15 interesting facts about Antarctica

A series of interesting facts about Antarctica that I uncovered during my research.

Earth’s southernmost continent held us in its thrall long before it was first sighted in January 1820, still just a blank space on the map.  The limitless solitude and silence, the vastness of scale, occupying mythical space in our imagination.  Even now, with the possibility to visit the continent as a tourist, we are drawn by the idea of blankness, the purity of a landscape without the cultural associations of our own, where we can make our own connections and add new pins to the map.

I’ve done a large amount of research recently to familiarise myself with Antarctica: the short human history and tales of exploration; ecosystems and wildlife; the rock and the ice; the striking natural beauty of the continent.  In the process, I’ve uncovered more than a few interesting facts on which to hang my own understanding and experience, and I’m sharing the best of them here.

Antarctica Facts

  • The Antarctic polar circle is an imaginary line circling the earth parallel to the equator at latitude 66°33′ S.  South of the line experiences at least one day of midnight sun at the December solstice, where the sun remains above the horizon, and at least one day of polar night at the June solstice, where the sun does not rise over the horizon.

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  • Most of the landmass of Antarctica lies within the polar circle, with just the tip of the peninsula, Graham Land, and a few capes in Enderby Land and Wilkes Land extending north of the line.  However, all land and islands, and ice shelves, lying south of latitude 60°S are considered part of Antarctica, and governed by the Antarctic Treaty System (more on that below).
  • The true boundary of the Antarctic could also be considered the Antarctic convergence (AAC) zone, also known as the polar front, an oceanographic feature where the dense, cold waters of the Antarctic circumpolar current sink beneath warmer waters from the north.  The resulting upwelling of nutrients supports a rich diversity of marine life.  The convergence circles the continent at a latitude between 41°S and 61°S, in a band around 40km (25 miles) wide, and the variation is why island groups such as South Georgia (54°15′S 36°45′W) and Bouvetøya (54°25′S 3°22′E) are considered to be Antarctic in biogeographical terms, and Macquarie Island (54°38′S 158°50′E) and Cape Horn (55°58′S 67°17′W) are sub-Antarctic.
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Antarctic krill (Euphausia superba), one of the most abundant species on the planet. Photo credit: Uwe Kils
  • The name Antarctica was first formally used for the continent by Scottish cartographer John George Bartholemew in his work of 1890, after the term Terra Australis, which had described a speculative southern continent was used for the re-naming of New Holland (het Niew Hollandt) as Australia.  Antarctica is derived from the Greek antarktikós, the opposite of the Arctic, the opposite of north, used for unspecified and unknown southern lands since the days of AristotleArktos means bear, and arktikos referencing the northern constellations Ursa Major (Great Bear) and Ursa Minor (Little Bear).  The fact that polar bears live in the Arctic and not in the Antarctic is purely coincidental.
  • Antarctica is the coldest continent on Earth.  On 21st July 1983, a low of -89.2°C (-128.6°F, air temperature) was recorded at Vostock Research Station, on the isolated, inhospitable East Antarctic Plateau.  Recent satellite observations have suggested that it may get even colder in certain conditions, as low as -98°C.  The Antarctic Peninsula, where most visitors will go, has a much milder climate, with January averages around 1 to 2 °C (34-36°F), though it can get as warm as 10°C (50°F).
  • The Antarctic has no indigenous population and no permanent inhabitants.  Approximately 29 nations send personnel south of 60° to operate seasonal and year-round research stations, field bases, and research vessels, giving a summer population of around 5,000, dropping to just 1,000 or so over winter.  The number of summer residents is boosted by tourists, with more than 44,000 visitors recorded in 2016-17 season.
  • The Antarctic Treaty System is a unique set of international agreements, laying out the framework for governance of the region.  Originally signed in 1959, it establishes the peaceful pursuit of scientific research, international co-operation, and environmental protection as the goals for all nations active in Antarctica.
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The flag of the Antarctic Treaty
  • The first confirmed sightings of continental Antarctica happened just 200 years ago.  The Imperial Russian expedition led by Fabien Gottlieb von Bellingshausen and Mikhail Lazarev, on the ships Vostok and Mirny, discovered an ice shelf on the Princess Martha Coast, on 27th January 1820, which later became known as the Fimbul Ice Shelf.  Just a few days later, on 30th January, Edward Bransfield, of the British Royal Navy, sighted the Trinity Peninsula, the northernmost tip of the Antarctic continental mainland.
  • An expedition led by Norwegian polar legend Roald Amundsen was first to reach the geographic South Pole on 14th December 1911.  Leaving the ship Fram, on loan from his fellow countryman Fridtjof Nansen, in the Bay of Whales at Framheim, he traversed the Axel Heiberg Glacier onto the polar plateau, using skis and sled dogs, reaching the pole in 56 days.  On realising their goal, the Norwegian team spent three days taking sextant readings, and “boxing the pole” to establish an exact position.  Despite setting out from their base at Cape Evans on Ross Island just five days later the Norwegians, it wasn’t until five weeks after Amundsen arrival that Robert Falcon Scott’s ill-fated team reached the pole.
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Amundsen and his crew at Polheim, the geographical South Pole, 1911. Photo credit: Olav Bjaaland
  • Unlike in the Arctic, there are no large terrestrial animals in Antarctica.  In fact, the largest creature living on the land is a flightless midge, Belgica antarctica, just 6mm (0.25in) in length.  It’s reckoned that it’s flightlessness is an adaptation to prevent being swept away in the strong winds that blast the continent.
  • The richest and most diverse ecosystem in Antarctica is the ocean.  Nutrient-rich water upwelling in the Antarctic convergence cultivates blooms of plankton, which feeds super-abundances of krill, small shrimp-like crustaceans.  In turn, the krill support many species of fish, seals, birds, and whales, including orcas, humpback whales, and blue whales, the largest of all.
  • Though we immediately think of penguins as the classic Antarctic bird, only a few species actually live that far south.  Of the 18 extant species worldwide, four can be considered Antarctic (Emperors, Adélies, Gentoos, and Chinstraps) and another four are sub-Antarctic (Kings, Royals, Southern Rockhoppers, and Macaronis).  If, like me, you can’t get enough of penguins, check out the BAS Penguin of the Day photos.
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Gentoo penguin family at Jougla Point in the Palmer Archipelago.  Photo credit: Liam Quinn.
  • The famed Northern Lights, the aurora borealis, have a southern counterpart, the aurora australis.  The aurora is the result of disturbances in the upper atmosphere, when streams of charged particles ejected from the sun interact with the earth’s magnetic field.  The ideal time to observe the aurora australis in Antarctica is in the dark nights through the southern winter, however they can also be seen from the Peninsula and South Georgia.
  • The Antarctic Ice Sheet is the largest single mass of ice on earth, covering around 98% of the continent, an area equivalent to one and a half times the size of continental USA.  It’s estimated that it reaches as much as 4,700m (15, 420′ or 2.9 miles) thick at the greatest extent, and extends almost 2,500m (8200′ or 1.5 miles) below sea level in West Antarctica.  The extent of sea ice formed through the winter months almost doubles the size of the continent.  Unlike the Arctic, the area has remained fairly constant in recent decades, though the variation in ice thickness is unclear.
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Antarctic ice. Photo credit: Gregory Smith.
  • All is not well in Antarctica.  The rate of ice melt has doubled every decade since records were first kept, a direct consequence of increased air and water temperatures in the region.  The rate of air temperature rise (2°C or 3.2°F in the past 50 years) is one of the highest on the planet, resulting in a rise in sea levels and glacial ice calving faster than at any time since the records began.  Further increases in temperature will have profound effects on global weather patterns.

Armchair Travel: 10 Books to Explore Antarctica

I’ve compiled a list of my favourite books about Antarctica, including biographies, travelogues, and expedition tales. 

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I’ve long had a fascination with Antarctica, being captivated by stories of exploration and discovery in Readers Digest books at my grandparent’s house on long Scottish summer afternoons.  Primary school trips to see the polar vessel RRS Discovery in Dundee, the three-masted barque that took Scott and Shackleton on their successful first voyage south, and to the penguin enclosure in Edinburgh Zoo, where I met Sir Nils Olav (then just RSM of the Norwegian King’s Guard), further fuelled that interest.

So I’ve been in an absolute whirlwind of excitement since finding out I’ve finally got the opportunity to go for myself; the realisation of a long-burning ambition.  I’m part of the team from the United Kingdom Antarctic Heritage Trust that will be based at Port Lockroy, to run the famous Penguin Post Office, for the 19/20 season.

In preparation, I immersed myself in Antarctic-themed reading, and these are some of my favourite books.  Until you get the chance for yourself, these books will transport you South.  I’ve also rated each book by the amount of penguin content it contains, not as a comment on the quality of the writing.  They’re all good books, Brent.

An excellent book covering everything you could possibly want to know about the “last great wilderness”, and the people drawn into its icy grasp for science, discovery and adventure.  Walker weaves together personal stories gleaned from her travels in Antarctica, from the heroic age of exploration through to current climate breakdown studies, from scientists in the distinctly earthbound fields of geology and ecology to cosmetologists looking into deep space and deep time.

Penguin rating: 🐧🐧 /5

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RRS Discovery next to V&A Dundee on the side of the Tay.

Lansing is a powerful storyteller, and this is one of the most epic stories ever.  In 1914, the Endurance* set sail for Antarctica to establish a British base on the continent, and attempt the first overland crossing of the continent, but became trapped in the pack ice long before reaching her destination.  The shifting, thawing, and freezing ice splintered the vessel, stranding Shackleton and his crew on the floes.  The rest of the expedition is far more remarkable than the original plan, and against all odds, all survived.

Penguin rating: 🐧🐧/5

*a three-masted barquentine, which I know you needed to know.  Discovery, pictured above, is a barque.

  • The Worst Journey in the World – Apsley Cherry-Garrard

As the youngest member of the team accompanying Robert Falcon Scott on his ill-fated attempt to reach the South Pole, Cherry-Garrard was one of only three survivors of the expedition, and part of the rescue mission that discovered the frozen bodies of his colleagues. His account pieces together diary extracts from other team members, adding details of scientific endeavours and anecdotes of resilience and endurance in the frozen south, touched with survivor’s guilt.

Penguin rating: 🐧🐧🐧🐧🐧/5

Polar Exploration is at once the cleanest and most isolated way of having a bad time that has been devised.

Apsley Cherry-Garrard

  • Icebird – David Lewis

I’ve included book recommendations on sailing expeditions previously in the Armchair Travel series, but this one is, without doubt, about the greatest and most terrifying feat in singlehanded sailing; a solo circumnavigation of Antarctica in 1972.  Leaving Australia, Dr Lewis sailed out of radio contact for three months.  On reaching Palmer Base on the Antarctic Peninsula, he revealed his 32′ (9.4m) steel cutter had capsized and dismasted twice (and would do so once more before the end of the expedition).  A phenomenal undertaking to read as a non-sailor, and your worst nightmare if you are a sailor.

Penguin rating: 🐧🐧/5

In 2012 Aston became the first person to complete a solo ski journey across the Antarctic landmass using muscle power alone**, taking 59 days to cover 1,744km (1,084 miles).  Having worked as a British Antarctic Survey meteorologist, Aston was familiar with the landscape and weather conditions she was to face, but not with the solitude and sensory deprivation in the vast white expanse of the polar plateau.

Penguin rating: 🐧/5

** Norwegian Børge Ousland made the first solo ski crossing in 1997, using a kite to assist his 3,000km (1,864 miles) journey, crossing from sea to sea.

An excellent biography of Amundsen, the ultimate polar explorer, who in the UK is often sadly viewed as the villainous foil to Scott’s heroic failure.  The Norwegian expedition to the pole was meticulously planned, using indigenous knowledge gleaned from Amundsen’s time with Inuit in the Arctic, and relied on dog teams to haul sleds rather than mechanical transportation and manhauling.  In addition to winning the South Pole, he was the first to lead expeditions to traverse the Northwest and Northeast passages, and with Italian aeronaut, Umberto Nobile, was first to reach the North Pole.

Penguin rating: 🐧🐧/5

An account of his time spent guiding guests on Antarctic voyages across the Southern Ocean, carved out in sparkling, spare prose, at a serene, glacial pace through the geology and ecology of the continent.  His trademark austere writing style will not resonate with all readers, but the book is worth persisting with until it becomes all-absorbing.

Penguin rating: 🐧🐧🐧🐧/5

A journey into the beauty and power of the forces of nature, combining travel writing, memoir, science narrative, and literature, on a tour to observe the icy cold corners of the earth before they become irreparably diminished.  Beautifully and poetically written, with an artist’s eye, and an engrossing read as Campbell moves from curling rinks to cryo-labs to the crevasse that concealed Austrian iceman Ötzi.

Penguin rating: 🐧🐧/5

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My Antarctica “shelfie”.

Francis was posted to the isolated Halley V research station as the base doctor for a 14-month deployment, driven by a longing to see penguins since a childhood visit to Edinburgh Zoo, where my own fascination with Antarctica began.  A blend of personal memoir, polar history, and nature writing, meditating on the isolation and solitude of his experience.

Penguin rating: 🐧🐧🐧🐧🐧/5

Yes, this is a book about cricket.  About a rubbish village cricket team with an epic losing streak at that.  But this hilariously funny and touchingly poignant account of an incompetent, disaster-filled attempt to play a match on every continent, including Antarctica, is the perfect companion book for tales of heroic expeditions, proving that passion and endurance in the face of tribulation isn’t just the reserve of adventurers.  Thompson is an excellent writer, and provides a handy chart of fielding positions, if like me silly mid-off, cow corner, and third man mean nothing to you.

Penguin rating: 🐧🐧🐧🐧/5

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Have you enjoyed any of these books?  Which ice adventures would you recommend for me?
I’d love to hear from you; let me know what you think in the comments.

 

This post contains affiliate links.  If you purchase through my link, I will make a small commission* at no additional cost to you.  These help me to continue to run this site, providing tips and advice, and sharing stories from my adventures.  Thank you for supporting me.

*Maybe enough for a coffee.  Not enough for a yacht.

What’s in my travel repair kit?

A travel repair kit has the things you need to deal with whatever the road throws at you.

A repair kit is an essential for extended trips into wild and remote areas.  A good repair kit will help you take the results of everyday wear and tear in your stride, like a small rip in your trousers, and can make you feel more confident handling the unexpected disasters, like a broken backpack or wind-shredded tent.

Carrying a few simple tools and materials will let you carry out necessary repairs in the field, and could make the difference between completing your adventure and turning back early due to gear failure.  Or enjoying your weekend citybreak without stress.

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Below is a list of the things I pack in my repair kit, to give ideas of what you might think about taking yourself.  Many of the things in my kit were already lying around in the junk drawer at home, though there’s a few things worth buying specifically, as it can be a challenge to keep things lightweight for travel.

Multi-tool

Though it’s heavier and bulkier than a pocket knife, the additional features on a good multi-tool are invaluable.  The pliers can grip everything from hot pot lids to stitching needles or a bathplug stuck in the hole.  The screw drivers can tighten up locks on trekking poles or open up a generator for a service.  The knife can be used for cutting anything from ropes to the foil of food pouches.  And the bottle opener speaks for itself.  While much beefier multi-tools are available, my Leatherman Sidekick has all the essentials, and I love it.

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As I wear glasses, I also take a set of tiny jeweller’s screwdrivers to tighten up loose legs if necessary.  Possibly the only good things ever to come from a Christmas cracker.

Duct tape

With endless potential uses, duct tape (or duck tape, if you prefer) is worth its weight in gold.  It can patch a groundsheet, keep the sole attached to your boot, and hold together  a suitcase that had a run-in with the baggage carousel.  I’ve even used it on my feet to prevent blisters on my heels during an endurance hike.  Rather than pack the entire roll, wrap a few metres around something else in your kit to save weight; I’ve put it around a lighter, but you could use a water bottle or trekking pole.

Superglue

A small tube of quick-setting cyanoacrylate adhesive is excellent for repairing broken hard items.  Most recently, I used it to fix my hairbrush after it pulled apart in a particularly tough tangle (yes, I do brush my hair… sometimes).  If you’re really hardcore, it can even be used to close wounds in an emergency.

Cable ties

Also known as zip ties, these strong, lightweight and inexpensive items can save the day.  Use them for everything from heavy-duty repairs on a busted backpack or boot, replacing a guy line attachment on your tent, to creating a waterproof colour coding system for managing waste on expeditions.

Paracord

A few metres of this strong utility cordage will do for everything from replacing bootlaces, zipper pulls and drawstrings, to lashing gear to your pack and providing an additional guy line for your tent in a storm.

Lighter

Used to melt the ends of cords and twine, and light stoves, campfires, and candles.  Who known when you’ll need mood lighting?

Spinnaker repair tape

This self-adhesive ripstop nylon tape was originally intended for repairing lightweight nylon sails, and can be used patch a variety of synthetic fabrics.  It will stop feathers falling out of a favourite down jacket, and cover that hole in your sleeping bag from creeping too close to the campfire (true story).

On a camping trip, I’ll also take a selection of the spare nylon patches that come when you buy most outdoor gear and some liquid sealant, as spinnaker tape doesn’t always stick to some treated nylon surfaces.

Sewing kit

Though tapes and adhesive patches can go a long way, a small sewing kit adds extra versatility.  I  pack a selection of needles and thread that will handle replacing buttons and repairing seams on clothing, to stitching a blown out sail or broken backpack.  A sailmaker’s palm helps with the heavy duty work, and safety pins hold things in place for bigger tears.  I store the sharp stuff in an old vitamin bottle, so I don’t stab my fingers rummaging for what I need.

I also have a little bit of wool in case I need to darn any of my woollen clothing, and whipping twine to finish the end of ropes.  Once a bosun, always a bosun.

Electrical tape

Part of my sailing repair kit, I use colourful electrical tape to hold the end of lines until there’s time for a proper finish, and for marking items as mine.  It can cover rough edges and splinters that might snag your skin, and also do it’s intended job of covering exposed electrical wires on a charger or appliance.

Seizing wire

Something else from my sailing kit, this is thin steel wire used to secure fastenings on a ship.  It can be used in a similar way to cable ties, fastening things together where cord might rub away, even making heavy duty stitches in items under serious stress.  Heating the end of the wire also lets you melt neat holes in plastic and rubber for stitching.

Sharpie

A permanent marker is always useful.

Torch

This Peli torch was a gift from a friend at the start of my ocean sailing career, and it is rated intrinsically safe for working in hazardous environments.  It’s in the repair kit as we both believe that you can never have enough torches, plus it’s nicely pocket sized.  I also take spare batteries that fit this and my headtorch.

Everything packs into a compact bag with a zip closure.  It used to be a make-up bag that came as part of a gift set.  I find it much better than a hard case or tupperware box for cramming into a corner of a kit bag.

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1. Repair kit bag.  2. Lighter wrapped with duct tape (5m).  3. PDR ripstop nylon spinnaker repair tape (5m).  4. Waxed whipping twine.  5. Cotton thread.  6. Steel siezing wire.  7. Electrical tape.  8. Darning wool.  9. Cable ties (10).  10. Sharpie permanent marker.  11. Peli Mitylite intrinsically safe torch.  12. Sailmaker’s palm.  13. Jeweller’s screwdrivers.  14. Safety pins.  15. Sailmaker’s needles.  16. Sewing and darning needles.  17. Plastic vitamin bottle for storing needles.

I’ll add other items for different activities, types of travel, or destination: a camping trip might need patches and glue for tents and sleeping mats, and a service kit for a stove; bikepacking necessitates a puncture repair kit and some basic bike maintenance tools.

I hope this gives you ideas for creating your own travel repair kit.  If you think I’ve missed anything, or there’s something you just can’t travel without, let me know in the comments below.

What I’ve loved this Autumn

Where I’ve been and what I’ve done

I finished working on Irene in early September, after a beautiful few days sailing around Falmouth, visiting Charlestown, St. Mawes and the Helford River, and headed up to Cambridge for a week of training with the UK Antarctic Heritage Trust.  It was an intense week, with a lot of information to take in, but an exhilarating experience as we covered a lot of the practical and theoretical stuff necessary for living and working in Antarctica.

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A sunrise start on the Helford River near Falmouth in Cornwall.

The training week was followed up by a lot of online courses and independent research.  I’ll write more about the training and preparation I’ve undertaken for my role at the Penguin Post Office in Port Lockroy soon, but I think nothing will actually come close to the experience of arriving and setting foot on the island for the first time.

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Windswept and interesting! With Wendy Searle, Lucy Hawthorne, Lauren Own and Jo Symonowski on Pen y Fan.

At the end of September I  headed to the Brecon Beacons, to meet a group of fantastic women and do something a bit unusual; hike up Pen y Fan wearing a corset, bloomers and full tweed skirts.  You can read more about our Great Corset Caper here, and the good cause that inspired us, My Great Escape here.

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Autumn in Glen Tanar on Royal Deeside.
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The view towards Mount Keen and the mounth from Glen Tanar.
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Autumn leaves about to fall on a frost nipped morning.

Working remotely gave me the chance to take a few weeks up in Scotland, and catch up with friends and family in October.  I had a couple of days in Newtonmore, for a reunion with TGO Challengers and some walks around the central Cairngorms, before heading over to the Aberdeenshire coast.  Between researching and writing, I’ve also been for walks along the coast, on Deeside and through the Angus Glens.  I also squeezed in a weekend break in Dundee with my sister and cousin.

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Looking down towards Ryvoan bothy and over towards Abernethy Forest in the Cairngorms.
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By the dark waters of Loch Garten in Abernethy Forest, listening to the belling

Autumn is my favourite time of year, and when I think Scotland looks at its best.  Trees put on a show with golden, copper and scarlet leaves, against the dark pines and yellow bracken.  On a damp day in Abernethy, red pine needles on the forest floor glow and blaeberry leaves sparkle, fungi tucked underneath like pale wax candles.  By the pewter sea streaked with white, I watched lapwings wheeling over the shore and eider ducks riding the swell.  Every morning, as the sun rose later and later, started with the sound of skeins of wintering geese overhead.

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The South Aberdeenshire coastal path approaching the Haughs of Benholm.  Watch out for hares in the long grass just after crossing the bridge.
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A wild and windy day on the North Sea coast.

I was very excited to spot a goshawk perching on a fence post not far from home; an identification that was made so much easier as a buzzard (the usual occupant of local fences) was sat a few posts down on the opposite side of the road.  It was heartening to see, as raptors have been persecuted badly in the region in the recent past.

This season’s update was written a little earlier than it’s been posted here, as November sees me travelling south.  I’ll fly from London to Buenos Aires, then onward to Ushuaia, where I’ll join a cruise ship for a lift into Port Lockroy.  All things going well, which means with fine weather and good sea ice conditions, our team will be settled on the island by the middle of the month, with the Penguin Post Office open for business.

 

My Autumn love list

Books: The Worst Journey in the World by Apsley Cherry-Garrard, an account of observing emperor penguins and recovering the first eggs for scientific study on the Terra Nova expedition.  The team faced temperatures of -40C (-40F) and day-round darkness, returning to their base at Cape Evans barely alive.  Cherry’s two colleagues, Dr Wilson and “Birdie” Bowers, would later perish on the return from the pole on Scott’s ill-fated expedition.

Films: Encounters at the End of the World, a documentary about the people working in Antarctica by Werner Herzog.  Though he states this isn’t a film about “fluffy penguins”, there’s an especially heart-wrenching moment with an Adelie penguin, which friends who have seen it made sure to remind me of.  They also made sure that I’d seen The Thing.

They’re the kind of friends you need.

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Clothing:  My current favourite thing is a grey merino wool sweater, lightweight enough for layering or wearing alone on warmer autumn days.  It will be a useful midlayer to take to Antarctica with me.

I’ve been issued with several items of branded kit by UKAHT supplied by Rab, including the microlight Alpine down jacket.  I’ve tested it out in the bracing wind blowing off the North Sea around my folk’s house, and on frosty morning walks in the Cairngorms.  I’m quite confident that it will serve me well down south.

Equipment:  While I was home my dad gave me a solid fuel handwarmer that he used to take out fishing, which used to belong to my granda.  It’s going straight into my kit bag to come with me to Antarctica.

And after a couple of weeks of consideration, I also picked up new sunglasses, a pair of Cebe Summits.  The category 4 level UV protection will be essential with light reflecting off snow and water in Antarctica, though it makes them too dark for use at the moment.

Food:  As I’ve been back home in Aberdeenshire for a few weeks, I’ve been stuffing myself with butteries for breakfast.  Also known as rowies if you’re from the city rather than the shire, these are flattened, crusty bread rolls traditionally made for fisherman to take to sea.  Ideally, they should be served warm, spread with butter and jam on the flat side.  Rhubarb and ginger jam is my favourite.

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The Nissen hut at Port Lockroy, my home for the next four months. Photo credit: UKAHT.

What’s Next?

Thanks for following along with my journey on These Vagabond Shoes.

I’m about to disappear off the virtual world for a few months, to live at the end of the real world in Antarctica.  While I won’t be able to keep you up to date with my adventures in real-time, there are a few things I’ve scheduled on Twitter and Facebook.  and in the blog to fill in the time until I return.  Looking forward to seeing you on the other side (with an unbelievable number of penguin pictures)!

Read about my summer adventures here.
I’d love to hear what you’ve been up to this autumn, or any plans you have for the winter ahead.
Let me know in the comments below.

 

A mysterious walk to the Rollright Stones

Legend claims that these enigmatic standing stones on the edge of the Cotswolds are a local chieftain and his band of warriors, petrified by a powerful witch, fated to forever stand watch from their lofty location.  However, this megalithic complex, which spans more than 2,000 years of Neolithic and Bronze Age development, has more mysteries for you to discover.

rollright_1_smNatural chunks of golden Cotswold limestone, the characteristic stone used in local buildings, their great age is evident in their pitted and weathered, and lichen-spattered surfaces.  The standing stones known as the Whispering Knights are earliest, dating from between 3,800 and 3,500 BCE, the early Neolithic period.  The King’s Men stone circle is late Neolithic, around 2,500 BCE, and the single King Stone is from the Bronze Age, approximately 1,500 BCE.

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The Rollright Stones have been reported on throughout recorded history, attracting visitors from the local area and further afield.  Antiquarian William Stukeley, who pioneered the scholarly investigation of Stonehenge and Avebury, made early investigations in the mid-18th century, leading to their eventual protection as one of the earliest Scheduled Ancient Monuments in England.

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The Whispering Knights

The Whispering Knights are the easternmost stones, so named as their position suggests a group leaning in conspiratorially, plotting against the one who would be king, and the oldest of the three formations at Rollright.  It’s believed that they are a “portal dolmen”, a burial chamber that would have originally looked like a stone table (like something from The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe), and the entrance to an otherworldly realm.

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Archaeological exploration of the chamber inside the stones uncovered the disarticulated bones of several individuals, along with pottery from early Neolithic, Beaker and Bronze Age cultures, suggesting it was one of the earliest such monuments in Ancient Britain, and was in use over many centuries.

The King’s Men

The closely-spaced stones known as the King’s Men mark a ceremonial circle around 33 metres in diameter, and are reputedly uncountable.  If you make three circuits of the stone, counting the same number every time, you’re entitled to wish for your heart’s desire.

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There may have once been as many as one hundred, standing shoulder to shoulder in a near-perfect circle, with two stones on the outside marking an entrance portal opposite the tallest stone.

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The design of the stone circle is similar to others in the Lake District and in Ireland, and may have been constructed by people from those areas for their ceremonial gatherings.

The King Stone

Standing alone, just below the crest of a low rise, the King Stone is thought to have been erected around 1500 BCE to mark a Bronze Age burial ground.  Excavations in the 1980s revealed the remains of wooden posts marking the locations of human cremations in the surrounding land.

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The unusual shape of the stone is only partially due to erosion of the limestone.  Souvenir-hunters and superstitious cattle drovers en-route to the mart in Banbury would chip off fragments as lucky charms against evil.

The Witch and the King

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According to folklore, the notorious witch, Mother Shipton, accosted a petty king out riding with his army on the edge of the escarpment, tempting him with the promise of greatness.

Seven long strides thou shalt take, says she
And if Long Compton thou canst see,
King of England thou shalt be!

The fighting men gathered in a circle to await the outcome of the challenge, while the knights gathered in close counsel.  But the foolhardy chieftain, blinded by thoughts of king hereafter, took seven long strides, stopping just short of a low rise on the edge of the hill to the cacking of the witch.

As Long Compton thou canst not see, King of England thou shalt not be!
Rise up stick and stand still stone, For King of England thou shalt be none;
Thou and thy men hoar stones shall be, And I myself an elder tree!

It didn’t sound like that great a deal for old Mother Shipton; through possibly preferable for a witch to being tortured, burned, or drowned.  In later years the stones gained a reputation for fortune-telling; to dance naked through the stone circle and whisper to the old king would reveal the identity of your one true love.

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Walk: The Rollright Stones from Long Compton

  • Route length: 13km (8 miles) circular route
  • Ascent: 245 metres (800′)
  • Approximate hiking time: 4 hours
  • Difficulty: moderate

The route starts in the Warwickshire village of Long Compton, by the Red Lion pub, heading east on farm tracks and bridleways, before ascending the escarpment to Great Rollright.  On the edge of the village, the route joins a waymarked long-distance trail known as the D’Arcy Dalton Way, named for a local rights-of-way campaigner, to follow the ridge of the escarpment westwards.

After passing through woodland, you’ll see the Rollright Stones to your right.  From this direction you’ll approach the Whispering Knights first, followed by the King’s Men, and finally the King Stone on the far side of the road.  Retrace your steps to the D’Arcy Dalton Way, and continue on to the picturesque hamlet of Little Rollright.

This entire hamlet, once owned by one of the Oxford University colleges, was sold a few years ago; the manor house, rectory, five cottages, and a handful of farm buildings and barns were listed for a cool £18 million.  One of the new residents is an award-winning cheesemaker, who produces a lovely-sounding, squidgy, stinky, reblochon-like cheese that I need to track down.

From Little Rollright head northwards following the waymarked Shakespeare’s Way long-distance trail, descending the escarpment back towards Long Compton.

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Short sections of the route follow minor roads without a footpath, so care must be taken especially in late autumn afternoons.  The sections on footpaths and bridleways can be muddy, and as they cross through farmland, be aware of grazing livestock, particularly if you’re walking with a dog.

Find details of this walk, including a route map, on ViewRanger.

An alternative circular route to the stones starts and finishes in the village of Salford, near Chipping Norton, around 8km (5 miles) and ascending over a more gentle gradient.  Parking is also provided on the roadside adjacent to the Stones if you prefer not to walk; the monuments are all within 500m of each other.

The Cotswolds are England’s largest Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB), stretching across Gloucestershire, west Oxfordshire and south-west Warwickshire.  The rolling hills lie between the river valleys of the Thames and the Severn, with an abundance of quaint towns and villages of golden stone houses nestled into their folds.  The Rollright Stones are located on the Cotswold Edge, an escarpment on the northern edge of the hills, to the north of Chipping Norton.

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Photo Journal: Machair Wildflowers on the Isle of Coll

The island of Coll is breathtakingly beautiful.  The sort of place where you leave a little piece of your heart behind when you finally bring yourself to leave.

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The sweeping arc of Feall Bay, on the southwestern coast of Coll
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The beaches of Feall and Crossapol are separated by a fixed dune system rising over 50 metres in places, including a large swathe of flower-rich machair

The turquoise waters of the Sea of the Hebrides wash up on sweeping silver-white beaches backed by lofty, marram-clad dunes, reaching over 50 metres high behind the strand at Feall.  Between the coastal bents and the bogs and bare rock inland, is a rare place; machair, a habitat unique to the Hebrides, the fringes of northwestern Scotland, and western coast of Ireland.

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I started to rue not paying attention when being taught the names of wildflowers by my Granny.  But I do know this is silverweed, and prefers damp spots close to the shore.
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I think this dandelion-like flower is a type of hawkweed.
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Sea pink, also known as thrift, and stonecrop clings to niches in the bare rock.
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Wild thyme and ladies bedstraw form a dense, deeply-scented carpet on the machair.

In her 2018 book Wilding, Isabella Tree recounts several alarming statistics about the state of nature across the British and Irish Isles, including the fact that around ninety per cent of wildflower meadows have been lost since the Second World War.  This has had a devastating knock-on effect on invertebrate fauna, and the birds which depend on them.

The machair of the Western Isles is a last stronghold, lavish with wildflowers through the spring and summer.  Common species like red and white clover, buttercups, daisies, wild thyme, ladies bedstraw, and bird’s foot trefoil carpet the pasture, with a scattering of rarer species like the Hebridean spotted orchid and Heath orchid.  The area around Hough Bay is a hotspot for bloody cranesbill.

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A blanket of daisies and buttercups cover the machair next to the RSPB reserve carpark.
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Machair wildflowers are vital for rare bumblebees, such as the great yellow bumblebee, once common across the British and Irish Isles, and now restricted to a few areas in the Hebrides.
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The machair was traditionally used for summer livestock grazing and hay cutting.  It would have been exactly like the scything scenes in Poldark.
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The size of that handsome lad.  He’s so tiny and cute.
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The island of Coll, and neighbouring Tiree, are reputed to have the highest number of sunshine hours anywhere in Scotland.
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I think this might be saxifrage, or maybe eyebright.  I do have a very good flora guide (Warne, The Wild Flower Key), but I’m just not very good at using it.
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There are three or four different species of orchid found on Coll and Tiree.

Sea pinks (thrift) and stonecrop find refuge among the rocks. Ragged robin, meadowsweet, and beds of yellow flag (iris) define wetter areas, and provide the preferred hiding spots for crackling, croaking corncrakes, often heard but rarely seen on their summer sojourn from southern Africa.

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I’m pretty sure that these pictures are all of the same kind of orchid.
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They are either the Hebridean spotted orchid or the heath spotted orchid, though they can hybridise.  I also saw early march orchids, but my photo was rubbish.
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A green-veined white caterpillar chomping on a creeping willow.
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Hay meadows in the in-bye can conceal corncrakes; the crackling calls that give them their scientific name, Crex crex, the only clue to their presence

The drowsy, blossom-sweet scent of the machair charges the air on a warm day in June, enough that passing ships catch a draught on the breeze, like a half-remembered afternoon from childhood.  From the beginning of May to midsummer, the machair belongs to the skylarks, singing more than 18 hours a day, from dawn to dusk, and rare bees, bumbling through the flowers, honey-drunk on nectar.

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The sandy machair merges into the blackland of peat moors and bogs, and the plant community changes.
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Bell heather, ling, crowberry, bog cotton, and even some rare alpine species are found on the higher ground.
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The Great Corset Caper: Pen y Fan in Period Costume

With a group of fabulous and inspiring women I took on the challenge of hiking up Pen y Fan in period clothing, including wearing a corset.

Inspired by pictures of the pioneering women that founded the Ladies’ Alpine Club in 1907 and Ladies’ Scottish Climbing Club in 1908, the first mountaineering organisations for women, we wondered what it would be like to take to the hills wearing the fashions of the times; heavy tweed long skirts and jackets, buttoned-up blouses, big bloomers and boned corsets.

I’d long admired the early outdoors women, who not just tackled some challenging routes in the hills, but were also some of the first to break down barriers for women in other areas of life; in society and politics, education and employment, fashion and convention.

After chatting together on Facebook, we came up with a plan to experience it for ourselves.  I really liked the idea of the challenge, but was nervous about the corset.  I’d never worn a proper one before (though I had one of those corset-style tops in the 90s when we all wore our underwear as outerwear).

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Living our best Edwardian life.

In my day job I wear a lifejacket everyday.  There’s such a feeling of relief at the end of the day when you feel the weight of it lifting off your shoulders.  But that was nothing compared to wearing a fully-boned corset.

Meet the team

Getting outdoors on your own is wonderful, and can sometimes be all you need, but it’s true to say that some things are even better with friends. You should know a little bit about me already, but meet the others that were part of the Corset Capers team.

  • Lucy Hawthorne: a baby troubleshooter (think modern-day Mary Poppins) who spends as much of her free time as possible outdoors, wild swimming and paddleboarding with her family.
  • Wendy Searle: though just a normal mum of four with an office job, she’s heading to Antarctica to take on the challenge of reaching the South Pole, unsupported and unassisted, in record time.
  • Lauren Owen: a polar explorer-in-training, heading for the Greenland ice cap in 2020, with a background in fashion history and amazing costume construction skills.
  • Jo Symonowski: combining the unlikely careers of corporate leadership trainer and circus promoter, Jo founded My Great Escape born of her experiences.

With corsets laced tightly and bloomers hidden away under billowing tweed skirts, we took our lead from those pioneering ladies of 1907, and headed for Pen y Fan.

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Ready to take on Pen y Fan!  Or die of a chill like a lady in a romance novel.
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Heading up the mountain on the Brecon Way footpath.

My Great Escape

Although our challenge wasn’t a huge undertaking, and really just a silly way to spend a day, we had a serious side to what we wanted to do.

My Great Escape is a programme to support survivors of domestic abuse in regaining their confidence and self-esteem through outdoor adventure. By providing opportunities for challenges and activities that are a break from daily life, we can help people get the space to overcome their trauma and start to heal.

Leaving an abusive relationship often leaves survivors with little or no support, both emotionally and often financially, and hugely depleted confidence.  This all makes getting out and doing new things really difficult.  That’s where My Great Escape can help.

All of the money raised goes directly into running confidence-building adventures.  Everyone on the team is a volunteer.

By rekindling an early love of adventure and being outside I grew in confidence and self-esteem. I conquered real and personal mountains. I found that through connecting with the great outdoors I was able to heal and then build a wonderful new life.

Jo

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Fighting the wind as we approach the ridge below Corn Du.

Why Pen y Fan?

At 886 metres (2,907′) high, Pen y Fan in the Brecon Beacons is the highest peak in the south of the UK.  It also has a notorious reputation:  the UK’s special forces use the mountain to train, completing a 24km (15 mile) route over the mountain carrying 30kg (50 lbs) of equipment, in a challenge known as the Fan Dance.

Though we contemplated the whole Fan Dance route, from Storey Arms to Torpantau station, the fickle Welsh weather wasn’t on our side.  With a big weather system moving in from the Atlantic, heavy rain was forecast from around 11am with strong winds, gusting up to 40 knots (46mph), on the tops.  So we settled for just reaching the summit in our skirts.

The Great Corset Caper

Setting off from the carpark at Pont ar Daf the route follows the Brecon Way, with a steady rise in the gradient.  It took a while to get used to breathing with a corset, especially the first time I needed to take a deep breath using my diaphragm.

The view of the peak was obscured behind the clouds all the way, so the only clue to our whereabouts was the wind funnelling down the gap below Corn Du.  Then suddenly we were just below the summit.

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On the top of Pen y Fan, launching My Great Escape into the wild!

Though safe where we were, it was difficult to strike a pose by the famous marker on the summit cairn with our full skirts catching the wind.  We quickly unrolled our banner for some pictures, holding tightly to the corners.  We’d made great time to the top, and really enjoyed chatting with the others out on the mountain.

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Looking like we’re at the cover shoot for our new album of folk music.

With showers growing heavier, we turned around to head back down to Pont ar Daf.  Our outfits  had been unfamiliar, though not as awkward as you might imagine.  The inconvenience of the wind pushing against my skirt, and having to hold it down to cover my long bloomers, the woollen suits were warm and waterproof enough in the drizzle.  I’d probably find a good hat pin, or a scarf to tie around my head for the next time the desire to dress up and head for the hills takes me.

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The Corset Capers ladies, looking most dashing and windswept from their mountain adventures.

The outdoor gear we women wear now has moved on a long way since 1907 (though there’s still room for improvement when it comes to pockets #pocketsfor women), but we’re grateful to those women that came before us. The ones without whom so many of us wouldn’t have the freedom to take on our own adventures, in whatever we want to wear.  I feel that we’ve were able to get a better appreciation of their courage to challenge convention.

Thank you!

We’d like to say a big thank you to everyone who we met out on the hill; your support and enthusiasm for what we were doing was infectious, despite the miserable weather!  And another round of thanks to everyone that supported us remotely via social media.

Additional thanks to Bristol Costume Services, who kitted us out with appropriate clothing, and didn’t mind things getting damp* in the hills.

*completely soaked.

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Jo gives a flash of a corset to prove the challenge was complete.
You can continue to support our silliness at https://mygreatescape.org.uk/climbingcorsets/
Your donations help to get survivors of domestic abuse get out and achieve something amazing.  Please donate what you can to help this great cause.