He had Tsar Nicholas I to thank for this, for he was travelling on a passport which entitled him to any form of transport he required at the expense of the post-houses along the way.
Thomas met Lucy in St Petersburg: he was an architect; she a governess. Together they explored one of the remotest regions on Earth, the Kazakh steppes, documenting their travels. Lucy had a nicely sceptical attitude and proved hard to impress: of a jasper table intended as a royal gift, she wrote: ‘It was certainly beautiful, but still did not appear worth the time and labour that had been expended upon it.’ Thomas, meanwhile, painted watercolours, brandished pistols when the opportunity arose, and was occasionally called upon to exercise Solomonic judgement, once being asked, in a Kalmuck village, to decide which of six suitors should be chosen for a young girl. He took the unusual step of asking the girl whom she preferred, and when she rejected them all, advised that she remain with her mother.
Fielding’s book is packed with such tales. It’s intended to restore the Atkinsons ‘to their rightful place in the history of exploration’, and if it doesn’t do the trick, nothing will.
This review was published in the April 2016 edition of Geographical magazine.