In 1966, 21-year-old Bridget Ashton had just graduated from Teachers Training College. “What was expected of us in those days was that we would get a job in a school,” she says.
“And then, of course, you were supposed to keep your purity until you met a handsome young man who loved you enough to marry you.”
Ashton, however, had other ideas: “Adventure was more exciting to me than being a teacher. It was the ’60s, shortly after Jack Kerouac’s On the Road was published, and travel was very much in vogue.”
The plan she was hatching would introduce her to a completely different life indeed. For the next year or so, she would wander behind the Iron Curtain – through what were then the Soviet bloc countries of East Germany, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Yugoslavia, Romania and Bulgaria.
Along the way, she encounters armed police and army dogs. landscapes you’ve never dreamed of before; And a love story more romantic than anything that happens back home. She funded her travels by writing articles for the Newcastle Journal, and her diaries have now enabled her to document the journey in a memoir, Cold War, Warm Hearts.
Fortunately, in a Munich hostel, in May 1967, I met someone who would be very special: Bill, a young American who had come by cargo boat to see Europe. Pictured: the couple on their wedding day
It first occurred to Ashton that she would like to see this (then almost forbidden) part of the world when she met a handsome Polish-American in Hereford, where she was attending college.
‘Maybe all Polish boys are like him,’ I thought – my impulse was that deep. I was so naive. I got a Teach Yourself Polish book from the library, and that was as far as my education went.
However, I understood that the British people were afraid of all things communist: “We remembered the Hungarian Revolution in 1956, when an uprising in Hungary was crushed by Soviet tanks, and nearly a quarter of a million people fled the country.”
Ashton entered the Soviet bloc across the border between West and East Germany, where she waited several hours and was interrogated. “Visitors like me are tolerated,” she wrote in her diary, “but entry is difficult and unpleasant.”
She funded her travels by writing articles for the Newcastle Magazine, and her diaries have now enabled her to document the trip in a memoir, Cold War, Warm Hearts. Pictured: Bridget in remote Czechoslovakia
Eventually I made it to Berlin, and from there I took a train to Poland. Over the next few months, I was fascinated by what I saw, particularly in rural areas. In the hills, people were still dressed in traditional costumes, and there was horse traffic.
You’d go inside churches, and the local women made wonderful weavers and tapestries. In Yugoslavia, she recalls being dumbfounded by the sight of Golubac Castle on the Danube: ‘It was absolutely stunning, and the area was not developed at all. You had to trek miles of brown hills to get there.
Soldiers came along with machine guns and a big dog
Hiking wasn’t without risk, even in those days, she says. Occasionally, men would give it a try. But always, if you fight back and are polite and firm, you won’t have a problem. She was never worried about being robbed either. People are mostly honest. Also, there was such a fear of the police in those countries. You will not do illegal things.
In an era before easy access to international calls, she relied on messages sent to the nearest hostel to keep in touch with people back home: “I think the biggest danger is that people don’t always know where I am.”
Bridget continued her trips to Romania and Bulgaria, but she and Bill kept in touch – and she returned again and again to Munich, where he worked. Bridget (centre) meets a family in the lowlands of Romania
This may have been a blessing in April 1967 – having traveled to Czechoslovakia, Ashton made friends with Petar, whose parents owned the hostel. “I could see the dome of a sweet little church sticking out of the trees—but the next morning, it wasn’t there.” The husband decided to go and investigate.
As it turned out, the church was blown up overnight – it was in a military zone. The young men who were inspecting the ruins quickly attracted attention. “Two soldiers came with machine guns and a big Alsatian dog,” Ashton recalled. “We were put in a jeep and blindfolded, and this dog was panting in our ears.”
They were taken to another location, where they had to walk along a line of armed soldiers. After they had been confined to a room for a few hours, the lieutenant mercifully realized that the inquisitive explorers were just silly kids. They were blindfolded again, taken back to the outskirts of the military zone, and released.
Ashton’s fearless optimism got her into other predicaments. “In Czechoslovakia, I decided to buy a tent and sleep in the woods,” she recalls. But as soon as it got dark, I got scared – I knew there were bears and wolves around.
“In the morning I went up to the road to stop, a car pulled up, but I couldn’t speak – my jaw was frozen.” Fortunately, the driver and his wife took Ashton home and let her melt away. (“This was the first bathroom I’ve had since last fall.”)
Have you ever regretted any of it? ‘no!’ Says. “But I get very homesick sometimes.” Fortunately, in a Munich hostel, in May 1967, I met someone who would be very special: Bill, a young American who had come by cargo boat to see Europe.
Ashton continued her trips to Romania and Bulgaria, but she and Bill kept in touch – and she returned again and again to Munich, where he worked. “We were very keen on each other, and by living together when I was in Munich we would do things our parents didn’t approve of.”
One day, in the fall of 1967, they went to take office. “We felt the biggest shock of our lives,” she says. ‘He had a message from
For the next year or so, Bridget would wander behind the Iron Curtain – through what were then the Soviet bloc countries of East Germany, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Yugoslavia, Romania and Bulgaria. In the photo: wool spinners in Bulgaria
The U.S. Army, called him up for two more years of military service in the Vietnam War. He’s already finished his draft. In a moment of gentleness which rather underscores Ashton’s view of human nature, the workman behind the counter, seeing the horror on their faces, says he will mark the letter “accidentally opened” and return it. “Then we got away as fast as we could.”
They made their way to the UK, where they married, to make sure Bill wasn’t called back – and they’re still together, 55 years later. They have four children, and live in Morpeth, Northumberland, where Ashton works as a local historian and author.
The couple’s appetite for adventure with their children has faded. One went to Australia and the other took a solo tour through the Himalayas. Their eldest son traveled to the Baltics after the collapse of communism, and taught English at a Lithuanian university. His brother went to Israel when he was 17 and lived under a bridge playing his guitar.
Ashton shrugs when asked if she’s worried about them. If you have a positive attitude and make friends easily, life under a bridge in Israel can never be more dangerous than under a bridge in Newcastle.
She believes in the same no-frills travel that she embraced in the ’60s. “I like to be close to people — I don’t live in hotels, I don’t go on planes, but down there, seeing what life is like for ordinary people. I want to know what they eat and what their problems are,” she says.
She discovered the realities of communism by seeing it for herself, she adds, rather than by reading about it: “So I listened to both sides, and that was a good thing.”
Ashton is 78 now, but it’s not hard to imagine her at 21, embarking on that journey that will change her life. “For me, travel is about enriching yourself by understanding how other people feel,” she says. “And it’s still what I want to do with my life.”
- Cold War, Warm Hearts by Bridget Ashton are in bookstores (Book Guild, £10.99) and at mailshop.co.uk/books*