Scott, Wilson and Discovery

When we were staying in Glen Prosen in Scotland we were just a few miles from where Captain Scott visited Dr Edward (Uncle Bill) Wilson while he was planning his second expedition. To commemorate this a statue was erected at one of his favourite viewpoints. This is the only statue of both Captain Scott and Dr Wilson.


Thirty miles south there is another Scott (and Wilson) connection in Dundee on the banks of the River Tay. We found this with some confusion – we followed the signs but got into the wrong lane and found ourselves on the Tay Road Bridge. Not once but twice. A mile long drive across the River Tay, round a roundabout and another mile back – so our journey was four miles longer than it should have been. Eventually we manged to park between Discovery Point and a Premier Inn where we grabbed a quick meal before heading to investigate the ship and exhibition.

The ship chosen for Scott’s first expedition was purpose built. It was RRS Discovery which was the first ship built in the UK specifically for polar exploration and the first for scientific research since 1694. It needed to be built in wood both so that magnetic research could be undertaken at sea and so that it could withstand the pressure of the ice. There were layers of oak, fir and elm. (An iron clad whaler would have been half the price.) By the early 1900s most British ship builders were building iron ships. Discovery’s sides are over two foot thick amidships (compared an inch for an iron ship) with the bows further strengthened for forcing the way through the ice. To further strengthen it there were no portholes – light and ventilation came from mushroom vents in the deck. There was no ironwork within 30 feet of the magnetic laboratory.

It was both steam powered and a sailing ship because it would have required far too much coal for it to be purely steam powered. It had to have provisions and equipment for the expedition sufficient for two or three years.


The wardroom was a work room by day and dining room by night. The officers’ cabins are along each side with Scott’s cabin on the left at the far end with the ships captain’s cabin opposite. The space shuttle Discovery was named after this ship and the astronauts who flew on it have visited and dined at this table (wearing their astronaut ‘boiler suits’) in the footsteps of Scott, Wilson and others.


This expedition was the first one led by Robert Falcon Scott. Its aim was extensive exploration of Ross Sea region, magnetic research and geographical discovery. Unfortunately arguments between the Royal Geographical Society and the Royal Society led to the resignation of the original scientific director (who was not willing to play second fiddle to Scott, which is what Sir Clement Markham of the Royal Geographical Society demanded). This meant that the expedition was not as well equipped to carry out meteorological and other research as it should have been and the ambitious programme outlined in a 600 page Antarctic Manual would only be partially achieved. Nonetheless a lot of significant work was done.


One of the members of this expedition was Edward Wilson, known as Uncle Bill to everyone. It was his sketches and watercolours which initially caught my eye when I saw some at an exhibition in Gloucestershire some years ago.  I think he would have been a fascinating man to know.  His father was a doctor in Cheltenham and Uncle Bill enjoyed long walks in the Gloucestershire countryside in his youth. He studied at Cambridge where his conciliatory approach was so admired that he was asked to stay on for an extra year to act as a calming influence on the students. After he qualified as a Doctor he worked in the east end where he contracted what was thought to be tuberculosis. He honed his sketching skills while recovering from this in Davos in Switzerland (having unsuccessfully tried to shake off the illness in Norway during the summer). He was an ideal senior member of the party and trusted confidante for Scott.


In Antarctica he would sketch under great difficulties – he would use the pencil for a few minutes and then warm his hands under his armpits. It was so cold that a soft B pencil would behave as a hard H. Then when he got back inside he would produce a finished pencil sketch from the rough one done outside. Then a rough watercolour followed by a finished watercolour. He would produce several copies of the same scene and give them away to colleagues and friends. He wanted them to be seen.


Discovery spent three years trapped in ice off Ross Island in the Ross Sea before returning home. The physicist on the expedition, Louis Bernacchi summarised their achievements “The expedition had returned after more than three years absence with the richest results, geographical and scientific ever brought home from the high southern latitudes. A vast new land  . . . . had been discovered. Many hundred miles of unknown coast . . . .  had been seen and plotted.”

Today after four Antarctic expeditions and other adventures Discovery is back in her home port where she can be visited along with an excellent exhibition.






We have passed through Bergen a couple of times on the way to and from Sogndal. It is one of my favourite cities.


Leaving South Shields

We drove up to Newcastle to catch the ferry (which sadly no longer runs) across to Bergen calling at Stavanger on the way.

Bergen from the ferry – at night and the following morning

It was a 24 hour crossing so we arrived in Bergen as it was getting dark and stayed on the ship overnight before disembarking the next morning. We had time to explore the town, most notably the Bryggen which made me think of Dickensian London but with floorboards rather than cobbles.


At the head of the harbour there was a market.


On our return from Sogndal we stopped at Fantoft Stavkirke which looked old but smelled of fresh wood – we discovered that the original had been burnt down and it had recently been rebuilt.


On a later trip we had the opportunity to visit Urnes Stavkirke which is genuinly old – the oldest in Norway dating back to the 12th-century. It overlooks  Lustrafjorden and is an UNESCO World Heritage site along with the Bryggen.

Who needs sand castles for this beach?

I knew of Northumberland but I didn’t know it until we spent a week just north of Alnwick. We had driven up from home and as we approached Newcastle we saw signs for the Angel of the North. I was a little disappointed that we didn’t have time to stop and find it, but as we rounded a bend there it was majestically looming over the trees. We were able to get up close to it a few days later when we visited Sunderland, the Addison’s home since 1779 (before that is still a mystery).

We were staying in a one time shepherd’s cottage 100 yards from the A1 with sheep in the field opposite, llamas on the hillock behind, swallows on the telephone wires, and geese on the pond. Down south the A1 would be nose to tail traffic and a nightmare to be anywhere close to it. Here it was a pleasant open road with a modicum of traffic, busy at times but hardly noticed in our cottage (although further south round Newcastle it had been a raft of roadworks and slow moving traffic).

First thing on our first morning we headed for the nearest beach so that the dog could have a run and we were delighted to find Embleton beach which was a wide expanse of sand stretching into the distance where it ended in a headland crowned by a ruined castle.



After a good walk we were made welcome at the Golf Club (open to visitors) where we had coffee and toast.

Northumberland is awash with castles, both magnificent ones like Alnwick and Bamburgh and smaller ones like Etal and Preston Tower (which is now literally only half of what it was, two of its four towers having been demolished). With the turbulent history of the border with Scotland the smaller ones were a necessity for the protection of the various communities while the larger ones were statements of power for nobles jockeying for position and even seeking to overthrow a king or install a new one.

Like the Scottish Borders (of which geographically it is a continuation) Northumberland has great rolling hills and we found some stunning views down to the Cheviot hills. We had a chat with a local couple who were also admiring the view and they gave us a bit of the history of the area and suggestions of where we should go.


Great open countryside, wide open beaches, castles galore, and a warm welcome; Northumberland was a revelation.

Biscay – whales and dolphins

Where can you watch whales without flying to the Californian coast or unsuccessfully bouncing around in a small boat off Mull? One place is the Bay of Biscay.  In September 2005 we took the P&O ferry from Portsmouth to Bilbao and back. These days it is a bit more complicated as the ferry  runs Portsmouth-Bilbao-Plymouth and then Plymouth-Bilbao-Portsmouth. So you then have to get a coach between Plymouth and Portsmouth (or vice versa) . Our ferry was due in to Portsmouth at five o’clock and when I saw it approaching I told the rest of our group. The front of the boat looked for all the world like a square ten storey building. Continue reading “Biscay – whales and dolphins”

A morning in Bilbao

On a whale watching trip on the Portsmouth to Bilbao ferry across the Bay of Biscay we had a morning in Spain before our return journey. We had chosen to take the opportunity to visit the Guggenheim Museum which had an exhibition of Aztec art on at the time.  On arrival at Santurzi we had to get up at what our friend described as “stupid o’clock”. The alarm call from the Captain came across the ships intercom at 5.45 UK time waking everyone for a seven o’clock disembarkation at Santurzi. Continue reading “A morning in Bilbao”