'It’s just the most wonderful place that I have ever been' - Irish woman spent months in Antarctic and broke down in tears at iconic hut
Archaeologist and conservator Diana McCormack tells Ivan Little how an emotionally charged trip to one of the coldest places on Earth was the latest destination on her fascinating journey into the past — both in Northern Ireland and further afield.
The normally unflappable Diana McCormack couldn’t hold back the tears as she set foot in one of the most historic, remote — and cold — places on Earth.
The sight of the still intact sleeping bags, clothes and food supplies which had been left behind in the region by some of the bravest men on the planet, was just too much for the east Belfast woman.
Images of iconic explorers like Sir Ernest Shackleton, Sir Edmund Hillary and her hero Capt Robert Falcon Scott, replayed in her mind as Diana followed in the footsteps of the legends for seven weeks from early November.
She had beaten hundreds of other conservationists to win her place on the prestigious mission to Ross Island in the Antarctic with a New Zealand conservation charity who preserve the expedition bases used by the great pioneers of the last century.
Diana, from Belfast, was the first ever conservation ambassador to be appointed by the NZ Antarctic Heritage Trust who battle against nature to keep history alive.
The extreme temperatures which can fall to a bone-chilling -40C present major difficulties for the wooden huts and all the things that the explorers abandoned inside them like food and their diaries.
Diana’s visit to Scott’s wooden prefabricated hut at Cape Evans was particularly emotional.
It was the base famously associated with Scott’s historic Terra Nova expedition to reach the South Pole.
Diana says: “Capt Scott did reach the Pole but he died on his return journey to the hut.
“As soon as I walked in I just burst into tears. There is so much of a feeling of life and activity about the place.
“A lot of scientific apparatus is still lying around as well as boots, sleeping bags, clothes and food supplies. It’s just the most wonderful place that I have ever been.”
Scott’s was one of four historic huts that Diana visited, some of them after having to travel by helicopter because the ice had cracked.
Diana adds: “We carried out a maintenance and monitoring programme at the huts and we had to dig some of them out of the snow.
“We had to be very careful about what we were doing because we didn’t want to cause any damage to the huts or their contents.”
Living for seven weeks in Antarctica had its challenges for Diana: “It was weird experiencing 24 hours of daylight. But the Antarctic is an astounding place and there was no time to think that I was missing home or anything like that.
“On one of my days off I got taken to the Mount Erebus glacier where they taught me ice climbing and took me to ice caves. It was unbelievable.
“We were encouraged not to think too much about climate change but there were a lot of scientific talks from people based at Antarctica.
“Some of the presentations were from people who were engaged in great studies about the sea ice thickness and about the impressive marine life underneath the ice.”
Diana had been trained in many aspects of life in Antarctica, including advice on how to deal with ‘angry’ penguins.
Luckily, however, no penguins ever tried to pick a fight with her and she saw seals in their droves, many of them giving birth on the ice near her base.
Diana’s own journey from the Bloomfield area of east Belfast to the ice fields of the South Pole has been an astonishing odyssey all of its own — taking in archaeology and conservation projects in Loughbrickland, Toomebridge, Stonehenge and Nelson’s ship HMS Victory along the way.
Earlier this year she also found the time to get married to Jonathan Davis, an astroparticle physicist from London.
When she gets time off, she is a keen mountain climber and long distance walker.
Several years ago she and a friend completed the gruelling 300-mile Malin to Mizen walk through Ireland to raise money for cancer research.
Interestingly, though, as a child Diana had nothing more than a passing interest in archaeology. Looking back, she thinks it was her parents’ passion for the past that forged her future.
She says: “Mum and Dad used to take us round the museums and that’s where my interest started I suppose.”
From Grosvenor High School, Diana went to Queen’s University in Belfast to study archaeology. “What attracted me to the work was the unknown factor.
“I wanted to do something practical but academic and archaeology ticked all the boxes.
“Pre-history fascinated me and I wanted to work outside on excavations to find out how people lived in the past.”
After Queen’s Diana worked in commercial archaeology for eight years.
She says: “It was all rescue archaeology. After planning permission is granted to developers they have to clear the grounds of any archaeology. So we worked on a range of things from windfarms to road schemes and to housing developments.”
One of Diana’s most exciting projects was the excavation associated with the A1 road improvement scheme at Loughbrickland.
She recalls: “We found a bronze age cemetery there. And, in 2002, during our dig before work started on the new bypass at Toome, we discovered an important megalithic site. The only megalithic site that was known before that was at Mountsandel in Coleraine.
“Toomebridge was really exciting. From our research we thought we might come across something but our hopes were exceeded.”
Diana went to Durham University in 2010 for two years to study for a masters degree in conservation.
“I was learning how to preserve the kind of artefacts which were uncovered in archaeological excavations.
“We used to send away items that were found and they would come back in perfect condition from the conservation units and I wanted to know how that happened.”
She clearly learnt well. Her skills have been in big demand across the UK since she graduated.
She did an internship as a conservator at English Heritage where she got to work on objects for a new permanent display at Stonehenge.
“These artefacts had been in my textbooks when I was studying archaeology and now they were on a bench in front of me,” says Diana who moved on to the Science Museum where she was conserving technology like computers and satellites.
After just 18 months, Diana then went to National Museums Scotland to conserve large objects for their science galleries including Edison dynamos and even motorbikes.
“The variety of the work in conservation is tremendous. That’s what keeps me going because I feel I’m learning all the time,” says Diana, whose next port of call was Portsmouth which by coincidence is where her late mother Rachel was from.
She is employed by the National Museum of the Royal Navy and is currently a senior conservator in the Historic Ships team.
This role sees Diana conserving famous vessels including HMS Victory. Among her other responsibilities are HMS Warrior and submarines.
“The work is non-stop and again we are just fighting nature because ships weren’t built to last especially in a marine environment in a rainy cold country.”
Diana’s expertise also brings her home to Belfast two or three times a year to work on the newly restored HMS Caroline — the only naval vessel to survive the Battle of Jutland during the First World War.
She adds: “I work with the curator on things like monitoring the environment and conserving the objects on board.
“It’s a marvellous project and it’s so encouraging to see that Caroline has become very popular with visitors.
“I was always aware of the ship when I was at home and I can remember going to a Burns supper on board.”