Win a spot at the Iceland Writers Retreat 2019

Gullfoss Falls Iceland photo by Judy DarleyThe good folks of the Iceland Writers Retreat have partnered with Iceland Travel to offer one person a free spot at their retreat scheduled for April 2019. The winner will receive  a free hotel stay, tours, most meals, and all workshops for the duration of the event, from 3rd to 7th April 2019.
To be in with a chance you need to write an essay, story or poem on the theme of equality, preferably including a mention of Iceland. Your entry must be no more than 500 words long.
The submission deadline is 23:59 (GMT) Monday 17th December 2018. There is no fee to enter. Click here to enter.
If you win and have already paid to attend the Iceland Writers Retreat, your payment will be refunded. Entries will be judged anonymously.
Find the full details and conditions here. but note that the prize does NOT include airfare to Iceland or airport transfers.
About the Iceland Writers Retreat
Held for the first time in April 2014, the Iceland Writers Retreat is an event comprised of a series of small-group writing workshops and cultural tours designed to introduce participants to Iceland’s rich literary heritage. Faculty in 2019 include Louis de Bernieres, Tessa Hadley, Ivan Coyote, Chigozie Obioma, and Lina Meruane. The Iceland Writers Retreat was named one of the world’s best writers’ retreats by the Sydney Morning Herald, and one of the top 10 “Events to travel for in 2014” by Four Seasons Magazine.

Green Island

Logoa do Fogo, Sao Miguel by Judy Darley

Logoa do Fogo, Sao Miguel

My travel feature on the tranquility of Sao Miguel, one of the Azores islands, was recently published by In The Moment magazine. It provided a wonderful chance for me to re-live the beauty of that Portuguese isle.

You can buy back issues of In The Moment here. My feature appeared in issue 10.

This is my third feature published about that trip, the previous ones being published in Wedding ideas magazine and A Year In Portugal journal.

I’ve also had a piece published about a somewhat chillier visit to Iceland in Balance magazine. Love getting out to see the world and sharing my discoveries!

Icelandic Thrills feature by Judy Darley

To the wilds of Iceland and back again

Mountains, Iceland by Lilly Louise Allen

Mountains, Iceland by Lilly Louise Allen

Falling for picturebooks as a child fuelled Lilly Louise Allen’s determination to become an artist.

“I was absolutely in love with my picture books as a child, the more detailed the better!” she recalls. “I had a great imagination and was always making something from posters to little books.”

At school Lilly continued to learn new skills and express herself through art. “Then I feel there was a lightbulb moment with the ‘new wave’ of Illustration which happened in the early millennium – then there was a resurgence of books on the subject and companies used illustration more frequently. A book which really got me into contemporary Illustration and realising it was a viable occupation was ‘Hand to Eye’ by Lawrence King Publishing, which showed a broad range of Illustrators at work at the time.”

Bembridge Windmill by Lilly Louise Allen

Bembridge Windmill by Lilly Louise Allen

Other influences include the work of Lucinda Rogers, Julie Verhoeven and Tom Gauld. “I’m attracted to the storytelling that can be accomplished with just a single picture, the magic which can be created and the fact that an illustrator can orchestrate the mood of a picture, from humour and charm through to the surreal and thought provoking.”

Inspirations included “people, food, the countryside, the sea, travelling, reading, other artists – all sorts of different subjects! I don’t like to limit my subject matter either; I’m open to trying anything new if it feels good.”

Green House, Iceland, by Lilly Louise Allen

Green House, Iceland, by Lilly Louise Allen

More recent adventures include an artist’s residency in Iceland.

“I had been thinking about doing an artist’s residency but it felt like more of a daydream than something that would come to fruition!” she admits. “I looked at several websites and found the Residency Unlimited website. It was full of amazing places but The Fish Factory Creative Centre in Stöðvarfjörður in the east fjords immediately stood out to me. It looked like looked like an absolutely beautiful place and the ethos behind the centre really resonated with me.”

She quotes from the website: “The Creative Centre is an ongoing collaborative and community project and our actions and aims are based on sustainable principles and alternative methods. We want to regenerate and sustain our small village by making it into a possible and desirable place to settle – a place where you can have engaging jobs, enjoy culture, and the influx of new ideas and creative people.”

No wonder Lilly couldn’t resist. Living as she does on the Isle of Wight, Lilly also felt an affinity with the isolated located.

“I live on an island which is often faced with similar issues, certainly a lack of jobs and opportunities, especially for the younger generations growing up here. With shops and community facilities frequently closing down, it’s often Art in its varying forms and community that can help more than anything else.”

Lilly set off for Iceland with these thoughts firmly in mind. “I wanted to look at the importance of solitude to myself and to people in general,” she says. “To be alone but not lonely is something I find interesting. It’s often in these quiet times that our strongest ideas can appear and we find what we really want from life. I certainly found the time for quiet contemplation and a peacefulness inspiring. It feels completely unique to Iceland and particularly to the remote East Fjords where Stöðvarfjörður is located. There were no planes flying over head, few cars passing you by on the roads, no crowds of people or noises other than the wind, the water coming into the shore and the sound of your own footsteps – heaven.”

Turf House, Iceland by Lilly Louise Allen

Turf House, Iceland by Lilly Louise Allen

The life in the village and what she calls “the human element” also interested Lilly. “Many homes are occupied but there are a lot of holiday homes and some which are empty,” she says. “I took photos of every house in the main part of the village and it really made me look at each of their characteristics, reflecting the people who resided inside currently or in a previous occupancy. I also created large watercolour pictures which I hope reflect all of these thoughts.”

In addition, Lilly took sound recordings at places where she paused during her walks around the area. “It felt good to try things which I don’t normally do – photograph and sound are new elements in my work and were influenced by the other artists I lived with, which was another wonderful part of the Artists’ Residency!”

Lilly came away with a sense of being at the start of something special. “I’m pleased with what I created whilst I was there but I feel it is only just beginning in a way,” she says. “I can now reflect on everything and find a way of consolidating the project in what I hope will be an exhibition.”

Preparing to work by Lilly Louise Allen

Preparing to work by Lilly Louise Allen

Lilly relishes her life as an artist. “What I love most is that magical time when I’m painting and am completely unaware of what’s going on around me, when the work is immersive and it feels exciting,” she says. “It’s quite hard to explain but its much like when you’re reading a great book and can’t wait to read the next line, the next chapter and then you wish it wasn’t over when you’re finished. If people can sense that feeling when they look at the work and it makes them feel something too then there’s nothing better.”

You can see more of Lilly’s work at, read her blog at and find her on Twitter as @LillyLAllen and on Instagram as @LillyLouiseAllen. She will be taking part in the Isle of Wight Open Studios from 14-24th July 2017.

Are you an artist or do you know an artist who would like to be showcased on Get in touch at judydarley (at) I’m also happy to receive reviews of books, exhibitions, theatre and film. To submit or suggest a review, please send an email to judydarley (at)

Writing prompt – possibilities

Icelandic time machine photo by Judy Darley


You come across this scene while strolling in the Icelandic countryside.

What could it be?
a) A modern art installation;
b) An Icelandic time machine;
c) An offering to the elven folk;
d) Some rusting farm equipment that’s seen better days.

Write a story around this idea.

If you write or create something prompted by this, please send an email to Judy(at)socket to let me know. With your permission, I’ll publish it on

Painting Iceland

Icelandic View by Judy DarleyIf you know me, or if you’re a regular visit to, you’re probably aware that my obsession with art is growing increasingly consuming. I’ve even begun creating artworks of my own, attempting to capture my responses to the views around me.

My trip to Iceland earlier this month was particularly rich in visual fuel – snow, skies, rocks and unfamiliar textures abounded. I came home with a headful of impressions, and rather than simply translate these into words, as I usually do, I have made efforts to churn some of it out in the form of art.

After carrying out a few sketches, and watching a wonderful ‘wet-on-wet’ Windsor & Newton watercolour masterclass, this is what I came up with.

It’s not quite what I see in my head, but it’s far closer than I expected to get, which makes me very happy.

Reykjavik 10 Top Experiences

Reykjavik waterfront photo by Judy DarleyWhen better to visit Iceland than in January? Limited daylight hours, freezing conditions and plenty of snow make for an otherworldly adventure. The city is full of hipster cafes, galleries, bookstores and record shops (including the famous 12 Tónar), while the surrounding countryside is elemental like nowhere else I’ve encountered.

Here are my top ten recommendations for Reykjavik.

1 Seek out some culture

Capital city Reykjavik is a cultural hotspot, with museums and galleries galore, including philosophically enriching and aptly named The Culture House, (shown above) where we spent a morning exploring some of the elements that make up the Icelandic outlook.

The elegant building at Hverfisgata 15, 101 Reykjavík was built between 1906 and 1908 to house the national library and archives and still has a decidedly academic air.

Fishes of the Sea and me photo by Judy DarleyThe exhibition Points of View covers a breadth of aspects of local culture and history, with artwork and artefacts, including a room dedicated to the extinction of the Great Auk, and including a taxidermy of the bird purchased at auction in London using public fundraising at the same cost as a three-bedroom apartment.

I particularly liked the probing questions for children (but equally engaging for adults), inviting you to consider your responses to different things. And this painting, Fishes of the Sea by Helgi Þorgils Friðjónsson, made me smile.

Entry costs 1.200 ISK but is free for under 18s or with the Reykjavik City Card.

2 Head to the penis museum

The Icelandic Phallological Museum photo by Judy Darley

The Icelandic Phallological Museum contains an abundance of willies, mostly harvested from sea creatures such as whales, walruses and dolphins, plus a fine selection from birds and land mammals including a growing number of human specimens. Look out for the one from “a rogue polar bear” (guess that showed him!) and 23 intriguing folklore specimens. There are also lovingly shaped sculptures and homewares such as lamps and “artistic oddments”, plus jewellery made using teeny delicate penis bones that were truly exquisite. Good for a giggle as well as, um, eye-opening.

Find the Icelandic Phallological Museum at Laugavegur 116, 105 Reykjavik. Entry costs 1500 ISK for adults. Children under 13 years old in company of parents are free.

3 Gaze on the crater

Kerid Crater, Iceland photo by Judy Darley

There are plenty of trips heading out of the city to take in Iceland’s dramatic countryside. Our first stop on the Golden Circle Tour was Kerið, a 55m-deep volcanic crater about 3,000 years old. In summer it is filled with topaz-blue water; in winter, when we were there, it is iced over and filled with the sense of ghosts. Or maybe that was just the snow-storm weaving about us.

4 Sample skyr and whey

Skyr and whey photo by Judy Darley

You’ll see skyr advertised all over Reykjavik. A protein-rich, calcium-packed yoghurt, it’s a tart, healthy snack that the Icelanders are crazy about. It was a staple long before ice cream made it to these shores, and is best served with a shot of whey.

We were served ours at a farm where the owner was lamenting her children’s preference for pizza over boiled sheep’s head, and our group’s feelings about skyr and whey was equally conflicted. Personally I found it invigoratingly sharp in flavour. I’m pretty sure that this is what Miss Muffet was really tucking into when that big ol’ spider sat down beside her, but at the time we were in Iceland there were no arachnids to be found, scared off by the chilly weather.

5 Respect the supernatural

Iceland National Park photo by Judy Darley

There’s a strong belief in elves, trolls and other creatures in Iceland – as our guide to the Golden Circle says, “10% believe, 10% don’t believe and 80% haven’t made their minds up either way but don’t want to risk upsetting them.”

The road we were on weaved rather more than necessary to avoid destroying three elven churches, while one field on the farm we visited is left unploughed so as not to upset the little folk. The rocks shown above are in the National Park and at certain angles in certain lights you can see the faces of trolls unlucky enough to still be outside when the sun rose and turned them to stone.

6 Feed carniverous horses

Icelandic horses photo by Judy Darley

These hardy little horses (don’t you dare call them ponies in front of an Icelander!) spend all winter outside and have long hairy coats to keep them from freezing. Legend has it that they’re extra small just like the local sheep because the vikings who brought them needed as much space as possible on their ships for wine.

Our tour guide had brought bread for us to feed them, and the moment they saw us their noses began waggling. Things got a bit rowdy as one made a lunge forwards and took my shoulder, then my wrist, in its jaws in search of treats. It’s possible he was ravenous rather than carnivorous, but I’m just glad I was wearing so much clothing! The horse on the left was the leader for this particular herd, hence his prime feeding position. They put up with a bit of petting, but really it’s all about the food, and with temperatures so low and no fresh grass to munch on, who can blame them?

7 Witness the geyser

Strokkur geyser, Iceland photo by Judy Darley

This was one of my favourite stops on our Golden Circle tour. Geysir, the famous phenomenon from which every geyser worldwide takes its name, is somewhat sleepy these days, erupting only every eight hours or so, and instead we visited his sibling, the far more active Strokkur.

From the carpark we strolled along paths surrounded by snow and geothermal springs, with vegetation flourishing in an abundance of vivid colours around boiling mud pools. Ahead we could see people gathering, and we upped our pace to join them as the geyser bubbled thoughtfully for a moment or two before leaping skywards and subsiding.

We were told that it would erupt every five to eight minutes, but the reality was more like three, so we stayed to watch it happen once more – in truth I could have remained for half an hour watching this spectacle! The best moment is when the water begins to heave as though some huge creature is ascending from the depths, and you know the drama is about to uncoil.

8 Admire the waterfalls

Gullfoss Falls Iceland photo by Judy Darley

Fissures in Iceland’s landmass allow for rivers to pour down in immense crescendoes. The most renowned is Gullfoss, Golden Falls, on the glacial river Hvítá. The roar of them, coupled with the glory of all that water thrashing down a 32-metre deep crevice almost numbs the senses. To grasp the scale of it, notice the tiny figures on the left of the picture above.

9 Take a dip in a thermal pool

Judy in the thermal baths, Reykjavik Iceland 2017 photo by Kirsten Darley

Of course, there are the famous ones (which shall not be named here), but these are really pricey and the only patronised by tourists. Instead, I recommend making like a local and heading to the city’s many thermal pools, which are wonderful. We opted for Sundhöllin, which was just a few minute’s walk from Hallgrímskirkja church and features a large, very deep pool, a sauna and two open air hot pools, one at 39°C and one at 42°C.

My lovely cousin Kirsten took this pic of me at Sundhöllin. We swam, lounged and quietly cooked in the steaming waters as snowflakes drifting from above while the locals met for their daily dip and chat. Lovely. In fact, it suited us so well, we returned the very next afternoon.

10 Ascend the tower

Hallgrímskirkja church, Reykjavik photo by Judy Darley

You can’t miss Hallgrímskirkja Lutheran (Church of Iceland) parish church, because at 73 metres high, it’s the tallest man-madestructure in the city. On the day we visited they’d closed the church for the morning to fit new carpets, making this one of the comfiest churches I’ve strolled through. The interior is all clean lines and glowing light, but the tower is the real attraction.

We were fortunate to ascend (via lift – so civilised) when not too many people were there, and had a pleasant time discovering the outstanding city views from little windows all around the top, just above the clock. Once we’d drunk in our fill of the sites, we travelled back down, and found a queue of people waiting to take our place.

And that’s the trick with Iceland – tourism is growing increasingly vital to their economy, but much of this wilderness is best experienced with as few people as possible. See out the pastimes the locals enjoy and, with care, tread away from the most beaten paths, and who knows what wonders you will discover?

Reykjavik from Hallgrimskirkja church photo by Judy Darley

Discover more about Reykjavik at

Find full details and buy the Reykjavik City Card.

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Reykjavik street art

Reykjavik street art_Elle with Ulfur Ulfur, photo by Judy DarleyResiding in Bristol, I’m an ardent admirer of street art, providing it’s done well. A recent visit to Reykjavik revealed the capital of Iceland to be riddled with the stuff – and rather fabulous it is too.

Much of the best of it appears on Laugavegur, one of the city’s oldest shopping streets. My favourite was the one above, of the wolf family, but this squiggly fellow below on another street took my fancy too.

Reykjavik street art photo by James Hainsworth

According to the excellent website, the artwork below is titled Caratoes and Ylja, inspired by the song Óður til móður by Ylja. Much of it seems to be inspired by local folklore – well worth a gander!

Reykjavik street art Caratoes and Ylja photo by Judy Darley

If you happen upon this beautiful city, I recommend you wind your way through the central network of roads, looking out for the exceptional street art for a taste of the locals’ wild side.

I’ll be posting a full travel feature about this amazing trip on Thursday. In the meantime, find out more at

Exploring the unknown through art

Sandcloud crop by Sara EasbyToday’s guest post comes from Sara Easby, a wonderful artist, teacher and dreamer who I discovered exhibiting her Icelandic artworks at the Grant Bradley Gallery late last year. She talks us through the things that move her to paint as a means of exploring the unknown.

Drawing was always my favourite pastime as a child and I was very imaginative.

I thought I was going to be a nurse like my mother, but then when I was 13 someone told me it was possible to be an artist when I grew up. I went to Saturday morning art classes and then to the local art school at 16. It never occurred to me not to be an artist after that, and I really believed I wouldn’t be able to do anything else.

One morning an artist friend Francesca Bellingierie Maxwell and I were having a coffee and we both agreed that we’d always wanted to visit Iceland and that May was the best time to go. Discovering that the moment was right we set off the following week on an impulse. This was very unusual for me, but I had got stuck with my painting and teaching, so wanted a challenge and focus. The challenge was driving all the way round Iceland. I’m a timid driver! And the focus was just simply to fill a sketchbook.

I’m not interested in copying nature, or in representational landscape personally. That’s not my reason for painting. Much of my working life has been in designing for theatre and teaching people drawing, mainly life drawing so it doesn’t mean I don’t value those things. But painting has become a way of exploring the unknown and a kind of meditative practise I suppose.

The experience of being in Iceland gave a feeling of being right on the edge of the world and of actually becoming a part of nature. It was amazing to feel that feeling of nothing. Suddenly everything seems possible, and I came back with a lot of energy to make the series of work.

Dark Broiling by Sara Easby

Darkbroiling by Sara Easby

Our lives are made up of layers, so I’ve been exploring this in painting and drawing for ages. Earlier on this worried me thinking that each time I went back to something I was changing it because it was wrong. But gradually I realised that there was no right way, but that change was what it’s all about. Eventually you have to stop a painting when it feels ‘finished’. It has to stop somewhere if you want to share it with other people.

Gold Circle by Sara Easby

Goldcircle by Sara Easby

I use anything and everything to draw and paint with – anything that will make marks. This is what I was taught and what I hope to teach others to do. Oil paint is one of my favourite medium because it has a quality of deepness. I never want to be sure of the results, because, as Picasso once said, what’s the point of doing it if you know how it will turn out?

I teach a lot of art workshops because teaching has always been a means to make a living. I have never had the luxury of just doing my own work. Running workshops is good because people come who want to be there and it’s a way of exploring together.

Paledrips painting by Sara Easby

Paledrips by Sara Easby

It also always makes me question what I am doing. Making art is rather solitary and I like people, and you need a balance. I’m actually rather passionate about the importance of creativity in the world. It’s deeply satisfying when you see people connected through making something they can do.

What I love most about my life as an artist is that you never stop learning, and I love learning!

About the author

Sara Easby, artistSara Easby trained in Leeds, at the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School, and at the University of Wales Institute, Cardiff. She’s worked as a designer for productions at the Royal Court Theatre, London and Bristol Old Vic, and has taught design and drawing at the Universities of Bristol and West of England as well as running workshops for students, animators, artists and anyone interested in exploring their creativity. This includes teaching life drawing to animators at Aardman Animations, originally for their training programme for Chicken Run.

All images in this post are from Sara’s Iceland series. To see more of her work go to:

Are you an artist or do you know an artist who would like to be showcased on Get in touch at judy(at)

Are you an artist or do you know an artist who would like to be showcased on Get in touch at judydarley (at) I’m also happy to receive guest posts and reviews of books, exhibitions, theatre and film. To submit or suggest a review, please send an email to judydarley (at)

Iceland dusk with Catherine Knight

Hrisey, 12.26, oil on board cr Catherine KnightThere’s a certain kind of view that seems to me to resonate. It’s to do with time of day, and the air against your skin, but also the stillness that seems to resonate from a very tightly wound place at the heart of the scene.

Certain artists have the power to capture that sensation – set it on paper or canvas or board so you can stare at it whenever you need to sink into a moment’s stillness, then emerge and carry on.

It’s a power that Catherine Knight’s works hold, not least her stunning series of Hrisey paintings completed while on a residency in Iceland.

Hrisey, 12.36, watercolour on paper cr Catherine Knight

Hrisey, 12.36, watercolour on paper © Catherine Knight

“I have always loved painting and looking at paintings,” she says. “I read the biographical details of artists who I admired and try to work out how I could do what they have done, in particular, the lives of female artists. I am currently reading the biography of Tove Jansson and am inspired by her novels and the landscapes in which they are set. I read whenever I can and think that the escapism of a novel mirrors that of painting.”

It’s an interesting thought, but gaze at any of her works and you can lose yourself in it, if only for a few seconds.

In pursuit of this goal, Catherine studied Fine Art to Masters level at Bath Spa University, “which honed my practice,” and since then has had a studio at BV Studios in Bristol. “I work alongside other painters and support my practice with part-time teaching. Seeing other artists work always inspires me and drives me on, making me want to continue painting.”

Catherine draws inspiration from old family photographs, “in particular those taken by my paternal Grandmother. She was born in 1907 in Germany and led a fascinating life, studying zoology in Munich in the 1930s before having to flee to Glasgow after marrying my grandfather, a Jewish man. She photographed the landscapes of her youth in Germany and later Scotland as well as interiors and the people in her life. I am drawn to the nostalgia and longing present in the images and the sense of leaving something behind.”

Wanderer, oil on canvas, cr Catherine Knight

Wanderer, oil on canvas © Catherine Knight

These photos have led to paintings such as Wanderer, which makes me think of the slightly frightening, entrancing fairytales I loved as a child.

Catherine’s residency in Iceland was the culmination of years of daydreams for the artist. “I imagined small houses in vast, open landscapes,” she says. “I applied for many residencies and finally got to go the Old School Arthouse in December 2013 to the island of Hrisey. A tiny tear-drop shaped island off the north coast of Iceland, Hrisey lived up to all my expectations and more.”

Hrisey, 12.25, oil on board cr Catherine Knight

Hrisey, 12.25, oil on board © Catherine Knight

She says that the tiny amount of light present each day had a huge impact on the work she came up with there. “It created a constantly changing light and the snowy landscapes were stunning. I took thousands of photos and have been making work based on them ever since. They have a similar feel to my previous work but also present new ideas.”

After working from black and white photographs and “inventing the colour”, Iceland’s dramatic saturated hues presented Catherine with the opportunity to challenge herself in new ways. “Previously I had been using the black and white photo as a kind of starting point whereas the Iceland work was a more direct translation into paint. On the island, I was drawn to the contrast between the strange, shifting natural light and the cosy, artificial lights of the dwellings.”

Colour, she says, remains an enduring fascination in her work. “It’s the most exciting thing – as an artist I want the colours in my paintings to surprise and excite as well as evoke certain feelings. I use it in an instinctive way that’s second nature to me.”

She adds: “Someone hanging my work on their wall and enjoying it for years to come is very satisfying and I like the idea of my work ending up in lots of different places, being part of people’s lives, in a small way. I hope to paint until I am 100 years old!”

Find more examples of Catherine’s work and information about upcoming exhibitions at

Know an artist you’d like to see showcased on Give me a shout at judy(at)