Advantages Insight into an only recently vanished way of life
Disadvantages None, unless you hit the crowds
A few kilometres north of Varmahlid on Iceland's Rte 75 is what's reckoned to be the best folk museum of its type in the northern half of the country. Strange then, that it isn’t the one that appears on all the postcards. It's not like it's that much of a detour. If you're heading north clockwise on Rte 1 you will pass through Varmahlid… and if you're not… then make the detour anyway.Perhaps it's because I work in housing and construction, but I wasn't burdened with any of the preconceptions of my fellow travellers, who had assumed that turf houses would be cold and damp, and who were completely fazed by seeing a modern-looking (ok 19th century) farmhouse with a turf roof. Weird, they thought. Not sure they believed me when I explained that we are again building on the same principles (we call them 'green roofs' these days and we might have refined the technique a little but the ethos is the same) for social housing in the UK.
For me, the construction methods are actually the least interesting thing about Glaumbaer, but as for many of you they might be the most, let's start there.The buildings
The museum comprises a central farm complex dating from the 18th and 19th centuries and largely surviving until the 1930s. This is supplemented by two timber-built farmhouses of 19th century origin, built in the Danish-Icelandic style which succeeded the turf cottages. These are not intrinsic to the site, having been rescued from elsewhere. The larger of two dates from the 1880s and is originally from As, in Hegranes, where it was originally intended to house a girls' school which never came to fruition. It was occupied domestically until the 1970s.The smaller (Gilstofa) dates from 1849 and has moved around somewhat prior to resting here.
The turf-construction which forms the main complex is of a style that dates back to the settlement days. There is known to have been a farm on the site for 900 years, but individual buildings came and went and were moved around the site. What exists today of the main complex is not that old but is cleverly presented to show how the original techniques and designs were adapted over the centuries, eventually allowing for glazed windows, timber-facades on the gable ends and seriously comfortable furnishing.Turf construction is not unique to Iceland; it exists anywhere that grass grows thickly and strong, and there is simultaneously a shortage of large trees. Turf is a strong combination of roots and soil, cut into sods that are used much the same was as bricks. Additional strength is gained by 'laying' these on a slight diagonal from the vertical, with alternate courses slanting in opposite directions. The inherent soil acts as a mortar between the sods. Both walls and roof will absorb moisture rather than letting it through, and their insulating qualities are one of the reasons we are turning back to the technology. The angle of pitch to the roof is crucial: too flat and water will simply pool and eventually seep through; too steep and the turf will crack in dry weather or drain too quickly to allow the grass to grow – again the result will be a leaky roof. Get it right and the structure is surprisingly durable. In areas of moderate rainfall a turf building can last up to a hundred years.
The weight of the roof and load-bearing capability of the walls are clearly and issue. These buildings never stretched over two-storeys and the larger buildings tended to be modular in construction with individual roof-spans over one or two rooms (or "houses" linked together by connecting doorways or corridors. In earlier centuries one can imagine that the inner faces of the bear turf walls would have been hung with tapestries or animal skins, by the 18th & 19th century the fashion was for an inner facia of thin timber boarding – which in the high status rooms (such as the guest rooms) would be brightly painted.The Tour
There are some 16 rooms in the complex, including a store-room which is not open to viewing, but presumably of little interest anyway.
The entrance is off-centre in the front façade and gives onto an unusually long passageway. This in turn provides access to nine of the thirteen "houses". Two intermediate doors at intervals along the passage ways help keep the cold from penetrating to the living quarters but, according to one guide on site, also allowed control over access to the kitchens and food stores. Life in Iceland was hard, and food was often in limited supply. It would make sense for the lady of the manor (or local equivalent) to keep a tight hold on her store keys to ensure an appropriate and equitable distribution.
Towards the end of the 19th century, this was replaced as the principle guest accommodation by the room across the passage. The importance of the great and the good of Skagafjördur as pictured on the walls will probably escape you, but it's worth a peak into the weaving loft above. Quite what the guests would have made of having that loom rattling away above their heads is anybody's guess.The final guest room is to the rear and is also known to have served as a classroom – a few boys came to stay each year during the dark days of winter and would be taught by the local minister. It now houses display cases with a miscellany of everyday objects – the kind of things which would have been used and lost and forgotten, but which to me are the essence of good museums – pens, pipes, needlecases, delicate indoor shoes, these are the things which bring us closest to past lives and the people who lived them.
The kitchen is at the heart of house, and is probably the oldest part of the complex. Kitchens were reckoned to last longer than other buildings being both draughty warm. Whether the soot caking the woodwork had any preservative property is open to question. Huge pans hang over a room-width open fire, glazed skylights were probably open smoke vents in the days when meals for 20 people were cooked here, and the slaughtered sheep were smoked. The main pantry was largely a serving area where the mistress divvied up the food. A tiny mismatched collection of china and tin plates are on display, but generally poor and with little access to trade, farmers mostly made do with home-made wooden eating utensils. The long pantry was more of a store room. Barrels for slatur (offal) stored in whey lined the walls; others would have held skyr produced in the adjoining dairy. Fresh milk was poured into separating trays. Some 36 hours later the cream could be skimmed and churned for butter, while skyr (strained yoghurt) could be made from some of the remainder – producing the storage whey in the process.
The south door is noted as a means of bringing water into the house and taking the ashes out without having to traipse past the fancy rooms at the front. It also enabled the farmer's wife to control access to her kitchen.
BadstofaThis is the living room – in every sense. It has developed little from the traditional Viking long houses. It is where the farmer, his family and hired hands ate, worked, socialised and slept. The current badstofa was built around 1876 and contains 11 beds. Any indoor work falling to the men (combing wool, making horsehair rope) would be done sitting on his own bed, and above it he kept his "askur" – the lidded wooden bowl that served as storage and as eating bowl. The intricate carving on the bowls would be for decoration, recreation, but also for identification. The women were given the window side of the room, since their jobs of spinning and sewing required more light. In the days before glazing, that probably meant they also got the worst of the draughts.
Being much like an over-sized ship's-crew-cabin, the badstofa would have come with similar issues of friction and privacy, evolving into a strict code of conduct. What a man kept under his pillow was said to be as if under lock and key. Whether this uncurtained communal living had anything to do with low population levels is also open to question. Can't help wondering if there was some kind of rota for use of the 'guest' rooms when there were no guests around.Back in the main room however night time would see folk snuggled under home-made feather duvets and heavy blankets, all held in place by the prayer-scribed wooden rumfjol.
There is no evident heat source in the room, but with the insulation levels and that many people in close proximity, I suspect ventilation rather than heat would be a greater desire.External Rooms
The remaining rooms – which aren't connected with the house – are primarily storerooms, with one having been put to use as a smithy. The scattered populations of the country and the difficulties of travelling between them meant that most farms would have had a rudimentary smithy on site. Sensibly with its attendant fire risk, this is located at the end of the range, furthest from the living quarters.What there isn't
Two things noticeable by their absence are bathing and laundry facilities. Glaumbaer sits hard by the river one could only assume that it was down to the bank side for both.Gilstofa
The smaller timber house came from Espihóll in Eyafjördur. In 1861 or 1862 the owner became a district administrator in Skagafjördur, so naturally he took his house with him. Apparently this was common practice. The house would be dismantled and the timber would either be slid over the winter ice (pulled by horses) or loaded onto ship for seaborne relocation. Four other locations would accommodate it before finding its present home. The degree of dismantling is unclear – is this a prefab, where the walls were simply taken down and reassembled on new foundations, or are we simply acknowledging that timber is such a precious resource on this wind-blasted island that you certainly don't let go of any you've acquired. Either way, I'm not sure how much of what we see today is in any way, shape or form, original. (The story of the ancient broom comes to mind!)It now serves as the district offices for the museum authorities as well as providing the entrance-booth / information centre for the Glaumbaer site – internal viewing is limited to what you can see from the counter.
As HouseGreater access to the larger timber house is possible – not least because the lower floor serves as the site's tea room. We didn't partake, but the reputation suggests we missed several treats. Gooey cakes being top of the list. Traditional Icelandic soups and open sandwiches are also available. Full meals are not offered generally but can be pre-ordered for groups of 10 or more.
It's only open during the summer: June, July, August: 9am to 6pmUpper floors are set out to display domestic settings as they approached the modern day. Barbie-dolls share bedrooms with truckle beds and spinning wheels; fine china adorns the dining table; a record player and type-writer remind me of early editions in my own home; a balding plastic Christmas tree looks out of place on the old bureau; but not as translocated as the coffee blending and trading paraphernalia on full and proud display. The display of the modern national costume is appropriate not just by location but because its 'designer' was one of the last residents of the house (and also founder of Iceland's "Women's Institute"). There's a spinning jenny and other imports from the industrial revolution as testament to early progress and later appreciation of developments.
This is a small site that will not take more than an hour or two to fully explore, though if you time it right you could stretch it to a half-day by indulging in coffee and cake. There are only two rules on site: please don't take back-packs into the museum and Don't Touch. The first is self-explanatory – but you do have to keep reminding yourself about the latter. The exhibits are not fenced off. You can wander around the rooms at will and there is such a palpable sense of real individual people that you will want to hold what they held.Photography is free and unlimited.
Guide-books warn that the place can get crowded. If you're unlucky to hit a tour bus or two then I can see that could be a problem. Have a picnic and wait for them to go! It is more atmospheric with fewer people, more real – but you probably won't get it to yourself. It's too important for that.Cost Kr700 (about £3.95) as at July 2010
Open 1st June to 10th September, 9am-6pm (and by appointment at other times)~
© Lesley Mason
hiker @ Ciao.co.uk
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