"Let not thy voice be heard among us, lest angry fellows run upon thee"
|--Judges xviii. 25 (A.V.)|
There is probably no building in the world which has aroused such interest among climbers as King's Chapel. Many men, not otherwise interested in night climbing, make it there ambition to climb it, and all save the very few are disappointed. Towering vertically for a hundred and sixty feet, it was until the New Library was built the tallest building in Cambridge. Tourists disagree as to its architectural beauties, some saying it is too long, but climbers always look at it with awe and reverence. It has a fascination about it which will not let the mind rest. The severity of its aspect is a challenge, a coaxing invitation one minute and a stern rebuff the next. It is possible to grow to love the chapel, seeing it reflected in every face, hearing the singing of its pinnacles in every storm of wind, thinking of it many times daring the day and dreaming of it by night, having only to cast back to it to return to a higher world of thought and feeling.
Whose was the privilege to have first climbed it? We have been unable to discover, although there are indications which enable one to guess at an approximate date. The college was founded in 1441 by the pious Henry VI, in the midst of turbulent times. The history of those days is somewhat scant, and the chroniclers saved their vellum to record the narrative of battles and campaigns. Is there a likelihood that any adventurer left his gauntlet or his vizor on the top to woo his lady love? Did the White Rose of York or the Red Rose of Lancaster grow on the top of the pinnacles? We think not.
Benjamin Franklin invented the lightning-conductor (or lightning-rod, as he preferred to call it) in 1752. It is probable that soon after that date the first lightning-rod was affixed to the chapel. Running down the face of the building, it was put in the most inconspicuous place, which by good fortune was the place most suited to help the climber. In our opinion, it was soon after the installation of the lightning-rod that the chapel was first climbed. The technical reasons for this view will be explained later.
One support for this proposition is a tantalising peep into the past which we are not able to investigate further. Some years ago a coin was found on the ledge twenty feet below the pinnacle, and the date on the coin was 1760. Who left it there? Was he an isolated crank who wandered about in the night and did strange things, or was he one of band of enthusiasts? Has the tradition of climbing the chapel persisted ever since, or did it slumber for a hundred and fifty years, to awaken in the present century? We do not know. But that coin speaks to the imagination. The next instance of a climb up the chapel that we can discover was that of a don during the war. It was done openly in daylight, and was in some way connected with the said don's abstention from military service. Whether it was to prove that pacifists were not cowards, or to prove to the doctors that he was medically fit to fight, we do not know. He is still alive and in residence at the moment of writing, but one cannot pry too closely into the hilarious past of an old man.
Between then and 1932 there were several climbs, about which we have been able to find out little. Some naval men left a bicycle on top shortly after the war; a piece of gown once appeared. In 1922 two men from St. John's, climbing on Clare or Trinity Hall, heard a party led by a Kingsman climbing the chapel. This particular Kingsman tells us that he believes his to have been the first ascent of the pinnacles. The next night they went along themselves, starting on opposite sides of the building and meeting on the roof after twenty minutes. They did not try the pinnacles, but one of them climbed the north-east pinnacle at eleven-thirty the next morning.
Then there is the tale about a certain undergraduate of King's. As we heard it, he determined to climb to the roof of the chapel without using the conductor. For three months he went along with a companion every night to practise, going a little higher each week. When the time came, be led the way up and lowered a rope to his friend, who returned the favour by roping him down and going down second, so that each went the length of the chimney without a rope. After he had received a fellowship he used to say that it was given to him because of this feat.
In 1932 the chapel was climbed on two successive nights. On the first, two climbers affixed an umbrella to one of the pinnacles. They took a rope, and a ten-foot stick with a hook on the end, to belay the rope over the projections above the climber. The rope was paid out from inside the turret; the stick was never used.
On the way home they met another climber, who had watched the performance from the roofs of Trinity. Upset at missing the fun, he persuaded one of them to go up again, and they decorated the other pinnacle at the same end with an umbrella stolen from Trinity. The next morning the porters took a young man who possessed a shot-gun up on to the roof, and the offending umbrellas were shot down. A considerable amount of publicity attended this exploit, even finding its way into the correspondence columns of The Times.
But one group of climbers was not pleased to see the new ornamentations on the chapel. This group had planned an assault of the chapel, and now found itself forestalled. So armed with money and grim faces they went off and bought two Union Jacks. These were duly affixed over the umbrella stands during the night watches, and in the morning the dean again sought out the young man with the gun, to send him up with the porters. The young man, known to his friends as "The Admiral", demurred against firing on the British Flag. The dean, with the steeplejack's fee of twenty pounds in his mind, tried to uproot these feudal scruples, but the Admiral was loyal to the core. He drew himself up to his full height. "Sir," he said, "I cannot fire on the Union Jack." For self-conscious drama this scene must have rivalled the famous meeting between Stanley and Livingstone. The steeplejacks were sent up from the roof, and the flags were brought down.
The authorities professed themselves very worried about the safety of young men who could expose themselves to such appalling risks, and the lightning-rod was moved so as to be of no further help to climbers. There was, indeed, a rumour that one of the climbers had lost his nerve on the roof and had practically to be lowered to the ground. This was probably utterly without foundation.
Certain it is that at least one of these parties was troubled with crumbling stone-work near the top, hand-holds coming off at inconvenient moments. The chapel began to acquire a sinister reputation, and climbers said that anyone who reached the pinnacles would be in terrible danger from the soft stone. The chapel declined in popularity.
But such a stupendous building could not remain unpopular for long. In a short time, attempts were being made to climb it again. Some of the best climbers in Cambridge prowled beneath its disdainful walls, but with no prospect of success. Without the lightning rod, the chapel was proclaimed to be impossible.
But it was nearly conquered, by a subterfuge, in 1934. Three conspirators entered the chapel one afternoon in October, and one asked to go on the roof to "see the view". The chapel clerk gone him the key, and the others drew him away from the turret door to look at the date on a tombstone.
A fourth conspirator entered the chapel two minutes later, with an old mackintosh on his arm. Inside that mackintosh was a hundred foot rope.
Seeing that Nos. 2 and 3 had manoeuvred the chapel clerk to the far end of the chapel, No. 4 slipped across and into the turret where there is a spiral staircase. After a farewell in which the traditional handshake was omitted, No. 1 returned, and the verger locked the door with No. 4 inside.
For two hours he waited, and he passed most of the time sleeping with the rope as a pillow. It would have been embarrassing had another visitor gone up in the meantime to see the view. But this did not happen, and he awoke with a start to find it was dark, with the last splashes of the sunset showing through a slotted Norman window. He walked along the leads, tied the rope to the parapet, and looked down.
It was pretty formidable. He threw the mackintosh over, and watched it open out and billow down through seemingly interminable space. The bottom of the rope was not touching the ground. Below and on the right, a lamp-post was shining cheerlessly in King's Parade.
There was one difficultly which had not been previously considered. The rope could not be fixed nearer than a yard to the side of the chimney. This meant that the climber must start off on the rope alone, or in the chimney without the rope. For if he got into the chimney and tried to use the rope, it would pull him outwards. He elected to start off down the rope, trusting to his ability to manoeuvre himself into the chimney lower down. It was not too cheerful a prospect, and he records that he had an earnest exchange of views with the stars above before stepping over the edge.
As the roof-level slipped past his chest, past his head and then out of reach, he experienced his first difficulty. The rope, true Alpine hemp, was too thin to grip with his legs. He descended rapidly hand over hand for a dozen feet, coiled the rope around one foot with the other, and rested as much as the situation allowed. He then freed his foot, and tried to swing into the chimney. But it was useless, either his feet or his body struck first, and bounced out again. Thus he wasted much time and strength. He coiled the rope around his foot and took another rest. By this time he was unpleasantly aware that there were still over seventy feet between himself and the ground; there remained little chance of his reaching the ground in safety.
By a curious perversity, the human mind refuses to behave itself on the occasions when it should be intensely dramatic. It was so now; the climber suddenly forgot his fears in a smile. The choir had chosen this precise moment to start the Nunc Dimittis.
After one more attempt, ten feet lower down, to get into the chimney, he decided to complete the descent hand over hand. Forty feet from the ground the strength of his arms gave out, leaving him to make a rapid decision between breaking his neck or burning his fingers. He burnt his fingers, and for six weeks his hands were is bandages. This happened soon after six o'clock. The rest of the party, not minded to be pulled out of the chimney by the rope, deferred their attempt, and the rope was impounded by the college authorities, being used to this day as a bell-rope in the chapel. The dean of the delinquent's college was minded to send him down, but a kindly tutor intervened, and fortunately for the man concerned had the final word. The delinquent now collects butterflies.
Thereafter, the college made every visitor to the roof write his name in a book and pay a toll of sixpence.
But the climbers had their counter-move ready. A certain George (now a schoolmaster in Kenya and a mile record-breaker) offered to help at this stage. Tall and stooping, and steadfastly carrying an umbrella through drought and heat wave, he often used to call on the writer. After a slight pretence at conversation which deceived no one, he would always gravitate to the piano to our tattered old copy of Beethoven. We always liked to listen to him, not because of the abominable way in which he leaned forward and glared at the music, and not because of his discords, which were atrocious, but because it was George.
This George concealed a hammer in his spacious trousers and a cake of soap in his pocket. Obtaining the key from the verger on payment of sixpence, he started up the spiral staircase. In the darkness half-way up he laid the soap on a stone step, laid the key on the soap, and dealt it a shrewd blow with the hammer. The soap crumbled into twenty pieces.
Returning the next day with some softer soap George obtained an impression of the key, or rather two impressions, sideways and edgeways. This was all that was needed to make a duplicate impression of the key.
With rising hopes of success, one of the climbers was then dispatched on a special visit to London. He called on a criminal locksmith in the neighbourhood of Camomile Street, and had a key made from the impression on the soap. The key was four inches long, but not long enough for the stout oaken door to the turret. The locksmith was revisited, and lengthened the key by two inches. George returned to the chapel and tried the key on the turret door. It fitted, and the door opened.
This, however, was placing the cart before the horse. The climbers had the key to the turret, but not to the chapel.
Nothing can be done without trying. One night one of them woke up at 4 a.m., slipped out of bed, dressed, and visited the chapel. He took with him a piece of wire and a torch. The idea had occurred to him that it might be possible to open the lock with the wire. Thus do criminal locksmiths suggest ideas!
He pressed slightly on the door and it gave way to his touch. Mirabile dictu! It was open. He stepped into the scented darkness within.
Here, he records, he was faced with an urgent dilemma. The door was open, presumably by accident, and the opportunity might never occur again. What should he do?
Of his climbing associates, one was in Caius, two in Pembroke, and two in Emmanuel. It was after four o'clock, and there was no time to rally the clan. They might even show a certain reluctance to be pulled from their beds at four-thirty in the morning to dither skywards. So he returned to bed. A new hope lulled him ecstatically to sleep, and he waited for the next night.
Twice more he visited the chapel alone, and each time the door was open. He dropped in casually at the porter's lodge the next day and in the course of conversation asked a simple question.
"Why is there an iron grid in front of the chapel door? An iron lock and oak door should be sufficient."
"Ah yes, but you see, sir, the chapel door is never locked. We lock the grid, instead, so that the organ scholar and others can have a key."
So that was it.
The clan gathered like earwigs round an orange-peel. The two Emmanuel men had dropped out, but the four remaining men trooped up to the roof at the first opportunity. All is not orange-peel that glistens, however.
After they had groped their way up the spiral staircase in single file, they stepped out onto the roof and proceeded to the far end. Here Hugh, of Caius, was called into action. He was at that time reputed, in a vague and shadowy way, to be the best rock-climber in Cambridge. The happy idea was that Hugh should climb up and lower a rope to the less elegant members of the party. Hugh started up, and everyone was pleasantly thrilled. Everyone was confident of success.
But at the first overhang he stopped. With five feet without a hand-hold, the overhang was more than he could manage. By a magnificent feat of balancing, he got his hand to within a foot of the next hand-hold above, but there he stopped. He came down again. If someone would come up with him so that he could stand on their shoulders — and he looked meaningly around.
He was a small, light man, but was too heavy for anyone to take his weight while hanging onto a vertical face. The rest of the party tried, but none could reach as far up as Hugh by nearly a foot. It was Hugh's misfortune that he did not discover the inside edge of the corner pillar, which could be used for chimneying between the centre of the face.
Hugh having failed, the turret was declared unclimbable. How, then, had previous parties succeeded? The obvious answer seemed, the lightning-conductor. Unfortunately, there was at this time a rumour current among climbers that the staples of the conductor had been loosened to prevent future ascents of the chapel. No one cared to traverse round and test the conductor, and the party retired, foiled.
The component parts of a sweep's rod were then brought into play. The object was to get a rope over the crenellated parapet, forty feet above the roof. But the rod was so supple that it bent under its own weight, and was discarded.
There seemed only one thing to do, namely, to throw a string over the parapet, and haul the rope up. A tennis-ball was tied in a handkerchief and the attempt made.
The aperture to be aimed at was only six inches wide, forty feet up, and the thrower had to stand on a roof sloping at an awkward angle. The string had to be lain loosely on the roof, so as to offer the minimum impediment to the flight of the ball. Then someone would stand on it. Or the thrower would catch the string on a button so that the ball swing round and hit him in the face. Or the string got tangled into heavy knots, or a gust of wind came at the wrong moment. The slightest breeze had its effect, and the thrower had to be accurate to within six inches. Each time he missed, the tennis-ball had to he hauled up from somewhere near the ground. With all their difficulties, the climbers spent half an hour between each throw. Fumbling in the dark as they were, on the qui vive for policemen in the street below, their chance of success seemed small. They were now to lose Hugh.
Brilliant climber though he was, Hugh suffered from roof-climber's claustrophobia. He argued that, if they made a noise and were unlucky, they would be discovered, and would have to descend the spiral staircase into the arms of a porter. As a result, he left the chapel clan and indulged in climbs that were equally thrilling but less glorious. Of the original six, three were now left.
This was perhaps the darkest hour, in which ultimate failure began to appear as a possibility. No one would have admitted this, however, and before long one of the party had an idea which seemed feasible.
He was an archer. What more simple, then, than to shoot arrows aver the parapet? He knew the accuracy of the bow, how it was comparatively easy to hit a post card fifty feet away. He pierced the nock end of an arrow with a hot iron, threaded string through it and made experiments near Grantchester. It worked.
Full of renewed hope, the party revisited the roof with balls of string, a bow, arrows, a Union Jack, torch, and various small impediments. Climbing over the iron grid outside the main entrance, always a risky business with a college lamp-post fifteen feet away, was accomplished with unavoidable janglings. They clanked their way up the pitch blackness of the spiral staircase, and out on to the roof. On half a dozen nights they went on to the roof, but could not succeed in mak- ing the string stay up. Once, indeed, they thought they had succeeded, and began to haul the rope up, but somehow it managed to fall down again.
Looking back, it was certainly rather comic. First, one of the party would walk up and down laying out hundreds of feet of string on the roof, taking great care to avoid tangles. At length, with everything ready, the archer would nock the arrow and draw the bow. This was the big moment. With the others waiting anxiously on either side of him, he would carefully aim and release the arrow. If the string were not twisted round someone's coat button, the arrow would vanish upwards into the blackness above the pinnacle. For about three seconds length after length of string could be seen in the lamplight hurtling upwards from the roof, and then came pause, during which everyone wondered if the shot had been successful. If it had not broken away the arrow was then hauled up, and in due course the process was repeated.
They record that February in 1935 was a cold month. On one night they were on the roof for two hours in a howling east wind, with the temperature several degrees below freezing. They wore no gloves. When it was time to go they called the look-out man, but received no answer. He had congealed into a coma.
Going down the staircase was hair-raising on one occasion, when steps were heard coming up. The four climbers nearly died of fright before deciding that it was only the echo of their own footsteps reverberating from below.
On another occasion the archer, going to the far side of the chapel to find an arrow that had broken the string, saw a light in the chapel. The time was 4.30 A.M. Again the clan had the Glen Coe feeling, though the next day our Diplomatic Correspondent, acting according to his own methods, ascertained the cause. A light had been left on in a side chapel.
Being left with no alternative, the party admitted defeat, bade a courteous farewell to the roof-tops, and settled down to a few hours' work a day for the June exams. We then pass on to the successful assault of June.
The Tripos over, two of the party were celebrating in the usual manner. As they ran down Pembroke Street towards Emmanuel, one of them turned aside and playfully glided up the face of the Law Schools. He achieved this by holding one of the pillars with his hands and using wayside knobs as footholds. In a flash it occurred to him what afterwards seemed blindingly obvious. Use the pillar to surmount the two overhangs.
It was arranged that Charles, of Pembroke, should bring Bill, also of Pembroke, the next night at midnight. Alas! Charles made the promise glibly, and forgot all about it. For an hour No. 1 waited. By good fortune an excellent climber was passing the evening with him, and this man was empanelled as No. 4.
They each attacked a turret, and the theory evolved on the face of the Law Schools was proved to be correct. With considerable trepidation, No. 1 surmounted the two overhangs and stood an the parapet. But he had forgotten the flag.
While No.4 went off to collect this, No. 1 collected a number of oddments-about a dozen arrows, hundreds of yards of string, tennis balls and so on.
No. 4 brought the flag but no stick, so it was draped somewhat loosely on the top, where it remained for about two months.
Here it should be recorded that, about twelve feet from the top, a wedge of stone weighing about ten pounds detached itself from the upper surface of one of the stone knobs. Just here the turret is vertical, and though the knobs seemed safe the climber was fortunately climbing correctly, not moving a hand or foot until the other three holds were secured. As his right hand-hold fell away he instinctively looked down to watch the stone fall. In the darkness he could not see it, but as it broke into fragments on the roof over fifty feet below the sound brought a shudder to his companion.
Examination of the mementos the next morning brought to light the interesting fact that the tops of the knobs were covered with green lichen. As the climber was wearing gym shoes, and odd spots of rain were falling at the time of the climb, he must have come near to having a very slippery time.
Cronies were pulled from their beds and made to celebrate with the happy climbers. Bill, returning to Pembroke from Caius at 3.30 A.M. put his head in at the window to see what was happening, and joined the party.
Then comes one of those sly touches of humour which are too perfect for comment. The authorities (towards whom we have developed very tender feelings) faced the matter squarely and set their steeplejacks to work. They did not alter the lock of the spiral staircase; they did not affix a burglar alarm to the base of the spires. Arguing that since climbers could get up without it the conductor did not matter, they put it back in the chimney.
Soon after this a number of men were planning to enlist in the service of the Ethiopian Emperor. Charles of Pembroke was one, and there were three army officers and an army sergeant. The scheme did not materialize for two reasons. First, the officers found that they could not resign their commissions in time, as they thought, to get out before the railway was cut. It would have taken nearly three months, when they felt it would be too late. Secondly, an untimely bump on the head brought Charles's career to a close. It was an interesting scheme, and was very far developed before it was finally abandoned.
This wild scheme in which Charles was involved may have been part of the cause of the next climb, on April 26th, 1936. Charles was dead, and he had dearly wanted to climb the chapel. Why not climb it for him, and at the same time strike a blow for the cause he had wanted to champion? A friend of Charles organized the "Save Ethiopia" plot.
One of the officers who had visited the Ethiopian Imperial Legation several times offered to obtain help from the Legation. A word to the wise is sufficient, and he returned from the interview with a magnificent specimen of the Ethiopian tri-colour twelve feet by six. This was attached to an eight-foot pole. A Union Jack was also bought.
Charles's Cambridge friend then bought a piece of white linen, thirteen yards long by forty-two inches deep. The lady in the shop quite believed him when he said he was going to make a kilt. He bought three pots of "Jet-Glaze", and with a friend painted the words "Save Ethiopia". They sewed sticks into the ends, wherewith to provide a good hold for the ropes.
Then they went up on to the roof, two climbers and two onlookers, using the precious key. Carrying a hundred-foot rope, a forty-foot knotted rope, two miniature flag-poles and a rolled-up streamer, they felt pleasantly encumbered.
Each taking a turret, the climbers reached the top, and lowered a string for the flags. No. 2 rapidly affixed his flag and descended to the parapet. Here he fumed and wondered what in the name of fortune had possessed No. 1.
For No. 1 was in a quandary. He had lost the two bits of string wherewith to tie the flag to the point of the lightning-conductor, and had to hold the flag while he chewed off two more bits of string-a lengthy and tiring business. He longed for the canine incisors of his simian ancestors, and replied to the testy enquiries of No. 2 that he was "looking at the view".
These climbers were utterly indifferent to the noise they made.
At length he was ready, and descended to the parapet. The streamer was hauled up on each side. Visions of a conscience-stricken Cambridge waking up in the morning to tend donations to the Wog Legatian rose in the minds of all concerned. It was not to be, however.
All the witches in Macbeth seemed to have lent their winds for the purpose of blowing down the streamer. The tremendous flappings began to cause uneasiness even among the noise- immune quartet. Then, on the north-east turret, it tore away from the fastening rope, right across the forty-two inches of fabric.
The next minute was rather more unpleasant than the turn at the circus when a man in velveteens cracks a long whip. Swinging out horizontally over the grass by King's Parade, it made a noise which could have been heard half a mile away. The climbers were now in a serious state of alarm. There was a considerable likelihood that the whip-cracks of the streamer would awaken the porter in his lodge a hundred yards away. The policeman on his short beat was bound to hear it, wherever he was. In quick time No. 2 hauled in the noisy tongue of propaganda.
Nobody seemed to have heard. The streamer was hung out of the wind, below roof-level. Here it was taken down by the porters before nine o'clock.
To prevent this, or rather to enable the press to obtain a photograph, the climbers rang up two newspapers in London, waking up the sleepy operator from a telephone-box. Although the press tried to obtain the names of the climbers, they maintained their modest anonymity, for which they were later to thank their lucky stars.
When the calls were over, the operator rang up the college, repeated what he had heard and apologized for not having obtained the names of the climbers. So does prudence occasionally rear up its head in triumph.
It was prudence, too, which caused three of the climbers to prevent the fourth from executing his ides of the Dean's Umbrella. This idea, which occurred to him on the roof, was to seal the turret door for an hour or two to delay the porters until the press photographers had obtained a picture of the streamer.
The turret door opens inwards into a passage about three feet wide. The climber — it was the butterfly-collector — wanted to lay an umbrella across the passage as they were closing the door, so as to seal the turret. A message to the head porter would later have explained that the door could be opened with a determined push, which would have the effect of breaking the deans's umbrella. However, there was a danger that the umbrella would be stubborn and refuse to break, and the possibility of the porters having to smash open the door or put scaffolding up to the roof caused the idea to be abandoned.
It would perhaps scarcely be a digression to include the tale of the travelling steeplejacks, since it concerns the removal of the flags.
The president of the C.U. Mountaineering Club, a Kingsman, offered to go up and take down the flags for the authorities. This was mentioned at a special college meeting, and it was arranged that he should go up after lunch. A junior don was to direct the climb and the chaplain was to take photographs. While this was being discussed, some steeplejacks who had been working on Ely Cathedral drove into Cambridge.
They took their chance. Ringing up the college, they offered to take down the flag. The dean or bursar, not certain that a mere mountaineer could be trusted on the chapel, rapidly clinched the deal with them and told them to waste no time. By midday their task was over and the ladders were being removed.
The college authorities were grievously shocked at the idea of the red, yellow and green of Ethiopia adorning a prominent building. For this reason, the two climbers lay very low. The names of their assistants became known (among the Elite) but for months scarcely a soul in Cambridge knew the principals. So far as we know, this is the first time that the full story has been published. The dean paid his cheque of twenty pounds to the steeplejacks, and wise heads met once more in consultation.
They decided that the climbers had used the spiral staircase, as the conductor had obviously not been touched. So they put a Yale lock on the door, whose key could not be duplicated, making George's key an interesting relic. No more should the staircase be used.
The torch now passed to Nazareth College. A tall fourth-year man had for three years coveted the letters C.C. (chapel climber) after his name. He chose this moment to earn them.
Assuming the "Save Ethiopia" party to have gone up the outside, he went along to the chimney in the north-east corner one night soon after twelve. With him he had a penknife, and with this prised the flat ribbon conductor away from the wall until he could get his fingers behind.
Unused to chimneying, and having to pull the conductor away at every step up, he found it very tiring. He records that he found it a "rather frightening business", and did not realize his height until with a shock he found he could see over the roof of the Old Library. Once on the roof he rested for three-quarters of an hour; the whole climb took him two and a half hours. He had ricked his back on the way up. Using the conductor to yank himself over the two overhangs, he affixed a swastika to the pinnacle.
No mountaineer, he had previously done a considerable amount of roof-rambling, but no serious roof-climbing. He simply achieved it alone, without previous preparation or training, as a sheer tour de force. He tells us that on reaching the back gate he was too exhausted to climb out and had to lie down for a further half-hour. And yet, when in a similar state on the roof of the chapel, he had managed to force himself to go on and complete the climb. For stark valour this takes some beating.
And so, in spite of the new key, the dean had to pay out another twenty pounds. Quite apart from any personal disapproval, one can understand him feeling somewhat annoyed.
Lastly, we come to the blunderings of our own party.
In the effort to get good photographs our own party has been on the chapel on five occasions. Starting in midsummer, and continuing in the dead of winter when Cambridge shivered under its congealed eiderdown, there were only two occasions worth recording. First to be told is how two members of the party were caught on the chapel.
There were four in the party; two climbers, a camera-man and a flashlight-man. There was some scaffolding from the ground to the roof in the south-west corner, of which the party availed itself, as only the pinnacles were to be photographed that night.
The original idea was for a climber and the flash-man to install themselves on the parapet of the south-east pinnacle, to photograph the other climber on the north-east pinnacle, fifty or more feet away. However, to haul a man weighing nearly fourteen stone up forty feet to the parapet was more than the climbers could manage. Also, he hoped to get a rowing blue, and had had orders from the president of the C.U.B.C. to do no climbing with us. (The whole boat-club received this order, which deprived us of three of our best climbers.)
So the arrangement was slightly altered, and with a camera on the parapet and the flash on the roof, the other climber went up the north-east spire. He was about fifteen feet from the top when he saw a policeman walk up to the porter's lodge. He heard the bell ring twice, and in a minute two lights went on. The porters were dressing.
It seemed too late to consider escaping, so the climber did not worry the others with what he had seen. If you must be caught he argued, get the photograph first.
With typical cussedness, the reflector now refused to work. They banged it, they shook and rattled it, cajoled it in every way they could, but it would not work. Bellows of advice echoed from pinnacle to parapet and from parapet to roof-level, with answers coming from the roof equally loudly. The lights went out in the porter's lodge; the chapel was surrounded.
After the apparatus had been taken to pieces and put together again, a couple of flashes were finally extorted from it. By this time the climbers had been in their respective stations for half an hour. There was a cold east wind blowing (the date was December 16th) and the wait became a matter of endurance. Extremely lightly clad as they both were to ensure facility of movement, the man on the pinnacle wore only four articles of clothing. His bare feel were as cold as the stone on which they stood; his fingers were also numb, and he tried in vain to warm them under his armpits. The other climber was in an equally dire state. With extremities devoid of feeling, the descent from the top was difficult.
On the roof the situation was explained and discussed. Two of the party were King's undergraduates, which made is all the more problematical. At all costs these two must escape.
The scaffolding was in the south-west corner. There was a hope, meagre though it was, that the porters would concentrate at the foot of this scaffolding and not watch the chimney in the north-east corner. The climbers offered to lower the others down this on the rope and then follow themselves. They shone a torch down and explained the science of chimneying. The other two were manfully gulping down their terror when a torch shone from below and a voice called up:
"Come down, Mr H., come down."
They had recognized the voice of the butterfly-collector of 1934.
He replied in an amiable tone that he would go down the scaffolding, and the situation was rapidly discussed. It was decided that the two Kingsmen should stay on the roof, and the other two go down. They were marched off to the porter's lodge to await the arrival of the senior dean.
In pyjamas and mortar-board he duly arrived, and a discussion took place between three policemen, two porters, two deans and two delinquents. In the soul-shattering stress of the moment, the flash-man started talking broad Scotch without being aware of the fact; he had spent the first six years of his life in Scotland.
Remembering a statement he had once heard that it is impossible to argue against an assumption, the butterfly-collector treated the affair as unfortunate but laughable. With blood oozing from every finger he opened the suitcase and showed the bulbs, explaining also how to work the reflector. He showed the camera, and talked of apertures and focusing, and how difficult it was to point the camera correctly in the dark. He spoke as though he were revealing secrets that he would only tell to a friend. As the junior dean remarked to a colleague the next day: "They were so polite and confidential that it was impossible to speak severely to them".
Next came the Pigou argument. We mention this because Kingsmen at least attach considerable importance to it, poppy-cock though it is, and it may have deterred several men from attempting the chapel. It is always delivered in the same form. "Professor Pigou says the stone-work on the chapel is not safe." It is a very effective argument.
The climber agreed that Pigou was a potent name, but suggested that his own experience differed from that of the professor. But the dean then reminded the climber of a piece of stone he had dislodged when coming down, and which had provided the porters below with a major thrill.
This was a trivial point, but it made argument difficult. Although the climber did not mention the fact, it was not stone, but a staple of the conductor which he had dislodged. Slightly anxious about the numbness of his fingers, he had followed down the line of the conductor, gripping it at intervals with a necessarily clumsy grasp. It was this clumsy grasp that had dislodged a staple.
The flash-man was made to promise to destroy the photographs in the camera. This he reluctantly promised to do, though later his reluctance changed to a chortle. The photographer had pointed wrongly, and all he had promised to destroy was a couple of photographs of the black wall of heaven.
Finally, the senior dean told them to return to Bedford. Fortunately it had occurred to no one that the flash-man might be an undergraduate, and all was well. After having had three-quarters of an hour's talk, they went for a couple of hours' sleep on the floor of a room in Pembroke Street before going to Bedford, leaving the lodge at seven minutes past five. At ten minutes post five the too Kingsmen, stealing across the college, came to the safety of their own rooms. Theirs had been an interesting escape.
When the scapegoats had gone down the scaffolding it seemed certain that the porters would go up to the roof, and something had to be done. Eric tried the turret door, and found that for once it was not bolted. After going through. he bolted it from the inside, a very wise precaution.
He found that the wire door above was not shut, and they went up, so as not to meet any porters who might come up the spiral staircase. After ten minutes they went down, expecting to find the door locked. So it was, but they opened it and went into the chapel, where they sat for half an hour in the provost's pew. They then left by the north-west door, which they locked behind them. They skulked along close to Clare, and so got along by a wide detour to their rooms. This was fortunate, as they would otherwise have met the two deans returning from the lodge.
Thus they left no trace where they had been, except possibly a dent in the provost's cushion. Having come through three doors, they left every door locked or bolted behind them. There was no magic in it; they knew where to find the keys.
The interest of this escape lies in the fact that it was practically proof against all possibilities. Recording the incident at length in the log-book, Eric says; "I am in fact beginning to doubt whether we were really there at all! There is little more. ... We retired to bed at 6 AM. Since when we have had the constant pleasure of listening to the deans relating at length, to an admiring audience, how the efficient college organization deals with would-be chapel climbers!"
This man we call Eric, a quietly self-sufficient soul, has for long been a special favourite of the senior dean, just as the butterfly-collector considers himself his pet aversion. When not in bad company Eric is astonishingly virtuous. The coolness with which he sometimes substitutes crime for good behaviour is only equalled by the infectious efficiency which he has brought to bear on our problems. We feel especially proud of him, in that we chose him on character alone, asking him to join us first from the host of non-climbing acquaintances who might have been asked. After a few outings he proved to be a brilliant climber; the best photographs in this book were taken by him, and in ether ways he has proved invaluable. Quiet as he is and with few friends, strangers usually assume that he is going into holy orders. He would make a good parson, though he undoubtedly suffers from kleptomania. His avoidance of superlatives in speech is only equalled by his attainment of them in action.
The other climb that we mentioned is worth recording because it took place in daylight. Attempts to take flashlight photographs of the chimney from above had been completely unsuccessful, and it was felt that it would be difficult to sight the camera efficiently in the dark while leaning over the edge. The alternative that remained was to do it in daylight.
The idea occurred to two climbers as they were lunching together one day. There were workmen on the north side of the building, so that the climb must be done in the lunch hour. It was already well after half-past one when they started. One, an undergraduate from Trinity, obtained the key to the turret from the chapel clerk. He could thus claim detachment if trouble should arise. When he was ready the other started; he came up more slowly than he had previously done, and arrived fresh at the top. After a few minutes' chat he went up to the parapet of the north-east spire. Here he felt horribly exposed to view and abandoned his idea of going to the top. He could see dozens of people in the street, and several in the college. In particular, he could see the bulky form of the junior dean walking round the college, having only to look up to see him. As the climber was once more the butterfly-collector who had recently been caught, his reluctance to go to the top may be pardoned.
Back on roof-level he stopped to talk for two or three minutes before going down. On the ground he looked at his watch. He had been twenty-seven minutes. As he had climbed all but the last thirty feet and had taken the climb very easily, it would seem that the complete climb could be accomplished in half an hour. This actual climber is of the opinion that he could do it in twenty minutes, but this is doubtful. He spent ten minutes in the chimney; six going up and four going down. Within half an hour of leaving the chapel they were on the roof of Trinity Library, whence they had the interesting escape mentioned in a previous chapter.
The latest from the chapel front is that at the moment of writing the authorities are planning some new abomination to make the chapel more difficult. What counter-move have they decided upon? Are they going to put revolving spikes in the four corner chimneys? Patient generations of climbers will remove them with steel files. Are they going to put bird-lime on the overhangs, to suspend climbers from their hands while their feet hang in space? The counter-movers will surmount it on stilts, or drop on to the pinnacle with a parachute. Are they going to attach a burglor-alarm to the lightning-conductor? Practical jokers will wake up the porters in the night watches with playful nips at the alarm.
We once heard someone express the entrancing theory that the night climbers are subsidized by the Steeplejacks' Union. This idea, though probobly as gross an exaggeration as the report of Mark Twain's death, offers up some intriguing possibilities to the mercenary minded.
And so the tradition of the chapel goes on. Each individual climber continues his separate career, becoming a polar explorer, a don, or collecting butterflies. Among past chapel climbers we know of three polar explorers, seven dons or schoolmasters, and at least two who collect butterflies. Sometimes those experiences crowd back upon the memory, and the past flashes back like a distant peak momentarily lighted up by sunbeam piercing through the clouds. Then oblivion again. Strange it is how the prosaic present may hide the exciting past.
But the chapel, that will never be prosaic. Those who have seen it outlined against the sunset or the full moon, those who have seen its sloping leaded roof-top glisten after a shower of rain, those who have looked down upon the world from its summit, all those who have seen these things will remember the poetry that it has taught them. And while each man changes from year to year, going through the continual changes that make a lifetime, the chapel remains always the same. When the rest of Cambridge is crumbling and in ruins, the chapel will still be standing, the last to fall to time as it is the last to fall to climbers.