Scooter trip to the Arctic - 1962

July 24, 2017

 

The year was 1962.......................................!

 

I'd just finished studying at the Birmingham School of Architecture and, was sharing a cottage with a fellow graduate. The old cottage was located in the heart of Lewes, East Sussex, by the castle walls. Fellow graduates and friends would visit us at weekends. A group of us would usually head for the Pelham Arms, our High Street local, enjoy a few pints and catch up with the news. Sleeping bags on the cottage floor were the order of the day for visitors.

 

We worked in the same architect's office, just off the seafront in Regency Square, Brighton. At this time, Brighton was a lively place, being the weekend destination for opposing groups of "Mods and Rockers". London was an hour's journey away by train and, Carnaby Street was the fashion destination. While visiting the Lefevre Art Gallery in London, I was tempted to buy a Lowry "Cotton Mills" painting, priced then at £300. I weighted up the financial options and instead, used my savings to fund the Scandinavia Trip........I sometimes wonder what the commercial value of that painting would be now!

 

I planned to travel by scooter (see photo of my Triumph Tigress 250cc scooter above).  

 

At the end of my last 13,000 mile adventure to Istanbul and Athens, my original scooter had been returned to the Factory in a wrecked state. So this scooter was effectively new....having been completely re-built without charge, by the BSA/Triumph Factory in Birmingham.

I was a comparatively well paid employee, but because I was single, paid a penal rate of income tax to Harold McMillan's Government. My answer to this problem was solved in a way the Government never intended. By working for seven months and then travelling for five months, I could largely fund an extended trip on the tax rebate due.

 

So around early May, when the weather became warmer, I gave up employment and, prepared the scooter for an extended trip to Scandinavia. I intended to see the sights, study the architecture and, try to secure another job. My housemate subsequently headed for Port Moresby, New Guinea.

 

And so the trip started..................................!

 

I arrived in Ostend with a college friend riding his own Vespa scooter. Almost immediately, my scooter broke down near Ghent. Not a good start to the trip............! After much searching, we replaced the scooter's alternator in a workshop in Brussels. We then set off for Antwerp, Rotterdam, Amsterdam etc. visiting museums, art galleries, bars etc......Being architects, we also went off route to visit landmark buildings of particular architectural interest. We then took the coastal route to Groningen and on to Germany.

 

Passing through Hamburg's Reeperbahn (the Beatles had returned to England by this stage), we headed north along the coast to Fano Island in Denmark. Here we enjoyed a few days of beach life. Turning inland at Esbjerg, we headed on to Aarhus, Randers and Alborg. The Danish approach to community based architecture and planning, seemed like a breath of fresh air to us both! At this point, my friend's holiday was over and we parted.

 

I was now travelling alone........................... !

 

The seaport of Hirtshals on the northerly tip of Denmark, was in the middle of a storm, when I arrived to board the overnight ferry. The route across the Skagerrak to Kristiansand in Norway, is known for rough seas. I was expecting the worst! I've travelled by ferry countless times, but this turned out to be the roughest crossing I've ever experienced.

 

Shakily finding my land-legs on arrival, I climbed on the scooter and followed the scenic coastal route to Oslo. Norwegian friends were contacted and, I joined them for a week of alcohol-fueled parties. I was then invited to stay with an author, in his log house on the outskirts of Oslo. He had lived in Dublin and admired the City for its cultural heritage. This planted a seed in my mind, which triggered my own move to Dublin a decade later. He also said that no trip to Norway would be complete without a visit to the Arctic.

 

The challenge of the Arctic appealed to me............so I decided to head north!

I have recently discovered that this happened to be the home of my distant ancestors (Y-DNA halpogroup N-M178).

 

The first day's journey ended in a riverside campsite in Lillehammer, the Olympic ski venue. Being an "old hand" at camping, I pitched tent on high ground. It proved to be the right decision!

Torrential rain in the night led to campsite chaos. With submerged vehicles, floating caravans and, the ridges of tents showing above the flooded campsite. Leaving Lillehammer, I headed north, travelling through spectacular mountainous countryside, arriving in Trondheim late evening.

 

Trondheim, the last city before the Arctic Circle, is know for its multi-coloured timber buildings. I was now about to enter a remote area. It was time to stock up with provisions. Food was expensive and stretched my budget. So diet was restricted to fish, whale meat, bread, berries and gjetost, a hard Norwegian goat cheese. Normal road surfaces break up in arctic conditions, so I faced dirt roads for the next few weeks. Fishing gear was obtained and, a permanently assembled fishing rod projected from the back of the scooter like an aerial. Teeming fish life in the rivers and, a plentiful supply of wild berries, meant there was little danger of starvation.

 

Arriving in Narvick, I was invited to join a wedding party. With alcohol flowing profusely, I was regaled with amazing eye witness accounts, of major WW2 land and sea battles in and around the town.

 

The weather was cool, but sunny and dry. Extended living in a tent was a pleasant experience. The scenery and mountain views were fantastic. Isolated wood cabins with racks of cod drying in the light breeze, dotted the sea inlets. I was given eggs, butter and other provisions by kind locals. Tromso in those far off days, had a population of around 12,000. This compares with a current thriving population of 70,000 plus. In 1962, it was a far different place, with a feeling of isolation.

 

Hammerfest, at a latitude of over 70 degrees north (10 degrees further north than Anchorage, Alaska), was my most northerly destination. It seemed strange to live in daylight for 24 hours per day and, to be awakened by reindeer tripping over the tent's guy ropes. Leaving Hammerfest, I headed south east over the tundra, to Laksev and on to Karasjok, which is close to the border with Finland. The river at Karasjok flows into the Barents Sea through birch scrubland, with great crops of wild blueberries.

 

Angling has been a hobby since childhood and the river looked fishy and inviting. So I left the road and, followed a forest track along the banks of the river, until I could go no further. I then made camp in the wilderness by the Raisjonka, a tributary of the main river. My plan was to do a bit of fishing! I had not been warned about the danger of bears which frequent these parts, but the only interruption to my solitude was a party of Laplanders in traditional costume, heading downriver in motorized canoes. The salmon I caught was too big to eat alone. So after wrapping it, I strapped it to the back of the scooter. I then entered Finland close to the Russian Border and headed for Lake Inari. Russia was a no-go area in those Cold War days, so I stayed well clear.

 

                                                                          Raisjonka River

 

The Lake Inari campsite was already closed for the season, but with nobody around, I pitched tent anyway. I then came across two French adventurers, who had been in an accident with a logging truck. They had written off their Citroen 2CV and, were waiting for a floatplane to fly out. We feasted on the salmon, marinated in spices and cooked in foil over a log fire. Delicious!

 

In this part of the world, there were no filling stations. Very occasionally stacks of oil drums would be found at road junctions. Petrol would be hand pumped directly from a drum into the scooter tank by a lone operator. Scrubland turned to trees and, trees became taller as I headed south. I eventually arrived in Rovaniemi and then Kemi on the Baltic Sea. Heading through the centre of Finland via Jyvaskyla, I made a point of visiting architecturally significant buildings by Alvar Alto, one of the leading architects of the 20th Century.

 

Eventually, I reached Helsinki in torn and worn out clothes, only fit for the waste bin. My plan was to seek work in an architect's office, but firstly, I needed to be presentable. So heading for Stockmanns Department Store, I bought a complete outfit consisting of shoes, socks, underwear, shirt, tie and finally, the luxury of a black leather coat. I still hold on to that coat, as a reminder of past adventures! At that time Finnish architecture was internationally celebrated. I visited the offices of several architects, but without job success. One occasion, found me being entertained by an eminent architect in his ultra modern house, complete with swimming pool and sauna, and filled with designer furniture which would be collector classic today. 

 

I was reluctant to leave Helsinki, but with no immediate job prospects, it was time to move on! By now the weather was getting cold and camping was no longer practicable. After one day of heavy rain, I awakened to find my my airbed floating. A stream had burst its banks and, water was pouring across the campsite from a higher level. Leaving the City, I headed along the south coast of Finland to the port of Turku and boarded the ferry to Stockholm.

 

Arriving in downtown Stockholm, I headed for the harbour and checked in at the youth hostel. This was on board the "af Chapman", an old sailing ship and famous landmark in the Old Town area. Somehow, Stockholm didn't have the same attraction as Helsinki. Things seemed to be a bit too clinical for my liking. Young men out for a night on the town, all seemed to wear the same grey suits. This was in sharp contrast to the casual "flower power" outfits of the foreign youth hostelers. So after a week in Stockholm, I moved on to Copenhagen.

 

I checked into a hostel on the outskirts of Copenhagen and immediately began searching for a job in an architects' office. Again to no avail! I also visited the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, a fabulous museum in a wonderfully landscaped setting, north of Copenhagen. It was here that I saw paintings by Asger Jorn and Edvard Munch, artists who subsequently influenced my own work.

 

 

The weather had now turned cold and, I was running short of funds. At least my regular visits to the Tuborg or Carlsberg factories, was a source of free beer. Following the example of others in the Youth Hostel, I took a seasonal job, apple picking at a local fruit farm. Many had little enthusiasm for this type of work, but I was happy to take up the challenge. By working efficiently, I was quickly promoted to a more comfortable indoor packing role. The tax free wages were good and I needed the money. A small group of us headed for the City most evenings. Our prospects improved when one of the group received a Corvette Sports Car for his 21st birthday. The new car had been specially shipped to the Copenhagen docks by his wealthy American father.

 

By now it was early November, I made a decision to meet with friends, for the annual bonfire night celebrations in Lewes, Sussex. Leaving Copenhagen, I headed for Esberg and the ferry to Harwich. My journey was delayed by the ferry crossings between the Danish Islands, so I changed plan and instead, diverted to Flensburg in Germany.

 

Heading round a bend in northern Germany, a mechanical problem caused me to loose control of the scooter.

I hit the road hard and slid across, largely protected by my leather coat. A Samaritan from a local filling station helped dress some superficial wounds and, invited me to stay the night at his place. The following morning, I started early, on my longest scooter ride of over 500 miles in a day. That night, I pitched tent in the dark, in what I thought was a quiet field in Belgium. Woken by noisy children the following morning, I realized I had unknowingly camped in a school playground. Quickly packing the tent, I headed for Ostend and caught the ferry to Dover. Bonfire night was spent in Lewes as planned. Finally, I headed through central London via Westminster Bridge, the Edgeware Road and, the old road network to the family home in the North West of England. (No M25 in those days!).

 

I had been travelling on the scooter for over five months. By now I had clocked up about 100,000 miles of scooter travel over 7 years..............I shudder to think of my countless near accidents and lucky escapes!

So I parked the scooter, determined never to ride one again. When a neighbour offered to buy it for £20, I accepted!

 

My days of scooter riding are long over..........................I am happy to live with the memories!

 

Ross 

 

 

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