Jules McKim reminisces of summer days discovering the joys of a local towpath bridge traverse, which brought together a (socially distanced) band of climbers and passers-by in a testing time...
Happy New Tier! And with that, the climbing walls shut again. Back to the bridge we found in the summer, where the road goes over the water. A thirty metre dry-in-all-weathers traverse on slopey crimps. I'd cycled past this wall years ago and noticed historic chippings on the left-hand end, creating the start of possibilities, but the rest of the wall looked and felt way too hard.
Back in the first lockdown we were encouraged to spend time outdoors, but with no natural crags in Oxfordshire we had to improvise and find a safe solution. Where there's a wall there's a way. First to a park in town and a secret wall. Golden evenings with Alex and Esther working out the moves, avoiding the poo under a blanket and evil brambles at the end, to finish with beers overlooking the pandemically quiet city and the dreaming spires. Up to the old supermarket alley traverse from back in the '90s, went at about V6, right to left but the alley is too narrow to keep a respectful distance from passers-by. I used to visit this spot regularly back then after work. A 15 minute hit – could I do it in a oner? Eventually there and back. Good times. But no more. Into old Headington, and inevitably older walls. The rock is all a bit rubbish in Oxfordshire – a soft oolitic limestone that varies considerably. At worst, it's the worst.
In the summer and with the indoor walls still shut, we went back under the bridge with brushes and towels, beer and snacks, and put the time in. The rock here is better; a bit more solid, the wall formed from bread loaf and bread bin sized blocks, often rounded on top, the uncleaned areas covered in crusty toast, with occasional and surprising crimps. I could tell you about the intricacies of the moves, the piecing-together of sequences, the stringing of the sequences together, finding the best rests and using them well, but what was far more satisfying was the reconnections with people. The climbing friends with the same needs, the passers-by on the towpath, old friends vaguely recognised, new friends made, the condensed quality of short and precious social hits.
The old boy on two sticks who stops to chat of his mountaineering days in Scotland. The narrowboat dwellers passing by with wheelbarrows filled with firewood. Adam who lives on a boat further up, a Wim Hof cold swimmer, who wants to video us, cut and paste clips to drum and bass tunes. Chris comes by later, arriving on his bike, fingers pre-warmed up by funky guitar practice. He feels this wall is his anti-style, this crimpy endurance. It is a delight, however, to watch him work sections out and see them executed perfectly, with new subtle beta tweaks and adjustments. Another day, Paul pops by, has parked above and walked in. There's hot drinks, soup and always interesting snacks with Paul. We joke about transforming the graffiti-under-the-bridge-hobo vibe into something more slick and corporate, lamps and heating, thumping music, and, as it inevitably gets busier, an online booking system with timed slots, wristbands and hand sanitiser hung from the ivy.
Lots of dogs come by, pausing to sniff our boots, an occasional cocked leg over our stuff causing us to shout! It is fortunately remarkably free of dog shit. Is that an Oxford thing? But I like dogs and dog walkers and they are curious, have the time and are up for chatting. I think many people are, during these COVID-19 times. We know more clearly that we need this.
The wirebrush sees some heavy action. Five holds feel over-improved in a way. The purity has perhaps gone, but it is more inclusive. We still can't do it though. Feet are good for most of the traverse, but three quarters of the way in the holds get pretty small and there's an unfamiliar subtlety to using them. A thumb undercut move becomes the key that unlocks the puzzle, reminding me of Pool Wall at Lawrencefield that I never quite had the guts to lead. But here, rather than a 20 foot back splash into sludge, it is a much drier and safer step-down dismount.
Many visits with a selection of sporadic visitors. Chris and I are regulars, others come and go. It is only 15 minutes door to wall for me, so with flexible working, an hour visit in-between virtual meetings becomes possible. My work diary planning aligns to the sun, opening up my availability to be outdoors in the middle of the day. Although the wall faces north, the sun plays pleasingly off the walls on the other side, forming shadow arcs and shimmers on the underside of the bridge. The water slides slowly by while weeping willows watch. Traffic noise is not too bad, especially now, but there is an occasional passing train – toddling Edie calls them "choo choos." As Lizzie has a go, I play with Edie to make sure she doesn't fall into the water. We chuck little stones in turn into the depths. I show her the game of floating leaves out and chucking stones at them, giggling with direct hits.
There's unknown chalk one day. Signs from others, our modern powdery graffiti. Rado's boat is on the river nearby so perhaps it was him. Alex and Esther and I have some beautiful evening sessions here over the summer. The temperatures do not help the climbing – those slopey crimps are a nightmare – but it is such good training. And it's certainly more fun than the fingerboard. We sit on the grass patch by the wet streak, the start of the traverse, at least in my mind. Others have started at the other end, doing it left to right, keeping distant. We each have a slightly different relationship with the where, what, how and why of it all. We set our own personal challenges. But now with tired muscles and sore knuckles, beers are cracked, snacks are snacked and the craic is craiced. How's it going for you? This fucking weird year? Sharing experiences, struggles, questions and all that life stuff. But mainly talking shit and having a laugh. God how I missed that! The social glue that binds us, the golden threads linking us with the people we see regularly.
The impossible becomes possible as the sections come together one by one. By the wet streak, which is actually out from under the bridge, the running water has eroded the mortar. A series of big slots and a low foot-edge mark the place I start. The link to the rest at half-way is the first section to come together. It is hard to grade, it feels about V3, but as it's so long, is it a boulder, or a ground level sport route? There is a lot of V1 and V2 climbing. However, the second half gets a lot harder. The first crux is a series of slopers that need to be used with active and careful thumbs, feet on the lowest block. I kept pinging off in the summer; sweaty hands just wouldn't stick.
With falling temperatures and keeping low down, the sequence reveals itself, the movements become coded into the body and mind. The first half becomes so wired it is possible to scuttle along speedy-crab style to conserve energy. After the slopers is a good, low crimp and a mono just to the left. I used to use the mono with the left and then switch to laying away off it with the right hand moving across to the next low crimp before the main crux. Now, I'm staying higher, matching on a lovely sharp-edged crimp on a black block. That works better, becomes the way. Then the main crux is just brilliant. By moving feet further along than feels intuitive, I can get the left thumb undercut out left and up. A timed pop allows me to bring my right into one of the improved slots. It works, just. Then about half of the time. Then most times. A long reach, several changes of hand positions, left foot way across and the Thank God Crimp on the yellow graffiti is within reach. And then you're home and dry. Although awkwardly low, the historic chippings are good and incut, the footholds are OK and the left arête beckons with a grin. On these mid-winter sessions, the first go is a finger-number that, once warmed again, sets you up for an hour or so of subsequent attempts. Resting is always a challenge, walking around trying to stay warm, but the successful links are always after a good 15 minutes or more.
The full link remains. I'm getting close as is Roman, a Slovakian friend. The race is on. I get it…just. I'm as chuffed as on my best tick on outdoor routes this year! The sequence all falls into place, far from perfect, but it worked despite some shakes. A near heartbreaker at the end as my right foot slipped off a foothold, but fortunately landed on a hold on the next block down. Roman gets the second send minutes after. It's got to be "The Lockdown Lowdown"! After the wet streak start, you move up to some good edges on the top row of blocks as you enter the archway, stay high for a few moves, then drop down, down low and stay low until the end…the light at the end of the tunnel.
Dave and Adam walked by a few weeks back. We visit a lot in the Christmas-New Year weeks. Mostly dry and at or even below freezing, so conditions are great. Dave gives me a hand-warmer pack, bless him. Paul has curry puffs. Rado walks past with Patrick. They're off to see the starling murmurations at Otmoor. The winter beauty that is always out there that this year has allowed some of us to rediscover. These lovely social interactions that are physically distanced are strange indeed, but better than nothing or Zoom. Tom, Lizzie and Edie become regulars. As walkers pass by on the canal, we squeeze into the wall, turn in, hold our breath, but smile. These meetings are all kind, smiles are returned, there's lots of eye contact if no physical contact or closeness. Alex visits. Great to see him, share lockdown stories. He and his family were stuck in their house in Fontainebleau surrounded by boulders, not allowed to go bouldering! He gets my excitement about this bridge traverse. He had an epic traverse near Leamington Spa back in the day. We agree these long sideways odysseys have a way of getting under and wearing away your skin. It's already entered my dreams and my tips are sore.
Back in Sheffield student days, after a childhood on Wiltshire railway bridges (good climbing rock that Sarsen stone), there was plenty to go at. Broomgrove wall obviously, and if you were lucky you might see Ben and Jerry doing their thing. Red Lane in all of it's boring long-ness and redness. What was that – 200 metres at V0? At least you could watch the girls walking to and from Halifax Hall. On the left-hand side was an awesome V6 or V7 left to right, not a part of the main traverse. This wall had actually slumped over the years and bulged outwards alarmingly, which added to the pump. Up here, the building stone is gritstone, so naturally quality quarried stone to climb on. In my third year I lived on Upperthorpe Road in Crookes. There was another nearby venue we spent time at – Tay Street. It was a beautiful location – a street on a slope, with trees and an aesthetically pleasing high traverse that got harder and harder as you went right but got closer and closer to the ground as the street climbed up beneath you. V hadn't been invented yet, B was just a twinkle in a boulderer's eye, French grades were…French! This was given an English 6b/c grade. I got it in one, eventually, one evening on the way home. Smile on my face in the pub that night.
And here I am again, nearly 35 years on, fiddling around under a bridge, in filthy trousers. There's always more to discover. Alex and I clean the section far right – the 2 Weak extension. It's a challenge to spend time working this as it's out in the open and not often in condition, the mud underfoot and low footholds make just getting started troublesome. This eventually comes together too, but it's not wired yet, not at all. Some traditionalist part of me turns my attention to the slot-less link on the main traverse. Only 5 holds to eliminate, but they are the good ones. I mark them with car touch-up paint, bright red, like the blood from chippers' fingers removed with their own chisels. Strangely it's not a lot harder, perhaps single moves up to V6 from V5. As a link, it is the hardest thing I've done. What is most pleasing, is simply us coming here, with a piece of blank wall to stare at as a backdrop while we spend time together, us soft social animals whittling and whiling away an afternoon. It is these people, with our shared weird obsession that I feel I belong with, belong to. Rather than writing our names or tags with spray cans, we are combining our efforts and building up a dot to dot of chalk, beta and connections, watching each other's movements and through it all, just chatting, taking the piss, supporting and sharing (in a COVID secure way).
With the new variant, it's back again to the old. Exercise not socialise, going alone. Previous planned one-other-person hook-ups become random solo visits, avoiding people. The tow path quietens. The still of winter as the world holds its breath. Not far away from here all hell's breaking loose, in the hospitals and care homes, American politics. You can forget the world for an hour down here. I learn minus 3 is too cold for the fingers and anything more than a breeze is a killer. Next time I see Adam he says he is looking to buy some rock shoes himself, why not, it's on his doorstep, and asks for recommendations. He knows someone who started going to the wall, back when it was open, loved it, got him into exercise and out of an overdoing the weed rut.
Life stuff happens for us all. Bereavements, job losses, depressions, the collapse of our social lives, on-going gnawing anxiety about the health and well-being of ourselves and loved ones. Worry about the world. All this change goes by. Reduced traffic on the canal, road and railway. The wall though stays constant…presents itself consistently to our changing moods and fitness states and how we deal with the fluctuating conditions and the turn of the seasons. It stays the same but within this sameness are subtle differences each day met with major differences in ourselves, especially the mental state we arrive with.
I miss our frequent forays out to Cheddar, to Portland, north to the grit, but there is pleasure to be had here, in a weird and compressed way, in this weird and compressed time we find ourselves in. Having always been more of a rock worrier than a rock warrior, sleepless nights before gritstone frighteners, the low risk and lack of variety right now allows exploration in other places. Those elusive skills: trying to capture calm in exertion, allowing flow to flow in, the intention to practise impeccability but without trying too hard. And in some way, going back to the same thing again and again, banging my head on the same patch of wall over and over, reveals more than running around the country to different crags every weekend. Or so I tell myself at least. God I miss climbing outdoors with you all!