A Girl's Ride in Iceland
A Girl's Ride in Iceland
Ethel Brilliana Alec-Tweedie
A Girl's Ride in Iceland
PREFACE TO THE SECOND EDITION
When this little volume (my maiden effort) was published five years ago, it unwittingly originated an angry controversy by raising the question "Should women ride astride?"
It is astonishing what a great fire a mere spark may kindle, and accordingly the war, on what proved to be a very vexed subject, waged fast and furious. The picture papers inserted cleverly-illustrated articles pro. and con.; the peace of families was temporarily wrecked, for people were of course divided in their opinions, and bitter things were said by both sides concerning a very simple and harmless matter. For a time it seemed as though the "Ayes" would win; but eventually appearances carried the day, and women still use side saddles when on horseback, though the knickerbockers and short skirts (only far shorter) I advocated for rough country riding are now constantly worn by the many female equestrians who within the last couple of years have mounted bicycles.
It is nearly four years since, from an hotel window in Copenhagen, I saw, to my great surprise, for the first time a woman astride a bicycle! How strange it seemed! Paris quickly followed suit, and now there is a perfect army of women bicyclists in that fair capital; after a decent show of hesitation England dropped her prejudices, and at the present minute, clad in unnecessarily masculine costume, almost without a murmur, allows her daughters to scour the country in quest of fresh air astride a bicycle.
If women may ride an iron steed thus attired, surely they might be permitted to bestride a horse in like manner clothed, and in like fashion.
In past times women have ridden in every possible position, and in every possible costume. They have ridden sideways on both the near and off sides, they have ridden astride (as the Mexicans, Indians, Tartars, Roumanians, Icelanders, &c., do to-day), and they have also ridden pillion. Queen Elizabeth rode thus behind the Earl of Leicester on public occasions, in a full hoop skirt, low-necked bodice, and large ruffs. Nevertheless, she dispensed with a cavalier when out hunting, at the ripe age of seventy-six.
When hunting, hawking, or at tournaments, women in the middle ages always rode astride in this country, reserving their side saddles merely for state functions. Judging from old pictures, they then mounted arrayed in full ball dresses, in long-veiled headdresses (time of Edward II.), and in flowing skirts, while their heads were often ornamented with huge plumed hats.
Formerly, every church door, every roadside inn, had its horse block or "jumping-on stone" – called in Kent and some other southern counties the "joist stone," and in Scotland the "louping-on stane." These were necessary in the olden days of heavy armour, and at a time when women rode astride. Men can now mount alone, although the struggles of a small man to climb to the top of a big horse sometimes are mightily entertaining; but women have to trust to any capable or incapable man who can assist them into their saddles.
Fashion is ephemeral. Taste and public opinion having no corporal identity, are nothing but the passing fancy of a given generation.
Dress to a woman always seems an important matter, and to be well dressed it is necessary to be suitably clothed. Of course breeches, high boots or leggings are essential in riding; but a neatly arranged divided skirt, reaching well below the knee, can be worn over these articles, and the effect produced is anything but inelegant. Of one thing we may be certain, namely, that whenever English women summon up enough courage to ride their horses man fashion again, every London tailor will immediately set himself to design becoming and useful divided skirts for the purpose.
I strongly advocate the abolition of the side saddle for the country, hunting, or rough journeys, for three reasons – 1st, safety; 2nd, comfort; 3rd, health.
I. Of course nothing is easier under ordinary circumstances than to "stick on" a side saddle, because the pommels almost hold one there: herein lies much danger. In the case of a horse falling, for instance, a woman (although doubtless helped by the tight skirts of the day) cannot extricate herself. She is caught in the pommels or entangled by the stirrups, both of which calamities mean dragging, and often result in a horrible death.
II. Miss Bird, in her famous book of travels, tells us how terribly her back suffered from hard riding on a side-saddle, and how easily she accomplished the same distances when, disregarding conventionalities, she adopted a man's seat.
The wife of a well-known Consul-General, who, in company with her husband, rode in similar fashion from Shanghai to St. Petersburgh through Siberia, always declared such a feat would have been impossible for her to achieve on a side-saddle. Further, the native women of almost all countries ride astride to this day, as they did in England in the fourteenth century.
My own experience as to comfort will be found in the following pages, and I can only add that greater knowledge has strengthened my opinion.
III. Cross riding has been considered injurious to health by a few members of the medical profession, but the majority hold a different opinion.
When discussing the subject with Sir John Williams – one of the greatest authorities on the diseases of women – he said, "I do not see that any harm could arise from women riding like men. Far from it. I cannot indeed conceive why the side saddle was ever invented at all." What more could be urged in favour of cross riding.
Do we not all know that many girls become crooked when learning to ride, and have to mount on the off side in order to counteract the mischief. Is this not proof in itself of how unnatural the position must be?
As women ride at the present moment, horses with sore backs are unfortunately no rarity. It is true these galls are caused by bad riding; still, such things would be avoided with a man's saddle, which is far lighter than a woman's, and easier to carry, because the rider's weight is not on one side, but equally distributed – a great comfort to the horse's loins and withers.
We all know that a woman's horse is far sooner knocked up with a hard day than one ridden by a man, although the man is probably the heavier weight of the two, and this merely because he is properly balanced.
Since this little book made its first appearance, many ladies have followed the advice therein contained, and visited "the most volcanic region of the earth," peeped at Iceland's snow-clad peaks and deeply indented fjords, made acquaintance with its primitive people, and ridden their shaggy ponies. Practically Iceland remains the same to-day as it was a century ago. Time passes unheeded within its borders, and a visit to the country is like returning to the Middle Ages. Excepting in the capital, to all intents and purposes, no change is to be noted; and even there the main square opposite the governor's house forms the chief cod-fish drying-ground, while every summer the same odours ascend from the process as greeted travellers of yore.
Thanks, however, to the courtesy of a couple of friends, I am able to mention a few innovations. Dr. Karl Grossman, who travelled through the north-west of the island, on geology intent, has kindly furnished me with excellent photographs of ponies.
Mr. T. J. Jeaffreson, who knows the island well, intends before joining Mr. Frederick Jackson's polar expedition, to explore and cross the interior of Iceland from east to west during the winter of 1894-95, on or about the 68th parallel, traversing the practically unknown districts of Storis-anch, Spengis-andr, and O-dadahraimm, and returning across the Vatna Jokull or Great Ice Desert. His reasons for wishing to cross in the winter are, first, that in summer ponies must be used for the journey, and they could not carry sufficient food and fuel for the expedition as well as fodder for themselves; second, the roughness of the ground and the weight of the burdens would necessitate very short distances being traversed each day.
Mr. Jeaffreson will, as did Dr. Nansen when he crossed Greenland, use ski and Canadian snow-shoes, and drag his own sledges, in preference to using ponies or dogs. We may look for an interesting volume on the natural history of Iceland from his pen.
Some slight but desirable improvements have been effected in the Capital Reykjavik, the most important being the erection of quite a nice little hotel "Iseland," which is kept by Halburg, who speaks excellent English, and whose son, formerly a waiter in this country, is a good sportsman and guide. Ponies are supplied at this hotel.
The chief guide in Iceland is now Thorgrimmer Goodmanson. He speaks several languages fluently, and is by profession the English and Latin schoolmaster; during the summer months, nevertheless, he acts as guide.
The museum has been much enlarged, and is now located in the House of Parliament.
There is a new hospital, and very good public washing sheds have been erected for the town at the hot springs about a mile distant.
There are now several shops, perhaps a dozen, and among them an excellent sporting outfitters, where English cartridges and salmon flies can be procured.
Most of the pony track from Meijkjavik to Akureyri has been marked by stone cairns which show black against the winter's snow; and as there is now a post for nine months of the year (the boats running occasionally in the winter), letters are carried on horseback across from the capital to Akureyri every four weeks.
The "Camöens" runs no longer, but the Danish boats stop at Leith once a fortnight (excepting during January, February, and March, when the island is ice-bound), and after calling at three places in the Faroës and at Westmann Islands (weather permitting) go straight to Reykjavik.
The road from the capital to the Geysers is as rough as ever, but at Thingvalla Parsonage two or three little cabin bed-rooms have been put up, beds being very preferable to the floor in the opinion of weary travellers.
Tents are still necessary at the Geysers, although a two-roomed shed is in process of erection for the accommodation of visitors.
The Stroker Geyser, which stopped for some time, is now working again, and is kept covered with a little lattice wood lid.
Mr. Jeaffreson told me that at Yellowstone Park, in America, visitors are carefully watched to see that they do not make the geysers work artificially by means of soap. (Hardly explicable in such small quantities by chemistry or physics.) Remembering this experience the last time he went to Iceland, he packed some 2lb. bars of common soap among his luggage.
"When I got to the Geysers," he continued, "the dirty old Icelander guarding them asked me for 5 kroner to make the Stroker play. When I refused his request he became most abusive, but, seeing I was inexorable, finally went away, declaring the geyser would never play unless I paid him, and I declaring as emphatically that it would, and directly too.
"As soon as he was at a safe distance I looked up my bars of soap, and dropping a couple of them under the lid, awaited the result. Very shortly a hiss and a groan were heard, and up went the boiling water, sending the wooden grating into the air.
"Back rushed the dirty man, not knowing whether to abuse or worship me as a worker of miracles. He was profoundly impressed, and finally declared he had never seen Stroker play so well before, but – 'Was it the Devil who had worked the game?'
"I had not enough soap left to try the big geyser, so waited a couple of days to see it play. Fortunately it did so in the end."
If the story of Stroker spread, which it is sure to do in such a very superstitious country, Mr. Jeaffreson will be regarded with a certain amount of awe when he starts on his ski (snow-shoes) expedition next winter.
Although his proposed trip is somewhat dangerous, I hope he may return as happily as Dr. Nansen did from Greenland, and extract as much pleasure out of his skilöbning as we contrived to do by visiting Norway when that glorious land was covered with snow and bound by ice.
When I pen these last lines, on July 12, 1894, I have just returned from seeing Frederick Jackson and his gallant followers steam away down Thames in their quest of the North Pole. A party of friends and several leading Arctic explorers assembled at Cannon-street Station this morning to see the English Polar Expedition off. Five minutes before the train left, Frederick Jackson, who having discarded the frock coat and top hat which had earned for him the reputation of "resembling a smart guardsman with handsome bronzed features," appeared upon the scene with his favourite brother. To-day the leader of the expedition looked like an English yachtsman in blue serge; but he did not personally provoke so much comment as his luggage. All the heavy things were already on board the "Windward," anchored off Greenhithe. When the hero of the hour arrived, a large Inverness cape on his arm, carrying a bundle of fur rugs, his only article of luggage was a large tin bath!
"A bath," we cried.
"Yes," he laughingly replied, "I've had a small bath-room built on the ship, and when we get into our winter quarters on Bell Island I shall use my 'baby's bath.' I can rough it, and I have roughed it for years, but there is one thing I can't go without – a good tub."
What a true Englishman!
Frederick Jackson was in the best of spirits, and never gave way for a moment, although those many, many good-byes exchanged with intimate friends must have been a sore trial. In spite of his tremendous self-control, he is strangely tenderhearted and affectionate by nature.
When we reached Greenhithe it was raining; but the boats from the "Worcester," manned by smart lads, were waiting for us, and with hard pulling – for the tide was running fast – we were all soon clambering up a rope ladder to the "Windward's" decks. There was not much room. Food at full rations (6½ lb. per man per diem) for eight men for four years fills a good space, and five or six tons of cod liver oil biscuits for the dogs, twelve tons of compressed hay for the ponies, sledges, tents, boats, clothing, &c., was more than the hold could accommodate, and some of the things strewed the deck.