Thvottalaugar (Washing pools): a historical “hot spot” of Reykjavik

 (source: Torfbæjum inn i Taækniöld, Annð Bindi)

Even before Iceland’s geothermal waters were harnessed to produce energy, geothermal water was recognized for its important contribution to a community. Iceland’s Ancient records indicate that geothermal springs were used for washing and bathing. Cleanliness was considered an important factor in Nordic life. Carrying baskets of laundry was not a light task. If the distance to hot water was far from the homestead it was a great burden. Women gathered at nearby hot springs or hot streams to use the already heated water for washing. Laundering was hard, steamy, work, but it also served as time for ladies to socialize.

Norse poetic literature emphasized the importance of grooming and cleanliness. This example is from Reginsmal (The Ballad of Regin):

“Combed and washed | shall the wise man go, And a meal at mom shall take;

For unknown it is | where at eve he may be; It is ill thy luck to lose.”

(source: Torfbæjum inn i Taækniöld, Annð Bindi)

In towns with larger populations, laundering was an even larger communal event for the ladies and their children. Because there were many homesteads in these areas, washing often required walking a further distance.Thvottalaugar (washing pools) was a busy locale set to the east in Reykjavik. The road which led from the heart of the city to Thvottalaugar was named Laugavegur (washing road). This road was well worn by women carrying baskets and workers carting loads of wash.

Contemporary Laugavegur is the “major shopping” road of downtown Reykjavik. Traveling east along this road, travelers will find Laugardalur Park where Thvottalaugar remains today (although dry). Along with the gorgeous old infrastructure a structure and signage exist to describe the history of this site.

Thvottalaugar in its Laugardalur Park environs (photographs in October 2011)One of the first trial wells for geothermal water was sunk at Thvottalaugar between 1755, and 1756 by Eggert Olafsson and Bjarni Palsson. Between 1928 and 1930, more wells were sunk in the Thvottalaugar vicinity in pursuit of hot water for space heating. In 1930 enough geothermal water was recovered from these wells to heat Austurbackjarskili, a school in Reykjavik. The school was the first building in the city to be heated by geothermal water. Shortly after the school, the hospital, public pool and approximately 60 residential houses were connected to and utilized hot water from the geothermal pipeline originating at Thvottalaugar.

Vatnavinir Friends of Water recognize the importance of Thvottalaugar and have created a very interesting proposal for the area.

GEOTHERMAL CENTRE IN LAUGARDALUR   (source: Vatnavinir)

“The washing springs in Laugardalur lie at the centre of the history and development of the City of Reykjavík. Here, maids washed heavy loads of clothes, people and animals bathed, boys and girls learnt their first swimming strokes, experiements were made with cheesemaking and drilling for hot water for heating and electricity.

But steam no longer soars towards the skies and there is little to remind of old times other than stone walls by the dried up stream and grass covered washing tubs now long disconnected.

Vatnavinir propose the creation of a Geothermal Centre to honour the important history of water use in a vibrant way, e.g. by bringing to life the spirit of the old springs – the white linen blowing in the wind, the outlines of people in the steam, the smell of hot water and coffee.

Hot water may again be supplied to the springs and the stream (Laugalækur), now contained within an underground pipe, allowed to flow again along a part of its old channel linking the Botanical Garden and the old washing springs.

   (source: Vatnavinir)

The baths themselves are an education centre around hot water in a historical and geological context and are underground. Guests relax in hot pools while they learn about utilisation and origin of the hot water and geothermal heat through multimedia. In the evenings silence reigns – all screens are turned off and the bath house only used for bathing – but there could be occasional events in the evenings – story and poetry evenings, film screenings, concerts or even naming of children.

A public laundromat is also to be found here where guests and passers-by can wash their clothes. The laundromat is a historical museum on washing utensils and appliances but open to public use. Guests could choose between washing clothes on a washboard in a tub or in a washing machine from 1950. Simple refreshments, reminescent of the food washing women and travellers ate in times past, will be on sale – hot spring coffee and baked bread, fish, potatoes and meat. Paddling pools for children are in old washing tubs. The largest pool is open to the sky but beneath the present surface and white linen blows in the wind on lines above it creating a play of light and shadow in the pool.

   (source: Vatnavinir)

It is also proposed that a small steam power station be erected, which would supply the area with electricity. Thus the project – once upon a time began but never finished – would be brought full circle to its conclusion and the area thereby also made self-sustainable in terms of electricity.” (source: Vatnavinir)

Daylighting the stream and allowing geothermal heat/energy to stimulate this area, as it did in the past, is an extremely exciting prospect. I also see another important aspect to this historical rejuvenation as linking this steamy location back to Laugavegur, the main shopping street. Not only is this path a historical reference, but it would draw people from the center of the city to this lesser known area. I believe Thvottalaugar has huge potential!

Daily reminders of geothermal energy

Before coming to Iceland, I had not used geothermal energy. How different could it be? It illuminates lights, heats up stoves, provides hot water to wash dishes…it’s energy, right?

After two months in this country, I find myself being reminded daily of where the energy I use comes from. I have not experience this at home.

Daily reminders (before leaving my apartment):


SHOWER:
 Stepping into the steaming hot shower, my olfactory sense is quickly awakened. The sulfurous smell, emitted during the use of hot water, is poignant. Recollections of this smell are stimulated in my mind: suddenly I am exploring dynamic geothermal fields with spouting geysers, boiling mudpots, and venting fumaroles; OR I am relaxing in a “hot pot”/geothermal pool, my body completely at ease, soaking up minerals and heat in an other-worldly environment; OR… the distinct memories of places connected with this smell go on and on. This “rotten egg” smell has become utterly delightful (I’m serious). Each time I indulge in geothermally heated water, I am momentarily brought back to the powerful and dynamic ground that creates this possibility. Instead of stepping into my black tile shower, I am transported to fascinating places. Sometimes I am left wondering about the root source of this energy; and sometimes I am musing over the current political “green energy” debate.  Is it the uniqueness of geothermal environments that make such a strong impact? Is it the potency of this particular smell? Is the connection between smell and memory stronger than other senses? Does all energy have a smell? Does this connectivity between memory of a place and geothermal energy fade with time? If this was the only energy that you had ever used, would there still be a connection between geothermal environments and daily use?


WASHING THE DISHES: The first warning that I was given upon arrival to my apartment, “Be careful, the water gets really hot!” Even with this advice, I have burnt my hands on numerous occasions. Hot water has infused the tops of my hands and evokes a constant sensitivity. Water heats up fast and gets extremely HOT. I used an infrared thermometer to do a few quick tests on the water temperature at my apartment sink. How hot was this water? Despite the steam and strong sulfur smell, the water temperature can jolt you back into reality quickly if you aren’t careful. After 90 seconds of running the faucet on high, 172 0F water erupted from the tap!


TRACES FROM THE SHOWER + SINK: I used to take fast showers. Here, I find myself relishing in the extreme hot water. I become entrapped in the warm world of steam and thought. After enveloping me, the steam is drawn to my windows, making them watery and opaque. Even with the windows open, the steamy traces of my shower will linger for the next hour.

Another trace I constantly find is a white residue on the counters. No matter how hard I work to keep the sink and counters clean, it is impossible. After I wipe down the counter, or the sink, or the shower and the water has dried, white traces (minerals) cloud whatever surface I have scrubbed.


FIDGETING WITH MY RING: I am constantly spinning, moving, and playing with the ring on my finger. The sensation of this act has not changed, but when I look down at my silver, seaglass ring, I pause. Is that my ring? What happened? A black patina has transformed my ring. Iceland’s geothermal waters have left a dark trace.

I was told at thermal baths to take off my jewlrey as the water would tarnish it. After almost losing my ring, I decided to keep to my normal routine and never take it off. I shower, wash dishes, go swimming, all with my ring on. For now, this dark patina serves as a reminder (similar to the sting I sometimes get in my eyes after showering), of this geothermal water. When I get home, I’ll get out the polish.


NIGHT SOUNDS: I woke up in the night to the sound of water percolating. Was my neighbor making coffee at 2 a.m.? Then again at 4 a.m.? It wasn’t as though this hot water initially woke me up, but I found the sound intriguing. Now when I wake up in the night, I listen for it. At times the stillness of the night allows me to hear this hot rumble. The apartment is being heated by hot water. My neighbors can’t drink that much coffee!

I am going to try to capture this sound on video.