In preparing for a voyage to Antarctica, I had written the usual packing lists, read some more books about Antarctica and checked the weather forecast plenty of times. In my research, I stumbled across an intriguing story of an English church, an Antarctic voyage and Sir Robert Falcon Scott’s last ever journey. The tale had me captivated long before I left the UK.
As I furthered my research about the main Antarctica protagonists – Scott, Shackleton, Amundsen, Ross, Weddell, Mawson – I read that Captain Scott, legend and hero of the Arctic regions, married Kathleen Bruce, whose father was the rector of a church in Warwickshire.
Binton Church has four stained glass windows dedicated to Scott and his co-explorers, who died in their failed attempt to return from the South Pole. The window shows four scenes of the 1912 expedition. I figured I would take a Saturday drive to Binton and go have a look at these pieces of glass.
I walked through the arched doorway into the slightly chilly, echoing hall of Binton Church. Though this was my first visit, the surroundings felt familiar; it conjured up memories from my childhood of Sunday morning, when I would reluctantly leave cartoons and be dragged off to sing hymns with my mother. Scott’s window appeared in sight, sparkling as the Antarctic does on a sunny day.
I was slightly surprised by how modern the four windows looked, particularly compared to the other stained glass windows in the church and to the stone walls and wooden roof. But, of course, relatively little time has passed since Scott and his party set out for what must have been an audacious attempt to the South Pole – just over 100 years really doesn’t seem like a long time. To say we had cars and skyscrapers and aeroplanes before we conquered the South Pole seems bizarre, but also testament to how very difficult and remote Antarctica is. Without Gore-Tex, feather down jackets and other modern kit it can be a brutal place, and reaching the South Pole back then must have seemed a frightening prospect. Nowadays you can fly to the South Pole – it’s expensive but hey, it’s the bottom of the world.
I remember reading, as a student, that glass is considered a liquid, and that the reason old church windows bulge at the bottom, where the glass is slightly thicker, is because the glass is flowing down with gravity. Complete rubbish of course, but still intriguing that something can be considered solid and yet fluid, flowing so slowly that you can’t see it move, even if it is the stuff of legend. Rather like the hero of this tale, Sir Robert Falcon Scott.
Scott, as we know, didn’t make it back from the South Pole – he was just 11 miles short of his next supply station. Exhausted, the last man standing, he closed his eyes for the last time. 100 years have passed and Scott is actually still on the move. He now slides like fictitious glass on the Ross Ice Shelf, buried 25 metres deep in the ice flow that he has been slowly sucked into, heading towards the sea. He is expected to break off as an iceberg in around 275 years’ time and float away. This is possibly the most graceful departure from this earth that I can think of.
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 Scott (March 1912).
If you’re hungry for more about Antarctic legends, look up Lawrence Oates – another hero of Antarctica, also pictured in the glass windows. Known for his poignant last words, “I’m just going outside, and may be some time”, his is another story of bravery in the face of adversity.