Búdir, the most beautiful place in Iceland: 1929

“I had intended to leave Stapi for Búdir where there was, I learned , a good farm, not later than 4 or 5 p.m.; but, although a message arrived from Búdir to say that horses and a guide would call for me by the hour, it was nearly 9 p.m. before they finally turned up.”

”It was nearly ten o’clock by the time we got started, for the guide Jónsson, a handsome youth with curly red hair and bright blue eyes, had to have a meal and the ponies a rest before we could get away.”

“At midnight…stopping after a while to rest them (the horses) at a tiny farm out of which ran a couple of men. After looking at me with great interest and curiosity, and inquiring of Jónsson who I was, one of them disappeared, returning in a few minutes with a welcome glass of fresh milk which he offered me, refusing to take any payment. When at last we rode away, the men stood outside their door watching us and waving their hands, till we were out of sight.“

“About one o’clock my guide pointed out the Búdir promontory far ahead along the coastline, and soon after we passed one or two solitary riders, farmers I imagine. They stopped in each case to shake hands with us both, and to exchange snuff with Jónsson from out of the quaint bone horns which they all carried.“

“In the more remote parts of Iceland one seldom sees a man smoking; tobacco is too expensive, and the people—both men and women alike—take snuff instead, throwing their heads back and sniffing large quantities up their nostrils.

“I gathered that the riders all inquired of Jónsson, with great curiosity and a certain amount of chaff, who I was! In other words no doubt using the Icelandic equivalent for: ”Who is your lady friend?” His answer seemed to satisfy and surprise them and, after warmly shaking hands again, they would ride on, crying out: “Verid thér saelar!” “Be ye happy!” the customary greeting invariably exchanged between passing travellers. When a stranger accosts another in Iceland, it is considered polite to fire out a battery of questions: “What is your name?” “Whither are you bound?” “Whose son are you?”

“It was nearly 2 a.m. when, very weary and sleepy, I reached Búdir farm. It was a two-storied wooden house, and I was shown upstairs to a bare boarded room with the welcome sight of a real bed in one corner. A good sized table in the centre of the room, a locked cupboard and one or two chairs completed the furniture. A smiling, good-natured woman bustled about putting clean sheets over the usual eiderdown bedding, and then hurried off to prepare eggs and bread and butter as if it was the most usual thing in the world for a stranger to turn up at two in the morning!’

“I spent the afternoon sketching and exploring the beauties of Búdir and its estuary. It was certainly the most beautiful place I had yet seen in Iceland. The outline of mountains round the coast was magnificent, while behind, away to the west, rose up the mighty snow-capped peaks of Snæfells-Jökull. Among the sheltered hollows in the dunes were grassy patches where I counted a variety of wild flowers, among them quantities of forget-me-nots and wild pansies of a lovely violet shade, patches of golden saxifrage and the delicate sea pink. Búdir is, indeed, famous for its flowers, of which there are said to be 150 different kinds, more than in any part of Iceland.”

Olive stays at Búdir for three days. She sketches but with difficulty because the weather has turned bitterly cold with a wind from the north and frequent cloud bursts.

So, imagine 1929, an English woman, an artist, rural Iceland, still so few tourists that when one turns up, especially a woman, she is a great curiosity. We´re inclined to think of women in earlier times as delicate but nothing could be further from the truth. They rode horses, they managed house holds without any conveniences, no automatic washing machines, dishwashers, electric stoves. They had children with the help of a mid-wife, if they were fortunate. If not, they managed on their own. If they were well to do, they had servants and had to hire, manage, fire them.

There is nothing shy about Olive. She exudes self-confidence. She goes to Iceland with nothing but a phrase book and the absolute certainty that she can handle whatever turns up. She finds accommodation; she hires guides, rents horses, eats whatever is put in front of her, rides through the night over trackless wilderness.

She has read about Iceland and Icelanders and what she has read has given her complete confidence in the honesty and decency of the Icelandic people. She travels from place to place with Icelandic guides and trusts them completely. Her trust is well placed. She is treated with courtesy and kindness. Her book, beneath the surface events, is a testimony to the Icelandic people. It shows them as generous and considerate, as honest and trustworthy.

Who could read Olive’s account of her Iceland travels and not think well of Iceland and Icelanders?

On to Stapi: 1929

olive crossing desert

olive crossing desert

Olive decides, on returning from Thórsmork, that she will travel around Snaefellsnes and to Akureyri. The distance will be three to four hundred miles and will probably take about three weeks. Quite the trip for a woman traveling alone on horse back in 1929.

She prepares for the trip by sending her luggage by sea on a mail boat to Akureyri. She takes two haversacks and includes in them all her sketching materials. Her friend, Stefán, discovers that the Sudurland, a small cargo boat will be going to Stapi. There is a farm there where Olive can stay overnight before riding to Búdir. She will have a guide and three horses to take her from Búdir round Snaefells Jökull to Stykkishólmur. That part of the trip will take five days.

Stefán takes her to see the Sudurland. “We had to climb across some planks, over the sides of three other small vessels in order to reach it. Accommodation appeared very scanty, but the captain, who was on board, told Stefán that he would promise me a berth if possible.”

“These arrangements settled, I climbed back over the other boats, across planks and up and down iron ladders to the quay, where I stood for a while lost in wonder at the glory of an Icelandic night.”

“Five nights later the Sudurland sets sail. Olive discovers that she should have bought her ticket in advance. All the sleeping accommodation is taken. As she says “the little boat was already packed to overflowing with Icelandic farmers and fisher-folk”
She tries to sleep on deck but it is too cold. The ship’s mate finds her a bench “between the side of the ship and the stair rail that led below….In spite of a calm sea the “Sudurland” pitched and rolled like a trawler, and I had difficulty in not falling off my narrow bench.”

In the early morning the ship anchors off the creek at Stapi. “One had either to jump or be lifted into the boat from off the iron steps down the side of the Sudurland. Olive’s haversacks get thrown into the boat and one of the boatmen carries her. “At last we were all wedged safely in between a mail bag, a lot of sacks, and some timber that had been taken off the “Sudurland”.

She crosses a creek, gets one foot soaked, climbs up a steep bank to the farm where she will stay overnight. “It was a primitive-looking little cabin built of wood, peat and lava boulders, with a corrugated iron roof. The front door led into a narrow passage very dark, with an earthen floor, and walls built of peat and stones with tufts of grass growing in between. The entrance was so low that I had to stoop my head for fear of hitting the roof! My friend, the farmer (from Búdir), kindly inquired for me if I might spend the night there before riding on the next day to Búdir.”

“The woman of the house, who was regarding me with great interest and curiosity, understood no English, but I gathered that I was welcome to stay as long as I liked, although she could only offer me a sofa in the bath-stofa, as all the beds were occupied by her family. Thankful for small mercies, I accepted the somewhat hard and narrow sofa which my hostess did her bet to make comfortable for me.’

“At eight o’clock we all sat down to coffee and cakes, after which I tried to get some sleep on my sofa, but this was out of the question, for the farm at Stapi, like so many of these primitive and isolated little homesteads, is the proud possessor of a telephone. It was constantly ringing, and either the farmer, his wife, or one of the other women, and occasionally all of them together, would hasten to answer it, continually repeated: “Ullo! Ullo!Ullo!” sometimes for as long as five minutes on end.

It is 1929. How Iceland has changed. Olive often travels in trucks or cars for part of her journey. The roads are primitive, full of pot holes and rocks, sometimes no more than a dried creek bed, but there are roads. People and goods are moved more easily and quickly. Horses are being displaced and the change can be seen clearly when Olive reports that horses are frightened by motor vehicles. Before, there was nothing to frighten the horses.

Symbolically, the horses being frightened by the vehicles presages the near future in which these vehicles will replace the horses, taking away their essential part of Icelandic life. Now, there are telephones. Telephones that change life in Iceland dramatically for isolation was an essential part of Icelandic life. The farms were far apart, the weather, harsh, traveling conditions extremely difficult and dangerous but now there were telephones. No wonder the farmer’s wife and his daughters jump up and run to the phone every time it rings.

Although Olive is simply recounting her travels around Iceland in the year 1929, she is, inadvertently, recording profound changes in Icelandic life. The very foundations of Icelandic society as changing.