It is the coldest, highest, windiest and (surprisingly) driest continent on the planet and to survive it, you have to eat a lot.
Locally sourced food is, of course, hard to come by when the permafrost is three kilometres deep. But you could try seal brain omelette. That particular delicacy features in the Antarctic Cook Book; just one of scores of fascinating items currently on display in Shrewsbury Museum’s new exhibition. First, as Mrs Beaton might say, you catch your seal. Then you smash its brains in. Then persuade four penguins to lay eggs for you. No wonder those early Antarctic explorers took prepacked food with them – such as dried kale and pemmican meat bar; disgusting, but nutritious.
The exhibition reflects on the vivid experiences of human beings in the Antarctic over the past century or so… from the heroic age of the ‘race for the pole’ to the vital, high-grade planetary science being conducted there today.
Two pioneers in particular are represented by artefacts they actually touched. There’s Captain Scott’s Union Jack, heavily stained but still cheerfully bright, which he used to mark depots of pemmican left on the ice in 1901. And a letter, dated 1910, from Sir Ernest Shackleton to the National Museum of Wales. “I’m sending you a penguin”, he tells them. And the poor specimen, scruffy but serviceable, is in a display case beside his master’s note.
Shropshire’s connections with ‘going South’ are remarkably strong. So many scientists and surveyors have retired here. Pride of place goes to the Walton family of Pontesbury who have sent three generation to the great white wastes at the bottom of the earth…and the exhibition displays their polar clothing to prove it.
Kevin Walton was leader of the first post-war expedition, his protective gear made of natural, pastel-coloured material. His son Jonathan followed him in the 70s in bright orange man-made fibres; clinging to the back of a displayed dog sledge made of flexible ash wood; just as Scott and Shackleton had. His son, Finn, drove a skidoo to the South Pole in 2011. Yet the tents they used are almost identical; tall, pyramidical affairs that have withstood 90 mile an hour winds for a 100 years. One of the treats of the exhibition is to kick off your shoes, climb inside, and snuggle down on a double layered sleeping bag next to a rations box and a primus stove … and imagine what it must have been like. During a bad blow, two men could spend a week in there waiting to climb out again.
And there are Antarctic voices, too. From an old-fashioned radio come the stentorian tones of Sir Raymond Priestley, one of the first geologists to wield a hammer so far south. You can hear retired pilot Bob Bond of Church Stretton describe flying in a white out. (All Antarctic aircraft are painted red, by the way, so airman can navigate by the wrecks of previous planes).
George Kistruck from Cheshire can be heard musing about how long his team of four could survive so far South if the rest of the world were wiped out by nuclear annihilation. (Around a decade, he reckoned). George was based in the lonely red hut at Fossil Bluff…literally miles from anywhere. Jonathan Walton was there too, sharing a wooden box, 6 meters by 4, with a quartet of men for an entire, pitch-black, winter.
We hear from the last man – John Sweeney of Snowdonia – to drive huskies in Antarctica before alien species were outlawed. And from Vicki Auld, the first female base leader in a land so long the exclusive domain of men.
Graham Wright of Newtown has donated priceless colour film footage of his dog-handling days and Ben Osbourne of Pontesford has contributed stunning still images of the natural history to be found there. Ben was a photographer on the original David Attenborough ‘Life In The Freezer’ expedition.
Man went to the Antarctic for science; both to map the new lands and to study heaven and ice. The most spectacular, earth-saving discovery was that of the hole in the Ozone layer in 1985. In my own Oral History work for British Antarctic Survey I was lucky enough to interview both surviving scientists. They were equally modest about their vital work…which was based on 50 years of spectrometer observations taken by rough and ready explorers across the continent.
The science continues at both Britain’s bases…which, today, are more like universities rather than wooden huts. The most spectacular moment in the exhibition can only be experienced by donning a headset. It’s a virtual reality experience of Halley VI – a primary coloured spaceship, built on stilts perched on giant skis … so that the base doesn’t get buried in the snow and can be moved further inland as the ice shelf it sits upon becomes a victim of global warming.
The device puts you personally in the middle of Antarctica, with its 360° sweep of snow, and even allows you to walk underneath the towering base, as the brightly suited scientists beside you do. It is awe-inspiring. But then Antarctica is awesome. Take it from me; going there is the nearest you’ll ever get to leaving the planet. And this exhibition brings you one step closer to it.