A corner of Antarctica that will be for ever Britain, no matter the cost

By Simon Jenkins (THE GUARDIAN, 28/04/06):

There is nowhere on earth more British than 77° south 166° east. On the shores of Ross Island in Antarctica stand three wooden huts intact from one of the classic episodes of British history, the race to the south pole between Scott and Shackleton. Two of the huts, Shackleton's at Cape Royds (1908) and Scott's at Cape Evans (1911), are still full of their icebound supplies left in case of either's return.

Both men, the moody, dedicated Scott and the charismatic Shackleton, endured intense privation on their way to their respective failures. Scott was beaten to the pole by the Norwegian Amundsen and Shackleton failed to make his second, transantarctic crossing. Yet their exploits became synonymous with heroism and their quotes entered the patriotic lexicon of every schoolboy: "Great God, this is an awful place"; Captain Oates's "I am just going outside and may be some time"; Scott's final diary entry: "Had we lived I should have had a tale to tell of hardihood, endurance and courage ... which would have stirred the hearts of every Englishman."

Shackleton's long retreat in 1917 ended the heroic age of polar exploration. Science had been an excuse for what was, in truth, a bid for glory. The Antarctic was left in peace for half a century, much as we now ignore the moon after reaching it.

Yet the huts survive, their contents literally frozen in time. Inside are bunks and sleeping bags, skis and snowshoes, hanging legs of ham, sacks of milk powder and row upon row of jars and tins from Fortnum's and Harrods. There are dark rooms and laboratories, acetylene lamps ready for lighting, even the halters and hay bales for Oates's horses. Outside in the snow is the bleached skeleton of a frozen dog.

I visited the huts three years ago and consider them the most evocative historic buildings in the world. No other continent retains the physical evidence of man's first attempt at settlement, and of his eviction by Mother Nature. The sites are utterly British. They might be scout huts on the Hebrides with their shelves of Worcester sauce, Colman's Mustard, Tate & Lyle syrup, Huntley & Palmers biscuits, Hartley's jam and the Illustrated London News. There are the remains of Shackleton's unusable Arrol-Johnston car, a bicycle and a portable chapel. In a third hut, up McMurdo Sound, can be seen relics of the starvation of Shackleton's marooned Ross Sea party, the torn-up floorboards, blubber oil, long johns and penguin meat. This is not just history as artefact but artefact as story and story as vivid reality. Such mementos are rare and precious.

The huts are in deep trouble. They are occasionally visited by scientists and soldiers who helicopter down from the booming American base at McMurdo, and by a few ship-borne tourists who can get ashore in summer. They are being slowly looted for souvenirs, and time and global warming are destabilising them. In the distance, over the giant Ross ice shelf, can be seen the smudge of jet pollution over an airbase, and beyond lies the new American highway being built to the south pole.

Under the 1959 Antarctic Treaty this fragile landscape is international, indeed literally lawless, but the huts themselves are patently a British responsibility. Two years ago they were put on the World Monuments Fund's list of the 100 most endangered sites, their cause championed by the nearest country, New Zealand. It is a heroic New Zealander, David Harrowfield, who has struggled to protect the huts for over a decade. He recently recorded the theft of the portrait of Edward VII from the Royds hut, preceded by the theft of the chapel chalice from Cape Evans. New Zealand reasonably feels it has done enough to guard Britain's heritage.

Last year the London branch of New Zealand's Antarctic Heritage Trust duly applied to the British government for less than £2m to help save the huts. Tessa Jowell turned the application down and suggested the lottery. The lottery has now said the huts are not in Britain, so forget it.

It is harsh to castigate a body struggling to distribute public money by comparing and contrasting its discretions, especially when politics bears down on it. But the Heritage Lottery Fund spends lavishly on such non-heritage activities as consultants, opinion surveys, disabled access, websites, interpretation, diversity and whatever buzzword has just emerged from its Whitehall masters. It recently spent £11m to keep a foreign object in Britain (the Raphael Madonna), yet it refuses to spend a fraction of this sum on British objects of great heritage value that, by their very nature, are abroad. (I have no doubt that if a Raphael were found in the Scott hut the government would claim it as British and spend millions to retrieve it.)

There are endangered remnants of Britain's global history scattered across the globe. There are cemeteries in India, churches in the far east and embassies in Arabia, not least a wrecked gem in Baghdad. None of these needs much money, but they are decaying through a political correctness that finds the empire embarrassing, not to mention white, able-bodied male heroism. Jowell is raiding the lottery of millions for the most chauvinist of enterprises - increasing Britain's Olympic tally in Beijing. Officials claim it costs an average of £2.5m a year to train a single medal winner.

The question of how to stabilise the huts is controversial and tough. Should they be kept as they are now, intact but partly looted and disarranged? Should their contents be replaced by facsimiles or conserved as found, rusted and tattered? Or should the huts be restored to their state when they were left, with men exhausted, their hopes dashed and hell outside? A valiant band of New Zealanders is wrestling with these questions. But if money is not forthcoming to conserve and secure the huts, the fate of the contents may be to go to a museum in New Zealand, which would be both wrong and humiliating for Britain.

Of course this place is inaccessible, though hardly less so than the Churchill papers or the face of Nelson on his column, currently subject to costly restoration. The lottery gives money for objects, seeds and species that no one ever sees, in the cause of science and culture. The glory of the huts is the very fact of their survival in the world's most hostile environment. There are ways of making their wonder visible on the web (also rejected by the lottery). It is small-minded to see Britain's past as of worth only if on British shores.

Whether or not tourists should be encouraged to visit Antarctica is moot. I would welcome them, if only because they will have an interest in protecting its wildness and lobby against the damage of its present occupants, the scientists, with their airbases and south pole highway. What is for certain is that one day people will arrive in droves, craving to see the relics of the heroic age. They would be astonished to see a plaque declaring that in 2006 a Labour government considered the huts "not British" and their salvation politically incorrect.

Jowell may regard these sites as pimples on the back of empire, but to sacrifice them for less than the price of a pole-vault medal displays an outrageous sense of priority.