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A Return to Innocence - Climbing under Lockdown Article

© Jamie Holding

Jamie Holding shares a reflective piece on loss, lockdown and a return to his roots, with some musical memories along the way...

My mum moved out of Stone House care home, Chester, early in March, for the final time. I returned to say a last goodbye, pen her eulogy, and rehearse my delivery; to speak of her with the same sense of love and humour we had always shared.

Chester City Walls, King Charles' Tower.  © Jamie Holding
Chester City Walls, King Charles' Tower.
© Jamie Holding

Lockdown swiftly followed and, marooned in Chester, I walked the city's walls while deep in reflection. Daily exercise outdoors was within guidance: walking, running, or cycling. I rode alone, for miles, along the Cheshire highways of school days, journeying back down memory lane. The Roodee racecourse has a well-used and chalk-marked traverse wall for the city's climbers. It's a Roodee hard traverse of 30 metres, on the city side of the Grosvenor bridge, alongside a wide walkway, exposed to public scrutiny, shared and unsanitised by a bunch of regulars.

Early in lockdown, the city was a ghost town. Stay Home, Protect the NHS, Save Lives. I walked the walls again, discovering low level, low key, traverses, where I could walk just inches above the ground. First up, or rather first along, back and forth, was a 50 metre section of the rampart wall, by King Charles' Tower. Mossy in places, off vertical, with a base layer footledge, it went fairly easily. I shared the space only with squirrels. One furry rebel, ignoring social distancing, eyeballed me closely from a neighbouring tree. A brief moment shared with a kindred climber.

Water Tower Gardens, Chester.  © Jamie Holding
Water Tower Gardens, Chester.
© Jamie Holding

Water Tower Gardens is a short stroll from my lockdown apartment. It offered a harder traverse, about 25 metres long, with a crux step millimetres off the ground. With practice I could walk laps back and forth, enjoying the sun on my back. The nearby bench was a bonus feature and I discovered it was possible to walk back and forth along the top of it - easier than slack lining. The wall was shared with its resident rats, thankfully abiding to distancing guidance, scurrying between the drainage pipes along the base. The park was shared with dog walkers, toddlers on trikes, student householders playing football on the bowling green, and the odd gathering of fellow lowlifes, all exercising our addictions.

Small scale, local exercise. These were solitary mini-adventures which brought hope to living in a ghost town.

This Used to be my Playground

Cheshire Sandstone, The tiers of Helsby Hill.  © Jamie Holding
Cheshire Sandstone, The tiers of Helsby Hill.
© Jamie Holding

End Crack, Severe 4b, Helsby Hill. End of the beginning or the beginning of the end. My first ever rock climb, a top-rope belay from schoolmate Billy Jones, up some sandy scoops, with a hand crack finale. I revelled in it, attached with a waist belt, wearing my slip-on school shoes. Flake Crack HVS 5a was the following week's Wednesday afternoon game. A handful of jams and it passed beneath some painful toe jamming in trainers. The appropriately named Tyro's Wall E3 5b succumbed to an all-out effort on top rope later that autumn term. I clawed my way up its steepness, sporting spanking new EB rock boots, topping out gasping, forearms on fire.

Frodsham outcrops, Hoop-la buttress.  © Jamie Holding
Frodsham outcrops, Hoop-la buttress.
© Jamie Holding

The Frodsham outcrops of Woodhouse Hill are small, mighty and beyond vertical. Mastery initially proved elusive but the opportunity to persevere came with every commute from Chester to the University of Salford. Roped rehearsals, often alone, provided regular tutorials of undergraduate climbing studies. Examinations passed, my graduation ceremony included Frodsham ascents, wearing gown, mortar board and EBs with holes in the toes. A solo streak of Hoop-la, barefoot and birthday-suited, seemed like a fitting conclusion. A graduate at last, it was time to move on, outward bound to Africa, and leave my playground. Billy graduated too but left us all, from Craig y Bera, forever young.

Helsby High School

Derek's bench, Woodhouse Hill, Frodsham.  © Jamie Holding
Derek's bench, Woodhouse Hill, Frodsham.
© Jamie Holding

A return from Lesotho brought a return to the Alps and a three year sandwich course of Plas y Brenin bread, with a lean filling of Outward Bound Eskdale. At interview I was asked if I would become a teacher or a mountain guide. "Both," I replied. How much, yet how little, I knew.

Post-graduate study in Leeds was an opportunity to grapple in the classroom, indoors and out, on Yorkshire gritstone and limestone. Unforgiving environments, both.

Looking west, across the Mersey estuary.  © Jamie Holding
Looking west, across the Mersey estuary.
© Jamie Holding

My mother left her teaching job at Helsby High School, and I was her replacement. A moment of confusion for the classes I took over from her, for me too. I could be on the crag by 4 p.m., with lesson preparation and book marking waiting till dark. Winter months shifting weights at the YMCA gym, Chester. Paddy and I were surrounded by beefcakes; a pair of weedy rock rats, sharing our enthusiasm and building anticipation for spring and a spring back to sandstone. Derek Walker was my Year Head at Helsby, a lifelong climber, enthusiast and wise counsel, in and out of the classroom.

The world keeps turning, the Mersey on fire.  © Jamie Holding
The world keeps turning, the Mersey on fire.
© Jamie Holding

Equipped by the winter of weights and waiting, I sprang onto Helsby's roof cracks, on the sharp end of the rope. The Mangler E3 6a and Crumpet Crack E4 6b were tough but safe. The crumpet left a love bite, a crack-scarred fist to this day. The Brush Off E4 5c offered just one dubious, small cam at half height, scant protection but sufficient encouragement. I made a purposeful sweep of the slab, from its chipped starting holds, stretching to rugosities, gained the break and teetered onwards, up on shallow pockets to redemption. The not-led 6b of Sandy was claimed on top rope, after much practice. An evening rehearsal on it extended beyond dusk and a voice from above asked, "Are you alright down there? Are you stuck?" I scrambled around the top tier, to tell the village policeman I was enjoying my evening, only stuck in Helsby 'til the end of term. Derek too was to leave school at the term's end. Climbers' Club President and soon to head up the British Mountaineering Council. A steady hand, on crag and committee, and forever a Frodsham aficionado.

Probationary year back in school completed, a year back in the playground, it was time to move on. Down Under bound, school was out.

Climbing out of Lockdown

England's easing of lockdown restrictions in May paved a return to Frodsham and Helsby. Allowable travel and within range for the purpose of exercise. As a lone householder, and lone climber, I proceeded with caution, securing positions with a rope from above, and a core strengthened by Shauna Coxsey's YouTube routines. Anchored to trees, I could remember the move sequences and even the feel of holds, before launching upwards with impunity, secure in the knowledge that I wouldn't be a burden to the NHS. Boulderers appeared at Frodsham, waddling through the trees with their mattresses. I rather doubt there is a bouldering mat made, with sufficient cushioning, to protect my experienced joints, were I to plummet from a highball problem. Practice makes permanent on Frodsham's problems, and the rope can be removed, just like... in the beginning.

Tyro's Wall, Helsby Hill.  © Jamie Holding
Tyro's Wall, Helsby Hill.
© Jamie Holding

On Helsby Hill crowds flocked to the summit, top ropers appeared on the tiers, fixed to iron stakes, and the gangway ledge had its gang of four, enjoying their beer, baccy and sunbathing. Gazing at the panorama of the Clwydian hills, Cheshire plain, Stanlow oil refinery, a rash of wind turbines, the cathedrals of Liverpool, the chemical works of Runcorn, and the sweep of the Mersey estuary, I commented on the quality of their hangout. "It's beautiful," they replied. A daily tideline of trash washed up with each sunny day's wave of visitors, and I crammed my rucksack on each visit with debris to recycle from our shared surfaces.

Cruising Crew's Arête, Frodsham.  © Jamie Holding
Cruising Crew's Arête, Frodsham.
© Jamie Holding

At the end of May, in England, we could meet another person outdoors. Butch joined me for a handful of sandstone classics. Rusty from long hours of online teaching with his primary pupils, we warmed-up on top rope. Polished from exercise on furlough, I led a couple of three star routes. Flake Crack, well protected, and Eliminate 1, Helsby's finest E1. It was committing to a good flake, with an exposed traverse to a mantleshelf move, well away from security. I was able to dance along to the beat emanating from the cave below, where three girls were dancing to music from their blaster.

Sandstone selfie.  © Jamie Holding
Sandstone selfie.
© Jamie Holding

The dance continued, re-climbing Tyro's Wall, reliving the beginning. Loaded with side pulls to gain crinkly jug handles, I flowed upwards and outwards, surprised by how friendly it felt. So sweet it was worth a repeat. Someday soon, it will be time to move on from this return to innocence. Time to climb out of isolation and lockdown, seeking to share with you again. Outward bound once more.

Jamie is a British Mountain Guide (IFMGA) and a guide and expedition leader for Jagged Globe. He is also a mentor and coach of instructors for the Outward Bound Trust and chairman of the Anglesey Adventure Club and the kids' climbing club at Indy Wall.

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14 Jul

Beautiful Jamie, and you have my sympathies for the loss of your Mum. Did you really take over classes she had taught before you!? That must have been a weird experience for the kids! :)

14 Jul

What a lovely piece. I've looked up at a couple of people on Flake Crack in recent weeks, wonder if you were one of them? I didn't know Derek Walker but his funeral was at the church at the end of my road. I bumped into it by chance out for a run on the hill, amused at the time to see the sombre suits mixed in with the odd gaffer taped duvet. And thanks for the litter picks, for some reason Helsby has become a honeypot for the careless. I was up there last night and it wasn't looking too bad, thanks to the selfless and unsung. Can I recommend a potter along Long Wall for some fine bouldering if you've not already?

14 Jul

Nicely written! A good read about some of my favourite spots. Being trapped in Chester has reminded me of some good esoterica. But thankfully the sandstone is quieter again now, I'm only sharing the ledges with wildlife and not other guilty locals...

15 Jul

Lovely stuff. I too grew up climbing at Helsby and this takes me right back.

I love the youtube soundtrack to the article. What a great idea and works really well!

16 Jul

In reply to TobyA, Steve, Emily and Depaulo,

Thank you for your kind comments. It’s good to know that there are other sandstone scholars out there. The formative process should resonate with many, even if the contemporary experience is more likely to be indoors, bouldering, on plastic. Longevity gives the perspective of hindsight and perhaps some clarity.

Yes Toby, I really did walk into a maths class expecting Mrs Holding. They were momentarily non-plussed! Kind of like a Doctor Who regeneration, and doubtless many preferred the original.

Steve, I will investigate Helsby’s Long Buttress, before I head off. I really should grapple with Harmers Wood too, though it’s high ball enough to warrant a rope for me. Mark Hounslow and team’s Cheshire Sandstone guidebook is wonderful, evocative and inspiring. His Anvil Integrale is a complete treat - crux where it should be, at the top!

See you out there,


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