Underfloor heating has always seemed the height of luxury to me here in the UK. Barely two per cent of houses use it. They’re the people with toasty feet in slick, modern, well-heated homes. It should not be such a great thing really. After all, 1,600 years after the Romans left Britain (and they had the hypocaust, or underfloor heating), sixty per cent of households in Germany, and eighty per cent in Scandinavia use it. But to us here it is still the holy grail of home-heating luxury. So imagine discovering a country where a whole city has underfloor heating. Even outside! Take a stroll around Reykjavik mid-winter, and you will discover that in addition to private homes, pavements and carparks are kept snow-free by this method. It is achieved through geothermal sources which tap in to the volcanic landscape and eighty-seven per cent of heating requirements are covered by this green energy source in Iceland. The hot water from the taps smells sulphurous.
Another reason to like Iceland and its volcanic landscape is that when volcanoes erupt, like Eyjafyajallajökull did in 2010, and send ash clouds over Western Europe, planes can be grounded. You can be stuck back in the UK on a visit from Slovakia and it can take your employers a couple of weeks to arrange a “rescue bus” for Slovak and Hungarian-based staff giving you an extra two week’s holiday: which is what happened to us. We even liked the financial crisis in Iceland in 2008. A year later Iceland was still a cheap destination to visit thanks to this, which is why we decided to go there in December 2009. The rugged landscapes were covered in snow (but not the pavements and carparks) and we toured the “Golden Circle, visiting the geothermal power station at Hellisheiõi and (frozen) Gullfoss (“golden”) waterfalls and geyser. We tried to see the northern lights one night, but it was too cloudy. Painted wooden churches in the snowfields with wild ponies, gave the landscape the air of a 3D animated Christmas card.
In Reykjavik we walked along the seafront admiring the sculptures against the backdrop of white mountains across the bay. Some way along was a ramshackle seafront building, cluttered with metal debris everywhere, and inhabited by a sculptor who seemed to specialise in industrial raw materials to make things like a wooden cross pierced by hundreds of large, rusty nails, or a noose made of scaffolding.
You have to admire the use of clean energy in Iceland. But it does come at a price. In the country’s most southerly village, Vik, each of the 318 residents permanently keep a packed rucksack of essentials by their front door. The idea is that within forty minutes of any warning of an imminent eruption from the nearby Katla volcano they can be home from work, collect their emergency bag and be at the safe meeting point by the hilltop church to await air evacuation. But wait a minute. Wasn’t it a volcanic ash cloud that grounded all of those aircraft in 2008? The thought occurs… You may be up a hill, but how will anyone get there to rescue you? It seems as ill-thought out as the preparations England (population 67 million) made to counteract the (by then) well-used long throw routine when Iceland (population 350,000 – plus 2.3 million tourists each year) knocked them out of the 2016 football European Cup. Not that I’m bitter, or a sore loser or anything. I just thought I’d mention it while thinking about Iceland.
Katla is well overdue for an eruption. Hailing from Vik must be like living under a permanent death-threat. Or being an England goal keeper. The volcano is under a glacier, so add flash floods from melting ice to the dangers from lava and ejecta. It erupts every fifty years or so. The last eruption was in 1918.
Iceland is a country worth visiting.