An Epic After Climbing by John Coxby John Cox Sep/2008
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So Squib and I are sat at the top of the Archtempter at Blackchurch, fine April evening, watching the sun go down and talking about a great day's climbing and the meaning of life, when it occurs to us to look down to the bottom of the cliff, and there we are, six feet of creamy white water where the 'sac ought to be.
We slalom down the mudslide through the thornbushes, boulderhop across to the base of the route and peer disconsolately into the water for an hour or so. Squib's pretty up for a swim if we can catch a glimpse of the thing, but 'I'm not going to go in there and just hope I bump into it, like.'
No glimpses, and after a bit the sun goes down and we start to remember that it's April, we're still wearing T-shirts, hexes and rockboots, and we have to yomp two miles back to the car along a muddy track through woods. So we set off. In the woods it's like the inside of a bin-liner, but neither of us falls over more than three times, and eventually, after a couple of sumps near the finish, we make it back to the car park.
Now the walk, besides being refreshing, has given us a good chance to evaluate the pros and cons of the situation. On the debit side, the car key is probably in Pembroke by now and I don't have a spare. And for some reason, despite an upbringing in Liverpool, Squib professes no expertise at breaking into cars. However, I am pretty sure that I once used to be a member of the AA, so that might help. Admittedly the mobile is also in the briny and the nearest public telephone is no doubt in Barnstaple, but there is a farmhouse next to the car park.
Squib is the only one of us not wearing poncey once-pink footwear with rubber soles, but on the other hand my climbing apparel has marginally fewer strategic holes in it than his, and I fell over a little less often on the walk back, so we decide that I will go and ask to use the phone. Ten seconds after this decision has been taken I am back outside the farm gate. Standing with its front paws up against the gate, snarling and slavering, is a large dog.
Now I ought to have told you before that Squib is incredibly charming, although he can be a little feckless about stuff like rucsacs. He sighs at my incompetence, utters a few soothing words to the creature, and, ignoring my mewings of disapproval, opens the gate and tickles it under the chin. The dog sighs in ecstasy, and relents sufficiently to let us make it to the door. The farmer opens the door, ready to reach for his shotgun, but Squib moves into action and a minute or two later he is seated in front of the fire with a glass of wine, entertaining the farmer's wife, while I stand in the hall by the telephone, with the dog still eyeing me and growling to itself in low tones.
The telephoning took a while, so I'll spare you the details, but what emerges is that actually the AA only help members whose subscriptions didn't run out two years ago, and anyway they only come out for breakdowns, not idiots who have had their rucsacs washed away while climbing. They do however give me the number of a local garage, who agree that for £80 they will come out and break in for us.
At the end of an hour the farmer is just ready to offer Squib his daughter's hand in marriage, when the love feast is interrupted by the arrival of the mechanic. Everyone comes out into the car park to watch, and the chap very efficiently takes the money and then breaks in (using a manual, presumably issued to mechanics by I know not what public body, giving details of what size coathanger you need to break into every model of car and the exact sequence of movements required once you've got it down beside the window. I imagine this is freely available on the internet by now.).
The chap takes the applause for a job well done, and starts to pack his stuff away. Hang on, we say, what about starting the car? Haven't you got a spare key, he says. No, we say, you're supposed to be hot-wiring the engine. He looks pained. That's illegal guv, he says, more than my job's worth. And he gets into his van. But wait, we cry, would £20 change your mind?
It turns out that it wouldn't but that £50 might do the trick. Luckily we have the cash between us, and he trousers it and gets to work. After a couple of encouraging preliminary roars from the engine, he's lying on his back in the footwell just needing to connect a couple of wires, and I'm even starting to dream about getting back to London before it gets light. He wants some kind of pliers or something: he asks me to hand them to him, but I'm too slow, and he decides to get them himself.
He reaches up to steady himself, takes hold of the steering wheel, turns it, and there's a horribly final clunk as the steering lock comes on. Not to worry, he assures us blithely, once the engine starts it'll override it. He starts it. It doesn't. We've got the engine going all right, but we can only go in one direction. And we're not even facing towards London. The chap seems a bit abashed by this, and he wants to make amends. He explains that actually it's quite easy to break steering locks, and you don't really need them anyway, because all thieves know this, and once they're in your car they're going to take it away if they want to.
Now, up to this point all the decisions I had taken, except for letting Squib choose where to put the rucsac, had been sensible enough. At this point, however, I must admit that I lost my presence of mind. Everyone's staring at me, I want to go home, Squib is starting a new job two hundred and fifty miles away at seven o'clock the next morning, and the chap has an authoritative I-used-to-be-a-car-thief-myself-you-know air about him, so what with one thing and another I agree.
Squib and the chap get into position, brace themselves, give a couple of twists, and there's a sharp crack. Excellent, I think, get out of the driver's seat and let me at it. We can still be in London by three. Then I notice that the chap is ruefully holding the steering wheel and the top half of the steering column, which has snapped clean off.
After a brief but energetic discussion, the talk turns to what we might do now. It seems to me that it would be nice if the chap gave us a lift into Barnstaple. On the other hand the chap says that is out of his way, it will take him an extra hour, he's been on this callout too long already and that his boss will have to charge for an extra hour's callout time, that is £40. I make the point that he's just trashed my car and wonder what his boss would think about that. He says that he never did anything I didn't instruct him to ("that's right", chimes in the farmer) and starts to get back into his van.
Another £40 later, we're at the train station in Barnstaple. The next train is at 5 a.m. and will cost us £80 for two. It will get Squib into his new job about five hours late, and anyway I am not sure that I'm going to survive a forced bivouac on the station platform in T-shirt and leggings. An alternative is needed, and the ever-resourceful van man mentions a taxi rank in the High Street. Surprisingly, he is willing to drive us the half-mile there for free. It's 11.55. They close at 12.00. We have no negotiating position, and £150 it is, with a detour to the nearest cashpoint obligingly thrown in. The proprietor adds insult to injury by refusing to allow his female employee to disappear into the night in the company of vagabonds like ourselves and taking on the job himself.
And that's really the end of the story. I open my eyes occasionally in the next three hours to see the needle quivering on 110 mph. I last see Squib disappearing into the night on his scooter at 3.30 a.m. with an hour's ride ahead of him, and the next weekend I lash out £40 for the train and £600 odd to repair the damage to my car, and drive pensively home alone.
It all came to well over a grand. But it's a great route. Worth every penny.