The Transglobe Expedition

It’s extraordinary what you find when you’re looking for something else, isn’t it. When I was trying to unearth anything about the old Burtons store for yesterday’s blog, I stumbled across an obit for Charles Burton, who accompanied Sir Ranulph Twisleton-Wykenham-Fiennes (huzzah for gentleman explorers) on a circumnavigation of the globe back in the 70s.

It was a particularly pertinent circumnavigation for us because it followed the Meridian Line (completely artificial, of course, but a local line for local people) through the North and South poles rather than the plain old boring bog-standard east-west route. They set out from Greenwich on 2nd September 1979, and it took them three years. I’m surprised it only took that long – circumnavigations don’t usually take-in polar aspects at all.

The team creates a fabulous image – a panoply of British eccentrics – Sir Ranulf and Lady Ffiennes, their dog, a beer salesman and Burton, who, if this was a Rider Haggard novel, would be the grizzled Allan Quatermain character – an ex-squaddie gone into “the security business…”

If you look at the linethey took, it wasn’t exactly straight, as they stopped off on any scraps of land they could find on the way and it reads as a What’s What of all the inhospitable nightmare places of the earth. The Sahara, The North West Passage, Timbuktu, The Ivory Coast – deserts, jungle, ice-floes, polar bears, sinking skidoos- all they needed was Edwardian costume, butterfly nets, pith helmets and tiffin for the image to be complete.

I love the fact that the team were the first people to play a jolly British game of cricket at the South Pole and were bag-piped in when they reached Scott’s base. All they needed was James May to bring the caviar and bubbly…

But all wasn’t going smoothly. Sir Ranulf was nearly killed in a snowmobile crash. Fire (which if this was our ripping yarn would have been started by restless natives but was probably much more prosaic) ravaged the base camp. They were later attacked by polar bears. Half way through the expedition, the beer salesman (who in our novel would have been the comedy sidekick – I have no idea what he was like in real life) was persuaded to give up by his wife.

But not our grizzled Allan Quatermain character. No – romance was in the air for him. When he reached Australia, he married his fiance Thelma “Twink” Petts ( no – I’m not making this up.)

Then – action. Enter the dastardly Other Team. A Norwegian crew challenged them to a race to the Arctic. I’m sure it was all very gentlemanly and civilised – but in my fantasy tale the naughty Norwegians would have indulged in all kinds of crazy sabotage like knives on the sides of their sledges or laxatives in their reindeer blood. In a race to the death (well, ok, the pole) they beat the Norwegians by a long chalk and were greeted by a tabloid news reporter with a bottle of Jack Daniels (Have you noticed how damn populated the poles seem to be these days? Reporters, Guinness Book of Records men and bagpipers just for starters…)

After a thrilling race against time where they had to beat the retreating ice floes of spring they finally made it back to Gallions Reach in Greenwich on 4th August 1982, where Prince Charles greeted them. They were the first expedition to take in both poles on one journey, the fastest team to cross the Antarctic, the first team to cross the Yukon and the North West Passage in one season, and the first team to reach the North Pole using mechanical transport (what a difference a decade or two makes, eh – nowadays even the Top Gear team can take a casual drive up there…) Oh – and Bothy the terrier was the first dog to visit both poles.

I have to choose a label for this post. Somehow “Mostly Accurate History” seems even less appropriate for my flights of fancy over this expedition than my usual travesties but hey. There you go. You want accuracy, see the website.

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