Memories of Arctic Sweden 1966
23 August 2016 13:40
In 1966 John Lennon declared the Beatles more popular than Jesus. Joan Baez joined anti-Vietnam war marches in the USA. We beat Germany 4 - 2 to win the World Cup, Bet Lynch joined Coronation Street, It's A Knockout had its first outing on TV, Cathy Come Home was broadcast, and the first Doctor Who William Hartnell made his last appearance.
On the 29th of July 50 years ago the 1966 British Exploring Arctic Sweden expedition was sailing across the North Sea from Tilbury to Gothenburg by Swedish Lloyd. (Scandinavian expeditious went by sea in those days, only the Newfoundland ones went by air given the time). On the following day, 30 July, while on a train north to Sorsele, Lester Hicks, CBE, and his fellow young explorers listened to the World Cup final at Wembley on a small portable radio.
Lester sent us his remarkably vivid recollections of his expedition and kindly agreed to allow us to share them more widely. Some things don’t change at all – the messages we get back from our expeditions are still full of fantasies from explorers about what they will eat when they get home. I am not sure any of our explorers are quite as inventive with local food sources as Lester’s colleagues appear to have been…
British Exploring still travels to remote parts of the world where our young explorers have little or no contact with the outside world – but we don’t currently go anywhere for 6 weeks (although we’d love to…). I am happy to report that our leaders and explorers are altogether less formal than they were 50 years ago – and we are all just astonished at the loads they were carrying in ’66…!
We hope you enjoy the following – and, whether you are 25 or 85, if it prompts you to share your stories with us – we’d be thrilled. We are hoping to start a research project in the Autumn trying to better understand the impact of British Exploring on the lives of the people who have taken part over the years. So do please, get in touch.
The expedition met at Fenchurch Street station on 28 July 1966, en route for Tilbury docks and the Swedish Lloyd ferry service to Gothenburg. In those days before mass air travel most BSES expeditions went out by sea, certainly those in Scandinavia.
We sailed on the Suecia (4,661 tons, built in 1927 by Swan Hunter on the Tyne) – in the final months of Swedish Lloyd’s Tilbury-Gothenburg service. The 36-hour voyage involved 2 nights in airless bunkrooms leading off the bottom of the hold – what one might describe as “troopship” accommodation. It was a useful introduction to communal living. After early morning disembarkation at Gothenberg on 30th July we took trains to Stockholm and then north to Lapland. In the afternoon we listened to England winning the World Cup final on someone’s transistor radio, before an uncomfortable night sleeping as best we could on our packs and kitbags, or in some cases on the luggage racks.
On arrival at Sorsele (pronounced shore-shell-ay) we were treated to a civic reception and lunch. We fell on a smorgasbord buffet and ate as much as we could, thinking that would be our last “civilised meal” before going onto expedition rations. Then, just as we thought it was all over, to use Kenneth Wolstenholme’s famous World Cup phrase of the previous day, the doors to the next room were opened and we were invited to sit down to a full reindeer steak lunch.
After changing into expedition clothes and leaving our “civvies” in store we climbed into post-buses (with useful large luggage areas at the back for our packs and kitbags) and headed north – the buses still driving on the left. Sweden only switched over some years alter. After the last village, Argeplog, we were on unsealed roads.
The road finally ran out at a few houses and a stockpile of stores several hundred metres short of base camp on a low hill thinly covered with low birch trees. Our first job was to ferry the stores over to the camp across Lapland’s typical bare rock and heather.
The character of the expedition
I don’t suppose today’s YEs would realise how “military” BSES (as it was then known) still was in the mid-1960s. The traditions of the classic explorer Robert Scott had been passed on through Surgeon-Commander G. Murray Levick RN, Medical Officer on Scott’s ill-fated last expedition to the South Pole. He had founded the original Public Schools Exploring Society in the 1930s, and was known throughout its successor BSES as “the Admiral”. National service had only ended about 7 years before 1966, and most public and many grammar schools still had active cadet corps. Indeed, I suspect cadet corps achievement was a significant factor in selection for expeditions. In my year by Lt. Cdr. (RN) (Retd.) “Roddy” Alexander-Sinclair made the selection. He came to Sweden as Base Camp quartermaster, and we were told in respectful tones that he had been Gunnery Officer on HMS Rodney when it terminally crippled the Bismarck in 1941 – in 1966 war records still mattered. The leaders were either regular commissioned or warrant officers or, except for the youngest, had done National Service. And, of course, all the YEs were boys in 1966. Girls were not selected for expeditions until 1980.
We wore BSES regimental style shoulder flashes on our regulation olive-green anoraks. Many expeditions in the 1960s were led by serving officers. In 1966 the Chief and Deputy Chief Leaders were not soldiers, but as housemasters at Wellington College, a school with a long tradition of sending boys to the armed forces, I suspect their “expedition business plan” was modelled on Wellington’s military sixth, preparing boys for Sandhurst or Royal Marines officer training.
There was still a strong emphasis not only on operating in “wild and trackless country” but also on avoiding contact with any local populations. While we saw the occasional Lapp hunter in the distance the Geology Fire met nobody outside the Expedition for the 6 weeks, though the Biology Fire had some help from local fishermen in accessing remote survey sites around their lake.
The YEs were not expected to speak to Leaders unless they had something operational to say, and always called them “Sir”. They in turn were known by their surnames. Though this may seem strange these days it was absolutely normal for staff and pupils in the public and grammar schools in the 1960s. It was not an era where first names were in common use outside the family and friends – something that persisted well into the 1990s in my civil service career. When in Base Camp the Leaders messed and slept separately in their own “fire”.
Our kit would also seem archaic to today’s YEs. Much had been bought from BSES’s recommended supplier “Badges and Equipment”, an army surplus store in London’s Strand. I remember taking 6 pairs of navy sea-boot woollen stockings, a submariner’s crew-necked sweater (which I still have) and, to ward off the arctic cold, a supposedly thermal vest literally knitted from string. When new it looked like white chain mail, but didn’t stay clean for long. In fact, Arctic Sweden was not all that cold in summer – more like spring in the Scottish highlands. But it was often wet, and the yellow oilskin capes intended to cover our packs and us were much less effective than today’s high-tech waterproof clothing. Our feet, socks and boots were also wet almost continuously from frequent river crossings, where avoiding falling over under heavy packs was the main and very real concern. Another priority was to keep our sleeping bags dry, and for that we found very useful the large plastic sacks used for dried vegetables and rice for the evening “hoosh” (a venerated tradition of the “Admiral”).
Our tents would also surprise those on today’s expeditions. They were already out of date compared to those many of us had used at school on Duke of Edinburgh’s Award expeditions.. They were 6 or 8 person old-style heavy green canvas “Junior Explorer” ridge tents, well patched from many previous years, and heavy to carry when, as usual, wet. Our capes doubled as groundsheets.
Yet another big difference in 1966 from today’s expeditions was the total lack of communication with the outside world once we had left the UK; no mobile phones no internet, no social media and no digital photography. Incoming mail was held at Base Camp so we did not know our A-level results and whether we had the university places we had hoped to secure until preparing to march out at the end of the expedition.
The Commando Fire and “Long March”
The “pinnacle” of expeditions for BSES in those days was the Long March in the final 2 weeks in the field. This was another tradition handed down by the “Admiral”, based on Scott’s principle of endurance in the face of hard and challenging conditions and possibly adversity. Only the strongest and most resilient of the YEs would be selected. A preliminary sift based on their applications had allocated the most promising candidates to the Commando Fire. Their job was to ferry food and heavier equipment out to the Survey and science fires during the fieldwork phase in the middle 2 weeks, and lay down stores caches for the Long March on its way into the Sarek National Park, where it was hoped to do some glacier walking. If my memory is correct, the Commandos aimed to carry 60-66 lb. (27- 30kg.) of personal kit and stores. Not all that far short of the 80lb. the Marines carried when yomping over the Falklands in 1982, though a good deal less than today’s infantry load. The DCL, David Mordaunt, assisted by Ft. Lt. D. G. Allen from the RAF Regiment, led the Commandos. (Both went on to lead later expeditions). The final Long March selection weeded out those Commandos found to be relatively weaker and brought in some of the stronger boys from the other fires. The rest of us went on our own extended but more relaxed (and perhaps more enjoyable?) 150 mile march up to and over the cairn-marked border with Norway.
The Survey Fire
This was a parallel, and again largely military, world, running for the whole expedition apart from those surveyors selected for the Long March. As a geologist working in a different area, I had only limited contact with the surveyors as we passed through their camp on our final extended march to the Norwegian border, but as I recall it they mapped perhaps 25 square miles of typical Swedish Lapland. The aim was apparently not to capture any particularly interesting features but to train field surveyors. Major Legge of 42 Survey Engineer Rgt. RE was the Fire leader, usually wearing his army forage cap. In effect I guess it operated much as a Royal Engineers Topographic (Training) Squadron In those days there was no GPS or digital equipment; the work was done with plane tables and theodolites lugged up to high points chosen as local trig. stations. The readings were then recorded on army survey forms and converted into coordinates using standard tables. I think some unkind soul (not in the Survey Fire) may have said that even an ape could do that provided it could read figures and write them down accurately. There was certainly no need to understand the trigonometry involved. But survey training clearly had benefits – the current BE President, David Rhind, was a member of Survey Fire on Arctic Sweden 1962, and went on to be Director General of the Ordnance Survey in the 1990s.
42 Survey Rgt.’s Cartographic Squadron later used the field data to produce the 1966 expedition map.
The Science Fires
The style of the Geology and Biology Fires was less military, under the leadership of civilian schoolmasters.
4 (Geology) was led by David (D.F.B.) Wrench, a bluff cheerful northerner who taught geography at Haberdasher Aske’s School, but seemed to know little about geology. He was a rugby front row forward (Cambridge, Harlequins and England), built like an ox. By contrast, I was more like a wiry fly-half. Imagine sharing one of those “Junior Explorer” ridge tents with him and several others when on a march or doing fieldwork. To vary the farmyard analogy, it was rather like piglets sharing a sty with a sow but without a farrowing crate. Extracting oneself for a pee in the night was no easy matter. Luckily at our age we rarely needed to (though it must be said that since we all felt free, in the absence of any ladies present, to pee whenever we wished, our bladder muscles were somewhat relaxed by the time we got home).
We found it hard to do much rigorous field geology. The glaciated surface was obvious enough, but the solid geology was complex (as in north-west Scotland) and we all lacked the fieldwork expertise and site information to identify key structural features or attempt detailed analysis of the petrology. (Not surprising, really. We were all pre-university, and effective fieldwork in this type of area really requires post-graduate skills). Apart from a couple of hammers we had no field geology equipment, which tends to be heavy. For the same reason, bringing back large rock samples was not possible. But we did chip away some smaller fragments for later analysis, and in the event I think a reasonable synopsis was prepared as part the annual expedition report. (Sadly I’ve lost mine – but I see online that it retains a citation in the Cambridge Journals Polar Record for 1968).
Despite these limitations to our fieldwork the Geology Fire had a very enjoyable science phase.
My impression was that the Biology Fire was more successful in the field, setting up surveys of mammals, birds and invertebrates, and maybe (though my recollection may be at fault here) even looking for signs of acid rain from the UK’s newly built fleet of large (2,000-3,000 mW) coal fired power stations (many still generating today). Sweden was becoming concerned about this, as an early example of identifying trans-boundary pollution. (The climate effects of CO2 emissions had not yet surfaced. Indeed, in 1966 an awareness of the “environment” as a complex interacting eco-system had not yet filtered down into general consciousness. Fieldwork was still in the exploration tradition; discovery, mapping, classification and reporting back findings to the UK with, where practicable, specimens and samples).
The Biology Fire set up a number of observation points around a large lake. The Leader, Mr. Hodson, was not popular, and there were some subversive spirits in the Fire. When the geologists went over to visit them we found one team skinning lemmings allegedly to cook with their “hoosh’. They demonstrated what had become part of their Fire culture – calling out a mournful “Hod-sonnn” across the lake, getting back an eerie echo from the other observers. I’m not sure if Mr. H ever tracked down anyone on whom he could pin this subversion.
An endnote on food
I’m out of touch with what present-day expeditions carry and eat, but I bet it’s changed a lot since 1966. We always seemed hungry, soon learned not to leave uneaten anything we’d dropped on the ground, and spent a lot of time describing our ideal meals when we returned to “civilisation”. Here’s how we fared then:
All cooked on open altar fires. (We were told there were primus and/or camping-gaz stoves at Base Camp, but we never saw them in use. We did not have the spare capacity to carry them on marches, anyway). Live birch bark peeled of the trees was great for lighting fires even in the wet (it rained a lot in 1966). After 6 weeks of cooking on open wood fires we all smelt like kippers when we got home, and our kit did for a long time after that. I never smell a proper wood fire out of doors without happy memories of 1966. Barbecues (never heard of in Britain then) just can’t compete:
• Breakfast: oatmeal porridge cooked with water and raisins;
• Dinner: the Admiral’s traditional “hoosh” – dehydrated meal packs (usually meat stew or curry) with boiled rice and dehydrated mixed vegetables
• Hot beverages: drinking chocolate (preferred) or instant tea or coffee (chocolate tasted better since we lacked milk and usually sugar). Brooke Bond had supplied the instant tea and coffee. (Justin Brooke of the family firm had been a YE on one of the early expeditions in the 1930s, and had come out to Base Camp as a volunteer assistant Quartermaster).
4 packs of army field ration biscuits (6 per pack) per day. (Normally 1 was eaten with breakfast, 2 for lunch, and 1 with dinner). These came in large cubic tins that had to be carried out to the field locations by each Fire and the Commandos:
Tinned Blue Band margarine
Tinned processed cheese
1 small bar of Dairy Milk or Bournville chocolate per day
“Enerzade” glucose tablets
1 ascorbic acid tablet per day, providing vitamin C to counter scurvy).
Sugar cubes for hot drinks
And what did I buy when we reached our first supermarket in Sorsele on marching out? A fresh white baguette with butter, spread with golden syrup dispensed from a plastic bottle.
(Fire 4: Geology)
Expedition number: 36