Looking North

I’ve been thinking about the North again, reflecting on my previous trips, and anticipating the two trips I’ve got to the far North over the next couple of months. Before I go much further I’d better define "North". I toyed with using the Arctic Circle as my definition of North, but eventually decided that 60 degrees north made more sense. 60 degrees means I can (just) include the northern extremities of the UK in North. Lerwick (60.2N) on Shetland is just north of the line, there’s even a sign on the side of road between Sumburgh and Lerwick to mark the spot.

I first got to 60 North in 1972 when I toured southern Norway with my parents - we went through Bergen (60.4N), and the most northerly point I can find evidence of is Eidsbugarden (61.4N) in the Jotunheimen mountains.

My next trip that far north was in 1984 - this time a skiing trip to central Norway, flying to Oslo (59.9N) then getting the train to the area near Vinstra (61.6N). My recollections from that trip are very vague, and most of the photographs from the time seem to include evidence of a significant amount of alcohol which might be a factor in the quality of recollection.

It was almost 10 years before I ventured north again. It was June 1993 when I spent a week (notionally working) in St Petersburg (60.0N). It might be just stretching a point to include St Petersburg itself, but we did go out along the coast towards the Swedish boarder one evening which certainly took us over the line. That was the first time I was conscious of the "White Nights", when it never really gets dark and I was able to take photographs of the Neva at 11 pm.

After that it wasn’t until 2004 that the North came calling again, and since then I’ve made 8 trips that have crossed the 60 line. 2004 involved a return trip to Norway, again crossing to Bergen, this time rather than heading cross country towards Oslo the trip was much more north focussed. We turned left out of the ferry gates in Bergen and headed north through Alesund (62.5N) and Trondheim (63.4N) until we reached the Arctic Circle (66.5619N). That felt like an important landmark, and it really was a struggle to make myself turn the car round just after we crossed the Circle.

2006 was my first visit to Iceland, flying into Keflavik (64.0N), then spending time in Reykjavik (64.1N) before heading along the south coast as far as Hofn (64.2N) and up to the original geyser at Geysir (64.3N). At some point we must have gone straight past the Eyjafjallajökull (63.6N) without giving it a thought.

In 2007 I stepped up the pace somewhat clocking up three trips which crossed my North boundary. The first two were both to Shetland, spending some of the time just south of the line at Sumburgh (59.9N), some time in Lerwick (60.2N), and getting as far north as Hermaness (60.8N) on Unst. The British Isles pretty much runs out at that point. The two Shetland trips were also at extreme points in the year. First in January, when the Shetlanders get back in touch with their inner Viking for the Up-Helly-Aa festival, and then in June when there is the Shetlandic equivalent to the "White Nights", the "Simmer Dim". A little later in summer 2007 my inner Viking took me back to Iceland, again to Reykjavik (64.1N) this time as a stepping stone to eastern Greenland. I spent time in Kulusuk (65.6N), notable as being one of the very few places on the east coast of Greenland that has a real runway - a leftover from the American Cold War activities, and at Tasiilaq (also 65.6N), one of the few real towns in eastern Greenland. You can tell it’s real town because it’s got proper roads, you can’t go anywhere on the roads, they stop at the edge of town, but they are there.

I kept the pace up in 2008, again clocking up another three North trips, back to Shetland again - Virkie (59.9N), and Lerwick(60.2N) - in the height of summer to watch the puffins and gannets, and to Helsinki (60.2N) in November and Tromso (69.7N) in December. The Helsinki trip was a city break, with the only goal being to enjoy discovering the city. The Tromso trip was a thwarted attempt to see and photograph the Northern Lights. It rained and I failed on both counts - and got a souvenir case of pneumonia to mark the occasion. I did however get a little bit further up the coast to Skjervøy (70.1N), marking my first crossing of the virtual line at 70 degrees north.

Since then I’ve not managed to get to the North, but the next few weeks should remedy that. We’re heading back up to Shetland again. We’ll certainly get as far north as Lerwick (60.2N) and maybe a little further. Shortly after that I should (volcanoes permitting) be heading up to Longyearbyen (78.2N) in the Svalbard archipelago, and hopefully as far north as the 80 degree line.

So what keeps dragging me back to the North? Aside from wanting to get in touch with my inner Viking. My father’s family come from Tain (57.8N) in the north of Scotland - maybe there are genes from further north there too. I’ve got at least two theories about the pull of the North. The light is fantastic (at least in the summer), there is daylight for most of the 24 hours and the air is usually (Icelandic volcanoes not withstanding) amazingly clear. One of my strongest memories from the Greenland trip was getting off the plane in Kulusuk, and realising how far I could see - that clarity really came through in some of the pictures I took. The other factor is people, or more critically the lack of people. Southern England is full of people and the roads are full of cars - the further north you go the quieter places are, and the pace of life is slower too. There also isn’t much sign of wilderness here in Oxfordshire (51.8N) - and a little bit of wilderness always leaves me feeling better.

I’m looking forward to my upcoming trips to the North, and I’ve got a really strong urge to plan some more.

The North

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