Phil Kelly and Mick Ward have penned a poignant tribute to Brian Cropper, who sadly passed away last month. Brian's funeral is to be held this Friday (18th March) - the details can be found below.
For those of us lucky enough to have been around a while and brought up on a diet of who did what, where and when, the name of Brian Cropper will probably be well known, even if the person himself wasn’t.
For those newer to the game, Brian’s name probably doesn’t trip off the tongue as easily as perhaps it should, but time is such a fickle thing, and sadly people fall foul of its inexorable progress.
Brian’s climbing story started over 50 years ago and touched many directly and many more indirectly.
Who could forget his highly influential photos in Crags, the cult 70s rock climbing magazine? An early issue had a front-cover photo of Jerry Peel on Impossible Slab at Stanage. It’s the quintessential 70s look, cut-off denim shorts, otherwise bare body. A lot of rope out, no dodgy side runners, strict purism. Brian’s got the shot so close you feel you could almost scratch Peel’s nose – a mere second before he peeled the length of the slab. In one snapshot (as he called them) Brian captured the predominant mentality of an entire British climbing generation.
Not only a generation but also a major gear-shift in climbing approach. One photograph taken by Brian was of a hapless aid climber pegging his way up the then recently free-climbed London Wall at Millstone. “We spent ages shouting at him to come down. He was up there for about four hours and failed in the end. I mean, it’s a peg crack… he couldn’t even get up it.”
There’s another photo of ‘Black’ Nick Colton, sitting in his tent, having maybe his first fag of the day, a stylish hole in his shoe. Brian’s caught the direct gaze, the integrity. He’s utterly captured Nick’s character.
Brian should have been a history professor. He had the most fantastic mind. Literally and metaphorically it would range from Paris to the Gobi desert and back again (usually via the Chew valley!) But he came from a background where becoming a history professor wasn’t a viable option. You left school early and got a job. Brian joined the railways. “It was great. I was 17. I had so much freedom. I could play with trains – real trains!” he’d chortle gleefully.
By then he’d discovered climbing in the way we all did, just wandering out into the countryside and bumping into crags. There was virtually no instruction; nearly all of us were self-taught. The penalty for serious mistakes? You died. It was wildly, gloriously exciting. Again and again and again, Brian insisted, “It’s about going out and having a bloody good adventure!”
Although Brian was far more about adventure than grades, that didn’t stop him making a very early ascent of Beatnik at Brimham. You wouldn’t have had to queue for that one, back then! In Scotland, he loved the Etive slabs, and you certainly wouldn’t have had to queue for The Pinch, one of the hardest routes in Scotland. Even Al Rouse failed on it; to Brian though, it was just another route.
“If you’re on the Slabs, don’t ever stop… else you’ll start to slide.” That’s how it was in those days, climbing in Masters, Gollies, PAs or EBs, all of them the best that was available at the time but, in comparison to today, seriously unsticky rubber. “Don’t ever stop...”
Brian’s ethos was to throw a load of gear in the van (probably the wrong gear but who cared?), bugger off for the weekend with some mates and have some adventures. Early photos show a baby-faced youth – his nephew, Paul. Paul Cropper had a meteoric rise through the grades. At 15, he’d done Quietus. At 17, he had an ‘interesting’ day soloing at Stoney – Carls Wark Crack, Bubbles, Om, Mani, Padme, Cock-a-Leekie Wall, Gabriel, Pearly Gates, St Peter, Scoop Wall and (gulp!) Our Father. The age-old tale of the sorcerer’s apprentice outstripping the sorcerer? Many a disgruntled sorcerer has retreated from the fray. Not Brian though. He was quietly proud of Paul who clearly was ‘having some adventures’. He was also probably praying that Paul would stay alive – well at least until tea time.
For a few years at the turn of the 70s into the 80s, the new route sections of the magazines were regularly littered with contributions from Brian and Paul. Paul’s name usually comes first, Brian respecting his youthful superiority on rock. When Paul retired from climbing at the tender age of 21 (motorbikes!), Brian continued to quietly beaver away at new routes – 18 of them in his beloved Chew valley.
If you lived on the Lancashire side of the Peak in the 1970s, the YHA shops in Manchester were successive epicentres of climbing. That’s how most people first met Brian. Everybody visited. Rock stars worked there. The great and the good passed through.
Brian’s first YHA shop was on Fountain Street, complete with new route book, a magnet for news to hundreds of climbers passing through the shop for a chat, a brew, a fag or sometimes even to buy some gear.
Regular visitors included Alex MacIntyre, the Regan brothers (John and Gabe), Jim Moran, Pete Livesey, the Woodward brothers (Andy and Jonny), Bancroft, Allen, and then…
“This young lad came into the shop and asked if he could see the new routes book. He looked through it, pointing, muttering to himself, and then he took out about thirty pages of typed pages and just stuck them in the book and left. That was Gary Gibson’s first entry in the books.”
In 1977 the Fountain Street shop burnt down. Legend has it that one of Brian’s scruffy mates – now one of the great and the good - popped in for a brew… but forgot to put any water in the kettle! Everybody ran outside to safety. Suddenly Brian dashed back into the shop/fire to return a few minutes later with his beloved new routes books undamaged.
There aren’t many photos of Brian himself. One such photo however (printed in Crags) was taken on his wedding day, with Jane, his wife. They’re surrounded by eminent climbers; Jane is taking it in good spirit. There’s a sense of respect from everyone. Brian is looking straight ahead.
He whisked Jane off to Ireland for their honeymoon and promptly made a beeline for Dalkey Quarry. Talk about giving a girl a good time! A chance meeting with a young local climber resulted in the first ascent of a classic route. “I knew he could do it, so I told him - and he did.” Seemingly effortlessly, Brian met the cream of Irish climbers, at the same time catching their images for posterity.
Another story told by Brian about his honeymoon is about the time he and Jane were staying with a prominent gear manufacturer, in Waterford, when a load of his police mates turned up “en route to a shoot-out with bank robbers,” and started some proper drinking. You can imagine Brian thinking, “Bloody hell, can I come along too?” and then guiltily remembering he was on his honeymoon.
Back in Holmfirth, their home was, it seemed, open house to climbers. And not just climbers – along with luminaries such as Phil Burke and Al Rouse, Brian had been active in the Eldon Pothole Club for a good many years and it was through the club that he and Jane were to meet. Potholing in those early days would often include the finding and pioneering of new cave systems - which sometimes required blasting, activities which the Eldon men were happy to meld together with living their lives over on the wilder side… One fine day, Brian ended up sitting on a bus in Holmfirth with several pounds of high explosive in his rucksack, courtesy of a mysterious mate called Ammo.
The grim 1980s arrived. Many organisations became soulless, amoral. Brian didn’t like what was happening to the YHA. He wasn’t having higher management attacking his staff. He stood his ground – but it was hopeless. So he left. A few years later, Brian and Jane divorced.
The climbing continued, the photography continued, and for many years Brian remained a jovial and central figure whilst out and about at the crags, often in the company of Adam (his son with Jane), exploring the Chew Valley crags and a variety of other locations together.
All the while though, time was closing in. His health declined to the point where he couldn’t climb any longer. Then it declined to the point where he was hard pressed to get across the street; his working life came to a premature end as a result, and slowly over the next few years Brian became more and more reclusive.
Occasionally he would call his friends on the phone. Every call began with “Hello, young man…” (or “Hello, young lady…” if the woman of the house had answered) and ended with “God bless…”, with conversations in between that often centred on a rant he wanted to get off his chest. Football was a good target, as was sport climbing and UKClimbing (“climbing selling itself down the river”). One of his biggest bugbears was asking for beta on public forums. (“Where’s the adventure in that?”) His love of books and film was a foil for his rants. His long-standing love of his cats (at one stage he had seven) bore eloquent testimony to his kindness. Most of the ‘magnificent seven’ were strays, found in the street.
Brian’s photographic record was stored in his house, in box after box of prints, slides and negatives. He reckoned less than 10% had ever been printed up and most had never really been looked at. He considered them to be important. He KNEW they were important, but to him they were ‘just snaps’, although he was adamant that he wanted people to be able to view and to enjoy them in the future.
Although Brian may have taken his photographic talent somewhat for granted, other people certainly didn’t. Even from the less than 10% of his canon which has been printed, it is clear that he made a unique photographic chronicle of arguably the most important era in British climbing’s 130 year history. What will the remaining 90% reveal? Only time will answer that question.
In his Eccles home, Brian kitted out his back room as a library of climbing and mountaineering books. In later life, he worried about where his vast collection of books and climbing memorabilia would best be lodged when he died. He wanted it to be used by climbers, not just imprisoned in glass cages or the collection broken up and sold, despite its not inconsiderable value.
And then suddenly, a couple of weeks ago, he left us. Although some had been witness to the past few years of his life, news of his death still came as a shock.
God bless, Brian. God bless…
Brian's funeral will take place on Friday 18th March at 11.30AM, at:
Holy Cross R/C Church
370 Liverpool Road
Followed at 12:20PM at:
Peel Green Cemetery and Crematorium
716 Liverpool Road