It’s not every day that you receive an invite to Buckingham Palace! Alas, the Queen hadn’t come knocking to inform us that by some incredible twist of fate we were written into the Royal Will… but the excitement upon receiving an invite to attend the Welcome Home Reception for the teams involved in the Scott-Amundsen Centenary Race was palpable nonetheless.
As many of you reading this will know we have followed/supported Mark Langridge on his Antarctic Adventures in the past, and this time was no different. We were unofficial ‘Tobacco Sponsor’ for the Scott Team (Mark, Kev and Vic), providing almost 1.5kgs of a variety of blends to accompany them on their odyssey to the Pole. Not a huge weight you’ll no doubt agree but significant when one realizes this was carried at the expense of fresh underwear in some cases! It was on this basis that we were invited along to the party…
The reception was held at The Queen’s Gallery, one of the public ‘annexes’ to the Palace but no less grand as a result. Arriving in suitable attire (or so I hoped – a quick visit to an etiquette website helped out here) of lounge suit and newly shined shoes was an awe inspiring moment in itself as I lined up beneath the great doric columns at the entrance, to be greeted by a doorman in regal attire, and under the curious gaze of numerous envious tourists standing in the London night. I suppose the assumption amongst the onlookers must have been that we were on our way to meet the Queen herself – not so, but five polar explorers isn’t a bad alternative!
And so on to the ‘Meet and Greet’, where we all snaked up the grand staircase to the waiting outstretched hands of the two teams. I was heartily greeted by Mark as ‘The Pipeman’ and much discussion ensued as I was then passed down the line with firm handshakes and snippets about the relative merits of the tobaccos, and discussions about the comfort the pipes gave the team, particularly on tent bound days. Unfortunately this had to be cut short as we were holding up the line!
On into the gallery itself and, with glass of wine in hand and the wise words of a regular Facebook contributor ringing in my ears in answer to a question I posed regarding etiquette, ‘Chewing with your mouth open may be a poor idea’, I had the sense to avoid the offer of nibbles and peruse the exhibition of Antarctic photographs (The Heart of the Great Alone) gifted to the Royal Collection from the journeys of both Scott and Shackleton. It is an interesting point to note that Amundsen brought back very little information about Antarctica from his victorious trip to the Pole whilst Scott’s team, despite losing the race and ultimately their lives, certainly contributed more in terms of our subsequent understanding of the polar regions through these photographs and the explicit scientific testing they carried out during the race. This is a cultural perspective continued today, if a story told by Amundsen Team member Lou is anything to go by… whilst chatting to some Norwegians at the Pole it became clear to Lou that their approach to polar conditions is much more blasé than most – they grow up with it and know how to deal with it at a very basic level. But this also defines their outlook on this kind of polar challenge – they could not understand why a modern day team would choose to man haul to the South Pole in memory of someone who died doing it 100 years ago. Their choice of transport in a bid to cross the continent in record time was kite powered skiing, something which had enabled them at one stage of the journey to cover over 300 miles in 24 hours. An incredulous Lou calculated it had taken him 5 weeks to cover the same distance! ‘Mad dogs and Englishmen’ springs to mind.
The exhibition itself was fascinating on a number of levels – the quality of the photographs was surprisingly high, especially when one considers the equipment they were using 100 years ago and the conditions under which the shots were taken, and to put faces to names that we are all familiar with from our history books was also inspirational (Scott, Oates, Wilson, Bowers & Evans). Another point of note was the prevalence of smoking pipes – a great conversation starter of course – and the panache they seem to impart upon the incumbents. This is a famous shot of Scott writing his diary with a simple spigot in his non writing hand and another resting on a nearby shelf, and looking close up at some of the group shots of both Scott’s journey and Shackleton’s there are numerous other pipes on display, exhibited with obvious pride. These days I am guessing this would be referred to as ‘Adventurer Chic’ or some such, but there is no doubting that the indefinable sense of ‘Chapishness’ lived strong in these fellows!
Throughout the evening there was much discussion of both the adventure, and the part the team’s pipe smoking played in it, and it is easy to wonder whether 100 years ago pipes were taken along for the same reasons – a chance to stop and reflect after a hard day’s hauling, a common activity to help with team bonding, something to look forward to after the monotony of another day on the ice, and a general morale booster when things were looking grim. Mark spoke particularly passionately about the days when they were tent bound, with the pipes featuring strongly in the fight against boredom, to the extent that on some days up to 10 bowls were smoked per person. The tongue bite in the cold conditions was something to behold the following day apparently! And of course there were the odour masking qualities of a bowl of strong tobacco… My understanding is that Soft Aromatic was the firm favourite, closely followed by Soft Black Aromatic and some ‘custom blends’. It was reported that English Broad Cut was a little strong for the Antarctic conditions! What’s more, I was delighted to hear that the Carey pipes were also up to the severe conditions with Mark reporting that ‘we had to put the pipes in our sleeves to warm them up for 10 mins before lighting otherwise the mouthpieces became very loose and sometimes would slip off by gravity alone. Once warmed up (lighters needed the same procedure and matches were not that great due to a slight breeze in the tent) and lit, the pipes were then fine and also great handwarmers. We sometimes broke the golden rule and re-lit warm pipes such was our need!’
To finish the evening some speeches were made in which there were two particularly poignant moments. The first was the safe return of Oates’ Polar Medal, given posthumously to his wife and carried by the Scott Team throughout, having made this its first successful trip to the South Pole 100 years after Oates’ death. Mark recounted how they had used the Medal during the difficult moments in their journey to spur them on. The second was the realization of the achievement that particularly the Scott Team made in reaching the Pole on the exact Centenary of Scott’s arrival. With the Amundsen Team already there, and having struggled with weather and underfoot conditions for weeks, they traveled 20 miles per day for the last few days – almost unheard of distances – to ensure they made it with only minutes to spare, the five of them the only British representation at the Pole in honour of Scott and his team. Truly inspirational stuff!
It should also not be forgotten that all this has been done for the benefit of charity, specifically the Royal British Legion and the work they are doing to help injured returning servicemen and women. The success of the trip has led to a number of lecture and visit opportunities to ensure that the fund raising effort will continue for at least another couple of months. We wish them luck with their efforts and will be donating the proceeds of any sales of our commemorative Scott-Amundsen Meerschaum Pipe to the cause. And of course we look forward to news of Mark’s next great adventure!