All aboard!

All aboard!  Day-sacks packed with water bottles, snacks, extra gloves and hats, we’re sitting in the car, ready to go.  It’s February half terms and we’re off!  In our green car we pull out gently onto the drive.  We’ve not seen the tarmac for at least six weeks as snow and ice are thick. Down the road and finally right, down, down, through geological layers of granite covered in Anthropocene cement, through the ticket barrier and phew!  Yep, we’re in the underground car park of our local Metro station.  We’re deep underground and while it’s whatever below freezing up there outside, down here it’s a balmy +12C – really quite tropical for us at the moment and there’s no need to zip-up jackets stepping out of the car!

Moments later, on the empty Metro platform, so clean you could almost eat off the floor, our bright orange train slides in to swoosh us away.  Inside, there’s barely a soul on a late Thursday morning during the school break.  Smooth, rounded, plastic seating, so smooth in fact we slide forwards and backwards with acceleration and breaking.  Just a few stops and out into Helsinki city centre.  Quick, hop, into a restaurant before new restrictions come into force and yum, salmon burger with sweet potato chips for all.

We’re walking apace along the central promenade of this smart city centre, walking as fast as we can towards the harbour and the sea, its freedom now well in sight.  A few harbour market awnings (bright orange again) courageously tethered even in Winter lend the air of a semblance of normality even as the odd transgressing face mask lies frozen, discarded on the cobblestones.

This is finally it, through the ticket barriers and onto the ship!  Well, it’s a ship of sorts, a tiny little ferry but it’s a ship alright and this is REAL travel as we head out to sea whooping with joy as seagulls look askance, shrieking, wondering what has got into us.  Vast blocks of sea-ice up to 20cm or so thick jostle up and down as we pull out.  The icy puzzle pieces tip up and down as our ship – all-weather seafarer – takes us gently towards the open Baltic Sea.  At first, past ornate Belle Epoque restaurants and yacht-clubs on harbour islands, the distant horizon appears and broadens.  Barely seven or eight minutes out of Helsinki harbour, we’ve done it!  We’ve been on a ship, up on the bridge all the way, turned our faces into the sea-breeze, scoured the horizon – yes, we are travelling!

What a destination!  We’ve ‘micro-travelled’ to the island fortress of Suomenlinna, a UNESCO world heritage site (think Vauban naval fortress) that lies just outside Helsinki harbour.  First construction started in the 18th century and it’s still inhabited (by civilians these days).  Stepping onto Suomenlinna feels so exotic, as if we’ve really arrived somewhere.  With children pulling arms off right and left we walk past ancient timber houses now cutesy coffee stops sadly too tight to venture into in this age of air-borne bug.  Barrack buildings lay besieged by rusty civvy bikes waiting for Winter to pass but hinting already at car-free Summer island life.  Was it really here we came last year, picnic blanket spread with green all around?  I, for one, cannot but help imagine old Winters here as forces pushed and pulled for this stretch of Baltic Sea.  I imagine wet military boots, mud, little fun inside damp 8ft thick defensive walls.  Now local residents pass us with their bags of food shopping ‘from the mainland’ brought over on the ferry and this alone marks out a different way of life; they therefore seem so, well, foreign, though surely less than 10km from our home as the crow flies.

Anyway ‘hurray’, we’ve done it, we’ve travelled by ship over sea, stomped round and island a bit and feel as if we’ve really travelled, among the different airs of great Suomenlinna.  Now heading back to the ferry jetty as sun is sliding fast in its daily wintery retreat our hearts leap one more time as classical, beautiful Helsinki harbour bathes in late light and welcomes back to bosom these intrepid half-term, half-day travellers.

Thomas Jelley

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