Far from home at Christmas, these explorers had to deal with loneliness and a lot more besides

 ‘A Winter Twilight in the Rhine Valley’ by Ernesto Strigelly (19th C)

In December 1933, a rebellious young man named Patrick Leigh Fermor abandoned his half-hearted attempts to get into Sandhurst military college and set out instead on a mammoth walk across Europe to Istanbul, equipped only with a thick overcoat, a pair of hob-nailed boots and a borrowed rucksack.   His dream was to be a writer.  He had very little money, but with youthful optimism he decided that, if he lived on bread, cheese and apples, and slept in barns, he would have an adventure worth writing about.

High spirits carried him buoyantly across Holland and into Germany, where thick snow was lying underfoot and the nights were freezing.  Knowing only a few words of German, he bought himself a German translation of Shakespeare’s ‘Hamlet’ in the hope of learning it faster.  In Düsseldorf he slept in a crowded workhouse staffed by Franciscan friars and he chopped firewood in exchange for his breakfast, which consisted of a bowl of coffee and a slice of black bread. 

Christmas was fast approaching, and in Cologne he cadged a lift on a barge down the Rhine.  The bargemen took to him like an old friend, and shared their meals of fried potatoes mixed with Speck - cold lumps of pork fat, which Patrick described as ‘the worst thing I had ever eaten.’  But he secretly flicked it overboard and laughed with them as they sang songs and did comic imitations of Hitler, who was already rising to power.  Regretfully, he went ashore in Koblenz, where he noticed with a sudden pang of loneliness that ‘every other person in the streets was heading for home with a tall and newly felled fir-sapling across his shoulder.’

As dusk was falling on Christmas Eve, he swung his rucksack down at a Gasthof in Bingen.  The innkeeper and his daughters were decorating their Christmas tree with tinsel and candles, and they asked Patrick, who was their only guest, to lend a hand.  When it was done, the proprietor uncorked a bottle of wine from the Rüdesheim vineyard across the river, and they all sang carols around the tree.  Patrick joined them at a midnight church service, and when they came outside a few flakes of snow were whirling down from the night sky.

On Christmas morning, Patrick resisted the family’s appeals to extend his stay.  With brave assurances, he set out again on foot amid flurries of snow, but was soon assailed by more thoughts of home.  He wrote:  ‘No vessels were moving on the Rhine, hardly a car passed, nobody was out of doors and, in the little towns, nothing stirred.  Everyone was inside.   Feeling lonely and beginning to regret my flight, I wondered what my family and friends were doing…’ 

But halting at another inn around midday, he found a Christmas tree twinkling and a table set for a feast, where ‘about thirty people were settling down with a lot of jovial noise.’  Noticing the lone figure in the bar, the revellers insisted that he join them;  he accepted gratefully, and was later swept along into their riotous evening party.  On Boxing Day, hung-over but feeling more cheerful, he shouldered his rucksack and headed towards Heidelberg through slushy streets.


Quotes and reference:  

Patrick Leigh Fermor, ‘A Time of Gifts’ (1977)



‘Distant View of Newcastle, Jamaica’ by Marianne North (Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew)

Disembarking from a ship in Kingston, Jamaica, in December 1871, Marianne North admitted that she felt ‘entirely alone and friendless’;  but, like Patrick Leigh Fermor, she had deliberately chosen to go on a solitary journey.   Life had started out well for this talented, well-educated woman;  the daughter of a Member of Parliament, she had been trained as a singer, and through her father’s friendship with Sir William Hooker, the Director of Kew Gardens, she had developed a passion for exotic plants.  

After the loss of her mother in 1855, Marianne vowed to stay with her father for the rest of his life, and she travelled with him all over Europe, writing a journal and learning to paint in oils.  When he died her world was shattered, and it took courage to continue travelling alone, especially when such behaviour offended Victorian ideas of respectability.

In Kingston, Marianne found herself a room in a noisy inn.  She tasted her first mango, which she thought was delicious, and prepared to spend Christmas Day on her own.  However, news of her arrival had reached some acquaintances of her father who lived close by, and they came to collect her, refusing to take ‘no’ for an answer.  It was a fortunate meeting:  within a few days she had discovered an empty house standing in the wilderness of an old, overgrown botanical garden and she hired it for herself, delighting in the riot of plant life that surrounded her.


Marianne North

From her verandah, Marianne could see ‘bananas, rose-apples… the gigantic bread-fruit, trumpet trees (with great white-lined leaves), star-apples… golden-flowered allamandas, bignonias, and ipomoeas over everything, heliotropes, lemon-verbenas and geraniums from the long-neglected garden running wild like weeds;  over all a giant cotton-tree quite 200 feet high was within sight, standing up like a ghost in its winter nakedness against the forest of evergreen trees.’  She added:  ‘I was in a state of ecstasy, and hardly knew what to paint first.’

This was the beginning of a new chapter in Marianne’s life.  With a growing sense of independence, she travelled the world at a leisurely pace, painting vivid and colourful pictures of plants and landscapes.  Her work was admired by Charles Darwin, who advised her to visit Australia, and she showed him the resulting pictures on her return.  Over 800 of her botanical paintings now hang in Kew Gardens, in a gallery which she designed herself.

Quotes and reference:  


Marianne North and Janet Catherine Symonds, ‘Recollections of a Happy Life’ (1894).

Kew Gardens:  https://www.kew.org/read-and-watch/marianne-north-botanical-artist



‘Abandoned in the Arctic Ice Fields’ by William Bradford, 1876

Towards the end of October 1853, at Repulse Bay (now Naujaat) in Arctic Canada, John Rae was building himself a snow-house.  Its oval floor measured about nine feet by eleven;  the walls rose to a height of seven feet in the centre, and it had a two-inch-thick slab of ice for a window.  This would be his home for the next few months.  With his usual calm appraisal and a complete absence of self-pity, Rae reflected that it would probably be the coldest dwelling in which a human being ever passed a winter. 

He could have made himself warmer, Rae admitted, by choosing to share the slightly bigger snow-house nearby, which was occupied by the seven men who had joined him on this surveying expedition for the Hudson’s Bay Company.  But these men were avid smokers, and Rae was of the opinion that ‘a houseful of tobacco smoke would have been more unpleasant than 15 or 20 degrees of temperature, which was about the usual difference of temperature in the two houses.’ 

Initially, the Orkney-born Rae hadn’t intended to over-winter in the Arctic at all.  He had set out in June from the HBC’s trading post of York Factory with a larger party of men in two sailing boats, carrying sledges and supplies for three months.  His mission was to map parts of the northern coastline that remained unexplored;  in particular, he wanted to prove beyond doubt that Boothia was a peninsula, and there was an ever-present hope in HBC headquarters that he would discover the ‘last link’ in the elusive Northwest Passage. 

But things didn’t quite go to plan.  Diversions and delays cost them time, and at the end of the brief summer Rae sent half his men home and asked the others if they would be prepared to stay in a winter camp and continue their journey in the spring.  Unanimously, they agreed.  For firewood, they cut supplies of tough, low-growing plants, and on shooting forays they brought back enough caribou, musk ox and ptarmigan to feed themselves through the winter.  Rae had no doubts that they would survive, because he had done this before, and he trusted the capabilities of himself and his team.  Fit, experienced and resilient, he was the ultimate Arctic survival expert of the Victorian era.


John Rae

December brought frequent blizzards and temperatures of -30 C.  Rae encouraged his men (a mix of Inuit and Ojibwe, with one Scottish Highlander) to get as much exercise as possible, and they enjoyed games of football out on the snow.  Their Christmas dinner consisted of venison and deers’ tongues with portions of biscuit, followed by plum pudding and a drop of brandy. 

A similar meal was enjoyed on New Year’s Day.  They tried to make mince pies, which were something of a failure, but Rae was full of admiration for his men.  He wrote: ‘My fine fellows were again as merry and happy, drinking their small allowance of brandy and singing their songs, as if they had been in the midst of their friends instead of surrounded by a desolate wilderness of snow.’

In March 1854, the men broke camp and continued their journey, eventually reaching a point on the bleak coastline which Rae recognised as the missing section of the Northwest Passage.  It would be another 50 years before Roald Amundsen, the first explorer to navigate it by ship, could prove him correct.  

Quotes and reference:   Ken McGoogan, ‘Fatal Passage’ (2002)



‘In a Stormy Sea’ by Edouard Adam, 1885 (depicting ship ‘Thomas Hilyard’)


Leaving behind family and friends for four years was bad enough, but on Christmas Day 1872 the officers and crew of HMS Challenger were suffering varying degrees of seasickness as they were tossed around by a violent storm in the Bay of Biscay.  It was only four days since they had set sail from Portsmouth on this ambitious expedition of oceanography, and most of them had yet to find their sea-legs;  those who still fancied food were looking forward to a Christmas dinner, which, for Captain George Nares, his officers and a team of six scientists, consisted of a roast turkey.

The vessel was pitching so much that John Young Buchanan, a chemist on the scientific team, was flung violently from his seat in the officers’ mess and into an adjoining cabin.  In a letter to his family, Sub-lieutenant George Campbell wrote of crockery smashing and ‘coffee down our boots instead of down our throats.’  But then the real disaster struck:  just before six o’clock, as they were about to take their places around the Christmas table, the roast turkey completely vanished from the galley.  The outrage and disappointment of the expectant diners can only be imagined, but there was worse to follow.  On Boxing Day, at about the same time, a roast goose that was destined for the Captain’s table also disappeared.  

How could a roast turkey and a roast goose just vanish from the confines of a ship’s kitchen, on consecutive days, with so many people as potential witnesses?  It was a mystery that was never solved, although some scraps of meat were later found high up in the rigging, suggesting that someone had enjoyed a tasty meal as far away from detection as it was possible to get.  

The obvious conclusion was that some members of the crew, who were probably not served such delicious fare as the officers, decided that they deserved better, and sneaked the roast birds out of the galley when the cook’s back was turned.  A single person would surely have found it impossible to keep such a large prize to himself in the cramped communal quarters of the ship - just the smell alone would have given him away - so the likelihood is that a good number of men shared the clandestine feast.     


Quotes and reference: 


Richard Corfield, ‘The Silent Landscape’ (2004)

Lord George Granville Campbell, ‘Log Letters from the “Challenger”’ (1876)


You can read more about the Challenger expedition, which set sail 150 years ago, in out last blog post