Retro blog: Vienna (October 2015)

Two years ago I spent a weekend in beautiful Vienna. I was at a conference and didn't have too much photography time, but wanted to share a few shots from the city. It's definitely a place I barely scratched the surface of, and long to go back and spend more time exploring the alleyways and history of this elegant capital. 

I don't have too much to write in this blog, but far more writing and shots coming soon! 

 

Engagement Story

For years I had imagined the day I would propose. Influenced by stories I had heard of friends who had used candles on the quayside or boats on a creek or fireworks in the forest or some kind of intricately orchestrated treasure hunt, I imagined elaborate ways I could make proposing to somebody an occasion to remember. Engagement is, after all, a significant moment in the journey of two souls deciding to commit to one another for the rest of their lives. 

With all of my imaginations and ideas, the day my inner romantic had often daydreamed about finally came, abruptly, on the 4th March, 2016. 

Jess and I had been outside of Iceland for a month or so because of Jess’s visa problems and we had talked regularly about marriage and spending our lives together. Although it seemed like the natural step to take, I had experienced a lot of anxiety, not wanting to lose a great relationship, but struggling with the idea of committing to somebody for the rest of my life. In 21st Century Europe, marriage is almost becoming counter-cultural to a commitment phobic generation. By nature, we are fickle creatures, wanting the joys of relationship highs but wanting a way out during the lows. That’s precisely why I whole-heartedly believe in marriage, a way in which relationship can be confirmed by a covenant, where the mutual commitment gives us a goal and wider sense of purpose than temporal romance or butterfly feelings. 

Feeling that Iceland engagements had become almost as cliché as an enagement on the Eiffel Tower, I had planned to propose during a trip to Northern Ireland, where we were staying with members of an amazing 24-7 Prayer community in Belfast. I had ordered a hand-crafted engagement ring from Greece, and I wanted to surprise Jess with a romantic day trip into the countryside, probably to the Causeway Coast or Mourne Mountains. I would find a lookout or pretty rock or deserted beach where I would swoop onto one knee, pull out the ring and create a moment to remember for the rest of our lives. 

Then came the the day.

My vague, idealised plan soon evaporated when I looked out the window and saw what can only be described as an Irish version of a monsoon, with heavy rain lashing down from thunder grey skies. The idea of driving out into the coldness of the Irish countryside and finding a slippery wet rock in the storm somewhere seemed about as romantic as proposing in a Tesco’s car park. Plus, I was without an engagement ring, as it had taken longer to arrive from Greece than I had anticipated. 

Plan A was slipping through my hands, so I had to rapidly form a Plan B. Our first stop was a little caravan on an industrial estate which the prayer community use as a mobile prayer room. My first thought was that I could propose here, the most unlikely of places, and also highly symbolic of a movement that had shaped both of our lives in a significant way. Something I have failed to mention is that Jess was expecting me to propose, just because she can read me like a book and knew that I was uncharacteristically nervous. But the image of a cold caravan by a warehouse just didn’t seem to fit the romantic ideal that I was still clinging on to, so after a few long, awkward silences I decided we should head into the city centre. The day before I had spotted a quaint little alleyway somewhere in the city centre, now I had to somehow find it, keep calm, pick my moment and pop the question. 

24-7 Prayer Caravan
Engagement-13.jpg

Shortly after we parked up, we had an argument outside St Ann’s cathedral. I can’t remember what it was about, but most likely a mixture of my anxiety, and Jess being “hangry” and both of us being cold and wet. But I do remember thinking that this day was becoming more and more distant from even the most liberal definition of romantic idyll.  After a few minutes we made our peace, and I decided that a nice lunch would be the best thing. We had a delicious meal at organic restaurant “Made in Belfast”, and we talked and I began to remember actually why we were getting engaged. We were two unlikely, quirky friends, whose paths had somehow converged in Iceland, and we were just deciding that we would like this to continue into the future. That somehow we were stronger together than apart, and loving companions for the adventures (and trials) the future would bring. That the journey was more important than the moment. It’s easy to try to create perfect moments when beauty often lies in the imperfections, the stupid arguments, the things that go wrong that ruin our best laid plans. 

 

After we had filled our stomachs and paid the bill, we wandered out into streets of Belfast. I soon found my alleyway, with it’s pretty lights strung across between old brick buildings on each side of the path. 

 

I nervously picked my spot and was about to drop to my knee, but realised we had an audience of bored looking locals in the pub staring out the window as they ate their lunch. I awkwardly asked Jess to go a bit further, but then we were faced with an army of businessmen who suddenly appeared at the end of the alley. Frustrated, and feeling a bit like I was in a movie trying to lose the bad guys, I remembered a quirky little side alleyway and took Jess’s hand and led her down there. The alleyway was painted with all kinds of murals of just about every famous person from Belfast you have every heard of (and probably more you have not). It had absolutely no symbolic significance whatsoever, but it was spontaneous, and Jess loves spontaneity. It was here, as larger than life image of Gloria Hunniford looked on, that I dropped to one knee, with an imaginary ring, and asked Jess to marry me. 

 

Now, with the advent of “engagement photography”, I pictured the proposal moment lingering in the air, that maybe I would spend several minutes on my knee, that there would be a magic in the atmosphere that transcends time, and that we would go on to run through cornfields, hand in hand, dressed in pastel shades in the evening sunlight.

In fact, the moment was one of the most anti-climactic either of us can remember, and over in less than five seconds. Jess said “yes” before I had barely asked and we were left standing in the alleyway wondering “Was that it?" Before we had time to even enjoy the moment, a hidden door in the mural opened, and a rather grumpy looking lady came out and lit a cigarette right next to us. It was like an actor inappropriately walking onto stage in completely the wrong scene, Romeo and Juliet turning into Shakespearean farce. We were left, a strange trinity in the alleyway, me, Jess and the sullen smoking lady who had unwittingly become part of our engagement moment. All the heroes of Belfast from the ages stood by, silently as perplexed as we were. 

After Engagement

 

Feeling a little awkward with our new companion, we quickly moved on through more rain and went to drink some really good coffee together. Sitting there, simply enjoying the friendship, I realised the secret to a successful marriage would be in these small moments of talking, listening and being together, rather than trying to invest all my emotion and energy into one faltering and brief moment in time. Maybe I had failed as a dramatist, but I began to look forward to giving all I had to succeed at being a good husband. 

 

 

 

 

 

Transforming Life in Ordinary Places. A week in the life of 24-7 Prayer Stanford.

"Can anything good come out of Nazareth?" asked Nathaniel to Philip at the beginning of John's gospel. "Come and see" said Philip. The same question was in my mind as I got ready to spend a week with a 24-7 Prayer community in deepest Essex "Can anything good come out of Stanford-le-Hope?".

I decided to go and see.  

Stanford-le-Hope and Corringham are two conjoined towns just 10 miles from where i grew up in Essex, England. Despite their proximity to my hometown, I don't ever remember visiting. I had no reason to. The A13 highway bypasses the town on its way to London, and friends of mine would dismissively call the town Stanford-NO-Hope. It was somewhere I would glance at from the car as I whizzed by without giving it much of a second thought. For those of you not familiar with Essex, the county is one of those places whose much-maligned inhabitants have given rise to endless jokes, with the overplayed sexist stereotype "airhead" Essex Girl and gelled-haired, lowered-suspension car driving Essex Boy providing easy one-liners for comedians struggling for material. It's politically conservative, but brash and loud and opinionated. There is even a not-too flattering reality TV series called "The Only Way is Essex" which only serves to confirm the cultural stereotypes of people who have come into money but not had the class to match. So, to hear about a new community-transforming prayer community springing from the depths of my home county was something that couldn't help but spike my curiosity. 

 

I have been journeying with the 24-7 Prayer movement for the last sixteen years, since its humble beginnings in Chichester, England in 1999. Six or seven years ago I began to meet people with familiar Essex accents at the annual 24-7 gatherings, and heard more and more stories about this dynamic Boiler Room community in, of all places, Stanford-le-Hope. I had got to know the leaders and original pioneers, Robb and Sally Harman, and now at last I had got the opportunity to sit down with them and hear the whole story. 

Beginnings

"We were just turning forty and we were just at that stage where we were talking together, praying together and thinking things through- what does the Kingdom of God look like?" explained Sally "And how do you grow? And you get to forty and you were going to change the world, but you haven't. So do we give up? Go on amazing holidays and look after ourselves and have a great life? Which was one option. Because it’s not worked, it’s never going to work, you might as well just drink champagne everyday and carry on with life. Or should we have a further push-in to what all this God stuff is about?". 

The fact that the Harmans and their friends chose the second option is the reason I and my fiancée found myself here with the now thriving Stanford Boiler Room to experience life in the community and to discover the story of changed lives and a changing town. 

"We thought…our God is bigger than this, there must be more than this" says Robb. "And maybe we had matured and grown as Christians, but we were definitely in a plateau phase. We were about to drop off the end of the church we were in, thinking 'there must be something wrong with us. We need to go and find God and then come back'. And we shared that with a few other people, and they said “we feel exactly the same”. We were thinking “it’s us”, and we didn’t want to hold people back. And then there’s other people saying “we feel exactly the same”". 

We are sitting in a beautifully decorated living room in a large, high-ceilinged old house, I imagine from the 1920s or 30s, set back in a large garden just off a main road in Stanford. Robb and Sally are a combination of motherly and fatherly wisdom, hospitality and straight-talking, combined with a youthful exuberance and childlike belief that it's possible for a few people to change the world. They excitedly interrupt each other as they tell the story of how they acquired the house as a base for the 24-7 Prayer Boiler Room. 

 

"We always looked at this house and thought "that’s amazing'" continues Robb. "One day I ran across the road and said to the owner “You’ve got the best looking house in Stanford. If you ever sell it, I live over there." I didn’t even ask his name, I didn’t tell him my name and I thought “the kids will leave home, Sally and I can rock around in there as a retired couple, that’s going to be amazing, we’d love it”. I didn’t think any more about it, that was August time, 2006. It was summer. In early December there was a knock on the door, Sally answers, and the guy says to her “your husband wants to buy my house!”. I hadn’t told Sally about it, I remember her shouting up the stairs: “Rob!!!" So I came running down and the guy says “you want to buy my house?”. 

"And he said that when Robb had first approached him, he walked back into the house and said “it’s time to sell”. says Sally, pausing for effect. "He never put it on the market." 

Robb and Sally found it impossible to sell their own house, which didn't seem to make sense as it was a sought-after type of property in that area. 

"So we couldn’t sell, and then i remember him phoning me up ranting “you were going to buy my house!" and I said “don’t worry, our bank manager’s coming on Tuesday, it will be fine”. I have no idea why I said that. This was pre-crash days and the bank manager came in and I explained to him the situation, and he said “well, do you want it?” We said “Yeah”, and he said “well sign here and its yours!”". 

Robb and Sally then found themselves with two houses, and having to trust God to meet their financial needs. "So we took this step of faith to do this. Christmas we got the keys, embarrassingly we had two houses, but we had no heart to really move in here...we were not comfortable with pursuing commercial rent, we didn't feel peace at doing that. Whoever moved in there we wanted it to be a blessing to them. But we felt like God sent “don’t”, even though it’s a massive amount of money. So that March, our friend came and said “have you thought about making it into a boiler room- a prayer house”. And we just knew. We both knew that second. “yes”." 

At that stage their community was not too familiar with 24-7 Prayer, but they opened their doors as a prayer room on 1st April 2007. "We didn't know what we were doing" laughs Sally. 

At the beginning, they simply met to eat and pray together and welcomed guests to come and stay. They learned as they went along. People wanted to use the boiler room for birthday celebrations and parties, and the house quickly became buzzing with prayer, community and celebration. 

"We thought “I think this is it, I think this is the Kingdom and it was really exciting". We weren’t unversed, we’d been in church forever, but there was this new sense of God opening new doors for us. So we were praying, and we were practicing community. And we read Dietrich Boenhoffer’s stuff on community and we thought “Yes, this is it!”. And it was something that was seeded in us when we were eighteen, nineteen, this is what we wanted. And we just started to gather people. And people were coming alive." explains Sally.

"It was about fanning back into flame" continues Robb. "I think one of the early gifts of the Boiler Room, was that people who were lukewarm Christians, people on the edge, they were fanning back into flame something that was alive in them. It was dormant in them but now we were fanning it back into flame. And I think that’s where individuals came and prayed, and we wanted to pray corporately as well, so we started to build in all these 24-1’s. 24-7’s. Individual prayer slots. Praying after meals. This was something people wanted to do and it gave some real life" 

The fledgling Stanford Boiler Room adopted the six core Boiler Room practices of Prayer, Mission, Justice, Hospitality, Learning and Creativity. They recall being nervous at the visit of one of the 24-7 Prayer leaders at their first visit to the boiler room:

"We thought he was going to be Boiler Room hotel inspector!" says Robb. "Ok, Hospitality, yes you are covering that! Creativity, could do a bit better. Learning, yes you seem to have that together. So starting now, you can put above the door “24-7 Boiler Room, 2 stars”. That’s what I thought. So Pete Greig [the founder of 24-7] came down, and we sat across the row, I’m on a little stool, sitting at his feet. I said “Pete, we just got this boiler room, what do we do now?”. And he said “I have no idea”. And I was devastated. I said “If you don’t know then I’m sure we don’t know”. So then we realised we were doing something really pioneering. And pioneering something is scary". 

One of the things that strikes me about Robb and Sally is how down to earth they are. They have no heirs or graces, and their honesty about the Boiler room Journey is refreshing. 

"Sometimes it feels good, “we can do anything!” and other days “we don’t know what we’re doing!”." says Sally. 

They talk about some of the pain caused when they left the church they had been part of for decades, and how they could have handled it better. But now, their relationship with their former church is thriving, and they are fully supportive of what they are doing. It was a tough process, but as I listen to the story, I can't help thinking of what Jesus said about new wine needing new wineskins. It seemed obvious to me that God was doing something new, and the Boiler Room was the appropriate wineskin to hold that new wine. 

Impacting the community

After being established, the Boiler Room soon got busy reaching out into their community. They hosted teams doing the 24-7 Prayer "Transit" course and one of the students, Charl, ended up moving back to Stanford soon after and, incidentally, would become the Harmans' daughter-in-law.

Robb has for many years been a governor at one of the local secondary schools, Gable Hall. His good standing with the school opened doors for the community to partner with the school. Robb and Charl soon found themselves meeting with the head teacher and asking "how can we serve you?". They began with organising and running an after-school café once a week, which the head even insisted they put a prayer space in! They regularly have over two hundred pupils through the doors. 

We joined the team as they ran the after-school café. There is a snacks and drinks menu, but the main draw seemed to be the free toast. I was quickly put to work transforming slices of thick-sliced bread into hot toast ready to be buttered by Sally to meet the demand of hundreds of hungry pupils. Other team members were chatting to students, praying in the prayer space and selling drinks or handing out food. It seemed that sixteen loaves had met their match with a horde of ravenous teenagers. Many students just came, ate and left, but others lingered around, wanting to talk and connect. Some were eager to use the prayer space too. In Stanford Boiler Room, everything revolves around teamwork and every person being actively involved, and that ethos was eminent here. 

 

After they begun running the cafe, the chaplaincy ministry soon followed. 

"They gave us the troubled kids to meet up with, we would take them out of lessons, sit with them for an hour, hand them back, we were given five kids a day each, so ten hours." said Robb. 

As a testimony to the simple effectiveness of the chaplaincy, Robb tells a story of when he and Charl went in to talk to senior teachers in the school. While they were discussing chaplaincy, the head teacher exclaimed about one of the students they had been seeing "this boy, it's like...like he's had an encounter with Jesus!". 

"This is a very troubled family in Stanford. He’s the first of three sons to actually attend a normal school. And through 24-7 he got through school. Just.". 

This is just one of many stories the Harmans share of changed lives through 24-7 Prayer's partnership with the school. Their chaplaincy service was even mentioned in Gable Hall's latest Ofsted School Inspection Report as being "particularly helpful" to the students.

During my visit to the community I was invited to join some of the community in a weekly course they have been running for some of the students. The Aspire Course is run out of the Boiler Room's second property, known as "Number One", which was my home for the week. The Aspire Course came about as a way to constructively help some of the students in danger of expulsion to be able to learn in a different environment, and is staffed by members of the 24-7 Community, led by the talented Charl. The thing which really makes this special is that none of the team are trained teachers or education experts, but have an enthusiasm and genuine desire to see the students succeed and believe in themselves. 

The day we join them, the students arrive, exactly how you would imagine a group of disengaged thirteen and fourteen-year olds to arrive. Some are chatting and joking and winding each other up. One girl sits down in a foul mood, arms folded, face scowling, not wanting to have any conversation. The team are unfazed and skilfully manage to calm them down and get them talking and interested. After an interactive teaching session, complete with a film excerpt, we continue on to a music studio in nearby Tilbury, where the main day's activity is taking place. 

The studio manager seems well suited to dealing with groups of excitable teenagers and finally their motivation appears from the midst of apathy as they set to work on learning how to build loops and rhythms on a computer and record themselves singing (and rapping) over the top. They also get to go crazy on the studios drum kit, and my heart warms when I see the girl who was previously scowling, break out into a big smile which lights up the room. This may not look like regular education, but I think it serves perhaps an even more important purpose right now- to help the students to believe that they have talent, and are worth something.  

Later on in the week, we join Charl and her team for another course they are doing to help a few Year 11 students who have already been excluded from school through their final year of GCSE´s. Each week they take them through lessons from a curriculum on Health and Social Care. The environment is different, more adult, but the same passion and care for the students is evident from the staff. 

 

It strikes me that, for a town like Stanford, this is what community transformation looks like. Sitting down and investing time in small groups or individuals that desperately need the attention, love and care they are not getting elsewhere. School pupils from the café and prayer spaces have already been drawn into the community and have found faith. It was a privilege to sit down with a girl from the school and have communion later in the week, knowing that it was the love and faithfulness of the Stanford Community that had helped her to find faith in Christ. They don't go in, all guns blazing, trying to preach at people. But they carry something infectious, a passion and love for Christ, that is bringing peace and hope to the community. 

Meals and Multiplication

At the heart of the community are prayer, shared meals and hospitality We were invited to four meals over the course of the week. The community has multiplied and now consists of two Boiler Rooms, just called "217" and "Number 1" after the houses in which they are based. 

Sally shares the story of how the community multiplied to become two.

"So we kind of had this vision. And we were at about thirty-five at that point. So we thought we should start another boiler room".

They talk about a natural group that seemed to be forming within the community, which they describe using the analogy of a rib, from the Biblical creation story where God forms Eve from Adam's rib. It's the same DNA, the same essence but at the same time a whole new entity, not a clone. 

Robb continues the story: "So literally we kicked them out of the house and said “you can’t come to house meal, you can’t come and pray. You can have your own house meal, you own little prayer time. We used to pray for twelve hours on Friday nights and first of all they were in this wilderness area. They were praying where they should be in this town and then pray about where they were going to meet. So they ended up believing they should be in an estate over by the school where there are a lot of students, and should be getting involved with the college. A lot of them were living out that way, so they felt that was the place to be". 

Once again, God provided a property as a base for this new community in a surprising way. Sally was chatting to a local businessman, who had some inheritance money after the death of his father. His kids had been helped by the 24-7 community. She told him the story of the first house and he was blown away. He then offered to buy a house with his inheritance and rent it to them. Nine months after the second community started, they had a house ready to move into, the same length of time as a pregnancy, Sally points out. 

It's this house that now provides my accommodation for the week.  It is a semi-detatched house typical of this area, but has been decorated with care and attention for a particular focus on hospitality, a value held at the heart of all the Boiler Room does. Visitors are allowed to stay for a maximum of two weeks, as long as they take part in the community and spend time praying in the specially dedicated prayer room on the ground floor. My bedroom is welcoming, with clean sheets, towel, an alarm clock, a welcome leaflet and a comfy bed. It would not be out of place as a commercial guesthouse, although Corringham is not the kind of town in which I can imagine there being a great demand. There is a kitchen downstairs and large living room for community meals and meetings. 

Over the course of the four meals (two with each community) we get to meet a diverse bunch of people of all ages and backgrounds. The house is certainly alive with people, prayer and hope. One particularly articulate ten year old boy talks to me about his family. He comes with his mother and siblings to one of the community meals "We don't have a religion" he explains, "but we like coming here because of the people. We usually leave before they pray!". I'm encouraged that this is what God's kingdom looks like. Once people make a decision to follow Jesus, they are committed as disciples with everything they have, but the welcome of the kingdom is inclusive and extended to others without condition. 

The prayer room in the house, is utilised for a day of 24-hour prayer at the end of the week. I always feel at home whenever I walk into a prayer room anywhere in the world, and this one is no exception. In fact, the multiplication of prayer rooms around the community is the long-term vision. We had already got chance to go to the nearby village of Horndon-on-the Hill and meet Lisa Anderson, who, along with her husband Phil and their family, have a heart to see a similar community form there. Lisa runs an art gallery in the village and they are already becoming established there, meeting for prayer in the local Anglican church. 

 

"Obviously we would love to see two, three, four boiler rooms in five years, I would hope. Honestly I couldn’t imagine one, I couldn’t imagine two so I’m just going with what I’m sure God’s saying will happen" says Sally. 

But it is not a vision of trying to lure people out of the wider world and into church. The vision is for church to become part of the very fabric of the community: 

"For me..our heart has never been that the school kids come and join us. We want them to have church in that school. So we want them to be praying in school, serving in school, worshipping in school, being missional in school, learning in school. That’s what I want. There’s fifteen hundred people in that school and we want them to function as church. If that is happening then they go home to their mums, dads, grans and families are impacted. Someone talked to me about a tipping point- there’s a percentage. It was something like fifty or sixty people, if they are really on fire for God in that school, it’s inevitable that there’s a real move of God. That’s what I think we are looking for. The prayer house then is a place people go to, function, have a meal with friends and encourage them to go back."

Reflecting on my impactful week with 24-7 Prayer Stanford, the thing that really inspires me is the incredible influence a small group of people who seek God can have on their community. I have been to countless meetings where people cry out for revival or think to trigger a move of God we need more services or meetings. The story of this community is quite the opposite. Pray, eat together, share life in meaningful relationships and then go out and in any small way you can, love and serve the people of your neighbourhood. It will look different for every community, but the principles are the same. Seek God, love each other, actively serve and love those around you, whatever the cost. In the midst of this, faith is found and people come alive. Robb and Sally Harman and the others in the community are just normal people like you and I who have decided not to hide their light under a basket. They didn't need to travel to the other side of the world but decided to make a difference where they were. My hope and prayer is that as you read this, you will be inspired to do the same. 

 

 

 



 

 



 

New York, New York. Ten tips for exploring NYC on a budget.

New York is probably my favourite city anywhere in the world. So much city packed into a relatively small space. It's big AND tall. It's almost like a nation unto itself. Kind of like America, but even better. Nothing beats seeing the New York skyline for the first time. It's a city which boldly announces itself, but needs no introduction. 

These photos and tips are from a visit where we pretty much followed our noses around the city last September. There are an infinite number of places to see and things to do, so these are just to help you make a small but significant scratch on the tip of the iceberg. We were staying with friends in the uber hipster neighbourhood of Williamsburg, Brooklyn, but the extensive subway system makes it easy to get from place to place. 

#1 Take in the view of Manhattan from Brooklyn. There are several places along the East River in Brooklyn to take in the breathtaking views of the Manhattan skyline. These shots are taken from East River State Park in Williamsburg. 

#2 Wander the streets of Williamsburg and Greenpoint, Brooklyn. Discover great coffee and eats, vintage stores, street art and just about everything in between. 

 

 

 

#3 Ask locals where to eat and find great hole-in-the-wall places like Vinnie's Pizza (This branch is in Williamsburg, Brooklyn). It looks like the kind of place you want to avoid as if your life depended on it, but the pizza is top notch and great value. 

 

#4 Get lost in Central Park. Central Park is huge. It's 183 acres of green-ness, an oasis of calm in the hustle and bustle of Manhattan. My advice is to pick a section and enjoy that rather than trying to see every corner, which will exhaust you unless this is the only activity for the day. When we visited there was a stage ready for the Pope to speak the next day. So, go to Central Park and follow in the pontiff's holy footsteps! 

 

#4 Visit Times Square, but don't stay long. Times Square is the equivalent of Piccadilly in London. Alongside the Statue of Liberty and Empire State Building, it's one of NYC's icons, with its huge screens and big crowds. In my view, it's worth seeing once, it is a little impressive but you feel a bit like you are in something created for tourists and the bombardment with advertisements is overwhelming and almost feels a little violating. It's good for some photos though. I recommend not to eat around here as everything is more geared for tourists and you will be overcharged for underwhelming food. Instead, do a bit of research ahead of time as to where the hidden eateries are (see #3 above).

 

#5 Enjoy Yoga in the heart of Manhattan. Ok, so yoga is not my thing, but it seems to be really popular here. So much so that they have huge yoga sessions in parks. So if it's your bag, bring your yoga mat and sweatpants and join other like-minded people, and get photographed by people like myself

 

#6 Spend some time wandering around Manhattan and see what's happening. There's always something happening. We stumbled across a big queue of people lining up as far as the eye could see, weaving in and out of blocks and streets. I thought it was a new store opening, but after seeing some nuns and asking people, I soon realised it was a queue for the pope who was performing/preaching at Madison Square Gardens. 

#7 Walk the High Line The High Line is a 1.5 mile linear park built on an elevated section of a disused railway line. It was pretty crowded when we visited, but enjoyable all the same. Just being a little higher than street level helps you lift yourselves out of the stress of the city somehow. 

 

#8 Reflect at the 9/11 Memorial. It's a sobering thing to stand at the very spot the twin towers once stood and view the poignant and beautiful memorial waterfalls that have been built in the footprint of the towers. The names of those killed in this world-changing event are engraved around the edges of the memorial. I can't think of a more fitting way to remember this event. There is a museum as well, but we didn't have time to visit. There is a new tower that has been built near the site, known as One World Trade Center, or The Freedom Tower. It is the largest skyscraper in the Western Hemisphere. 

 

#9 Walk the Brooklyn Bridge

This is one of the most iconic structures in New York, with black and white photos of this on probably at least every other friend's wall across the globe. The only way to appreciate it is to walk it:

 

#10 Discover DUMBO, Brooklyn. If you walk across the Brooklyn Bridge from Manhattan (#6 above) then you will find yourself in the district of DUMBO. It's not named after the animated flying elephant, as I first thought, but is an acronym which represents "Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass". It's a trendy new district which includes some good coffee at Brooklyn Roasting Company and lots of boutique shops and independent cafes. And you also get this famous view of the Manhattan Bridge 



 

Mid-West Photo Journal Part 4: KENTUCKY and TENNESSEE

Ok, so the title of this blog is misleading. When I started this blog series I was thinking mid-west, but after Indiana we crossed the border into the South. So this blog should really be South USA Photo-journal part 1 (of 1). Just for those of you who are pedantic, like myself. 

The border mid-west/south border lies on the Ohio river. And in reality, the change in accents is quite distinct, making me imagine a historical scene where new settlers  had to speak to some kind of sheriff or state official, and if you had a southern twang you went to Kentucky, and if you sounded more mid-west then you went to Indiana. I know this almost certainly didn't happen, but in my world I like to think things like that happened. 

Anyway, enough of my over-active imagination. Here are some photos of Kentucky: 

After an hour or so of beautiful driving down undulating back roads, we made a short photo stop at the Rough River Dam State Park. "Rough River" must have been named on one hell of a wild day, when we visited the name seemed entirely misleading as we watched people fishing in the still blue waters: 

We continued our drive through western Kentucky amidst rolling hills and rich pastures in the evening light. Looking at the map, it seems the be the very first foothills of the Appalachians to the east. Nothing dramatic, but very pretty and deserving of its own road trip soundtrack. 

We stopped with another amazing couchsurfing host, this time in Bowling Green. His house was like an African-themed luxury hotel, he cooked us a vegetarian meal (a theme of all our couchsurfing hosts) and he seemed to love just exchanging travel stories with us and inviting the world into his living room.

The next day we made a short 2 hour journey to Nashville, our final destination. 

Nashville is one of those places which, in my mind has legendary status for its music scene. I was kind of excited to find out what the city was like. Initially it seemed to be a concrete jungle of intersecting interstate highways angrily crossing each other at stress-inducing junctions. As soon as we turned on to a highway, we had to cross 5 lanes to the left and take another exit on the opposite side, a procedure which seems to keep repeating itself every few minutes. We stopped in at Eighth and Roast, where Jess's friend is a barista, and the following day decided to check out the city centre. 

The central area is clichéd Nashville, to the point of wondering if it is trying to parody itself. Honky Tonk bars, cowboy hats, giant flashing neon guitar signs, country rock music blaring out from overpriced bars. I'm sure a lot of people come here and love it, but it left me feeling a bit disappointed. This wasn't the cutting edge city I thought it might be. We wandered around the riverside area while I gathered my thoughts: 

With the benefit of a more recent visit to Nashville for a second time I can tell you that below the surface and the veneer there is a city buzzing. It is a city that's always on the cusp of something, and that cusp generates excitement that keeps it moving. It's full of people on their way to being someone, to being noticed, to being signed, to making a name for themselves. Hope is too virtuous a word to describe it, so instead I'll call it optimism. It's a city where optimism is needed to participate, to be part of it. Lose that and you've lost the city. It's that optimism that is bringing 83 people per day to move here, a growth that seems unsustainable but is characteristic of thriving cities. It is also responsible for the growing craft coffee scene characterised by newly established icons such as Barista Parlour and Crema, a burgeoning micro-brewery movement, rejuvenated inner-city suburbs, flourishing record stores, countless gig posters for bands you've never heard of (but may do in a few years) and this young, creative Nashville vibe that seems to somehow flow seamlessly with the old, already "arrived" Nashville but may soon overtake it. What makes Nashville Nashville is that it is a city trying to better its already famous self, and having fun in the process. 

The following day we visited the more sedentary town of Franklin, a hub of musical celebrity and affluence. I like its vintage small town feel, even though everything seems incredibly overpriced. A friend of mine from Iceland told me he bumped into Miley Cyrus once in the street here, several years back before she reached infamous status. 

 

We also spent some time hanging out with some great friends in Nashville, but I enjoyed their company so much that I forgot to take photos. So here is one of their house instead: 

We decided to take the quick way home to Nashville, if you consider 8 hours to be quick. Our road tripping mojo had been exhausted so we were eager to get back to Ohio and sleep, stopping only once for coffee in Louisville. 

I'll end this blog with some final photos of small town NW Ohio, to bring the mid-west theme back in again and finish this series. Thanks for reading and I'll be posting a blog about New York City very soon!


 
 

Mid-West Photo Journal Part 3: INDIANA

Following our three day road-trip to Michigan, and some more time in Ohio, we decided to hire a car to make a longer road-trip to Nashville to see some good friends. Not being people who like things to be too straightforward we opted not to take the Interstate 75 all the way down, but instead took an alternative route, driving over three days through Indiana and Kentucky. 

We hired our car from Toledo Airport, and of course made a quick stop for a take-away coffee at The Flying Joe in Perrysburg (the best coffee i have found in NW Ohio). We then headed out west on Highway 24 towards Fort Wayne and after an hour's driving we crossed the border into Indiana. I'm not sure what I was expecting, but North-East Indiana looks exactly the same as North-West Ohio, except Indiana sounds more exotic, maybe because it has "India" in its name. 

Driving across northern Ohio and Indiana is akin to driving across a ridiculously large pancake which stretches for hundreds and hundreds of miles. The villages and farms here and there are like the lemon and sugar, adding flavour to an otherwise very plain landscape. It seems God used a steam iron when creating this part of the States. Straight roads criss-cross endlessly across the cornfields in ways unimaginable back in England, where tiny lanes bend around hills, streams and farms. The Mid-West is as American as you can get. 

After another hour or so we decided to turn off the Highway south on Indiana State Route 1 to avoid some roadworks. Shortly, we came to the small town of Bluffton. Maybe it was just because it was my first town in a new state, but I got excited enough to pull over and take some photos. Indiana seemed to be even more patriotic than Ohio if frequency of the Stars and Stripes is the measure. 

We carried on down the straightness and flatness of the Indiana roads, onwards and onwards until we rejoined the highway and then found ourselves in the state capital, the metropolis of Indianapolis in mid-afternoon. We had a bit of time free before we were due in our accommodation, so after the long drive we went to Quills Coffee near the city centre for some caffeine therapy. (We always research the coffee in each city before we go, I've had too many bad coffees to risk NOT stumbling on a good café, and often the best places are hidden away down side streets). Quills is a roastery and small chain of coffee shops in Indiana and Kentucky and the staff are very knowledgable and welcoming. This branch seemed to be in some kind of foyer of a new apartment complex, but I kind of liked it. 

Quills Indianapolis.jpg

We left Quills and decided to take a walk around the city centre. We found some nicely painted walls which are always fun for portraits: 

The centre of Indianapolis is, like most US cities, designed on a grid system. At the centre of the city is a long rectangular park with a number of impressive buildings, the Indiana War Memorial Plaza. It was originally built to honour the veterans of World War and to be the headquarters of the American Legion, which is situated at the north end of the Plaza. Walking south through the park, we pass a homeless man sleeping in the sun and a glamorous wedding photo shoot before we come to the Veterans Memorial Plaza, with it's tall obelisk. I'm not too much of a conspiracy theorist, but I feel like the Egyptian obelisk seems to crop up in nearly every major city I visit. I start to wonder why there can't be a bit more creativity when building monuments, and then wonder whether there really IS a conspiracy, and then I get distracted by the central feature of the plaza, the Indiana War Memorial. It is apparently modelled on the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. It's a imposing building, even in the autumn sunlight. We watch a lone jogger running up and down the steps in a pink jogging suit, and then climb the steps and take in the view around the city. 

 

A little further to the south is the Chase Tower, also apparently modelled on the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus, and the tallest building in Indiana, and the 47th biggest in the U.S. With its little twin antenna at the top, it has something Gotham-city-esque about it. 

 

After pausing for a while, we continue past a group of worryingly inebriated people pedalling around the city on a huge covered bicycle which seemed to serve an endless supply of beer while they cycled. As it is run by a company, I assume they can't be prosecuted for drunk driving..

 

The city centre is a circle plaza, Monument Circle, with roads radiating out four ways. We realise we have walked a long way from our car, so we head back, a 30 minute walk. Despite it's pomp and ceremony Indianapolis seems a little devoid of life and vibrance. Like a big ghost town, or maybe the place had been evacuated and we didn't get the memo. Regardless, it felt a little erie at times, and so we were glad to head back to the home of our couchsurfing hosts just north of the city centre, who had cooked us a wonderful vegetarian meal. 

The next day, we set out for what turned out to be an epic day of driving. We turned off the highway after an hour or so, and took the backroads the rest of the way. For the first time in our trip, the flat plains turned into rolling hills and forests as we drove through the south of the state. 

We drove through several small towns, where patriotism seemed to be as alive as ever, such as Orleans.

Orleans IN.jpg

We soon reached the really cute little town of Paoli, in Orange County (California is not the only one to have an OC). Our route was blocked by police, as some kind of carnival or procession was taking place. It turned out to be the Orange County Fair. Rather than find a detour, we decided to pull over and have a quick wander around the town. I felt like I had suddenly found a romanticised vision of small town America. There was a really cute little town square, quirky architecture, friendly cops, people selling pies, someone driving around campaigning for the Republican party in his pick-up and heck, even a kid driving a tractor. You don't get much more small town mid-west than that. It was like I'd arrived in a movie or novel, or perhaps a Simpson's episode. Either way, it was a great little journey break and photographic opportunity! 

A bit further on from Paoli we crossed a high road bridge and I snapped this goods train trundling through underneath

 

After driving through the rolling hills and tall trees of the Hoosier National Forest in the far south of Indiana, our backroads route finally brought us to a bridge across the Ohio river where we came to the end of Indiana and the beginning of Kentucky, the end of the Mid-West and the beginning of the South. We crossed the bridge, and I desperately wanted to get out and photograph it but there was not really a pedestrian footpath, just a white line marking the edge of the road with a narrow human-sized gap to the side of the bridge. Just over the bridge was a small town and I went and asked in the local store/gas station whether I was allowed to walk over the brige. After some confused looks from the staff, one of then made a phonecall to the local sheriff and then assured me it was fine to walk across it. 

I don't think the local motorists seemed to share the sheriff's opinion. Dodging semi trucks and being honked and shouted at numerous times, I made it to the middle of the bridge to get these shots. Don't ever think a photographer's life is easy! 

The next blog will be the last in this mini-series and will document our journey through Kentucky to Nashville and back to Ohio. Watch out for this in a few days! 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mid-West Photo Journal: Part 2, MICHIGAN

I don´t know what first comes to mind when you hear the word "Michigan". I tend to think of industrial decline, Motown music and Sufjan Stevens, whose music I first got into by listening to his 2003 album "Michigan" (the singer-songwriter himself hails from Detroit). 

My first exploration of the Mid-West continued with a three day jaunt  into Michigan, which is less than an hour away from Fremont, my base in Ohio. We set off early in Jess's PT Cruiser and crossed into Michigan just by Toledo. After a couple of hours driving down the highway, we arrived in our first stop of Ann Arbor by mid-morning. Ann Arbor is on the edge of the Detroit metropolitan area. I had been frequently warned by people not to travel to Detroit as it is apparently America's most dangerous city. That still doesn't put me off wanting to visit (in fact it makes me curious to visit even more). However, this trip we decided to skip Detroit and make this brief stop in the much more genteel small university town. Our main reason was to stop for some good coffee. We certainly found this at the confidently-named Mighty Good Coffee in downtown area, and after a good cappuccino from experienced and friendly baristas, we wandered around the downtown area taking in some of the atmosphere before staying on for lunch at a great little hole-in-the-wall place which served some tasty Tacos for $2 on Tuesdays. 

Our journey continued as we decided to head of the highway and hit the back lanes of southern Michigan as we drove towards our destination of Grand Rapids. Southern Michigan is flat like NW Ohio, but with a bit more variation in scenery, a few rolling hills here and there, pretty farms and a lot more trees. 

After taking a few wrong turnings here and there, ending up at one point in the car park of an old people's home (where Jess jokingly threatened to leave me) we eventually found our way to Grand Rapids just as it was getting dark. We had randomly decided to make this the destination of our road trip after reading about the good coffee and craft beer. We had also found some amazing hosts on couchsurfing, Phillip and Loralee, who welcomed us like old friends with an incredibly tasty meal and local craft ale. They had also lived a summer in a remote part of the Westfjords of  Iceland (see my blog on the West Fjords here: http://www.nordicadventurer.com/blog/2016/2/13/beyond-route-1-the-westfjords) and they were some of the most incredibly hospitable and talented people you could even hope to meet. 

 

After a very relaxed night of food and conversation, the next day we headed out to explore Grand Rapids. Having just one full day in a city is sometimes challenging. There are so many options of things to do but on a limited budget and wanting also to relax, we tried not to over-stretch ourselves. We parked around the old historical district and found some beautiful old houses like this one: 

We then walked to the downtown area. We found a bright and joyful wall mural, interesting churches, big glass buildings with amazing reflections and a riverside park with great views of the city. We stopped for our obligatory cup of joe at Madcap Coffee, with its minimalist designs and efficient staff, before moving onto what I had been looking forward to the most: a visit to the now legendary Founders Brewery. A few months before I had sampled my first Founders IPA in bar in Finland and was blown away. Now I was at the source. We passed on the brewery tour due to money and time constraints, but had a great pint in the brewery bar. 

 

In the evening we were taken out by our hosts for an Ethiopian meal at a local place which I would have walked straight past due to its unpromising exterior, but this is where it pays to know locals. The food was top class, leaving me wished I had something so cheap but so good round the corner from me in Iceland..

Philip shared with us his incredible documentary about the village of Flateyri in Iceland which was a joint production with his wife Loralee, who is also an uber-gifted artist, and whose paintings adorned the walls of their east-side apartment. 

You can check out the film here on Philip's website: http://www.stonekeyfilms.com/ 

And please check out Loralee's artwork too here: http://loraleegrace.tumblr.com/

After a wonderful two nights with our new friends, we headed back to Ohio, but taking a significant detour to pop over to see the Lake Michigan coast on the west side of the state. (The east side borders on Lake Erie and Lake Huron while the North borders Lake Superior. In the words of a bumper sticker I saw recently- "Four out of Five Great Lakes prefer Michigan"). 

The nearest point to view the lake was at Kirk Park, directly west of Grand Rapids. The park is set on a steep bank descending to a beautiful small sandy beach where you can feel the warm sand around your toes as the tide laps gently towards you. Lake Michigan is certainly a lot bluer than Lake Erie, and at least at this point, feels more remote and less industrialised. We wished we had time to stop here all day, but unfortunately had to make the return trip after a few hours.

After a long five or six hour drive back, through the wonderfully named Kalamazoo where we unsuccessfully tried to find coffee and Jackson where we unsuccessfully tried to find good food, we made it home late. The next morning we had to get up extremely early to take some of Jess's good friends to Detroit airport, back in Michigan once again. After getting confused with Highway junctions on the way back and accidently ending up driving into some kind of crime scene in Romulus, we made it back to Ohio where we were in time to see the sun rise over the Maumee River in Toledo and Perrysburg..

 

The third instalment of this blog series later this week will focus on a road trip down to the South of the USA, through Indiana, Kentucky and Tennessee.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mid-West Photo Journal: Part 1, OHIO

Welcome to Part 1 of 4 photo journals from the Mid-West. Some of the photos featured here will be available for purchase soon on the website, once I have published the whole blog series.  I will keep you posted! 

 

Last September I flew out from Iceland on a long journey to join my girlfriend who was spending six weeks with her family and friends where she grew up in the Mid-West USA. Of all the incredible areas of the States I wanted one day to visit, the mid-west was not high up on my list. Well, I'll be honest with you. It wasn't even on my list. 

That said, one of the things that makes me most passionate as a photographer is documenting life and finding beauty wherever I go. It's easy to get a great shot of a famous mountain or a waterfall, but the reality is the moment is normally shared with hundreds of other people spilling out from tour buses and hire cars, cameras jostling for position. On the other hand, to seek out beauty in the back lanes of the flat-lands of Ohio and Indiana or the cities of Michigan means I start to come into my own, switching on my photographer's sixth sense to find excitement in architecture, cornfields, forgotten alleys, quirky houses, fascinating people. 

This blog will be in four parts, and is my photographic perspective of three weeks spent driving around the places outside the tourist guidebooks, but finding much beauty in the process. 

This first part of the blog is focussed on Northwest Ohio. Jess grew up in a small, pretty town called Elmore which sits unobtrusively in the midst of endless cornfields. I was kindly hosted by some of her good friends in the nearest large town, Fremont, a twenty minute drive to the south east. Fremont is an unassuming place, home to around 16,000 residents, a similar size to the town I grew up in England. It's main claim to fame is that it was home to a former president of the USA, Rutherford B. Hayes. He was president in the late 1800s, during the time that Queen Victoria was on the throne in Britain. It's other claim to fame is that it is home to the world's biggest ketchup factory (Heinz of course). 

The day after I arrived, I found myself with time to kill so I decided to walk around and photograph the town. One of the first things I noticed was that, despite being a Saturday, I seemed to be the only one walking. I found out later that unbeknown to me, my arrival had already been noted by friends of friends, as nobody really walks around Fremont, especially slowly and holding a camera, without arousing curiosity.  I arrived very quickly at the small "downtown" area (when you consider that Manhattan also has a "downtown", the word can seemingly be interpreted very widely). I still get fascinated by certain street features that Americans must not think twice about- the proudly flown Stars and Stripes nearly every direction you glance, the traffic lights hanging from wires, the wide streets, the bold announcement of every slightly interesting (and even not very interesting) facts about each city or county. All of these features were there in abundance in Fremont.

The main street (what I would call a "High Street" in England) is Front Street. It's one of those wide main streets lined with red brick buildings and shops which seemed very familiar from so many movies. I later realised that nearly every mid-west town has one, but the novelty hadn't worn off when I took these shots. I was particulary drawn to the the cute little cinema, with the film announcement board making it look positively 1950s, and also a group of men drinking around a picnic table in the middle of the street. 

Just round the corner, the even wider State Street forms part of US Route 20, which at 3,365 miles is the longest Road in the USA, reaching from Boston in the east to the Oregon coast in the west. This is a drive I would love to do someday. 

Finally I wandered back to my guest room via a few back streets. I noticed a beautiful but very patriotic looking house which typified my view of small town America, saw some churches worthy of an old English city and discovered the "Northcoast Inland Trail", a 270 mile walking and cycling path still being developed which will eventually connect Indiana with Pennsylvania. The Fremont section runs along a disused railway line..

The following day, Jess took me to one of her favourite NW Ohio haunts, Marblehead. Marblehead State Park has to be one of the tiniest state parks anywhere in the States, and sits on a peninsula jutting out into Lake Erie. The Marblehead Lighthouse is the oldest in continuous operation on the American side of Lake Erie and its a pretty and peaceful spot despite the number of tourists gathered at its base. We sat on the rocks for a while water splashed over the rocks beneath our feet, staring out into the misty horizons beyond which laid the vastness of Canada. 

We headed back to Jess's home town through the ripe September cornfields that characterise this part of Ohio...every road feels like a scene from any road trip movie you've ever seen..

 

The following day we set out for a three day road trip to the neighbouring state of Michigan. Please look out for the next blog about Michigan coming in the next few days!

 

 

 

Photographing Iceland's hippest summer festival

For the last two years I have had the pleasure of being a photographer at the Secret Solstice music festival. It began in 2014 on the longest weekend of the year in Iceland, where the sun barely dips below the horizon and the evening light continues until morning. The festival is an eclectic mix of international and Icelandic artists, but there are always one or two BIG names among more up and coming bands. The focus is more on electronic music. The first year we welcomed Massive Attack, one of my favourite bands from the 90s. Last year was The Wailers and Mo from Denmark, and this upcoming year we look forward to hearing the legendary Radiohead grace the stage under the midnight sun! 

I was only able to attend one day of the festival in 2015, but I am pleased to show you my favourite shots for the first time.

First up was my good friend Unnar Gísli Sigurmundsson, whose alter ago and band is the fast emerging Júníus Meyvant.

After this performance I decided to wander around the festival site to see what kind of food and sideshows were happening. As well as the usual coffee and sandwiches, there was the option of getting a festival hair cut too...

As I wandered around, watching people climb up a ladder to a precariously placed hot-tub on a tower, I heard a familiar reggae sound drifting into earshot. I realised that this was no mere Bob Marley cover band, but his own band, the Wailers themselves! I had somehow missed this on the programme so was super excited to get down to the photographer's area in front of the stage and snap some shots. 

I didn't think it would be possible to even close to beating this performance, but next up was young Danish artist Mø. Mø has the incredible accolade of having the most streamed song of all time on Spotify, the electronic dance collaboration "Lean On" with Major Lazer and DJ Snake. If you don't recognise the name, you will no doubt recognise the song! She certainly was probably the most animated and energetic artist I have ever photographed...

For more Secret Solstice photos from 2014, please check out my website page:

http://www.nordicadventurer.com/secretsolstice2014/ 

 

 

Beyond Route 1: The Westfjords of Iceland

In the last two blog posts, I have been describing my journey with good friends around the "ring road" in Iceland. I left off in the East of Iceland, where our car broke down and we stayed a lot longer than anticipated. 

We then hurriedly continued our trip, which we had to cut short a little. We made a whistlestop visit to Europe's most powerful waterfall, Dettifoss:

From here our route took us through the fishing village of Húsavik, the beautiful town of Akureyri, the biggest town in the north, where we stopped with some friends for a few nights, and then through some more pretty fishing villages at Ólafsfjörður, Siglufjörður, and the stunning infinity outdoor thermal pool at Hofsós. Regrettably, I have no photos from this stretch. I will have to return and do a feature on the north of Iceland sometime soon, it really is incredible. 

My photo blog picks up again as we departed from the well-worn tarmac of Route 1, as it misses out a part of Iceland which really is un-missable. 

The West Fjords are the remotest part of Iceland. On the map they look a little like antlers or the fire breathing head of a fat, stumpy dragon. The area is made up of a multitude of fjords cutting, long watery incisions into the landscape at every possible opportunity. This makes for long road trips as the road often winds its way around the whole of the fjord without a crossing point. The length of time it takes to drive out to any significant settlements adds to that feeling that you really are in a remote part of earth. 

Our Westfjords adventure started with an overnight stay in a village called Borðeyri, a place which is really just a collection of neglected-looking houses and workshops, and has a population of just 25.  It is right at the end of a long, eerie fjord called Hrútafjörður. We stayed the night at a place we discovered online after realising we wouldn't make the whole journey from Akureyri to our next  desination at Barðaströnd in one day. The Tangahús guesthouse didn't look too promising from the outside, BUT was a wonderful, clean and cosy little place on the inside. More evidence, if you need it, that you should never judge a book by its cover. It was on a little parcel of land that jutted out into the fjord, and therefore had this amazing view: 

View from Borðeyri

View from Borðeyri

After a restful night's sleep we began what was a magnificent day's driving. After a few hours, the drama of the Westfjords truly opens up. Our trip took us along the southern part of the fjords, on a day in which we saw no less than 12 fjords in one day. The road curves and winds, ascends and descends, with some parts surfaced and other parts just dirt tracks. They are gradually surfacing this whole route and putting crossings at the entrances to the fjords in places to cut the journey time. But adventure is being sacrificed for convenience, as so often happens in our increasingly shrinking world.  I know that in a few years that feeling of driving down remote, dirty roads with a dust cloud behind you and not a tourist in sight will be a fading memory, so I decided to enjoy it while it lasts. 

We eventually arrived at our destination, the summer house of some friends who kindly let us stay there for a few nights. It's located in the beautiful Barðaströnd area. Just two minutes walk from the house, right on the coast is the perfect little swimming pool. There are outdoor thermal swimming pools all around Iceland, waiting to be discovered, the quirkier the better. The pool is surrounded by a low chicken-wire fence, and during opening hours an honesty box is left for you to pay the admission charge of ISK 500. Just behind the pool is a natural hot pot, carved into the rock with stunning views over the fjord:

The following day was our only full day in the Westfjords, so we made the most of it by visiting the village of Patreksfjörður in the morning, about 40 minutes drive further on from where we were staying. The village is on the fjord of the same, and is titled after St Patrick of Ireland, who was the spiritual guide of the first settler in the area, Örlyggur Hrappsson.

From there we continued on towards the cliffs at Látrabjarg, through some beautifully moody low-lying cloud: 

It takes a while to travel the dirt track to Látrabjarg, the road is narrow and precarious in places with quite a few potholes, and together with the low cloud, makes driving a challenge.

Látrabjarg is the westernmost point not only of Iceland, but of mainland Europe (excluding the Azores, the Portugese remote islands in the middle of the Atlantic). A little lighthouse perches precariously at this point, and for a few minutes we enjoyed being the westernmost people in the whole continent. 

We shared this experience with a colony of puffins, for whom the Látrabjarg cliffs must be something akin to paradise. 

 

The cliffs themselves are now my favourite spot in the whole of Iceland. It is Europe's largest bird cliff and at its peak rises a massive 440 metres from the crashing waves below. I can imagine that the original settlers would have been in awe and dread of these huge cliffs approaching from the sea, and is a most fitting gateway to Europe from the west. It was cold and very windy when we walked along there, but that is not unusual for Iceland. If you can get yourself to Iceland, then it is an  imperative to make the effort to go to the Westfjords. Just keep it a secret between us, ok? 

To purchase some of these photos or others, please check out the West Fjords page on this website: 

http://www.nordicadventurer.com/west-fjords/