Florence’s voyage of discovery

A university graduate from Suffolk has embarked on her own polar expedition a century after her ancestors played a part in some of the most famous Antarctic explorations in history. Sheena Grant reports

THIS year marks the centenary of Robert Falcon Scott’s ill-fated race against Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen to become the first man in history to reach the South Pole.

The story of how Capt Scott and his men, Wilson, Oates, Bowers and Evans, perished in the most inhospitable place on Earth has become etched into the nation’s consciousness.

Their fate and the manner in which they met death – revealed in numerous letters and diary entries found with their bodies – have come to embody noble self-sacrifice and heroism in a powerful and enduring way.

The five reached the pole on January 17, 1912 – only to find that Amundsen had beaten them to it. They never made it back. Evans died after a fall while Oates, suffering from frostbite and knowing he was slowing the others down, walked out into the freezing conditions never to return. The remaining three died, trapped in their tent by a blizzard, just 20km from safety, at the end of March, 1912.

Their bodies were found eight months later – exactly 100 years ago this month.

It’s an anniversary that has particular significance for Florence Barrow, a 22-year-old St Andrews University history graduate from Orford.

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Florence was raised on tales of Scott and his Antarctic endeavours.

Her great great uncle, Hartley Ferrar, was geologist with Scott’s first expedition to the continent in 1901, while her great grandfather, John Gibson Anderson, spent time with the explorer in New Zealand before he set off on his last, tragic, venture. It was through that meeting that he got a job as a deckhand on Scott’s ship, the Terra Nova, on its return voyage to Cardiff in 1913.

So when Florence got the chance to journey to the bottom of the world herself, spending four months working for the UK Antarctic Heritage Trust, a charity arm of the British Antarctic Survey, she just knew it was meant to be.

Florence flew out to Argentina at the end of October, from where she and three other volunteers boarded a ship to take them to Port Lockroy on the Antarctic Peninsula, a group of islands on the approach to the mainland. There they will run the most southerly post office in the world and work in a museum for which the trust has responsibility.

For the next four months Florence will have only her three companions – plus several thousand gentoo penguins – for company.

Although it is the Antarctic summer, average daytime temperatures are minus 12C and there will be almost constant daylight.

“It will be a bit weird,” she says, “but also an incredible experience.”

Florence, who has started work on Port Lockroy in the last few days, was chosen for the volunteer role from among 160 applicants after an interview and a gruelling selection day.

“It was held over two days,” she says. “We had to camp in a field and undertake lots of different challenges and exercises. There were lots of logic and team work things, tests to assess leadership and how we would deal with different situations. We also had to do a presentation in front of groups, because that is all part of the job.”

The UK Antarctic Heritage Trust, which works to conserve Antarctic buildings and artefacts and promote and encourage the public’s interest in the continent’s heritage, is responsible for the conservation management of Port Lockroy and five other sites on the peninsula.

Port Lockroy is open to visitors throughout the Antarctic summer, hence the presence of Florence and her colleagues. And it can get pretty busy, although the numbers of visitors and ships are monitored and regulated to ensure the environment is not damaged.

About 70,000 cards are posted each year from Port Lockoy post office, destined for around 100 countries and taking up to six weeks to arrive.

“The trust has a number of bases in the area but this is the only one that is manned,” says Florence. “The others are more research-based but Port Lockroy is more to do with preserving public interest in Antarctic heritage.

“We’ll be manning the island museum there, recording recent artefacts given to or collected by the trust, and running the gift shop and post office.

“There are about 15,000 tourists over the four months that come to the island and there is also a study of penguins, of which there are about 2,000 on the island. The study was set up during the ’90s, looking at the penguins and measuring the impact tourists have on the island.”

Despite her excitement, Florence knows living in such a remote place with just three other people for company (apart from the passing tourists who stop off on Antarctic cruises) will have its challenges.

“We have pretty basic living conditions,” she says. “There’s no mains power, electricity or running water and we’ll all be sharing a bedroom with four bunks.

“Four months there might get quite introspective but it’s definitely a fantastic first job after university. I don’t know exactly what I want to do career-wise long term yet, but it will be work that I care about.

“It’s going to be a complete contrast to anything I have ever experienced before and could get pretty intense. There’s also 100% daylight, which is something completely new. I have to be very flexible and adaptable.”

Florence spent some time getting to know the other volunteers before heading south.

“I’m pleased to say I liked them,” she says.

In many ways the former Orwell Park School pupil is luckier than some of those who have gone before her. New staff accommodation was built last year. Before that, volunteers had to sleep in the museum building.

Florence says it was her family connections to Scott’s expeditions in the world’s most remote, coldest and windiest continent that first fired her interest in Antarctica. Then her mother visited as a tourist a couple of years ago.

“I saw her amazing pictures and heard her stories about it,” she says. “When this opportunity came up it seemed the most exciting first job I could find. From what I can gather, the heritage trust seems to be a really inspiring charity and I am thrilled to be working with them.

“The fact that this is the centenary year of the Terra Nova expedition makes my journey all the more special.”

Florence’s great grandfather, John Gibson Anderson, was the brother of Hartley Ferrar’s wife, Helen Gladys.

“Hartley Ferrar was my great great uncle and he got the job as geologist on Discovery in the same year he graduated from Cambridge,” says Florence. “I’ve been to Dundee, where Discovery is now, and have seen his cabin. That made it all come alive and seem much closer to me. Plus there’s a lot been written about him, and stories of Antarctica abound in our family.”

Hartley first met Helen Gladys Anderson in New Zealand, when Scott and his officers stayed at the Anderson family home in Christchurch, effectively making it their New Zealand headquarters before heading south to Antarctica. The family again played host to Scott before the tragic Terra Nova expedition a decade later.

“Scott and his (Terra Nova) expedition team stayed at the family house in New Zealand (before setting out for the pole),” says Florence. “My other relative (John Gibson Anderson) came back to Britain as a deckhand on Terra Nova, the ship that Scott used for his last expedition.

“He got a position as a deckhand from New Zealand, having met all of them at this house they all stayed at before going down to Antarctica.

“It is about family for me but also about what I am going to be doing at Port Lockroy and the people I will be working with. That is what will really make all the difference.”

For more information about the UK Antarctic Heritage Trust and to read the team’s blog from Port Lockroy, visit www.ukaht.org.