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A Postcard from Shetland

Chris Dell, 78, overcame TB in his teenage years and wrote a book about it. In the 1960’s, he and friends, all in their early twenties, became enthusiastic hitch-hikers and youth hostellers. On this ‘adventure’, they left Enfield, London for Scotland, visited seven other countries and ended up back in Dover.

Today’s credit cards, mobile phones and the internet were just dreams awaiting invention back in August 1962 when this story begins. My twin friends, Alan and John McEwan and myself, were in our early twenties with hitch-hiking and youth hostelling a way of life. While drinking with Alan in our local pub in Enfield, we mulled over a postcard from John showing Norwegian fishing boats in the Shetland Isles where he was working. Anxious to escape from my boring office job we hitch-hiked to Scotland and met John at Edinburgh ready to journey north to Shetland.

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On the Skomvaer II the sea soon turned rough with the boat bobbing like a cork.

Arriving in Aberdeen we took an overnight ferry to Lerwick where we stayed in the youth hostel. Next morning using primitive fishing tackle we caught dozens of piltocks and shared them at the hostel. We also purchased supplies including a tin of chicken soup. Anxious to move on we found a Norwegian rescue boat, the Skomvaer II, will be heading for the Faroe Islands, a region of Denmark halfway between Iceland and Norway. Early next morning we boarded the boat and gave the captain 200 cigarettes in appreciation. When underway the calm sea in the shelter of Shetland soon turned so rough that even the hardened sailors were hanging over the side. Arriving in Klaksvik we took a ferry around the islands to Torshavn, the capital. We marvelled at the scenery − searing rocks thrusting from the ocean and cries of puffins, guillemots, razor bills and fulmars flocking the cliffs of the islands.

One morning a rusty fishing trawler entered the port from which we heard “Get that bloody radio fixed or we can’t go out!” The captain welcomed us on board with breakfast with mugs of tea. When he heard that Alan had operated a marine radio the captain offered him a job, a trip to Iceland and back to Grimsby, and deckhand work for John and myself, but the radio was beyond repair. Next day we asked local girls what young folk do for entertainment in Torshavn – they recommended the Red Barn dance hall so off we went. On the dance floor the men, clearly drunk, were trying to dance with the girls. “What do you think of the blokes getting drunk?” John asked. “We prefer them that way” was her surprising answer.

Back at the harbour office we found a whaling boat called Caribia going to Ålesund, Norway. The Norwegian captain agreed to take us for 200 kronor. On boarding we were alarmed to see a huge harpoon on the foredeck. The boat was returning to Norway after taking a crew of Greenland whalers home. There were no cabins or blankets so we made do with the primitive bunks used by the Greenlanders. Arriving in Ålesund we spent the day recovering in the youth hostel.

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A view across Suduroy, one of the many islands of the Faroes.

Next morning we took a ferry to Molde, famous for its panoramic mountain view. As the hostel was closed we found a deserted boat house with a bench outside. Hungry and cold we remembered the tin of chicken soup so we started a fire to heat it up. Unfortunately we hadn’t made a hole in the tin − it exploded spraying soup everywhere, so hungry and cold, we bedded down on the bench. We awoke to a frosty morning with ice covering the puddles. Alan had to return to university so left us for his journey to Oslo where the British Consul assisted his repatriation. John and I continued through more mountainous scenery to Vikebukt, Åndalsnes then Lillehammer, and next day to Oslo.

Desperately short of cash we approached the Metropol restaurant and jazz club in Akersgaten where I had worked two years previously. It was a popular venue where famous musicians such as Coleman Hawkins, Stan Getz and Bud Powell performed in the dining area above the kitchen. The manager Rolf offered us jobs for 14 days washing up. We worked single shifts from 7:00am to 4:00pm and often, double shifts from 7:00am right through to 11.30pm. Rolf remembered I play piano so often asked me to entertain the lunchtime diners. He insisted I wore my apron and introduced me as the washer-upper who plays classical music and a bit of Dave Brubeck.

After our 14 days we still couldn’t afford a boat home so we hit the road. Leaving Oslo we slept in a bus shelter when darkness fell. Next morning a bus driver gave us a lift to Gothenburg in Sweden and from there a lorry driver took us to Helsingborg in exchange for unloading his cargo of scrap metal. A ferry took us to Copenhagen where we toured both the Carlsberg and Tuborg breweries for free samples. Two policemen found us a lift through Germany into Holland and Belgium where we slept in a deserted building in Ostend. Finally we had just enough money for ferry tickets to Dover. We hitched home to Enfield arriving tired and broke but very enlightened after our Nordic experience.

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We marvelled at scenery unlike anything we had seen before.

Truly, things were very different in the carefree days of the early Sixties. Hitch-hiking today is not always safe nor do drivers offer lifts easily from backpackers. Young travellers today can explore the world, secure in the knowledge that via satellite, financial support from their families is only a few clicks away. For us, a few weeks relying on each other and kindness from strangers, now that was an adventure!

Chris Dell is author of Black Notley Blues, a personal testimony detailing his memories as a mischievous teenage patient in a TB sanatorium in 1958/59. Visit www.stortdoc.com for further information.

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