St Peter’s Church in Binton, Warwickshire, has a large stained-glass window commemorating Robert Falcon Scott’s fatal 1912 expedition to the South Pole. Scott was the brother-in-law of the Rector, Lloyd Bruce, who commissioned the window. It was designed by John Lisle, built by Charles Kempe & Co, and dedicated on 25 September 1915
The window is not noticeable at first, perpendicular to the entrance. The rest of the church is fairly unremarkable, with few original features surviving a rebuild in 1875. We walked between gloomy pews holding empty biscuit tins, a giant teddy, and a frisbee saying ‘Jesus Loves You’, towards the altar, where we could turn and admire the window in full.
Four tall rectangular panes show scenes from the 1912 Scott expedition – the explorers bidding their families farewell; their disappointment at discovering the flag of Amundsen’s rival expedition from Norway; Oates’ self-sacrifice, choosing to meet death in a blizzard rather than slow the others; the cairn erected over the tent that entombed Bowers, Wilson and Scott. In smaller panes below, biblical stories are depicted – Abraham about to kill his son Isaac; Moses in the rushes; David and Goliath.
This parallel is not accidental. Rendered in the religious aesthetics of stained glass and lead, the true significance of the Scott expedition is brought out. The final sheet in the information display below the window emphasises the scientific importance of the expedition – that it wasn’t really a race to the Pole, so mustn’t be understood as a failure – but to me this is missing the point.
Papers from the diary of the local primary school in the year of the expedition tell how the children fundraised to buy a husky for the sleds. They weren’t drawn to the expedition for its scientific usefulness. Nor are the hundreds of tourists who write with awe in the visitors book now. No, the story of Scott’s last expedition fascinates us because of its audacity – and its futility.
Through this strange window, we see our own insignificance. Gazing up from the aisle of this parish church in rural Warwickshire, we glimpse the all-powerful – Antarctica, God, the indifference of the natural world to human death.