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Death in the ice - Franklin expedition

As sure as an icy drip falling from an icicle this dramatic exhibition sent shivers down my spine.

With good timing, as I prepare to head through the North West Passage in September, the National Maritime Museum's 'Death in The Ice' exhibition tells the story of the most ill-fated expedition ever to try to discover the legendary North West Passage through the Canadian Arctic.

Setting off under the command of Sir John Franklin in 1845 the two ships HMS Erebus & Terror were expected to claim the honour of sourcing a trade route between the Atlantic and Pacific for Britain. Instead, by 1848, all 129 men perished, reduced, in their final days, to cannibalism. The mystery of what happened to the ships intrigued Victorian Britain for years after. But it was only in 2014 that divers from Parks Canada discovered the Erebus.

Curated to the ambient background sound of howling arctic winds and a ringing ship's bell the story of the Franklin Exhibition is told through some 64 objects removed from the sunken wreck and preserved. The overall horror of what happened to these mariners had never enabled me to put a human face to this expedition. But this changed. The broken pipe fragments, a leather shoe, ceramic plates, and cutlery (some clearly engraved with the sailor's name), added a poignancy I'd never experienced when reading about this before. The piece de la resistance is the slightly greening bell of the Erebus. Yet undoubtedly the most significant artefact is an empty rusting can!

An autopsy performed in the 1980s on frozen bodies buried from the ships in 1846 at three graves on Beechey Island, where I shall soon visit, found severely toxic levels of lead in the deceased sailors. Scientists surmised this came from the lead soldering from the preserved food they carried in what was at the time primitive tinned canning. Anaemia, mental disorientation, joint pains, and sickness, seriously compromised the crew and played a huge part in the expedition's slow decline towards disaster. The very provisions that was supposed to be sustain ing them was killing them.

This is a striking and moving exhibition and I ended up gripped for 2.45hours. It continues until January 7th 2018. Don't miss it.

Tickets £9.60 online

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This is my occasional blog focusing on my travels and at home in Dartmoor National Parks. All my journeys, it doesn’t matter whether it’s a 4-day schlepp to Pitcairn Island or a 3-week boat journey across Micronesia begin with the local country bus #173 from my home in Chagford to Exeter, where I take the train or bus to London.

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