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Thursday 21 August: BEECHEY ISLAND

06.30

Boris wakes us up early to tell us there’s no need to wake up early.

09.30

Zodiacs to the desolate and history-soaked Beechey Island. It’s snowing, the bay is fog-thick. (Bizarrely, there are two yachts here already, supposedly doing a round-the-world trip but in reality stuck here, waiting for the ice to clear. They come on board to check our ice-charts, have some food and speak to humans other than each other).

On the beach, there are graves. Ghosts, too, if you listen…

Grave 1. My name is John Torrington. I joined Sir John Franklin’s expedition because my doctor advised me to go to sea after I contracted tuberculosis. I will die on New Year’s Day, 1846. My body is still so well preserved in the permafrost that my mother would know me in an instant. I am, and always will be, 20 years old.

Grave 2. I am John Hartnell. I am tall, with hazel eyes and black hair. When I die on 4th January 1846, my brother Tom will insist on wrapping my body in his own clothes. His shirt will be my shroud.

Grave 3. I am William Braine. The ship’s rats will chew my body before I can be buried. You will not understand the significance of the exotic Asian scarf that is buried with me, a pattern of leaves on a crimson background, a thing of beauty next to my ravaged body.

Grave 4. I am not one of Franklin’s men. My name is Thomas Morgan, and I will spend three dreadful winters on another ship before being rescued. But it will be too late. On 22 May 1854, soon after reaching the safety of Beechey Island, I will finally succumb to scurvy.

Grave 5. Did you notice me? I am Joseph-René Bellot, and I love life. I amuse my friends by scrambling over the ice floes in a pink tunic and white leggings. In 1853, I will stumble through a crack and vanish from sight. My body has never been found.  

As we hover around the graves, it’s easy to forget that this is in fact high summer. The Arctic bursts with energy as animals and plants urgently condense their life cycles into a few short and giddy weeks. Right here, right now, nature is at its most exuberant and compelling. We can’t see it but, perhaps, we sense it. Near the graves, Paula turns cartwheels in the snow.

 

 

And here’s our fantastic team on Beechey Island – from left: Joe Cornish, Dick Filby, me (I’m not that short, they’re just all really tall!), Mark Carwardine, Rachel Ashton, John Ruthven and Pete Bassett.

 

 

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