The Worst Journey in the World
PUBLISHED: 07:46 03 February 2015 | UPDATED: 07:55 03 February 2015
A survivor of Scott's fateful polar expedition and the First World War, celebrated explorer and writer Apsley Cherry-Garrard came home to Wheathampstead where he created a woodland paradise away from deadly cold and guns. Liz Hamilton of the Herts Campaign to Protect Rural England group celebrates his life and legacy
In the north transept of Wheathampstead’s parish church, St Helen’s, there is a small bronze figure dressed in Edwardian polar clothing. It is a memorial to Apsley Cherry-Garrard, explorer, writer and landowner, who lived at nearby Lamer Park, his grand family estate. Born in 1886, ‘Cherry’ read classics and history at Oxford and aged just 24 joined Robert Scott’s Terra Nova expedition to be the first to reach the South Pole. The second youngest expedition member, he gained a place after impressing the expedition’s chief scientist Bill Wilson with his enthusiasm and determination to make something important of his life. Cherry’s official role was as assistant zoologist, although he had no prior skill in the subject and was renowned for being short-sighted.
The expedition sailed from Britain in 1910 and established its base at Cape Evans on the edge of the Ross Ice Shelf in January 1911. From here, Scott planned to reach the South Pole during the Antarctic summer of 1911-12, beating a rival Norwegian team attempting to get their first. The expedition was not just an adventure however. It had a considerable scientific purpose, collecting valuable information about the then largely unknown continent and its adjacent waters. One aim was to collect emperor penguin eggs, whose embryos were of interest to evolutionary biology.
Penguins and the Pole
Emperor penguins nested during the Antarctic winter at Cape Crozier, 63 miles from Cape Evans. Cherry, together with Edward ‘Bill’ Wilson and H R ‘Birdie’ Bowers (who both later died with Scott) made ‘the Winter Journey’ there in terrifyingly cold and dark conditions. For five weeks in June and July 1911, enduring appalling terrain and temperatures sometimes below -70˚F, and with only candles to provide light, they managed to collect five eggs, although Cherry broke two when he fell on the return journey to camp. A blizzard with hurricane force winds also blew away their tent, but miraculously they found it again: without it they would almost certainly have died on that trip.
From the base back at Cape Evans, several supporting parties set out with Scott on the journey to reach the Pole, turning back at intervals after laying supply depots for the returning parties. Cherry was disappointed when Scott, on December 22, asked him to turn around at the top of the Beardmore Glacier after travelling 500 miles, more than halfway to the Pole. Eight men continued southwards and, of these, three more turned back 150 miles from the target. The remaining five arrived at the bottom of the world on January 18, 1912, only to see their great Norwegian rivals led by Roald Amundsen had reached the Pole before them. Facing a devastated Scott and his team was an 800-mile trek back to base camp.
Cherry was in the search party which, in November 1912, eventually found the bodies of Scott and two of his companions at their last camp 100 miles from Cape Evans and only 13 miles from a depot which could have saved them. Scott’s last diary entry on March 29, 1912 told how for eight days they had been unable to travel further due to a terrible blizzard.
Books and trees
After his return from the Antarctic in 1913 and surviving a second cruel expedition, the First World War, Cherry went home to Lamer Park. Here he wrote The Worst Journey in the World, his account of the Terra Nova expedition taken from his recollections and diaries and those of the other members, including the diaries found with the bodies of Scott and his companions. Published in 1922, the book became a classic, not just of polar literature but of travel writing. ‘It is rare,’ wrote Paul Theroux in his introduction to the 1994 Picador edition, ‘to find a person who is at once such a great traveller...and who is also such an accomplished writer’.
The chapter describing the Winter Journey has a touching epilogue, in which Cherry presents the penguin eggs, collected with such superhuman effort, to the Natural History Museum in South Kensington. The eggs did prove of interest to biology and the shells have survived, together with one embryo. Fittingly perhaps, they are preserved in the ornithological research collection at Tring Museum.
Cherry found a great friend just walking distance from his home. Lamer Park is close to the village of Ayot St Lawrence where writer, playwright and socialist George Bernard Shaw lived. Cherry and Shaw became close friends and visited each other frequently. Cherry also took delight in planting and tending 300 acres of woodland on his estate.
His rural life and celebrated achievements did not prevent dark days. Cherry suffered bouts of ill-health and depression, never fully persuaded that any attempt to rescue Scott’s returning party was futile.
He did find love later in life with Angela Turner, whom he met while on a Norwegian cruise. He was 50 and she was 20, born three years after Cherry had returned from the Antarctic. According to biographer Sara Wheeler, while on a walk after their boat had docked, Cherry picked up a piece of quartz and offered it to Angela. Years later, having become an expert on Antarctica, Angela discovered this is something penguins do during courtship. They married in 1939, but had no children.
Cherry sold Lamer Park in 1947 and spent his last years in London. Most of the house was later demolished, but much of his woodland survives, including an avenue of lime trees running between Lamer and Ayot St Lawrence. When he died in 1959, Cherry was buried in the family grave at St Helen’s in Wheathampstead.
Walk in an explorer’s footsteps
You can still see Cherry’s plantations while walking the path along the lime avenue in the footsteps of the explorer and his friend George Bernard Shaw, as well as explore the countryside around Ayot St Lawrence they knew so well. From the car park off the High Street in Wheathampstead, paths follow the River Lea downstream where you can head north towards Ayot St Lawrence. Alternatively, park near Shaw’s Corner (the playwright’s former home, now owned by the National Trust) and head south west towards Lamer along the lime avenue; the route of the Hertfordshire Way.
While in the village don’t miss the two churches. The old St Lawrence Church was deliberately ruined by the then landowner prior to building the new church in 1778-9 in a classical style. This is a rarity as one of only three churches built in the county in the 17th and 18th centuries.
For more walks in the area, visit walkinginherts.co.uk or refer to OS Explorer Map 182.