MOUNT PLEASANT HOUSE
Late November 1983
Mount Pleasant House between 11th and 18th December 1983
On 21st November George L the Clerk of Works and myself were sent to Mount Pleasant House just beyond the west end of the proposed runway to live with three land surveyors Dave B, Cliff and Mike who were already there in a cabin designed at most for four. The portakabins had been flown out by chinook the previous year.
We were transferred to the shallow beach on the Flexifloat and waited for a landrover to come from Mount Pleasant House. A sea lion reared up in the water no more than six feet away puffing and snorting and had a good look at us while we photographed it.
The other cabins were for Stewart the Kelvin cook and quarry men who hadn't got anything to do as the quarries weren't being opened up for a while. They were harmless because they were permanently sozzled on cheap whisky. I think the NAAFI in Stanley sold it duty free for about £2.80 a bottle.
The House was only used a few times a year by shepherds driving sheep for shearing or repairing fences. The water and sanitation wasn't suitable for so many of us. The shower and electricity were later beefed up but the cooking was largely done on the peat stove as the electric cooker used too much juice and tripped the contact breaker. It was five miles north of East Cove just west of the proposed runway.
On 21st November George L, Mike B and I walked up Mount Pleasant, a rough walk over tussocky grass and small streams. It was a perfect evening and we saw a striated caracara sitting at the top.
The three land surveyors left the next day and Dave O, another land surveyor, took their place. He had been on the England, then on the Merchant Providence for a night, so there were three of us in our cabin.
For a short while after the Merchant Providence was anchored with huge tubular struts to the shore we still had no proper way of getting on board until a timber walkway was built along the sloping top of one strut. Until then we had to get in a dingy that was usually full of water soaking our boots and pull ourselves across with a rope. It was a bit of a balancing act because during squally weather the water between the ship and the shore was quite choppy. We were trying to stand up in a rocking dingy with our feet in water and pull at the same time.
The quarry men were set to work digging a cesspit on 22nd November as there wasn't a proper one and our effluent was going into the stream near the water pipe. It's the big brown hole in the photo.
The bed sheets had been there since the previous summer, never washed and were brown from peat dirt. I remember washing my pants and socks in a bucket but nothing else was washed.
The shower never seemed to work properly at first, the pressure was too low until a tank was put higher up above the roof, and even then it often fused. We could have gone down to the ship for a shower, but the one time I did the water was off because someone had let oil into the cistern which took ages to flush out.
Sheep carcass on 26th November 1983
On 25th November George L fetched two Soil Mechanics people Geoff and Sid and I built a couple of kit bunks. After lunch I helped them with ground resistivity tests. They were taken down to the Forrest ship at East Cove on 26th November.
Our water was drawn from the stream which I later noticed had a sheep carcass in it no more than twenty yards upstream of the water pipe. The water was used untreated for cooking and showering. We didn't ever drink water, just beer, so I never got ill, though I noted that some got the shits.
After lunch on 25th November George and I found that the contractors had dammed a stream just north of East Cove to provide fresh water for the Merchant Providence kitchen. Not only was the dam outside the land-take but on 26th November when we went for another look at the dam with Tony R I saw two sheep carcases two hundred yards upstream. They were chlorinating their water so we didn't bother to report it.
We had a visit by some shepherds on horses with sheepskin saddles and their dogs. They explained how they could slit a sheep's throat, strip the skin off, gut it and feed their dogs all within a few minutes. There were sheepskins on the fences around the house.
A relaxed George L enjoys a cigar at McPhee Pond on 26th November 1983
George and I went to McPhee Pond in the evening of 26th November. It was beautifully calm and sunny. We sat and watched two black-necked swans kissing in the middle of the pond while we got attacked by millions of midges and mosquitoes which made a hum like a giant dynamo. It was late spring/early summer and hordes of black flies settled on fence posts during the day.
All very peaceful at and near Mount Pleasant House at this time, but the distant roar of the bulldozers working on the haul road up from East Cove got louder every day. The lack of wind during fine days meant we had no water pumped up by the wind pump, so no showers, and the electric water pump seized. However, when it was windy, it was more than expected. One lad who went out for a pee came back with his trousers well and truly sprayed.
There was a small hill just south of the house and from the top I could see the ships and across the water to Lively Island settlement twelve miles away. The air was so clear I could see a few small houses perfectly. I could see through their open front doors and small objects around and about if I used binoculars.
Our old generator was packing up around 28th November. It would run for a few minutes, then die, then start to pick up again, and so on. The army wanted their old generator back so a new one arrived on the back of the muskeg, a tracked pickup, on the 29th. Unfortunately the new generator was far too sensitive and kept tripping out until an electrician took ages working through each circuit and repairing some of them.
Even with the new generator we had plenty of power cuts and the wind pump for the water often failed. Nevertheless, I was really enjoying myself in the fresh air helping Dave set out pegs for all the buildings, main civils works and the Soil Mechanics plate bearing tests. This wasn't my main reason for being there, but like a lot of people, my real work didn't start until later.
On 2nd December we heard of another peat fire down near East Cove caused by the contractors. These were a real nuisance because the fire could get right down into the peat and smoulder for years. A whole island lost its peat because of a fire during the war.
A bailey bridge was hoisted into position on 2nd December to allow lorries to unload cargo from visiting ships across the Merchant Providence's deck.
On 4th December Viv, a Soil Mechanics engineer, and I were both filling up landrovers when he looked at me and said "Why are you filling up with petrol". Previously all the diesel cans were in one place and the petrol cans were up near the barn. The quarry men and Taff had obviously been told to tidy up around the camp to keep them busy and had put them all together.
It's not often I get sharp with people but I said something like "How the hell was I to know which was which?" It turned out that the petrol cans had a colour coded top and were labelled CIV/GAS and the diesel cans were marked UK DIESO and had a different coloured cap.
I complained that it was stupid to put them all together and Bill, a quarry man, went to get a spanner and drained the fuel tank. Luckily I hadn't started the engine. He may have been the person who organised it all, so he may have felt guilty.
Later I went with Martin R and Tony R to Fitzroy to see the farm manager Ron B and we went on to look at Fitzroy bridge, partly supported by masts from the first iron-clad screw-propelled steamship the Great Britain. It must have been a very dry summer because we went alone, Martin R was totally inexperienced at "camp" driving, but it was relatively easy. We also went to Fitzroy Cove across an estuary. A year later after a wet winter we got bogged all the time.
On 5th December Dave took me, George and Tom down to Bertha's beach via Island Harbour House about five miles away. He had been there the year before but in a sno-cat. At the farm Norman said it had been the driest summer he could remember. Norman was living on his own after divorcing his wife. On the peat stove was a dirty pot of stew, probably permanently there and just topped up with mutton and a bit of veg occasionally.
A grass fire near Bertha's Beach was still burning and had got down into the peat, but it seemed that the islanders had started it.
We had a reasonable amount of room in our cabin, although it had several big wooden crates of surveying equipment. James M, a civil engineer investigating ground and rock formations, joined us on 6th December. George and Dave worked for the PSA, James and I were consultants.
We got occasional visits by military people in helicopters. Once as the helicopter touched down on uneven ground its rear rotor swung down towards the ground. The pilot realised this just in time and pulled up. The rotor was less than 6" from the ground and I had visions of bits of metal flying around. Once or twice our post was delivered by helicopter.
On 7th December the doctor living on the ship decided that the conditions were unsanitary and told the contractors to move down to a portakabin camp that had just been built on the shore at East Cove near the Merchant Providence. They moved a few days later. We were called the leper colony and a rough painted sign saying so had appeared on the gate post.
I went down to the ship to take possession of a new landrover on 8th December which was used almost exclusively by G & T. Fantastic. The old ones we had been using were already having troubles with gear sticks coming off in your hand and other irritating problems. Now I had a new one with low ratio which worked and was invaluable on the trips to Goose Green and San Carlos we made after Christmas.
On a few occasions in mid December I went off with Dave O to L'Antioja, Island Harbour and the Frying Pan as he had a fishing rod. There were lots of trout in the rivers and mullet in the tidal areas. Once at L'Antioja we watched some black-necked swans in the distance where the river met Swan Inlet. They were very shy, even at a great distance.
On 10th December after one fishing trip we went back to Champina Pond where the Soil Mechanics guys and George L were attempting to wind-surf. A beautiful warm sunny evening with a slight breeze and the water was almost hot. Someone fell off his board right out in the middle and we all expected a big splash, but he just stood up. The water was only about two feet deep, that was why the water was so warm.
We returned to Mount Pleasant House and found that the quarry men had returned, broken in through the store room window and raided it. They had taken the electric kettle, catering size corned beef tins, life jackets from the barn (what for?) and the remaining spirit bottles. The beer had already been drunk.
The four of us were enjoying ourselves and decided to stay on as long as we could. We caught trout in the rivers and found some rhubarb - the only plant around the House except scruffy gorse. The store room had lots of catering size tins and flour packets all over the floor but the whole lot was covered with millions of tiny beetles and there were mice too. We still ate the stuff and made a huge rhubarb crumble. We also found some army ration biscuits and dextrose tablets in a barn. We rummaged around in the rubbish grabbing the most prized garibaldi packs - jumbo thickness and size.
On 11th December I fainted for the first time in my life. I was sitting on the edge of my bed swigging beer and taking a large mouthful of dry biscuit when someone said something funny. We were watching James M through the window trying to put his washing on barbed wire in windy conditions. I laughed and it all went up my nose. Choking and coughing I made for the door but keeled over after a few steps, cutting my lip and banging my wrist on the edge of a wooden packing case holding surveying gear. I was lucky not to hit my eye on the sharp edge. I came to within a few seconds and was none the worse; my choking had been completely cured. It's amazing how quickly you can lose consciousness in these situations even though you can normally hold your breath for a minute or so.
At the Frying Pan on 11th December Dave O was walking across the bridge to fish from the other side and casually cast his line over the side while still walking. He got a immediate bite. The fish seemed very attracted to flashing bits of metal like beer ring-pulls.
Bill, one of the quarry men, told us that Mavis, the LMA manager's secretary, had been beaten up and the manager sacked. A senior LMA man living on the ship heard screaming and shouting one night and went out into the corridor to find her there with cuts and bruises. Blood was photographed on the corridor floor by the security man. It seems she had had some kind of bust-up with her boss. Since it happened late at night we all guessed what was happening.
He was only supposed to be responsible for the initial establishment works and he "resigned" soon afterwards and Mavis went too. We never saw her much as she lived, ate, slept and worked on the ship. Tony R hated him and even his section leaders couldn't work with his abrasive style.
We moved down to East Cove on 14th December 1983.
The last time I saw Mount Pleasant House after the runway had been completed it looked very forelorn and abandoned and has since been demolished. When out hiking late in 1985 we saw that a new house had been built about three miles west of the haul road to the quartzite quarry and about two miles north of the site, on the bank of L'Antioja stream.