Swedish-UK penpals celebrate 50th anniversary

Two women from Sweden and the UK are celebrating 50 years of a friendship that began with a school penpal project and has survived ever since.

Swedish-UK penpals celebrate 50th anniversary
The penpals pictured at their most recent meeting. Photo: Gary Carter

Christine Power from Stalybridge, near Manchester in England, and Stockholm-based nurse Christina Hesselbäck, have been writing to each other since the age of 11.

The friendship began when Hesselbäck sent a letter to a Manchester school, after encouragement from her father and a teacher, who hoped it would help her to practice her English skills. Power’s teacher instructed the class to write back if they wanted to — and the then 11-year-old did.

“When I started writing to Christine, I was almost crying as I thought I couldn’t do it but my dad said, ‘Yes you can',” Hesselbäck remembered.

That was in 1968, and despite the invention of mobile phones, email, Skype and FaceTime in the years since, the pair still keep in touch through letter-writing — and have also visited each other several times, with Hesselbäck first travelling to Manchester in 1976.

“Even though I had just met Christine, it felt like home,” said the nurse, who made her tenth visit to the UK in late May for the wedding of Power's son.

For Hesselbäck's recent 60th birthday, Power sent her the first letter, the first envelope and images of their trips to this country and Sweden over the years. Photo: Gary Carter

As for why the duo have stuck to writing letters rather than using modern technology to keep in touch, Hesselbäck said: “I just think it’s more personal. I’ve always kept the first letter in a special place, an old cupboard that I’ve got at home which is where it’s stored. It’s been great as we’re both the same kind of person.”

“I still got excited when I receive a letter and can tell it’s Christine’s handwriting, which I can recognize,” she explained. Though the friends use email or text to discuss travel arrangements, in general she said “there’s no rush to communicate, so writing is best”.

Power said she had “no knowledge of Sweden whatsoever” before the two became penpals.

Her first visit took place in 1977 and lasted two weeks, and since then she has returned several times. “Sweden seemed like miles away when really its only just over two hours away by plane,” she said. “When we go to Sweden, we hardly ever stay in a hotel. It's always with Christina and (her husband) Jimmy.”

Interview by Gary Carter, a reporter based in Greater Manchester



Member comments

  1. I can perhaps beat the 50 years. Back in 1965 in my foreign language class we were offered the names of foreign pen pals. I asked for a boy from Germany (German language class) and a boy from Sweden (my primary heritage). I got a girl from Northern Ireland and a girl from Italy. I wrote to both girls for several years (still have all the letters), but the Irish girl eventually stopped. I continued to write to the girl in Italy until 1972 when I visited her for 2 weeks. Returning home we continued our communications until around 1980 when the letters stopped. I was always sad that our letters had stopped and with the introduction of the internet and later Facebook I tried to locate her. To my great surprise and pleasure we reconnected about 5 years ago on Facebook and now communicate regularly. Because she has lost her ability to read and write in English, the Messenger app on Facebook works best for us because we both was Google Translate to instantly translate our messages. It has now been over 53 years since I first wrote to her, but being able to actually carry on a type of conversation with the aid of the iInternet and a translating program certainly evidences how the world has changed in a half century.

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