What attracted you to the Arctic Circle?
I was fascinated by the idea of going up to see polar night when the sun doesn’t rise above the horizon. Ditto polar day and what it’s like when the sun simply doesn’t sink below the horizon.
Not your average day of sightseeing
What would you find hardest to deal with – polar day or polar night?
The one that would drive me nuts would be polar day. Polar night I could deal with. The month of December is pretty dark everywhere. But by glorious design the Arctic is covered in snow, so any kind of light gets held by the snow: starlight, moonlight and the northern lights. So there is an ambient luminescence. And then the sun, long before it comes above the horizon, shoots these glorious colours across the sky.
So you might not have actual sunlight but you will have daylight. The daylight you get is like sunset with dramatic skies of pinks and oranges and glorious unworldly blues. You find that every vista you look at is heaven.
What else did you get up to?
Swimming in the ocean in Norway was the one thing on the itinerary that I looked at with dread. And I must admit, I was walking with a lighter step when that was over. Floating over the geological crack between the continents in Iceland where the water is incredibly clear and you can see over 150 metres was a completely different experience. And then we saved up our hot springs experience and went into pilgrim springs in Alaska.
Archaeologist Kevin Martin and Armstrong prepare to snorkel in the freezing water of Iceland’s Thingvellir National Park
You travel through Norway, Iceland, Greenland, Canada and Alaska. Did you have a favourite country?
Yes, Norway. I loved Norway chiefly because I loved the Norwegians.
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You said the Arctic storm in Svalbard was the scariest 20 minutes of your life.
There’s something about the strength and fury of an Arctic storm, which takes you completely by surprise. I think it’s the noise and the spindrift of the tiny ice particles, which are blown around. Snow and ice blow around in such a way that the wind, which in itself is very dramatic, suddenly becomes visible. So it’s not just an exciting rush of air; it’s a whole sodding great canyon swirling around above you.
The effect on your senses is that you completely lose all sense of direction. We met this guy in Svalbard who said that even if he walks three feet out of his front door in a storm, he gets completely lost and disoriented. I was thinking ‘Yeah, come on.’ But he was absolutely right.
How concerned were you about your safety?
We had to drive back to the hotel in the middle of the storm at its peak, with screaming noise and fury all around us. Luckily the airport manager drove in front and led us. He knew the road so well and we had to travel about 10 kilometres. We just followed his lights in front. At one point I went off the road and thought I was travelling at 30 miles an hour. I put my foot on the brake and nothing would slow me down. I was just careening off and I thought, ‘This is just the most terrifying thing.’ And then I realised I wasn’t moving at all, I was completely stationary. It was just a weird effect of the storm.
And it was freezing. The temperature with wind chill was probably in the minus 60s. You knew if anything went wrong you’d just have to sit in your car but cars can quickly get drifted up so you have to be careful with ventilation. If you got stuck you knew you’d be there until the storm stopped and somebody came out to help. It could be 12 hours or it could be 48 hours.
We did make it back to the hotel but even when we were in the car park we didn’t know we where there. We couldn’t see the hotel until we were two feet from it. I have never been more glad to arrive back safe. I think the worst that would have happened is that we’d had to have spent the night in the car. We had a bit of petrol so we could have put the heating on. You have to be careful of carbon monoxide, though. It would be a bit annoying to survive the storm and then die of carbon monoxide poisoning.
Wrapping up warm
How was riding the dog sleds in Greenland with the Danish special forces team?
It was knackering. It’s Nordic skiing, where just the toe of your boot is connected to the ski. And you half fly, half walk. In others parts of Greenland we came across sledding techniques where you just stand on the back of the sled. This is a special type of skiing to ensure you keep warm and get lots of exercise.
After two or three hours, I had never been so tired to my bones. The core muscles, which we’re all meant to be working on, along with every other blessed muscle in the body, foot muscles, toe muscles, were all exhausted. Although I felt really good at the end of the day.
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Does exploring run in the family?
Interestingly there was a famous Arctic explorer called Alexander Armstrong. He must be a relation as the Armstrongs haven’t really propagated that much. But no, I think I’m the first in my known family to do such a trip.
Would you consider living in such a cold climate permanently?
In Svalbard, we went to this trappers cottage and I found myself thinking, ‘I could happily spend a long time here.’ But then I grew up in Northumberland. I grew up on a farm, our nearest neighbours lived more than a mile away and we were at the end of a single track road. We were sort of on the moors and therefore I’m very comfortable with that kind of desolation.
I draw huge comfort from that sort of beautiful solitude. I’m definitely biased in favour of wilderness. I was definitely grateful to experience this trip.
Alexander Armstrong in the Land of the Midnight Sun begins on Wednesday 14th October, ITV at 9pm
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Win a copy of the book accompanying Alexander Armstrong’s ITV series, Land of the Midnight Sun