ALMOST –  THE  WORST  JOURNEY  IN  THE  WORLD (with apologies to Apsley Cherry-Gerrard who brought the first eggs of the giant Emperor Penguin back from the Antarctic having travelled for months in perpetual darkness)



Colonel John Blashford-Snell



(with apologies to Apsley Cherry-Gerrard who brought the first eggs of the giant Emperor Penguin back from the Antarctic having travelled for months in perpetual darkness)

It is now 20 years since the late Lord Leverhulme persuaded me to give a few hours a month to help raise funds for an expanding youth charity in Liverpool.  The Merseyside Youth Association was seeking to set up an innovative centre in the middle of the city to attract the hordes of listless and unemployed young, often homeless and from single parent families.  “It’s a very worthwhile cause” beamed his Lordship over the port “and I’m sure a traveller like you won’t mind a few trips from Dorset to Liverpool”.  Thus I began a regular series of visits over 8 years to the North West to raise around £2,500,000 for the less privileged young people of Merseyside.  I won’t pretend it was easy but with much help from The Duke of Westminster, Lord Laing and a string of local businessmen recruited by Barry Owen, a dynamic commercial property developer, we eventually succeeded and today a former block of council offices in the city centre is named The Door.

Frankly I enjoyed the challenge but not the train service from deepest Dorset.  There was one winter’s day that I shall not forget.  Well before dawn on Monday 26th November 2001 I defrosted and boarded my faithful Volvo and set off alone in total blackness across the freezing wastes of Salisbury Plain listening to the BBC Word Service reporting the conflict in Iraq.  Not even a 20 ton road transporter disturbed my progress to Westbury where most sensible citizens were still abed.

The station was deserted and a bitter east wind chilled me to the bone.  However the 6.16am to Bristol was only a few minutes late.  “Ice on the points” muttered the guard.  No icebreaker was fitted so we plodded slowly along as first light illuminated the peaceful countryside.  As a result it needed a breakneck sprint for me to catch the 7.15am to Stafford and the train cook served some luke-warm rations – nevertheless the ravenous travellers were grateful and all was well until Birmingham New Street when we sat for over half an hour whilst station officials sent out search parties for a driver.  Apparently he was coming by train and had “been delayed”.

“On to Stafford” we cried and our spirits lifted.  We duly arrived at 10am, and thus I missed the connection to Liverpool.  Eventually the Euston train, delayed by a locomotive failure in London, caught up with us and we chugged into Scouse land at 12.20pm  only 1½ hours late but at least we had arrived.

Two meetings in Liverpool and a biltong buttie (I always carry biltong) later, I set out to return to Expedition Base.  The 4.49pm the Central train to Birmingham New Street had “technical problems” so the charming lady of West Indian extraction told me at the barrier.    It slid noiselessly in at 5.10pm and a rush of commuters stormed aboard.  Ten minutes later we started out, stopped, started, stopped.  “We have a bridge bash,” reported the guard.  Was this a regular card party I wondered but a groan rose from his passengers.  We restarted and approaching Runcorn stopped again.  “We have another bridge bash,” said the guard, a touch of hysterical humour in his voice.  Thirty minutes later he added, “Consultants are on the way to inspect the bridge”.  Two teenagers near me, certain the bridge would collapse as we passed beneath, discussed jumping.  An old lady fumbled with a rosary.  To give comfort the guard, whose parents lived at a village I had once visited just North of  Rawalpindi, entertained us with railway tales from the Punjab.   However at last all was well “we regret the inconvenience” cooed the guard “unfortunately trucks have crashed into two bridges”.  What rotten luck!

At 7.35pm we survivors reached Birmingham New Street.  I ran like a stag but no one knew where and when I might find a train to Bristol.  “I’ve got one ready to go to Nuneaton if you’d prefer that” offered a helpful information lady.  Declining I followed a backpacker to platform 6B just in time to hear the velvet tones of the announcer say “We regret to inform you that the 7.46pm train to Bristol is delayed because of another train that has broken down in front of it.  Please listen for further announcements”    I did and swallowed a cool slice of pasta and a small bottle of white wine to restore my flagging spirits.

The temperature was dropping below freezing, but the 7.46pm eventually reached us at 9.05pm and within 15 minutes we were off to Bristol.

Wrapping myself in a thick anorak I read four copies of the National Geographic – usually I just look at the pictures!  At 11.30pm the lights of Bristol Temple Meads raised my spirits.  However the 0008 hrs train to Westbury was “delayed”.  Weakened by cold and hunger a few brave souls sought food and warmth.  “All closed now” smiled a cleaner.

Technical problems overcome, the 0008 hrs service arrived to a muffled cheer by potential passengers.  One elderly lady was so cold she could only mouth a prayer.  We set off for Westbury at 0050 hrs. “Where are you going?” asked the guard.  “Westbury” I gasped.  He shook his head “T’will be late”.

At 0140 the train came to  sudden halt – “Oh no” I cried “not another breakdown”.  “Westbury” smiled the guard “we’re here – there’s only you and I”.  Stiff and cold we dismounted and staggered through the deserted station.

“Well, we are at war,” grinned the guard as he waved farewell and I started defrosting the Volvo before setting off to cross the West Hampshire ice cap.

At 0230 I spotted the flag at my expedition base ….. the worst (rail) journey I’d ever undertaken was over.


Thankfully the train service has improved and today John Blashford-Snell continues to help The Door, one of the finest youth centres in Britain, through which have passed over 40,000 youngsters, in need of guidance and help.  John reckons he spends half his life in the green jungle and half in the concrete one.  If you’d like to assist please contact him on 01747 854456 or




The Churchillian figure of Major General John Mogg was seated behind an enormous desk as the Sandhurst adjutant beckoned me into this impressive man’s presence.   It was 1963 and having been teaching  Junior Sappers and Outward Bound trainees, I had just arrived as an instructor.   The Commandant enjoyed a well deserved reputation as a  sportsman, one who loved outdoor activities and prided himself in knowing the name of everyone under his command.   Already a legend in the Army, he was regarded with awe by all ranks.

“You are to be Adventure Training Officer” he growled.   “Do you know what that entails?”  “No Sir” I admitted.   “Well, I want you to get as many as possible of the officer cadets overseas on worthwhile projects for the benefit of their character and the least possible detriment to the empire”.

Walking back to Old College I was still pondering my new appointment when the Sergeant Major met me.   “And what job have you been given, sir?” he enquired.   “Adventure Training Officer,” said I.   “Very good for your career, if I may say so”, smiled the Sergeant Major.   “What do you have to do?”  I repeated the Commandant’s instructions.   “Then you’ll need an office – this way, sir, I have just the place” he grinned and took me to the Old College boot room.   “Pay no attention to the mess you sees here, within a couple of hours it will be so clean, you’ll be happy to eat your lunch off the floor”.   His clerk had now appeared,  millboard in hand.    As I mentioned  my humble furnishing requirements the Sergeant Major snapped out a list.   “Tables six foot – officers for the use of, blankets grey one, chairs desk officers one, chairs folding flat, ‘ard for cadets’ use”.   “All officers has bumf to file away,” he stated, “so sir, we better get you cabinets, filing, metal, grey, one”.   “And what area will you be dealing with?”   “I seem to have a global brief” I answered.   “One world map”, ordered the CSM.   “How about  a phone?” I ventured.   There was a sharp intake of breath.   “Phones are very difficult” was the reply “but I have excellent relations with the GPO and will see what can be done”.   So saying, he bid me return at 1400 hours when my office would be ready.

Indeed it was;  table, chairs, filing cabinet and on the wall, a large world map labelled “Training Area”.   On the table sat a field telephone.   “Now sir, I shall instruct you on the use of this device”, explained the Sergeant Major.   “On the command one, place your ‘and on the receiver, “No sir, not on them terminals or you’ll curl your ‘air when you turn the ‘andle”.   He went on to explain how I should ring his office, where he had a GPO phone and give his clerk the number I required.   The clerk would then dial it on his phone and hold the field telephone receiver to the GPO phone.   Amazingly for the first weeks that was how I communicated with the outside world.

Cadets soon began to appear at my door.   Some admitted that their College Commander had recommended a spot of adventure training to improve their officer quality rating, others came for the fun and the possible grant of £100 or the loan of a Ford transit van to take them as far from Britain as possible during the six weeks summer vacation.

The Natural History Museum, delighted by the prospect of cadets collecting butterflies, bugs, beetles and creepy crawlies offered countless tasks.   Kew Gardens came up with others and all sorts of archaeological, anthropological, geological and zoological missions were suggested.   Of course, one attraction was that some bonafide scientists could join the expeditions free of charge.

In one year twenty seven teams set off to improve their self reliance and leadership skills whilst carrying out non-military objectives.   The World Map was soon filled with pins and at weekends cadets roamed the Academy grounds training to catch and pickle fish, grass snakes, shrews and rabbits.   The ranges echoed to the crash of shot guns and raft building exercises took place on the lake.   Some senior officers expressed dismay at national press photographs of officer cadets stalking stuffed leopards on Barossa Common but thankfully the Commandant  supported this innovative approach to character building, even when a two inch mortar, converted to fire a line carrying projectile across the lake, malfunctioned and the bomb landed in Camberley.

Some expeditions were ambitious and His Imperial Majesty Haile Selassie, Emperor of Ethiopia hosted several zoological quests.   En route to Addis Ababa a group of cadets spent a few days in Aden.  The resident Brigade Commander decided it would be beneficial for them to see some real action and dispatched the lot to the Redfan.   A cadet was on sentry with the machine gun when some rebels decided to test the fort’s defences.   With a few well aimed burst he scattered the enemy.   Later I was confronted  by an embarrassed Brigade Major and asked if I could persuade the cadet in question to forget the incident.   He was a Kenyan!   However, years later when he himself was a brigadier in the Kenyan Army he enjoyed relating the time he had driven off the Imperialist’s enemies.

Dartmouth and Cranwell occasionally sent cadets and although most teams were 4-10 in number, there were several expeditions of sixty or more.

Thousands of requests went out to companies and ex Servicemen who sat on boards were found to be especially generous.    Field Marshal The Lord Slim did not think much of my approach and kindly gave me a most useful lesson on the writing of begging letters which has stood me in good stead ever since.   Piles of Ryvita, Quaker Oats, insect repellent and sleeping bags (from ICI) filled the store.   E.P. Barrus Ltd had a charismatic MD and became a most valuable sponsor, producing outboard motors which we used all over the world.

There were many challenging moments on the expeditions.   A couple of intrepid specimen hunters mistakenly peppered an enormous wart hog with No 6 bird shot instead of much heavier SG and spent the night up a tree beneath which a very angry pig waited.   The transporting of cadets to distant lands was another challenge.  The Royal Navy and the RAF were most helpful and Shell Tankers kindly gave free lifts to South America, but the carriage of biological specimens for the natural History Museum often caused problems.  One young man attempting to bring home a couple of live cobra from India greatly upset a testy air movements officer and the carcass of a thirteen foot Nile crocodile caused an RAF Hastings to make an emergency landing at Malta when the stench overcame the crew.

Iran’s Valley of the Assassins and the Libyan Sahara were favourite archaeological sites, whilst Angel Falls in Venezuela provided some exciting rock clambering.   Expeditioners had to give a presentation on their return.   A couple of wags, allocated a ford Transit to make a study of a rare grass, “Arena sterelis” in Greece, projected slides of their project which showed them cavorting with bikini clad girls on a Mediterranean beach.   They explained that “Arena Sterelis” was Latin for wild oats!   Fortunately the Commandant had a sense of humour.

By 1966 General Mogg’s ideas were a firm part of Sandhurst life and adopted by the three Services.   Today, in spite of plenty of active service to shape character, our adventure training is still envied by armed forces world wide.  The boot room office expanded and at the General’s suggestion, a joint military/civilian charity was founded.   Titled the Scientific Exploration Society it went on to launch the youth character development programmes, Operations Drake and Raleigh, that have given so many young people a great start in life.

It all began at Sandhurst.

Colonel John Bashford-Snell

Colonel John Nicholas Blashford-Snell OBE is a former British Army officer, explorer and author. He was educated at Victoria College, Jersey and at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, then commissioned into the Royal Engineers.

He found fame in 1968 when as a Captain in the Royal Engineers he led the first descent of the infamous Blue Nile. He has been making headlines ever since with intrepid expeditions and is a founder-member of the Scientific Exploration Society, the parent body for many world-wide ventures. Inspired by the spirit of Sir Francis Drake’s voyage 400 years ago, Colonel Blashford-Snell was also the driving force behind Operations Drake and Raleigh which saw thousands of young men and women from 50 nations take part in challenges and worthwhile expeditions all over the world.

Tuesday, July 30th, 2013