Jules McKim reflects on coming of age in the summer after school ended, when climbing took him down new paths and up new routes...
The full fat tick of the seconds as the hand slowly sweeps around the clock face, hanging on the wall as big as a dartboard. The arrow of time: it points one way from here. The air is like thick liquid in the July heat, the exam hall silent except for the scratching of a hundred pens filling in final answers. The summer day is turning outside: traffic sounds slowing, shadows starting to lengthen, pigeons making their soft pigeony noises in the roof rafters, bursts of violent noise from the pneumatic drill at the road works outside the butchers.
I sit back with a satisfied resignation: I had done all I could and to the best of my abilities. No more maths for me, no more exams, no more school! Closing my eyes, I see the slab again, split by a perfect crack. We'll be down there soon! I draw five deep breaths, crack my knuckles, count my blessings, and begin to smile again and take in my surroundings. I had a lump of hash in my pocket, saved for this moment. I take it out discretely, pop it in my mouth and swallow. It won't go down, too big, gagging and eyes watering, and I have no water. Trying to be discrete, coughing it up, biting and dividing it into smaller chunks, eyes in the back of my head keeping track of my teachers, slow invigilating walking up and down between the rows of desks. In five pieces, it goes down in stages: one for each year of my life in this place. I'm out of here! Freedom, celebrations, the beginning of the rest of my life.
That afternoon and evening passed in a blur of dizzy pleasure and laughter as Luke and I travelled east, drawn to the city, London calling, under vast skies lined and crossed by planes going everywhere, day giving way to night, the city lights coming on. We spent the evening wandering the West End pubs mingling with the thousands. Following a plan we approached Battersea Power Station, drawn by its roof with its four surreal corrugated chimneys. That album cover art was such a familiar image from posters on walls at school.
Pink Floyd's The Wall had just come out: we don't need no education, so we went backwards instead through Floyd's discography. Marlborough College: a Hogwarts-style alternate universe inter-penetrated with my hometown, platform 9 ¾ perhaps the record store up Hillier's Yard, the common ground between these two worlds. From the Wall we went back to Animals and Piper at the Gates of Dawn, then forwards with the Clash, Stiff Little Fingers, new wave. We learned a lot I'm sure, but climbing, music and drinking was the hidden and alternative curriculum and it was so much more fun.
It was with Luke that I did the under-noticed stunt of setting a golf course across the school buildings by raising eighteen flags across the rooves at night. I suppose we were trying to dominate or assert ourselves here, overlaying the stuffy traditions and institution of this school with something frivolous and playful. That sense of us and them, we didn't want to be bricks in their walls, we'd climb them instead. Our school buildings, the railway bridges nearby and the slab by the chip shop (later thoughtlessly ruined by Marlborough in Bloom hanging flower displays!) strengthened fingers, honed technique and attracted the attention of the local constabulary. This all coincided with increased confidence and skill on real rock, both of us now moving through HVS and nudging E1, beyond our school instructor in technique and grade if not in experience, common sense, ropework and safety knowledge.
We had a few days in London to celebrate finishing before hitching down to Pembrokeshire to go climbing. Two years previously, on a wet winter's coastal walk, I had spied a huge slab amongst the sea cliffs some miles ahead. This was in the north, west of Solva, some distance away from the main climbing areas near St. Govan's. Checking the local climbing guidebook, there were no crags or routes recorded anywhere near here. My parents continued on while I cut a diagonal down through the gorse and scrub, aiming for a cliff top monolith. Looking over the edge and across was gob-smacking! A 90 foot, 75 degree slab extending several hundred metres unbroken except for a ledge just above the waves. And it was all unclimbed! How come no one had found this before?! It was huge and of obvious quality. There were subsidiary slabs and coves on both sides. Several corner features broke the purity but offered easy routes. Those on the main slab looked brilliant: easier on the left hand side and becoming taller and more difficult on the right hand side.
The rock was all so beautiful; vertically overlapped slabs of grey, brown and purple sandstone stacked like textbooks in a library. This was all underscored by the generous convenience of the sea-level ledges all the way across for access. There was a striking diagonal crack on a slab to the right and right again, above the descent scramble, an off-width crack, a proper one, with a purity of form and little in the way of holds. I spent the next two years day-dreaming, telling no-one but Luke and my parents, drawing the lines on my school book pages when I should have been working, thinking up names for new routes.
We found ourselves a block away from the power station, dressed in black. We had thought that this would be the building to climb. Crossing the river via the Chelsea Bridge we slunk into Battersea Park, the power station looming above us, then, with a quick look to check no-one was watching, climbed over a fence and down a ladder to the lapping waters at the shore of the Thames. Low tide was at about 11 p.m., perfect, we'd just had to go easy on the beers. Picking our way carefully through the mud we walked back under Chelsea Bridge and Grosvenor Railway Bridge and stopped beneath a ladder that led up the wall to the edge of the fenced and floodlit compound. We paused there to catch our breath and to check on our commitment to doing this. The galaxy of lights that was London at night paused too and crystallized above and around us as we stood with our hands on the first rung of the ladder.
Snapshots. Luke disappearing over the fence at the top of the ladder; I gave him two minutes and followed. Feet slapping silently across the yard, feeling horribly exposed in the bright security lights, a little moving stick figure on the Animals album cover there for all to see.
The four chimneys looked huge above us, seeming to be toppling over as clouds moved swiftly behind. Up a ladder into a metal walkway on stilts. It was covered with a roof and joined another structure that angled up into the side of the building. Luke stopped.
"Wait!!" A hissed command.
"What is it?" My panicky whisper.
"I think I heard something."
We crouched and held our breath, waited and listened. There again was the sound of scraping from beneath us, outside and down below. Oh shit! We were trapped! There were numerous holes in the floor, so we attempted to peer through and make out in the weirdly floodlit gloom the source of the scuffling. Hearts thudding in chests. Thoughts of capture were hard to escape. Suddenly below we both saw two long shapes dart across the open yard. Rats! Big ones at that! Relief. Our way seemed clear…
The ramp soon entered the building and so did we, stepping with relief onto solid concrete floors. Silence and a musty smell. We could sense the vast space of the turbine hall in the darkness in front of us – a strange instinctive sense deduced from the smell, the faint breath of air on our faces and some sort of bat-like echolocation. Wow. Welcome to the machine. We shone our torches into the blackness and the beams were cut by a web of metal girders going across and up. The blackness was so complete our torch beams disappeared into it. A couple of disturbed pigeons clapped away into the darkness. There was something distinctly spooky about the stillness and quiet. This place used to be filled with huge noise and motion and people. Now no-one and empty halls.
Steps were easy to find. Somewhere above lights were on and there was a growing hum of generators as we silently took steps upwards. Where there's lights there's people, we thought, so we stopped for what felt like an age. Finally, convinced we were alone, we carried on up. More stairs up several levels to a door. It opened with a stiff push and a scrape and there before us was the roof. Smiles beaming to replace our torch lights, we gazed up at the chimneys pointing like fingers into the clouds. We managed to scramble up the brick bases to touch their corrugations, a wide pinch, and sat there celebrating our success, looking out across the city and the night and delaying the descent. The four chimneys made the whole building seem like it was plugged into the night sky, drawing down energy from above. The stars were barely visible, absorbed into an orange glow thrown up by a million sodium street lights.
Despite the urge to begin retracing our steps, we enjoyed a pause, a bracketed collection of minutes to gather our thoughts. Our lives were at a turning point, our hands on a switch: we were aware of our position, both here and in life. Any choice made for our next move would close lots of doors. We talked about this sense of being at a node; a meeting point of pathways and potentialities that had both led us here and would lead us away.
Going back down, reversing our steps, was quick and easy, fingers pressed hard on the rewind button, plagued by the fear of someone or something sharing the building with us and following us down. We'd watched too many horror films: it was all we could do to stay calm and not run. We walked faster, still quiet, down the ramp, the reflected lights in the Thames twinkling and glittering like waterfalls, along the walkway, across the yard, back over the fence, along the foreshore of the river and back into Battersea Park. With balaclavas pulled off, we sauntered casually back into the throng of people, taxis and buses, a sudden transition, happy with the knowledge of our shared secret, lifted up by the fact that we had done it, the two of us together alone in the crowds.
I found a sledgehammer on the golf course, on another golf-less evening up there with a selection of bottles and friends. This was stashed knowing it could come in useful. And then months later, two metal stakes discovered in the bushes by the river. We had our Pembroke belay kit sorted.
A long hitch west down the M4. Long waits, short waits. Tossing coins to the gods of the hitch – good luck if a car drives over them: next car will stop. They usually didn't; time — not money — our currency. As we go west, the traffic reduces, the green grows and spreads and we chase the sun. A lift from a dear old lady who said if she had seen the sledgehammer and stakes she certainly would not have stopped! A lift in the back of a farmer's pick-up with a pile of fleshy bones, spinal column, ribs, stink and flies. Huge blue above, fair weather cumulus, a Simpsons sky. Five years fall away behind us as St Bride's Bay comes into view on our ride down through Newgale.
We finally got to Solva and then one more lift to the track that led down to the hamlet of Trelerw, the nearest settlement to the crag: a farm and outhouses, a few other cottages. Home life and responsibilities left far behind. The farmer was a delight and let us camp in his field, showed us the water tap and an outside loo we could use.
The weather was set perfect. We had a week of sunshine and did new routes every day. It was hard not to think they were all great, but several of them truly were. And then a lot were a bit average…but they were new! And new was good. It was a blank canvas, our own unlined pages on which to decide where to go, where to write our lines; our voluntary and very happy detention. As many lines as we liked, as we could do. We did the obvious easy ones first, the corners and cracks and ledges, all up to about VS or so.
With the cliff some distance away from the coast path, we were the only people we saw all day, living at the base of the crag, bags by the monolith, swimmers on later and dips in the low tide kelp forests, going a bit feral and crazed in the constant sun of this south facing sun trap, running out of water, back to the farm for refills. The occasional seal: curved head breaking the surface like a question mark, deep dark watery pools for eyes, whiskers twitching. Luke showed me on the hottest day how if he squeezed his nipples really hard clear fluid came out. Which was both interesting and disturbing. I tried but my tits were dry.
We named the whole cliff Craig Morfa, but Carreg-y-Barcud it became. Morfa was a nod to the map where the word appeared, marking a nearby marsh. Carreg-y-Barcud on another map, the crag of the kite. Whatever, the name didn't matter; we were not the first to enjoy this beautiful little corner of the world, but we were surely the first to get to know it so intimately. With all the time in the world we were spreading our wings and rising above and beyond our school years, the restrictions and routines we had been bogged down in, the interminable terms.
The routes got done: Sugarland Express, Granny Basher, Megalon Wang, Agent Orange, Metamorphosis, Eric the Fruitbat, Double Vision, Beyond the Azimuth, Opium Glide and the Fermenting Telescope (a distant cousin of the Effervescing Elephant?). Our heads were filled with Syd Barrett psychedelia at the time.
Metamorphosis was lovely, we were on and in our element: Hard Severe, good gear placements, dreamy easy trad, little crux step up at the top. The sandstone was hard and covered in wrinkles and crimps. The main worry was where to find gear, so we followed the cracks. The whole immense main slab to the right was clearly climbable, but not by us as the gear looked minimal. There's E3 up to E8 on there now.
The diagonal line I had decorated my school books with became Beyond the Azimuth. We pounded in a stake at the top, and I abbed down to clear the vegetation from the crack. Luke sat by the stake holding it and leaning back with all his weight as a back up. We really didn't trust our skills. The crack was full of earth and vegetation but because of the slantiness of it I gave up trying to swing across to clean the lower half.
Climbing it had an engrossing and awkward mixture of solid finger jams and gear and twisting positions and smeary feet. At half height you're forced to switch from using the crack for hands to using it for feet, not much for the fingers and the gear placements then hidden and awkward. All the climbing I'd done in my school days had set me up for this, there were skills and lessons learned to draw upon. My heart was in my dry mouth, sweat poured, the sun shone and the success was sweet.
Luke had his own classic with Opium Glide, the off-width. Fit, strong and bold, Luke was climbing the best he'd ever done, but this route silenced him, the Goon Show voices stopped as he got stuck in. Belaying him was terrifying as he onsighted this poorly protected insecure crack, all chicken wings and layaways, before we knew that a chicken wing didn't need a chicken.
It was about a year later, having sent our first ascents into a guidebook writer in Cardiff that we learned that the cliff had been discovered by Mike Harber the same year I'd found it. He had been starting to develop it with various friends, keeping it quiet. Most of our routes, therefore, were simply early second ascents! Our Double Vision was already Double Corner and Opium Glide Just Fits.
But we got to keep Beyond the Azimuth, Granny Basher, Metamorphosis and the Fermenting Telescope and anyway, what about Battersea Power Station? I'm sure that wasn't a first ascent. It really doesn't matter. But at that time it did – getting the routes and our names in the guide, our little contribution to the wonderful world that is UK climbing.
There were midday swims, walks into St. Davids for ice creams and beers, back for more rock later, sitting on the cliff top looking out across the million glittering points of light on the waters of St. Bride's Bay, oil tankers waiting for the high tide, sheltering in the lee of Skomer Island. We had it all for a while, we needed no-one and nothing else. Milford Haven refinery chimneys poked their cheeky noses over the southern horizon like smoking fags. The joy of our young bodies, free hearts and open minds exploring this gorgeous landscape, doing what we loved without any guidance or obligation apart from by or to ourselves. Evenings in the warm sun, bodies knackered, our dehydration adding value to that first pint, inner smiles of contentment, comfortably numb.
Back many times over the years, some more new routes, working rightwards across the main slab ticking the harder and harder lines. It gave me crag booty several times: cams stuck in routes and kit fished out of the Just Fits crack by the gearing-up area. It felt like my crag, as in, it felt known, it felt like home. I visited every time I was in the area, just to say hello.
I go down with Jeannie 15 years later. It's in the guidebook now, a popular little crag. There has been some parking stress: people leaving cars in-front of the farmer's gates. Jeannie and I walk through the carpet of flowers on a glorious summer day: thrift and gorse, that sweet honey and coconut scent. She's 8 months pregnant and glowing. The top of the crag by the monolith has the imprints of people, is obviously now a gearing up place: short flattened grass, a boot print, a dog end and a ring pull. But the rock and the routes remain the same. Isn't this lack of change on our crags wonderful? We never graduate from these places, they stay relevant and charming, always willing to offer us new lessons.
I scramble down and pass by the routes, touch the first holds, greet these old friends, my eyes hopping up the chalk trails, our measured vertical morse up the slabs. A quick solo up Metamorphosis, but I freeze…I can't move above 15 feet. An unfamiliar and rising feeling of panic wells up. No, not today. I back down and scramble out across and up to my family. Years ago this would have been the cause of self-critical disappointment, but this time I don't care and it feels wonderful. Old friends, old new routes overlap with new life, new adventures and the future, pulling us on. But for now, we are here and just here and now still has all we need.