Life in Antarctica: Looking back on a season at the Penguin Post Office

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The view from our doorstep. Looking from the accommodation building on Goudier Island to the historic Base A building at Port Lockroy in January 2020.

The last three months have been a strange time for all of us, and certainly not what I’d anticipated for my return from Port Lockroy. Reunions planned with friends and family were tempered by the COVID pandemic response, filtered through window glass and laptop screens, and those “what next” plans I’d made were left on ice. Potential opportunities for future work drifted away over the horizon or sank without trace, and other responsibilities have surfaced in their wake.

So despite an abundance of time that’s been available during the lockdown, it’s been exceptionally difficult to find the right mental space to reflect on my time in Antarctica at Port Lockroy.

Part of that is the challenge of finding the right language to articulate all the experiences, thoughts, emotions, and ideas I felt in Antarctica, and distil down to something palpable, unmasked by superlatives that a place of such outrageous beauty demands. Over the 110 days of our stay, I took thousands of photographs, made several short films and sound recordings, and filled my journal and sketchbook with observations. But still, it sometimes feels as if the whole thing wasn’t quite real.

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The sailing ship Bark Europa, moored up in the back bay under Jabet Peak, was one of the more unusual vessels visiting Port Lockroy during the season.

It’d taken a long time for me to reach Antarctica. I’ve always been drawn to the region, at first through a fascination with the strange and unusual wildlife that make their home on (and under) the ice, then being captivated by stories of exploration and adventure. Growing up in northeast Scotland, the polar ship RRS Discovery, in drydock in Dundee, was practically on my doorstep, and the rough country of the nearby Angus Glens and Deeside served as a training ground for some of the first to venture South.

I studied marine biology at university, holding a vague and undefined idea that it had the potential to take me there as a research scientist or in a support role at a base, however, the events of my life conspired to take me elsewhere. The cost of visiting Antarctica as a tourist was way beyond my reach, so I forgot all about the possibility for a while.

Then, a few years ago, the idea popped up again. My job in environmental education had been made redundant following cutbacks, and after a summer sailing with Draken Harald Hårfagre in Norway, I needed a paying job. I started in the warehouse of a well-known online shopping company*, working 50 hour weeks stocking shelves as they approached their peak-sales period in November. I can honestly say I have never had a less enjoyable job, although my squat and stretch game was on fire.

*That big river in South America. Not the Orinoco.

Driving home one evening, shortly before the anticipated horror of Black Friday/Cyber Monday shopping, I heard a caller on the radio request a song for the team heading to Antarctica to work in the Penguin Post Office for the season. As soon as I was in the door, I’d searched out the UKAHT website and worked out how to apply for the role. This was my way to go South.

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The ice-bound bay filled with brashy floes, making it impossible for zodiacs to land on the island and leaving us isolated.

The goal had crystallised, but it wasn’t a straightforward route to get there. When applications opened the following February, I submitted from Bermuda, days before setting out on a transatlantic sailing voyage. When we arrived in the UK a month later I didn’t get the news I was hoping for, to be part of the 12 people invited to selection, but had an encouraging note from the Ops manager to tell me to keep applying for the role.

In between other opportunities, following selection on my second time around, I got the call to say I’d been successful. I’d just been ashore to chat about moorings in Loch Spelve on Mull, for Irene, and had hopped into my wee tender, untied and pushed off. My phone rang as I was about to start the outboard, so I let myself drift out into the loch to take the call, hoping I didn’t drift out of mobile reception before I got the official nod.

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The modern nissen hut that provided our home for four months, slowly revealed by thawing snow. On arrival, it was a high as the top of the door frame and we dug our way in.
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Collecting bergy ice for a freshwater supply early in the season. Most of our drinking water was provided by visiting ships, but when the ice closed in and ships couldn’t visit, we melted ice.

The thing about the opportunity that had appealed to me most was the prospect of spending an extended period in a location of which most people only get a snapshot glimpse. To be witness to the progression of time, the comings and goings of the wildlife, and the changing season in the far South.

And that was undoubtedly the highlight of my time in Antarctica. Paying heed to changes in my surroundings: noting snowmelt or the scouring effects of excoriating wind; the swirling movement of ice floes riding on the tide; and the march of increasing day length, followed by returning night and star-filled skies as we tilted over the equinox. A muffled boom reverberating through the landscape, felt as a pressure wave in the ears as much as heard, as ice calved and crumbled from the glacier. Sculpted chunks of bergy ice which glowed with a blue luminosity, as if lit from within. There’s an ethereal quality to the place.

Then the more subtle captivating things: the shape and movement of clouds; scintillating sundogs and solar arcs; the feel of the wind, from a gentle caress to a knife-sharp slash, the ever-changing play of light and shadow over the landscape. Moments that leave one consistently undone by the beauty of it all.

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Don’t stand so close to me. A fine example of the projectile defecation of penguins. I believe there are even some papers written on why? and even how far?
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The colony surrounding the Stevenson screen at the highest point of the island.

And of course, the wildlife. The ceaseless cacophony of life in the penguin colony. Watching penguins on the island, getting to know them by their nesting locations, and following the progress of a pair, it was hard not to anthropomorphise. Or to foist a unilateral emotional bond upon them. Their swaying, tottering gait, stumpy little legs and rounded tummy, and naïve inquisitiveness around us seem to recall human toddlers, and invoked a secret desire in me to name them all.

Even so, living amongst penguins for any time, happenings in the colony show us any human connections we suppose to these creatures are tenuous. At first glance they’re putting on a chaotic avian comedy show; curious chicks playing with our buckets and brooms, throwing back their wings and chasing adults for food, always demanding more. Taking to the water for the first time, with none of the natural grace one would expect of a sea creature.

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The blatant thievery and cheating in the colony contributes to soap opera levels of drama.
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The chicks are in equal measures adorable and infuriating, especially if you’re trying to transport a 20kg cylinder of propane from sone side of the island to the other, and the priority is to create minimal disturbance to their activity (mainly napping).

In reality, we watched a wholly unsentimental and more elemental existence: newly hatched chicks huddle in nests constructed with bones from ill-fated siblings of previous years; adults voiding excrement on each other, from nests highest on the rock to those below, sheathbills swooping in to eat the debris; the lurking threat of predators from the skies and the depths. Witnessing the awesome and grotesque cycle of life and death on a daily basis, alternately heartwarming then heartbreaking, always fascinating, is part of the unique Antarctic experience.

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At the creching stage, the chicks become bolder and venture away from nests to form small gangs and await a parent to arrive with a regurgitated krill meal.

Though they demand the most attention, penguins are not the only creatures that leave an indelible mark on the memory. Other birds, sleek Antarctic terns, the colour of low cloud on a soft day, and skuas, ever-observant to opportunities to pillage the penguin colonies. Sheathbills, our curious companions with their only-a-mother-could-love appearance, and monstrous giant petrels, their apparent cruelties to distressing to note here.

The uncanny song of Weddell seals, lounging on an ice floe in the back bay. The lurking menace of leopard seals, conducting secret surveillance of the shallows, waiting to surge ashore and snatch the unwary. A boulder, almost the size of a small island, that yawned deeply and transformed into a bull elephant seal.

On still days, when fog lay like a felt blanket over the natural harbour obscuring views of peaks and pinnacles of Wiencke Island, immediate sounds were dampened, amplifying the roaring silence that lay behind. The raucous colonies of penguins and blue-eyed shags muffled long enough to pick out the saltwater signals of whales taking their breaths in the silky, quicksilver water of the bay; two, no three humpbacks scouting the deep water channel on the inside of Lecuyer Point, or a lone minke making its way between the improbably named islands of Boogie and Woogie.

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Graffiti on the rocks of Goudier Island, left by the sailors and whalers of the Solstrief in 1912, one of the largest factory whaling ships to work Antarctic waters.

Port Lockroy is a rare place in Antarctica, a tiny island where the human story of the continent is writ large. Around us was the evidence of the whalers that followed the ships of the Heroic Age of exploration South, through to Operation Tabarin and the construction of Bransfield House/Base A, at the time when international relations on the ice were strained, and politics pushed to the fore. Then the era of science, where the continent was transformed into a vast laboratory of measuring and monitoring, revealed by the artefacts and oral histories of the museum, to our current-day experiences of expedition tourism and bucket-list travel.

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Base A, the first permanent British base established on the Antarctic Peninsula, and now home to the Penguin Post Office and museum.
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The incongruity of the galley view.

The wealth of stories continued with the people we met throughout the season, both face-to-face and through correspondence delivered to the Post Office. Previous Lockroy team members, experienced field guides and expedition leaders, research scientists, and former and current staff of both the UK Antarctic Heritage Trust and British Antarctic Survey passed through Goudier Island during the season, enriching our understanding of the place and welcoming us to the Antarctic family like we already belonged, allowing us to become part of the ongoing history of the place.

Port Lockroy is reported to be one of the most visited sites in Antarctica, and while this season proved to be far from usual, we still welcomed thousands of people into our small world, and helped them pass on their share of wonder and awe written on the back of a postcard.

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Postcards cancelled and packaged, ready to start their journeys around the world.

Finally, all that remains is to say what a privilege it was to share such a profound experience with an incredible team of people, who started the season as my work colleagues and after four months of living in each other’s pockets, are firmly life-long friends. Sitting together on a golden afternoon by the landing site, once the day’s guests had gone, watching for the blown spray and flashes of tail flukes across the Neumayer Channel, listening to the snapcracklepop of melting icebergs, and toasting our luck with gin gifted by the crew of a superyacht and tonic scrounged from our favourite hospitality manager. Or huddled together in a cuddlepuddle under blankets and duvets to watch a film as sleety rain-lashed windows and storm-force winds shook the very building around us. These are the moments I’ll cherish most.

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The awesome 19/20 season Port Lockroy team. Photo Credit: UKAHT
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An icy evening spotting arcs and sun pillars in nacreous skies and shimmering reflections by the landing site.

Standing on the aft deck of the ship that would take us back to Ushuaia I could feel the undeniable magnetic pull from our island, tucked under the sheer rock and ice of Mount Luigi and the Seven Sisters, then a sudden snap as we rounded the headland and Port Lockroy was lost behind the rise of Doumer Island. I think a little piece of my heart was left behind.

By endurance we sauna.

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It wasn’t actually cold enough to justify all those clothes on that day. Taken as part of a photoshoot wearing our branded gear and items for sale in the shop.

Extracts from this piece were first published as posts on the UKAHT Port Lockroy blog.

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Curiosity and Inspiration: Exploring Cambridge like an Adventurer

For many visitors, the historic university city of Cambridge is almost the definition of Englishness and academia (well, unless you have any kind of connection to “the Other Place*”).  Imagine lounging around on college lawns; punting, poetry, and jugs of Pimms; cycling down cobbled streets in a cap and gown; late-night discussions on existentialist philosophy…If only it was possible to become intellectual by osmosis.

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King’s College Gatehouse, the boundary between town and gown.

But the city, through the colleges and museums, inspired many residents to strike out for new horizons in search of adventure and new discoveries.  Cambridge also received specimens, artefacts, treasures from around the globe, and journals filled with ideas that continue to inform and inspire visitors to look further afield, and make plans for their own expeditions.

So to help you get your bearings and set off on a successful expedition, this is my vagabond guide to spending time in Cambridge like a true old-school explorer.

*Oxford, I meant Oxford.

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The view from Magdelen Bridge. Photo Credit: alasdair massie Flickr on cc

Punting on the Cam

If the sun is shining, there’s no better way to get an introduction to the historic heart of the city than from a punt gliding down the River Cam.  These flat-bottom boats are the more accessible way to get out on the water (unless you’ve got great potential as a varsity rower) and propelled and directed with a long pole that pushes against the riverbed.  It requires a bit of skill, and a lot of practice, to make it look as effortless as river guides manage to.

The Backs, the landscaped lawns of several colleges that line the riverbank, is the most popular destination for punters looking to soak up the scenery.  You pass landmarks like the Bridge of Sighs at St John’s College, reputedly Queen Victoria’s favourite spot in the city, and the Mathematical Bridge at Queen’s College, a wooden bridge which despite appearing to describe an arch is constructed entirely of straight timbers.  Float downstream and make the plans for your next expedition.

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What punting through the backs on a summer day should look like. Photo Credit: Paul Gravestock Flickr on cc

If you fancy the challenge of guiding your own punt and have the balance to back up the romantic idea, the cost of hiring one is between £25 and £30 per hour, for up to six people (make sure you punt Cambridge-style rather than Oxford-style if you don’t want to raise eyebrows and elicit a barely audible tut from observers).  Or you can sit back and let someone else take the strain on a guided tour.  It takes around 45 minutes and is usually between £15 and £20 per person, though you can often make a saving with advanced booking online.  Many guides are students, and give an insight into the day-to-day life of the university and studying in such a historic setting.

If you’re tight on time or budget, a walk on the banks of the Cam and through the Backs is still recommended for the views of the colleges; honey-coloured stone bridges, outstanding classical architecture, weeping willow trees, carpets of spring blossoms, and students lounging around on the lawns (or sheltering from a wet and windy winter day).

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Bicycles racked up under the arches at the Institute of Plant Sciences, Cambridge University

Cambridge University Colleges

The University, founded in 1209, is the second-oldest (after Oxford) in the English-speaking world, fourth-oldest worldwide, and can boast of a plethora of notable alumni, including many names from the realm of travel and exploration: George Mallory, Vivian Fuchs, Thomas Cavendish, Agnes and Margaret Smith, and Robert Macfarlane, to name just a few.

It’s probably illegal to visit Cambridge as a tourist and not take in at least one of the university colleges on a tour, but with 31 constituent colleges, I’d say the risk of historic building fatigue is real.  Though each has their own character, I’d go with either King’s College or Trinity College (or both if you’re inclined).  Check opening times in advance, as they can be closed to the public for reading weeks and exams.

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The Gibbs’ building and front lawn at King’s College.  Don’t dare walk on the grass until you’re appointed a Fellow of the College.  Or you’re a duck.

King’s College Chapel

In a city of outstanding historic buildings, King’s College Chapel (£9 entry for adults, Cambridge students and alumni can bring in a couple of guests for free) stands out as the real highlight.  The building is just spectacular, one of the finest examples of gothic architecture in the country, with a soaring fan-vaulted ceiling and magnificent stained glass windows.  They were spared by Oliver Cromwell in the English Civil War, and packed up into boxes during the Second World War for safety, though Cambridge (and Oxford) were said to have been spared the worst of bombing attacks in return for similar leniency toward the German university city of Heidelberg.

Of course, the building is just a backdrop for the world-famous chapel choir.  Hear them sing at evensong daily, twice on Sunday, and rejoice, or just marvel at the acoustics of the space.  (If you miss the performance, you can catch up at Christmas Eve with the broadcast of the Nine Lessons and Carols.)

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The magnificent stained-glass West Window of King’s College Chapel, and the largest fan-vaulted ceiling in the world.

The roof of King’s College Chapel is said to rate very highly in The Night Climbers of Cambridge, an anonymous work from the 1930s that inspired the first urban explorers and placers of traffic cones in high places.  Experience the thrill of the night climbers with a trudge up the top of the tower of Great St. Mary’s Church (£4 adults; open until 17.30/16.30 winter).  A 123-step spiral staircase leads to a panoramic view across the college rooftops, and the chance to catch the winter sunset over the city.

Museums

Cambridge has an abundance of exceptional museums, catering for almost every interest, but a true explorer would be most interested in those that inspire with stories of adventures and reveal insights into our understanding of the earth, the creatures we share our planet with, and our own beautiful and diverse cultures.  All listed below are free to visit.

Polar Museum at Scott Polar Research Institute

In 19012 Robert Falcon Scott and his team reached the South Pole, only to discover that Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen had reached first, almost five weeks earlier. Scott and his entire polar party died on their return trek to base.  The Polar Museum is part of the Scott Polar Institute, founded from part of the relief fund established in the wake of that fateful expedition as a memorial to the explorer, and now a global leader in the fields of climate science and glaciology.

If like me, you’re a fan of tragic explorers who had to eat their boots to survive an icy death, this is your spiritual home.  It gathers together artefacts and material that tell tales of hostile conditions, tireless tenacity, and survival against the odds (balanced with stories of heroic failure), focusing on the feats of the likes of Scott, Shackleton, Franklin, Peary, Amundsen, and Nansen (my hero).  The collections include photographs and sketches, clothing and equipment, journals and letters.

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Artefacts from the Franklin Expedition to find the Northwest Passage.  No boots.

Alongside the relics of exploration and discovery, the museum holds a collection of items revealing the material culture of Arctic peoples.  Scrimshaw (etched bone or ivory)from Siberia.  A knife with a reindeer horn handle, a harness and traces for a reindeer-drawn sled, and skis from Sápmi (Northern Scandinavia and the Kola Peninsula).  Beaded and embroidered kamiks (soft-soled boots) stitched from sealskin, a kayak covered with drum-tight skin, and several examples of tupilak, figures carved from walrus ivory and inhabited by a magical lifeforce, from Greenland.

But by far the most affecting items** are the letters written by the expedition chief scientist, Edward Wilson, to the family of Lawrence Oates, and from Scott himself, to his wife and young son, Peter.

Had we lived, I should have had a tale to tell of the hardihood, endurance, and courage of my companions which would have stirred the heart of every Englishman.

Robert Falcon Scott

**I’m not crying, you’re crying.

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Iguanadon toes

Sedgewick Museum of Earth Sciences

The oldest and most traditional of the University of Cambridge museums, the Sedgewick Museum was established in 1728 and looks as though it hasn’t changed since.  Think tweed, dust, and glass-fronted cabinets filled with curios that take you through the 4.5 billion year history of time, Darwin’s favourite rocks, dinosaurs, Mary Anning‘s interesting things, and a metre-long model of the Burgess Shale Hallucigenia***.

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Burgess Shale Hallucigenia model in the Sedgewick Museum of Earth Sciences

***If the words Cambrian Explosion don’t make you just a tiny bit excited, are we even friends?

Museum of Zoology

Recently renovated, this museum is filled with collections that reveal stories of survival and evolution, exploration and extinction across the animal kingdom.  These include specimens gathered on expedition by Charles Darwin and Alfred Russell Wallace, creatures amassed from hydrothermal vents by ROV, and the strawberry-pink deep ocean Goblin Shark, harvested from your worst nightmares.  The highlight is the awesome, in the truest sense of the word, skeleton of a Fin Whale, its 21 m (70′) length suspended over the entrance to the museum.

Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology

This small museum gathers together a diverse selection of art and artefacts from the nearby and faraway, long ago and right now, to tell fascinating stories from human history.  Among the most interesting is the collection of material from the Pacific voyages of Captain James Cook in the 1770s, which sits alongside more contemporary items from the region to illustrate the movement and migration, and relationship with the environment, of Pasifika peoples.

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An evocative headdress carved from a deer skull.  Possibly plucked from that weird recurring Wickerman-themed dream you have.
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Ducks through world cultures #13

Fitzwilliam Museum

This fabulous museum is stuffed with art and antiquities from around the world, and an excellent way to while away a rainy day.  The galleries hold thousands of treasures ranging from illuminated medieval manuscripts, sculptures from ancient Mediterranean civilisations through to Barbara Hepworth, works by Dutch Masters, French Impressionists, and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, and an extensive collection of watercolours by J.M.W. Turner.

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Rows and rows of bicycles outside the Fitzwilliam Museum.  Beware while you walk, as cyclists weave in and out of pedestrians and traffic.

Explore by Bike

After hours poring over museum exhibits, journals, and artefacts to feed your travel inspiration, you may well require some fresh air.  Cambridge is Britain’s leading cycling city, with miles of dedicated cycle lanes, riverside and canal paths, and virtually no hills.  The council website has maps available to download.

To get around the city there’s a couple of inexpensive cycle hire schemes, such as Mobike and ofo, with plenty available in central locations.  Download the app for your chosen scheme, find a bike, scan the code to unlock it.  Once you’re done, park the bike up and lock it.  Simple.

For adventures further afield, there’s a couple of places where you can pick up a bike for a day’s hire to see more of the Cambridgeshire countryside.  The chalk downland of Gog Magog and Wandlebury Country Park may cause you to re-evaluate the idea that there are no hills in the area, but they make up for it with the view from the top.

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Low horizons, big skies, and flat fenland landscapes. Photo Credit: elstro_88 Flickr on cc

Or follow National Cycle Network route 11 to Wicken Fen, a spectacular National Nature Reserve that’s one of the oldest in Britain. The wetlands sparkle in summer with dragonflies and damselflies, butterflies, moths, and an inordinate number of beetles.   Look out for herons, hen harriers, kingfishers, and the hardy Konik horses.  When the season is right, listen for booming bitterns, drumming snipe, and the plop of a water vole sliding into the water.

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The original Fitzbillies Chelsea Buns

Eat and Drink

  • Aromi, on Bene’t Street, is an awesome Sicilian-Italian bakery, with huge pizza slices, fresh focaccia sandwiches, and an abundance of yummy things.  Sit in and linger over a coffee, or pick up a picnic to eat in the park.
  • Mediterranean Falafel, in the market, makes the tastiest wraps from their awesome falafels.  I visited with a vegan Israeli friend who raved about how good the food was, and I feel they are particularly qualified to know good falafel and hummus.
  • Michaelhouse Café, in a converted medieval church, is great for breakfasts and lunches, with a good selection of sandwiches, soups, quiches, and casseroles.  Close to the city centre, and a perfect coffee and cake stop between museums and colleges.
  • Fitzbillies, just over the road from the Fitzwilliam Museum, has been a Cambridge institution since the 1920s.  Kirsty, the Cake Manager****, suggested I try their famous Chelsea buns, sweet and sticky, and made on-site to the same traditional recipe since the first days of Fitzbillies.  They also do a full brunch menu and very sophisticated afternoon tea (with or without a glass of bubbles) of finger sandwiches and scones, but you’ll likely have to wait a while for the tablespace.
  • The Eagle, a pub on Bene’t Street, is well-known as the place where regulars Francis Crick and James Watson announced that they’d “discovered the secret of life” (sidelining Rosalind Franklin and her vital work in the process).  A blue plaque on the wall commemorates the event, as does a beer called DNA.
  • The Mill, a picturesque pub on the banks of the Cam near the punting stations, has a great selection of craft beers, traditional pub food, and board games.
  • The Maid’s Head, on the village green in Wicken, is a traditional thatched pub dating from the 13th century.  It’s the sort of place to drink real ales, tuck into a ploughman’s lunch and watch cricket being played.

****Cake Manager #lifegoals

Have you visited Cambridge yet?
What would you recommend that visitors should see or do?
Comment below to let me know.
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What I’ve loved this season: Winter 2017-18

Well hey, fellow vagabonds. I hope that you’ve managed to make it through our recent cold snap with a smile on your face.

The unexpected sub-zero temperatures, ice and snow over the past week (even here on the Isle of Wight, where THE SEA ACTUALLY FROZE), have been very much in-keeping with what I’ve been up to over the rest of the winter.

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Where I’ve been

I had a trip up to Scotland to spend Christmas with my family, where I was able to go for long walks along the Angus coast, followed by lounging around in front of the log burning stove in my pyjamas with a selection of Scottish gins to try.

In early January I went to catch Death in the Ice, an excellent exhibition at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, London, presenting the story of the lost Franklin expedition to search for the Northwest Passage. It presented items recovered from the shipwrecks of the Erebus and the Terror, as well as artefacts and testimony detailing Inuit experience of life in the high Arctic, contrasting the European perspective of a bleak and empty landscape with one that is familiar, that provides, that is home.

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Death in the Ice at the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich

I managed to fit in a couple of days exploring Cambridge while on a project management training course, where I visited the Polar Museum at the Scott Polar Research Institute. It houses a detailed collection of equipment and artefacts charting the history of polar exploration, including some personal journals kept by expedition crews, both successful and tragically unsuccessful.

Then at the end of the month, I had a few days visiting friends in Cornwall and working on the restoration of their new (more than a hundred years old boat), the Iris Mary.  She’s currently lying up in the edge of a saltmarsh in a hidden creek in the River Tamar, near a collection of other traditional wooden boats.

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In February I took a day trip off the island to see the Royal Dockyard in Portsmouth, to visit the museum housing the Mary Rose shipwreck, and take a tour of HMS Victory, two of the most famous ships in British history.  It’s been a very nautical winter, and it’s starting to look like spring might be very similar.

 

What I’ve done

I’ve been out and about exploring the Isle of Wight over the winter, discovering new walks up on the downs and walking in the footsteps of dinosaurs at Compton Bay.

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Another highlight has been meeting up with an awesome group of ladies through the Love her Wild Facebook group for a couple of hikes, and to make plans for some wild camping adventures in the spring.

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My winter love list

Winter is always a good time to enjoy the pleasures of curling up with a book, film or podcast by the fire while the rain beats against the window. Here are my current obsessions:

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What I read: The Dark is Rising by Susan Cooper, as part of a cosy Midwinter Eve read-along on Twitter, prompted by Robert Macfarlane and Julia Bird.  Daemon Voices: Essays on Storytelling by Philip Pullman. A collection of essays, talks and articles on the power of a well-told tale by one of my favourite authors.Maker:S,Date:2017-9-29,Ver:6,Lens:Kan03,Act:Lar02,E-ve

What I listened to: The Wine and Crime podcast. Three sassy lassies from Minnesota telling tales of drunkenness and cruelty, paired with a fine wine so you can drink along at home.

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What I watched: Oran na Mara* (Song of the Sea). We have a Scots Gaelic / Gáidhlig television channel in the UK, which I’ll occasionally watch and pretend I understand far more than I actually do. But this beautiful animation has such a compelling story that language isn’t really necessary. *The original Irish / Gaeilge version is called Amhrán na Mara.

What I played: My cousin introduced us to the board game Pandemic over Christmas, as a variation from our usual Trivial Pursuit obsession. After we worked out the aim is collaboration and not cut-throat competition, we really loved it.

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Thank you for bearing with me on These Vagabond Shoes. I’ve had a bit of a faff playing around with the look and feel of this blog, and I hope it will all start to seem worth it over the next few months. You can also keep up to date with my adventures (or meanderings and rambling thoughts as it’s mainly been recently) on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook.

 

Here’s to spring and the return of the sun!  What have you been up to over the winter?  Let me know in the comments below.

 

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.

 

Keeping Time in Maritime Greenwich: Exploring Seafaring London

Maker:S,Date:2017-9-29,Ver:6,Lens:Kan03,Act:Lar02,E-veIt used to be said that the sun never set on the British Empire, the consequence of colonisations and land claims that spanned the globe, connected by the ships of the Royal Navy and merchant fleet. And this sprawling seafaring set-up was controlled from the grand halls of Greenwich.

Influences gathered from the corners of the earth have been woven through the history of Greenwich, London, and the rest of the UK, through discovery and exploration, science and research, shipping and trade. Visiting Maritime Greenwich, designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is an insight into the factors that shaped the idea of Great Britain, both nationally and internationally.

To navigate around the part of London at the heart of global time and travel, I’ve compiled a rough guide to discovering what makes Maritime Greenwich tick.

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The River Thames

The river is essential to Greenwich, and the Thames Clippers river bus from central London is the best way to arrive. It gives you great views of the city’s most famous landmarks, and I’d recommend sailing at least one way in the evening to see the city lights.

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Old Royal Naval College

The centrepiece of the UNESCO site is the Old Royal Naval College, a complex of grand and imposing classical buildings designed by Sir Christopher Wren. Originally a hospital and retirement home for sailors of the Royal Navy, it also housed a school and boarding house for the orphans of seafarers. After these institutions closed, it became the Royal Naval College training the officers that commanded the ships of the fleet right up to 1998.

Guided tours take visitors around the halls, including the spectacular Painted Hall, and you might recognise the buildings as sets for many films and TV shows.

The Old Royal Naval College buildings also house the Greenwich Tourist Information, where you can pick up tickets for other attractions and plan the rest of your visit.

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National Maritime Museum

I love maritime museums, and would easily spend the best part of my days looking at bits of boats. This free museum is extensive, capturing and presenting the key elements of the UK’s relationship with the sea, from military sea battles to the history of exploration and discovery to colonisation and trade around the British Empire to the stereotypical British seaside holiday. My highlights were the collections of charts and atlases, an exhibition on the battle of Jutland, and artefacts from the Battle of Trafalgar, including the coat worn by Admiral Nelson on that fateful day.

The museum also hosts exhibitions through the year, like the recent Death in the Ice exhibition, telling the story of the doomed Franklin expedition and the recent discovery of the wrecks of Erebus and Terror. (Doomed expeditions in the ice where eating boots becomes essential to survive are one of my favourite things). These events may have a charge and/or advance booking may be required.

Emirates Airline Cable Cars

Head along the river from the Maritime Greenwich UNESCO site towards the O2 Arena (It will always be the Millennium Dome) to find the Emirates Airlines cable cars, which lift you across the Thames into the Docklands. There are great views all round as you cross, especially to the river and boats some 90 metres below.

A standard return crossing is around £9 (adult fare, children are less, and TFL travel passes give a discount). The cable cars close in high wind.

Cutty Sark

The sky-raking rigging of Cutty Sark looms over you as you walk on the Greenwich riverside. Taking her name and inspiration for the figurehead from the poem Tam O’Shanter (just one of many Scottish connections to the ship), Cutty Sark was one of the fastest of the famed tea clippers, and now sits, fully restored, suspended over her dry-dock and cased in a sea of glass.

The stories of voyages from China to the UK, and then on the wool route to Australia are brought to life by interpreters recreating characters from the ship’s history on lead tours at certain times. I also loved the game where you could try to beat the record for navigating the ship home around Cape Horn, and easily spent a few hours exploring the ship.

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A Day Explorer ticket gives discount entry to Cutty Sark and the Royal Observatory on the same day.

Greenwich Park

Climb to the highest point of Greenwich Park, next to the imposing statue of General Wolfe, to look out over the classical buildings of the Old Royal Naval College and Maritime Museum, and the towers of Canary Wharf on the opposite bank of the river. You’ll also be able to look upriver towards central London and pick out many of the landmarks of the city, like the London Eye, the weird gherkin building, and Tower Bridge.

Royal Observatory and Prime Meridian Line

The buildings in the Royal Observatory played a significant role in the history of scientific discovery, including as the home and workplace of notable Astronomers Royal. Exhibits include the timepieces developed by John Harrison to solve the longitude problem, and the great equatorial telescope.

The Prime Meridian line slicing through the Observatory has been the zero point for measuring time around the globe since 1884 (except in France, of course), and in determining navigational position. I was surprised to find out there are several other meridians in the area, including the baseline for Ordnance Survey maps and, at the other side of Greenwich Park, the reference meridian for satellite data.

Planetarium

The Peter Harrison Planetarium is the only planetarium in London, and the shows are an excellent complement to the information displays in the Astronomy Centre and Royal Observatory. Although it’s really challenging to not fall asleep in the dark, in your comfortable seat, to the relaxing voice of the astronomer.

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Food and Drink

There’s a great selection of places to eat and drink in the area. I tried:

  • The Green Cafe, on Greenwich High Road, for brunchy breakfasts and good coffee. It also had a big selection of cakes and plenty of vegetarian and vegan options.
  • Museum Cafe, in the Maritime Museum, for a coffee and cake refuel between exhibitions. The sun terrace looks out to Greenwich Park and up to the Royal Observatory (and the view is still great if you’re inside because it’s raining stair-rods).
  • The Old Brewery, by the Old Naval College, for posh pub food and a great selection of craft beers in a historic setting.
  • Bill’s Restaurant, on the corner of Nelson Road, for a long leisurely lunch with a bloody Mary menu.
  • Greenwich Market, for world street food from Ethiopian to Korean. I had Argentine empanadas, followed by Brazillian churros with dulce de leche.
  • The Gypsy Moth, next to Cutty Sark and named for another famous vessel, for real pub grub, big burgers, and a beer or two (actually several).
What would be in your plans for a visit to Greenwich? Do you have any recommendations for me? Let me know in the comments below.
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