We’re very pleased to bring you this lovely early Christmas present. A fantastic article from our Writer-in-Residence, Jo Woolf.  Jo is bring you stories of explorers who, despite all of the expedition challenges they faced still, insisted on having a Christmas pudding. Thank you Jo.  Enjoy and Merry Christmas!

Christmas Puddings on the Edge of the World

When we interviewed the Norwegian explorer Borge Ousland last year, he revealed that he always takes an almond cake with him on his expeditions.  Not only is it an important emergency reserve, but it helps to boost your morale as you celebrate the smaller successes that lead to the main goal of the journey.

Image courtesy of Borge Ousland FRSGS

Historically, it seems that many explorers would have agreed with him.  Over 100 years ago, as the season turned towards Christmas these heroic men and women found comfort in food that brought the taste and blessings of home.  In view of the atrocious conditions that they were enduring at the time, they deserve a medal just for their resourcefulness in cooking them!

Annie Taylor

In September 1892, when Annie Taylor plunged over the Chinese border into Tibet, she was taking the biggest gamble of her life.  Not only was she aiming to cross some of the highest mountain passes on Earth, where travellers regularly froze to death by the wayside, but she was trespassing in a forbidden country where she risked execution if she was discovered.  The last part of her plan was terrifyingly simple:  she was going to smuggle herself into Lhasa and convert the Dalai Lama to Christianity.

Annie Royle Taylor

Annie might have been slightly mad, but for her epic journey she was well prepared.  She found six willing companions and hired 16 horses.  She packed a tent, a sleeping bag, some pots and pans, and enough food for several months.  She was a fluent Tibetan speaker but she still needed a good disguise so she cut her hair short and dressed in the loose robes of a Buddhist nun.

It was hard going from the outset, even for a passionate missionary like Annie.  Bands of brigands preyed on trading caravans, and her cavalcade was robbed.  Never one to admit defeat, she gathered her party together and struggled on.  As she left the valleys behind and ascended to the highest passes, she found herself gasping for breath at elevations of over 15,000 feet.

Annie was prepared to sleep in a freezing hole in the ground, but she had certain standards to uphold and one of them involved the celebration of Christmas.  Somehow, she had managed to bring with her enough flour, suet, black sugar and currants to make a pudding, and on Christmas morning she put it on to boil.  But at such high altitudes water boils while it is tepid, and after two hours the pudding was still cold in the middle.  Annie cheerfully made the best of it, observing with understatement that this was a “strange climate.”

Cooking on the roof of the world was by no means the last of Annie’s challenges:  within a few days’ ride of Lhasa she was arrested and had to plead for her life, with the result that she was set free and forced to make the return journey in the teeth of a Tibetan winter.

Shackleton, Wilson and Scott 

In November 1902, with his research ship Discovery moored in McMurdo Sound, Robert Falcon Scott was preparing to venture into the interior of the Antarctic in the company of Edward Wilson and Ernest Shackleton.  Their ultimate aim was to reach the South Pole, but failing that, they would make valuable observations about the terrain and climate in a previously uncharted region of the Earth.

Shackleton Scott Wilson Nov 1902

They were travelling with sledge dogs, although none had any real experience of driving them.  It was approaching the Antarctic midsummer, but still the climate tested their physical and mental stamina to the utmost, with extreme blizzards causing frostbite.  All of them suffered from snow blindness, and as they cut their food rations down to the barest minimum the first signs of scurvy began to emerge.   Tempers were strained to breaking point.

Breakfast on Christmas Day consisted of an unappetising mix of seal meat, scraps of bacon and blackberry jam.  The men took some photos of themselves with the sledges and then, after four hours’ march, they sat down to a meagre dinner of Bovril and biscuits.  At this point Shackleton surprised them by producing a six-ounce plum pudding.  He had been keeping it in one of his socks – a clean one, of course – along with a sprig of holly.  After he had boiled it for half an hour the men used their emergency supply of brandy to set it alight.  The joy was indescribable, and harmony was restored.  That night at least, the men went to sleep happy, with full stomachs.  “It was,” said Scott, “a day to remember for the rest of your life.”

Isabella Bird

As winter descended on the Rocky Mountains in 1873, Isabella Bird did have a roof over her head, but she had several other interesting challenges to deal with.  She had arrived in Colorado three months before, riding alone into the wild territory of fur-trappers and cattle ranchers, dangerous men who lived a dangerous life.  It was no place for a woman, but no one had ever told Isabella what to do.  She was a superb horserider, and she knew how to use a gun.  When she arrived in the little outpost of Estes Park, high in the mountains to the west of Denver, she caused quite a stir.

Isabella Bird in the Rocky Mountains

Estes Park amounted to nothing more than a handful of log cabins scattered up the valley.  Two were occupied by Welshmen, pioneers who had emigrated from Llanberis, and a third was the home of a man known as ‘Rocky Mountain Jim’, a battle-scarred desperado with a serious addiction to alcohol.  Isabella was given her own little cabin, and she agreed to stay for a while, cooking and cleaning and mending their clothes.  She lent a hand in rounding up the cattle, and soon she was writing home to her sister in Scotland, explaining the words ‘corral’, ‘ranch’ and ‘bronco’.

Isabella Bird Bishop

In November the first storms arrived with a vengeance.  One morning Isabella awoke to find her floor deep in snow, but it was too cold to open the door and shovel it out.  Her hair, which had got wet the day before, was frozen in plaits.  But it was Thanksgiving, and Isabella, a supremely capable cook, intended to celebrate it.  She cooked venison steaks and potatoes, and she made two puddings, a traditional one with dried cherries and a rolled pudding with molasses.  She whipped up a bowl of custard for sauce, and declared that no one in America could have enjoyed their Thanksgiving dinner more.  It was a feast that the ranchers would remember forever:  by Christmas Isabella was gone, escaping the winter fastness for a lifetime of adventure on the other side of the world.


If you would like to do some further reading on the adventurers mentioned by Jo, she has put together a list of references:

‘A Lady’s Life in the Rocky Mountains’ by Isabella Bird

‘On Top of the World – Five Women Explorers in Tibet’ by Luree Miller

‘Pioneering in Tibet’ by Annie Taylor

Scott Polar Research Institute

Newspaper cuttings in National Library of Scotland archive

Scott’s quote from:  Scotsman, 12th November 1904

 All images in public domain.  Isabella Bird’s drawing ‘My Home in the Rocky Mountains’ from her book ‘A Lady’s Life in the Rocky Mountains’.   Shackleton, Scott and Wilson, from Discovery expedition, Nov 1902 (National Library of New Zealand).   Annie Royle Taylor’s portrait from ‘Travel and Adventures in Tibet’ by William Carey.   Tibetan landscape by McKay Savage.

Links to:

Scott and Shackleton


Isabella Bird

Isabella Bird – free spirit and fearless explorer



Talented cook – Yet, according to A. J. Broomhall, “she kept a daily diary, never complained in it, and gamely made a Christmas pudding with the currants and black sugar, flour and suet she had brought with her.”  http://www.christianitytoday.com/history/issues/issue-52/unbecoming-ladies.html

‘The Blessings of a Good Thick Skirt’:    “When she put her Christmas pudding on to boil… its centre was still cold after two hours of cooking.”  P.46

‘Victorian Lady Travellers’:   “… she unpacked the suet and currants begged from the friendly traders at Tashiling and set about boiling a Christmas pudding.  After two hours it was still not warm in the middle, which, taken with the palpitations from which she had begun to suffer, indicate that their Christmas camp was high up in the mountains.”

“Very cold.  I am getting used to sleeping in the open air.”  (Dec 18).   Travelling alone except for Pontso and Penting, two Tibetans.  On Dec 20 she wrote: “I made two puddings of some suet that I begged, a few currants, some black sugar, and a little flour.”   On December 24 she found an old campsite above the road where there was grass and plenty of yak dung to build a fire with.  December 25:  She prepared tea and put her Christmas pudding on to boil.  After two hours it was still not warm in the middle, and she was moved to comment that “this was a strange climate”.  She ladled the boiling tea out of the pan with wooden bowls, but if it were not drunk at once it was covered with ice.   Anni – Tibetan name for a nun – cut off her hair

Shackleton and Scott  Christmas 1902 – Furthest South

Scotsman 12th November 1904 –

Captain Scott’s account of the sledge journey which he made southwards with Mr Shackleton and Dr Wilson, told though it was in plain and modest language, was of thrilling interest.  For ninety-two nights the three of them slept in a small tent until they knew almost every stitch of it.  The rations were cut down to the lowest possible limit, and “only a certain amount of conscience” prevented an inroad being made on the small bag which contained the allowance for the following week.  On Christmas Day, however, Mr Shackleton unexpectedly produced a plum pudding about the size of a cricket ball.  “It was,” said Captain Scott, “a day to remember all your life.”


Christmas breakfast:- a pannikin of seal’s liver, with bacon mixed with biscuits. Each; topped up with a spoonful of blackberry jam; then I set the camera, and we took our photographs with the Union Jack flying and our sledge flags, – I arranged this by connecting a piece of rope line to the lever. Then four hours march. Had a hot lunch. I was cook:- Bovril, chocolate and Plasmon biscuit, two spoonfuls of jam each.  Grand!  Then another three hours march and we camped for the night. I was cook and took thirty-five minutes to cook two pannikins of N.A.O. ration and biscuit for the hoosh, boiled the plum pudding, and made cocoa. I must of coarse own up that I boiled the plum pudding in the water I boiled the cocoa in, for economy’s sake, but I think it was fairly quick time. The other two chaps did not know about the plum pudding. It only weighed six oz. And I had stowed away in my socks (clean ones) in my sleeping bag, with a little piece of holly. It was a glorious surprise to them – that plum pudding, when I produced it. They immediately got our emergency allowance of brandy so as to set it on fire in proper style.

We turned in really full tonight.

Isabella Bird    – Thanksgiving 1873

P.261 ‘A Lady’s Life in the Rocky Mountains’

“When the men are out hunting I know not where, or at night, when storms sweep down from Long’s Peak, and the air is full of stinging, tempest-driven snow, and there is barely a probability of any one coming, or of any communication with the world at all, then the stupendous mountain ranges which lie between us and the plans grow in height till they become impassable barriers, and the bridgeless rivers grow in depth, and I wonder if all my life is to be spent here in washing and sweeping and baking.  P.244

Two calves in the shed were frozen to death.  The milk and treacle were ‘like rock’.   The floor was deep in snow, but it was so cold that they could not open the cabin door to shovel it out.  “My hair, which was thoroughly wet with the thawed snow of yesterday, is hard frozen in plaits.”

“I made a wonderful pudding, for which I had saved eggs and cream for days, and dried and stoned cherries supplied the place of currants.  I made a bowl of custard for sauce, when the men said was ‘splendid’…  I should think that few people in America have enjoyed their Thanksgiving dinner more.

Denver – inability to get money there – came to Colorado now nearly three months ago.   “I am almost without shoes, have nothing but a pair of slippers and some ‘arctics’.  For outer garments, well, I have a trained black silk dress, with a black silk polonaise!  and nothing else but my old flannel riding-suit, which is quite threadbare, and requires such frequent mending… it is singular that one can face the bitter winds with the mercury at zero and below it, in exactly the same clothing which I wore in the tropics!  P.245