Stark beauty and creature comforts: Visiting an Icelandic fishing village

Photo of Andy Tyndall

Life thrives amid a harsh environment at Grindavik, on Iceland's southern coast.

There is a photograph in Bryggjan, the harbourfront cafe in Grindavik, Iceland, of a couple of men standing in waist-deep water on a slipway. 

They are holding a small wooden boat piled with fish which they are evidently about to land. Kristinn, the cafe owner, dates the photograph in the 1920s as he serves up his legendary lobster and mushroom soup for my, erm, breakfast. 

Every now and again you come across someone like Kristinn: a font of local knowledge and a man of many trades. 

A chat with him reveals his main business, run alongside and above the cafe, as a repairer and manufacturer of fishing nets.

He tells tales of impressive rescues of men from trawlers wrecked on the jagged lava rocks by the icy surfs of this part of the North Atlantic Ocean, some tales of folklore and fairy stones. 

But it is a nonchalant wave to the south when he mentions where the old harbour at Grindavik used to be that has brought me to this point, by the slipway where those men stood nearly a century ago.

I probably took a wrong turn from the harbour, which boasts not one, but two sturdy breakwaters to protect the trawlers from the savagery of the ocean. The simple stony road winds its way south through a stark, severe landscape, a lava field of lichen on black rocks. Not far along the trail I see the first “dead” boat, skeletal timbers around a forlorn cabin, the remnants of blue, green and red paintwork a fading clue to its former glory.

I discover, not far on, lying along a simple, loose-rock sea bank, the random, battered body parts of others. The ocean, rumbles angrily on the other side of the embankment as if wanting to reclaim what is rightfully its own.

These are the wrecks of boats whose metal has been holed, warped, bashed and pummelled by the waters which pounced once a boat ran into trouble.

The Hrafn Sveinbjarnarson, is pictured on a plaque by the twisted rust. It was not a small boat when it ran aground in February 1988. It is now a long, thin, jagged contortion: all that the ocean was prepared to leave behind.

Further along, past other wrecks hauled from the waters to remind us, I suppose, of the violence of these seas, the brightly painted Hopsnes lighthouse rises like a beacon from its knoll above the lava field. 

A thin umbilical powerline attenuates away towards Grindavik. From the road by the lighthouse, I get a good view over the solid swell of the surging seas to the south, where the Atlantic Ocean can be seen at its wildest.

But when I get to the slipway on the east side of the headland, I really grasp the privations and hardship those early Icelanders must have endured.

For there is a gaunt ruin, an epitome of dejection in the face of relentless odds, staring blankly over the black waters of a small pond. I see, through the chill spray beyond, the rollers surging up the slipway, crashing against the coast with an icy, wind-whipped, single purpose: to smash, eventually, whatever it can. All set against a foreboding, black backdrop of stark mountains and barren flats. 

How on earth did anyone land a boat here? 

How, 1000 years ago, did anyone manage to sail an open boat here, and then decide they could either live here or survive long enough to carve such a comfortable society from such hostile elements?