Author Bridget Gubbins, who spent many years growing up in Hay-on-Wye, has released her new book, ‘Cold War, Warm Hearts.’
Bridget’s new book is the next in her series of memoirs and in it, Bridget shares stories of the time she left Hereford Teacher Training College in summer 1966 and headed off for over a year into the forbidding lands behind the Iron Curtain.
Bridget had been at the college on a three-year teacher training course at an all-girls college. Coming up to the end of the course is when Bridget decided to go off on her travels.
“I was young and adventurous,” she said. “Everyone was going off to get jobs, but I didn’t want to get a job. I didn’t feel ready for that. I met this really good looking Polish fellow in Hereford, and I thought ‘wow I wonder if all the Polish lads are as good looking as him,’ so I thought I’d go to Poland.
“It was just a simple situation like that, that made me think about it and then I started researching if it was possible to get behind the Iron Curtain in those days. I managed to get a visa for Poland and off I went!”
Bridget had no plans of travelling from country to country, like she ended up doing, but hoped to end up in Israel, which didn’t happen. Her trip led her to Poland, East and West Germany, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Yugoslavia, Romania, and Bulgaria, all countries considered as being behind the Iron Curtain.
The Iron Curtain got its name from a speech by Winston Churchill when he referred to the post World War Two divide between European nations as “the Iron Curtain.” The divide was thought to be as impenetrable as an iron too.
Bridget’s book of memoirs includes stories of hitchhiking to Dover to catch a boat over to Northern France where she hitchhiked again over to Germany to get to Berlin.
“I took a big black steam train from West Berlin to East Berlin where there were horrible guards checking your passports and everyone was being horrible to you,” said Bridget.
She then took a train across the border to Poland.
“I got off the first stop across the border into Poland, I wasn’t going to the first city, I wasn’t going to Warsaw, I was just going to stop at a little village called Kunowice, and I got off the train and the border guard came racing up to me and tried to get me back on to the train so I said ‘no, this is where I’m getting off!’ and I showed them my ticket and sort of just walked off into Poland!”
“When I got into Poland, I soon learnt there was these little cards you would hold up called Order Stop cards and there was hardly any traffic on the roads so the drivers would see these cards and stop to pick up all the hitchhikers and they would get stamps for the number of miles that they took you so it was a really good system,” Bridget told the Brecon & Radnor Express.
“I was quite comfortable with hitch hiking, me and my friends in Hereford used to do a lot of hitch hiking and it was quite common for students in those days.
“I had become quite used to it, I’d been to France, Spain, Italy, North Africa but I’d never actually been east in the Iron Curtain area so that was very unknown to me.”
Bridget currently lives in Northumberland but grew up in Hay-on-Wye and speaks about the town in her book.
She said: “Hay was always important to me, even after I moved me and my friends would go and camp down there and sing songs in the Black Lion, when the bookshops were just starting to open.
“The landscape, the river and the hills. When I was abroad doing all these wonderings, I used to daydream about going back to Hay and buying a lovely little farm place in the hills and the landscapes in Poland reminded me of the Welsh border landscape and I used to get quite homesick thinking about that.”
Bridget also tells stories in her book about meeting the man who became her husband in Munich: “I’d just left Czechoslovakia and was in Munich where I met the man who became my husband in a youth hostel.
“He had no money as well and I lent him my tent while I went off to England to get some money, so I went off and did a few things, got some money and went back to Germany not knowing if he would still be there with my tent but he was. We got on really well and I left him there whilst I went off with my sister to Romania and Bulgaria, came back and we were definitely falling in love by that time.
“He was American, and he had done his two years with the draft because in those days it was the Vietnam War and all young American men had to do two years of draft. But when we were in Munich collecting his post, he opened a letter from the US army, and he had been called up to do another two years, so we were absolutely gobsmacked and flabbergasted.
“It was the last thing we could imagine him doing, so we just disappeared and the man at the American Express said he would send back the letter opened by mistake, so he did that and we just took off, went to Yugoslavia and escaped that way, and somehow hitchhiked back to England, where we decided we would get married so he could re-register at a reserve base that wasn’t in Germany.
“Becoming married meant he went down their list as they didn’t often call up married men. So that’s why we got married and it turned out nicely because we’re still together!”
While on her trip behind the Iron Curtain, Bridget met a lot of people living under communist parties and discusses this in her book.
“In Serbia I had made friends with a young member of the Communist party and he found the accommodation in the student hostel where I stayed for about four months during the winter and learned a bit of Serbian and taught some English to get myself a bit of money to keep myself going.
“It was really interesting to meet people who believed in communism as a lot of people had suffered terribly under it but there were also quite a few young people who did believe in it,” said Bridget.
‘Cold War, Warm Hearts’ (ISBN: 9781915603326) was published by The Book Guild in March 2023.