Sunday, December 14, 2008

The world's most wonderful Peppercorn

Standing proudly in its sparkling new green livery, it is the ultimate big boy’s toy – the first steam locomotive built in more than 40 years.

And the privilege of getting it under way on its first official journey will go to Prince Charles.

Charles, whose investiture as Prince of Wales came months after the last steam train service was scrapped, has agreed to name – and drive – the Tornado steam engine at a special ceremony next year.

The Prince will ride on the footplate as the 105-ton engine pulls the Royal Train – with Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall as a passenger – on its inaugural journey in February.

The engine, whose full title is Peppercorn Class A1 Pacific 60163 Tornado, was built for £3million following donations from thousands of enthusiasts.

Tornado was unveiled while undergoing tests last month and will go into active service on the East Coast Main Line, pulling ‘specials’. It will leave its home at the National Railway Museum in York for the Royal journey before embarking on a series of tours between York, Newcastle and London.

Perhaps unsurprisingly for a man who often champions traditional architecture and farming methods, the Prince has an abiding passion for steam engines.

He makes sure that at least one of his public appearances each year involves riding or driving a steam locomotive. The Royal Train that took him and Camilla on their honeymoon at Balmoral was pulled by a steam engine.

The A1s were among the last steam engines to be withdrawn from service in favour of the more reliable but less romantic diesels.

British Rail scrapped them in 1966 and the final steam-powered journeys took place in November 1968, a few months before Charles’s investiture as the Prince of Wales.

No A1s survived, so in 1990 a group of railway enthusiasts began their project to build an engine from scratch. They set up the A1 Steam Locomotive Trust, asking supporters to donate the price of a pint of beer a week – £1.25 at the time – and slowly completed Tornado. After 18 years, the engine made its first run, of 120 yards, along track in a rail yard in Darlington on November 4.

It completed a further successful test run two weeks later, reaching 75mph between York and Newcastle.

Since the tests, Tornado has been given its new coat of Apple Green paint, the same shade as the first 30 A1s and the original colour of the Flying Scotsman.

Tornado will reach top speeds of up to 100mph with shorter ten-carriage trains.

Trust chairman Mark Allatt said: ‘The steam locomotive is the nearest thing Man has created to a living thing. You can’t turn it on. You can’t turn it off. You coax it along and it hisses and it bubbles and that is not like a modern machine.

‘A child when they first draw a picture of a train, they never draw diesel, they draw a steam engine. And that is what it is all about.’

Friday, December 12, 2008

Rail Britannia: Newly found pictures reveal how train travel was once a glorious experience, not a shabby ordeal

The golden age of steam was never more glorious than during the heyday of the Great Western Railway. As these newly discovered photographs reveal, the everyday workings of God's Wonderful Railway (as it was dubbed) reveal a world of style, order and civility almost unimaginable to harassed commuters.

Buffet car

A waiter serves serves tea in a dining car in the Thirties when being a GWR employee was considered a prestigious job

Uniformed porters carrying bags, dining cars where you would actually want to eat and stations that seem more like temples than places of transit  -  all this is a world away from the crowded, ugly and noisy experience of train travel in Britain today.

It is a timely reminder that there was a time, a few decades back, when travel was a glamorous experience and where the passengers' comfort was paramount. This glimpse into a long-forgotten world would have remained lost and forgotten itself were it not for a tireless team of volunteers.

Swindon Works in 1951

A Class 4 locomotive suspended from the ceiling in preparation for a valve fitting at Swindon Works in 1951

They pieced together the details of these pictures, which were discovered by chance when Swindon council acquired the old GWR workshops eight years ago. Piled up in scores of boxes, unlabelled and in disarray, was a pictorial treasure trove of GWR's heyday. It has taken thousands of hours of research by rail enthusiasts to sift through them and piece together the stories behind them for the Museum of the Great Western Railway in Swindon.

Holiday crowds

Holiday crowds waiting to board The Torbay Limted Express in 1926

'Our volunteers are retired railway workers, engineers and people who have knowledge of rail history,' says Elaine Arthurs, one of the curators. 'They set to work on the photographs and were able to provide details about each of the images.' What they discovered casts new light on the workings of this most remarkable of British railway companies, which operated lines linking London with the West Country, South-West England and South Wales. It was none other than the 19thcentury engineering genius Isambard Kingdom Brunel who had the vision that made this railway line the most advanced in the world at the time.

Holiday crowds

This publicity shot from the Thirties emphasises the style and cool sophistication of train travel at the time

Mooted by Bristol merchants concerned that they were losing port trade to Liverpool, the Great Western Railway company was founded in 1833. Brunel was appointed the company's engineer, and work commenced. The first stretch of line, from London Paddington to Maidenhead Bridge station, a distance of 22.5 miles, was opened on June 4, 1838. More lines followed, with Reading opening in March 1840, and Bath at the end of August. Brunel worked at a furious rate, and gave the line such engineering marvels as Paddington Station, the Chepstow Bridge and the Box Tunnel. By the early years of the 20th century, the GWR's links with Cornwall and Wales led to it being dubbed the Holiday Line.

Vending machine

GWR prided itself on being on the cutting edge of innovation with its vending machines

For a generation of holiday makers, the view from one of the two-tone chocolate and cream carriages provided their first glimpse of the south Wales countryside or the Devon and Cornish coast. The true stars of the company, however, were its steam engines. Magnificent, chrome, green and black creations, these powerful locomotives were at one point emerging from the heat and fury of the GWR workshop in Swindon at a rate of two a week. It was their efficiency that allowed the company to prosper, even during the height of the Great Depression, when a number of these photographs were taken.

Chef in kitchen

Restaurant cars were introduced for first class passengers in 1896 and four years later for second class travellers. Here a chef prepares a meal in 1946

So popular was the railway that when the last steam engine, the Clun Castle, left Paddington on June 11, 1965, a crowd of well-wishers mobbed it. For the crowds that turned out that day and for the thousands of travellers who had graced the line over the years, many might have agreed with Robert Louis Stevenson when he remarked: 'I travel not to go anywhere, but to go . . . The great affair is to move.' Having experienced the romance of the GWR, for these commuters the journey was all.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

The latest installment of Boris

They seek him here, they seek him there, that damned elusive London Mayor. Everyone has just seen Boris, cycling down the highway or jogging across Tower Bridge in his woolly hat. And yet, like the Scarlet Pimpernel, Mr Johnson is impossible to pin down. Three attempts to interview him have been thwarted at the last minute. Even our meeting this week is nearly cancelled the evening before it is due to take place – then rescheduled twice on the morning of the event. Eventually, we are given a half-hour slot for lunch with the mayor – but he is running 45 minutes late and sends a series of aides to order for him before he arrives. “Girls, girls, sorry to keep you waiting,” he says, as he plonks himself down at the table before asking for a glass of red wine. Too busy to touch his food, he orders a doggy bag - then forgets to pick it up when he leaves.

Once the loveable English eccentric, who was as comfortable on Have I Got News for You as in the House of Commons chamber, suddenly showed that he could do serious during the mayoral election campaign. He didn’t drink, he combed his hair and he stopped cycling through red lights. He appeared determined to stay on track. But, as Mr Johnson has admitted himself, it’s much more fun to blow up the line and see what happens. His cartoon hero is, he tells us, Dennis the Menace.

Since taking over at City Hall in May he has become more chaotic, unpredictable and outspoken again. His short-back-and-sides has grown out.

“Do you think I threw a deliberate fire blanket of tedium over the mayoral campaign?” he says. “Did I ham up the buffoon image or did I get trapped in it? Neither of those two options seem to be particularly attractive. That level of auto-analysis is beyond me.”

Now, however, Mr Johnson isn’t just an MP, magazine editor or columnist – he is the highest elected Tory in the land. With a budget of £11 billion, and the endorsement of 1.2 million voters, he is a trailblazer for the new Conservatives. He went to Eton and Oxford (joining the Bullingdon Club) before David Cameron. He even holidayed in Corfu when George Osborne was still at school. Everything he does in London is seen as an indicator of what the Conservatives might do in power.

But, he says: “There is no fly-by-wire thing going on. We are doing our own thing. This is not some Petri dish in which various Tory ideas are being inserted like bacilli.”

In fact, Mr Johnson is carefully building up his own political identity to match his celebrity persona. He wants to replace Heathrow with “Boris Island”, he has proposed an amnesty for asylum-seekers in London and he has defended the City fat cats, in contrast to Tory high command.

His most dramatic intervention as mayor has been to ease out Sir Ian Blair as Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police – leading to accusations of politicisation. This week the mayor, who is chairman of the Metropolitan Police Authority, got involved in the Damian Green case, saying he believed that the police investigation into his friend was “doomed”.

“I am not going to go into that – ├ža suffit. I am not going to tell you anything. I am an exhausted volcano, I am a defunct man, I have let it all hang out,” he says when we ask whether he overstepped the mark in giving his views.

“Of course I haven’t prejudiced the case. Even if there is a trial, nothing I have said is remotely prejudicial. You can tickle my toes, you can pull my teeth out, I am not going to talk about Damian any more. I direct you to what I said on the day of Damian’s arrest. It was perfectly formulated but I have forgotten what it was.”

But, we say, lots of people think that it is improper for the head of the police authority to criticise a current investigation. At this point Mr Johnson breaks into song, declaring: “Let them think it’s weird, let them think it’s weird, I don’t care.”

Is he angry with the police because they seem to be on Labour’s side? “They aren’t politicised.”

But it is clear that he thinks that the mayor should, as in New York, have more power over the appointment of the commissioner. “The democratic component is provided by the mayoralty and we should refine and develop that.”

Having got rid of Sir Ian, would he be happy to see him replaced permanently by Sir Paul Stephenson, the man responsible for the raid on Mr Green’s office? “There is a strong list of candidates to succeed Sir Ian,” he replies. “The Home Secretary will make her appointment in the normal way in consultation with the Metropolitan Police Authority, which I chair, which will make its recommendations, and I personally will make my representations.”

So will he be happy if Jacqui Smith chooses Sir Paul? “Blah,” he replies. A fire alarm goes off. “Hah, I’ve just organised that,” he declares before changing the subject.

In general, he says, the police are doing a good job. “There’s a massive disparity between what they are achieving and the public perception of what they are achieving. People don’t feel as safe as statistics say they should be feeling.”

As London’s elected representative, he receives regular briefings on the danger from terrorism. “There is a chronic threat,” he says. “The sheer number of people who could potentially be a risk is very large. We have 40,000 young men a year going to and from Pakistan. It is easy for someone to disappear into a tribal area and get up to God knows what. Since 9/11 there have been 13 foiled outrages.”

The attacks on Mumbai have, he reveals, led to a stepping-up of security on the Thames. “There is a great deal of work going on. There certainly are extensive preparations to stop a Mumbai-style operation on the Thames. They have thought all that through. There is substantial organisation to guard against the possibility of some sort of riparian assault.”

Mr Johnson wants an amnesty for illegal immigrants in London – a policy that he would like Mr Cameron to adopt as party policy for the country. “I certainly think the Conservative Party should look at this nationally,” he says. “There are probably 700,000 people living illegally in this country of whom 400,000 are in this city. Their position is precarious, it would be sensible if, after a considerable interval, they were able to earn their way into society. I don’t argue this out of some Christian idea of clemency or forgiveness, I argue it from hardheaded economic and political assessment. It’s not a good thing to have a substantial minority of people living here in illegal circumstances when there’s not a snowball’s chance in hell of them being put on a plane and expelled.”

He is just as worried about the super-rich leaving London. The rise in national insurance announced in the Pre-Budget Report made him “apprehensive”. And, he says: “The 45p top rate is a bad signal, it’s a bit of red meat pointlessly poked through the bars to slavering lobotomised Labour backbenchers.”

He also disagrees with the tax on “non-doms” – non-domiciled residents. “Measures which deter talent from coming to the City of London are generally to be deprecated.” His language about the bankers has been markedly different from the rhetoric used by Mr Osborne, the Shadow Chancellor.

“We were both speaking English,” Mr Johnson says. “I’m a friend of the bankers but do not forget this is a bankogenic recession. It wasn’t produced by some oil shock, it was produced by a crisis in the financial services industry. The recession will be a lot worse than it need be unless the banks understand that they need to reach out and help small businesses.”

Does he think that green taxes are a good idea in an economic downturn? “Green taxis [sic] are a brilliant idea,” he replies. “I’m very pleased that since I’ve been in office I’ve cut at least two taxes – one on gas guzzlers and one on the extension of the congestion zone. They were environmentally trivial.”

The mayor wants Londoners to spend their way out of a recession. “People who have money should spend,” he says. He won’t say what his personal fiscal stimulus will be. “I have many outgoings and I give far too much away,” he says. “I don’t like to brag, I wouldn’t dream of telling Times readers about the £200,000 I’m giving over four years to charity.”

To placate those who thought that he was juggling too many jobs, Mr Johnson agreed to give away £50,000 a year – a fifth of the salary he earns from his Daily Telegraph column – to London charities. “David Cameron had nothing to do with it. If you put that I was forced to do it by some f****** Cameron bollocks I’ll be extremely annoyed. It was out of pure goodness, sweetness, Mahatma-like compassion. I would like everyone to give away a fifth of their income.”

The Olympic Games are in his view a worthy beneficiary of government money. “We don’t want Spam fritters and an austerity Olympics – the whole of London is going to be street parties. People will love it.”

He is talking to some of Britain’s most prestigious universities about a plan to turn the Olympic Park into a “higher education hub”, funded by the Chinese. “I want a new university for people who aspire to get a first and a Blue.” He is also talking to Beijing about funding a new airport in the Thames Gateway – the so-called Boris Island. “The idea of endlessly expanding Heathrow is out of date and environmentally extremely foolish. There are plenty of sovereign wealth funds around who might be interested in investing.”

Mr Johnson has a Utopian vision for London. “I want a city with a wonderful new bike-hire scheme, with many more trees. I want a big programme of youth opportunities to cut knife crime, and traffic that flows freely. I want a London where people say they had a mayor who really cared about architecture, a mayor who said that too often when you look at buildings in London they could have been motels in Stuttgart or trade fairs in Trondheim. I want the people of London to have restored to them the Routemaster bus that was so brutally taken away from them.”

Would the mayor like to extend his vision to the whole of Britain? “Oh no, have they seen my Boris-for-PM placard?” Mr Johnson says to an aide. “A member of the Unite union bought it for me.”

So does he want to get to No 10? “No, my appetite for power is glutted. As Margaret Thatcher almost said, there is such a thing as satiety.”

Boris the Menace

Full name Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson
Age 44
Education: Eton and Balliol College, Oxford (where he read classics)

Friday, December 5, 2008

Jewish and Moorish ancestry among Spaniards

The medieval reconquest of Spain from the Moors left a genetic legacy that can be detected today in the DNA of men from the Iberian Peninsula, scientists have discovered.

A high proportion of Spanish and Portuguese males have a genetic profile indicative of North African or Jewish ancestry, according to research that sheds light on the region’s history. As many as one in five has a Y chromosome of apparently Jewish origin, while one in ten has a Y chromosome showing a North African heritage.

“These proportions attest to a high level of religious conversion, whether voluntary or enforced, driven by historical episodes of social and religious intolerance, that ultimately led to the integration of descendants,” said Professor Mark Jobling, of the University of Leicester, who led the research.

After the Fall of the Roman Empire, Spain was ruled from the 5th to the 8th century by the Visigoths, who established a Christian kingdom. In 711, however, an Arab army crossed the Strait of Gibraltar, beginning several centuries of Muslim rule.

The Moors tolerated both Christianity and Judaism, but Christians nevertheless progressively sought to reconquer the peninsula over a period of several centuries known as the Reconquista. When the Christian kingdoms of Aragon and Castile were united in the 1470s under Ferdinand and Isabella, they began the final phase of the Reconquista. The last Moors were expelled from Granada in 1492 by the “Catholic monarchs”, who began to enforce Christian orthodoxy.

Jews and Muslims were forced to convert, and the Inquisition was established to persecute as heretics those who maintained their old religions. Many converted Jews, or conversos, and converted Muslims, or moriscos, were expelled.

However, as well as their contributions to architecture, food and culture, they left behind their DNA, the study in the American Journal of Human Genetics reports. It examined the male Y chromosome to chart patrilineal descent. While women have two X chromosomes, men have one X and one Y, and the Y is always inherited from their fathers, remaining intact in the male line from generation to generation.

While the majority of modern Spanish men have a Y chromosome type that is common throughout Europe, a high proportion have profiles that correspond with a converso or morisco background.

Professor Jobling added: “In the long term, Jews and moriscos were either kicked out or were forced to integrate. That’s what we see the effect of now, the integration of their descendants.”

The results also show the extent to which it is possible to trace the impact of historical events through modern DNA.

Similar research has recently shown that the Crusaders may have left a genetic mark on modern Lebanon, where a high proportion of Christian men today have a Y chromosome of European origin.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Vast underground glaciers reported on Mars

NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter has detected vast glaciers of water ice under Martian ground, researchers say. The findings could present new avenues for the search for life on Mars, they add, or provide water to support future human exploration. Scientists analyzed data from the spacecraft's ground-penetrating radar and report in the Nov. 21 issue of the research journal Science that buried glaciers extend for dozens of miles (kilometers) from the edges of mountains or cliffs. A layer of rocky debris blanketing the ice may have preserved the underground glaciers as remnants from an ice sheet that covered middle latitudes during a past ice age, scientists said.

This finding is similar to massive ice glaciers that have been detected under rocky coverings in Antarctica. "Altogether, these glaciers almost certainly represent the largest reservoir of water ice on Mars that is not in the polar caps," said John W. Holt of the University of Texas at Austin, lead author of the report. "Just one of the features we examined is three times larger than the city of Los Angeles and up to half a mile thick."

Scientists have puzzled over what are known as aprons -- gently sloping areas containing rocky deposits at the bases of taller geographical features -- since NASA's Viking orbiters first observed them on the Martian surface in the1970s. One theory has been that the aprons are flows of rocky debris lubricated by a small amount ice. Now, the shallow radar instrument on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter has offered "the smoking gun pointing to the presence of large amounts of water ice at these latitudes," said Ali Safaeinili, a shallow radar instruments team member with NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.

Radar echoes received by the spacecraft indicated radio waves pass through the aprons and reflect off a deeper surface below without significant loss in strength, he explained; that would be expected if the apron areas consisted of thick ice under a relatively thin covering. The radar doesn't detect reflections from the interior of these deposits as would occur if they contained significant rock debris, he continued. The apparent velocity of radio waves passing through the apron is consistent with a composition of water ice, he said.


Iceland is unlike anywhere else, an incongruous mix of sublime scenery and few resources, writes David Marr.

Some countries start badly. We're driving over lava flows under a low sky in a taxi that might as well be eating our money. It's a grim scene. Reykjavik looks like a row of sheds impossibly far away. The driver is taciturn. On this bleak summer afternoon it's 11 degrees outside. In the distance by a range of grey hills, steam is rising from the landscape. We shell out kronur to the tune of $140 and find ourselves dropped on the footpath at the wrong address. In the rain.

But at about 9.30 that night, the sun comes out. We are wandering back to the apartment after a plate of fish and chips when, for a few miraculous minutes before the sun sets, the street is washed with light. On the far side of the harbour, the mountains turn soft green and seem to float in the sky. It's a brief, uplifting moment: a promise of what's to come and a warning to be patient. Iceland isn't meant to be easy.

No one can really explain why anyone came here in the first place. Weren't there other islands without volcanoes further south? Islands where Vikings in the ninth century could take their sheep and stolen Scottish brides? Tourists face the same question: why here?

A part of Iceland's powerful draw is the sheer incongruity of the place: a toy-box civilisation built on one of the least hospitable stretches on earth. The women are beautiful, the men are plain, the scenery is sublime, the roads are dodgy and everything is expensive. Iceland has no military, no railways, no forests, no weeds, no safety railings and no lifts. The population is smaller than Tasmania's and most people speak English. This is one of those relaxing countries where there's no expectation visitors will learn much beyond a few polite phrases: yes (ja), no (nei), hello (hallo), thanks (takk). It's not hard.

One useful word, not apparently found in dictionaries, sounds like yay-ja and is heard all the time. It's a gap filler that means "yes" but also "give me a minute to think" or "I'm getting bored" and, when inflected with purpose, "I think you're a bit of a dickhead". It's a one-word demonstration of the Icelandic way of making do with few resources.

The sun shines brightly in Reykjavik for days. It's a pretty town. The houses clad in corrugated iron are painted bright pink and blue and lavender and rust red. Along fashionable Laugavegur where rainbow flags are still flying after Gay Pride, turf is being laid in shops and galleries in preparation for Culture Night. Turf matters in Iceland; it's a land of turf walls, turf roofs and, in 2008, even turf art.

The streets are crowded with American vulcanologists. Famous as the setting of the Fischer-Spassky World Chess Championship of 1972 and the Reagan-Gorbachev summit of 1986, Reykjavik is hosting a world gathering of volcano watchers. Anything could erupt at any moment. Iceland's city power, earthquakes, perpetual hot water supply, geysers and lava fields come courtesy of a rip across the landscape where the Eurasian and American continental plates are coming apart.

At some point Iceland is going to split in half. Fish, aluminium and tourism have made it one of the wealthiest countries in the world, although that wealth is falling apart due to the global credit crunch.

Before setting off on our trip round the country, we hear many warnings. "Roads are a new thing in Iceland," warns the woman cutting my hair. "Before the war we only had horse tracks but the Americans came and brought roads." Roads avoid known "elf habitations" - true.

Other big safety issues are blind crests, precipitous drops and gravel. Iceland is a major gravel nation. Rent-a-cars get about looking as if they're sprayed with gun shot. The firms just flag the holes with little yellow stickers - and you head out of town, soon leaving behind both sunlight and the BBC World Service.

Somewhere ahead is Snaefellsnes, a mighty glacier-capped mountain, invisible in the murk and driving rain. We retreat to the swank Hotel Budir and eat lobster and sheep's head pate in the middle of the wilderness. Next morning the sun is shining and I ask the woman at the desk if it's always like this: a burst of sun in the morning and rain for the rest of the day. "No," she replies. "There is no pattern. It's random."

The sky lifts and we begin a long day driving north through the fjords. You have no idea how beautiful this country is unless you've stood on one of these hillsides and stared almost to infinity across fjords and bare mountains out to sea. Photographs give the colour but can't convey the scale. Iceland is elemental, mysterious and huge.

We miscalculated. Fjords take time. We drive a long way in and out to make headway along the coast. On the few short cuts over the mountains, the roads are gravel, the drops terrifying and railings rare. There are huts in the passes tethered to the ground by steel cables to shelter stranded travellers. Road signs give gradients up and down. The worst we face that day - 18 per cent - may not sound steep but the descent in failing light is heart-stopping.

We should have arrived hours ago when we round another headland and see yet another long climb ahead. It's almost dark and raining again. But in no time we're looking down into a perfect little fjord before slithering down into Djupavik with its ruined herring factory and one rough, good pub. It's late but they open the kitchen for us and the food is good.

We're learning the rules of the road. When you're exhausted, when you just want the day to be done with - Iceland offers something more, something unexpected and wonderful. I find myself swearing all the time. Often the only right response to the jaw-dropping surprises of this country is that one sharp word that may, come to think of it, be Icelandic in origin.

The land is gentler as we follow Route One towards Akureyri, the only other town with claims to be a city. We see red-roofed farmhouses in windswept valleys, each with a flagpole and a waterfall and a few fields of mown hay.

We learn to read the rivers: the smoky green of snow melt; muddy purple where fields of lava are being torn away; and creeks so pure the water seems invisible. Nailed on bridges is one of the strangest signs in the world: a red stripe across euros, dollars, pounds and kronur. It means: this stream is not a wishing well. Don't throw money.

Forests of birch and poplar are being planted. Iceland was denuded about seven centuries ago and has been naked since. Global warming is one threat to this country - glaciers are retreating and a hottest-ever 26.2 degrees was recorded in Reykjavik this summer. But a greater threat to its unique look is reforestation. It should be stamped out before Iceland loses its picture-book nudity.

No trees will ever grow in the lunar hinterland of boiling mud pools, geysers and fields of sulphur that haven't quite cooled since eruptions centuries ago.

All's quiet on Iceland at the moment but a magnificent film installation of Surtsey appearing out of the sea in 1963 can be seen at Reykjavik's Culture House and there is a mesmerising video at the Skaftafell National Park Visitors Centre of the 1996 eruption under Vatnajokull's mighty ice cap.

Why do we find hot rock being flung around so fascinating? Or water falling over cliffs? This is a place where the crust is thin, rivers are new, glaciers run to the sea and, depending on the season, the sun barely sets or barely rises. Iceland is one of those places we come to watch nature break the rules.

We didn't hire horses or take snowmobiles on the glaciers; we didn't go whale watching - two pilot whales came to us, cavorting one morning in Akureyri harbour - and we didn't go fishing or hike across the mountains. But we did just about everything else. I even got booked for driving at 110kmh. After a solemn interview in the back of a police car, payment of about $300 and being handed a ticket that detailed the exact longitude and latitude of the offence the officer said: "We now consider the case closed."

Reykjavik seemed tame when we returned but that Friday night it erupted as, we're told, it always does at the weekend, with the runtur - a pub, bar and club crawl that roars through until breakfast. On those last days we drove through a wild storm to eat lobster, spent a fruitless afternoon looking for puffins and ended the holiday on a lava field basking in the misty waters of the Blue Lagoon in Grindavik.

Iceland had one last surreal experience for us before our midnight flight. It was cold, it was dark, it was raining and the pool was nearly empty. A young attendant in full arctic gear stood on the boardwalk arguing with a couple of Americans who, it seemed, wanted to have sex in the swirling steam. They were stridently claiming a right to privacy. "That's what they all say," said the attendant and with perfect good humour threatened to see them jailed for breaking the decency laws. We left them to their argument.

In a country that has seen everything, not quite everything goes.