Nothing like a little bit of history

A couple of days ago it came to my attention that some of our winterers do not know who Edward Wilson was. I’m still working out what I think of that.

And how to remedy the situation.

For some time, I have been thinking about legacy, and how the story of our base will fit into the greater picture of Antarctic history. The version of Halley that I live in – its sixth incarnation – is quite unlike any Antarctic base I have ever worked at, not just because of the basic fact of its physical location: built on floating ice, moving inexorably towards the sea.That on its own marks Halley out as different, as does the fact that most of the earlier stations are either buried, crushed in the ice, or have now fallen into the Weddell sea.

Most Antarctic research stations are built on rock, or ice that sits on a rock base.  As such, stuff has a tendency to build up both inside and out. Huts are repaired, maintained and added to: they are named after people who have been significant to their history.  Just as Scott named landmarks, we still do this today. The Mountains, glaciers and islands that make up the Antarctic bear the names of many former residents.  There is even a place names committee.

Some 1600 km to our west lies our sister station, Rothera, towards the southern end of the Antarctic Peninsula, which is home to a fantastic amount of historic sites established by many different nationalities. The occasional sheltered harbor bears the remains of early sealers and whale hunters, while more recent activity can be found in the WWII huts of Operation Tabarin. 2014 is the seventieth anniversary of this secret wartime operation that was established to protect Britain’s interest in the Antarctic and Southern Ocean.

The United Kingdom Antarctic Heritage Trust, UKAHT, exists to preserve our Antarctic heritage and over recent years has done much to preserve some of the most important sites across the Antarctic, both on the Peninsula and the Ross Sea huts of Scott and Shackleton.

Its public presence is most keenly felt at Port Lockroy, to the west of the Peninsula where the organization runs a museum and post office in the first of the Tabarin huts to be built, Bransfield House, later known as Base A.

Lockroy exists in its own microclimate, on the tiny Goudier Island, sheltered by surrounding islands and mountains. Clearly known by generations of seal and whale hunters, its shoreline is scattered with fragments of history. The base itself is an amalgam of earlier huts, as building materials were often used, relocated and reused by the resourceful Tabarins and FIDS that followed.

The base has a keen sense of history and of the men that lived and worked there for the two decades or so it was a functional sledging and research base. UKAHT very clearly preserves the legacy of the men who worked there, and who took on the exploration and mapping of the Peninsula, following in the footsteps of the pioneers of Peninsula exploration like Charcot and Rymill.

In 2006, I spent a very enjoyable, if intense, three months working at Lockroy and it is still my favourite place in the Antarctic, with Fossil Bluff running a close second. Both of these early bases consist of wooden huts built, I’m sure, with spectacular views in mind. They feel very tangible, very real. They have their own historic smells, sounds, creaks and silences. Unlike the Tabarin men, we did not have the generous cooking facilities offered by the Esse stove, nor did we have light, running water or any way of heating the hut. We relied more or less totally on visiting cruise ships for fresh food, and for all of our water. And, every morning, we washed the rock path that led from the hut fifty or so metres to the waters edge, so that visitors wouldn’t trample too much penguin shit into our home.  We should, perhaps, have made them wear bags on their boots.

Daily cruise ship visits were at once both stimulating and exhausting, but what made it so enjoyable was being able to share my love of Antarctica with people who were new to it. I have never shared the view that Antarctica should be a place only for science. It is a place were real people live and work – people from all walks of life work here together to extend the legacy of the pioneers of Antarctic exploration and science, and that visitors, expeditioners, and tourists have just as much right to be here so long as what they do here is sustainable and their footprint is the lightest it can be.

As I mentioned earlier, there is very little left of the earlier bases here at Halley VI apart from a series of photographs, one of each wintering group and the memorial to those who have been lost here. Our station is warm, and lit. We now have a working loo. Two in fact. But, the station itself, while looking magnificent from the outside, is sterile within. It has a colour scheme reminiscent of a play-pen that I imagine is supposed to cheer us up through the (not at all) awful winter darkness. It is interesting to me that, when we had our last major power down, we lit the dining room and kitchen with Tilly lamps and I cooked on a couple of Primus stoves for a couple of weeks. Gone were the noises of the air conditioners, the fridge display and drinks machines. God forbid, but the Play Station was off too.

We missed the smell and sound of the primuses, simple glories of Antarctic life that they are, when the lights finally came back on. Since then, we have had the most fun of all since mid winter over in the field workshop, cooking steaks on a steel plate held over two stoves, sat on sheepskins, surrounded by field equipment that would be familiar to any Fid or BAS winterer from the past 50 years. Thankfully, some things are slow to change. Nothing wrong with that.

Of course, Halley has a fine scientific legacy. As well as that, though, there is the collective experience of its former residents – the hundreds of men and women who have spent winters here sharing the wonders of the Aurora, the Emperor penguins, and the barren ice. That legacy is something less tangible than the relics left behind by those from the heroic age like Scott and Shackleton, but it is no less important to Halley VI.

We are coming to the end of our winter now. In just four weeks we will be on the look out for the first Twin Otter aircraft to arrive since March. We will feel invaded as new voices sound throughout the base. No longer will I hear footsteps pass by the kitchen and know exactly who it is, just by the rhythm and pace of their footfall. 

Of course, Halley doesn’t belong to us, we’ve just been the latest group to add to the legacy of former winterers, and it is our job to pass the base on to a new group who will take their turn at the tiller. I had a call from my replacement yesterday, Sarah Clark. Sounded very cheery. Made me glad that I have all my handover notes done, and can now make the most of the winter time remaining: skiing in the morning, afternoon and evening sun, lingering at mealtimes to make the most of our shared experience. We still have a lot to talk about, despite having been stuck together inside for the past eight months.

I will be writing to many of the former Halley residents over the course of the next few weeks through the Z Fids website(run by and for Halley winterers) asking for their memories of Halley, and of what became of the few relics that were handed down from Halley 1 to 5. Some are clearly missing from VI, which is a dreadful shame as these objects bear witness to the legacies of the people who have passed by, or drank alongside them. I hope that we can get some of them back to Halley, to remind new winterers that there is a past to Halley, that there were people who came before them, and will come after them.


Perhaps, then, they will know who Edward Wilson was.