A Voyage to Remember

  • Written by  Rod Rhys Jones
  • Published in Explorers
Approaching St Andrews Bay, South Georgia Approaching St Andrews Bay, South Georgia
26 May
2017
In 2015, Rod Rhys Jones, Chairman of the British Antarctic Monument Trust, saw the realisation of a long-held plan to see a memorial to those who lost their lives in the pursuit of scientific knowledge, unveiled in Stanley. Ahead of a film premiere at the RGS-IBG documenting the journey, he recounts how the project came to be

There is an audible intake of breath from the congregation on the waterfront in Stanley as the fluttering crimson cloth enveloping the Antarctic Monument is drawn back to reveal a brilliant mirror-shone stainless-steel sculpture reflecting the fast-moving water and clouds. The Bishop of the Falkland Islands, Nigel Stock, steps forward to dedicate it. Governor Colin Roberts speaks about the islands’ links with the exploration of Antarctica and the sacrifice made by those who perished.

These moments are captured on an evocative film to be premiered at the Royal Geographical Society (with IBG) on 14 June – South 2015: An Antarctic Voyage to Remember. Produced by the British Antarctic Monument Trust, the film documents the culmination of our ten-year project to commemorate those who lost their lives in the British Antarctic Territory in pursuit of science, and is itself a memorial to their sacrifices. The film was made by New Zealander Graham Morris, cousin of Jeremy Bailey who died on an expedition from Halley Bay in 1965.

explore3Halley Bay Expedition at Pyramid Rocks with author (far left)

The monument on the waterfront in Stanley acknowledges the role the Falklands has played in the exploration of the Antarctic by the Falkland Islands Dependencies Survey (FIDS) and subsequently by the British Antarctic Survey (BAS). It is the southern part of a unique two-part Antarctic monument. The northern part of the sculpture, located outside the Scott Polar Research Institute at the University of Cambridge, is made of two pillars of carved British oak supporting each other, the space between them forming a pointed ellipse which defines the shape of the southern monument. It is intended to reflect the environmental and scientific link between Britain and Antarctica and recognises the emotional and physical separation experienced by the explorers and their families left behind.

The South 2015 voyage was conceived by the Trust as a way of bringing families, Antarctic veterans (FIDS) and supporters to the dedication ceremony in the Falklands and then take them on a three-week voyage to South Georgia and the Antarctic Peninsula, visiting the bases where those who were lost both lived and worked.

I was one of 29 veterans out of a passenger manifest of 85 aboard the ship. Originally I had been a surveyor with BAS at Halley Bay in the 1960s when three of my companions lost their lives in a crevasse accident in the Tottanfjella about 400 miles from base. In 2005, some 40 years after the tragedy, I re-established contact with Antarctic veterans by attending the BAS Club annual meeting in Edinburgh, held to coincide with the Austral mid-winter.

explore4Penguins at St Andrews Bay in South Georgia

I discovered that 28 men had lost their lives in the 38 years after the first Antarctic research base had been set up in 1944 at Port Lockroy by the British. They died, variously, by fire, in crevasses, swept out to sea and from exposure. Considering how few people worked in Antarctica during those years (about 2,000, mostly on two-year contracts), the annualised risk of death was alarmingly high. Aircraft gradually took over from dog sleds and tractor haul in field work, and since 1982 there has only been one fatality of either BAS or FIDS staff in Antarctica: in an unusual accident, biologist Kirsty Brown was drowned by a leopard seal while diving below sea ice in 2003 at Rothera.

The talk in Edinburgh turned to planting a memorial orchard at BAS headquarters in Cambridge to commemorate ‘those who did not return’. I discussed the idea of creating a more permanent national or even international memorial with Julian Paren, a BAS glaciologist. We were joined by two members of FIDS, Richard Harbour, a surveyor in the 1950s, and Ken Gibson, a meteorologist who lost two companions at Admiralty Bay in 1959.

Shortly after the Edinburgh reunion, I met with Oliver Barratt, a sculptor who had previously created the iconic Everest Memorial, a stainless steel, split-cone structure located one day’s march beyond Base Camp. Barratt embraced the idea enthusiastically and eventually came up with the exciting design that would link the northern and southern hemispheres.

At about that time, a fellow ‘FID’, John Killingbeck – the last man to drive a dog team in Antarctica – mentioned that he had always wanted to see a memorial in St Paul’s Cathedral, ‘the nation’s parish church’. I was persuaded. The Registrar responded to my proposal by saying that the Chapter gave it ‘provisional support’ but that there were ‘quite a few stages to go through,’ ending with the warning ‘you may not be successful.’

A conversation with designer Graeme Wilson, with whom I have worked for 40 years, led to some preliminary designs for the St Paul’s memorial, while a talented young stonemason, Fergus Wessel, joined us to discuss materials and construction. In the film, both talk about their work. We were all inspired by a large space on the crowded walls of the crypt, just outside the school room. It is off the central aisle between the tombs of Nelson and Wellington, and next to a memorial to the Arctic explorer Frederick George Jackson who led the RGS-sponsored Jackson-Harmsworth expedition to Franz Joseph Land (1894-97), and who distinguished himself by rescuing Fridtjof Nansen after his epic three-year attempt at crossing the North Pole.

explore5On board the M/V Ushuaia as it approaches Stonington Island

The design, mandated by St Paul’s to last 500 years, was finally agreed in February 2010, three years after discussions began. It is a disk 1,100mm in diameter and 50mm thick, made of riven Welsh slate and representing a map of the Southern Ocean with Antarctica inset in Carrara marble cut by high pressure water jet. We used a Polar Stereographic Spheroid projection provided by BAS to ensure that it is geographically correct. The inscription ‘For those who lost their lives in Antarctica in pursuit of science to benefit us all’ is cut by hand into the smoothed periphery of the disk.

The Antarctic Memorial was dedicated at a special evensong on 10 May 2011 attended by 600 people. Prayers were led movingly by trustee Brian Dorsett-Bailey who had been released from hospital only four days earlier after a stay of several months. I had met Brian in 2006 when he attended a 50th anniversary celebration of the founding of Halley Bay. His brother, my colleague Jeremy Bailey, died in a crevasse accident on the expedition from Halley Bay 40 years before. Keen to help, he took on the huge task of tracking down relatives of those that lost their lives in the region, gleaning scraps of information from our Antarctic network and using articles in the local press to aid in finding them. The impact on the family of losing a son in so remote and unimaginable place was laid bare at the ceremony, with no body to grieve over and no grave at which to mourn. But Brian’s work meant that many families would find closure in St Paul’s. They talked to men who had known their loved ones. A sister told me that she had met some of the men who had searched for her brother across treacherous sea-ice. ‘The family never knew of their bravery,’ she said. ‘I am so thankful.’ Another woman said that after the service she had spoken about her brother for the first time since his death 30 years before.

Two days after the service in St Paul’s, the northern part of the Antarctic Monument was unveiled at the Scott Polar Research Institute in Cambridge. As the Director, Professor Julian Dowdeswell, says in the film, it is particularly appropriate because the ‘Institute is itself a national memorial’ and ‘Cambridge is the centre for polar research.’

It took a further four years to raise sufficient money and to finalise the manufacture of the southern part of the monument, as well as to make arrangements for its siting, transportation and dedication on 25 February 2015.

explore2The monument unveiled at Port Stanley, its counterpart sits outside the Scott Polar Research Institute in Cambridge

The film follows our voyage from the Falkland Islands to South Georgia where we toasted ‘the Boss’ beside the grave of Shackleton and Frank Wild, his resourceful second-in-command. We went ashore at St Andrews Bay and gasped in awe at the astounding scene of 200,000 pairs of King Penguins gathered to breed, before visiting the first permanent base set up in the Antarctic at Port Lockroy. A particularly memorable part of the film is a scene showing FIDS veteran Paul Leak reacquainting himself with the valve equipment he had used more than 50 years ago to plot whistlers – low-frequency radio waves caused by lightning.

We sailed further south through the spectacular Lemaire Channel, visiting the historic BAS base of Faraday (now the Ukrainian Base of Vernadski), before landing to explore another historic base at Horseshoe Island. Being warmly welcomed at the BAS base of Rothera, we then spent the rest of the day exploring the laboratories and equipment. High on a knoll outside were several memorials to those lost. Rupert Summerson was filmed playing a haunting lament to his lost colleagues John Anderson and Robert Atkinson. At the end of our stay the inhabitants of the base gave us a Mexican wave from the dockside.

We reached our furthest point south off the historic base of Stonington, at co-ordinates 68.11S 67.26W, as a spectacular dawn lit the snowy mountains with scarlet, then apricot and then white hues. But with a storm threatening we had no choice but to race north to find shelter for a day in the hidden caldera of Deception Island. As we sailed out through the treacherous Neptune’s Bellows into the open ocean, the film catches Alan Cheshire, speaking about loss:

All FIDS leave a part of themselves in the Antarctic when it’s their time to go home.
So in a very real sense, the souls of those who rest here for eternity are never, ever alone.
They are an integral part of who we are today.
And whilst we may grow old and memories fade, they remain forever young, and forever in our hearts.

 

South 2015: An Antarctic Voyage to Remember; Film Premiere, 14 June 2017, 7pm. Bar from 6pm; Royal Geographical Society, 1 Kensington Gore, London SW7 2AR. Tickets £14 from South-2015.eventbrite.co.uk.
Video available on DVD price £15 by emailing: [email protected].

This was published in the June 2017 edition of Geographical magazine.

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