This article by my friend Tom Whipple appeared in the Times, on 2nd November 2007, in the aftermath of an earlier feature in the Sunday Times, and coincided with the remastering and reissuing of "The Night Climbers of Cambridge" by Oleander Press.
The cast-iron drainpipes of Newnham College, Cambridge, are the sort of external plumbing that reminds you why Britain used to have an empire; Victorian and sturdy, they aren't so much an appendage to the college as an external structural support. They also leave just enough space to wedge your hand firmly against the wall behind. They were my introduction to night climbing.
For my first six months at university an antique book, battered and tattered, sat unopened on my bookshelf. The Night Climbers of Cambridge, published in 1937, has a lot to say about drainpipes.
"The drainpipe is the most urgent thing to be mastered by the beginner," an opening section explains, before describing in detail how to achieve that mastery.
Seventy years on, the book that many regard as the forerunner of the urban sports of free-running and building climbing --- not to mention one of the first climbing guidebooks published --- has just been reissued by Oleander.
My copy was a present from my father. With a look of conspiratorial glee, he had thrust it into my hand on the day I left for university. Then I promptly forgot it.
But the Night Climbers is too much a part of Cambridge folklore to remain forgotten for long. When a friend in the mountaineering club breathlessly passed on rumours of a guidebook long out of print that described routes up every building in Cambridge, I returned to my bookshelf and began to read.
Written by the pseudonymous "Whipplesnaith" (no relation), Night Climbers is a lot more than a guide for climbing the colleges of Cambridge. It is also a ripping Boy's Own romp, with climbers pictured performing heroic feats of derring-do when 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. What 18-year-old would not want to be part of such a society?
With the Night Climbers as my guide, I headed into the Cambridge night. After drainpipes came the easier buildings Fitzwilliam Museum, Caius College Old Library. I soon learnt to deal with college countermeasures, with revolving spikes on fences and downward-pointing spikes on popular routes.
I was not alone. There, among the spires and the towers, the roof tiles and the lightning conductors, a strange fellowship existed. When other students left the pub for the dubiously sweaty delights of Cambridge clubs, we met in ones and twos in the dark.
We revelled in the romance of it all. On a foggy night, as the clocktowers strike midnight from above and below, the roofscape becomes a medieval mess of disembodied turrets, and the 21st century disappears. Then, topping out from a difficult ascent, we felt part of a lineage stretching back centuries: past Whipplesnaith; past the author of the 1899 Roof-climber's Guide to Trinity, the first book on the subject; back to whichever errant student first sneaked back into college after dark.
In later years I would complete most of the climbs, my proudest moment an ascent assisted part of the way by scaffolding of King's College Chapel. I would also be operated on after a fall, chased across rooftops by security guards and taken home in the back of a police car.
But before that, at the end of my first year, I had to explain to my troubled mother why her son had bleeding knuckles from a speedy drainpipe descent and a dinner jacket covered in anti-climb paint. Rather than have her believe that I had joined a gentlemen's bare-knuckle boxing society, I confessed my hobby.
We drove home in silence. Somewhere, between getting on the A14 at Cambridge and turning off the M4 into Reading, The Night Climbers of Cambridge went missing. That was six years ago, and my mother still hasn't told me where she hid it.