On the night of Monday January 22nd 1973, there was a storm off Heimaey, in the Westman Islands off the south coast of Iceland. The fishing fleet – which comprised pretty much every adult male on the entire island – was confined to the harbour because of the bad weather and the children “forgot” to revise for their test at school the next day in favour of spending a precious evening with their fathers and older brothers.
Just before 2am, following a series of earthquakes so small no one paid them any attention, a fissure opened on the edge of the eastern shore and with no warning whatsoever, lava began fountaining out. Between the lava flows and the heavy ash falling, it very quickly became necessary to evacuate the entire island and fortunately, the boats were right there to do so. By the end of the day, all 5,300 inhabitants were gone to the mainland.
The eruption continued until early July. Half the town was buried in tephra or burnt and lava flows had made their way down the streets, a cone-shaped volcano – Eldfell, Fire Mountain – stood where once there had been nothing but sea. The island’s eastern side had changed shape forever, making the island 20% bigger than it had been before. But most important of all was what happened to the harbour.
The Westman Islands are home to around 25% of the Icelandic fishing industry. It was at the time the biggest industry in the islands and when the lava flow threatened the harbour, it was a catastrophe, threatening ruin for everyone. The islanders were not having it. People were beginning to realise that you could cool lava and slow its flow by spraying it with cold water – small experiments had been carried out in Hawaii and Italy and now it needed to be done on a large scale. People came back from the mainland and worked to fight the volcano. They sprayed the front of the flows with seawater, they laid a system of pipes across the new lava field and they stopped the lava. They saved the harbour. The people of Heimaey took on a volcano and they won.
(That last sentence really needs a word inserted before “won” as an intensifier but I can’t use that word on this blog. Read it in there yourself to really understand what they achieved.)
That is the first of my two favourite stories about Heimaey. My other favourite is the volcano bread.
More than forty years later, less than a metre below the surface of Eldfell, the earth is still blistering hot. A new tradition has grown up. When foreign VIPs visit Iceland, they are taken to the Westman Islands and eat volcano bread as a symbol of friendship. This bread is baked in the ground – dough is put in a container, usually a milk carton apparently, to bake in the natural heat overnight before being dug up and the fresh bread eaten the next day. One day the King of Spain came to Iceland so, naturally, he was taken to Heimaey. But the morning he was due, the bakers realised they hadn’t set the dough the evening before. They sent someone up the mountain in haste, to bury a loaf of bread so it could be eaten hot and the King of Spain would never know it wasn’t actually baked up there.
“What do you think of our volcano bread, Your Majesty?” the King was asked the next day.
“It’s very good but I didn’t know it came out already sliced,” was his answer.
I have no idea whether this story is true. I’ve heard it from two different people in two different places but I can’t find anything about it on the internet.
I went over to Heimaey in the summer of 2012. We took a RIB tour around the island, in the hope of seeing puffins (we did not see puffins) and then a coach trip. Our guide was one of those children who did not revise for the test he was supposed to have on January 23rd 1973. We saw those puffins up on the cliffs, although you needed a half-decent zoom to take any photos of them.
On the way back to town, he stopped at the foot of Eldfell so that anyone who wanted to could climb up and see the volcano for themselves. So I went up, with Cecile, a French girl who had adopted me on the ferry. Being in hiking boots, I didn’t notice that the ground is actually warm to the touch still. I posed by the crater, marvelling that the ground under my feet is only thirty-nine years old (at the time). I have friends who are older than the ground beneath my feet. For context, I estimate the ground beneath my house to be around 400 million years old. This ground is not yet forty years old. Not forty million. Just forty. For even more context, the very oldest parts of Iceland are only around 16 million years old. The ground my house stands on had existed for hundreds of millions of years before Iceland came into being. That’s incredible.
And that is why Heimaey is special.