Friday, 30 April 2010

Magnificent Maps

Magnificent Maps: Power, Propaganda and Art is a major new exhibition at the British Library. The show brings together 80 maps, from 200AD to the present day, taken from the library's vast archive of more than four million. Many have rarely been seem, including a late 18th century view of Canton and, perhaps the earliest detailed map of Italy - displayed for the first time since it was hung in the Whitehall during the reign of Henry VIII.

As the title suggests, maps are as much about propaganda as they are about geography. Not all those on display are totally accurate represenations of the land, but instead are subjective images shaped by the political issues, desires and aspirations of the period in which they were drawn.

I had a quick look during my lunch break, although I'm planning a longer visit (the exhibition runs until September). Many of the maps are displayed in settings similar to those in which they originally would have been seen, such as bed chambers and the private rooms of rulers. Most are huge.

It's all very impressive, but the biggest crowd was to be seen peering at Stephen Walter's The Island, a map that sees London as independent from the rest of the UK. While more or less geographically correct, his view of the capital also offers a wealth of local and personal information. Visitors to the exhibition seemed to be keen to check out what Walter had to say about their favourite parts of the city. I was bemused to see Brockwell Park, my local patch of greenery, described as Cannabis HQ. Below is the Central London section.

See also the BBC's The Beauty of Maps - and there is still time to watch some of the excellent BBC Four programmes on iPlayer.

Wednesday, 28 April 2010

Mutiny on the Bounty

The Talisker Bounty Boat expedition sets sail today in a bid to recreate the 3,600 mile journey of Captain William Bligh after the Mutiny on the Bounty. After being cast adrift in the South Pacific in by Fletcher Christian in 1789, Bligh and 18 men navigated across the ocean to Timor in one of the greatest open-boat voyages in maritime history. While some conditions will be the same, the modern day sailors are taking a satellite phone and GPS for emergencies.

The following article from the Observer, December 31 1815, tells the story:

(click to enlarge)

The tomb of Sir Richard Burton

Good to hear that there are moves afoot to restore the mausoleum where British explorer Sir Richard Burton is buried. Last Saturday's Times reported that the Friends of Burton are aiming to return the Bedouin tent shaped building to something like its original state. Built in 1890 by his wife Isabel, the structure in St Mary Magdalen's churchyard, Mortlake, fell into disrepair during the 20th Century, although some repairs were made in 1975.

Sir Richard Burton was one of the most famous (possibly infamous) Victorian explorers, known for his travels in Asia and Africa. He was also a writer, linguist and translator of such works as the Arabian Nights and Kama Sutra. In 1853 he undertook a Hajj or pilgrimage to Mecca, in disguise and the account of the trip make him famous. However, it's an account of Burton's time in West Africa that made it into
Those Who Dared.

A few years after reaching Mecca in disguise, Burton, having now joined the Foreign Office, was sent to Fernando Po, a small island off the West African coast, a place he was to describe as 'the very abomination of desolation'. From here he managed to make a number of excursions into the interior including a mission to visit Gelele, King of Dahomey (now part of modern day Benin). As well as making diplomatic moves, he wanted to investigate claims of human sacrifice and find the fabled Amazon warriors of Dahomey. He concluded that the former was exagerrated and was severely disappointed with the latter.

The full text of many of Burton's books can be read here and plenty of information about the man on this site.

Monday, 19 April 2010

Women climbers (part 2)

In response to the Women climbers posting, Russell Potter has added the following comment: "May I put in a word for Annie Smith Peck, a very daring woman mountain-climber of this era (and an alumna of the college where I teach) - see my page here for a brief outline of her remarkable career."

This sent me on the inevitable trawl through the Guardian/Observer archive. There wasn't much about Peck apart from following book review which appeared on February 19 1912. Perhaps the phrase "anxious acidity" could also be applied to the (anonymous) reviewer.

Friday, 16 April 2010

Arctic crossing by balloon

The recent news that Jean-Louis Etienne has made the first Arctic crossing by balloon, provides an excuse to mention Salomon August Andree's ill-fated 1897 attempt. The New Yorker has a big feature about how the Swedish explorer and two companions set out on the first flight to the North Pole, from Spitsbergen in the well-equipped balloon Ornen. They were never heard of again although their remains were discovered in 1930, along with Andree's diary. This revealed that the balloon had been forced down 500 miles from the North Pole.

Previous posting here, but for fascinating insight into the expedition, I'd recommend the Andree chapter in Geoff Powter's We Cannot Fail. Picture below from the Guardian, November 25 1930.

Wednesday, 14 April 2010

The World Before You

Exploration is the theme of the 13th British Silent Cinema Festival. Beginning on April 15 at Leicester's Phoenix Square, The World Before You will include films about the discovery of polar regions, mountains, jungles and oceans, plus, early ethnography and natural phenomena.

As well as a screening of The Great White Silence, Herbert Ponting's record of Captain Scott's doomed expedition to the South Pole, footage of Roald Amundsen's successful team is to be shown for the first time since 1912. Other highlights include Edith Maude Hull's steamy Arabian adventure, The Sheik, the first film, shot in 1908, of the Hebridean island of St Kilda, and Ernest Shackleton's epic South.

Thursday, 8 April 2010

Early history of British rock climbing

Footless Crow features a fascinating account from George Abraham of a 1913 mysterious rock-climbing route in North Wales which only recently came to light. George, and his brother Ashley, were photographers whose work provided a unique record of the early history of British rock climbing. But as the blog reports:

"Although the brothers are best known for their photographic work, they were very much mountaineers and pioneers in the true sense of the word. Establishing new climbs and revisiting established climbs which were detailed in their well regarded and illustrated books. After their co-operation with the legendary OG Jones for his very successful Rock Climbing in the English Lake District (1897), they produced companion volumes, Rock Climbing in North Wales (George, in 1906) and Rock Climbing in Skye (Ashley, in 1907)."

This period at the beginning of the 20th Century provided a rich seam of archive material for The Guardian Book of Mountains. At the time, the paper was something of a clearing house for new rock climbing developments and regularly featured news and features about the Lake District and North Wales, as well as the Alps, Norway, and further afield. There were a number of reasons for this, but having mountain-lovers on its staff certainly helped. One in particular was CE Montague, a leader writer and essayist, who worked for the Manchester Guardian from 1890-1925.

For a detailed examination of Montague and this period, I'd recommend this article by Jonathan Westaway.

Sunday, 4 April 2010


What was supposed to be a quick visit to the Stanfords on Long Acre, to buy a map, turned into a half-hour browsing session, yesterday. It's always the same. I go in for one thing and end up being seduced by all those shelves groaning with guidebooks, tales of exploration, derring-do etc. Glancing around at others doing likewise though, I couldn't help but chuckle as the word explornography came to mind. Meaning "The vicarious thrill of exploring when there is nothing left to explore", it was coined by John Tierney in his 1998 New York Times article Going Where A Lot of Other Dudes With Really Great Equipment Have Gone Before. Now hailed as a classic, read the article before the NY Times throws a paywall around its content (although it will probably always be easy to find something like this).

Thursday, 1 April 2010

Women climbers

The Spring 2010 edition of Trail magazine includes an interesting feature on 200 years of female mountaineers. Starting with Marie Paradis climbing Mont Blanc in 1808, Lizzie le Blond's exploits to Tori James becoming the youngest British female to summit Everest. Central to the article is the role the Pinnacle Club, Britain's first women's rock-climbing club, which started in 1921, has played in encouraging female particpiants of the sport.

As mentioned in The
Guardian Book of Mountains, Emily 'Pat' Kelly and Eleanor Winthrop Young announced the formation of the club on the letters page of the paper on April 2 1921. The paper also published a supportive leading article. The club was an instant success and is still going strong.

The charismatic Pat Kelly, died on the Tryfan, North Wales, the following year. However, her husband, the great Lakeland climber HM Kelly, recalled "It was remarkable to have the backing of a paper of such prestige, and it was gratifying to have sympathetic approval of male climbers". Eleanor Winthrop Young was the wife of the mountaineer, Geoffrey Winthrop Young.