Favourite Places: Thingholt
By ‘Thingholt’, I mean the bloody great hill in the middle of Reykjavík with a church on top. I assume that in Viking times, they held one of those ‘thingi’ things here, meaning an assembly.
It’s bordered by the Tjörnin pond on the west, Laugavegur to the north, the National Hospital to the east and the City airport to the south. It’s a residential area bang in the middle of town, full of small houses with brightly painted corrugated iron roofs — predominantly red, but also green and blue. The walls are either concrete or corrugated iron, and many are brightly painted too.
Most of the houses with corrugated metal walls were built between 1880 and 1925. The rain in Reykjavík frequently falls horizontally, so wooden walls tended to rot. Wood was also expensive, since it all had to be imported, and it burns: much of Reykjavík burned down in 1915. Corrugated iron was all the rage until the Icelanders discovered concrete in the 1920s.
The dwellings are small, with little gables and tiny gardens behind picket fences. The place is delightfully, domestically, quiet: the roads are too narrow for Reykjavík’s traffic to make much headway. There are primary schools and playgrounds, corner shops and bicycles.
The western slope, rising up from the Tjörnin, seems to have the oldest houses, built by Reykjavík merchants in the nineteenth century. Old in Thingholt means quaint, rather than grand. The houses to the south are a little grander; this is where the Reykjavík bigwigs live, and you might spot the odd security camera. The slope to the north above Laugavegur is hipper and quirkier, and to the east it is a bit scruffier. This is where Magnus lives. I was told that Thingholt would be a little too Bohemian for a policeman, so I had him lodge with one of his colleagues’ punkish sister. Their house is a lovely little building with grey painted corrugated iron walls and a red door on Njálsgata — I know exactly which one.
No one can agree exactly where Thingolt's borders run; according to the more pedantic residents, Njálsgata may lie just outside its limits. Which sounds about right for Magnus.
When Julian Assange and his colleagues from Wikileaks came to Iceland to edit the video of an American operation in Iraq, which had been leaked to them, they stayed in a house in Thingholt. My third Magnus novel, Meltwater, features a similar outfit who also holed up in a little house on the hill.
I have mentioned the terrific view from the top of the Hallgrímskirkja, but the views snatched strolling around the hill are perhaps better because more unexpected. Between a child’s swing and a rowan tree, you suddenly catch a glimpse of Mount Esja, or the Tjörnin, or the Pearl — the water tower to the south of town, or much closer, the swooping spire of the church itself.
Skólavördustígur is a road that heads straight uphill to the Hallgrímskirkja from the bottom of Laugavegur. The name is a mouthful, an effort to read, let alone pronounce, so think of it as the Skola Street. This is where you catch the best view of the church, always shifting with the time of day and the weather.
The street itself is lined with galleries, some unashamedly touristy, but some selling pieces that are fascinating, quirky, stunning or all three. The various rocks, metals and glass spewed up by Iceland’s volcanoes are popular materials, as is fish-skin leather.
The Handknitting Association of Iceland, up the hill on the left, contains an extraordinary collection of wool garments, including the famous lopapeysa sweaters. These are made of wool from Icelandic sheep that have two layers, a wet-resistant outer layer and an insulating inner layer. The sweaters are warm and weatherproof, but sell for the kind of price that prompts you to consider selling your first-born in order to clothe your second-born, or vice versa.