SIR RANULPH Twistleton-Wykeham-Fiennes and just plain Charles Burton have returned to Greenwich, England, after a trip around the world. It was not your normal around-the-world cruise. Sir Ranulph and Mr. Burton followed the Greenwich meridian -- the north-south imaginary line that passes through suburban London's Greenwich Observatory, a fair part of Europe, the Mediterranean, the Sahara Desert and the South Atlantic. They traveled by Land Rover and skis, snowmobiles and covered rafts; encountered polar bears and minus- 50-degree temperatures; drifted for 99 days on disintegrating ice floes.

This Transglobe voyage was not the only triumph of human spirit and skill recorded recently. The last days of summer saw Bill Dunlop cross the Atlantic in a 9-foot-1-inch boat, 54-year-old Yonthy Rhodes swim across the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay and 65-year-old Ashby Harper swim the English Channel. The Transglobe enterprise, however, seemed somehow to be a national as well as a personal achievement. "I feel good," Sir Ranulph said, "the way I did when England won the World Cup."

Cynics will ask how it helps a country when its soccer players win a series of games or when a few individuals, supported by a large number of skilled helpers, manage a feat like the Transglobe voyage. Transglobe's own sponsors seem aware of such cynicism when they take pains to point out that the team publicized the mostly British products it used from Barcelona to Cape Town to Vancouver, British Columbia.

But didn't Sir Ranulph and Mr. Burton and all their team do more, something even beyond gathering information on geomagnetic sunspots at the South Pole? In a world in which most people spend most of their time doing the necessary, the occasional fling at the flagrantly unnecessary lifts the sights and the spirits of even those who stay at home. As Prince Charles, the venture's official patron, put it, the Transglobe mission was "gloriously, refreshingly mad." We enjoyed reading about it and reflecting on it as we nodded off for a midday nap.