Norfolk Electrician Ray has South Georgia on his mind

Ray Thirkettle is off to the Antarctic. Picture: Ian Burt

Ray Thirkettle is off to the Antarctic. Picture: Ian Burt - Credit: Ian Burt

Writer GARETH CALWAY meets a Norfolk electrician who's heading off for a career break.. in the South Atlantic

Ray Thirkettle is off to the Antarctic. Picture: Ian Burt

Ray Thirkettle is off to the Antarctic. Picture: Ian Burt - Credit: Ian Burt

Kids gone, mortgage paid, pension looming, many of us dream of throwing up the day job and all our routine securities to do what we always dreamed of, while we still can. Some of us 'of a certain age' even do it.

Not many of us leap as far as the South Atlantic.

But that's exactly what Heacham electrician Ray Thirkettle has just done. A few days ago he set off to join the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) on remote South Georgia, the best part of a thousand miles east of the Falklands, for a 13-month stint as an electrical technician.

On a pinprick island in a vast cold ocean, with long hours of darkness coming next 'summer,' Ray will certainly be needed.


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This is in fact Ray's second 'leap in the dark'. In 2012, he was granted a four-month career break by the NHS to join the BAS's flagship Halley station on the Antarctic continent itself. This included a midsummer White Christmas. Clearly it wasn't enough – and this time, it's not so much a break as the end of an NHS career.

I caught up with Ray as he prepared to packed for his latest epic trip.

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Does he have any regrets? 'Yes, I've just bought a sports car!' he jokes. More seriously, he adds. 'I had a secure position as NHS electrician at the QEH in Lynn, where I've been for seven years. While there are definite rewards in joining BAS, money definitely isn't one of them.

'But most of all, of course, I regret the 13-month parting from my wife Pauline.'

And so I ask the 7,697-mile question: how does his wife of 32 years feel about being a BAS 'widow' on the other side of the world, starting with another solitary Christmas?

I'm not the first to ask. During Ray's recent King's Lynn Arts and Science Society Lecture about his Antarctic expedition - at which Pauline provided technical support – she answered the audience question herself with a pair of jazz hands and a big grin. Today, however, we get the full answer. 'This is something Ray has always wanted to do,' she told me. 'Of course I want to support him in fulfilling his lifelong dream.'

And Ray's sheepish smile of gratitude says it all.

'In this digital age, it's not that we won't hear from each other,' he added. 'During my Antarctic trip, we were in email contact every morning and evening and there was a telephone link every week – by satellite to Cambridge and then up the land line to Heacham. All of this will apply equally to South Georgia, where there may even be the luxury of Skype.

'In some ways we'll see and hear more of each other when I'm on the other side of the world than when we're living in the same house!'

I stare fascinated at Ray's map of the bottom of our planet.

It's easy to forget Antarctica is a continent. The South Pole is on a plateau but elsewhere there are huge snow-and-ice-buried mountain ranges. Halley station was on the frozen coast. South Georgia is a mountain range and a coast in a lot of deep water. It doesn't have many similarities to Heacham you would have to say. So did he learn anything last time to make the long trip south any easier?

'Yes, we'd got to South Africa before I realised I hadn't packed any underpants!' he joked.

Ray moved to Sedgeford with his wife and young family as an employee of Eastern Electricity in 1986 and their youngest daughter grew up there. He became interested in science via the Sedgeford Historical and

Archaeological Research Project (SHARP). 'I had an Iron Age horse skeleton in the garage for six months.'

Ray's involvement with SHARP continues and his distinctive hat and regulation archaeological beard adorned its Open Day last year. 'I was going to be SHARP's animal bones expert for the 2015 season,' he explained. 'Obviously, since the BAS phone call at the end of September that's all now on hold. But I'll always be grateful to SHARP for the original inspiration and they are cool about my having a year away.'

Ray's experience with SHARP led on to an OU Degree in Natural Sciences. The degree involved a lot of detail collected by BAS and the more he found out, the more he wanted to see a station for himself. Lamenting one day in the field to Melanie Van Twest, a young Australian member of SHARP, that he was too old to apply to join one of BAS's projects, the youngster urged, 'Go for it, Ray. They'd snap you up.'

And they did. 'My OU degree in Natural Sciences was crucial in getting me this job.'

Does he feel smug at escaping the Norfolk winter before it sets in?

'I'm more likely to see a White Christmas than you will in winter Norfolk – South Georgia is mountainous and snow is possible all year. But the main snow will come during May-October.'

Temperatures across the South Atlantic vary enormously. A quick glance at the BAS website at the time of writing this feature reveals it is currently minus 11 degrees at the Halley station in Antarctica, but plus 9.4 at King Edward Point on Georgia, where it is more than sheltered than the otherwise equivalent Bird Island (plus 3.1) - and a chilling minus 38 degrees at the South Pole.

The temperatures Ray can look forward to in his upside-down year will typically range from minus 15C to a high of 20C. Luckily, he will be living in a sheltered valley on a long peninsula called King Edward Point, where the high surrounding mountains will protect the small team from the worst excesses of the deep-southerly climate.

He has been preparing for this and other eventualities with training courses since October. 'We had better weather in the Antarctic in spring 2013 than Norfolk did,' he revealed. 'And I came back to a colder welcome – from the weather! – than I'd left in the frozen South. But by June 2015 it'll be dark and chilly and may even plummet to 20 degrees below.'

Is he worried? 'No. I am equipped with 22kg of state-of-the-art Antarctic kit to keep me safe and warm.

'BAS don't own the station. It belongs to the South Georgia government. As you might expect, it uses cutting-edge sustainable fuels – in 2008, a new English designed Hydro Electric Power station was installed by Gilbert Gilkes and Gordon of Kendal, using the mountainous terrain and a lake, and – reassuringly – there is a stand-by generator.'

His new penguin-populated Georgia base does have some reminders of home. King Edward Point includes a church, a whaling station converted to heritage and protection, Shackleton's grave and a harbour for tourist cruise ships. It even has seals. A corner of the world forever England?

The scientific research, as you might expect from its location, is primarily fishing-based. The BAS-contracted laboratory re-opened after a decades-long impasse caused by the Falklands conflict – Argentinian forces briefly occupied this island during the 1982 conflict and still claim it - and is aimed at providing scientific advice to assist in the sustainable management of valuable and commercial fisheries around the island.

Ray explain his role was twofold. '...To keep the base's electrical equipment running and also to assist the scientists. That includes crewing the power boats as they conduct fishing surveys; and to generally help run the station, keep it tidy and clean, and take my turn to cook.'

Pauline has been given Ray a crash course in the kitchen so he can play his part. Bigger research expeditions sometimes have the luxury of a dedicated chef, but the Georgia team is too small to justify it. 'But I'll do my best!' he added.

The Cambridge-based British Antarctic Survey is one of the world's leading environmental research centres and is responsible for the UK's national scientific activities in Antarctica.

And Ray is keenly aware of the role of science in rescuing the planet. 'The station is important to the world as it is collecting data about sustainable fishing and the viability of fish stock.'

Pauline adds: '...and also how many whales have been pinched by unauthorised whalers.'

There are penguin and seal colonies to monitor and reindeers to control. Rats were accidentally introduced to the island via whaling boats and the damage to bird species is clear by comparing the birds' relative thriving on nearby Bird Island, which is rat-free. The station has overseen an enthusiastic rat-eradication programme, still not quite fully complete.

Ray hates talk of 'decimating' rats though. 'We need to get rid of them all, not just one in ten...'

It is this precision that helped get him the job. He was the only person on the Halley station trusted with polishing the glass frontage of the spiral staircase.

This scrupulousness also typifies Ray's concern with the wider environment and the sustainable survival and prospering of the world to which BAS is so committed.

His lecture for the KLSAS ended with this passionate advice to youngsters: 'Don't follow pop stars and footballers – the really exciting place to be in the modern world is science.'

Looking at Ray's example, there might be a few more 'of a certain age' who feel the same too...

Gareth Calway's Christmas show with Dr Paul Richards 'A Hanse Christ-Mess' is in the Hamburg Suite at Hanse House in King's Lynn on December 6, details from www.garethcalway.co.uk or www.marriottswarehouse.co.uk.

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