As readers will recall, on his recent voyage to the North Atlantic, with partner Neil, Tintwistle born Matt Rochell, had three special things to do on his bucket-list, firstly, the Northern Lights, secondly, the Total Eclipse, thirdly and perhaps most importantly, follow in the footsteps of his Grandfather, Jim Chatterton of Tintwistle, who was stationed on the Faroe Islands during the 2nd World War. I asked Matt to write a few lines about the trip, and having read his first hand account, I would like to share, in his own eloquent words, a truly wonderful and uplifting story of their adventure.
The Northern Lights, were ticked somewhere bestride the Arctic Circle in Norway. Matt says, “We met up with Kjetil Skogli, a famous Norwegian Aurora-Hunter, and he quickly bundled us into the back of van, and with time of the essence, we headed two hours north from Tromso to an empty fjord. He had us climbing over boulders on a frozen beach to get to a spot that was one of his favourites. He then taught me how to take Aurora photos with my SLR, and we waited. After only thirty minutes the sky began to glow, and was lit up by some celestial-puppeteer. Greens, reds, pinks and purples - we were both speechless, and for three hours we watched the dancing colours in awe, Neil pointing to the sideshow Milky Way and Andromeda, while I smiled and made wishes at shooting stars. I still can't believe how clear the skies are up there.
We then moved on to the local mountains - we followed him across frozen lakes in about minus 20c to a beautiful valley surrounded by huge mountains and no lights. Sure enough after just 10 minutes the lights started anew - again I can't quite describe how amazing they are. We were enclosed by falling multi-coloured rays that made you feel you were looking up huge flowing curtains of light. I have to say it was one of the best sights I've ever seen. We finally gave in at around 2am as I couldn't feel my fingers in the intense cold.”
With the pictures in the bag, and one 'big-tick' down, it was back to the hotel for a couple of hours sleep before boarding the ship and heading off to an invisible pin-prick on the Ocean Charts, somewhere between the Faroe Islands and Svalbard, the optimum place in the world to witness the Solar Eclipse.
As Matt explains, “This was the second most anticipated day of the trip for me. I've always been fascinated by the night sky - indeed I have a telescope at home - but it's not great in London because of the light pollution. I missed the full eclipse in the UK in 1999, so this was my chance to finally see one. The morning of the eclipse we awoke to a Gale Force 7 Storm, thick cloud and heavy snow in the middle of the ocean. Not good. The Captain positioned the ship (with about six others cruise liners) to be in the maximum point of totality - it didn't look hopeful, the best laid plans and all that. But then the sky started to clear, and we could see the moon slowly start to cross the sun. Solar glasses ready and a rather expensive filter for my camera I started getting some great shots. The boat was rocking quite violently and we had people sliding across the deck. We got to about 98% totality before the clouds rolled backed in. Fortunately we could still see the shadow of the moon racing towards us across the ocean, it was quite eerie and then 'someone switched out the lights'. It went dark, really dark, and across the sky we could see Venus and a few stars but no Sun. Two and a half minutes later someone 'switched back on the lights', the clouds parted, and the sun was visible in a very thin crescent again. I have to say , although we missed viewing totality it was still awe inspiring. We then continued to sail to the most anticipated day for me - the Faroes Islands.”
Matt didn't need to tell me that the third-tick was his biggest, it was obvious from the first time we discussed his voyage; his Mother Ann Rochell, also of Tintwistle, was just as excited about him retracing his Grandfather's, her Father's, footsteps. I'm a great fan of serendipity, and it was certainly a happy-accident that I had mentioned in a travel article last year that, the British Army had constructed the runway on the Island of Vagar in 1942. Having read the piece, Ann came into the Laughing Badger Gallery to show me the pictures of her Dad, Jim Chatterton, while he was stationed with the Royal Artillery on the islands, and it was then that I realised that I had actually known him in my early days at Crowden.
Jim may well have been listening to the wireless when Winston Churchill announced the occupation of the Faroe Islands, following the invasion of Denmark by Germany, but little did he know that, he would soon be there as part of Operation Valentine, and the islands and the people would make a lasting impression on him, he even called his house in Tintwistle, 'Torshavn', after the Capital.
Ann says, “Dad didn't say anything about his experiences during the war, but he talked about the beauty of the islands and the lovely people. We had a Fair-Isle jumper when we were kids which he must have brought back, and it was probably his to start with, but over the years of washing it kept shrinking so all three of us children wore it at sometime.”
Back to Matt and his third and biggest bucket-list tick. “Travelling to the islands by sea as my Grandfather did made me realise just how remote they were, it had already taken us over 2 days since we left the Norwegian coast, it must have been overwhelming for the forces guys.
Next stop was the moment I'd been waiting for since I was a small child - to visit Fort Skansin and the guns Grandad manned. We climbed up the small hill with a great view over the harbour and there they were - two of them, much bigger than I imagined, standing sentry over the capital and pointing towards the open sea gaps either side of the island Nolsoy which sits directly opposite the Harbour. I have to admit I completely lost it. It felt so remote but so beautiful. I can't imagine what went through Grandad's mind as he sat there day after day.
We laid a small wooden cross of remembrance from my Mum and her sisters at the foot of the one gun and then I attached a poppy my grandmother used to have for Remembrance Sunday to the other gun.”
My Son, Culain, and I, while not retracing the steps of anyone in particular when we were on the Islands, we would both like to visit again, and for my part, when we do, I will certainly make sure to climb up to the gun emplacements and pay my respects to Jim Chatterton of Tintwistle.
Matt says, “As we pulled away from the quayside next morning, a rolling mist soon surrounded us, and as we stood at the back of the boat to cast one last poppy into the ocean, a large seabird began swooping down around us. He followed us for about an hour and a half as we passed Suduroy, the most southerly island, and then as we went to our cabin to get changed, out of the porthole we could see the same bird, flying close-by for another ten minutes before