Lamer: a fleeing king and a heroic Antarctic explorer

Dr Edward Wilson, Lieutenant Henry (‘Birdy’) Bowers and Apsley Cherry-Garrard (‘Cherry’).

1 August 1911. Dr Edward Wilson, Lieutenant Henry (‘Birdy’) Bowers and Apsley Cherry-Garrard (‘Cherry’) on their return from the Cape Crozier expedition - Credit: Scott Polar Institute, University of Cambridge

Lamer, a site just north of the village of Wheathampstead. is one of those wonderful pieces of England, hidden but with a fascinating history.

It was the home of the Garrard family, one of whom was involved in a successful campaign to defeat the British government in 1710 leading to the eclipse of our local superstar John Churchill, the First Duke of Marlborough.

Another, despite being a Parliamentarian general, gave succour to King Charles I in April 1646, when the king, dressed as a servant with just two companions, fled from his besieged capital of Oxford to meet the Scottish army based at Newark in an attempt to get their support. 

The house the king knew has long gone and its successor too. But parts of the outbuildings survive and with them is the wonderful Lime Tree Walk, a link to probably the most famous member of the Garrard family: Apsley Cherry-Garrard, assistant zoologist on Captain Scott’s ill-fated expedition to the South Pole 1911-1913.   

For a pleasant summer stroll, it would be hard to beat the Lime Tree Walk between Lamer and nearby Ayot St Lawrence. It connected Apsley Cherry-Garrard (known as ‘Cherry’ to his friends) at Lamer with his friend the playwright, political activist, and Nobel prize winner George Bernard Shaw at Ayot.

Apsley Cherry-Garrard (1886-1959)

Apsley Cherry-Garrard (1886-1959) - Credit: Scott Polar Institute, University of Cambridge

Cherry regularly visited Shaw to consult him when writing his classic book ‘The Worst Journey in the World’ about Captain Scott’s second expedition to the South Pole; a very different journey. The book was first published in December 1922 and has never been out of print. It was ranked by National Geographic as No 1 in its list of the 100 greatest adventure books of all time. 

Cherry wrote the book in tribute to the men he had been with on that expedition and their spirit of uncomplaining endurance and fortitude. His own Antarctic experiences scarred him for life affecting both his physical and mental health.

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The book’s title well describes his own particular nightmare journey made with two colleagues during the expedition to collect Emperor penguin eggs. It was made in the expectation that penguin embryology would help solve the missing link between birds and reptiles to explain the origin of species.  

Cherry was accepted onto the expedition as assistant zoologist even though he had no scientific qualifications. His account of his time in the Antarctic shows what the human spirit can achieve in adversity. Remarkably, it also helps us view Scott’s expedition as something of a triumph, even though Amundsen beat them as the first to reach the Pole. It was the science that mattered not the winning of a race.  

Cherry’s five-week nightmare began in June 1911 in the total darkness and depths of a polar midwinter. Temperatures got as low as minus 77.5° or 109 degrees of frost. They man-hauled two linked sledges together weighing 757 lbs. Their reindeer skin sleeping bags took half an hour to get into when all iced up and frozen. Even inside their sleeping bags, they got frost bitten!

Their breath froze into their skins, turning to ice and their teeth shattered with shivering. Cramped together they cooked pemican, butter and biscuit, a diet mostly of fat. The butter turned to splinters when they tried to cut it. They endured days of dense fog and once a three-day blizzard blew away their tent. They reached the rookery and collected three complete but frozen eggs 

Afterwards, Cherry wrote: “This journey had beggared our language; no words could express its horror.” But even then, his trials were not over. He was chosen as one of the support group to Scott’s attempt to reach the South Pole.

Despite having no experience of handling dog teams, he set out to meet Scott’s party on its return journey. Cherry reached the rendezvous point. Scott and his party did not.

When he got home how Cherry would have enjoyed that much gentler local stroll along the Lime Tree Walk between Lamer and Ayot St Lawrence!