The devil is in the Detaille (and Horseshoe)

Artefacts conservator Sophie Rowe examines the differences between two prefabricated bases built to the same specifications.

The devil is in the Detaille (and Horseshoe)

Artefacts conservator Sophie Rowe examines the differences between two prefabricated bases built to the same specifications.

The devil is in the Detaille (and Horseshoe)


Artefacts conservator Sophie Rowe examines the differences between two prefabricated bases built to the same specifications.

For one intense month in 2017, I catalogued and photographed all the artefacts in the hut at Base Y, Horseshoe Island. I scrutinised and recorded every nook, cranny, drawer, cupboard and container to list all the items I could find. By the end, I felt that I knew the contents of the hut better than anyone since the hut was occupied in 1955-60. It was my first time working in Antarctica and I was convinced that Horseshoe is unique! 

Horse Island Hut at sunset with a mountain behind

The exterior of Horseshoe Island Hut in 2017 (Credit: UKAHT/Sophie Rowe)

But others who know all the UKAHT sites told me that Base W, Detaille Island, is very similar. Both huts are made from identical flat-pack kits. The contents were standard issue across all FIDS (Falkland Islands Dependencies Survey) bases, including all furniture, equipment and supplies. One person told me the only way they could tell the huts apart when they were inside was by the colour of the curtains! I was intrigued and wanted to see Detaille for myself. 

Detaille Island Hut exterior under blue skies with white snow in foreground

The exterior of Detaille Island Hut in 2024 (Credit: UKAHT/Sophie Rowe)

When I first went into the hut at Base W in January 2024, it was spooky how similar it was to Horseshoe. The sledge workshop, lounge, loft, corridor and kitchen had almost identical layouts and I saw familiar objects everywhere I looked. But as I got to know the hut, I realised that Horseshoe and Detaille are more different than they appear. And the reasons are to do with their history in the 1950s. 

The most noticeable difference is the wall colours. Detaille has a soothing 1950s colour scheme of cream and pale green paint. The base was occupied for just three years and this seems to be the original scheme. 

Inside the radio room showings its green walls and old radio

Inside the radio room at Detaille (Credit: UKAHT/Sophie Rowe)

Horseshoe, however, has a riot of different colours, including red, dark blue, forest green, lollipop orange, dusky pink, purple, brown and black as well as cream and pale green. It is funny to think of the young men working there choosing outrageous colours to brighten up the monochrome of Antarctica. 

The interior of Horseshoe with blue and red walls

The more colourful Horseshoe interior (Credit: Oliver Smaje) 

And they had time for painting because sea ice conditions meant they couldn’t do much of their planned work of mapping and science. Stuck at home, the base commander ordered them to repaint the interior to keep them busy, so Horseshoe was repainted most years while it was occupied. 

There are other clues that the men at Horseshoe had time on their hands and could get involved in elaborate domestic projects. For example, they built a luxurious bathtub from oil drums, plumbed into a hot water tank and draining to the outside. Even more elaborate are two homemade sack trolleys with concrete wheels for ferrying coal around. 

Wooden sack trolley

Detaille's sack trolley (Credit: UKAHT/Sophie Rowe)

Meanwhile, at Detaille the men had excellent sea ice conditions and had no trouble getting out with their dog teams to map the Peninsula. In their second summer, they covered almost 5,800km (3,600mi) of unmapped terrain with four dog teams – an astonishing feat of courage and endurance. Even while on base, they had an onerous schedule of meteorological observations and other tasks, leaving them little time to modify their home. 

What makes Detaille unique is the fact it was abandoned at short notice in 1959. Only the things that could be transported by dog sledge were removed. This means there are far more clothes and scientific items than at Horseshoe. One of my favourite spaces in Base W is the corridor with its collection of boots and shoes on a high shelf.

The corridor of detaille with its shelf of boots

The corridor with its collection of boots (Credit: UKAHT/Sophie Rowe)

Mixed in with mukluks and waterproof ankle boots are white plimsolls, perhaps used for the tennis match with the Duke of Edinburgh who visited in 1957. These personal items, largely missing at Horseshoe, give an atmospheric sense of how the hut felt while it was in use and contribute to the time capsule quality at Detaille.

Sophie in the Detaille Kitchen

Sophie in the kitchen at Detaille (Credit: UKAHT/Sophie Rowe)

– Sophie Rowe, Artefacts Conservator, Base W, Detaille Island.

Support our work Protect Antarctica's heritage

Every membership and donation we receive helps our expert teams deliver vital conservation work across the heritage sites that we preserve. Without your support, sites of great importance in Antarctica's history could quickly deteriorate, taking with them historic artefacts, tales of scientific advancement and human endeavour that inform how we, as a global community, view and value Antarctica today. With your help, we can continue to conserve this special continent to ensure its protection for years to come.

Donate now

Become a member

Follow a unique colony at the end of the world

The gentoos of Port Lockroy are perhaps some of the most famous penguins in the world! The colony made their home with us on Goudier Island over 30 years ago and we have been studying and contributing to their protection ever since. Inquisitive, fluffy and funny, we love sharing their activity with everyone around the world.

Buy now Buy now as gift Renew your adoption