Chill- out room

Martin Thompson in polar Cambridge

Sir Ranulph Fiennes is set to capture our imaginations as he prepares to tackle the solo crossing of Antarctica. But then British explorers have always had an obsession with conquering the Last Great Frontier. A trip to Cambridge offers a lively insight into their adventures of the past.

Named after the legendary Antarctic explorer, the Scott Polar Research Institute Museum contains a wide range of artefacts, memorabilia and equipment, telling the story of British polar exploration and research. As well as a well-presented overview of the natural riches of the polar regions, you will find objects such as the barrel organ William Parry took to the North Pole, and the brass buttons distributed to the Inuit by Sir John Franklin's wife, after his 1845 expedition failed to return. She hoped, in vain, that Sir John would somehow find a button and realise she had not given up the search.

To help bring the collections to life, and to stimulate wider interest in the polar regions, the museum holds special free "events". On the day we went, "Passport to Polar Adventure" was in full swing.

"Please pick up your passports here," announced the organiser, Dr Pam Davis, a veteran of two Antarctic research trips. On arrival, my children were handed "passports" to be stamped at the six polar stations dotted throughout the small museum. (As a novel twist, adults were allowed to travel on their children's passports.) After clambering on a motor sledge, we checked in at Base Camp and were offered the chance to get kitted out in bright orange helicopter immersion suits, designed to aid survival if you are unlucky enough to crash-land upside down on the ice.

Bob Najam, a life support systems engineer, explained that if you weigh 18 stone you may last on the ice for up to 17 hours, but your chances of getting out alive decrease in proportion to your body weight. Dieters take note.

Have you ever had an urge to experience what life feels like inside your fridge freezer? The next passport control point was named after Vostok station in Antarctica, the coldest place on earth. Here we had a chance to chill out in -30C, whilst incarcerated in room-sized chambers normally used for preserving ice specimens. After five minutes, the massive freezer door swung open, just as it seemed that hypothermia (not to mention claustrophobia) was about to set in. My seven-year-old daughter's reaction was to queue up immediately for a return to the Ice Kingdom.

Next stop, the popular Crevasse Rescue Station, with the museum's stairwell doubling as an Antarctic ice ravine. Experienced polar mountaineers were on hand to teach you how to winch yourself to safety.

"My shipmates call me Captain Joe. I'm the resident sea captain here and my mission is to guide you through the ice-floes." An impressive, barrel-chested figure, Joe Wubbold was once an icebreaker captain with the US Coastguard and is now becalmed at Cambridge doing his MA. In his beguiling drawl, he took us on an adventurous imaginary journey on a modern icebreaker pushing its way past icebergs and whales.

A cacophony of yelping led us on to the colony of husky dogs imported for the event, to be patted and harnessed as appropriate. Having been banned from the Antarctic as environmentally unfriendly in 1994 (as carriers of distemper, huskies were deemed dangerous to the seal population), these cheerful dogs are now restricted to appearing in shows in the Home Counties. "I always take the sledge along, just in case," explained their handler, Janet Ward of the Eskimo Dog Club of Great Britain.

Cambridge is a world centre for polar research. As well as a PhD student from Russia studying the properties of sea ice, seasoned Antarctic explorers and scientists were on hand to answer our questions. They were aided by fresh-faced polar research scientists, eagerly awaiting the call to be airlifted to the Falklands, the jumping off point for Antarctica.

My family happily spent four hours at the Scott Polar Research Institute Museum discovering that there is more to living and working in the frozen wastes than ice and more ice. Thanks to the museum displays, we really began to understand the buzz that lures scientists and explorers, such as Sir Ranulph Fiennes, to the earth's extremities. Being immersed in sub-zero temperatures and hauled out of a 30ft crevasse is a hunger-making business, and we gratefully pocketed a clutch of Penguin bars before heading home to the central heating.

The Scott Polar Research Institute Museum, Lensfield Road, Cambridge is open between 2.30pm and 4.00pm, Monday to Saturday. Admission is free. Special arrangements can be made for school groups.To find out about forthcoming special events, ring Dr Davis on 01223 336540.

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