take away place which is quite reasonable and do absolutely mouth watering oven baked pizzas that they cook right in front of you.
  • The English Pub; if you’re missing home this is a great place to go. You’ll find all the lost British, American and Canadian tourists in here who are feeling a bit over-whelemed from the city. They also have a great Happy Hour from 4 – 7 with 2-4-1 drinks so a great place to stop and warm up.
  • Pablo Discobar; honestly my favourite find in the city. Firstly, it was open on New Years Eve so that was a big plus, and secondly they have some amazing music. There’s a Tapas restaurant on the first floor and on the top floor there’s a bar with lots of cozy booths to chill out in.

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So. I would definitely recommend coming to Iceland for New Years Eve – it is such an amazing atmosphere in the city from about 10.30pm. However, Icelanders celebrate the NY with their families and eat together. The big party doesn’t tend to start until after midnight, that’s when most of the bars open. There were a lot of tourists looking rather lost until the late evening when it started to heat up. I’d recommend booking somewhere to eat – the prices are going to be even worse than normal on this night so be prepared for a £70 meal for two, easily, even in a greasy burger joint.

When the party starts to kick off head back to the hill with the church on I mentioned earlier. This gives you a full 360° view of the cities skyline and the fireworks. Note that Icelanders don’t have access to fireworks apart from this one week every year so they go all out. Your neck is going to hurt from looking at it all but it is such an amazing feeling. Everyone has sparklers in the street and the different neighbourhoods try and outdo one another.

Day Two: The Golden Circle & Northern Lights

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I’ve been asked if you need to book these tours or if you can do them solo. Honestly I think it’s entirely up to you – we got this one free with our booking along with the Northern Lights tour so we just enjoyed being driven around everywhere.

The Golden Circle is a beautiful part of the country and a 100% must see. It compromises Thingvellir National Park, the Gullfoss waterfall and the Geysir hot springs – all of which are breathtaking parts of Iceland. I could have stayed for hours at each one to enjoy them but the downside with a guided tour – or perhaps the upside – is you’re kept on a tight schedule to cram in as much as possible in the limited daylight hours.

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We started with the Geysir hot springs – which was beautiful at sunrise. The Geysir became active around 1000 years ago and the local restaurant attached to the information center bakes all of its bread over these hot pits. We were lucky enough to get a glimpse of the cooks collecting the morning loaves when we were there. Geysir is the island’s most famous exploding hot spring but its eruptions are rare. However, its neighbour Strokkur boils over every few minutes. If you see a bubble begin to form you have about 3 seconds before it will erupt.

My favourite stop of the day was Gullfoss waterfall, which is actually two waterfalls separated by a few meters of cliff face, but with all the steam it looks like one whole waterfall. The waterfalls are another reason I was glad to visit in winter as they are completely frozen over. This doesn’t mean they

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don’t run, it just means the water runs under this shield of ice which is the case at all the waterfalls we visited. It’s absolutely mesmerising. At the information centre you’ll learn all about Gullfoss’ local hero, Sigridur Tómasdóttir. Until her death, Sigridur and her family were the owners of the waterfalls, and had been offered large sums of money to sell the waterfalls to use them for a power source. Sigridur fought most of her life in order to keep the waterfalls and surrounding areas preserved including walking all the way to Reykjavik and threatening to throw herself in the waterfalls. With the help of her lawyer Sveinn Bjornsson, who later became the first president of Iceland, however, they managed to keep Gullfoss a protected area.

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Thingvellir National Park is another beautiful area of Iceland and a place you could probably spend a whole day exploring. A lot of scenes from Game of Thrones were shot around here too, so fans amongst you might want to keep your eyes peeled for White Walkers. This was a perfect site to come to for my boyfriend and I – he being a geographer and I a historian. In fact, our degrees have never met so peacefully before as they have here. For the geography nuts, this is the place where you can see the continental drift between the North American and Eurasian Plates – all of the cracks in the earth are where they are constantly moving. The unique geography is actually the reason why Iceland exists at all. For the historians, the site was deemed as the best meeting ground for the Chieftans of Iceland and was the seat of Parliament from 930AD to 1798, as it was the only neutral ground after its owner was found guilty of murder. The area is also home to the first Church, one of the first schools outside of Reykjavik and the site of public executions.

In the evening we headed out in search of the Northern Lights. This is the only thing I would 100% recommend getting a tour for. Firstly, these guys are trained to find the perfect spot and time to see the lights. Secondly, if you don’t see them on your designated night it will keep running until you see them.

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Now, for those of you who are expecting to see the most dazzling light show in the world, reign in your expectations right now. The science behind this phenomenon means you will very rarely see what you see in photos with the naked eye. We were extremely lucky to be able to see them with our own eyes and watch them dance – it was a truly beautiful moment – but you might need to watch them through your camera.

When you’re taking photos, unless you know how to use a good camera don’t bother taking one. You’ll spend more time fiddling with it than enjoying the show. I took all my photos with my Samsung S7 on auto and it picked out the lights better than half the DSLRs in the hands of the inexperienced. If you’re not a photographer, trust your phone, sit back, and enjoy the lights. In Iceland the lights are always green unless there’s a solar storm, so make sure to keep an eye out for a green glow!

Day Three – Four: The Southern Coast

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This is another popular destination for tourists and after our couple of days down here I can understand why: every turn of the road made us want to pull over and take a thousand photos.

For three days of our trip we hired a car and went solo, two of those days we ended up dedicating to the south coast of Iceland. I think we could have done the whole thing in one day if we had limited our time more at each site and hadn’t encountered a snow storm on the first day of our exploration, but it was worth every second and I’m glad now we spent the time taking two days to finish the route. If you plan to do it in one day make sure to be strict with your time at each stop.

The South Coast refers to the drive between Reykjavik and Vik. Along the way you’ll see frozen waterfalls, trek up hidden ravines and walk along beaches of ash. All of this is along Route 1, the ring road that runs around the whole country, so it is also a very easy drive (unless you encounter a snow storm like we did).

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Your first stop will be Seljalandsfoss. You’ll be able to see this from the road as you approach it over the bridge of a frozen river, and you’ll be able to hear it as soon as you park up. In summer you can walk behind it into the caves but in winter it’s an icy hell – you wouldn’t even want to attempt it. The waterfall is a part of the Seljalands river which originates in the volcano glacier Eyjafjallajökull. You can, however, climb up beside the waterfall. On recollection the steps were probably roped off at one point, but a torn off bit of rope didn’t stop many of us from attempting the icy stairs which take you half way up into the waterfall. Do NOT attempt this unless you are confident and have good shoes – we watched one tourist nearly fall into the waterfall trying to climb this and in

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hindsight we probably should have worn spikes on the soles of our boots. But it is exhilarating to be so close to it all you can hear is the roar of the water. If you choose to take your time, hike along the route to a second waterfall – Gljúfrabúi. Not many people know about it, there was only a small group of us who dared to do the mile and a bit walk there. It’s tucked into a little ravine you can wade in if you’re feeling brave, or you can just enjoy seeing the glimpses of this frozen waterfall through the cave opening. There’s quite a few little caves early settlers would have lived in along here too which was very interesting.

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The next stop is Eyjafjallajökull, the volcano that errupted back in 2010 that sent ash clouds all over Europe. You can stop on the side of the road and take some pictures here (you’ll see all the other buses and cars stopping there). It’s also the starting point of several treks up to the volcano. You can’t get to the top, but there is a hot spring a lot of people go and have a dip in.

After the volcano you’ll be heading onto another waterfall: Skógafoss. Thor fans will recognise this from The Dark World, especially if you manage to visit on a sunny day when the double rainbow is often

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visible. We ended up arriving just before a snow storm so no rainbow for us, but that didn’t take away its beauty. This waterfall is nestled among the cliffs that used to be Icelands coastline and it is said that behind it are vast amounts of treasure left by the first viking settlers. You can climb up the steps cut into the rock face beside it that go all the way to the top and provide a heart stopping view of the waterfall from its lip. If you have an active imagination, it gives you a real good taste of fear for what it would be like to plummet down into the abyss below.

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Budding photographers, or lovers of anything apocalyptic will just love our next stop: Sólheimasandur’s Plane Crash. On Saturday Nov 24, 1973, a United States Navy Douglas Super DC-3 airplane was forced to land on Sólheimasandur’s black sand beach in the south of Iceland after experiencing some severe icing. Luckily the whole crew survived but nobody came to clear up the wreckage and since then it’s turned into every creative persons dream. I’d done a lot of research on this before I left as it isn’t on any of the official tours of the South Coast – and it was one of the reasons I wanted to hire a car. A few years ago you could actually drive down to the beach and then you had to park up on a dirt track and walk down the dirt track, hoping you were heading in the right direction. When we visited there was a special car park and a clear pathway down to the wreckage. After you visit Skógafoss you’ll go over a bridge with yellow flashing lights on it – the car park is 1km after this on your right.

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Dyrhólaey is the next logical stop after the wreckage (though we came back to it when it was darker). There are some fantastic views of the beaches and natural archways, but the main attraction is the lighthouse on the top of the hill – which you can drive right up to – and hence why we came back when it was darker. The light on the sea was a very spooky but exhilarating view; just be careful as the wind is bad here.

One of the more popular stops however is Reynisfjara black sand beach, which is the turning after Dyrhólaey. Game of Thrones fans may recognise it as Eastwatch-by-the-sea (you know, where they’re trying to save all the Wildlings but the Night King says ‘hell no’?), and some of you music fans may recognise it from Beyonce music videos, but

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honestly this beach should be visited simply for its beauty. I will warn you it is windy here. Not Yorkshire windy, not even Scotland highland windy, even on a good day. There was no wind anywhere along our journey until we got here and it had the force enough to knock young children off their feet. They even have a sign here telling you how many tourists die from getting too close to the ocean. The waves easily came above mine and my partners heads before breaking on the beach, so could easily drown and drag someone out to sea within seconds. For geography lovers there are some lovely rock formations and caves for exploring (a nice distance away from the water) and if you crane your neck up you can see the puffins huddling together out of reach of the noisy tourists. The cafe here does a really lovely soup that will warm you up for any onward journeys you make.

The next stop is Vik, which is the perfect little postcard town. We didn’t stop as the drive through it was enough to appreciate its beauty, but there are some good restaurants we were recommended here so it might be worth a stop.

We, however, wanted to go a little beyond Vik where the landscape changes into this beautiful snowy wasteland. In the summer you can probably tell it’s a lava field, but in winter and after the fresh snowfall it looked like pictures I’ve seen of Siberia and Canada. We drove through it at sunset which made it even more breathtaking as everything was tinged pink and looked like candyfloss. Along this route you’ll pass Hjörleifshöfði – a mountain with a viking tomb on the top which you can easily make out from the road – and a lot of beautiful rock formations created from past volcanic eruptions. There’s plenty of stops on the side of the road you can pause to just take in the view.

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There’s plenty of places to stop and eat along the way, and all the sites I’ve listed had cafes or fast food stands selling paninis and cakes. However, the real gem of a restaurant we found along the way which I cannot recommend enough is Kaffi Krús. You kind of feel like you’re walking into someones house or just a coffee shop, but there’s an upstairs as well, and the food here is to die for. If you’re looking to try Icelandic fish I would highly recommend the fish and chips here it was the best we had all trip. You also have to try their freshly made cakes – you won’t need a slice each as they are so big.

Day Five – The Snæfellsnes Peninsula

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This isn’t a touristy part of Iceland, though I think it is becoming more so. We saw very few tour buses and at our stops locals seemed a lot more surprised to find Brits turning up in their cafes. It’s to the north of Reykjavik and it couldn’t be more different to the south even if it tried.

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We left early to try and make the most of the sunlight and so arrived at our first stop Eldborg volcanic caldera as the sun rose. It was eerily different from our previous two days as nobody was around as we sat on the bonnet of the car and enjoyed watching the sun rise behind the caldera. You can hike up and into the caldera in summer but in winter it’s not advised due to the conditions so we were content with a quick stop here. You drive down a really rocky road but you feel like you’re driving on mars with the weird craters and rock formations, it’s definitely worth a stop along the way of any tour up here.

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Rauðfeldsgjá Gorge was the highlight of our trip up north. It’s a beautiful ravine cut into the side of the Botnsfjall Mountain that you can climb into. The going is steep but you can easily do it in about an hour. There’s a pretty sheer drop into the river below once you get higher so just be careful in the snow if you do hike up there. We had the place entirely to ourselves so we were able to sit and watch the water running under the frozen cases and slide down the mountain side instead of walk down. It also provide breathtaking views of the ocean once you get to the top.

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About a five minute drive down the road is Arnarstapi, a viking trading point. It’s a quaint little village and the ocean views are fantastic. The water has worn away the rocks to create little pools and coves which you can see into from the mountain top. There’s one in particular that reminded me of the Dark Pit in the latest Star Wars film. I would recommend stopping here for something to eat – there’s only one cafe and the sign was so worn I can’t remember if it was called anything other than Cafe, but you can get unlimited stew and bread in here which goes down a treat after playing in the snow.

Head across the mountains, passing the Snæfellsjökull Glacier, to get to other side of the peninsula. The drive through the mountains where you can see people have come to ski, is a wonderful experience. The sun disappears behind the mountain face and you’re enclosed in this shaded little valley. The snow provided all of the light so even though you’re in the shade you’re not in the dark.

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On the other side of the glacier you’ll want to head for Kirkjufell mountain. This mountain has become famous for its appearance in Game of Thrones – like with a lot of places in Iceland – and you can hike up it. However, because everyone is focused on the mountain, a lot of people miss the beautiful waterfall opposite. To get to it in the winter months you have to walk across the frozen lake that is usually the pool all the water goes into, and then you can walk up the side and over the top of it. In summer you have to walk up it from another angle but if you’re coming in winter I’d recommend taking a trek across the frozen pool. Once you get to the top of the waterfall you can also make some furry friends as a herd of Icelandic Horses live just to the right of the waterfall if you approach it across the frozen

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lake. These guys are the friendliest things ever and just love a good scratch. Please do NOT feed any of the horses you see alongside the road – the farmers get really upset if you do as they are all on very strict diets to keep them healthy. The horses here do not get vaccinated either so if you are wearing something that has come in contact with horses anywhere else, do not get them near these horses as it could make them sick.

To round off your trip north, I recommend checking out Gamla Kaupfélagið in Akranes. Akranes is a very quiet little town and is on a protruding bit of the country into the sea, so there are some lovely views to have by taking this detour. The food is 5* but even better are the toilets – especially for the women. Both toilets are candle lit which was a very odd experience for my partner and I, but he didn’t get any of the benefits the girls will get from their bathroom. They’ve got a small basket of everything you could want – perfume, hair spray, nail clippers, nail polish remover, lip gloss, tweezers, antiseptic cream… the list goes on. Honestly it was the highlight of my visit here and the food was a pretty high bar to hit.

Day Six – Horse Riding & Lava Caving

Whenever you go away with your partner there’s always some compromise on the activities you do. Before we had even booked the hotel and flights I had made it very clear I wouldn’t be leaving Iceland until I had ridden an Icelandic horse – their five gaits have intrigued me for a long time. My partner isn’t a great lover of having his feet off the ground, so I think he was hoping he could sit it out while I had my fun. Instead, I found a fun combination excavation which involved horse riding and lava caving. I love caving perhaps as much as I would living in the fiery pits of hell so I thought this would be a fair compromise.

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We started with riding which was an absolutely amazing experience, though I wish I had been able to do a more advanced riding course. The stables we were with split the group off into beginners and the more advanced, and the beginners (including the boyf) went for a nice little walk around this beautiful moonscape national park outside of Reykjavik. My group got to go at a faster pace and Princess (my pony) and I managed to get a little bit of cantering in, though not nearly as fast as I think we’d have both loved to have gone. Still, it is something I would recommend to any horse lover as even the Icelandic Horses’ walk feels entirely different to the horses I’m used to in the UK. It looks uncomfortable when you see another rider going past and all the video footage I took with the video tucked into the horses mane makes it look like a jarring journey, but it is actually the smoothest thing I’ve experienced.

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Caving… I was not as big of a fan of but my partner enjoyed it immensely. The guide we had was very knowledgeable, the cave was clearly one he loved and knew and was excited to share with as many people as possible. This was no leisurely walk in the caves other tours were, we ended up on our stomachs at one point wriggling through the crevasses. I can appreciate this was an amazing experience for someone who loves this sort of thing, and it was a different experience for sure, but I don’t think it’ll be something I jump to do again!

Day Seven – The Blue Lagoon

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Of course we wouldn’t skip out on the Blue Lagoon whilst we were there. We had decided to leave it till the last day after all the hiking and the riding and caving, so we were nice and relaxed for our flight home the next day and returning to work. I’ve been to quite a few of these outdoor hot springs and the Blue Lagoon is one of my favourites. With a swim up bar, free mud masks, a steam room and sauna, and lots of little nooks and crannies you can snatch up to get some privacy, it’s a really lovely spa. There are different packages to choose from. We paid for a Premium Package, which we both immensely enjoyed. If you book through the Blue Lagoon website, the difference between Premium and the Standard is about £10/£15. In that difference you get a free robe, free towel, free flip flops (which you get to keep), two free mud masks, a reservation as the LAVA restaurant, some free drinks in the swim up bar and champagne in the restaurant. The restaurant itself was a lovely end to the day and our whole week, you can see everyone relaxing in the spa and its built into the side of a cliff face so the interior is stunning.

My top tip for you if you are visiting, especially the ladies, is to take some good conditioner with you or to make sure you don’t get your hair wet. It sucks all the moisture out of your hair and it will hate you for it.

~

As always I hope my quick low down on what to see helps you pick and choose what to cram into your time here in the land of ice and fire. Just remember, this is not a holiday of relaxation. It’s an adventure type holiday and you will be hiking, climbing mountains, scaling frozen rivers – all in freezing temperatures. Make sure you take thermals, good walking boots and a proper coat and you’ll be sure you love every single second.

From Iceland, with love xoxo

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A Flight to Remember

“I hate flying; I guess it seems obvious that sitting in a metal box so far above the ocean when I spent most of my life living under it was a rather natural fear. Nobody liked being put in a situation that was the opposite to what they were used to. It was the reason I had decided to fork out the extra for a business class seat. I thought that if I had a few extra creature comforts like a TV, some leg space, a reclining seat, that I would be able to delude myself into thinking I wasn’t on a plane. It had worked to begin wi-

No, no it hadn’t. I guess I shouldn’t lie to you, should I? What helped was washing down a couple of sleeping pills with my extra strong gin and tonic. It meant I missed the initial turbulence, the power cut, the moment of panic from the rest of the passengers. The only reason I was awake now was because of the sweet flight attendant gently informing me we were only half an hour out from San Francisco.

“Could I grab a coffee?” I croaked, pushing myself up into a seat position and attempting to rake the hair off of my face with my nails.

“Of course, how do you take it?” His lips – pressed tightly enough into a straight line that they had begun to lose colour – confirmed my suspicion that my hair was beyond saving. I gave up and let my hands drop into my lap.

“Milk and two-”

As far as last words go, and I honestly thought those were my last words, they’re pretty lame. When they told my brother would they have said, she died groggy and demanding coffee? Then again, it’s how I spent most of my life so perhaps it was poetic.

The plane reeled sharply to the left causing the flight attendant to careen into my lap. Several of the overhead lockers sprung open and spilled their contents onto the legs, shoulders and in some cases heads, of the other passengers sans a flight attendant. Before we had had a chance to assess what was happening, the plane lurched to the right to straighten itself out. Luggage and people clattered back into the aisle. I was lucky to be one of the few already with a window seat, but those in the middle of the plane and several members of staff pressed themselves against me and other window passengers to see what had happened.

“Is it an engine? Have we been hit?” A panicked voice asked from further towards the back.

But those of us at the front had no words to explain what had happened. A missile strike would seem far more plausible.

“It’s lightning,” I murmured. At least, that’s what it had looked like to someone from the year 2017. I guess you find that funny, huh? Looking back on it, now that I know what it is, I find it funny too. Of course, it couldn’t have been lightning – it was too large for a start. It was more like a column of electricity and the colour was all wrong. Lightning was very rarely red.

“Hey look, it’s raining,” someone further in front of me exclaimed. Sure enough droplets began to hit the windows of the plane.

“But it shouldn’t be raining, we’re still too high up.” Everyone looked at the flight attendant, who suddenly seemed to realise he had spoken out loud to the group of people he had been put in charge of. “What I mean is-” I’d have loved to have heard him explain away the rain.

It would have made you laugh.

Can you laugh?

Sadly, we were robbed of what would have, I’m sure, been a favourite thanksgiving anecdote at the family dinner table because no sooner had the rain began that a torrent of water fell from the sky. Several people yelped as the edge of the spinning tornado of water clipped the wing of the plane, causing it to rock unsteadily to and fro. I craned my neck up as best as I could, attempting to see where the water was coming from, but it looked like it was coming from the heavens themselves. A glowing red ring surrounded the column and when I glanced down I could make out the faintest sign a twin ring was positioned on the ground.

The murmur of speculative whispers which had started when the plane had first lurched off course had risen into a crescendo of shouting, arguments and demands. I quietly plugged in my headphones and finally let out the breath I had been holding.

~

It took us another 20 minutes to finally reach the ground. Someone had pressed the coffee I had ordered into my hands at some point, but when I got off the plane it had remained cold and untouched. I was too busy watching. The San Francisco rising to greet me was not the one I had left six months ago. In fact, I wouldn’t have recognised my home at all if it hadn’t been for the Golden Gate Bridge and the smudgy outline of the Sierra Nevada in the background. Gone were the concrete monstrosities that had ruled the city for as long as I could remember. In their place, their glittering usurpers stood surrounded by acres and acres of green. It was like a painting of an abandoned futuristic city. I sat up straighter, craning to see as much as possible out of the little window, when a drone arrived at my window. Startled, I leapt back from the window, suddenly aware I had pressed my face up against the glass like a small child would. The droids lens narrowed to a pin prick then expanded again, focusing on my face. Mesmerised I reached out towards it, but it whizzed off onto the next window. The series of startled shouts kept me informed of its progress up the plane.

By the time we had landed a team of soldiers, men in fancy looking suits, and several members of the airports senior staff, were there to greet us. Well, I guess they more escorted us than greeted us. ‘Greeting’ would imply some smiles, or a certain warmth to them. In contrast, the staff were sweating and casting nervous looks at one another, the soldiers held their fingers a little too close to the trigger and the men in suits wore a the face of a disappointed school master.

The mood was sombre enough that nobody voiced the millions of questions that had to be racing through everyone’s minds. We filed like obedient school children into the airport, we collected our bags under their supervision and then we were escorted into a waiting room. One by one passengers were called into a small room. They didn’t come back. I stood at the large window that over looked the airport and city beyond. The buildings were definitely made from some reflective material. The refractions from the surface cast pretty rainbows over the tops of the trees. It looked like a paradise.

“Are we sure we’re in San Francisco?” I murmured, more to myself than anyone else. So absorbed in my gazing, I hadn’t noticed one of the passengers come to join me at the window in an attempt to get better signal.

“Of course we are,” he snapped, “It looks the same to me.” I was about to ask him how it could possibly look the same when I suddenly heard my name.

“Cassiopeia Deville?”

Tearing myself away from the possibility of an actual answer to one of my questions, I dutifully followed the woman with a clipboard into one of the rooms they were taking people.

“Please, take a sit Cassie,” one of the men in suits seemed to remember that smiling tended to put people at ease and gave me an expression of forced empathy. A soldier shuffled his feet in the corner. Slowly, I slid into the chair offered and took a sip of the water.

“There was a … problem with your flight,” he began, opening the file that had had my name on. I said nothing. He watched me for a moment before continuing. “Do you remember disturbances on the flight? Power outages, turbulence…?”

“You mean, aside from a bolt of lightning that nearly fried our plane and the whole column of water thing?” I raised my eyebrows. He jotted a note down. “No. I was asleep. I don’t like flying.” I began to fidget.

“Anyone suspicious on the plane?”

The question almost took the edge off. This was a routine question, something normal. I answered in a negative. There were a few more of those types of questions, I guess he was easing me into it. I just wanted to get out of that tiny room, my patience began to fray as the clock on the wall indicated I had been there a full hour.

“And what were you doing in Japan?”

“I’m a marine biologist,” I let out an irritated sigh. Considering the folder has my name on, I had a feeling he already knew the answer. “I’m working on the new Pacific Ocean Alliance, it’s an expansion of NOWPAP, joining together all the countries that boarder the Pacific in an effort to clean it up. I was doing a series of talks over there to convince the Japanese to join whilst completing some research on the new species some of their fishing boats have been catching.” It felt like a life time ago I had been standing on deck of the tiny little wooden boat, teaching people the importance of traditional fishing. Techniques that would stop harming the ecosystem.

“Look,” I interrupted as he opened his mouth to ask another question. “I just want to know what is going on. That,” I pointed in the direction of the door. “Is not my San Francisco. Where am I?” The man carefully closed the file as he deliberated with his choice of words.

“It is San Francisco, Miss Deville. The question is not where are you but when.”

~

The rest of the meeting was a bit of a blur. I guess I had been expecting the answer on some deep level. It was the only explanation for the familiar landmarks. He explained that they believed my plane had gone through a cut in time and space which had spat us out here. 2037. Yes, my brother was still alive, he had been informed about my arrival and was en-route to collect me. There would be a press conference, they would appreciate it if I attended. Counselling was available until I –

“What about the man?” I was drowning. A sensation I thought I would never feel. The ocean was my home but at this moment I felt all the same sensations: panic and an overwhelming inability to breathe. The man in the suit, I think he had told me his name at one point but I was hopeless with names at the best of times, paused in what was clearly a well-rehearsed speech.

“He couldn’t see the city. Well, not this city. He could still see tower blocks, traffic…” I trailed off, doubting my own words now. He hadn’t said that exactly, of course, but…

“Ah, yes, the windows. It’s a new type of glass. Most buildings have them here. They show you what you want to see, or what you believe you should see. Some people are very good at controlling it – like a desktop on your laptop. Others minds are not as well tuned and their subconscious simply projects the image it believe to be best for the host. Some of us, like you Miss Deville, are able to see through it all together.”

I slumped back in my seat. My victory felt a little sour: it was an answer that made sense but not the one I had wanted.

“I… need some air,” I stood up, pushing the chair back with a screech. The man in the suit rose too, extended a hand with a card.

“If you need anything else just give me a call. Georgina will take you to get kitted out with what you need.”

And so, that is how I came to have you. Apparently you’re my councillor. I’m not sure when we stopped paying another human to let us lay on a couch and moan about our problems, but it’s one of the few things I like about this new world. Feels like I’m just making a vlog. I suppose they don’t really happen anymore?”

Vlogging is still quite popular, but the written version… blogging, is viewed as eccentric.

“Right. Well. Like I was saying, I got you, and all these other high tech gadgets. I felt like I was some sort of old British spy gearing up for a mission. And then I was being rushed through a series of other rooms, given more information, before I was released like some rehabilitated animal into the world. Into 2037.

“Cassie!” Slowly I turned towards the sound of the familiar voice, but the only face I could see was not the one of my nerdy little brother who had only been 12 when I left. A 32 year old man greeted me by pulling me into a bear hug that reminded me of dad. He even smelt like our home, all pines and earth. I think that’s the moment it really hit me that I had lost 20 years of my life. I’d missed out on him graduating, I’d missed out on teasing him about his first girlfriend, had missed his wedding and the birth of his two children. That was a lifetime. A lifetime I had spent in a metal box in the sky zooming through space and time.

My nephews think it’s rather cool, they keep calling me the Doctor, which is something to do with that weird British show my brother used to watch. Some things haven’t died out I guess.

Benjen insisted I stay with them. His wife’s a sweet little thing named Susie who bakes cookies and leaves flour handprints on her son’s cheeks after she kisses them. I sit in their kitchen and watch like someone would watch a TV show. I eat dinner like a programmed machine, I feign jet lag and go to bed. And here I am, talking to you, like the man in the suit said I should.”

It will help you to process things, speaking out loud.

“Like a diary, I get that,” I nod to the machine like he – it – is a real human. The machine is meant to help people with PTSD like me, I guess. It’s some new form of AI that can hold a real conversation, offer advice like a trained psychiatrist, and was on call at any minute of the day.

“I’m going to try to get some sleep,” I reach for the off switch and then pause. “Night,” I wasn’t sure what the protocol was for speaking to robots just yet, but it felt polite.

~

I left before the rest of the house woke up. I wasn’t entirely sure whether they would try and keep me in the house or would do the opposite and insist on taking me for a tour around my own city. I hadn’t quite figured out the man my boy brother was. I had made a decision with my little councillor that the best thing was to get back into my normal routine, and that involved going to work.

My work place used to be a small office block along the bay. There had been a family owned sandwich shop next door. Last night I had learned that my new office was the great big tower that jutted out of the Gulf of Faraliones. An elderly lady very kindly informed me a water bus came and collected workers at 9am every morning from the dock and dropped them back at 5.30pm every day. I dug around in my pocket and produced the paper thin gadget I had been given the previous day. Apparently it was the new cell phone. You simply placed it where you wanted on your skin and it fused itself into your arm. From it you could call anywhere in the world for free, you could translate people as they spoke, arrange your calendar – anything. I just hadn’t had the confidence to attach it just yet. A part of me rebelled at the idea of giving my all to this new world who hadn’t earned my love yet.

Even though it was still in its wrapper I could still use it. 7.03 am. It would be hours yet. Shoving my hand back into my hoodie I suddenly felt the cold edge of metal. I hadn’t yet taken my keys out of their usual place inside my work hoodie jacket. It was another small step I was not ready to take. But it gave me an idea. Wandering back along the shoreline to the storage sheds along the seafront, I walked until I stopped in front of my shed. A few decaying flowers had been left to rot just outside. I crushed them angrily under foot before testing the key. It took a bit of effort but the door finally slid upwards.

“Hello baby.”

I had built the jet-ski myself in another life. A life where I had still lived with my parents and my dork brother. It had been a piece of freedom and it felt even more so now. It skimmed over the water beautifully, the spray hitting my face made me laugh with genuine joy for the first time since I got off Flight 008.

The reception desk stood quiet and so I slid past without the awkward conversation of asking for ID, helping myself to one of the guest passes behind the counter. I took my time walking through. I had done some research the night before about the new buildings and had discovered the reason they glittered like a jewel was because the material was a distant cousin of the diamond. Some genius had figured out a way to separate the carbon from C2o and turn it into building material. It was linked to the machine that had nearly fried my plane in the air, which did a very similar thing but pulled fresh water from the air. It had ended two of the world’s biggest problems: a fresh water supply and dwindling resources.

The inside was just as beautiful and had been the reason for my slow amble through the new offices. But what had made me stop was the big projection onto the windows.

‘The Cassiopeia Foundation’ hovered in big 10ft letters above me.

“Miss, can I help you?” a voice made me wrench my eyes away from the board to the woman, who dropped the glass she was holding in her hand. I probably would have too if I had just seen in the flesh, the face on the company logo. Especially when she had been dead for 20 years.

~

“The Cut could have aged you a little bit, this is just unfair,” Lucy, the woman who had trained me throughout my university career, who had been in her early 30s when I had left for Japan, sat in front of me a greying woman. She smiled and clasped my hands again to reassure herself I was actually here, but all I could do was stare at the wrinkles in the corner of her eyes. I’d lost so much time.

“When we heard your plane had gone missing, the whole team was distraught. You were our rising star – I thought you would have taken over from me one day,” a sigh. “We were toying with the idea of setting up some sort of charity in your name, your mum really wanted to, and then we got an email from the MSC. The work you had submitted to them about the creature that had been caught in one of the fishing nets had really impressed them and they gave us a heck tonne of money to do further research into the deeper parts of the ocean. With the leaps in building materials, we’ve actually been able to create a sustainable and functional city of sorts under water. Currently our deepest base sits at 5,000 metres.” Lucy’s eyes sparkled as she leaned forward conspiratorially, as if she were sharing some deep secret with me.

“We found your sea creature, Cassie. Alive. They’re called Opeia’s – after you – and you were right. It is a relation to the whale, it just doesn’t need to come up for air.” I could see she wanted to tell me so much more, but she knew it was taking me a while to process this. She hurried on when I didn’t offer any questions.

“So we moved to our new offices, and we thought hey, why not name the whole thing after you. After all, you’re the reason it all happened.”

“But… it was just a paper. A theory.”

“Yes and they took a chance on us, they tested whether POA was actually going to work and when we pooled all our resources, it worked. These bases are all over the Pacific. Our dream came true Cassie.” The memory rose suddenly to my mind. We were sat in a coffee shop, talking about how we needed to keep our resources open, so anyone could access them. We had understood that sharing and collaborating was the answer.

“When we published our further research based on your theory about why these creatures were coming further to the surface, and once we circulated a few pictures of some of the less photogenic ones, the governments started to fund us as well. The ocean floor has been cleared of rubbish and with the strides in renewable energy oil and waste aren’t being pumped into the waters anymore.” Lucy produced a slick tablet and played a video of some of the footage taken in the deepest parts of the ocean.

“Oh Cassie, we’ve answered so much. We’ve found lost cities that are sending historians into fits; creatures that archaeologists say should have died out, new types of vegetation which are proving to be useful in medicine, and it’s helped us understand climate change. Our ozone layer has stopped deteriorating so fast, the ice caps are actually rebuilding themselves. I mean, we still have a long way to go but…”

I wasn’t paying much attention as Lucy talked of her plans for the future. We had been right all along; the answers were in our oceans. All it had needed to come to being was the most human of all emotions: trust. Pure, unadulterated joy unfurled in my heart.

“I want to see it.”

A Game of the Imagination

Dedicated to: 

Joanne Sheridan, Jacob Wilkins and Andrew Thornton

For their suggestions of Cumbria, Leonard and Footprints.

~

 

Leonard sat on the edge of his family’s estate watching the pattern the wind made in the ragged grass that was a trademark of the Cumbria landscape as it barged its way across the sloping hills. Thunder rumbled somewhere far off in the distance but the fact he could hear it at all meant the rain and lighting he could make out as a smudge on the horizon would be upon him within the hour. Usually he would love nothing more than to watch a storm announce itself to his corner of the world but today the rain was his greatest enemy. The rain would wash away the footprints he had found.

Underneath him his horse shifted impatiently from foot to foot, the snort she issued was visible in the crisp grey sky. Cold and impatient. Leonard unconsciously tugged his own scarf tighter around his neck.

“Come on then Nelly,” he nudged the mare into a steady trot, steering her towards the openings of the forest below. Leonard called the forest the Scar after the shape of the valley it snaked its way through. It wasn’t a real valley. At least not the narrow kind that cowboys wondered through in the movies before suffering an ambush. But the trees were surrounded on all sides by hills and Leonard had liked the idea when he was younger of being a cowboy. Nowadays he preferred the idea of being an explorer.

Which was why he had been so excited when he had found the footprints.

To begin with he had thought they had belonged to the foxes that occasionally snuck into the chicken shed for an easy meal, but they were far too big. Then he had made his own footprint next to that of the mystery animal and had been startled to see that the footprints were double the size of his own. He knew of no such beasts in these parts and, as is always the way with men of Leonards age, his imagination had begun to run wild with the exciting possibilities of bears, wolves and mountain lions.

The footprints had led out of estate and into the Scar. Leonard distractingly brushed a branch out of the way which came in at head height, earnestly looking around for another of the massive pawprints. What would he do when he caught up with the creature that had made them? He had come equipped with nothing more than his bow and arrows. Maybe that hadn’t been a good idea. But he was brave, like Indiana Jones brave.

“There!” the sudden shout spooked a bird out of the undergrowth and sent it fluttering into the treetops. Nelly nervously side stepped. Jumping out of his seat, Leonard crouched down beside the pawprint and examined it in closer detail. It had broken several branches during its getaway, confirming Leonards suspicion that it was a big animal. Carefully he pinched a bit of the soil between his fingers and sniffed it, like he’d seen all the great trackers do. Naturally he had no idea what he was meant to smell, but the excitement that bubbled in his stomach was enough to make him not care about his lack of tracking skill. Standing up quickly he gazed around looking for the next print. The path led into an overgrown thicket. Glancing at Nelly, Leonard realised he wouldn’t be able to take her any further.

“I’ll be back for you girl,” he murmured soothingly as he undid her girth so she would be more relaxed in his absence. After tying off her reigns to a sturdy looking branch he turned his attention back to the thicket.

There was no way he could go around it. Plus, the footprints disappeared into the dark centre and he worried if he spent ages walking round and tracing his way back to the opening at the other end, he would lose the trail altogether. Going over posed the same conundrum. Instead he made sure his jacket was done up and pushed his way through the overgrown bush.

After a few minutes, he lost sight of Nelly and the grey daylight. There was nothing but darkness punctured by the occasional dim stream of light that was let in through breaks in the canopy overhead. Leonard focused on the ground in front of him. The footprints were closer together in here where the creature had been forced to go a little slower due to the closeness of the foliage. Twigs tore at his hair and clothes. At one point, he miscalculated his step and to stop himself from falling had grabbed at the surrounding bracken, slicing open his palms. Suddenly the prints stopped. Leonard dropped to his knees and could just make out the signs of scuffed paw marks: the bush must have reached its end. Leonard lay on his belly and began to wriggle out of the bush in a similar way to his target.

It was a relief to finally be in the fresh air again. Thunder rolled. Yes, the rain would be upon him soon but he still had a few more precious minutes before he had to return home.

Scampering down the sloping bank where the footprints had headed he came up short when he came to a river. There were no bridges in sight so he picked up a stick and began to wade into the cold water. Carefully he pushed the long stick out in front of him, testing to see if there were any sudden deep parts. It took a frustratingly long time but soon he was free and bounding up the other side of the bank.

Leonard frantically looked around for any signs of other paw prints. He found an odd-looking shack, a lost glove and badger sect, but after 10 minutes of hopeless searching he let himself admit the truth. He’d lost the trail. As if sensing his sour mood, the rain began to fall. It was the type of rain that starts off slow and fat but become a torrential downfall within seconds. Calculating the odds, he decided to take shelter in the odd shack until the worst of it past before heading back to find Nelly.

It smelt of old boots and oil. Perhaps it was someone’s fishing hut where they stored their gear, though looking at its age and the gathering cobwebs, Leonard doubted anyone had been here in years. His curious eyes suddenly stopped their roving and returned to the floor. He swore he had seen…. A paw print!

Leonard froze, his breathing coming quicker, though whether it was due to excitement or fear he wasn’t entirely sure. A mix of both was probably healthy. Only then did he hear here it. It was a low growl. The type an animal creates when it is giving a warning to another animal. And it was coming from the shadowed back of the shed. Carefully Leonard began to creep closer, closer –

“LEONARD!”

And the dream shattered. The boy paused.

“Leonard come inside right now, it’s about to tip down!”

Leonard pouted, scrunching his face up as if he were about to cry.

“I’m playing!”

“Well play inside. What have I told you about messing around in Grandpas shed?”

The door was wrenched open and his mother bore down on him with the type of stare that made a child want to apologise for all the naughty things they’ve done but had kept a secret up until now.

“Oh there’s the cat.” Leonard glanced behind him to see the families black and white cat trot out of the shadows to brush itself against Leonard’s mother’s legs. Around its neck was a crudely made mane made from felt pipes. Leonard’s mother sighed.

“Come on. Before the rain really starts pouring.”

Leonard’s mum led him out of the shed and back the way he had come. They crossed the river, which was actually a dip in the garden that filled up with water in the bad weather season. They went past the massive over growth Leonard had fought through, which was a large rose bush that was his grandmothers pride and joy. Back to the ‘clearing’ where his noble hobby horse lay ruined in the mud. It must have fallen over from where Leonard had leaned it against the tree earlier. Finally, they walked up the path back towards Leonard’s grandparents stone cottage and the small strip of garden his mother told him he should never leave.

I am the Enemy you killed, my Friend: 1916 – 1917 Battlefield Tour

Ah France, how long it is since I have seen you. March, wasn’t it? Far too long to be parted from your fine wine and cheese. However, my jaunt across the channel this time couldn’t have been further from my romantic birthday trip to Paris. Whereas my last trip was full of pretty artwork and enchanting bookshops, this trip took me 100 years back in time to the worn torn trenches of WWI. Despite the radiant sunshine for the entirety of the trip, the mood as we walked through the silent headstones, righted fallen poppies, and stood amongst the cabbage patches underneath which a generation was unknowingly buried, was sombre. But it was also a fantastic, educational and worthwhile visit. Almost every family in Britain carries a scar of the Great War, having lost fathers, brothers, sons and friends, and for that reason 100 years on many will be making the pilgrimage across the channel to pay homage to those who died in what was one of the most horrific wars of history.

Given it is 2017 our trip primarily focused on the battles of 1917, specifically Cambrai, Bullecourt and Arras, though we did also visit many of the important sites of the Somme 1916 offensives too. For the history nerds who are reading this, it will seem a given, but for those who are less familiar I will quickly explain why we did so, and why I would recommend you do the same.

Day One

With over one million casualties the Somme is perhaps one of the most horrific battles of the war – it’s certainly the most known. Hollywood loves nothing more than to romanticise the horrors men as young as 14 faced, teachers real of the figures of human sacrifice from the first push to hammer home to children the true loss of the war, and the amount of memorials France has to the Somme alone turns the heart cold. However, the Somme also led to the largest capture of enemy territory since the start of the war two years previously, penetrating 6 miles further into France. Importantly for 1917, it set up the new front line and the battles of Arras, Cambrai and Bullecourt which were further allied victories.

20622782_10155617459689111_753641869_oThese are just a few of the reasons the first day of our tour focused on the Somme. It gave a background to what the soldiers had seen only six months previously, had survived, only to go into what we would see in the following days. No battlefield tour is complete without a visit to Thiepval Memorial. As you round the gravelled path, the looming arched structure surrounded by poppies is rather beautiful. It is only when you get closer and realise every side is covered in names, does the real loss of the Somme hit you. Around 72,000 names are etched into the marble, to commemorate the lost. These are just the men whose bodies were never found, never returned to their native lands. There are further graves at the foot of the memorial of the unknown, bodies that were found but were so beyond recognition no name could be put to them. French and British, side by side, row upon row. You could spend hours here trawling through the names. What really struck me was the amount of families who were eradicated. Brothers often signed up together, or whole towns of friends, and in battles like the Somme it left households and villages without their entire male population. Efforts to split brothers and friends up came into play in order to reduce this problem later on, and Thiepval is a perfect illustration as to why this was a necessary step. If a whole family or local regiment were destroyed in one catastrophic battle, it would have harrowing consequences for after the war.

20629877_10155617459669111_201614130_oSome other recommendations for your day on the Somme would be the Devonshire Commonwealth Cemetery, which is a beautiful small burial site for some of the men killed during the Somme by Mametz. It’s quite a popular site with school trips and literature fans as this is the final resting place for quite a few WWI poets, such as Lt. William Noel Hodgson who wrote ‘Before Action’. From the sunken position of the cemetery you also get a beautiful view out over the rest of what was the Somme. Siegfried Sasson was positioned just over the top of the hill you’ll be able to see from here.

20641330_10155617459754111_1616320478_oNewfoundland Memorial was one of my favourite stops along the Somme trip. Favourite sounds a bit morbid given what I was visiting on this trip, but if you visit you will see why. It’s beautiful. There are no harsh concrete constructions here to remember the dead. Wild flowers attract a mass of butterflies, the still visible trenches are slowly being reclaimed by mother nature, and alone in the flat lands that used to be no man’s land, stands a lonely tree who weathered the storm of the Somme. It feels wrong to call a spot where thousands died beautiful, but I personally prefer the more subtle memorials like this. It reminds me of many poems from the soldiers who would talk about how birds still flew, flowers still grew, how the sun shone, despite the horrors. With the knowledge of what happened in your mind, you appreciate the beauty of a place like Newfoundlands far more than you would back home. And, personally, I believe it does more to honour the fallen’s memory than to shed a tear or two.

Lochnagar Crater Memorial is another must see stop. It’s a lot nicer here since my last visit – which was in the pouring rain when I was 13 – when it was literally just a muddy whole in the ground. They’ve now built a proper walk way around here making it more accessible for those with disabilities, there’s toilets and even a small road side cafe. The crater measures 90 meters in diameter, 20 in depth, and was created when mines that were dug under the German lines was detonated before the first push of the Somme. It is a rather shocking physical reminder of how big an impact the war had on the land.

Day Two

Now you’ve had a bit of background, the problems of 1917 will all become a bit clearer. There was several changes in staff, especially in the higher tiers of the French army, which had a big impact on the battles of 1917. I would also say 1917 was the year it became most obvious how important the Commonwealth effort was. With the Somme and the deaths of such a high number, the victims and survivors alike became faceless in a way. British became the universal label for the men of the British Isles and the Empire. In 1917 however, regiments from Canada, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, India and many more committed truly heroic deeds in the effort for victory.

19897758_10155538821139111_265469939_oI would start with Vimy Ridge. If, like me, you decide to do a quick trip around France and you stop off at Vimy this year you will have the honour of visiting this site not only on it’s 100th anniversary but the 150th anniversary of Canada’s confederation. The battle of Vimy is regarded by historians as the birth of Canadian nationalism which started their journey to becoming an independent country. You can take a tour of the tunnels the soldiers dug, and the walk to the striking memorial is pleasant in the summer – though you can drive. The tour guides are absolutely fantastic here and they are all volunteers from Canada. The passion and love and pure admiration they have for the history is intoxicating. As it is entirely free you have no excuse not to take advantage of their knowledge.

Vimy will take up a good portion of your day as there is so much to see and take in, so I would perhaps take it easy for the rest of the day or perhaps do this on one of your travelling days – either on your way to the hotel or home. Alternatively combine it with one of the other locations I’ve suggested for the other days.

Day Three

20630116_10155617459799111_798647885_oI’m suggesting these sites are done together because a lot of the battles work well with one another and they are also very close to one another, so it limits your time in a car or on the coach. Start in Monchy-le-Preux, where is a tiny village you could almost blink and miss as you travel through. What happened here was probably one of the most upsetting things for me to hear given my love of horses. The town, which was held by Germans was won in an amazing performance of cavalry skill. It is one of the examples historians point to when saying the cavalry was still a valid and important part of the make up of the Allied forces. However, after the capture of the town it suffered heavy bombing from the Germans, who decided the town should be obliterated rather than held on. The attack saw the obliteration or abandonment of most of the cavalry forces. The Germans then attempted to take what remained of the town with their infantry but the line was held by just 12 Brits. It’s a fascinating story which is better told as you are standing where they stood so I shan’t go further than this.

Head then onto Bullecourt which is only a little further on. This is a good place to discuss the Hindenburg Line fighting and the struggles the allied forces faced here due to uncut wire, skewered reports, and lack of men. Again, it is an injustice for me to reel off the stories told here of the men but of particular note here is the work of the Australian regiments, who were the one group to break through the line on the designated day and take the German line. Command thought they were lost due to communication loss, but their sudden appearance at a later storming guaranteed a victory for the allies when it looked as though the Germans were about to win.

20629038_10155617456964111_1832823446_oAt the time of writing this Tank Deborah is probably on her way to her new home, but we were very fortunate to know Philippe, who is practically her lover, and so we were able to visit her before she was moved and have lunch in her shadow. Deborah is a Mark IV tank who was used in the battle of Cambrai – only three of her eight crew survived the fight. If you ever get a chance to visit, try and ensure you can talk to Philippe too, who found, excavated and then researched her history. You can actually visit the graves of the other five missing tank members right next to the new museum, and pay homage to them. It is a fantastic opportunity to see Deborah as so many of the tanks from WWI were scrapped or stolen to be reused in WWII. She is in near perfect condition apart from the gaping hole that caused her demise. She stormed the town she lives in during the battle of Cambrai and was destroyed by heavy German fire, then abandoned by her crew. Miraculously none of them actually died in the vehicle, but rather trying to make their way back to the British front line. You can even read the letters sent by the commander to the families of those who did not survive, and their harrowing story.

Explore the rest of Cambrai in the afternoon – there are lots of lovely peaceful cemeterys dedicated to different regiments and countrymen, and each one has a different story. We focused heavily on the commonwealth ones due to the group we were made up of, so I would advice doing a bit of research before you go.

Cambrai is in my opinion a very important battle which often gets overlooked by tourists. Historians, too, are guilty of dismissing the use of tanks in WWI but when you think of their importance in WWII it’s very interesting to see how their ancestors did in the first Great War. Whilst they were perhaps not the war winning pieces of technology politicians marketed them as, as you will learn from your time in the museums around here, the generals understood their value and the importance of them in future warfare. The use of tanks also developed industrial warfare, which is a very interesting area for military historians and hobbyists.

Day Four

This is another one of those half days so again perhaps you can coordinate this to fall on your leaving or arriving day. We did it as we left France.

20622676_10155617456929111_1810838848_oFirstly, Arras is a beautiful city and I would actually recommend staying here for the duration of the trip. It’s hard to imagine that the whole city had been completely razed to the ground during the war. Today, there are lovely hotels very well priced, the restaurants are fabulous, and drinking in the plaza feels like you’ve landed in one of those retro movies where artists perform on cobbled corners as people sip on martinis wearing big hats. But underneath the city is a network of tunnels dug throughout the war for the soldiers to get as close to the Germans as possible. In parts of the tunnel, the allies were so close to the Germans they could actually hear them singing. The Wellington Quarry allows you access to a section of these tunnels. In there you will see the drawings, the last minute etchings and prayers of the men who waited for the order to go over the top. You do get to wear a very cool WWI tin hat when you go under, but the merriment ends as soon as you descend into the tunnels. This is a very hard hitting and gruelling place to visit. The tourist center has done itself proud with the audio guide and visual clips of the men during the period. It gives you a flavour for what it would have been like for the men stuck down here at lengths of time.20623637_10155617457009111_481147000_o

After the emotional stories your guides will tell you of some of the men who lived and died down here, as you exit the tunnels Owen’s words from his poem hover above the exit:

“I am the Enemy you killed, my Friend.”

Tunnels often switched hands as one side gained the upper hand or the other re-took their sectors. Enemies would have found and see the intimate insights into their lives as they moved in. Pictures, prayers, notes to loved ones, names. Many men might have even left behind precious items in the hopes to return for it at a safer time. Owen’s words really hit home that on either side, these men were the same. They all had lives, loved ones, and truthfully they had no personal quarrel with each other. They might have been friends in another life, and they had to enter tunnels and see these snippets of the lives their bullets may well have ended.

On your way out of Arras, the Citadel is also worth a stop, which is another beautiful monument to the British and Commonwealth soldiers who died defending Arras.

 

~

 

I hope this has given you the startings of a good trip, especially if you are interested in 1917. The brilliance of battlefield tours is that you can mix and match, so if you do find yourself having to pick the key parts to see if you want to reduce 1917 to a day, pick the ones I have hopefully given you a flavour too. It obviously also depends if you have a guide, as some of these places you cannot truly appreciate unless you have someone to tell you the stories. Based on that, if you do not have a guide, I would make sure to visit Vimy Ridge, Tank Deborah Museum and Arras’ Wellington Quarry. If you do have a guide, discuss with them the ones which fit in best with your routes in relation to your hotel location.

As always, I hope you enjoy your trip based on my recommendations. Perhaps, not as you would enjoy the trip to Paris, or my Road Trip around Ireland, but if you are a passionate historian you will enjoy the stories this land carries in its very soil now.

From 1917 with Love xoxo

 

The Perfect Budget Road Trip

Broke and suffering from wonderlust? Most of us yearn for that perfect getaway that won’t break the bank or result in the age old argument at the family dinner rearing it’s ugly head again of, if you stopped jetting off here there and everywhere you might just not have to ask for help to pay the rent.

What if I told you you could disappear through the back of the wardrobe into the forests of Narnia, walk through Westeros on the Kings Road, and give you views such as this:

19397067_10155462936294111_8278238656506844396_n

All for under £250?

Let me introduce you to the beautiful, and still relatively undiscovered by tourists, jewel that is Northern Ireland.

Ireland doesn’t conjure up the best images of sandy beaches and hot weather, but if you pick the right time of year (May-October), and you have a group of good friends, Northern Ireland is guaranteed to be one of your best holidays this year.

The Planning Phase

Northern Ireland has fully embraced Air BnB, and there are a lot of fantastic houses you can rent throughout the country, coming to no more than £130 for seven nights. That works out to just £26 per night per person based on a five person house share (and this house could sleep up to seven).

Flights from London – which was the most expensive airports to fly from – was £60 return.

I would advice then hiring a car. Northern Ireland is a tiny country – if you stay in the middle the longest journey you will have to suffer is two hours, which for most of us is a breeze. Again these rates were amazing and cost us £30 per person for a rather luxurious five person car (with air con!). Petrol for all of our journeys – which I’ll get onto in a minute – was around £20 each. With food as well, that brings you to around £250! As long as you have wheels, you can pretty much do everything else for free.

Sound good so far?

Things To Do

Of course it is not all about finding cheap tickets and accommodation to stay in. Part of the appeal of any country is of course the things you can see there. So here are some of the highlights from my trip a few weeks ago.

Giants Causeway

Suggested time here: Whole Day

19718453_10155512194619111_1260682470_o

Giants Causeway is a stunning piece of the northern cost of Northern Ireland. There is an estimated 40,000 interlocking basalt columns, the result of an ancient volcanic explosion, that make up this natural phenomenon. If you’re a geographer this has probably already sold you on Northern Ireland, I don’t know apparently it is a rather big deal, but despite it being explained to me several times what exactly this meant I was way more interested in the folklore explanation of this beautiful piece of coast.

Back in the old days, when the lands were ruled by Giants, one of the Giants of Northern Ireland was taunted by a Giant from Scotland – which he could vaguely see in the distance. Angered at the taunting, the Irish giant threw a series of rocks to great a bridge between the two countries – creating the causeway – but upon getting closer to the giant, he realised the Scot was a lot bigger than him. The Irish giant ran home in fear to his wife, but the Scot had spotted him and started chasing him. The wife, naturally annoyed with her husband being a damn idiot, made him pretend to be their newborn son.

Meanwhile the Scottish Giant has shown up at their door, demanding to be let in. The wife opens the door, feigns innocence in having seen her husband and invites him in to wait. The Scot graciously accepts, downs a pint, and waits it out. However, as time ticks on, the Scottish Giant hears a noise from behind a curtain. Jumping up in triumph, thinking he would find the husband, he pulls back the curtain to see what he thinks is a baby. Now this ‘baby’ is of course the Irish giant, but the Scot doesn’t know that and freaks out at the size of the baby, thinking my God if this is his son how big is he, and pegs it back to Scotland, destroying the bridge as he goes.

I don’t know about you but Giants sound way more fun than volcanoes.

Dunluce Castle

Suggested time here: 1 – 3 hours

19225902_10155462924174111_7346197406711387375_nDunluce is considered the most romantic castle in the whole of Ireland, though we never did find out why whilst we were there. It is however a delight for anyone who is a fan of history. It’s an old medieval castle that was owned by the clans of Northern Ireland and eventually fell into ruin during Cromwells take over of Ireland. It then sadly fell into ruin. However, you can still make out the amazing tactical advantages it provided against attacks from the Vikings by sea.

I would also 100% recommend the little cafe there. Everything is homemade, cheap, and tastes amazing. Plus the guy who owns it gave us one of his adorable spoons which he hand made.

Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge

Suggested time here: 3 – 4 hours

19275323_10155462933274111_5128236461214177238_nThis is a beautiful piece of the Irish coast and is worth the visit just for that. For a little bit of extra money however, you can cross the rather perilous medieval rope bridge. The bridge connects the mainland with a little island fishermen used to store their boats and catch the best fish from. For anyone afraid of heights this will take a bit of convincing to do. As someone who feels like crying when they go up a ladder, this was a bit of challenge for me. The whole time across I felt like Donkey in Shrek when they’re crossing that boiling pit of lava.

But once you get across it is like a little oasis of calm. Totally worth the minute of heart attack inducing fear there and back.

Dark Hedges

Suggested time here: 20 – 30 minutes.

19850877_10155512194239111_1822257110_oA lot of people will drive down the road and wonder why on earth people are climbing into the follow trees or pretending to throw a sword around. For the nerds amongst you however, you may recognise this as being the Kings Road from Game of Thrones. The set locators actually compiled a list of sexy trees to feature in the series, and of course the Dark Hedges here were top of the list. It takes about 10 minutes to walk the full length and back, but it’s a really nice stop on your way back from any of your coastal day trips.

Marble Arch Caves

Suggested time here: One Day

19718705_10155512194294111_1067239828_oMarble Arch Caves are one of the finest show caves in Europe and features an under water cave straight out of Lord of the Rings, and a series of limestone formations that made all the geographers in our group make a similar noise to the one I make when I see an adorable puppy. If you are touring around the island on a weekday you should be fine with just turning up to book onto a tour, but if you are going in peak time, then I would phone in advance.

It’s situated in a wonderful forest with plenty of woodland trails. About five minutes down the road, situated in the same forest, is also Florence Court, which is a Georgian mansion house. So there is something for everyone in this rugged part of Northern Ireland.

Dublin

Suggested time here: One Day

19748029_10155512194514111_1866951657_oThat’s right – why not turn your trip into two holidays?! There’s a soft boarder between Northern Ireland and Ireland which means you won’t get stopped for your passport details as you cross over (though I would recommend taking it just encase). Dublin is a fantastic city rich in history and buzzing nightlife. Some of my main recommendations, and bare in mind I am a historian, are the General Post Office – where you can see the Irish Bill of Independence – and Dublin Castle, which was once called the worst castle in all of Christendom. This is especially funny when you take into account it was considered one of King John’s greatest achievements. Awkward.

In terms of nightlife there are a lot of live music performances to catch at the multiple bars and clubs. Dublin also love their comedy performances, so be sure to check out their version of Time Out for what’s on in the local area.

Game of Thrones Tour

Suggest time here: One Day

19830104_10155512194419111_1470026603_oIf you are a fan of the HBO series Game of Thrones, then it seems natural to book onto one of the many Game of Thrones tours they have to offer. You’ll meet your guide in Belfast, and he’ll then take you across the Narrow Sea to the land of Westeros. On the way you’ll see Winterfell, The Twins, Robb’s Camp, Beyond the Wall, the bridge under which the Starks found their Direwolves, and actually get to meet the puppies! Well, two of them, and they are a lot bigger now.

As well as being somewhere to get your nerd on, it’s also a great way to see a large part of Eastern Northern Ireland in a day, without making your driver do it. Tours cost you around £50 with lunch included, and there is a chance to dress up and run around with a sword for a bit.

It’s like they know what we really want to be in life.

Belfast

Suggested time here: One Day

19424502_10155479860994111_2027996162064857567_nNo trip to the green isles is complete without a visit to the capital. Much like Dublin, it has its own rich and wonderful history and nightlife. I would highly recommend taking one of the hop on hop off bus tours which is a great way to get an over view of the cities history and main attractions in the space of two hours. You can then hop off and explore them in greater detail if you so wish. Of particular interest, which you might want to check out, are Belfast Castle and the Titanic Centre. Oh and there’s a giant colourful fish that if you kiss, grants to knowledge of everything.

Again I would recommend checking Time Out for the nightlife scene and big events happening in the city.

 

So that’s Northern Ireland for you. Hopefully I’ve given you the beginnings of your own amazing road trip across this beautiful country, and something to throw in the next persons face who criticises you for your addiction to travel.

Happy adventures, travellers.

From Northern Ireland, with love xox

 

The City of Love for the Romantically Hopeless

Paris. The city of soft candle light, smooth accents and ideal kissing spots. As you walk down the street, it is impossible not to meet couples draped over one another, clearly wishing they were back in the hotel room with the windows thrown open to the Paris skyline. It is a feeling that surrounds this city, especially when you are visiting with your significant other. Yet if you are anything like me, romantically hopeless, this feeling is easily brushed aside and replaced with the pure awe of being in Paris – the city of the revolution, medieval tyrants and – most importantly – cheese.

I will confess I was a little worried about going to Paris. I don’t think I have a romantic bone in my body – ask my partner, he will testify my idea of romance is leaving him the last spoonful of our shared dessert (how is that not romantic by the way?) And there is a lot of hype about visiting the city of love with your partner. “Oh you’re not even going to leave your hotel room”, “It is SUCH a romantic city”, “Oh the sunset over the river -sigh-”

Pass me the bucket. Is it bad that inside all I was thinking about was how cool it was going to be to stand in the square all those nobles had their heads unceremoniously separated from their body? No? Well here are my tips on how to navigate Paris for the romantically hopeless.

Day One

17799104_10155197230724111_6876423913333218213_nStart the first day off feeling incredibly cultured in the Louvre, which is the largest museum in the world. Last year I did five museums in one day in Berlin, but even that did not prepare me for the amount of history I would need to absorb in this museum. True, it is mostly full of art rather than teaming with information on this battle and that battle, but each corner you turn round holds another rare artefact from a long forgotten age. This museum not only showcases France’s turbulant history, but protects the delicate threads of histories across the world and throughout time. From ancient Egypt, right through to China during WW2. My favourite bit was discovering the Louvre was actually built on top of the old medieval foundations of a fortress, which the museum is positioned around in order to allow visitors to see what remains of this fascinating structure.

Once you’ve pulled yourself away from Mona Lisa’s lifeless eyes, stroll through the palace gardens with their delightful statues and perfectly sculpted bushes. As you promenade, it is easy to see why this was the place to hang out if you were a French aristocrat – until the nasty business with the guillotine. There are even deck chairs positioned neatly around the two large fountains in the garden. It was nice to see the gardens are still a popular Parisian hang out, with people playing football games amongst the statues of faeries, and dogs chasing bulls through hedges shaped like curious animals.

17795828_10155197236574111_4359745583135208230_nAt the end of the gardens you’ll hit the Paris Eye, which is worth a trip up in order to get some good skyline selfies, but if you don’t want to pay the 10 euroes, hold off until you get to the Arc de Triumph. As you stand with your back to the eye, you will think to yourself the Arc looks incredibly close. It is not close. It is not a ten minute walk, even at a good pace. That is a good half an hour hike, yes hike, because once you do first leg you start to go at a steady but definite incline. You will sweat. It will be nasty. You won’t look at your significant other who warned you that it was not a ten minute walk and is giving you that “I told you so” look. Once you stagger your way across the roundabout to the Arc, you will then find yourself faced with the chance to go up to the top, which will provide you with those lovely skyline selfies I mentioned earlier. The staircase is perhaps the worst thing I have ever been up, it is formed in the tightest spiral I have ever had the misfortune of climbing, and leaves you feeling disorientated when you get to the top. But it is worth it.  There’s even a perfect spot for pretending you can hold the Eiffel Tower in your hand.

17760068_10155197240574111_8127083220871157490_nAfter you’ve suffered the stairs on the way down, it’s time to head on over to the Eiffel Tower. This is probably the whole reason you’ve come to Paris (not really, I mean there’s still Shakespeare & Co to go yet), but it is definitely on that list of things you most probably should do whilst in Paris. There are two levels you can visit, the normal viewing platform and what they call the ‘Summit’. If you are scared of heights you will cry no matter which level you’re on so you might as well go to the top and appreciate the ground that little bit more when your feet meet again with it. If you’ve stuck to the plan I’ve outlined you’ll hit the top just as the sun is setting, which is absolutely breathtaking. I think it was the only time throughout the trip I felt even a little bit romantic. And if you don’t, there are some helpful kissing reminders around the place.

17795942_10155197243544111_2487283421091364311_nI recommend eating around here – there are some lovely little restaurants
just behind the tower – because after you finish your meal you can then see the whole thing lit up, which give the tower a whole new beauty (lets face it, it’s pretty ugly in the light).

 

Day Two

17757165_10155197219764111_3479506730868443621_nSpend your second day in the Ile de la City area with a visit to Palais de la Cité, residence of the French Kings. White built along the picturesque riverside, the palace doesn’t look like much from the outside – in fact I would have walked past it if I hadn’t seen a sign saying free entry for Europeans. It is definitely nothing like the magnificent castles of France that are scattered throughout the rest of the country. However, once you step inside you do feel as though you have fallen into one of those ludicrous fantasy history novels where helpless young women fall in love with the strapping young prince. The arches and spiral staircases are enough to make any architect or history lover squee with joy – which is exactly what I did when I found myself inside the main hall. There is a fantastic digital presentation on the history of the palace, including a series of images of how the palace transformed from a home of the royal bloodline into a prison, and eventually the centre of the revolutions trials.

That’s right, this medieval palace just got much cooler. Taken over by the bloodthirsty, barricade builders, the palace was at the centre of the famed Terror. Within these walls not only were France’s aristocracy dragged to be sentenced to death, but they also turned an entire wing into a series of prisons for their most important victims. One such prisoner was Marie Antoinette, who was actually held prisoner in her in-laws family chapel and sentenced to death in what used to be their dining room – creepy!

17425038_10155197223349111_3393796616478410635_nOnce you’ve had your fill of the bloody history of the revolution, pop next door to one of my favourite churches in the whole of Europe: Sainte-Chapelle. This is the church which made Henry III create Westminster Abbey, legend goes, because the stained glass was rumoured to be the most spectacular in Europe. It’s been on my bucket list for some time, and as it’s free for the under 25s, it is a must whilst you are in the area. We stayed here for quite some time just gazing at the way the sun changed the colours in the glass.

Stroll through the daily flower market on your way to Notre Dame, which you simply cannot ignore whilst you are in the area. It is perhaps Paris’s third most iconic landmark after the Eiffel Tower and the Arc De Triumph (second I guess depending on how highly you value the arc). This Gothic masterpiece steals your breath as you cross the river, or round the corner from the flower market, and if you look really closely you might even see Quasimodo swinging from the bells. The inside is just as breath taking as the exterior with its own collection of wonderful stained glass. However, what I fo17522982_10155197224649111_4185514928481975795_nund more interesting were the amount of famous people buried under the roof. Including a tribute to Louis Pasteur, who was originally buried here but was later moved. I would suggest spending at least an hour uncovering Paris’s dead heroes. I mean, what’s more romantic than poking around the crypts of a cathedral built in the late 14th century?

If you’re feeling peckish by this point, there is an amazing little cafe just across the road from Notre Dame, and if you’re super lucky you can get the window seat and enjoy your coffee with a view. It is pricey but the sights are so worth it – plus the food is amazing.

17523142_10155197224654111_7581171525981157556_nThis suggestion is more for the book worms amongst you, but if you walk through the park opposite the cathedral, you can visit the precious Shakespeare & Co book shop. Famous for homing many an author as they researched or completed their books, the shelves are crammed with novels across genres, from specific French literature right through to valuable rare books. You could spend hours lost amongst the shelves, or curled up upstairs in one of the many inviting chairs. Nothing upstairs is for sale by the way, but reading is encouraged.

Day 3 – 4

If you’re lucky enough to have bagged yourself more time in the city of love then I have a few more recommendations of places you should definitely check out.

17759955_10155197228279111_6363132051882596089_nFirst is the catacombs, which for anyone unfamiliar with the term is basically a large collection of skulls and bones packed on top of one another because they ran out of space in the graveyards (especially during the revolution). It is damn creepy but so much fun to creep along the narrow tunnels and see the way the builders tried to bring some amount of cheer to such a dreary place, with skulls creating patterns of hearts or large barrels. If you do it late at night then you come out when it’s dark, which just adds to the creepy feeling.

17796849_10155197228774111_3487787481079477393_nIf you’re looking to take a break from your busy schedule the Luxembourg Gardens are perfect for a place to relax in the sunshine. There’s a little model boating lake in the middle where you can get a boat with the flag of your country (or a pirate one) and let it float around the lake. When it reaches the banks you just push it off again with the handy little stick you get given. We lost quite a few hours here egging on the pirate ship which kept smashing into Britain.

17522576_10155197244484111_293691665446317967_nThe other place I would recommend visiting is the Montmarte area. This is a great stop on the day you are heading home as it is right by the station, and you can leave your bags at the station so you’re not laden down. Basilica du Sacre-Coeur de Montmartre is the highest point in Paris, and is also one of the oldest churches in the city. Someone is always praying in the church, even during both World Wars, one of the many locals or priests was at prayer to keep the record going. Aside from it being an absolutely beautiful area to just lounge around before spending a couple of hours on a train, it is also home to the Artist Square. This is where all of Paris’ aspiring artists come to sell their wares. You can get anything from traditional oil paintings to caricatures to take home. To top it all off there is even a little train that will take you for a tour of all the important spots in the area – including the famous Moulin Rouge.

~

So yes, Paris is the city of love, but it is also the city of art, revolution and cheese. Rest assured fellow romantically hopeless friends, you will fall in love here, it’ll just more likely be with that tiny little antique shop next to Shakespeare & Co than your hotel bed.

From Paris, with love xox

Eleanor of Aquitaine: Why we shouldn’t forget the medieval era when searching for our most powerful queens.

On the 9th September, Queen Elizabeth II surpassed Queen Victoria as the longest reigning British monarch. Journalists marked the event with comparisons between the two queens [1], whilst some historians chose to look back to the Tudor queens of England; Mary and Elizabeth [2]. Both Victoria and Elizabeth I expanded Britain’s oversea territories, were patrons of the arts, and successfully ruled without a husband over shadowing them. It is understandable such large characters dominate our historical view when we search for the strong female leaders of our past. However, our focus on these women, mean that powerful medieval queens often get forgotten. I am not attempting to say that they had any equal power to that of the more modern Queens – medieval queens were undeniably second to the king.

 

Dispelling a myth

Medieval queens were also not the weak and submissive figures they sometimes come across as. Such an image is often more down to literature than fact. In Beowulf, for example, most of the women are written as barely anything more than a sexual subordinate or “peace-weaver”, withdrawn from the male world of governing [3]. Yet this was not the case for most medieval queens. Whilst it is true they were often married off by their fathers or brothers to create political alliances, the woman did also have a say in her future husband. Some queens were the driving force behind their marriage. Matilda of Scotland, who married Henry I of England, initiated the proposal by writing letters directly to Henry expressing her interest in him [4]. Providing an heir, or indeed multiple possible heirs, was of course one of the main expectations. But this does not mean queens were expected to stay in the bedroom, and in fact their sexual relationship with the king was seen as a political threat by many chroniclers. Not only did sharing a bed with the king mean a queen had special access to him, but a threat to her sexual purity was a threat to the security of an heir. Let us also not forget, a mother also had a special influence over her children, so even when her husband died she still influenced kings until her own death [5].

The medieval era is awash in examples of strong and driven queens. Matilda “The Empress” started a civil war in order to obtain the throne she believed rightfully belonged to her, and her son Henry II; Isabella of France, wife of Edward II helped plan his removal and murder; and Elizabeth Woodville, widow and wife of Edward IV, exercised vast amounts of power to get her family into favourable positions in court. However, there is one medieval queen who comes as close to the type of queenship Elizabeth I exercised during her reign as possible. Duchess of Aquitaine in her own right after the death of her brother in 1130, Queen of France from 1137 – 1152, Queen of England 1154 – 1189, and mother of both Richard and John under who she enjoyed the privileges reserved for a kings wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine was one of Britain’s most powerful queens.

 

 

 

eleanorisbaeEleanor and her husbands

Eleanor was betrothed to Louis VII when she was 13 years of age, and at 15 the pair married. By most accounts her first husband was besotted with his new queen, yet Eleanor was by similar reports constantly unhappy. Her unhappiness could have been down to any numerous reasons; she was constantly failing in her task to give Louis and France an heir to the throne, and when she did finally fall pregnant it was with a girl, Marie. Another reason may have been the crusades her husband took her on between 1147 – 9, which opened her eyes to a larger world and more potentials. Whichever the reason, for we can only speculate, it was Eleanor who is said to have first brought up the idea of divorce whilst on the tour of the east. By 1152, after the birth of yet another girl, the pair finally divorced. During her time with Louis, Eleanor exhibited very few royal powers. It was actually with their separation we see Eleanor emerge as the strong, determined woman history remembers her as [6].

Demanding Aquitaine back, Eleanor set about asserting her authority as duchess by issuing a serious of traditional charters securing religious rights for the abbeys of Saint – Jean de Montierneuf, Fontevraud and Saint – Maixent. Not only did this endear her to the church and people as a pious ruler, but by issuing the writs her father, grandfather and great-grandfather, she reiterated to many her hereditary and undeniable right to the land. What her charters as duchess of Aquitaine also show is the powerful lords who supported her, including Briand Chabot and Hervey le Panetier [7].

assholeWhen Eleanor married Henry her it looked as though her power was diminished; the lords who witnessed her charters soon bent the knee and paid homage to their new lord. Elizabeth Brown argues of the couple’s marriage was founded on a mutual love of power, and that Eleanor somehow hoped to dominate the man who was 9 years her junior. Their relationship produced 8 children, 7 of whom survived to adulthood, rebellions and finally resulted in Eleanor’s imprisonment at the hands of her husband. Whether Brown is right for the reasons of their union, the couple clearly fought for power constantly. From 1154 – 1163, Eleanor ruled as regent of England whilst Henry was securing his French lands, and from 1163 – 1168, she went back to rule Aquitaine. Henry’s reasoning here is unknown, but the coincidence of sending his domineering wife away at the same time his similarly power hungry mother died, suggests he wanted to rid himself of troublesome women. Whilst there is evidence Eleanor as regent witnessed and signed charters, it was a very limited and concerned mostly religious privileges. Ironically, in trying to free himself from Eleanor, by sending her to Aquitaine he gave her the freedom to exercise more power. Not only did the frequency of charters increase, but only 1/3rd of our surviving records show she even recognised Henry as lord. Furthermore, she appears to have held her own separate court, receiving honoured guests such as King Alphonso II of Aragon and King Sancho VI of Navarre, with whom she discussed wars and borders. By 1172 her writs addressed the people as “her followers” and she was undisputedly the ruler of Aquitaine, even when Richard was made duke.

 

eleanorMother of Kings

Even before Richard and John became kings, Eleanor was manipulating her children for her political needs. The rebellions fought between all four of her then living sons (Young Henry, Geoffrey of Brittany, Richard and John), against Henry II were all fought for autonomy in ruling pieces of Henry’s French lands. Whilst it is unsure whether Eleanor was the driving force behind the rebellions, the alignment of their interests and her encouragement of the situation was a constant thorn in Henry’s side.

Under Richard’s kingship, Eleanor again became regent of England and this time with more power. She released prisoners, settled disputes between religious figures and Richards magnates, and was present as great councils – including the discussion of Richard’s crusade. Eleanor’s biggest achievement as regent was her reaction to the threat of John usurping Richard as king. Not only did Eleanor, now of 70 years old, face her youngest son and stop him securing a French alliance with King Phillip, but made battle preparations by fortifying the beaches encase of a French invasion. As Ralph Turner comments in his article, her actions were very masculine in her military dealings with her sons. Her military prowess did not end with her England regency, for when John rose to take the throne she had a crucial part in defending castles and negotiating political alliances [8].

 

Lord and Lady

G. Richardson and G. O. Sayle in their The Governance of Medieval England rightly declare Eleanor was “cursed by fate in being born a woman” [9]. Whilst she did not obtain the luxury of ruling alone as Elizabeth I and Victoria did, Eleanor ruled for most of her life autonomously in all but name. The legends that now surround Eleanor about her sexual appetite and her ‘devils blood’ stem from the fear she created in contemporaries at just how much power she could and did exercise over the Angevin kings [10]. Eleanor, Queen of France, England and Duchess of Aquitaine, who wrote charters like any other male monarch, thought with starling military finesse and negotiated politics with kings of Europe in her own court, should definitely not be forgotten when discussing our most powerful female monarchs.

Originally posted on The York Historian

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Bibliography:

Websites:

  1. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-34112486
  2. http://www.historytoday.com/helen-castor/elizabeth-i-exception-rule

Books/Articles:

  1. Beowulf, translated by Chauncey Brewster Tinker, (Newson: Newburgh), 1902.
  2. Louis Huneycutt, “Alianora regina anglocum: Eleanor of Aquitaine and her Anglo-Norman predecessors as Queens of England”, Eleanor of Aquitaine Lord and Lady, ed. Bonnie Wheeler and John Parsons, (Palgrave Macmillan: Basingstoke), 2002.
  3. Elizabeth Brown, “Eleanor of Aquitaine reconsidered”, Eleanor of Aquitaine Lord and Lady, ed. Bonnie Wheeler and John Parsons, (Palgrave Macmillan: Basingstoke), 2002.
  4. Marie Hivergneaux, “Queen Eleanor and Aquitaine 1137 – 1189”, Eleanor of Aquitaine Lord and Lady, ed. Bonnie Wheeler and John Parsons, (Palgrave Macmillan: Basingstoke), 2002.
  5. Ralph Turner, “Eleanor of Aquitaine in the governments of her sons Richard and John”, Eleanor of Aquitaine Lord and Lady, ed. Bonnie Wheeler and John Parsons, (Palgrave Macmillan: Basingstoke), 2002.
  6. G. Richardson and G. O. Sayle, The Governance of Medieval England, (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press), 1963.
  7. Peggy McCracken, “Scandalizing desire: Eleanor of Aquitaine and the chroniclers”, Eleanor of Aquitaine Lord and Lady, ed. Bonnie Wheeler and John Parsons, (Palgrave Macmillan: Basingstoke), 2002.