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Iceland: The lure of the hinterlands

Former fish factory in Djupavik, Iceland. Image: Alamy

Josephine Price ventures north to Djúpavík, a remote fishing village that’s experiencing an unusual resurgence

I don’t pass a single car on the road to Djúpavík. I say road, but the tarmac dissolved long ago; I’m bumping along a gravel track that separates the soaring mountains from the grey sea. I drive past driftwood-strewn beaches that look like dinosaur graveyards and remote settlements until I reach the smattering of buildings that make up this former fishing village.

This is one of the most isolated spots to spend the night in Iceland’s Westfjords. The red-slatted guesthouse is the village’s lifeline and at first glance, it appears to be all that draws people to Djúpavík.

A dilapidated mammoth herring factory sits across the road from the hotel. Magnus, the owner’s son-in-law, offers to show me around. I almost decline — it’s just an abandoned herring factory, after all.

Inside, he tells me its tales. It opened in 1935 and it was the largest factory at the time in Iceland. They also believe that, at 70,000sq ft, it was the largest concrete building in the world at the time. It doesn’t deviate too much from the linear history I was expecting. He reels off facts and raises his voice to contend with the choppy waters that the wind is hurling from the sea at the windows.

It functioned as a factory for 19 years until the herrings left the waters. Then the people left the village and now it sits in the least populous municipality in Iceland. It all seems sombre, but then Magnus’s tone changes.

It had fallen into disrepair but one man — “my father-in-law”, he beams — came up to visit in the ‘80s to trace the ancestry of his grandfather, who had worked as a seaman at the factory. Moved by the location and its history, he jumped on a plane back to Reykjavik and moved his young family up to the desolate spot in 1985. Little by little, year-by-year, they’ve injected life — and money — back into this place. They’ve spent 15m króna (around £111,340) on repairing the roof alone. Not a single drop of the haranguing storm outside makes its way into this gargantuan shell.

Rust crackles beneath my feet as I step up into the furnace room. Behind peeling painted doors are ovens are the size of a small London flat. “That’s where the children used to play hide and seek,” Magnus says. It’s eerie, but not quiet. The hammering of the rain on the glass panes is nothing compared to the waterfall roaring beyond the village. “In the winter, that freezes and the road closes,” he tells me.

As we turn into the next room, three slapdash strokes of neon orange paint form an arrow and punctuate the grey colour scheme. I ask Magnus to translate the words above. Nonchalantly he tells me that they were the stage directions for when Sigur Rós — Iceland’s internationally renowned band — played a leg of their homecoming tour Heima here. The incongruity is baffling.

He gestures to the concrete silos that once stored the gallons of fish oil next to the factory. The rain pummels my shoulders as I dart over to them. There’s a rusty entrance that is just big enough to squeeze through. I jump up and haul myself in. My foot clangs against the coiled pipe that would have once kept the drum’s contents from freezing and the sound reverberates magnificently. This is also where Sigur Rós recorded the track, Guitardjamm. Magnus tells me that once they heard the acoustics, they were compelled to record here. I’d seen the clip on YouTube; standing here is awesome.

Back in the factory and in another room, he divulges that they’ve had more interesting guests in town recently. It may feel isolated up here but it’s certainly on someone’s radar. Hollywood directors have descended in helicopters to scout out locations for the next DC Comics film. “As soon as they stopped here they cancelled all their other plans,” Magnus beams. One family’s efforts have turned this factory setting into a backdrop of dreams.

The storm reigns on as I get back into my car to leave. Magnus looks genuinely concerned as he wishes me luck: “If there are mudslides on the road, you’ll have to turn back.” I don’t think that would be all that bad.

Visit westfjords.is for more information on twice-daily factory tours.

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