School trips do not seem to be as adventurous as they once were, perhaps it is budgets, perhaps it is health and safety, but there are few trips to unlikely destinations – like Russia.
Our trip to Russia was to cost £77, but, due to the 1973 oil crisis, the cost rose to £84 and the itinerary was changed; there would be no visit to Stockholm, instead everyone would travel in the ship’s launches to the island of Gotland.
Even with the rise in price and change in route, it was a major experience. Sailing from Southampton to Copenhagen, there was a hydrofoil crossing to Malmo, then onto Gotland, before the highlight of the trip, the days in Leningrad; a visit to a city with extraordinary cultural riches that was enduring the grey days of Communism.
For a thirteen year old, travelling without his parents for the first time, it might have been intimidating, but most of those travelling had similar thoughts. It was a school trip; the entire ship was one big school trip. The SS Nevasa had been a troop ship; the dormitories that had once carried soldiers outward to battle or homeward to safety now carried hundreds and hundreds of pupils on educational cruises.
It is hard to imagine such an enterprise being possible more than forty years later. Even if there were suitable vessels available, who would wish to spend days at sea when an airliner could make the journey in a couple of hours? More than that, though, our school party was a fifty strong mixed group, minded by three teachers, two men and a woman; the ratio of one to seventeen would hardly be acceptable, nor would the potential risks of unsupervised young people wandering the decks of an ocean-going liner.
Images of that journey remain strong: the Tivoli Gardens in Copenhagen, the skim across the water to Malmo, the journey in open boats to go ashore at Visby on Gotland, and being guided around Leningrad by members of the Young Pioneers, the Communist Party’s youth movement. Even at the age of thirteen, questions arose: Malmo seemed to be visited for the sake of the hydrofoil journey; Visby was a nice place, but was hardly a substitute for the planned visit to the Swedish capital city; and, if Communism was such a great thing, why did we not get a chance to meet ordinary Russian people?
Recounting the fact of having visited the Soviet Union at thirteen years of age tends now to prompt looks of disbelief, it is much easier to recount visits to London or somewhere plausible.