Chapter 2. Chiefly Padding


<< Toute la nuit je l'entends roder dans la gouttiere >>

--Notre Dame de Paris 

Although it is impossible to write a history of night climbing — because there is no such history — yet the a game of roof-climbing remains the same, changing scarcely, if at all, from generation to generation. History records change, big events sandwiched between long periods of monotony, while roof-climbing — if it could stand out of the darkness which enshrouds it — is simply a string of disconnected incidents. There is no continuity. Or rather, there is none of the continuity of purposes and cross-purposes, developments and declines, ambitions and indifferences which make history. When one man goes, there is no one to take up the thread where he left off. The blanket of the dark hides each group of climbers from its neighbours, muffles up a thousand deeds of valour, and almost entirely prevents the existence of dangerous rivalry. The undergraduate population changes too frequently for roof-climbers to form an organized body.

Another reason for the lack of continuity is the absence of spurs to ambition beyond a certain point. Mountaineers have always some bigger mountain they hope to climb, some steeper rock-face they hope to assault. But in Cambridge, with the exception of several dangerous or difficult buildings which few climbers attempt, there is no graded list of climbs, no classification of climbs according to their degree of severity. Thus, after he has done a number of difficult climbs a man feels he has reached a stage where he is no longer advancing, and he has no means to test himself by standard comparisons.

Again, the lack of written records makes a history of past roof-climbing impossible. Some records doubtless exist, in diaries or in log-books kept by individuals and by ephemeral night climbing societies. But the written word, where it exists, is kept hidden away, and so contributes nothing for the benefit of future generations. Practically the only exception is the Roof-Climber's Guide to Trinity, published anonymously many years ago, which has helped many an errant wayfarer in search of novelty over the less-known routes of Trinity. Descriptions of past adventures serve little purpose, save as anecdotes, but there is plenty of scope for descriptions and classifications to help future climbers.

This absence of literature on the subject can be easily understood. The college authorities, acting presumably on purely humanitarian motives, have set their official faces against roof-climbing, and no one would have it otherwise. It may lop off many a would-be climber who cannot risk being sent down, and keep many an adventurous spirit from the roof-tops, drain-pipes and chimneys, but this official disapproval is the sap which gives roof-climbing its sweetness. Without it, it would tend to deteriorate into a set of gymnastic exercises. Modesty drives the roof climber to operate by night; the proctorial frown makes him an outlaw. And outlaws keep no histories.

For outlaw he is, and unless he take the common precautions of outlawry there will be trouble. He must dodge the proctors, with their attendant evil the bulldogs, on their nightly prowl round the streets of Cambridge. If he inadvertently clatters a stone or slate, he must evade the watchful eye of the college porter, standing near his lodge or walking round the college. When climbing near a road, he must know the policeman on the beat or the times when he is likely to pass.

It is surprising, on a roof, how little is needed to betray the position of the climber, or how much noise may be made with impunity. A loud, bold sound emanating from the darkness is difficult to locate, and is apt to pass unnoticed, while a low, scratching sound will arouse suspicion. Some years ago, a length of tarry string, falling with a small, smacking sound, caused a policeman to flash his torch upwards, and nearly betrayed the position of a party of four climbers on the roof of King's Chapel. More recently climbers at the top of two pinnacles on the same building were shouting across to each other, and, though many people may have heard them, they never felt in danger of detection. It is the soft, half-stifled sounds that are dangerous.

And the outlaw, if discovered on a roof, feels himself in a tight position, for he may not be able to descend without placing himself in the hands of authority. On most buildings there are alternative ways of descent, some of which are inaccessible to the pursuers, but the sensation of being trapped is not pleasant. The possibility of being heard or seen must very frequently be in the mind of the roof-climber, yet such is the protection afforded by night that the present writer only knows two who were ever caught! (For "two" read "ten", and thereby hang a few tales to be told below) Many have had narrow escapes, thrills that are seldom told save to intimate friends and on rare occasions. The dismay felt by a climber descending a drain-pipe outside a college, with a porter inside shouting "Police!" at the top of his voice, is an emotion never to be forgotten. Yet such an incident is recorded in a log-book now in the keeping of a respectable don of Cambridge.

Incidents of this sort occasionally happen, but they are rare; the exception rather than the rule. For the only people who are on the alert to detect roof-climbing really are the porters. The weary policeman trudging round his beat is usually a friendly fellow, as unwilling as the climbers to break the peace of the night. If they meet him on their way home, most climbers treat him as a confidant, tell him what they have done and swap stories with him. And if no damage has been done as it never is-all will be well. The Robert is a friend.

The dons also give no trouble. A clumsy party sometimes causes a petulant old head to come to a window to see what all the clatter is about, but that is all. Even then he probably thinks of it, not as a heinous offence, but merely as an exhibition of bad manners to wake him up.

The younger dons, indeed, are often roof-climbers themselves. Out of a bare score whom the writer knows four are active roof-climbers, and he knows of another four who have each reached the top of King's Chapel, usually reckoned the biggest climb in Cambridge. In fact, if you tactfully broach the subject to your supervisor, he may be able to help you considerably. And if you are very fortunate, he may even lead a midnight expedition in person. But like a naughty monk who slips out of the monastery after bed-time, he prefers the matter to be concealed from his colleagues. It is only the official side of authority which disapproves of roof-climbing.

Let no man think, however, that because many of the High Table are sympathetic, the punishment of offenders will be any the less if they are caught. Everyone knows the rules, and must play fair.

And so the game continues, unobtrusively, with each player ignorant of the identity of most of his fellow enthusiasts. If they are good climbers, you will not often see them on buildings, but sometimes they are there. You may meet them in the early hours, or soon after sunset, padding along the streets in gym-shoes and old clothes. Perhaps, standing motionless in a dark doorway, they will startle you as you pass, as they study some building which they arc about to climb. Or, capless and gownless, one of them may speed past you on his feet, pursued by a relentless and athletic anachronism in a top-hat, the proctor's bulldog.

There are numbers of them about, but you will seldom see them. They seldom even see each other. As furtively as the bats of twilight, they shun the eyes of the world, going on their mysterious journeys and retiring as quietly as they set out. Out of the darkness they come, in darkness they remain and into darkness they go, with most of their epics unrecorded and forgotten. Every college has its night climbers, yet contemporaries in the same college will often go through their university careers without discovering each other.

Most of them belong to no mountaineering club, and many of the regular mountaineers are not roof-climbers. Once, a roof-climber called on the then President of the C.U. Mountaineering Club and asked him to participate in a particularly difficult climb. He was politely informed: "I am not a cat burglar". This is the attitude taken up by many mountain-climbers. Until they have tried themselves on buildings, they assume roof-climbing to be as straightforward as a rope in a gymnasium, a travesty in all ways of the true sport. Another Cambridge mountaineer with a fast-growing reputation — a freshman aged nineteen-refused to join us, saying that "he climbed only to find solitude". What he expected to find on the roof-tops we had not the heart to ask.

On the other hand, the greatest roof-climber we know has never climbed a mountain. The two sports are quite distinct, appealing to the same instincts without helping or interfering with each other. And while mountaineers are counted by the tens of thousands, roof-climbers could scarcely be mustered by the dozen. Like characters from Buchan crossing a Scottish moor on a stormy night, they are silent and solitary, mysterious and unknown except to their own circle, preferring to live their own epics to reading those of others.