Back in the 19th Century, the sport of climbing – in the Alps, in Wales and the Lake District – was developed by pipe-smoking gents from the very best universities. Those at Cambridge had the added advantage of their local range of mountains, the mighty Gog-Magog Hills, named after two legendary giants. Less happily, the mighty Gog-Magogs are a mere 75m high, and made of chalk. Closer to home, though, Cambridge does boast its own cliffs. Not of tuffs and lavas of the Ordovician period, but of more mixed stones no more than half a millennium old, forming the courtyards, chapels and libraries of the University.
The first guidebook, 'Roof Climbers of Trinity', was written by Geoffrey Winthrop Young, later friend of Mallory and famous on the Alps as well as Snowdon. He describes 18 routes around his own college, in a style parodying guidebooks of the time: "Crossing the corner of the Hall by a convenient sloping parapet we get our first glimpses of the impressive summits of the Great Court range…" But also an evocative description of what will never be seen again: the rooftop views lit by the moon and a few flickering candle lanterns below.
The College authorities had an unstated agenda of supporting this distinctive sport. First off, they made sure that every student with a spark of life in him (no her, not until the 1960s) would get a grounding in basic drainpipes and windows. This was mandated through rules that closed all entrances from 10pm onwards, subject to a fine of two old pence. While at the foot of the climbs, they added climbing enhancement officers: the Proctor, splendid in his night-coloured academic gown, and two Bulldogs, college porters in bowler hats and running shoes. (Surely Stanage has lost that special frisson now it's no longer patrolled by the gamekeepers with shotguns?)
'Roof Climbers' Guide to Trinity' was published in 1899, which makes it one of the earliest British climbing guides of any sort. The 1930 2nd edition is available online. The classic, however, is 'Night Climbers of Cambridge', published under the pseudonym 'Whipplesnaith' in 1937. Its style is engaging and direct, not unlike the Welsh guidebooks then being written by Menlove Edwards, and with learned quotations from Shakespeare and the King James Bible at chapter headings. The special feature is the photos: blurry black-and-whites taken with the cumbersome glass-plate cameras of the time, flashguns using powdered magnesium, all deployed high above ground level.
But in any guidebook, what counts is the quality of the climbs.
A classic from Winthrop Young's day, the Trinity Great Court Circuit (V Diff) bears comparison with Alpine ridges like the Leslie Stephen route on the Zinal Rothorn. The same delicate à cheval moves along the roofridge of the dining hall, the formidable gendarme of the Porter's Lodge with the exposed move from the top bowl of the drainpipe to the parapet 1m above.
In the 1970s some members of the university mountaineering club attempted the Bridge of Sighs at St John's; and were surprised to find themselves falling off it. "Onlookers seem to find [this climb] especially entertaining, and their care-free laughter seems to continue the harmony of splashing waters which is the last thing one hears before going under." The crucial move, partly concealed by the tree at the left end of the bridge in the photo, is irreversible. The climber edges round the pediment ledge (level with the top of the ivy) using corner holds on the column, then must turn round towards the bridge, shuffle to the left out of balance, and drop across the gap to handholds on the bridge itself.
In 1942, when my father fell off this move, the only escape downstream was through the College Master's garden. The Cripps Building (1967) now gives exits onto the left bank of the river. I tried to discover the official grading of this climb. It turns out to be Grade 1 – as a listed building. As a climb I'd give it VDiff (when sober, which my Dad wasn't).
As the first artificial climbing wall ever built, Trinity's Wren Library (1695) predates all the others by two and a half centuries. It's still one of the best. The climb to the roof involves simple back-and-foot chimneying, and is rewarded by outstanding views of the moonlit river. The 1970 guidebook by Hederatus gives it VDiff; I'd say that was overgrading as I've seen it climbed in long ballgowns. The courtyard face has various routes at VDiff to Severe – Castor and Pollux, Wet Bob's Traverse. Most intriguing is the girdle traverse of the complex column at bottom left, taken 30cm above ground level. This calls for a unique balance move found on no other climb on masonry or real rock. Briefly, the advanced leg goes around the corner first, not for any foothold, but so as to place the climber's centre of gravity inside the stonework.
The Cambridge version of the Matterhorn, though, has to be the famous King's College Chapel. In Whipplesnaith's time this was perhaps Severe: long but technically easy chimneying up to the roof level, followed by exposed moves up one of the 20m summit pinnacles. The holds here are said to be good but the stone is somewhat unsound, with lightning conductor for aid.
Later in the 1930s, however, the college authorities raised the climbing challenge – and the grading – by blocking off each of the four available lower chimneys with 2m of edge-to-edge concrete. The modern route is VS: "The lay-back is one of the hardest in Cambridge, certainly on drainpipes." It's described in the later guidebook 'Cambridge Night Climbing' by 'Hederatus' (1970), which can also be found online. The chapel at St Johns, though less iconic, is considered an even better climb.
So at the very moment when members of the Young Communist League were trespassing on the grouse moors of Kinder Scout, the grouse-shooters themselves – or their irresponsible sons and brothers – were trespassing on the ancient buildings of Cambridge. In a way it's surprising that this most elitist of outdoor sports – limited to the offspring of the ruling classes, and of course blokes only – should have been the forerunner of what is today probably the most inclusive of all. Most of the practitioners of Parkour come from deprived areas of inner cities.
But in another way that's not surprising at all. Put a group of adventurous young people in an environment consisting of buildings – and they are going to climb them.
- The Night Climbers of Cambridge (1937) by 'Whipplesnaith' was republished Oleander Press in 2007. Like the other texts, it can also be found online
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