Fifty years on: QE’s pioneering expedition behind the Iron Curtain

Fifty years on: QE’s pioneering expedition behind the Iron Curtain

This summer marks the 50th anniversary of QE’s pioneering expedition to the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe – reportedly the first-ever British school party to visit Russia.

The month-long trip in two Dormobiles covered 5,000 miles, with the party of three teachers, 12 Sixth-Formers and two former School Captains mostly camping along the way.

The expedition came at the height of the Cold War: the Berlin Wall was barely a year old and, coincidentally, was to claim its first victim during the QE trip, when an 18-year-old German bricklayer was shot and left to bleed to death while trying to escape to West Berlin. And just two months after the expedition returned, the world would be teetering on the brink of nuclear war as the Cuban Missile Crisis erupted.

Led by Kay Townsend and Richard Dilley – two masters at the School who had learnt Russian during their National Service – the preparation started a year before the expedition’s departure on 30th July 1962.

The party comprised these two, together with fellow teacher Eric Crofts, as well as former School Captains John Swann and Brian Salter and pupils John Paternoster, Pete Connor, Alan Bloch, Frank Edmonds, Andrew Tarry (known as ‘Ned’: a reference to a character in the Goons, a popular radio programme at the time), Torj Herbert, John Holloway, Pete Mitchell, Sam Smith, John Keeley, Hugh Sinclair and Willy Upsdale.

In parts of Poland and Czechoslovakia, camping was not possible so they were were accommodated in student hostels.

Their experiences ranged from eating takeaway caviar wrapped in newspaper to being stared at by women working on building sites in the Ukraine who muttered “Capitalisti” and spat on the ground. For much of the time, they were accompanied by two young women who had been assigned to them by the authorities to keep watch over them.

John Keeley and Andrew Tarry have produced a full account of the trip, which will appear in the Old Elizabethans’ Association’s forthcoming issue of its newsletter.

They write: “Many of us who left the School 50 years ago do have very happy memories of our time at QE. Our education in the broadest sense was certainly not exclusively focused on exams; many of our life skills were developed playing in sporting teams on Stapylton field, as well as travelling further afield during such challenging school trips as this one.”