ANYONE who considers north Northumberland to be remote and isolated should perhaps think again when they hear that a Berwick family have emigrated to St Helena.
John and Eleanor Gilchrist and their three children, Isabel, six, William, four and Alec, two, are spending the next two years on the tiny island in the South Atlantic Ocean.
They are well aware that they will face numerous challenges adapting to such a unique environment but they are embracing the change in lifestyle it will bring.
“I’ll not missing paying £3,500 for a season rail ticket or the commute home at night,” joked John, who works for Audit Scotland in Edinburgh.
He has been allowed a career break to take on an auditing role with the St Helena government to help bring its records in line with the international standard.
“We love living in Berwick and are happily settled here but this job came up which really suited what I do and will give me lots of useful experience - and at the end of the day I know I can go back to my old job in two years,” said John.
“In a way it’s the perfect time to do it,” added Eleanor. “When we come back Alec will be just about to start school and Isabel will still have a year of first school left. Hopefully we’ll be able to get them all into Tweedmouth West because it’s a really good school.
“We’ve been told the education system on St Helena isn’t the best, so that was our biggest concern about going there, but by doing it when they’re still young they should be able to catch up quickly when we come back.
“With Isabel being at school already she is worried about missing her friends, but we’ve told her she’ll make lots of new friends and the old ones will still be there when we come back. She’s also be taught the English national curriculum which is good.”
Perhaps the biggest headache of all will be getting there in the first place – by an exhausting combination of rail, road, air and boat.
“We’ve already shipped a lot of our stuff out there but we’ve still got 10 suitcases – and three children – to get on a train to Oxford and across to the RAF base at Brize Norton,” said Eleanor, speaking the day before their departure.
They were then due to get a military flight to Ascension Island where they had to wait three days to catch the once every three weeks Royal Mail ship to St Helena for a 800-mile journey that takes a further two days. “That’s the most daunting bit of the whole thing,” admitted Eleanor. “We’d known for a few months that we’d be going to St Helena but we didn’t know when and then, all of a sudden, we were given a mid-November date.
“In a way there’s been so much to do that there’s been no time to worry about it.”
St Helena is a British overseas territory, measuring just 10x5 miles with a population of 4,255. It is one of the most isolated islands in the world, more than 1,200 miles away from the west coast of Africa. Its most famous resident was undoubtedly Napoleon Bonaparte who was exiled there by the British, followed by more than 5,000 Boer prisoners.
“John actually had the chance of a job on Ascension Island before this one came up but we felt it wasn’t for us as it’s mainly a military base servicing the island,” revealed Eleanor.
“On the other hand, St Helena has its own culture and community. Because we’d already considered Ascension Island, I think when St Helena came up is seemed far more appealing.”
They have been provided with a house in Longwood in the island’s tropical interior, with John travelling to the port capital of Jamestown for work.
“We’ve bought a second hand car so we can get around,” said John. “It’s not that far for me to get to work but it’ll still take a while as the speed limit is 30mph because of the twisty roads!”
“We’re expecting a much slower pace of life which is one of the things I’m looking forward to,” added Eleanor. “It’ll be nice to have John home after work at a more reasonable time so we can have dinner together as a family.”
They have been advised that some things are not easy to get while others are more expensive on St Helena.
“It’s incredibly remote and everything that comes on to the island arrives on the Royal Mail ship which travels via Cape Town and Ascension Island so there will be items that are hard to come by,” said Eleanor.
“Children’s clothing is one of the things we’ve been told about so we’ve stocked up on the next size up for them,” she said.
“Food-wise it should be quite good. They have corner shop type stores rather than supermarkets so we’ve been told it will be a little bit more expensive than we’re used to. And we won’t be able to get things like strawberries unless they’re grown on the island.
“We’ve taken pretty much everything we could want during the time we’re there, including things like Christmas presents.”
The weather they will arrive to will also be welcomed, especially as the UK enters winter.
“With it being in the southern hemisphere they’re just entering spring so it’s a good time to go,” said Eleanor. “They don’t really have extremes of temperature there; I’ve been told it’s a bit like a warm version of the UK but without the winter!”
Both John and Eleanor seem to be remarkably composed about the adventure that awaits their young family.
John said: “I’m totally up for whatever happens. I want to see what life on St Helena is like and am looking forward to the change of pace; just going with the flow really.”
Eleanor added: “There’s something not quite real about it at the moment. Maybe once we get those 10 suitcases off the train at Oxford we’ll be able to put our minds more to what we’re going to face there!”
The pair admit they are going to miss Berwick where they have lived for the past four years.
“We’ve made some lovely friends,” said Eleanor. “I belong to the Take Note choir which I really enjoy and I’ll miss my weekly get-togethers with a group of mums but it’s only temporary.
“We have a great adventure ahead of us and it’s our intention to throw ourselves into it. It’s going to be a brilliant experience.”
ST HELENA FACTBOX
• Its nearest neighbour is Ascension Island 810 miles away.
• Population 4,255
• The port of Jamestown is the capital
• Napoleon Bonaparte was exiled here by the British, as were more than 5,000 Boer prisoners
• Britain’s second oldest overseas territory (after Bermuda)
• Discovered by the Portuguese in 1502
• For centuries, it was an important stopover for ships sailing to Europe from Asia and South Africa
• The climate is tropical, marine and mild, rarely dropping below 17C in Jamestown
• The island is set to gets its first airport in 2015 thanks to a £200m investment by the UK government