Monday, 6 December 2010

Cuts and the real world

My last post was a very cheerful one about being back from the holiday of a lifetime. Well the intervening weeks are proof that I'm well and truly back in 'Kansas' and Aunty Em is no use at all.

I'm going to start with a personal and, you might think, selfish tale of woe as to how the cuts proposed by the Coalition might affect my family. Then I'll move to the world I work in and the projects and people that will be hard hit.

Child benefit will be frozen. Okay - I don't need it and would never ask for it and I'm grateful for what it has meant in terms of keeping rapidly growing kids in shoes and trousers. Also, because of an admin error a few years ago, I got a lump sum back-paid that meant we could buy the computer we had always wanted. And on an ideological point - this was a universal benefit which is targeted to women (and single fathers). There are still men who control the family finances in a way that leaves the mother financially vulnerable or even abused. So let's kick women, especially vulnerable ones.

The threshold for Child Tax Credits is changing - again not something I asked for, lobbied for, or felt I needed - but hey, it's been useful and you kind of get to rely on these things.

My son wants to work in technical theatre - funding for the arts is being slashed massively and disproportionately. The arts bring billions of pounds into the UK every year - London theatres alone have seen income of over half a billion pounds already in 2010. He is due to go to university in 2012, just as the increase in fees will come in if the ConDems get their way on Thursday. The silver lining re the amount of debt he is likely to generate is that technical work in theatres is not paid particularly well - so it will be sometime before he has to pay it back (let's ignore the fact that interest will continue to accrue). Add in the possibility that the real value State pensions continue to erode (over 40 years!) and he can look forward to a grim retirement, as he'll be so busy paying off his student loan he won't have the disposable income to pay into a private scheme....

The very good Comprehensive School that he goes to has a performing arts specialism - the budget for this has been generous and helped the school achieve consistently excellent results, as well as in it's other specialisms of Maths & Computing and Applied Learning and being an International Baccalaureate award school. The school has done very well in renewing its buildings in recent years - huge sympathy to those who were all set to do similar work to gain luxuries such as indoor toilet blocks, no leaks in the ceilings, heating systems that work and space for learning. The School is now feeling the pressure to consider academy status... one's tempted to say 'if it ain't broke don't fix it' but it may well become 'broke' if it doesn't jump on the idealogues' bandwagon.

My daughter has music lessons in school. Already expensive - music in schools is under threat. So...

Then there is my Husband's public sector job in the NHS. Huge cuts to PCT budgets, knee-jerk decision making, lack of any proper consultation or joined up thinking. If he is one of the 'lucky' ones who still has a job after March it will be without resources and colleagues who have been an important part of delivering the work. Not only will there be a loss of immediate colleagues but also threatened are a number of projects through which the work is able to impact on thousands of people in the Borough.

Then there is the increase in VAT...

Okay - that was a quick snapshot of some of the ways in which my family might be directly affected by all this regressive ideological posturing. Yes, I know the deficit needs dealing with but I would rather pay more income tax than live with the chaos and anxiety that all this is causing. We have a roof over our heads and will be able to pay basic bills and eat food if Sandy's job goes - assuming I stay well and don't give in to burn out. There are so many people in much more vulnerable positions and that is what I want to reflect on now (or rant about).

I visited a women's refuge today. The very good housing association which offers them support is under a lot of pressure due to funding cuts. The one post funded almost entirely by the Council is almost certain to go in March. There's more to worry about though - if people have benefits cut, or lose their jobs, pressure increases on families. Those who for whatever reason beat or emotionally or economically control their partners and children will reach trigger points more quickly. Restrictions to housing benefit and the number of houses will also add pressure. Those who are ready to leave the refuge after a time of support will be more difficult to place as housing stock pressures increase.

Most of the Churches in my Circuit run financially on the income from lettings, many of which are council funded projects. The 'big society' (ha, see me laugh) is and has been alive and well for years in churches that subsidise community projects by not charging commercial rents, by offering volunteers to those projects or to keep the buildings warm and safe. If these projects fold due to lack of funding the Churches may not be able to keep going and the wider community suffers. Church supported projects such as Street Pastors make a huge difference to an area - how safe is their funding? The pennies in the plate given by pensioners and the large amounts given by those who can (widows' mites) subsidise the well-being of hundreds of thousands of elderly people, play-group children, young mums, kids having dance classes, soup kitchens, nurseries, people who are mentally ill, lonely people, those who have disabilities..... this is the kingdom of God. Less importantly but, perhaps more persuasively for politicians and councillors, this all represents amazing value for money.

This is all under threat - if these projects and relationships are broken, diminished or ended it will be a lot more expensive to replace them when our 'big society' falls apart and the infrastructure has been lost. Not only will the babies be thrown out with the bath water - the bath itself and the source of water will have gone as well.

Saturday, 21 August 2010

Home again

As with all good things our holiday has come to an end and the children have returned from Switzerland. It was wonderful to see them get off the coach in Morrison's car park in Queensbury. They and the other scouts clearly had a wonderful time and are glowing with health. Mind you, we had to sort their dirty washing outside - it was pretty toxic!

It will take me a few days to reflect on our time in Iceland and what will stay with me from the experience. Time for reflection is at a premium as we still have a lot to do in our new home (and I haven't started on the study yet). We are also preparing for Greenbelt and watching the weather forecast with some trepidation.

What has struck me today is an item at the top of the news about people who cause minor accidents by suddenly braking on roundabouts, and similar scams - all related to injury claims. No longer is it individuals deliberately causing these accidents, but organised groups - they target older people and women on their own. Utterly despicable. Having spent ten days driving around a country where the roads are almost empty and people are very courteous, laid back and kind, getting back to this kind of stupid greed highlights the contrast somewhat!

The other immediate difference is air quality. The air quality in Iceland was fantastic and taking a deep breath was intoxicating, getting out of the plane at Gatwick was a bit of a let down... I don't feel I want to take deep breaths at the moment.

Wednesday, 18 August 2010

A Capital day in Reykjavik

Day 9/10

Couldn't blog yesterday cos the cost of wi-fi in the hotel was clearly designed to restore the economic fortunes of Iceland in one go! Found a lovely bookshop with coffee and free wi-fi now, so I'm almost in heaven.

The journey to Reykjavik yesterday was uneventful and with our Icelandic Sat Nav (via iphone) we found the hotel with no problem. The city is a mix of mostly new buildings, with some older dotted here and there. Clearly there are not too many planning restrictions as there is a complete mix of styles and residential housing in the midst of commercial. I love this - it feels natural and has a sense of fun and at times the ridiculous.

We visited the Maritime Museum which was great - put me in touch with my roots, having a forbear who is a famous whaling captain has always been a matter for mixed emotions. Whaling is not a good thing, but the courage and grit of those who were in the industry in the 18th and 19th centuries was remarkable. There was also a brief and not necessarily balanced account of the Cod Wars - neither side was covered in glory.

We did lots of window shopping yesterday and today it has come together in me having a new wedding ring! It's a lovely silver ring and I am going to enjoy wearing it for lots of reasons.

We also visited a huge and very elegant Lutheran church (Hallgrimskirkja), built to honour a priest who was a spiritual poet and wrote many hymns that are still sung in Iceland and around the world today. Iceland's answer to Charles Wesley. The church is beautiful, making the most of simple lines and stunning Icelandic sunlight. We took the lift to the top of the tower (far less painful than the climb to the top of St Pauls) and enjoyed stunning and wide views across the city.

More window shopping ensued and then we went to a restaurant famed for its cooking of langoustines - and both had the 'langoustine feast'. Beginning with a soup made from - you've guessed it - langoustine, followed by a main course of langoustine cooked in three different ways and a desert of..... ice cream and sorbet (don't be silly - who would have shell fish for dessert?!!!).

Today we are wandering around, wondering whether to fit in a last whale watching trip and trying to prepare for leaving at 4am tomorrow morning to catch our plane home.

Monday, 16 August 2010

Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Golden Circle

Day 8

The day dawned bright and sunny! What a contrast
with yesterday. There were moments of cloud and the odd spot of rain but the whole day has been beautiful.

The 'Golden Circle' is the name of tours from Reykjavik taking in Geyser, Gullfoss Falls and Pingvellir. We, of course, were not on a bus full of other tourists but able to travel early and go at our own pace. So after an early breakfast we set of to the mud pools and water spouts at Geysir.

Arriving just after 9am meant beating most other people there and for about half an hour there were only another dozen people at the site. The original Geyser at Geysir no longer fires up, unless artificially stimulated on occasions such as Iceland's independence day celebrations. But Strokkur, it's smaller cousin steams up to 33 metres every 5 or so minutes. We were not disappointed and it was fascinating to watch this phenomenon again and again.

On leaving Geyser (after the obligatory look rou
nd the gift shop) we picked up Deanna and Julia, two hitch hikers from Italy who have spent three weeks travelling around Iceland. They were heading for Gullfoss, so we were happy to take them with us and to have another perspective on this wonderful and unique country.

The falls were thundering, on lots of levels, with spray launching 80 metres into the air. We were beginning to realise that West Iceland is much busier than the East and coach loads of tourists kept rolling up, staying twenty minutes and moving on. It was quite a bump back toreality - then I remembered those queues outside Madame T ussauds across from Church House and realised Icelandic tourist traps are rather pleasant in comparison!

Our passengers also wanted to go to Pingvellir, so we all went off together. This was a fascinating place where the convergent tectonic plates of Europe and America are pulling apart. The evidence for this is all over Iceland in volcanoes, hot springs, geysers and rock formations. At Pingvellir there is a long ridge of churned up rock face, right next to a huge lake.

Here the Alpingi parliament (means 'all things') met for over 1000 years.

Sandy's getting to play with lots of his lenses and caught this spider doing what spiders are meant to do!

We dropped the girls on the road to Reykjavik and were pleased to see they got a lift immediately - we turned back towards Hotel Ork. We have finished the day in the pool and geothermically heated hot tubs - how cool (or hot...) is that!

Sunday, 15 August 2010

Mist, rain, fog and mist

Day 7
We had a long drive today - through what is apparently really stunning scenery, however, we saw none of it due to a relentless mist that clung to the hills and crept in from the coast and filled the gap in between. The handful of photo's taken today reflect the conditions!

Most of the day seemed to be spent driving, which was a bit tedious given the monotonous visual theme of the day! We did venture down a rough track made of volcanic ash, at the end of which we could glimpse a glacier through the gloom.

We were interested to see a group of intrepid tourists who where setting off to climb up onto the ice. Most seemed to be well kitted out for this but we were a bit worried about the guy who had no waterproofs and Converse on his feet!

We are now in the Ork Hotel in Hveragerdi (no tea tray.... but free wifi - what you win on the swings you loose on the roundabouts!), which is only 40 km from Reykjavik and is set at the start of the 'Golden Circle' - one of the classic tourist routes in Iceland. So, should the weather clear up, tomorrow we will see geysers at Geysir, Gullfoss - another fabulous waterfall and we will visit the site where the Alpingi met for over 700 years before moving to the modern capital.

The Alpingi is the oldest continuous parliament in the world and established a great deal of the culture of Iceland, maintaining its influence despite rule by other Scandinavian countries at different points in its history. Two nights here - hope to use the pool and geothermically heated spa tomorrow even if the weather does not play fair.

Saturday, 14 August 2010

Running out of superlatives

Day 6

This morning dawned with blue skies and fabulous crisp views. We returned to Jokulsarlon and spent the whole morning there, first of all taking a trip in an amphibious craft onto the lake.

Getting up close and personal with ice-bergs is a wonderful experience. The colours and reflections were eery, beautiful and mind-blowing. We tasted glacial ice, which is very pure, the weight of tonnes of snow and ice having compressed all air out of it. It melts more slowly than normal ice and is truly beautiful.

We walked around the lake and down to where the river meets the North Atlantic. Here the ice blocks get pulled out to sea or land on the black volcanic sand beaches, where they shine like crystals on a coal field.

We finally dragged ourselves reluctantly away but were rewarded with the views that had been denied to us by mist yesterday.

Glacier outlets peering through mountain tops, lava flows and moraine formations creating contrasting landscapes every kilometre or so.

We passed over a huge area of 'sands' most of it was the wide mouth of a river, that runs only a few metres wide at the moment but will fill with tonnes of rushing water in Spring when the winter snows melt.

Along the way we visited a tiny church, with a turf roof, dating back to the 17th century. It was situated at the start of the treacherous route across the sands, which the local farmer or priest would guide people across. The chapel would be most welcome as a place of prayer for aid beforehand or thanksgiving when the journey was complete..

We are now staying at a farm hotel at a place with a very long and unpronounceable name: Kirkjubaejarklaustur! It is a place with a long history of involvement of church, nuns and monks - including some bawdy stories of their involvement with each other! Gossip surely - particularly in regard to the Abbot's underpants...

Without a doubt the highlight of this wonderful trip has been today's visit to the ice lake but I know there are good things to come!

Friday, 13 August 2010

Animal Magic

Day 5

It was to be a long drive today, so we were in the dining room for breakfast at 7.15 - even though the staff were not quite ready for us!

The journey took us round the edge of more Fjords and past the margins of glaciers, we discovered beaches with black volcanic sand and waterfalls - not clear now but full of glacial melt water, usually a dull yellow. Most of all we encountered Iceland's wildlife.
The first encounter was with a wild reindeer, who showed off beautifully for us, prancing and preening. Clearly competing in the 'I've got the most impressive
horns' competition was a ram resting on the road. We also spotted a Harbour Porpoise in one of the coves - too far to get a good picture, but exciting all the same.

When we reached Jokulsarlon - the lake of ice-bergs, we were astonished by the forms and colours of the ice in the midst of the now raging waters (it has rained ALL day). Not only that but about a dozen seals were swimming against the strong currents, catching fish. It was wonderful to see them so close.

The sun did finally come out as we sat down
to dinner at our hotel this evening. The lovely Skaftafell Hotel under the shade of mountains and glaciers. Sadly by time we had finished eating a delicious meal, the sun had gone down!

We can't quite decide what to do tomorrow - pay to fly over the huge glacier and volcanoes, get a tour bus up onto the ice or find our own way up one of the glacier 'outlets' nearby. Much depends on the weather!

Oh and this last picture is the view from our hotel window! Sorry about that!!!

Thursday, 12 August 2010

Slartibartfast deserves a design award

Day 4
Today began well. The Hotel Herad redeemed itself from the lack of tea tray because breakfast included the opportunity to make your own waffles! Mmmm waffles and syrup - great way to start the day and the rest of the buffet breakfast was of a higher standard than we've had so far.

There followed a trip to the supermarket to buy picnic supplies - remarkably similar to the picnic supplies bought two days ago - but you can't go wrong with bread, cheese, salami, yoghurts, fruit and crisps! Next was the adventure of trying to put diesel in the hire care - self service is all well and good if the instructions are written in a language you understand....

The rest of the day has been a slow drive around three fjords, on roads that cling for dear life onto the side of the cliff faces. We stopped often to take photos, none of
which can reflect the grandeur and scale of the scenery.

We passed an aluminium smelting factory - its construction had caused a massive public outcry because of the environmental impact in a place of such sensitive and outstanding beauty. I can understand the outcry - but also the very real need for jobs and industry in Iceland. The cost of living is very high and people work 60 - 80 hour weeks to make ends meet - many are still unable to climb out of debt and the cynicism after the debacle with the banks has changed many people's outlook.

Still - so much of what we saw today was tranquil, with mist rolling in then burning off and more rolling in. In places this created a surreal atmosphere - something between the 'Twilight Zone' and 'Brigadoon'!

Our hotel - the Skadaborg just outside Briedelsvik is not really up to scratch - feels more like a hostel than a hotel. This would be fine if we had booked to be in a hostel but as we are in 'trip of a lifetime' mode is a bit of a let down. Having said that, it does have free wifi and when Sandy went in search of coffee supplies to placate his grumpy wife, the staff were most helpful! Perhaps dinner will shed a softer glow over my op
inion of the place!

Tomorrow we set of for the Skatafell National Park, where we will call in at the Jokulsarlon lake, into which flow icebergs that have broken off from the glacier. We hope to get a boat trip on the lake - so if the weather is good the photo's should be something special.

Wednesday, 11 August 2010

Perfect picnic and fabulous fjord

Day 3

After a leisurely breakfast, we set off towards the east coast (dashing to the car to avoid millions of midges). We paused to take pictures of the Pseudo-Craters at the south of Lake Myvatn and stopped briefly again at the volcanic sulphur pools, for some extra photos.

The journey to Eglastidur was long but with stunning scenery, strange rock formations, rivers and grasses ranging in colour from the usual green, through golden to deep red. On reaching this small but significant town, we found we agreed with the guide book that it is rather dull, particularly in terms of architecture but is important as a crossroads for a number of Iceland’s ‘main’ roads.

We took a fabulous drive around lake Lagarflot, Iceland’s answer to Loch Ness. It is about 28 kilometres long, very deep and has its own serpent like monster. Unlike Loch Ness there is not a souvenir shop in sight! In fact the road around the lake is remarkable for its lack of traffic.

We stopped by waterfalls, wonderful rocks and found a perfect field for a picnic. On long, green and dry grass we sat under a perfect blue sky – snow sprinkled mountains in the distance, the National Forest across the smooth lake and total silence. This blanket of peace was only broken by the occasional bird call or buzz of a lazy fly.

After returning to Eg we booked into our hotel – nice and modern but, criminally, it does not have tea and coffee making facilities in the room – this is a great sin in my book, Sandy doesn’t seem so bothered!

We then took a drive up into the mountains and towards the coast. This is an area of Fjords and we visited Seydisfjordur, a town at the head of one of the Fjords where huge cruise ships and ferries visit. No ships today – it’s change over day tomorrow, so will be busy. The town (population 1,600!) is a pretty place which has retained some of the traditional Nordic architecture which most of Iceland has abandoned for cheap and practical pre-fabs. The water in the Fjord was beautifully clear and the air was crisp and delicious. We ventured into a couple of handicraft shops and are not ever so excited by the local crafts – expensive and not particularly nice. We are looking forward to Reykjavik next week for some wider choice in this area.

As we sat in a small and pretty restaurant overlooking the harbour, a sea mist began to creep towards us along the Fjord. It was beautiful and eerie and created a lovely atmosphere. As we drove back up over the mountain road, we left the mist behind and climbed into bright sunshine – quite magical.

Tomorrow we will drive the road that hugs the fjords – might be a bit nail-biting in places but the views will be worth it.

Tuesday, 10 August 2010

Whales, waterfalls, wonders!

I was up earlier than my usual inclination when on holiday but it was to make sure we had time to get to Husavik for our whale watching trip. We got there early! This meant we were able to go on an upgraded trip that included seeing the puffins at Lundy Island and travelling on a schooner (rather than a plastic boat). So I bravely took my sea sickness pill and stepped aboard.

I enjoyed my time, managed not to throw up and saw dolphins and a whale, so for me it was successful. Sandy was on cloud nine, especially when they turned the engine off and raised all 7 sails. My favourite bit was the hot chocolate and cinnamon roll!

The word of the day is 'Pufflings' which is the word to describe baby puffins! So sweet!!

The whale was either an unusually large Minky or a juvenile Finn Whale.

We then bought the makings of a picnic from a supermarket and found a lookout point on the peninsular to eat (very English, picnicking in the car!).

The landscape we were driving through became more and more bleak but was still beautiful. I remember thinking that you could hear the 'birth pangs of creation' in this raw volcanic setting. Sandy said it was not a scene of devastation following a disaster but a landscape that promised new life. This feels like the nursery of a continent - and the ability of tiny plants to grow through rock and lava is a symbol of the power of life.

If Peter Jackson had not chosen New Zealand to film Lord of the Rings, then Iceland would have been the place - sulphur fields would be great for Mordor!

We saw Europe's most powerful waterfall - Dettifoss. 44 metres high and thundering with tonnes of glacial meltwater, it was so dramatic. Hard to take in such power and scale.

On the way back to Hotel Sel at Myvatn we spotted some steam spouts, so stopped to investigate. We found a red, orange and yellow landscape of mud pools and steam vents. Historically this was a site where sulphur had been collected - deposited by the gasses and steam pushing up from magma trapped in the rocks below.

What an amazing day - we have experienced so much. Iceland is proving to be a fascinating and diverse place, full of wonder and beauty. Very strange and powerful - and there is so much more still to see.

Monday, 9 August 2010

Laid back, spectacular and startling

After a night in a lovely hotel near Gatwick, Sandy and I began our adventure in Iceland. We flew into Keflavick and were transferred by mini-bus to the small domestic airport in Reykjavik. On that short journey we met a couple who where on the same tour as us, but with a slightly altered itinerary - it was reassuring to find they also found it impossible to pronounce place names and where as excited and apprehensive as we are!

We arrived at the small airport two and a half hours early and were able to catch an earlier plane, which was brilliant - no extra charge, no bureaucracy - just a shrug and a 'why not?'. The flight was exhilarating, over a volcanic and glacial landscape that made sense of all those geography lessons that Mr Rocket tried to teach me long ago. Meandering rivers running through gorges and valleys, surrounded by ice-topped hills or mountains with sharp, razor like ridges, or flat topped because of millennia of glacial erosion.

We picked our car up and set off from Akureyri along the N1 - the only major road, which runs all around the island. Mountain roads, glacial lakes and perfect blue skies made for a wonderful and stunning journey. We had been told to look out for Godafoss - a spectacular waterfall. As we approached the area where it was meant to be I was increasingly sceptical, as the land had flattened out and I could not see any cliffs or hills big enough to support a large fall. Sandy pointed out some spray in the distance and we followed the tourist sign to the car park. As we turned in I was gobsmacked (technical Northern term meaning 'flabbergasted'). The waterfall was below us, thousands of years of water action had carved a horseshoe shaped basin, into which flows thousands of tonnes of water a second.

Godafoss means 'fall of the Gods' and marks the place where, in 1000ad, Porgeir Porkellson, Law Speaker in the Alpingi (world's oldest parliament), having decided that Iceland would become Christian, threw all the carvings of his family's pagan gods.

In the flow from this powerful waterfall a rock sits, stubbornly unmoving and on the rock are tiny pink flowers, clinging on against the odds. They seemed to me like the vestiges of the pagan beliefs - some rem
ain in superstition and belief in elves - others remain in more positive ways in a passionate love for creation and the environment. It would be easy to claim some sort of victory when the Speaker made his choice but it was political and to do with the security of the people. The human yearning for God was there before that decision was made, bubbling up in spiritualities that still seem attractive to some today.

We continued to our hotel, Sel at Lake Myvatn - 'Midge Lake' is sadly in no way ironic! But the lake is beautiful, our room is good and we have eaten well. It is almost 11pm and there is little sign of nightfall - in fact until 10pm there was a deep and warm golden glow across the surrounding hills.

Tomorrow - whale watching, puffins and more waterfalls. I can't wait!