Virtual Reality – The New Super Tool?

Obama VRI enjoyed my first look at virtual reality at the BETT  Show back in January, and my interest in its potential use in an educational context was revived by some informal conversations at the recent Geography Association Conference. When Richard Allaway shared some of his thoughts about VR in the Conference Teachmeet – I knew I had to spend some time finding out more about this technology.

What is Virtual Reality?

 “A computer technology that replicates an environment in a way that allows us to interact with it. Virtual realities artificially create a sensory experience, which can include sight, touch, hearing and smell” (Wikipedia)

 Brief History of VR

Virtual reality has actually been around for a lot longer than you might have thought. This picture of a ‘sensorama’ machine dates back to the 1950’s:

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This ‘experience theatre’ displayed stereoscopic 3-D images in a wide angled view, and even provided body tilting, stereo sound, and tracks for wind and aromas to be triggered during the short films that were shown.

In the 1990s, cinemas began to make use of 3-D computer graphics, while Sega and Nintendo started to work on virtual reality games, but their projects were cancelled before they came to market. In 2007, Google rocked the world with its ‘street view’ project – providing interactive panoramic views which soon covered all areas of our planet.

IMG_1699One Great Leap Forward occurred in 2010, when 20 year old Palmer Luckey developed ‘Ocular Rift’ through a Kickstarter project. He used 2-D images, but in a 90 degree filed of vision – previously unseen in the market. His idea served as the base for all later designs in this form of  technology.

In 2013, Nintendo filed a patent for 3-D effects on 2-D TVs, and in 2014, Facebook paid $2 billion to purchase a company making VR headsets called Oculus VR – perhaps the highest price ever paid for a company yet to release any products to the general public. The market was now heating up, and around this same time, Sony produced a VR headset for PlayStation 4.

Google CardboardGoogle then changed the game completely when, at its 2014 conference, it introduced ‘Google Cardboard’ – a simple stereoscopic VR viewer to be used with Smartphones. This simple device mounts two cheap lenses in a rigid paper frame above a smartphone screen to create a good quality display – and its low cost (currently available on Amazon from £8) opened up the potential market to billions of customers, as modern smartphones can run the Cardboard software.

Google Expeditionswww.google.com/edu/expeditions

To draw attention to its cardboard viewers, Google launched its Expeditions Project in September, 2015. Thousands of schools around the world have applied for the scheme, which brings a Google Expedition team into work with students for a day, along with all the kit needed to take them on a virtual trip. This includes smart phones, cardboard viewers, a tablet for a teacher to direct the tour, and even a server so that the expedition can be followed without the internet. I attended an excellent demonstration session at the BETT Show back in January (see January blog), where Google Cardboard devices were available to enjoy panoramic views of places like the Pyramids, Mars, and the Great Wall of China – while a teacher was able to direct movements from a tablet, and prompt us with questions and instructions. Google has already prepared around 200 expeditions for this project, and used the BETT Show to launch new expeditions to the Great Barrier Reef and A guided tour of Buckingham Palace.

McDFor entry level VR, Cardboard does the job well. More than five million Cardboard-class viewers had shipped by the beginning of 2016, and this part of the market continues to grow, with many big brands vying for a piece of the action, using VR for “content marketing” campaigns. Ikea has just released a ‘VR experience’ free on the Steam gaming store,while McDonalds in Sweden is currently trialing happy meal boxes that turn into VR headsets. Dubbed ‘Happy Goggles’, they allow viewers to play a skiing-themed VR game. Google Cardboard with fries!

However, Cardboard is limited to a degree by the technology in our Smartphones. Sensors used to  keep the display in sync with head movements (necessary for generating the illusion of immersion in the virtual world) work slowly on a Smartphone. Slow sensor speeds can  also lead to a feeling of motion-sickness that can overwhelm VR users as what they’re seeing with their eyes (perception) disagrees with what their inner ears (proprioception) tells them. However, Samsung has developed its GearVR, a similar device to Cardboard – but rather more expensive at around £90 – with improved sensors that transform a high-end Smartphone into a midrange virtual reality system.

untitledAfter starting with a cardboard viewer, I soon moved on to a ‘Viewmaster’, manufactured by Mattel. This sturdy plastic device costs around £20, and I feel holds the ‘phone more securely in its closed case. It also has a proper switch to respond to on-screen instructions – a big improvement on the sliding magnet offered by early Cardboard models.

At the top end of VR development, there is currently fierce competition between a number of major players. With Facebook now owning Oculus, the new Oculus CV1 is soon to join the Oculus Rift (around £500) in the market place, as will HTC’s Vive, and Sony’s PlayStation VR. Technology in this price bracket includes a range of sensors that take into account where the viewer’s head is positioned, as well what the head is looking at. The HTC Vive also includes two handheld controllers that are also positionally tracked, effectively giving you hands inside the virtual world. Google Cardboard, and other mid-range units do track the viewer’s head as it moves around, but do not track the viewer’s body position. So if the viewer moves around, the system will not recognise this.

What Role Will VR Play in Education?

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HTC Vive

VR has already made an impact in many areas of our lives. The gaming industry has embraced this new technology, with Minecraft for example developing a version of its platform for the HTC Vive viewer that turns it into a full VR game. Apart from its rich potential as a gaming tool, VR is making a serious contribution to training programmes in the military, in aviation, in medicine (teaching surgical techniques and treating phobias), and also in architectural design. As with many other aspects of modern technology, there is also a darker side emerging in VR – with pornographic applications planned to be viewed via handsets in hotel rooms in American hotel rooms. But what of education?

All new technology is engaging – although not every development stands the full test of time. VR could be another tool in a teacher’s toolbox, helping them to immerse their students in new experiences with endless possible outcomes. A whole new world could open up for History teachers, as they recreate battlefield conditions for their students. English teachers could take their students on a virtual tour of Verona to assist their studies of the text of Romeo and Juliet, while Art teachers could lead virtual tours of galleries and museums. Science lessons could include virtual journeys within our own bodies, navigating through blood vessels and internal organs, while Design teachers could lead their classes through 3D plans.

I have always found new technology often opens many doors within Special Needs lessons that have remained closed by  traditional teaching. The potential of VR as a stimulus to written and oral communication in this area is an exciting prospect waiting to be explored.

VR Audience

As for my subject – Geography – the possible applications are obvious. This is a tool that can help develop a deeply immersive sense of place and time, by visiting selected locations to emphasise the ‘awe and wonder’ of the physical and man-made world. Fieldtrips can be enhanced by VR – both prior to the visit (for preparatory work and risk assessments)  and again after returning to the classroom for follow-up work. I taught long enough to remember the impact that video first had on my students when it was introduced into school – bringing alive the textbook photos, and virtually transporting students to the study locations. VR adds (literally) a new dimension to this technology, and I can only imagine the results of projects where students for example design 360 tours to show off the attractions of their local areas.

As hardware develops further (and at the same time reduces in price), and more and more software becomes available, the creative skills of teachers will mould many new ways of adopting this technology into their learning programmes. There is already a huge amount of 360 degree photographs and video already available on You Tube (with a You Tube 360 app available), and live streaming will not be too far away. Modern Smartphones allow us to create our own panoramic images with ease, and dedicated 360 degree cameras are already affordable. Popularity of sites such as www.round.me that showcase and share such images is growing.

IMG_1701Dedicated software and other resources for VR are beginning to emerge in the market-place, and Nearpod has recently released a package of VR lesson plans as well as a virtual fieldtrip project that operates in a similar way to Google Expeditions. If any of use the excellent ‘Thinglink’ app, it has recently released a sister app called ‘VR Lessons’ which marries VR film clips into the traditional Thinglink set up. It costs £3.99, and at present only contains five ‘virtual experiences’ – but promises more to be add d in coming months. A VR editor is planned so that people can add their own content – that is something I look forward to.

This all makes it possible for an innovative teacher to dip his or her toe into the VR water with their classes, but I have serious reservations about the widespread integration of VR into school lessons. However impressive the demonstration was at BETT for Google’s Expedition Project – how likely is it that this could be replicated in a typical classroom? Apart from a visit from the Expedition Team with its collection of Cardboard viewers already loaded with a mobile device, the only way to do so would be to invest in a class set of viewers (affordable perhaps, at less than £200), and then make use of the students own ‘phones. I don’t know of many schools who have sets of Smartphones in their classrooms – although I do wonder if there might be a use here for all of those confiscated ‘phones I used to collect in my office!

So Where Do I Start?

If you want to explore some of the possibilities of VR, begin by buying a cheap viewer. I love the concept of Google Cardboard, but after trying out a couple of models, I soon migrated to the affordable Viewmaster by Mattell. Just pop ‘Virtual reality viewers’ into an Amazon search, and you may be surprised by what is currently available.

You will then need some software to try out. You Tube is a great source of 360 images, and  App stores for both Android and iOS already feature a wealth of titles that produce  immersive effects, from roller coaster rides to volcano tours. Android probably has a bit more to offer at present, but new IOS versions of much of Google’s software is due to be made available to the public sometime this year. Some of the programmes are pretty rubbishy, but new better products are being released each day.

To get you started, you might want to check out some of the following:

  • Google Cardboard app has a free official app with a number of nice ‘tasters’, including a nice flight on the back of a seabird.
  • In Mind VR app is a free game which allows you to journey into a person’s brain to search for neutrons that cause disorder.
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    DinoTrek VR

    Dino Trek VR is a free app for kids and retired Geography teachers.

  • Star Wars have released a free app, part of which puts you in the role of a secret agent in Jakku – the desert landscape that features in the film.
  • Google Camera is a free app for Android (IOS support is coming!) that allows you to take 360 degree VR pictures to show.
  • IMG_1702Vrse is a free app that acts as a hub of high quality 360 video content, including short films and music concerts. I particularly like one of their underwater documentaries.
  • New York Times VR is a free app full of Vr news stories.
  • Jaunt is a free app that follows two climbers as they climb and BASE jump around Yosemite and Utah.
  • Street View is not strictly VR, but full of 360 images from around the world that can be used for free.
  • Night Zookeeper VR uses a giraffe ride to encourage writing skills for younger students.
  • Viewmaster has a number of free apps that leads onto  in-app purchases for extra resources that include VR games, VR experiences and VR films. However, at £11 a shot, these are a bit pricey.
  • VR Walk Inside Volcano is a half-decent VR experience.
  • VR Helicopter Vegas flies you over ‘The Strip’ at night.
  • Lift Off VR flies you up into the higher atmosphere on a space rocket.
  • Roller Coaster by Fibrum is probably the best of many similar apps.
  • Sisters is a free first person ghost story that has a bit of ‘scare’ to it.

What is the Future of VR?

Oculus VRWill it ever achieve accepted mainstream adoption or will it flop like 3D TV did a few years ago? I am not yet convinced that our 2D screens will ever become obsolete, but I do appreciate that the VR market is growing at an astounding speed. As prices tumble and more and better resources and applications become available, it’s place in education may gather serious speed – although there is probably a need for a pedagogical shift in the classroom for it to become truly ‘mainstream’. However, as devices become available in the home, we may well find ourselves once more in a position in schools of playing technological catch-up – with the students living in a world of ‘haves’ at home, and ‘have nots’ at school.

VR technology seems to be becoming increasingly interactive as it evolves, and the use of avatars – perhaps famous actors or experts – to guide viewers around sites is an interesting development. The popularity of online courses is already impacting on higher education institutions, and VR opens up many new opportunities to refine this experience.

One thing I can’t get out of my mind right now is the incredible reaction of my 3 year old Grandson when I showed him some dinosaurs rampaging around our living room – a really precious moment. I love the range of possibility offered by VR, but don’t yet know if a new, sustainable revolution is upon us.

If anyone comes across any useful VR resources, or would like to share their thoughts and experiences – please get in touch.

 

 

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We Live In Dangerous Times …..

I came across this rather scary news article last week. Watch out you geography teachers …….

Terror Target

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Slides From The GA Teachmeet

ScreenHunter_01 Feb. 19 00.07A number of people have contacted me with a request for the slides for my presentation at the Geography Association Conference – so here they are:

GA TeachMeet 2016

 

 

 

I must point out that ‘Dickie’ had his name changed for the presentation, and the image used was not actually  him.GA Conf TeachMeet erratics The locations for the slides include:

  • Scree cuddling at Gordale, Yorkshire Dales 
  • Erratic Rolling at Gordale, Yorkshire Dales
  • Greek snorkelling at Malham, Yorkshire Dales
  • Limestone song at Malham, Yorkshire Dales

 

 

The different beers used to introduce the slides included:

  • ‘Proper Job’ to represent my fieldwork ‘history’
  • ‘Wainwright’s Golden Ale’ to represent field week in the Lake District (and Yorkshire Dales)
  • ‘Exmoor Gold’ to represent field weeks on Lundy Island, north Devon
  • ‘Amigos Tequila Beer’ to represent the Amigos charity and trip to Uganda
  • ‘Unicorn Ale’ to match my Twitter handle, and to represent my offering of an emotional mapping exercise – outlined in an earlier blog on this site.
I intended to use a beer called ‘Black Sheep’ for the Yorkshire Dales slides – but it did not survive Thursday evening in my hotel room …….

 All of the  Teachmeet presentations can be found on You Tube link below:

 

My presentation begins at 1:10:15

Thanks once more to all of the people who offered kind feedback from the Teachmeet and the workshop session ‘Addicted to Maps’

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You Might As Well Face It You’re Addicted To Maps – GA Conference 2016 Workshop

ScreenHunter_02 Feb. 18 17.49On Saturday April 9th, I ran a workshop at the 2016 GA Conference titled: “You Might As Well Face It, You’re Addicted to Maps”. This session was part of the ‘Student and NQT Pathway’ – aimed at providing NQTs, or others at an early stage in their careers, with a toolkit for teaching quality geography.

The purpose of the workshop was to bombard the audience with a number of different ideas for integrating maps into their teaching. I have my own teaching style, so always point out that the content of my workshops are rather like marmite – some will like them, but others will decide they are not for them. However, by providing a wide range of ideas and activities, I always hope that the people who have given up time to listen to me go away with something they can use themselves.

Link to workshop Powerpoint: http://www.slideshare.net/PaulBerry2/addicted-to-maps

With only a 50 minute slot to work with, I deliberately avoided any lengthy theoretical discussion. I talked briefly about ‘place’ as a key concept, and strongly made the point that all ideas offered need to be given context in a sequence of lessons if they are to have any value. I offered these wise words from Margaret Roberts to back up this point:

“I think that what is studied in geography lessons should be location and places within a wider context. Places, regions, countries and continents do not exist in isolation but are inter-connected; the location of what is studied in relation to other places is significant”

After examining some examples of shockingly awful general world knowledge through a few ‘You Tube’ clips, we got on with the business of sharing ideas about the use of maps.

Picture1The workshop-style at GA conferences tries to incorporate a number of hands-on experiences, so we started with my favourite map exercise – maps from memory, inspired by the work of David Leat in his ‘Thinking Through Geography’ publications. I like to use this technique at the beginning of a unit of work, for example when studying the BRIC countries.

 

 

Picture2There was also time to construct some maps on the floor using masking tape – with the suggestion made to ‘map bomb’ the school by producing these in corridor spaces. There is a need here to speak nicely to cleaning staff and caretakers, but I was always surprised by the way students respected these maps – walking around them rather than over them, and replacing any tape that had become unattached. A subliminal love of maps developing here, perhaps? In a longer session, we could have moved on to make desktop maps from crisps, digestive biscuits, M&Ms, strawberry laces, wool and string – but had to make do with some photos from the Powerpoint.

Picture3

There was time to try a ‘messy maps’ exercise where students draw a real-time map from a story read to them by the teacher – the example used was set in the context of a unit of work on rain forest settlements.

Messy Maps Story

Picture4After looking at a number of different examples of world maps, we examined globe representations, and how simple world maps can be drawn on oranges or inflated balloons. We then moved closer to home and looked at ways to draw maps of the UK – starting with the ‘Witch holding the pig’ that became popular in late 19th Century satirical maps, and moving on to constructing triangle maps, using an idea borrowed from the great David Rogers Esq.

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Picture8I only had time for a passing mention of some web resources that can be used in the classroom, and set the audience some homework to check out my list of ‘top thirty’ map-themed web sites which is included below. Many of these have obvious applications within lessons, but some of them like the tracking maps for social media, shipping and animals need the application of a creative brain to make a contribution to student learning. Any new ideas would be gratefully received!

Top Thirty Map Themed Web Sites

Picture6As time quickly ran out, I added more to the homework by highlighting some other key web-based resources for further investigation. I urged new teachers to consider investing in subscriptions to two fantastic products. Firstly, ‘Digimap’, which at around £120 a year (the price of half a dozen textbooks) is tremendous value for money. I found this invaluable in my teaching, and discovered that once the students are familiar with its platform (so simple and intuitive they will pick it up instantly), they will find all sorts of uses for it in their work – not just in the geography classroom. I particularly valued the contribution it made to field studies within all age groups.

Picture9Secondly, I urged the audience to investigate the potential from Esri’s Arc GIS package. A free trail is available, and after that, subscription comes in at only around a hundred pounds. I am still exploring the many possibilities of this software, and have become hooked on the ‘story maps’ function as a way of combining images and text with place maps.

There just wasn’t time to consider some ideas for teaching OS map skills – but perhaps I can return to this in a later blog.

I hope that some (if not all) of the ideas were of use to my patient audience, and perhaps also to readers who did not make the workshop. I look forward to hearing feedback from any ideas used back in classrooms, and would welcome any new activities involving the use of maps in geography teaching.

So little time – so much to cover ……..

Picture10

 

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GA TeachMeet 2016 – Emotional Mapping

ScreenHunter_01 Feb. 19 00.07The first GA Conference Teachmeet was an overwhelming success last year, so I was really pleased to get the opportunity to be involved again at the 2016 event. I find it quite difficult to limit myself to a short six minute slot, but decided this time to share some memories from the many fieldtrips I enjoyed during my 35 year teaching career.

I began with the following figures that summarise my commitment to fieldtrips over the years:

 7 Ski trips to Europe

20 Lake District fieldweeks

18 Lundy Island fieldweeks

6 whole-year Dartmoor residential trips

4 Uganda trips

3 Iceland trips (on behalf of Rayburn Travel)

 TOTAL: 2100+ students – 380 full days

So, over a year spent on trips away with students!

In addition, I have organised any amount of day trips for students through all age groups to various parts of the UK. I am unashamedly proud of this contribution, and it brought back many happy memories to tell some stories of experiences and events from some of my trips.

However, the real purpose of a Teachmeet should not be so self-indulgent – and should be a forum to share ideas that can be easily taken back to use in the classroom. So, in apology, I finished my slot by offering a simple fieldwork exercise that can be carried out within the school grounds. This consists of an ‘affective mapping’ inquiry, and is summarised below.

If any reader attended the Teachmeet this year – I would welcome any feedback, along with any fieldwork resources that they have used successfully with students.

Looking forward to 2017 …….. ?

AFFECTIVE MAPPING INQUIRY

Some of the best fieldwork can be completed in the local area – it does not always have to include exotic or far-flung locations.

IMG_1654This exercise is an ‘affective’ or ‘emotional’ mapping task that I have used with year seven students soon after their arrival in their new school. I have a feeling it might also work well as part of a transition programme, when students make the challenging shift from primary to secondary school.

“The human landscape can be read as a landscape

of exclusion …. The simple questions we should be

asking are: Who are places for? Whom do they

exclude and how are these prohibitions maintained

in practice?” (Sibley, 1995)

 The purpose of the inquiry is to allow students the opportunity to identify areas of their school in which they feel safe, secure and happy – as well as those areas in which they feel other emotions.

An introductory lesson can explore different emotions – see the Powerpoint presentation below – and devise a suitable key for recording. Maps of the school and surrounding grounds are then provided for the students, although working with the tablets, many of them preferred to access their own maps from ‘Digimap’ – a wonderfully versatile classroom resource.

Emotional Mapping at SMCC

IMG_1655The students then explore the school grounds in small groups, and use coloured stickers or their own chosen symbols to plot their emotional responses to different areas and locations. Other observations can be recorded as annotations on the map, photographs, sketches, video, audio narration, and interviews. I use I Pads to help do this – they really are ‘swiss army knives’ of data collection – but the process works just as well as a paper exercise.

After making their observations and collecting their data, the students then spend time putting their presentations together and drawing some conclusions. Some did this as a giant wall display, some made use of programmes like ‘Explain Everything’ and ‘Thinglink’ on the I Pads, while some added all of their data to Digimap. After a discussion of all of the findings in class, they then present their findings to the School Council and also to available members of the Senior Leadership Team – nice bit of ‘student voice’ input. Many of the conclusions will offer some surprises, and more importantly, ask some serious and thoughtful questions that need addressing. There were also usually a number of suggested changes to consider.

If anyone has any suggestions to improve this exercise, I would be pleased to hear from them. Also, if anyone uses it in their own school – let me know how you get on.

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Iceland in March

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I returned to Iceland at the beginning of March with a group of geography and photography students from Teign School in South Devon. We experienced a typical mix of Icelandic weather – starting with a biting east wind when we arrived, and moving on through rain, and then snow – but thankfully mixed with a lot of bright sunshine.

aThe group visited most of the usual haunts, and many looked different in the spring weather conditions. At Thingvellir, we walked to Oxarafoss – only to find the waterfall (left) totally frozen. The students were shocked when I showed them some photos of it in full flow earlier in the year.

b

Thingvallavatn Lake (right) – the largest in Iceland – was visible again following a spring thaw, and we were able to carefully pick our way along the slippery path around Kerio crater – although the crater lake was frozen solid (below).

c

dGulfoss looked impressive against a background of snow and ice, but the lower path that takes you right up close to the waterfall was still closed because of the weather.

 

 

 

We stopped to view the waterfalls at Seljalandfoss and Skogafoss, and I enjoyed experimenting with the panorama setting on my camera to capture the impressive scenes.

e

IMG_1710

However, my favourite photo using this operational setting was the one I grabbed at Hellisheidi geothermal power station in the bright sunshine of our final day:

g

hThe Teign School geography students were keen to visit Eyjafjallajokull as they were using it for a case study in their exams. We called at the Visitor Centre to watch a documentary film about the 2010 eruption, and enjoyed chatting with members from the family who were evacuated from their farm directly below the volcano.

 

We were able to get our coach to the car park close to the Solheimajokull glacier, and the path to the snout of the glacier was safe enough to navigate. Here we had great views of the moraines, kettle holes and meltwater lake, as well as some of the tourists who had donned crampons to venture onto the ice surface itself.

i

jAt Reynisdrangar, we were able to walk onto the black basalt beach and get a good look at the columnar basalt cliffs – but with a high tide and a strong wind whipping up some impressive waves, we were not able to venture into any of the cliff caves. Since my last visit, a number of new signs had appeared on the path to the beach warning visitors about the ‘sneaker’ waves that can be exceptionally dangerous at this spot on the south Iceland coast. This followed the unfortunate incident here only a few weeks ago, when a tourist paid insufficient attention to the dangers of the sea, and was washed off the rocks to his death.

k

This group was booked into the Hotel Cabin in Reykjavik – and this gave us chance on the last day to explore the city, including a visit to the fantastic Harpa concert hall, a wonderful piece of modern architecture. We also make use of the thermal baths at Laugardalslaug, just ten minutes walk from our hotel. I was pleased that we managed to get to see and do virtually everything we had planned on our programme, and it was a fitting end to the trip to have the chance to enjoy a great view of the Northern Lights on the penultimate night. I checked the aurora forecast at the beginning of our stay, and although it was encouragingly listed as ‘active’ on that night, I didn’t expect to see much through the light pollution of the city. However, a short walk of a couple of hundred yards across the road from our hotel gave us a view over Mount Esja where there were few lights to break the darkness of the night sky. We had the pleasure of a good hour of green bands and streaks dancing and playing in the sky.

** One of the Teign students sent me this link to a You Tube presentation of some of his photographs. Thankyou, Sam Crowe for sharing this!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Iceland In February

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I knew things were going to be different this time in Iceland, as I was greeted by a heavy snow shower when I arrived at Keflavik airport. I was flying ahead of my group (Sir John Deane’s College from Cheshire) for a trip organised by Rayburn Travel – and by the time they arrived, a decent covering of fresh snow had settled over the south part of the island.

IMG_1475As we travelled across the young lava field of the Reykjanes Peninsula, the uniform black of the basalt rock had been replaced by a blanket of white. At the Bridge Between the Continents, instead of drawing my explanation diagrams in black basalt sand, I drew them in relief using the fresh snow.

I have never been able to decide which is the best time of the year to visit Iceland. Summer months provide longer days and easier access to parts of the island, but lose out on the chance to see the Northern Lights. But in winter, although it can become difficult to visit some locations, the seasonal sprinkling of snow certainly adds a different atmosphere to the place.

IMG_1517On this visit, the main attractions of the Golden Circle all looked rather different under a cloak of snow and ice. At Thngvellir, Thingvalavatn lake was frozen over, while at Geysir, the white steam spouting from Strokur was beautifully framed by a clear blue sky. The majestic waterfall at Gulfoss seemed to have shrunk in size, with giant sections of the water mass now frozen solid. We were unable to visit Kerid (a small explosion cone) as the paths around the crater rim were too slippery to navigate – this was the only item on our itinerary we failed to complete.

 

IMG_1504

The time we had gained by missing Kerid was put to good use though, and we added an excursion to Sjelandfoss as a replacement. We had to make do with a view of the waterfall from a distance of a few metres, as winter ice had blocked up the path that allows access behind the cascading water.

IMG_1481 It is always nice to enjoy some new experiences on a trip, and this was the first time I had been able to stay at the hostel at Skalinn. The facilities here have been recently refurbished, and the food was homely. However, the main advantage of Skalinn is its location. To get up in the morning and watch the sun rise over nearby Eyjafyallajokull was a real privilege, and the absence of any surrounding light pollution meant that the Northern Lights were particularly clear and vivid. Not only did we get a show late at night, but as we left at the unearthly hour of 2.30 am on our final day, we were sent on our way with a very special encore.

IMG_1490Early on in the trip we made a call to the Secret Lagoon at Hveraholmi,  near Fluoir. I wasn’t sure what to expect here, and wondered beforehand if this would prove to be a disappointment for the students with the Blue Lagoon figuring on the programme at the end of the trip. As it turned out, the more authentic and intimate surroundings of the Secret Lagoon proved to be an all-round success and the experience was thoroughly enjoyed by all. Even after a session in the Blue Lagoon, it was still a preferred choice of many. The Blue Lagoon has been slowly shifting upmarket in recent years, and its popularity can sometimes lead to a degree of overcrowding which is not the case in some of the many smaller thermal bathing areas in the country.

IMG_1539At Hveragerdi – my favourite town – we paid a visit to the geothermal park. I had been here before, and wondered if it would have anything to offer our students with all of the mud pools and steam vents being covered by a thickness of snow. IMG_1564By booking ahead we had the chance to boil some eggs in the hot springs, and after a quick tour of the park, this was a bit of fun enjoyed by all. I am not a great lover of cooked eggs, but I have to say that here I tucked in for second-helpings. Next time, I hope to add rye bread cooked in a geothermal oven to the menu.

This was only a short trip, and after the obligatory trip to the Blue Lagoon to round things off, it was back to the rain and the wind of the UK.

 

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