There is a corner of the South Atlantic that is for ever British, probably, writes Pamela Wade.
First off, it’s not “Port Stanley”. Although we heard that name so often on the news back in 1982, Stanley is what the locals call the capital of the Falkland Islands. And while we’re at it, they don’t pussyfoot around there calling it the “Falklands Conflict” either — everyone who witnessed the fighting during those 10 weeks of turmoil is in no doubt that it was a war.
Certainly, in the well-presented museum in the town’s old dockyard, the video testimony of a number of Falklanders, who were children at the time, about their experiences during the Argentine invasion and occupation makes for grim viewing. Bombs and burnt-out buildings, evictions from their homes, soldiers marching in the streets, aircraft overhead — it was a terrifying time, and still a vivid memory for all who lived through it. So much so that, in the 2013 referendum on remaining a British Overseas Territory, 92 per cent of the electorate turned out, and 99.8 per cent voted Yes. (The three people who voted No are still a matter of local speculation.)
Just along the waterfront from the museum is the Liberation Memorial, an obelisk commemorating the British forces and units involved in the fighting. Listed is the Rangatira, a former Picton-to-Lyttelton ferry which served as an accommodation ship in Stanley Harbour. Alongside the memorial is a bust of Margaret Thatcher, gazing steadfastly out to sea, above a quote stating the Falklanders’ right “to declare their own allegiance”. It’s still an active issue, with Argentina maintaining its sovereignty over the islands: on the mainland, Ushuaia (southernmost city in the world) is full of signs proclaiming it to be the capital of Las Malvinas; while posters near Stanley museum demand “Argentina gives up its claim to our islands”.
Meantime, Stanley life continues more British than Britain, with red-painted telephone boxes and pillar letterboxes (my postcard got home in just three weeks), terraced houses that look lifted straight from Southport, and pubs serving warm beer and hot curries.
There’s a Waitrose full of Mars bars and Tetley’s tea, and everywhere are people with English accents, some of whom can trace their ancestors back nine generations. Union Jacks are ubiquitous.
Some things are uniquely Falklands, however: an archway outside Christ Church Cathedral made from blue whale jawbones, beside a harbour full of picturesque shipwrecks. Lawn-mowing sheep are tethered in front gardens; nearly every vehicle is a battered Land Rover; and there is a contingent of resident Zimbabweans, still working on clearing mines around the islands (they hope the task will be completed in 2020). In one man’s garden is a collection of whale skeletons and a harpoon gun with a label declaring it killed 20,000 whales between 1937 and 1965. The elegant Government House was claimed by Ernest Shackleton to be “colder inside than the Antarctic”.
Louise, who works as a local guide showing cruise ship passengers like me around — tourism is the Falklands’ second-biggest industry, after fishing licences — is fiercely proud of her home. But she’s candid about the drawbacks. “We say, ‘Isn’t it calm today?’
not ‘Isn’t it windy?’ because that’s the norm,” she tells us. Bananas cost £1 each, everyone in Stanley knows everyone else’s movements, children go to Britain for education beyond age 16 and only half of them return to live in the Falklands again.
On a warmish December day — the average summer temperature is 9C — with lupins flowering everywhere under a blue sky, Stanley looks attractive. Many of the houses are built of wood and corrugated iron and are painted bright colours, and their picket fences are neat. Souvenir shops are welcoming and heavy on appealing penguin-themed mementos. But outside the town there are no trees, the grassy uplands bare and bleak; at Surf Bay the chilly South Atlantic breaks on a long sandy curve where locals brave the annual Midwinter Swim to claim their Certificate of Lunacy; and beyond the town of 2200 souls the islands are largely empty of people — although busy with penguins, albatrosses and seals.
It’s an interesting place to visit, and I leave with honest respect for the resolute attitude of the locals; but as the captain of the Silver Explorer skilfully manoeuvres the ship in a 50 knot wind through the accurately named Narrows, I’m not sorry to say goodbye to Stanley.
Although there are flights to Stanley from Chile, most tourists arrive by cruise ship — for me,
Silversea’s Silver Explorer
— as part of an Antarctic visit.
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