Spontoon Island
home - contact - credits - new - links - history - maps - art - story
comic strips - editorial - souvenirs - Yahoo forum
  Update 25 April 2013

Extracts from a diary:

by Simon Barber

Amelia, Lady Allworthy (neé Amelia Bourne-Phipps) & her friends
(educated adventuresses all, and warrior priestesses, some)
  fly from Newfoundland across the Atlantic to Europe - August 1937.

A Tale of Two Lidos
by Simon Barber

Friday August 13th, 1937

Not the sort of day we had planned, though in this part of the world we hardly expect things to go smoothly. Last night we had slept in the mine hospital, otherwise empty having eight currently unused beds and the nearest thing to “tourist accommodation” available, while Jack and Jake Jenks tried out the bed and hammocks of the Storm Bird. As happened yesterday, we awoke in thick, freezing fog. At least yesterday there were boats regularly out on Quidi Vidi lake checking for driftwood; here in the fjord there could be full-scale icebergs blown in from the Greenland Strait last night and we would not see them in time. The black ice the Dragon Rapide hit yesterday needs just the right angle of sunshine to pick it up, and unlike in a boat we can hardly feel our way forwards at a few knots. So, after checking the aircraft and a leisurely breakfast (we swapped some of our own canned food for the miners’ supplies; Mister Akessen says any change will be welcome when they have been living on the same Danish brands for months) we settled down to wait.

      By lunch-time the fog was still thick on the fjord, but we could see the radio aerial across the valley and the top of the cliffs in bright sunshine. Quite a lesson in “met work” – the freezing air pours down the valley off the icecap like an invisible cold torrent, and as soon as it hits the relatively warm seawater – fog. The prospects of getting away today are not good; anyway we need more than an afternoon to safely make Iceland from here.

      Miss Jenks proposed we make the most of our enforced wait and stretch our legs with an hour or two on the snowfields. We agreed, and got into our waxed Sidcot suits out that had served us well in the Aleutians. After lunch we equipped ourselves with the usual ropes and borrowed alpenstocks from the miners’ supplies (they have them for the use of geologists and surveyors occasionally dropping in) and headed out into the sunshine.

      From the mine with its spoil-heaps and general debris we went up into a wide clean landscape; the snowfield climbed up a broad valley with the glacier proper occupying the centre. Maria has had most experience in this work; from her Alpine trips she warned us to stay off the glacier itself, which is full of dangerous crevasses. Fortunately this time of year all the snow that will melt has already gone, so they are mostly gaping open in full view. Even so, we kept to the hard-packed snow in the shadow of the valley side, and made good if tiring progress. In two hours we were out of the valley proper, and were high up on the edge of the Greenland icecap.

      It was quite a sight. We caught glimpses of the fog-shrouded fjord below us, but on the ice-sheet a great sweeping curve of whiteness stretched out to the North. Looking that way it is quite humbling, the idea of just nothing but ice and rock all the way to the North Pole with the next grass and trees somewhere in Siberia thousands of miles away. There were two prominent rock peaks sticking up ten miles away that we had seen from the air yesterday, but none of us felt too keen to try and make it that far today. Without tents, supplies and sledges in case of sudden bad weather we would be in real trouble, even in August. Mister Akessen had warned us the snows could arrive at any time now, which explained why there would be no more supply ships till 1938.

      The Midnight Sun has gone from these latitudes by now, but judging by yesterday evening it is still light till after nine. So with clear skies up on the plateaux we were in no great hurry to get back down; there is very little to see at the mine, and I hardly wonder at the stories of furs getting “cabin fever” by Spring. I could imagine they break productivity records in mining just to extend their tunnels and have somewhere new to look at!

      After another two hours we headed down the hill, which proved rather trickier than coming up. The snow had been hard-frozen then and stuck securely to the ice beneath; after an afternoon of sunshine it had softened and everything was rather slippery. Without our steel-shod alpenstocks we would have fallen half a dozen times apiece. It is just as well we made sure our hobnailed boots were looked at by the cobblers in Spontoon before we left, and they all have their proper ration of clinkers and tricounis! *

      As our Songmark instructors always told us, it is just when you think you are safe that accidents happen. We made it down to within sight of the mining camp and were passing over a ten yard wide gulley choked with ice, when Jake Jenks suddenly vanished from sight. The rope between us went tight, suddenly vanishing into a hole in the ice – before it could bite too deep in the ice and jam, I shoved the alpenstock under it to act as a pulley. A second’s glance showed what had happened – under the ice-filled gulley there is a fast meltwater stream, and it had thawed through almost to the surface leaving a thin skin for the first traveller to step on.

I was next on the rope; fortunately our Sidcot suits have two-inch cargo straps for hauling loads or each other out of tight situations. The Jenks do not, and were secured by two turns of rope around the waist – not a healthy arrangement to hang around on for long. So while Helen and Maria firmly dug their boots and alpenstocks into the ice, I went down over the edge. It was a bell-like pit with rushing water at the bottom – quite light, with the sun shining through the milky ice all around – and Jake Jenks swinging pendulum-like in the water, unable to reach anything but sheer ice to get a purchase on.

Although it was fast, I could see the meltwater stream was only about knee-deep, so I unfastened from the rope and dropped four feet or so into it. From there I could grab the mule gentleman and cut him free of the rope that was squeezing him like a boa constrictor. We both splashed down in the stream bed, looking up at the three foot opening ten feet above our heads. Had we been on our own, we would definitely have been in trouble.

It is a good thing we practiced such things at Songmark; they might not have had glaciers to demonstrate with, but we have done the same exercises with rock edges and lava tubes dozens of times. So it was a matter of rigging prussik loops from cut-off ends of rope, tightening them till they gripped then slowly climbing back up the rope. A hundred or so pounds of ice crashed down nearby as more of the lip collapsed under the strain, but I had been expecting that and dodged it all.

Ten minutes later we were both on solid ground outside, with Miss Jenks and her brothers being loudly grateful. Jake Jenks was soaked and freezing, so we double-timed it back to the mine where a hot shower and meal could be arranged. My Sidcot suit held up very well, though of course I was soaked from the knees down. Thigh-length waders such as Father wore in the trenches would have kept me dry, but they are by all accounts awfully uncomfortable to wear all day

(Later) After we dined with the miners – a hearty meal of tinned ham, tinned beans and tinned potatoes – Miss Jenks sought me out to thank me for rescuing her brother. I protested that I would have done the same for anybody – at which she smiled sadly and sighed that many people would not. Spotting my puzzled expression, she looked around and told me a story that she says very few people have heard.

Before the War, her father was an archaeologist, and after marrying his wife Phoebe often accompanied him on “digs”, becoming quite an expert in her own right. Sadly she was widowed in 1915, when Honoria was only two years old. After the War, she returned to finish some of his excavations in French Morocco, looking for Carthaginian sites far out in the desert that the vengeful Romans had missed. Honoria was six at the time, and stayed with family friends at the Consulate in Marrakesh while Phoebe Jenks took week-on week-off stints out in the desert.

Although the region was officially “pacified” years ago, that is a relative term. It generally means the Natives have given up attacking large cities, not that they are devout pacifists happily waving the French tricolour flag whenever they see the Foreign Legion marching past. Having heard there was a “foreign expedition” digging in the desert, one of the local tribal chiefs decided on a raid. Some people must have seen the wrong films, and envisage archaeological digs as being piled high with unearthed treasure-trove all packed up and ready to ship out. Having found the “treasures” to be not gold and jewels but pot-shards and inscriptions in ancient Carthaginian, the chief of the Elarabet tribe decided to take the one thing of value he could lay his paws on – Mrs. Phoebe Jenks, for ransom.

For a minute the story sounded tragically like the one Nuala Rachorska tells of her pirate ancestry, until Miss Jenks mentioned the Elarabet tribes were all jackals and Hyenas by ancestry; hard to imagine Jack and Jake Jenks being related to any of them. Certainly her mother was dragged off – but a week later was rescued by the Chief’s son of a rival tribe, who are on far better terms with the French authorities. At least, she was rescued from the Elarabet tribe, but getting back to the coast was another story. To escape, they had to detour far South into the Atlas Mountains evading pursuit, and took a month to get back. In that time, Phoebe Jenks went into season, in close quarters with an evidently young and handsome equine gentleman who was of Poitou donkey rather than English Thoroughbred stock. She returned to the coast, the authorities gratefully handed a Chief’s Son a bag of gold, he rode off and unknown to him, his twin sons were born twelve months later.

Mrs. Phoebe Jenks and her Moroccan rescuer - art by Kjartan; characters by Simon Barber

Oh my. Not that there was anything that does not happen a hundred times a year in even the best of families – so many respectable Colonial Administrators have to delay their return home by a few months personal leave, and many orphanages in far climes are extremely well-funded. What happens overseas, stays overseas, is the unwritten rule. The real scandal came when Mrs. Phoebe Jenks acknowledged the foals as her own, which many folk would say is simply Not Done. Naturally she was quite snubbed by Society, and now apparently lives in Monte Carlo, where there is a faster set who by reputation care less about the proprieties.

I think it is jolly unfair on Jack and Jake Jenks – they can never inherit the title or estate under any circumstances; if anything happened to Miss Honoria Jenks and their mother, the title would go to remote cousins. But such it is; the Bible has particularly unpleasant things to say about mules, which are the only mix mentioned by name (although some bits of Leviticus are exceedingly sniffy about all such mixes. For centuries they could not even join the Church, let alone become a priest. In some countries they are still barred.) I can understand why Honoria does not tell just anyone the story.

Anyway, she pressed my paw to hers earnestly and promised that she could do all in her power to help when we got back to England. She has heard tales of Songmark girls even from her stop in the Gilbert and Sullivan Islands, and is certain we are in for a less than peaceful time. I had outlined my situation to her while crossing Canada; she heard the tale of the Allworthy family years ago, and says she can quite understand my not wanting anything to do with their legacy. It is ironic, she says, that there is a surviving Allworthy by blood, that half-ovine girl, who could have inherited but for the same ancient laws that are so set against her brothers.

Early to bed again in the mine hospital, very keen to get an early start. If there is a ten minute clear patch to take off in tomorrow, we do not want to oversleep and miss it!

  • (Editor’s note: what with modern Vibram soles, the ancient science of nail-soled boots is now an almost forgotten secret. Amelia and co. are presumably wearing the standard Songmark heavy leather-soled boots with steel toe and heel protectors; the “Tricounis” are triple-headed nails hammered in around the outer edge of the sole. They gave an excellent grip on ice and softer kinds of rock, but conducted heat away as if designed for the job. Amelia does not mention having chilly paws, but she probably just expects it.)


              Back to A Tale of Two Lidos
                     Back to Storm Birds (July to August 1937)
                        Back to Extracts from a Diary (Songmark Academy) (September 1934 to July 1937)