The news is I’ve officially launched my expedition, with a visit to Gilbert White’s House in Hampshire, and a tour round the Oates collection by my patron and Captain Oates expert, Patrick Cordingley.
Captain Oates was in Scott’s final sledging party who did make it to the South Pole – only to find Amundsen and his team had made it there before them. Events – including the unpredictable Antarctic weather – conspired against them and they died on the return journey. Oates famously sacrificed himself to try and save his companions, walking out into the snow with the famous words ‘I may be some time.’
The launch was a very special day – Patrick has been a fantastic support after agreeing immediately on being asked to be my patron.
He’s not only wise and generous, he’s also incredibly knowledgeable about my favourite topic – Antarctica. We geeked out over Oates’ original letters to his mother from the Terra Nova, and wondered at the craftsmanship (and weight!) of the original sledge on display. My friend and photographer was bemused by all our excitement over bits of leather and wood, old mottled flags and replica gear.
We took plenty of photos and examined all the items on display. I’d spotted some items which had been collected from Scott’s tent when the rescue party eventually found it – including Scott’s original sledge pulling harness. I’ve spent many hours clipped into my own harness – in generally good conditions and with plenty of comfortable padding. Scott’s had no such luxury. It was a webbing belt with buckles and leather straps. No padding and certainly not as comfortable for mile upon mile of dragging heavy wooden and metal sledges.
The curator could see my enthusiasm, which I’m sure must have been catching. There was no one else around. I asked if I could take it out of the cabinet and try it on. I held my breath. He studied me for a moment. ‘I’ll get the keys’, he said.
I was holding the harness in my hands and I truly felt the weight of history. I slipped it over my shoulders and wrapped it round my waist. Without all those Polar layers it went round me twice. I could imagine it digging into me as I strained against the weight of the sledge.
There was something so sad about it – Scott’s journey was so bitter-sweet – they made it to their destination, but never made it home. I wondered it Scott himself would have been surprised at how much he has become a national hero. I realised that few people have ever touched it since it was brought back from Antarctica – perhaps no one has ever tried it on – it was such a privilege and I was totally in awe.
Perhaps some of Scott’s determination, and his love of the seventh continent, has been passed on. That one unique opportunity fired my heart even more for the most desolate and unforgiving place on earth.
With thanks to Josh at the Oates Collection.