Terra Nova

We’re currently enduring a spell of cold weather here in Cardiff, although I think it might be rather milder here then elsewhere in the UK. My garden thermometer showed a mere -5 C when I looked at it at 7.15 this morning. The other day we had a meeting of half-a-dozen people in one of our large teaching rooms and it was absolutely freezing. I don’t know what was wrong with the heating. Yesterday I actually did a lecture in the same room, but with 80-odd “warm bodies” (or “students” as they are sometimes known) in there, it was bearable.

The cold here of course is nothing compared with that endured by Captain Scott‘s ill-fated expedition to the South Pole, but I mention it here for a number of reasons. First, the centenary of the death of Scott and his companions is coming up next month; the tragedy unfolded in March 1912. There’s actually a very special concert coming up next week, featuring Vaughan Williams’ wonderful music written for the classic film Scott of the Antarctic (which, incidentally, you can actually watch in full on Youtube). I’m definitely going along, and will probably review the performance next week, but quite a number of my colleagues are also going, for reasons which will become obvious..

The concert is special because of the very strong connections between the Scott Expedition and the City of Cardiff. Much of the financial support needed to fund the trek to the South Pole was raised from Cardiff businessmen and Scott’s ship, the Terra Nova, actually set sail from Cardiff (in June 1910) on its journey, first to New Zealand and thence to Antarctica.

Incidentally, an article in this morning’s Western Mail relates to a historic painting of the departure of the Terra Nova which is about to be auctioned:

Cardiff Bay has certainly changed a great deal since 1910, but quite a lot is recognizable, especially the Pierhead Building, which can be seen to the right. The actual docks, the locations of which are revealed by the lines of masts of tall ships, are now mainly filled in. But there is at least one other reminder of this occasion to be found at Cardiff Bay, a large waterfront bar itself called Terra Nova

There’s also a deep connection with the South Pole, and the Antarctic generally, for many members of the Astronomy Instrumentation Group here in the School of Physics & Astronomy at Cardiff University, quite a few of whom have actually been to the South Pole in connection with various experiments, including Quad,  Boomerang and BLAST, because of the unique observing conditions there.

15 Responses to “Terra Nova”

  1. Anton Garrett Says:

    It has to be said that Scott was an amateur compared to Amundsen.

    • telescoper Says:

      Indeed. Lots of mistakes were made in planning and during the expedition itself. They were also extremely unlucky, as the weather got far colder than expected far earlier than expected.

      What always struck me about this is that there’s something very British about the way we think of Scott. Heroic failures always seem to be more widely celebrated than successes!

    • Anton Garrett Says:

      Here is a comparison:


      Scott was not willing to use dogs or in particular to eat them, although he knew that doing so was optimal. Amundsen did it. But Scott ate his ponies, so the British sentimentalism card regarding animals cannot really be played. A lot went wrong, some of it Scott’s fault, some not. Scott nevertheless became a national icon as soon as his body was found (months after he died) and his failure known!

      Amundsen beat Scott by 34 days but I do not understand how Scott found traces of Amundsen at the south pole. A few hundred yards off would have meant he missed those traces – it’s not as if there was a five-star hotel there – and surely the location was not determinable to that accuracy a hundred years ago.

      April will see the 100th anniversary of a much bigger disaster, the Titanic sinking.

      • …how about claiming shackleton as a “british” amateur polar explorer?

        any takers?

      • telescoper Says:


        The answer to your question, revealed by one of the diary entries read at last night’s concert, is that Scott’s team spotted a dark object some miles off, and some way short of the South Pole, which turned out to have been left there by Amundsen:

        From Tuesday 16th January 1912:

        The worst has happened, or nearly the worst. We marched well in the morning and covered 7 1/2 miles. Noon sight showed us in Lat. 89º 42′ S., and we started off in high spirits in the afternoon, feeling that to-morrow would see us at our destination. About the second hour of the March Bowers’ sharp eyes detected what he thought was a cairn; he was uneasy about it, but argued that it must be a sastrugus. Half an hour later he detected a black speck ahead. Soon we knew that this could not be a natural snow feature. We marched on, found that it was a black flag tied to a sledge bearer; near by the remains of a camp; sledge tracks and ski tracks going and coming and the clear trace of dogs’ paws – many dogs. This told us the whole story. The Norwegians have forestalled us and are first at the Pole.

        And then the following day

        We started at 7.30, none of us having slept much after the shock of our discovery. We followed the Norwegian sledge tracks for some way; as far as we make out there are only two men. In about three miles we passed two small cairns. Then the weather overcast, and the tracks being increasingly drifted up and obviously going too far to the west, we decided to make straight for the Pole according to our calculations. At 12.30 Evans had such cold hands we camped for lunch – an excellent ‘week-end one.’ We had marched 7.4 miles. Lat. sight gave 89º 53′ 37”. We started out and did 6 1/2 miles due south. To-night little Bowers is laying himself out to get sights in terrible difficult circumstances; the wind is blowing hard, T. -21º, and there is that curious damp, cold feeling in the air which chills one to the bone in no time. We have been descending again, I think, but there looks to be a rise ahead; otherwise there is very little that is different from the awful monotony of past days. Great God! this is an awful place and terrible enough for us to have laboured to it without the reward of priority. Well, it is something to have got here, and the wind may be our friend to-morrow. We have had a fat Polar hoosh in spite of our chagrin, and feel comfortable inside – added a small stick of chocolate and the queer taste of a cigarette brought by Wilson. Now for the run home and a desperate struggle. I wonder if we can do it.

        This reveals one of the significant errors made by Scott. Amundsen used many dogs for the final push to the South Pole. Scott’s men had to tote their supplies themselves.


      • Anton Garrett Says:

        Thanks Peter! I’ve also learned a new word – sastrugus.

      • telescoper Says:

        You can actually read all of Scott’s diaries online. They’re incredibly moving.

  2. Also not forgetting the Scott Memorial Lighthouse & Terra Nova Cafe on Roath Park Lake …

    • Bryn Jones Says:

      Absolutely right, the memorial to Scott in Cardiff is the clock tower in Roath Park Lake.

      From memory, a civic dinner was held for the Terra Nova crew the evening before the ship’s departure in a hotel on St. Mary Street, possibly the Royal Hotel. The room in which the dinner took place later contained some memorabilia, but there was some public discussion some years ago that the room could be lost if some redevelopment plan went ahead.

    • telescoper Says:

      Right of course to point these out, but neither of them is in Cardiff Bay, which is why I didn’t mention them in the context of the painting…

  3. Thanks for posting this – the artist was one of my four great-grandfathers. Someone is clearly trying to drum up interest as the sale contents for the Bonhams auction on 30 March won’t be public until the end of this month … I wonder who that could be?

    By the way, I enjoy visiting your WP site – it was inspirational when I was starting my own a few months ago. And it’s always interesting to have news of Cardiff University, where I was on the Music staff until 2010. So, thank you!

    • telescoper Says:

      The estimated price (£7K-£9K) looks quite modest for such an important historical work, but of course it may fetch more at a real auction.

      • You’re probably right about the auction, but I doubt that an individual buyer from these parts would fork out that much – it’s way above the auction prices that he’s achieved elsewhere in recent years. It’ll be a boardroom/institutional purchase, I suspect, at that price. I’m just grateful that you drew my attention to it, as otherwise I might have missed it!

  4. Nick Cross Says:

    The ship from an earlier Scott Antarctic expedition – the Discovery – is in Dundee, where I spent some of my childhood.

    • Anton Garrett Says:

      It did a stint in St Katherine’s Dock near Tower Bridge in London in the early 1980s, and I went round it then.

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