I don’t remember Bjartur of Summerhouses pulling wedged-in poo out of a lamb’s bottom whilst a nail perforated his welly-boots and lodged itself snugly into his foot. I know that dear old Bjartur faced many challenges on his small Icelandic farm, but lamb poo and rusty nails is a detail that Halldor Laxness seems to have forgotten.*
Now, I’d like to point out the poo-pulling and impaling my lower-limbs on sharp objects are not something I make a habit of, but these were exceptional circumstances: it was my first day working on a farm in the north of Iceland. The farm Grýtubakki, better known in the tourist world as Pólar Hestar, is located in the idyllic north about 30km from Akureyri, near the sleepy fjord-town Grenivík. Surrounded by snow-capped mountains, breath taking fjords and enchanted elf valleys, the farm is run by the lovely couple Juliane and her husband Stefán with help from their son Símon, a handful of cats, dogs and a never-ending supply of cake.
Pólar Hestar offers the smiling tourist the unique opportunity to see Iceland’s northernmost natural beauty from horseback. With riding tours varying from one hour to one week, both horses and workers are constantly kept on their feet. Of course, to the average tourist, an Icelandic horse is a bit like a shiny new car. The tourist—let’s call him Tim, from Texas—finds his horse already tacked up and ready to go—it’s just a case of sitting back, relaxing and enjoying the view.
What Tim from Texas doesn’t realise is that, whilst he is happily posting pictures to Facebook of himself perched perilously close to an icy-fjord drop whilst grinning atop his noble steed is that, back at headquarters, there is a helluvalotta stuff going on behind the scenes.
It’s a working farm
Life on an Icelandic farm entails working long days, and there is no room for idleness or dithering. There are always sheep to feed, fences to fix, floors to mop and riding tours to lead. When not running around knee-deep in mud, there is also the job of eating copious amounts of cake every day at four o’clock sharp (thanks to Juliane’s handiwork with a whisk and a bit of baking soda, my plans to ‘get ridiculously skinny’ whilst working on a farm have been somewhat thwarted. My mission to find a beautiful Viking farmer, however, remains open).
As I arrived smack-bang in the middle of lambing season (hence aforementioned lamb-poo pulling), I got stuck in from the word go. By my second day, I’d had my hand in unseemly places and delivered my first lamb. I’d enjoyed a farm-themed grammar lesson where I learnt the difference between the negatives ‘engin’ and ‘ekkert’ (both meaning ‘none’) via the ever-useful terms ‘engin blaðra’ but ‘ekkert slím’ (meaning ‘no weird bulbous blood-sack coming out of the sheep’s backside’ and ‘no gunky birth-slime,’ respectively). By my third and fourth day, I’d helped mark the new-born lambs, used a screw-driver for the first time in my life (shocking, I know), and chased six naughty horses down a mountainside, bridling them at break-neck speed before leading my first riding tour through the winding rocky mountain-side, past tumble-down farm cottages and into the Icelandic wilderness.
Tardis times in Iceland
Despite its funky matching Pólar Hestar jackets and flashy website, the farm is itself rather like a time capsule. What it offers, other than non-stop cake eating and gallivanting around the countryside on horseback, is a real glimpse at traditional Icelandic heritage and rural farming culture. It is the Iceland that I’ve read about in books; it is the Iceland depicted in the Old Icelandic Sagas about Viking settlers and their rural society. It is the Iceland of Halldór Laxness’ ‘Independent People,’ the world of the staunch and stoic traditional farmer Bjartur of Summerhouses.
Just like Bjartur and his mad obsession with sheep, our four-legged fleecy friends are crucial to farm-life here. During winter they are kept inside until they lamb (‘að bera’) in spring, after which they are allowed to roam high up in the mountains until the ‘göngur’ in autumn, an exciting event involving local farmers who gallop about madly, rounding their sheep up again in time for winter. This age-old custom of sheep husbandry has been enjoyed in Iceland since it was first settled, with numerous references in the sagas and, in true Viking spirit, often involves traditional songs and strong alcohol.
It is this refreshingly rural, refreshingly real side to Iceland that Pólar Hestar does best. Here at the farm and its surrounding countryside, rural traditions and farming customs from the past are still going strong. Old songs, sayings and stories are still popular and very much alive. I was surprised that, when jokingly asking the local farriers to sing a traditional song for me, I was serenaded with beer-lined tones of “Á Sprengisandi” (if you’ve not heard this then YouTube it immediately! It is musical gold). I’ve also had Icelandic “rímur” (old chanting ballads with roots as far back as the 13th century) sung to me from inside a 100-year-old turf-roofed ‘fjárhús’ (“sheep shed”). The romantic, bookworm geek inside me felt like one of Laxness’s literary creations, standing there with Bjartur of Summerhouses, listening to him chant old poems whilst watching over his beloved sheep.
Back to the future
Of course, the wonderful folk at Pólar Hestar certainly do not walk around in britches, chewing straw and mumbling Old Icelandic proverbs to themselves whilst cursing the invention of the motorcar (or whatever these darned modernists call it nowadays). Pólar Hestar is not set in its ways; in fact, it is quite the opposite. Juliane and Stefán are both conscious of the environment, ensuring all waste is properly recycled or else gobbled up by the brood of hungry chickens, and they are remarkably hospitable to the strange and very rare breed of vegetarians such as myself. The farm has friends all around the world, and the live webcam on their website allows everyone to watch yard-happenings and daily life from the comfort of their own home.
It’s a perfect fusion of the old and the new, the authentic and the innovative. If you want a real taste of Iceland, not one dominated by oversized glasses, alarming eyebrows and dodgy Friday nights in downtown Reykjavík, working on a farm such as Pólar Hestar is the best thing you can do. Of course, if yours is a fleeting visit to Iceland then it is at least worth the venture up north to explore the magical countryside via Iceland’s old-skool transport (a.k.a. the horse). You can meet the new lambs, catch sight of a few whales and swoon over the farm’s latest addition, the wobbly-legged fuzzball of a foal. I can promise you a truly wonderful, authentic Icelandic experience with amazing people and cake. Lots of cake.
*I am of course referring to Bjartur in Laxness’ famous novel ‘Independent People.’ If you didn’t get that reference, then hang your head in shame.
Distance from Reykjavík: 422 km
For information visit the Pólar Hestar website.