Tasmanian adventure – Mawson’s huts

Our first few days in Hobart Tasmania were spent walking, walking, walking, stopping only to take photos and for the occasional coffee or beer. One of our subsidiary missions on our adventure was to explore the world of Tasmanian beer which I had read so much about, so we felt obliged to sample it widely. We also discovered the wonderful world of Australian/Tasmanian coffee, wherever we went, even in the tiniest places in the middle of nowhere we had good coffee (once we had realised that what we call an Americano is a long black!)

As we wandered along past the boats moored up in Hobart, some fishing boats, some pleasure boats, some wonderful old boats in pristine condition, we came to Mawson Place, and I vaguely remembered Mawson was an Antarctic Explorer. The Polar Research Institute is in Cambridge and I used to cycle past it every day on the way to school. Near Mawson Place in Hobart (not Cambridge, there is a Mawson Place in Cambridge), across the road in fact, is Mawson’s Huts Replica Museum, although we love museums to be honest it wasn’t a very enticing title, although there were the replica huts, standing there, like a huge garden shed. We were somewhat distracted by the fact that the museum is right next door to Lark Distillery… and as whisky lovers we had been looking forward very much to visiting that establishment… so in we went! No doubt I’ll write about Tasmanian whisky somewhere else but I will just mention that it is very fine whisky!

Actually, we weren’t really that drawn to Mawson’s Huts, and in a way and to be honest, it didn’t really sell itself… So it wasn’t until the last few days of our stay, that we had a spare hour and we popped in. The museum was due to close within the hour, so we thought we would have a quick flash round… In fact I only got to see one wall… it was so interesting, so fascinating, so well displayed that after having an introductory chat from the very friendly and helpful lady on the desk selling tickets, I got little further than finding out about some of the men on Mawson’s 1911 expedition and looking at maps… Needless to say, the next day I returned and when I told the lady on the desk that I had been so interested yesterday  but had run out of time so was here for a second visit, she let me in with my previous day’s ticket!

Douglas Mawson led the expedition, leaving Hobart in September 1911 and going via Macquarie Island to set up a camp for scientific and research purposes. He led a crew of seventeen men, the youngest nineteen the oldest forty – Mawson himself was thirty. The expedition was due to return in 1913, and in fact some of them did – however Mawson himself, and six others stayed for a second winter and returned home in 1914… the reasons for which I will retell in another post.

If you go to Hobart I really, really recommend visiting this museum – it may not look that amazing from the outside, but inside it is like a fabulous Tardis. The way the displays are arranged is so intelligent, you are led past maps and detailed biographies and photos of the faces of the eighteen men on the expedition, you read about the expedition itself and the terrible but incredible feats of endurance – and there are videos too, film from the time of the ship the Aurora leaving Hobart, and other film of the men building the huts for example. Finally, having walked round the outside of the reconstructed hut within the big museum hut, you come into an exact replica of the actual hut itself…


The real hut is still in the Antarctic, having survived for over a hundred years, and it has been conserved and looked after since the 1970’s. It is incredible to see the small living space for eighteen men who lived there for over a year, and for the seven men who remained for a second year. The way the exhibition is organised means that you can clearly understand the set-up, two sections – a living quarters and a workshop; the original building was, prefabricated in Sydney and Melbourne, and was brought by ship with the team for them to build on site.

To quote from the Mawson’s Huts Replica Museum Site:

Commonly known as the Main Hut, it combines two expedition buildings into one. The pyramid-roofed hut, measuring just 7.3m square, provided sleeping, kitchen, dining, laundry, storage and darkroom facilities for 18 men. The adjoining hip-roofed hut measures 5.5m x 4.9m and was equipped as a workshop, complete with wireless equipment and generator, lathe, stove, and benches for the carpenter, mechanic and scientists. Skylights in the living quarters’ roof provided natural light, while an acetylene generator mixed calcium carbide and water to create the acetylene gas used as artificial lighting.

There was a veranda outside the hut, a roofed veranda where various things were stored and kept…  The replica hut contains all teh artefacts still in the original, cooking equipment, gramophone, furniture, personal items, scinetific equipment, tools… Just everything!

Have a look at the museum website to find out more:


… and the original huts:


… and Lark Distillery:



Silbury… four and a half thousand years later and we still don’t know why it’s there

One of the most mysterious and remarkable places in the whole of the Wiltshire megalithic area which encompasses Avebury and further away, Stonehenge, is Silbury Hill. It is one of the few places which despite enormous amounts of archaeological research, going back over centuries and with all the latest technology, no-one really knows why it was there or what its purpose was. Nothing seems to have been buried there, there seems to be no cairn or other site beneath it. There may have been a wooden pole, maybe like a totem pole round which the structure was built, but no modern evidence of this has been found, only reports in eighteenth century newspapers.

It is the largest man-made mound in the whole of Europe; if you put it next to a pyramid in Egypt it would be just about the same height and volume, and was actually constructed at a similar time, about four and a half thousand years ago, in about 2400 BC.

It must have been a very important and significant monument – think of the amount of time and people it would have taken to construct it. the society must have been rich and peaceful at the time to be able to devote that amount of labour to building something which had no practical purpose, whatever its religious or spiritual significance.


If you are ever in the area, it is really worth visiting; you ae not allowed to walk up it, but you can walk round it, and from there it is an easy stroll to the Avebury complex.

Another ice-house adventure

Although I have read many stories about ice houses – not houses made from ice, but little buildings used to store winter ice for use in the grand houses in whose grounds they were constructed, it was only when we visited Killerton in Devon a couple of years ago that I first saw an actual one.

it certainly made an impact on me because in one of my Radwinter books, the main character gets trapped when he falls into one, and he really thinks he is going to die there as its remote and so well insulated his shouts for help can’t be heard, even if there was anyone about.

At Easter, holidaying in Kent, we went to visit Scotney Castle which was built in the late 1300’s but not properly finished until two hundred years later.  Three hundred years later, in accordance with the fashion of the time, the architect Anthony Salvin, designed an ice house for the estate and it was built in 1841. What an amazing structure it was; all the materials were either from the estate of locally sourced. The brick lining of the chamber was made from bricks produced in the nearby village of Kilndown, the timber for the frame from the woodlands, and the heather for the insulated thatched roof from the grounds of the estate. During 2012 restoration, once again local materials were used and even the finial on top was made from local oak.


During the winter, ice was collected from the moat and stored in the ice house; it was so perfectly designed and constructed that it could last for a year without melting. Any melt-water didn’t just sit in a slushy puddle at the bottom, but drained out and back into the moat.

SCOTNEY (63)Scotney Castle

. If you would like to read my book which features the ice house adventure,  it’s called Magick and here is a link:



Barbury Castle overwhelmed… by wild flowers, and butterflies

A month or so ago we went to visit friends in Wiltshire and they took us to see Barbury Castle… not an actual castle but an Iron Age hill fort.  it’s on the edge of the Marlborough Downs, on the Ridgeway, and it’s huge! It covers about twelve acres, and adjacent to it are also some round barrows which are ancient mounds or tumuli usually over a burial site. There is also a Celtic field system, and from more recent times,  flint workings.

It is a massive and spectacular place to visit, and the shape of it, the double ramparts and the two entrances, are very clear to see, as well as the ditch surrounding the walls. There may even have been a third rampart, but as there never seems to have been a complete full-scale archaeological excavation or examination, no-one is really sure.

P1040805Looking across the central area, it’s easy to imagine people in former times living here; those farmers left pottery  which can be dated to the early and middle Iron Age, 1300 – 200BC. A hoard of iron tools and weapons, and  fittings for carts and chariots from 300B.C. Later, inhabitants left the remains and left-overs from metalworking from around the time of the Roman occupation. it also seems that there  Saxon burials, and grave goods including weapons such as a knife, spearhead and a seax.

Legend has it that the West Saxons  defeated the Britons at the Battle of Beran Byrig in AD 556; as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle says “Her Cynric 7 Ceawlin fuhton wiþ Brettas æt Beranbyrg” – “this year Cuthwin and Ceawlin fought with the Britons at Barbury Castle”.

However, it seems that the hill fort as a living area was abandoned about a century BC, although it was still used as the evidence shows. In more recent times, during World war II it was again used by a military force, as part of the local anti-aircraft defence. The site may have been damaged, but it survives magnificently; there are stunning views across Wiltshire…

P1040813… and as you can see, in early summer, what were defences against attackers are now overwhelmed with wild flowers, and butterflies.


West Kennet Long Barrow

I’ve been interested in “stone age” history for many, many years and have always tried to visit neolithic sites whenever I can; my children will probably remember on numerous holidays us driving into the wilds of nowhere for me to look at a pile of rocks, or maybe just a few rocks, or maybe just a single rock… I’m not sure what the fascination is, I just feel very in tune with sch places. I don’t mean that I think I have any connection, or feel any vibe… well, actually… maybe I do… but I just think that so often modern people really underestimate how similar people who lived thousands of years before us are.

We have so much stuff… our lives are full of stuff…and so much of our stuff is actually unnecessary. I’m constantly aware of how little I have which I actually made or processed… we grow some vegetables which w eat, but the utensils we use aren’t made by use, the heat to cook them isn’t made by us, the plates we eat them off isn’t made by us…

The people who came before gathered and hunted their food; they cooked it on fires they had made from what they had collected; they cooked it in pots and ate it from dishes they had made from the clay they had found. They made their own clothes, they made their own houses… we have just been to the pub – they would have made their own drinks!

Their technology was incredible!

Looking towards the entrance… I was so excited!

P1040723 Going into the barrow… I was trembling!!

P1040732How amazing! I’m in awe!

A mystery


When you first see Silbury Hill in Wiltshire in just looks so extraordinary  – is it natural, is it man-made, what was it for, who made it and why? You can’t help but ponder on these questions, and actually you won’t ever know most of the answers except yes, it is man-made. It is the largest man-made mound anywhere in Europe, and it is similar in height and volume, and built roughly at the same time as some of the Egyptian pyramids. It is estimated that it was finished in about 2400 BC, and although you might assume it is to mark a burial, in fact there is no evidence that it was – nothing has been found. It must have been an important and significant structure, with great meaning and importance – because just imagine how long it would have taken to make using only bone tools; how ‘rich’ and secure the people must have been to have such a large workforce devoted to that and not to farming or fighting. Its purpose and it significance will probably remain forever unknown.P1040699

Picture this

My sister and I were lucky as children that we always had books; before we could even hold one we had soft cloth books with picture and a few words. I still have some of my books from when I was very young, ‘Kittens and Puppies’ is one. As well as the words and the story we loved the pictures; these days there are images everywhere, but in those days there were a few black and white photos and cartoons in newspapers, black and white illustrations in magazines, and out books. We didn’t have that many either, not until we went to school and to the library. Every book we had was read and reread, dozens, no, hundreds of times, and the pictures pored over. I can remember certain images so clearly

When I had children of my own there was a huge choice of different books, all beautifully illustrated, and possibly I enjoyed the illustrations more than they did! Illustrations are an integral part of these books but often the illustrators are forgotten. There are the exceptions like E.H.Shepherd and Quentin Blake, of course.

One great illustrator whose work is instantly recognisable is Victor Ambrus who, I think you could say, came to a much wider public attention through his work on the  TV programme, Time Team. It was a very popular archaeology programme which ran for many years – and no-one seems to know exactly why it didn’t continue. There was a team of archaeologists who had three days to do a dig, and while they worked, so did Victor, bringing to life the past that was being uncovered with his fabulous drawings, paintings and illustrations.

Victor was born in 1935 in Hungary, but escaped at the age of twenty-one when there was a revolution against the Soviet backed government. He eventually ended up in Britain and has lived here ever since. By 1965 he was awarded the prestigious Kate Greenaway  medal for British children’s book illustration  – which he actually received again in 1975. Victor has illustrated over 300 books of all sorts, and has also designed cards, stamps, displays…

You only have a week left, but Victor’s work is on display in the museum at Taunton:


You can visit Victor’s site here: