Cambridge Nightclimbing


This is a transcription of the 1970 edition of Cambridge Night Climbing by "Hederatus". Following on from the successful group transcription of "Whipplesnaith"'s 1930s classic, The Night Climbers of Cambridge, this worthy 1970 successor was the next obvious target for digital republishing. Fortunately, lessons were learned from the previous transcription and this time no outside help was required, other than a couple of hours with Mrs Buckley's scanner. Thanks to Alan Dickinson for his loan of the book.

My take on the copyright situation is as for the previous book — it is long out of print and I think the author and participants are all proud enough of their achievements that they would be glad to see it made available to all (be they would-be night climbers or enthusiasts of eccentric Cantabridgiana.) Copyright holders: if this isn't the case, please let me know! My hope is that there will be as much enthusiasm for this book as for its more famous 1930s companion. If there is, perhaps we can get this book re-published, too...

Finally, an appeal: if anyone has a copy of the extremely rare Trinity Roof Climbers' Guide by Geoffrey Winthrop Young and would like to see if get the same digital treatment, then I'm very happy to do the honours and host the result. Either high res (100dpi) scanned page images or temporary loan of the book would be ideal.

Andy Buckley, 9th March 2008

Table of Contents

1. Acknowledgements
2. The Classical Climbs
3. A Typical Day and Night
4. St. John's Chapel
5. Kings College Chapel
6. The Banner
7. The First of the New Routes
8. The Senate House
9. The Aftermath
10. New Routes II
11. Concluding Words
12. The Climber's Appendix — A Classification of Routes
Kings College
Trinity College (Night Porters)
St. John's College
Fitzwilliam Museum
Senate House
Pitt Press
Clare College
Old Schools (A paradise for beginners)
New Hall (Just V.S.)

List of Figures

2.1. The Old Schools: Sunken Drainpipe
2.2. Trinity: The Hall Lantern
2.3. South-East Corner of Clare
2.4. Fitzwilliam Museum: Lion Chimney
2.5. King's Porters' Lodge
2.6. St. John's: The Bridge of Sighs
2.7. Trinity: Castor and Pollux
2.8. Trinity: Wet Bob's Traverse
2.9. Trinity: Ornamentation Climb
2.10. Trinity: Gateway Column
2.11. Trinity: Library Chimney
2.12. Clare Ladder Climb
4.1. St. John's Chapel
6.1. The “Peace in Vietnam” Banner
7.1. Pitt Press
7.2. Fitzwilliam Museum
7.3. Old Schools
7.4. Old Schools: Recessed Drainpipe
7.5. Trinity Hall — Clare Chimney
8.1. Senate House Leap
8.2. Senate House
10.1. New Hall Dome
10.2. Gibbs Building: Archway Climb
10.3. Gibbs Building: Drainpipe Route

Chapter 1. Acknowledgements

It is impossible to mention all those who have contributed in some way towards the publication of this book, and to thank all who have helped in some way with coffee, hospitality and encouragement. All we can do is mention some of these people.

Brian, Dave, Bernard, Nick, Roger, Dave W., Mick T., Clive, Gerry, Nick, Cassius, Lawrence, Steve, James, Dave G., Martin, Lionel, Alan, Bernard, Brian, Greg, Paul, Ian, Murphy, Mart, Len The Pub, Badrul The Curry, and Eric.

Last, we would like to extend our thanks to the Master and Fellows of Sidney Sussex College, without whom none of this would have been possible.

Chapter 2. The Classical Climbs

Cambridge has a lot to offer the student. The academic demands are neither stringent nor time consuming. One is not compelled to go to lectures or forced to produce essays, though such activities are actively encouraged. Consequently, most students have time on their hands, The river is attractive and relaxing, the backs are inviting, punting is a novelty, parties abound, coffee is liberal: what a way to spend one's days.

I came to Cambridge in 1963 and rapidly became bored. Everything seemed so artificial and stultifying. It was a green-house existence with little possibility of escape. My depression grew by the day: I had to break out of it in some way.

It was completely fortuitous that I met someone similarly placed. His great passion in life was mountaineering. Though I too loved the sport, it had not then gripped me in such an all-consuming way. Climbing introduced us, but there was much more to Dave than just climbing. A North Londoner with a fearsome black beard, dark threadbare Donkey-jacket, scraggy jeans, red high-necked sweater, and compass hair, he had a captivating electric quality and an almost overloaded character. It is impossible to describe the awareness that his presence created. Physically he was much shorter than I but stockier, and he looked three parts unhewn. Together we decided to make some impression on nightclimbing which for some time had been in a backwater.

Nightclimbing is a tradition peculiar to Cambridge, and its history is filled with mystery, absurdity, interest, and anonymity. There are piecemeal documented records of incidents and especially of first ascents. The 1930's was undoubtedly the hey-day of nightclimbing. It was in this period that The Night Climbers of Cambridge by “Whipplesnaith” was published. After this, however, there was a reduction of interest and activity, though we could never discover the reason. Perhaps the Proctors became more agile, the bulldogs grew longer teeth, and the porters became better sentinels? Perhaps the authorities carefully selected non-climbers for a decade or so to dampen enthusiasm? Perhaps students were locked in their rooms at night? The most likely explanation however is that many potential climbers were deterred by such things as the blocking up of the chimney route on Kings College Chapel and the rustication in 1937 of two well known night-climbers, Nares and O'Hara. However, most of these observations are mere conjecture; that interest declined is a fact, and we meant to do something about it.

Before we could contemplate any new routes it was obvious that we needed both a thorough grounding in the classical climbs and a close familiarity with the roof tops of every college. Climbs can be classical in either period or technique: here the latter is more important. Classical climbing relied on a very limited technique vis-à-vis modern climbing, being principally dependent on chimneys, drainpipes and horizontal ledges. Classical climbers of the 30's were particularly good on mantelshelving, but such techniques as bridging and lay-backing (the latter an old technique but surprisingly not used) seemed foreign to them. This severely restricted their climbing potential. This is not to say that some of the classical routes are not hard, but they were all much of a muchness.

The best guidebook to the classical routes is the book by “Whipplesnaith”. This is an excellent survey and thoroughly readable. Two pains of which to be careful are: the grading of routes where mentioned is inaccurate by modern standards, and above all some of the techniques recommended must be regarded with scepticism. Having made these cautionary notes, the embryonic night climber is advised to read the book thoroughly. It is for this reason that this chapter tries to keep descriptions to a minimum and allow photographs to speak for themselves.

It was with some trepidation that Dave and I left our rooms on our first adventure, harbouring nightmarish visions of irate porters and police chasing us through sleeping cloisters and empty streets. We soon learned that our misgivings were not without some justification.

We left Dave's room at midnight. Instead of coming down the steps into the court we decided to climb over the balustrade. Dave climbed over the edge and went down only to be met at the bottom by a dark figure whom I took to be another student. I followed Dave and was about to jump down the last few feet when a stern voice broke the silence. “Ah, its M— isn't it?” Quite startled, I replied in the affirmative. He immediately left us and we thought little more of it. The mystery was solved the next day by a “communication” from the Dean (ostensibly the disciplinarian, though certain tutors take this duty upon themselves) which implied, acting on a tutor's report, that we were acting in such a manner as to be likely to cause damage to the tiles, slates, and drainpipes, disturb people's sleep, etc. etc. He considered a £1 fine to be appropriate punishment for each of us. We did not. We pointed out that we were on no roof top, that in the absence of drainpipes we were unlikely to damage them (this being, anyway, our last wish), and that there were no sleeping students within hooting distance. Over sherry, the Dean reduced the fine to 10s each and everyone was satisfied. What no one realised was that our encounter with the tutor was the beginning of our first exciting night.

After our unfortunate meeting we made a rapid exit from college. We made our way through the Arts Passage up Market Hill to the Senate House Passage. The streets were deserted save for a lonely bobby who looked twice at our footwear, but otherwise showed no undue interest. We planned to begin on the Old Schools, said to be the safest building for the uninitiated. We started with the Sunken Drainpipe, comprising a drainpipe somewhat inaccessibly inset in the wall. Some sections are alarmingly loose and make a hollow noise; the bowl is definitely unsafe, and one has to trust the gutter which seems quite firm. We wandered about the rooftops doing many small, though interesting climbs, in particular, the climb into the top of one of the stone arches (at the Trinity Hall end). Then Dave and I climbed the tottering tower together. At that moment three cars screamed down Trinity Lane, and stopped beneath us, next to Clare College. Curious, we peered over the top of the building, only to see two policemen standing next to the first car, looking up at us. Coincidence? We were far from sure, so we moved quickly towards the Sunken Drainpipe, half-anticipating a welcoming party at the bottom. We slithered down the drainpipe at friction speed. As I landed, there was equally hectic activity in the Senate House Passage. We decided to make for King's College, and comparative immunity, from the police at least. We had to get over some revolving spikes — a bit tricky but not over-difficult. We left Kings quickly by way of the back gate.

Figure 2.1. The Old Schools: Sunken Drainpipe

The Old Schools: Sunken Drainpipe

Figure 2.2. Trinity: The Hall Lantern

Trinity: The Hall Lantern

The lantern is approached along the ridge of the roof in the foreground. The climber then pulls himself up past each window using his hands, being careful to avoid the glass with his feet.

Trinity: The Hall Lantern

The climber approaches the spire.

Trinity: The Hall Lantern

Standing at the base of the spire.

Figure 2.3. South-East Corner of Clare

South-East Corner of Clare

The climber has pulled himself up from a similar ledge just below the bottom of the picture and will repeat this operation to another ledge from which he will be able to reach the roof. Note the position of the left ledge, which is essential.

Figure 2.4. Fitzwilliam Museum: Lion Chimney

Fitzwilliam Museum: Lion Chimney

The climber relaxes with a cigarette to pose for the photograph.

Figure 2.5. King's Porters' Lodge

King's Porters' Lodge

The climber has reached the base of the climb by a drainpipe from the ground. A variety of small holds give access to the clockface. It is essential to climb the clockface up the right-hand side.

King's Porters' Lodge

On reaching the centre of the clock, the climber can reach the ledge which he is holding (the only suitable one), on which he then pulls himself up.

King's Porters' Lodge

A series of strenuous pull-ups lead to the top.

King's Porters' Lodge

A series of stenuous pull-ups lead to the top.

Figure 2.6. St. John's: The Bridge of Sighs

St. John's: The Bridge of Sighs

Falling across on to the bridge; it is better to face the bridge before this move.

St. John's: The Bridge of Sighs

Stepping down on to a projection, which gives access to the main part of the bridge.

St. John's: The Bridge of Sighs

Traversing the bridge.

St. John's: The Bridge of Sighs

Climbing the window to the roof.

It was only 3.45 a.m. so we decided to do another climb before returning to college. We made for the Clare Ladder climb. Dave went first and I was to photograph him and then follow. Cameras were very strange phenomena to me: they were mechanical and I never understood anything more complex than a wheelbarrow. I put the largest bulb I could find in the flash gun, waited until Dave was in a good position, then pressed the button. There was a tremendous flash, and I was blinded for several minutes. Dave was in a similar state halfway up the climb, but he soon recovered and quickly completed it. I followed him. I had, of course, made two mistakes by putting too big a bulb in and by standing too square to the stone face, thus catching the maximum amount of reflection both in the camera and my eyes. I began to study the camera shortly afterwards. Nevertheless, I carefully avoided a possible repetition of this disaster, and the photographs shown of this climb were taken on another occasion by our more competent resident photographer.

We made our way back to college as it was now 4.30 a.m. taking a few photographs as we climbed in. It had been an excellent first night, despite the fact that we had unluckily roused both a tutor and the police. We hoped that this sort of luck would be minimised as we became experienced.

For the next eight months we had a trouble free period during which we dismissed most of the classical routes. We learned a great many things about the buildings, weather conditions, police and porter activities and so on. Above all, we learned not to trust any hold without careful inspection though on one memorable occasion we forgot to transmit our knowledge to one of Dave's friends. He had come up to Cambridge for the weekend and came with us to a party in Clare. We arrived back at college rather late and were forced to climb in. On the top of the college wall one stands on a small potting shed and then descends by a rather shaky drainpipe. One uses the drainpipe in such a way that all the pressure exerted on it is downward. We forgot to mention this to Chris. I climbed down and prepared to direct him when he suddenly leaped towards the wall and clutched the drainpipe. Straining under his weight the top bracket finally gave way and he was hurtled back the way he came. Unfortunately, action and reaction were not quite equal and opposite and he did not go back as far as the potting shed. Instead he dropped sharply down into an enormous tank which was covered with a sheet of asbestos. This cover he duly shattered and by the grace of Heaven landed with both feet in the tank, which was, fortunately, empty. The lesson was quickly learned.

The weather was quite cold in January and February, and we had some painful nights before learning from our mistakes. It is imperative that one is not over-burdened with clothes; a thick sweater, thick socks, and jeans are all that is required. We spent one night on Trinity almost unable to climb through perspiration of the hands and feet though it was desperately icy that night. Cold clear nights are excellent for climbing — the air is bracing and if there is snow about it will deter anyone from glancing up. However, it is important that on a cold night something easy should be attempted first to give one an opportunity to adjust to the conditions and to get one's hands warm.

After several months we had gained in confidence and experience. One night Dave and I decided to take Enid up the Wedding Cake — it would he the first time a woman had climbed it. We went round to Carol's for coffee but she was out. Nevertheless, we managed to find a pair of her jeans and gave them to Enid to change into. I gave her my shirt, so that I was left with a jacket and a pair of jeans. We went round to St. John's just before midnight. Dave and I left our jackets at the bottom of the drainpipe outside New Court, near the Eagle Gateway. I had to discard my shoes since it proved impossible to climb in them. I went up the drainpipe first and helped Enid from above with Dave below supporting her feet on his shoulders. Inside the court we decided to go up the corner staircase onto the roof and walk along the balustrade and the slates up to the tower proper. It was very warm, so I took off my socks and Dave his shirt, shoes and socks. We used the same technique as previously to get Enid up to the top of the flying buttress. She then climbed up the top section with perfect ease and confidence — quite unusual for anyone on their first ascent. During the descent, Dave and I managed to get dressed, and then we popped in to see Alan for coffee. It was quite an entertaining evening, though next morning Enid had difficulty in deciding whether it was a dream or not.

In May, however, the pattern of our activities was to change. We had heard vague rumours that some other people in college were interested in climbing and eventually we tracked them down. Nick and Brian joined us without hesitation. Nick was a splendid, solidly built, nocturnally athletic and a prodigious smoker. He was an unusual product of Repton. He had an odd genius for getting up climbs in an individual way, quite incomprehensible to the rest of us and quite regardless of any conventional technique. He had done no nightclimbing before, but was bursting with enthusiasm to learn. Brian had done some rock-climbing and was much more orthodox technically. Robust and athletic — reported to have been a prospective discus champion at one time — he had a healthy interest in non-collegiate activities. He did a wonderful impersonation of a detective and arrested no end of unsuspecting people. A classicist by trade, a hedonist by nature, he was delightful company.

Our ranks were further strengthened by the acquisition of two photographers. First, James lent a professional touch in this field, but sadly was forced to leave after the first year, when his application to change subjects was refused. Fortunately, his place was filled immediately by Bernard. His role was augmented by unbounded enthusiasm and some climbing knowledge. This experienced help gave us all the incentive we needed.

Figure 2.7. Trinity: Castor and Pollux

Trinity: Castor and Pollux

A narrow chimney which leads to the starting point of the Ornamentation Climb.

Figure 2.8. Trinity: Wet Bob's Traverse

Trinity: Wet Bob's Traverse

A traverse along two ledges which is a good exercise in balance.

Figure 2.9. Trinity: Ornamentation Climb

Trinity: Ornamentation Climb

A delicate walk up the flange of the window, holding on to the ornamentation. A long reach ending in a mantelshelf leads to the roof.

Figure 2.10. Trinity: Gateway Column

Trinity: Gateway Column

The climber starts up the window shown in the bottom of the picture. Balancing on the ledge above the window, he reaches for the column and pulls up to his present position. He then mantelshelves over the overhang. (Notice the climber's arched back.)

Figure 2.11. Trinity: Library Chimney

Trinity: Library Chimney

This photograph was taken in the early evening. A very narrow chimney of uneven brickwork. Knees must be used for the first 15 feet.

Figure 2.12. Clare Ladder Climb

Clare Ladder Climb
Clare Ladder Climb

Chapter 3. A Typical Day and Night

Three o'clock! Another resolution broken. Missed breakfast again. I was supposed to go round to Dave's for coffee. I washed quickly (or did I?), threw on my jeans and sweater and left the room. I could not be bothered to make my bed or pull back the curtains. Still, light is not necessarily an advantage in Cambridge and can often be a positive hazard.

I ran through the courts to Dave's room. I was horribly surprised. He was still in bed. He managed to rise after a while, encouraged by the smell of coffee and toast which I was in the process of making. He looked quite shattered; furrows of strain wrinkled his bearded face. “This way up.” “Very fragile, do not touch.” — I could read it in his eyes. Most of us feel like this when we get up after a late night. I did not feel sorry for him, as I had almost recovered by this time. We groaned at each other for a while, and then I made a concentrated effort on The Times crossword.

We were both fully recovered when Nick and Brian arrived, demanding coffee and quite generally abusing us. It was an often repeated scene. The room was filled with cigarette smoke, the fire was bright and warm, toast and coffee fumes mingled in the air, and outside it was raining. We talked of climbing generally, improvements in techniques, routes and photographs. The rain stopped, the sun broke through, and if the weather held, climbing was on. What were we to climb? Do we need ropes? Shall we take a camera? When shall we start? The discussion gained momentum. Of course, we knew that nothing would be decided this early in the day for we would then be left with nothing to do until mid-night. Talk thrived!

We would probably have to avoid the more serious climbs because of the rain, so we agreed to concentrate more on photography and forget about harder climbs until we saw what the conditions were like. Dave had bought some nylon tapes and everyone grabbed at them, making waist lengths, etrier slings and indescribable loops for experimental purposes. They would certainly cut down the wear and tear on our waists and would generally make for more comfortable climbing. Comfort is something the climber must always look for, especially on big climbs where he is likely to be in positions which require him to hang from a rope for a considerable length of time, as in some of our photographic work. This was something we should have thought more about, notably on an epic occasion on John's Chapel to which we shall come later.

Soon Nick was hanging from a wall peg on tape, manoeuvring and generally testing the breaking strain of the coat-hanger. We had not been out for several nights now and everyone was anxious to keep lit. Someone suggested an adjournment to my room to build up finger strength on my girdle traverse. There was an hour yet before Hall.

The girdle traverse was a tremendous test. Dave and I had worked it out one day, in a moment of idleness. It involved, essentially. a traverse of the room on a small picture rail, with almost adequate supporting footholds. But it was more than an ordinary traverse. It was made interesting by the fact that one wall had nothing but the small picture rail on it. This wall was about nine feet long and the crux was a pendulum swing, feet on the top of the mantelpiece, hands as far out on the picture rail as possible, onto a Yale lock on the door, during which it was essential for the feet to be kept clear of the wall, so as to avoid unnecessary damage. All climbing equipment was banished, only stockinged feet were allowed to tarnish the wall of the room which is purported (by Brian anyway) to have housed in its time, Oliver Cromwell, Canon Collins, and Colin Jordan — a most curious Trinity! We idled the time away failing and succeeding on “Euclid's Stretch”, until the Hall bell sounded unexpectedly, and we were forced to drag our sweaty bodies to dinner.

It was unusually bad. Nick was first out of Hall and we found him abusing the Steward in the Food Suggestions Book, with a large queue of malcontents lined up to exercise their democratic right to attack those in authority. “Come forward and give an account of thy stewardship; for thou mayest no longer be steward” (Luke), he wrote. “Vile wretched man.” After a few minutes of sport, he joined us for a drink. As we were to climb, we drank very little and were back in college well before the gates were shut at eleven o'clock. Dave provided coffee. Discussion was quite hectic and everyone was eager to get out as soon as possible. We had to get the equipment ready of course, and we were no masters of routine and efficiency.

The camera was the first essential, with flashgun and an assortment of large and small bulbs. We put these in our anorak pockets for easy access. We would take the rope and some slings in case the stonework had dried out enough for us to try something hard. All this should take about ten minutes, but with coffee, cigarettes and impatient wall-climbing the operation lasted until 12.45 a.m. At last we realised the lateness of the hour and quickly climbed out of college. We made for our usual haunt, the Kismet in Northampton Street. It was closed when we arrived at 1.00, but our friend Badrul lost no time in opening up for us. There was a curious mixture of friendship and happiness — with the beaming face of Badrul this was inevitable — and a certain tenseness and anxiety for action. We always stayed for quite some time, as it takes time to recover from a large curry. Badrul wished us good luck and we left replete.

There was a good breeze blowing, the stonework would soon be dry, the sky was clear and the air crisp. We made our way along Queen's Road and soon climbed into St. John's. We had decided to warm up on the Wedding Cake. We wandered up to New Court, which was still lit up though it was now very late. The west side of the court was in scaffolding, so we climbed the first fifty feet by ladders. Looking down into New Court from the battlements we could see two people talking. Suspecting a porter we did not continue immediately. We must have waited for quite a long time before deciding that we would carry on and take some photographs. For safety we approached the Tower on the outside of the court. Easily up the tiles over some battlements, more tiles and at last the New Tower. We were at the face which has the lightning conductor. It had obviously been used before for it was pulled away from the wall in great loops between the staples. This makes the next part very easy, technically, though it can be quite strenuous. To introduce some variations into the established route, Dave went up one of the clock faces (clockless faces rather). “It was,” he said, gritting his teeth between his beard, “fairly difficult.” We soon discovered that he was not lying. Then Brian by an awkward chimney technique managed to get up the conventional route without using the lightning conductor, said to be impossible. Nick, Dave and I followed telling him that it was easier than he made out. Lying is a form of encouragement among climbers. The flying buttress is relatively tricky, and then there is the last part. This would he a mere “stone ladder”, but the sense of exposure is sudden and arresting for someone new to the climb, as the back courts and lawns of John's open up before one. We all felt sharper as we climbed out of John's without incident and made our way to Clare.

We climbed into King's College and walked towards the river, next to Clare. Where the dividing wall meets the river it is possible to swing round into Clare. This was successfully completed by all, despite jovial attempts to squash fingers under climbing shoes and other tricks which are the climbers party pieces. We then walked across the garden, up to the gateway at the start of the Ladder climbs This is a delightful climb. The holds are small, but sharp and with klets there is not much difficulty. The drainpipe is not very useful, as it is too close to the wall and only in a few places can one's fingers get behind it. The descent was by way of builders' ladders as the SE corner of Clare was in scaffolding. We were all feeling in good form and we decided to try a new route on the face of the Old Schools opposite Clare. The projected route was up the main gate.

The stonework looked very fragile above the whole of the main gate, and so we decided that a top rope was necessary for the first ascent Dave and Brian went up the Sunken Drainpipe and took the rope with them. Dave left Brian to sort out the rope while he practised a few turrets. He then decided to belay me and allow Brian to watch from above. I tied on and Dave pulled in the slack.

The start is a bit awkward. One has to climb up to the window to the side (we chose the left hand side) and then traverse round the pillar on slanting footholds. The idea is then to go straight up the stonework making use of as many ornaments as seem safe. A lot do not. To be safest pinch grips must be used most of the time, these exerting less pressure on the ornaments. I had just got above the main archway when I was blinded by a torch. “Who's there?” a stern voice called, “What's going on?” It was a porter from inside King's. “Prince Richard of Gloucester,” replied Nick in his own convincing voice. The porter was not fooled, and shouted something about the police. Nick split his sides with laughter. The panic was on.

Foiled. Must get away quickly. I clipped the descendeur onto the rope and floated earthwards; past the statues, ornamentation, the gateway, and with a bit of a scramble I was down, missing Nick by an inch. Dave tossed the rope over the top and I began coiling madly. Dave and Brian made off across the roof tops while Nick and I gathered the equipment and ran up the Senate House Passage to meet them at the foot of the Sunken Drainpipe. There's safety in numbers. The peaceful tranquillity of the night air, and the joy of the climbing fraternity were suddenly shattered by a police car screaming up King's Parade. “Come on you two, hurry up,” I yelled. Dave and Brian came down the drainpipe at an incredibly scorching pace and sprinted over to the railings. The rucksack was thrown over the railings to Nick, and then disaster almost struck. In his eagerness to make a record escape Dave twisted his ankle jumping from the railings. Nick and Brian grabbed the equipment, supported Dave and we sped off to Garret Hostel Bridge as quickly as we could.

A few footsteps rang out. “Who the hell's that,” croaked Brian. We scattered quickly (safety in...?). A dark shadow appeared ominously. I raised the camera, aimed it accurately and flashed. An innocent bystander was temporarily blinded. I roared with laughter. Dave slithered down a drainpipe, Nick and Brian fell out of a tree, and we ran like mad. “God, I'm exhausted.

It was while we were relaxing on the Backs that Nick had one of his elfin brainwaves. He was indignant that he had been thwarted before he could attempt the climb, by a porter who had no business to bother him at all. “Damn the fellow,” he murmured, “he'll not sleep tonight.” Somewhat bemused we followed him back to college safeguarding the world from his wrath. After about half an hour, during which a welcome cup of coffee was consumed, we discovered Nick's plan. He climbed out of college and made for the nearest telephone kiosk. The Kings porter soon answered the phone. “'ello, is that the King's Porters Lodge?”, he enquired in a middle-aged fenland accent. “This is Cambridge City Police 'ere. One of our constables gave us a report 'bout two minutes ago that 'e'd seen four climbers on your Chapel. Of course there's nothing we can do to help you, but we thought you'd best be told.” There were earnest replies from the porter asking locations and descriptions, and these were amply dealt with. “Well I 'ope you catch 'em.” He ended cheerfully.

Of course, the porter caught no one, but he tried as hard as he has ever tried. He was to be seen prowling round the Chapel for the rest of the night in the ardent hope that four ghosts would fall from the sky and complete his victory. It became desperately cold in the early hours, and we often thought of him as we snuggled deeper into our warm beds. It is the sort of poetic justice that is accepted ethics in Cambridge night life; be careful not to be underneath when the tables are turned.

Chapter 4. St. John's Chapel

It is not easy to explain why St. John's Chapel is one of the most enjoyable climbs in Cambridge. It is almost as high as King's, but is aesthetically more philistine. Rising from a cluster of buildings, it is basically a large square tower, with four corner pinnacles. The whole effect is singularly unattractive. But it would be wrong to judge the climb by analysing the architectural form of the building. The beauty of the chapel lies essentially in its climbing. It is a climber's building and a climber's climb. We set out to see it one night and it was to haunt us for many months.

I had a friend in John's, and Dave and I went round to see him one night. We brought a small rucksack with ropes, camera, etc., intending to attempt it, if all was well. My friend, Alan, decided to come out with us. At the time there was scaffolding in Second Court, and we used this to get up onto the roof of the Hall, as Alan was no night-climber. Unfortunately, it was a hectic night in the college, with people dashing around everywhere. Alan spotted a porter and one or two fellows, so we lay low for a while. Then we continued up a loose-tiled roof, but decided not to go on as Alan was in no condition. It was a frustrating night in many ways, but Dave and I managed to get a look at the tower. We were very impressed. But it was several months until we got round to trying it again.

Eventually, we decided to climb the chapel. Brian was unwell on the night and I had hurt my chest a few days previously. Our party was understrength, but we decided to go ahead as planned. Dave would climb first on a top-rope, I would follow, and then Nick. We climbed into St. John's by an unusual way. Taking a drainpipe by one of the buttresses, the three of us were soon up on the roof of the chapel below the tower. This drainpipe route is quite easy, though it is moderately long and can be awkward in places. So far all was well.

We decided that, since it was questionable whether my chest would hold out, it would be best if I went up the stairs on the inside of the tower. Nick came with me. Dave had to walk round the lower roof to get to the north side of the tower (facing Bridge Street). Nick and I, meanwhile, walked up those almost unending stairs.

Finally, we were in position on top of the chapel. Nick decided to belay Dave. Unfortunately, there then occurred a complete misunderstanding (the sort that is often dreamt of, but rarely committed) which delayed us for well over an hour.

Dave was preparing to climb up the west side of the northern ridge, but Nick and I understood that he was coming up the east side. The agony that followed from this is unspeakable.

Nick lowered the rope down to the east side, but Dave was unable to see it as it was practically the same colour as the chapel stonework. And our apparently superb viewing position was useless as we could not see Dave in the shadows. Dave obviously did not realise this, and so, thinking that we were in difficulties with the equipment, kept quiet and concealed himself further in the darkness. After a while we began to get anxious, and Nick went down to see what was going on. It took him a long time to go down and get round to the Bridge Street side and poor Dave was on the point of giving up for the night. The next episode, rather comical in hindsight, was for us quite dramatic at the time.

After a considerable wait without seeing a sign of anybody, I decided to go down and investigate. As I was coming down, Dave and Nick met up with each other and sorted out the confusion. Then Nick sped off to give Dave a top-rope, I came down a different way to Nick and so missed him on my way to the north face. When I arrived, Dave told me what had happened, and I went up again to help Nick.

Looking over the edge of the tower, I could see nothing until Dave did the step out from beneath the overhang at the top of the windows. Then I had a fantastic view of the last pitch. Dave was overjoyed when he got to the top, and we all did a war-dance as a sort of celebration. Unfortunately, we had been delayed so much that it was now quite light, and we were forced to return to college before either Nick or I could attempt the climb. Still, it was a fantastic night, and it taught us a lesson to be more accurate in the future.

The next time we climbed the chapel, the four of us were together for the first time for several months. Various things had made it impossible for one or other of us to come out in the weeks previous. We went to the Volunteer to celebrate the occasion and then to the New Bengal. The curry was very hot that night, Brian's especially, but it helped to keep the cold off our backs. It was just gone one o'clock when we climbed into St. John's.

We were soon on the roof of the chapel, gazing up at the tower before us. Dave, who was the only one of us to have climbed it before, was to lead. He roped up and Nick belayed him. Dave moved steadily up and soon it was difficult to pick him out against the stonework. Meanwhile, Brian had collapsed with acute stomach pains (not the result of the curry, I hasten to add) and had to be counted out of the climb that night. When Dave reached the top, he tied himself into a good position on the inside of the parapet and tugged on the rope three times. Nick tied on and began climbing. Unfortunately, Nick was wearing ordinary shoes — his others were being repaired — which slipped a great deal. Consequently, he came unstuck on the first short drainpipe at the top of the ridge, as his feet could get no grip on the stonework. He soon became exhausted and was forced to retreat. Fortunately, Dave had worked out that something had gone wrong and had paid out the rope. I tied on and began climbing.

Figure 4.1. St. John's Chapel

St. John's Chapel

The climb shown in the following photographs is started from the top of the sloping roof in the centre of the picture.

St. John's Chapel

Drainpipe below the louvred windows.

St. John's Chapel

Chimneying up the window.

St. John's Chapel

The step-out from the clover-leaf.

St. John's Chapel

Pulling up on ornaments below the parapet.

St. John's Chapel

The step-out and following move taken from one of the statues on the corner beside the windows.

St. John's Chapel

The step-out and following move taken from one of the statues on the corner beside the windows.

The roof is steep and long, but there is an excellent stone lay-back hold for the left hand. The right hand can either rest on the near horizontal drainpipe or be used to layback. Near the top I found a few loose tiles, but they did not bother me much. though one piece slid down the roof at great speed, missed Nick's head by inches. and shattered in the court below with an almighty crash. Soon I was sitting astride the ridge feeling beautifully exposed. The tower proper was now before me.

A short drainpipe ends below the first overhang. Dave had tied his first runner around the drainpipe. The pipe is short and easy, as it is square and away from the wall. I managed to hold on to it quite easily with one hand, and take the runner off with the other. This was placed around my neck. Then comes the first tricky manoeuvre — the mantelshelf. To get over the overhang, it is best to mantelshelf on the serrated edge of the drainpipe bowl (for one cannot get one's hands inside), then work one leg over the bowl and gradually transfer one hand, then the other, onto the ledge above. Then it is a straightforward pull-up. I was quite pleased to be standing at the base of the windows.

The next pitch consists of chimneying up the louvred windows. The technique is to put one's back against the central pillar of the window, and the feet on the outside pillar, excellent undergrips being provided by the undersides of the wooden slats. I found that the chimney was a comfortable width, and the view could be enjoyed on the way up.

Near the top of the windows there is a rusty iron bar, around which Dave had put his second runner. Here I experienced some embarrassing difficulty. I was unable to take off the runner for ages. Being in the chimney position beneath the overhang, I was in the dark and was unable to see that Dave had used the screw carabiner. I was pushing at the gate for ages before I realised that he had used the one odd “crab” that we possessed. Having taken off the runner, I then moved over into the “clover leaf”, a little seat at the top of the windows. The view from here was magnificent, and I gazed around me for several minutes before continuing.

The move out from beneath the overhang is quite easy, for there are adequate sidegrips and a good ledge to step onto. Then climb straight up the pillar. The first move is a little awkward, but then one can get a good handgrip on some ornaments on the pillar. The central pillar is square-shaped with one edge to the wall, so that it provides excellent handholds. The feet rest either side of slanting ledges. One then bridges up in this position, with one's feet getting further and further apart, until an ornament is reached. The feet can then be brought into the main pillar, where small ornaments provide a resting place. As I got to this resting place, Dave called in a whispered voice, “Mike, there's a car”. I had been so preoccupied with the climb that I did not notice someone drive into the court below us. I turned and saw the driver get out and look up at us. It was not long before I climbed the last part. Mantelshelf from the resting position, gripping the pillar with the knees, and reach for one of the small ornaments below the overhang, which provides an excellent sidegrip. Then, stand on the big ornament (the “cabbage”), which one has mantelshelved on, lean right out, reach over the top and pull up over the final overhang. It was a tremendous climb and I had not really noticed the exposure at all. It was beginning to get light, so we came straight down, and climbed out without incident. It was a brilliant night, especially for Dave and myself, though Nick and Brian were soon to have better luck.

I mentioned that, when Dave told me of the car below me, I was unaware of any noise. This might seem strange to some people, so I will explain. If one is climbing correctly, then it is quite common to become so much engrossed in the climb that one is unaware of anything else. This may be illustrated by a tale concerning one proctor, two bulldogs and six humans.

The six of us were Dave and myself, Enid (Dave's girlfriend) and three other friends of ours. We were assembled in Jesus Lane, the purpose being to gain access to a college after the permitted hour of eleven o'clock. The plan was quite simple. I was to climb up onto a sign some distance up a lamp post. Dave was then to pass Enid up to me. I would then deposit her on top of the college wall after which all would be easy. I stood precariously balanced on top of the sign, and bent over ready to haul Enid up. Dave lifted her from beneath, and I grasped her wrists and took the strain. She was half-way up when one of the others announced: “It's a proctor.” By this time we were too engrossed to listen to him. Enid was now level with my chest, when a voice rang out: “It really is a proctor”. Enid relaxed her grip, I relaxed mine and almost lost my balance, and in a flash she was falling to the pavement below. There was a loud “thud” signifying to all that she had landed safely. Dave picked her up and rushed off with the others to the waiting van. The proctor and his bulldogs were somewhat bemused, it was not an unusual sight to see an undergraduate climb into his college, but to see six people of assorted sexes lined up beneath what must have seemed a most ungentlemanly entrance was enough to have startled even the most worldly proctor. He stood and gazed, sandwiched between two petrified bulldogs. I was the first to move, many seconds later, unceremoniously leaping from the sign to the college wall, into college and then out by another route. The story does not end here. Coming out of college again, I met up with the others who rebuked me for letting Enid fall. “Nonsense,” I retorted, “how the...”, when I realised that they had either got the message, or were only joking anyway. Dave then quietened us by saying that he thought one of the bulldogs was from our college, and that he could easily have recognised us. This meant that Dave and I had to go into college by the from gate so that the porter would see us (the gates were locked, and when the porter opened them for someone, it was customary for them to take his name), and this would throw suspicion away from us. We went in the front gate, the Porter duly took our names, and we immediately climbed out the back way.

Now on with the story of the chapel. Planning photographs of climbing positions on the chapel provided us with many exciting hours. Once we used a telescope, set up in Dave's room, to analyse the condition of the stonework. On this occasion all our theorising finally emerged as a concrete coordinated plan, and the actual photographic climb proved, among other things, to be one of the most epic nights we had ever experienced.

At about 1.30 a.m. Dave, Nick, Brian and I climbed into St. John's. We were soon up the short drainpipe in Chapel Court, and then distributed the load of equipment to take up the next drainpipe. Up to the base of the tower, everything went as planned. Then Dave and I left the other two and walked around the Chapel, up the stairs (always the hardest part) and then began sorting out everything at the top. We were to use two ropes: one to hang down from the parapet at the top of the Chapel, on which I was to hang; the other was to be used by the leader (Dave). When my rope had been fixed in position, Dave abseiled down it, leaving me at the top with the photographic equipment.

The plan was for me to hang from the rope and photograph along the face of the building. The rope was fixed to the Bridge Street face of the Chapel (i.e. the north end). To enable me to achieve this, I was clipped onto the rope by a descendeur, and also by a length of rope tied to the fixed rope with a “prussik” loop. A prussik loop was used because, the knot can be easily moved down a fixed rope by hand, but as soon as downward pressure is exerted on it, it “locks”. This meant that I could slide down the fixed rope on a descendeur, with the prussik knot in one hand, and as soon as I wished to stop, I would merely release my grip and allow the length of rope to become tight. I would then be anchored in the chosen position. Such was the theory.

My other equipment comprised klets, jeans, anorak, a camera, flash bulbs and a pocket torch. In addition I had various slings and “crabs” around my neck, and a rope tied several times around my waist (to which the descendeur and prussik loop were tied) to distribute the strain.

So, over the edge I went. I reached a good position after about ten feet and carried out the anchoring procedure. Unfortunately, two things went immediately wrong. First, when I pushed away from the wall with my feet, or turned to face Dave, I could not stop my body from spinning around. Thus it was impossible for me to hold the camera steady for a long enough period to take photographs. Second and worse, the prussik rope was far too long. For by the time that my body had taken the strain, the knot was about 5 feet above my head and well out of reach. To move from that position would involve climbing up the rope by hand, releasing the prussik loop and sliding back down. The prospect did not please me.

Dave now came into my sight, climbing very quickly and enjoying every minute of the climb. He soon stopped when he noticed my ridiculous position. After a brief discussion we decided that I should come down a few feet and then swing out to my left onto a statue.

The ropes around my waist were now cutting into my skin. So, I went up the rope, hand over hand, and released the prussik knot, but in doing so the descendeur became untied. I was now in a ridiculous position, and was forced to hang onto the rope with one hand, re-secure the descendeur with the other, and then move slowly down to exactly the right position. I did not want to repeat that performance. Climbing is not a series of acrobatics. I was pretty tired now, and spent another few exhausting minutes swinging towards the statue. Eventually I managed to lassoo its head (sacrilege), and make myself secure, standing on its base. I prayed that it was well-constructed and that it would not suddenly come away in my arms. Now I could lean out at an angle and look along the face towards Dave. I took several photographs, changing bulbs by the light of the pocket torch, held between my teeth.

During all this time Dave was tremendous. He had climbed up to the step-out position at the top of the window and patiently waited for me to get into position. Then after what must have seemed an interminable time, he completed the climb brilliantly, posing in awkward and exposed places.

Nick followed Dave, and I went down to a lower position on the fixed rope, to get some different shots. Unfortunately, the louvred windows reflected the light back into the camera, and the photographs were ruined.

By this time I was so exhausted, that I untied the prussik loop and went down on the descendeur at great speed — it was almost too hot to touch at the bottom.

I was now in no position to climb. My hands were blistered, my arms exhausted, and my waist cut and rope-burned. I was not feeling too brilliant. And poor Brian had no opportunity to climb for it was now 5 o'clock.

Still we were all agreed: it was a tremendous evening. We had learned many lessens, and the only pity was that we had to undergo this ordeal to increase our store of experience. But that, of course, is half the fun.

Chapter 5. Kings College Chapel

King's Chapel is one hundred and sixty feet high. It is commonly regarded as one of the finest examples of perpendicular architecture in England. Henry VI laid the foundation stone in 1446, and it was completed in 1515. It is renowned for the early sixteenth-century coloured glass in its many windows, for the intricate fan tracery in the stone roof, and for its magnificent organ screen. Rubens' “Adoration of the Magi” behind the high altar is a recent acquisition.

Few of these facts are relevant to the climber. There is something far deeper and less easy to explain about the Chapel which attracts the would-be climber. The building has a meaningfulness all of its own. Tradition, height, beauty, severity all combine to make it the goal of everyone's ambition. Partly, I suppose, its attraction lies in the unexpected; the mystery and renown which always shroud a building few man climb. This, perhaps, is its main attraction: it is a building talked of by thousands, experienced by a few.

It has been regarded in this light for a long time, and though there is no authenticated record of a 61st ascent, it seems probable that it was climbed in the nineteenth century or earlier. The route that our Victorian ancestors would have taken is that described in Whipplesnaith's The Night Climbers of Cambridge. This comprised two main pitches: the first, a long chimney from the ground to the main roof, with the aid of a lightning conductor; the second, the seventy foot pinnacles. The first pitch was long, arduous, but basically very straightforward. It required, above all, stamina and a good appreciation of the delights of exposure. The second pitch, the pinnacles, was again not unduly difficult, the main problems being pigeons and crumbling stonework. The whole climb is a superb example of classical climbing, as I have earlier defined it. Here it relied basically on chimneying. Of course it can be argued that this was the most “natural” route, and this is not contested. However, Whipplesnaith notes that when the lightning conductor in the chimney was moved for two years, it was not climbed “because the vast majority of undergraduates did not know it was possible” without the conductor. Severely restricted by techniques, the classical climbers looked no further than the chimney. What would happen if the authorities made the route impossible?

Well, they did, and we shall see the circumstances surrounding this in the next chapter. This was achieved by placing large concrete blocks on the chimneys at each corner of the Chapel. These are unsurmountable unless one uses artificial climbing techniques. We had, in fact, contemplated bolting our way over the block in the North-East Chimney, but this idea was dropped in our enthusiasm for the new route. Anyway, this step by the College authorities saw the end of the age of classical climbing. Its short-term result was effective: it stopped ascents of the Chapel. Its long-term result was to give modern climbing the impetus it needed; it brought home the realisation that classical techniques were too limiting, and could be easily frustrated, The Chapel was still there, climbers still longed to climb it, there had to be another way.

The new route up the Chapel was set up before we came to Cambridge. We have been unable to discover who the first climber was, when or how the route was pioneered. All we can do is pay tribute to the brilliant unknown man who crossed the threshold. He broke the psychological barrier; from then on, no climb was regarded as impossible, no building too high, no face too forbidding, no route too thin.

The new route is on the north face of the Chapel, facing Trinity Hall, the Old School, Caius and the Senate House. Part of it is still secret, and I will explain why later. It falls into three natural stages. First, there is a thirty foot climb into the lower roof. Second, from the lower roof to the main roof beneath the pinnacles. Third, the pinnacles themselves.

There is a description of the route in a certain climbing journal, and would-be climbers are recommended to unearth it. In this description, however, the writer says that the only way up the first pitch is at the north-west end by the door. However, we worked out a method which makes it possible at any point along the length. From a slanting ledge a foot off the ground, one can reach some iron bars on the windows. Go up these for a few feet, and make a long reach for another set of bars in a small, higher window. Hold on to these and get into a crouching position on a V-stone. Then, stand up as much as possible, using a poor handhold on a ledge, and bridge up the V-stone until a large ornament above can be reached. It is then easy to get onto the top of the first pitch.

The second pitch presents the main difficulties. This consists of climbing carefully up the iron bars of the stain-glass window for about forty feet, using small foot-holds. It is imperative that only the climbers toes are on the window bars, otherwise there is a danger of touching the stained-glass. Near the top where the windows arch over, the iron bars are of no use. At this point the leader should stop and fix on a runner. The runner should not be fixed on the top section, where there are spikes, but on the bars below where a good thread runner can be fixed.

You are now standing on small holds, in the left hand side of the window, near the top. To your left there is a drainpipe, fixed where the buttress meets the main wall. The pipe seems a long way away, almost out of reach. Now, holding on to the window bars with your right hand, you are just able to reach the drainpipe with the left. It is a long stretch. This is the crux. There is no possibility of getting your hand behind the drainpipe, as there is only a very small gap between it and the main wall. But, look carefully, and you will see that a flange on the stone buttresses goes outside the drainpipe, and between them there is a sizeable gap. Here is an excellent “jug” (hold). Now place the left foot on a bracket lower down, and swing across, transferring the right hand and foot quickly. You are now exhausted, but do not rest. You must get into a standing position on the ledge you are now clinging to. This is achieved by pulling up on small finger jams behind the drainpipe (in a few places, one can get the top joints of one's fingers behind it). After a few strenuous pull-ups, you are now standing on the ledge. This is a time for rest and contemplation, for the next thirty feet is severe lay-backing.

You have now regained your breath, and you survey the situation. You are standing in a sizeable ledge, the best you have encountered yet, anyway. Facing you is the main wall, with the buttress pressing against your left shoulder. You can put your fingers behind the drainpipe only on one side — that away from the buttress. How do you proceed?

To begin with, it is necessary to rely solely on finger jams. One puts both hands behind the drainpipe on the some side, in a classic lay-back position. At the same time you walk up the face with your feet. Hand-over-hand, one foot after the other. The main difficulty is that all your weight is being supported by the tips of your fingers. After a short distance, however, you will notice that on your tight, the curved flange of the window arcs away from you and you are able to move into a bridging position (that is, put your right foot on the flange of the window, and the left foot against the buttress wall, and maintaining your balance by the continued use of finger jams behind the drainpipe). Alternatively, one can chimney this section. One soon reaches a horizontal ledge which provides something of a resting place, though in fact a large section of it is eroded. Do not allow your knees to shake at this point, the stonework may be fragile.

Now there is more lay-backing, but the drainpipe here provides better holds, though it is still not possible to get a hand right behind. Soon a third ledge is reached and the drainpipe bowl is now in sight. It is well to try and fix a runner at this point. The next part is probably easier than the exposure makes it, but it is still very serious. The drainpipe bowl is quite sharp, and you can now gasp with joy to find a really good hold. But the pitch is not quite over, so hold on tightly. Gripping the bowl, swing your right foot onto a window in the wall on your right and get yourself into a sort of bridging position with your left foot against the buttress. Pull up on the drainpipe bowl and you will be able to feel a hole on top of the big stone above the pipe. Use this and you will be able to pull yourself up (if you have any strength left), and climb through or over the parapet onto the roof. At this point you feel a bit of a lad; you then collapse with exhaustion.

This pitch is very severe, and the actual route is as I have said, a secret among climbers. The reason is simple. As far as is known, it is only possible to climb the last thirty feet (after the window section) on one drainpipe, and it would be tempting providence too much to disclose this to the authorities. However, it is quite possible that other drain pipes would do and we have noticed another strenuous route, anyway. This consists of prussiking up a lightning conductor from the ground to the main roof, but we were frustrated on both our attempts by prowlers of one sort or another. Its great disadvantage is that it is very open to view. As for the new route, its continued anonymity is a tribute to the equally anonymous first climber.

The pinnacles are well described and photographed in Whipplesnaith. This pitch of the climb remains virtually identical today, except that spikes guard the first overhang. However, these are no obstacle at all; in fact, they provide a missing hand-hold. The idea is to pull up on them with the hands and than work one leg between the spikes. It is then an easy matter to pull up over them. The only other point that needs emphasising is that the stonework is rather crumbly in places and ought not to be trusted without careful inspection. The chessboard is particularly unsafe. At the top of the North-east pinnacle the climber will notice a beautifully carved inscription in the stonework. It is the name of an O.B.E. which I noted in my logbook on one occasion, but have since misplaced. I wonder when it was put there?

The whole climb is graded as Very Severe, and this is perfectly fair. However, it should be noted that the difficulty is very inconsistent throughout (the first pitch, being especially easy), unlike, for example, St. John's Chapel. However, it is certainly one of the best climbs in Cambridge.

Our experiences on the Chapel will live in our memories for a long time to come. Our first ascent took place in December 1964, on a very cold, icy night. The iron bars of the window were cold and slippery, and Dave set off first, belayed by Brian. He was thus forced to move even more cautiously than is normal, so that by the time he had reached the top of the windows, fixed a runner on, and swung across onto the drainpipe, his fingers were too cold to enable him to hand-jam. He decided that he would have to return to warm his hands up. In doing so, he proved that the move from the windows onto the drainpipe was not “irreversible”, as was then generally believed. After a quick cigarette and a longer-warming session, he set off again, at at faster pace, and managed the climb brilliantly, stopping only for occasional rests. It is not easy to explain what a tremendous feat this was, for the whole pitch is tremendously difficult in perfect conditions. The biting cold made the lay-back and hand-jamming section terrifying. A measure of the situation is that Brian could feel Dave's shivering through the vibrations of the rope. Such climbing is difficult to accept in one's imagination. Brian followed, and the climb took all but the last ounce out of his resistance. I did not notice the cold until the drainpipe section, where I had great difficulty in preventing my fingers from becoming welded onto the metal. We then brought Nick up. He had been standing around for a long time and was, unluckily, already frozen when he began climbing. Consequently, he was forced to move slowly and he became tired rapidly. When he reached the drainpipe bowl, he was so tired that despite Brian's instructions he made for the wrong hole in the parapet. He went too far to his right. However, living up to his reputation, he resorted to methods entirely of his own making (which I would describe, had I had the confidence to watch) and miraculously got up. He collapsed on the roof. Everyone recovered very quickly, and Dave and I went up the southeast pinnacle, Brian and Nick the north-east. The descent of the second pitch was executed by means of the “double descendeur” technique (a rope is passed through the parapet, the two ends being at the bottom of the pitch, and then to the two people who go down together on different halves of the rope, counterbalancing each other).

On another occasion. the four of us were joined by Martin and Clive. I only mention this because of the difficulties we had in organising everybody. Six is a good number for company, but not for a nightclimbing expedition. There are several reasons for this — first, there are too many differences of opinion as to what should be attempted during the course of the night and in what order. This is time wasting. Second, it is often difficult to determine the exact location of everyone at a particular time, so that someone is always “lost”. This is irritating. Third, far too much noise is made. This is dangerous. On this particular night, Dave and I did manage to solve most of the Problems, although Clive fell asleep at the start of the second pitch and remained there until we came down at the end of the climb. Having done little nightclimbing, he was not too happy with the sudden juxtaposition of himself and seventy awe-inspiring feet of glass and masonry. This was something we should have anticipated, because every time one gets to this stage of the Chapel, one has the greatest urge to retreat and leave everything for another occasion. No matter how many times one has climbed Kings Chapel, one always shudders at the thought of this pitch.

Our greatest tragedy on the Chapel was that we failed to get any photographs. On each climb something went wrong. A stand-in photographer on our second ascent forgot to wind on the film. On another occasion, everything seemed to function perfectly, but all the negatives were blank. And on our final ascent, we borrowed a camera and a roll of film from a friend, only to discover at the camera shop, that the roll of film was a used one which had lots of holiday snaps on it. I destroyed it.

Our photographs were frustrated, and so was our “Great Scheme”. The great scheme had been planned for months. It was to be one of the cheekiest climbs in Cambridge history. The plan was for the four of us to climb the Chapel at 6.00 a.m. and wait on the roof until 10.00 a.m. At this point we were to ascend one pinnacle each, and tie ourselves on to the top. We would may rucksacks, filled with food, drink and cigarettes. We would, of course, have face-masks. We were to sit there all day, oblivious of the crowds, porters, police or whoever tried to dislodge us. Then we would escape. but how? Well, we went through about four different methods, all of superior ingenuity than the previous. Brian suggested that we hire a lorry, filled with straw, into which we could jump from a reasonable height, say 30-40 feet, he thought. This was mildly received, until someone pointed out that the porters and police would probably come up the stairs onto the roof. We thought again. Dave's idea was very much in character — smoke bombs, and if necessary, something more noxious. These, he argued, would create confusion and give us an even chance of escape. Yes, but we wanted a better-than-even chance. I devised a scheme, whereby, a rope would be slung between Clare College rooftops and each pinnacle. This, I considered, would be barely noticeable, and then, at the appropriate moment, we could all /en echelon/ slide down the ropes on a pulley system, and, of course, escape. This was encouraged for some weeks, but no one could devise a foolproof system of sliding safely down the ropes, or of guaranteeing escape from Clare College. It was up to Nick.

Now his system was no ordinary one. He had a friend — an acquaintance, he preferred to call him — who claimed to have access to, and be able to fly, helicopters. This was the solution. When everyone would think that capture was imminent, our helicopter would buzz in from the sky, whisk us away to a waiting car 20-30 miles away, and we would be free. This would bring a bit of drama into it, he said joyfully, for helicopters are not really supposed to fly over built-up areas, you know. We knew, we also knew Nick, and we were prepared to back him all the way. Unfortunately, there is a sad end to the tale. Just at the point when everything was organised, when success was just round the corner, when the day would be ours, Nick's “acquaintance” was whisked off to prison for “currency offences”. So ended a chapter in our climbing lives.

Chapter 6. The Banner

 Suddenly, the fun has gone out of that traditional undergrad wheeze of scaling the spires of Cambridge to decorate them with chamber pots 
 --Daily Mirror, 5th June 1965

One hundred and sixty feet high, Kings Chapel is the night-climbers apotheosis. No night-climber has achieved his ambition until he has stood on the crumbling pinnacles, clutching the lightning rod, gazing in overwhelming awe at the City spread out beneath him. A few seconds at the top has a lifetime of memories to go with it. To conjure up the moment again is to relive the excitement, the temporary fear, the beauty and the wonderment that combine to produce the most wonderful and most indescribable experience that one is ever likely to have in this life. It is a peculiar thing that not only the climber, but also innumerable people who have directed their gaze upwards, must feel. It is in essence a symbol of humanity, irrationalised.

Its pinnacles have been adorned throughout the ages mostly with frivolous symbols — umbrellas, chamber pots, flags, gowns and rubber pigeons. It has taunted scores of people to invent ingenious devices for conquering it, ranging from key-making to firing ropes over the Chapel with bows and arrows. The old route, now blocked-up, comprised a chimney aided by a lightning conductor on the northeast turret. Behind this lies an interesting story.

Soon it would be George VI's coronation, and two climbers conspired to debunk the whole affair. Nares, a Trinityman, and O'Hara, of Emma (two famous night-climbers), decided to put up an effigy of the King on the Chapel. After an original idea had fallen through, Nares went to Woolworth's and purchased a large boiler suit. This was duly stuffed. The plan was to string this up between the NE and SE Pinnacles (those on Kings Parade), with a crown suspended two feet above the head. The dummy was to carry a beer bottle in one hand and a mug in the other. All went well to begin with and the dummy was safely on the roof. The idea then was to haul the dummy up between the spires by means of ropes and a pulley. Unfortunately, the poor fellows forgot one small item — they did not oil the pulley. Never has there been so much squeaking coming from Kings as was heard on that night. It woke the porter. Soon the chapel was surrounded by the college sentinels. The climbers lashed the rope, so fixing the effigy between the pinnacles, and had no alternative but to come down. But they were not beaten yet. Climbers' spirits die hard. O'Hara, a person of immense stature and strength, took control of the situation himself. Reaching the ground, he told Nares to run while he dealt with the porter. A glorious struggle ensued, as Nares sped across towards the backs. Fearing for his friend's safety, he soon stopped and made his way back, only to be confronted by an angry Porter hurtling at him at great speed on a bicycle. Losing his head for the moment, he turned and ran. The Cam was not far away, and he was fished out a few minutes later. He was then escorted to the Dean's room, with O'Hara, who had eventually been overcome. It was 5.00 a.m. What a splendid sight for the freshly awakened Dean — Nares dripping on his parquet floor, and O'Hara, perspiring profusely, trouserless. It was almost certain that sending down would be the punishment — but luck was on their side. Nares was fortunate in having as his tutor in Trinity a well known Christian Scientist, whose congregation, it is rumoured would have been halved by any severe punishment to the Trinityman. So all was well, and the two were rusticated for the rest of the term.

Coming back from rustication in October, Nares was horrified to learn that spikes had been put in the chimney to stop future climbers, and that they were a dangerous and ineffective deterrent. Climbers still attempted the Chapel and there were a few minor accidents. Fearing something horrible, he went to the Dean and offered to make the climb impossible. The Dean agreed with him, and soon large chockstones appeared in the four corner chimneys blocking all the route. It was the only humane thing that he could have done.

It was only recently that we unearthed this story, though when we saw the chockstones we knew at once that only a climber would have designed them. But fortunately, as we have seen, the story did not end there. The chockstones, far from being a deterrent to the Chapel as a whole, gave modern climbers the inspiration they needed. The new route has already been described, and now we come to the story of the “Peace in Vietnam” banner.

At the beginning of the summer term of 1965, there was a meeting to discuss the situation in Vietnam. Everybody wanted action, something positive, and suggestions poured forth. During a lighter moment a certain gentleman, well known in the peace movement, said “Can't you get the night-climbers out?” Bernard, our photographer was at the meeting, and he replied, “Yes, we'll put a banner on King's Chapel.” This was not taken very seriously by the other people at the meeting; the idea still lingered in Bernard's mind, and a few days later, he asked Dave if he thought it was possible. Dave was immediately taken with the idea, from both the climbing and the political sides, but naturally could not give an immediate decision. Their next step was to tell me about it, and over a meal in the Corner House, an excited discussion between the three of us followed. Once or twice, the discussion became a trifle too loud and we got some rather curious looks from a man at a nearby table. I wonder if he remembered, six weeks later, hearing three disreputable looking students saying something about banners and Kings Chapel over dinner in a crowded cafe.

We recalled the abortive attempt to Place a “Save Ethiopia” banner on the Chapel in 1936 and realised that it would be no easy task. A further climb of the Chapel would be necessary before we could reach a final decision, and much thought would have to be given to the design and construction of the banner. It should perhaps, be mentioned here that we were not in the habit of leaving anything on the buildings that we climbed. The sole motivation of our climbing was the pleasure it gave us, and we had no wish to draw attention to ourselves or to inconvenience others by adorning the buildings of Cambridge. We made an exception in this case because the banner carried a political message to which we gave out full support. We agreed that the utmost secrecy should be maintained; Dave and I would tell no one, not even Nick or Brian, who we hoped would eventually climb with us, until the date was near and all the details were settled.

The immediate priority was to see if a suitable banner could be made. Bernard had some friends who had some experience of making banners for political demonstrations and said that he would contact them. A few days later, he asked Dave and myself to come to a meeting with these people, Nick B., George and Chris, to discuss the banner. A War on Want lunch was in progress at the time so we had something to eat before moving to the small room next door to discuss our plans. The main problems as far as the climbing was concerned were the weight of the banner and its resistance to wind. The reasons for the failure of the “Save Ethiopia” banner were that it was very heavy and that the material was such that it flapped very violently in any gust of wind. As a result of this, the banner was eventually torn by the force of the wind. Fortunately, the answer to this problem soon appeared. We could use white mesh material for the banner. This is both light in weight and allows the wind to pass through it instead of being caught by it. Chris, George and Nick B. had used this material for other banners and it had been most successful. The letters would be sewn on in black tape. The measurements of the banner were to be roughly 40 ft by 5 ft. The next problem to overcome was what we were to use for tying the banner on to the pinnacles. Ordinary string might break, and wire would be difficult to manipulate when perched precariously on the pinnacles. Once again the answer soon appeared, in the form of nylon cord this time. This is both strong and light and the only thing we would have to be careful of was to make sure the banner was tied on securely, since nylon cord is rather slippery. It would be terrible to succeed in tying the banner on, only to see it fall because the knots had slipped. This responsibility would rest with Dave and myself.

With these details arranged, we agreed that for the present Dave and I would concentrate purely on the climbing, whilst Chris, George and Nick B. would set about buying the material and making the banner. We were to have no contact with each other until the banner was made and we were ready to do the climb. Only Bernard was to be kept informed of progress on both sides.

Figure 6.1. The “Peace in Vietnam” Banner

The Peace in Vietnam Banner

The “Peace in Vietnam” Banner

The Peace in Vietnam Banner

Close-up of the banner.

The Peace in Vietnam Banner

Press-cuttings of the banner climb.

While we were getting fitter in preparation for a practice climb on Kings the others were also at work. Nick B. had purchased the materials, and these were transported to Girton, where, with the help of two Girtonians, the legend “Peace in Vietnam” was inscribed on the banner. The girl under whose bed the banner was hidden during its construction should also not go unmentioned. It was a risk that none of us would like to have taken.

Bernard was rather alarmed to find, when visiting Girton shortly before the banner's completion, that several girls apparently knew about the banner. However they did not know what was going to be done with it, and Girton is a long way from the rest of the University. All was well.

On May 22nd we arranged for a grand assault on King's though only Dave and myself of the climbers knew the real purpose of the nights venture. We told the others to observe everything about the climb very carefully. It went successfully and it was an excellent night; just what we needed to remind us of the severity of our task.

For the next ten days Dave was doing exams. I finished mine earlier and decided to get myself a little fitter. It was June 1st and we had decided that the banner would go up on the night of the 6th. The day after this was Whit Monday and we wanted to give the crowds of American tourists something to look at. On this occasion, I did not have my klets, and so I went out barefoot. As will be seen I was to pay for this later.

Meanwhile the banner had been made and brought into college. Dave, Bernard and I went to have a look at it. It was magnificent. The time and effort that had gone into its manufacture were obvious. As soon as we saw it, Dave and I knew we had to succeed. The supporting cords had been put in — Bernard had measured the distance by pacing up and down at the foot of the chapel. He must have looked a curious sight. Some thinner nylon cord had been attached for hauling the banner up to the pinnacles, and we listened attentively as Nick B. and George explained the mechanics of the thing. There would be no time to waste on the night and we had to be absolutely sure of what we had to do to get the banner up.

It was now time to reveal the plan to Nick and Brian. We found Nick and told him. His reaction was excellent — “I'm with you all the way”. We could find no trace of Brian, and then to our sorrow, discovered that he had rushed off to Paris, without any warning, to “sample real food and wine” This was his character — unpredictable to every tissue — and we could not be angry, only sorry that he would miss the climb, and that we would all miss his presence. However, all was ready and we could not alter our plans.

It was Sunday 6th June — the banner was to go up that night. As Dave was sitting exams, Bernard and I did all the organising. Besides the three climbers we needed look-outs on the ground to warn us of any danger and to provide help if we had to evade porters. We chose about eight of our friends who we knew could be trusted. Dave, Nick, and I had exeats for that night and we kept well away from college during the day. We had arranged to meet in a flat in Willow Walk after Hall to tell the lookouts what they had to do. They were not to be told about the plan before the meeting, and so Bernard had asked them to come, without telling them what the meeting was about. However, their curiosity, if nothing else, brought them all along, and at seven o'clock we were all assembled and the plan was revealed. I had worked out a signalling system and explained it as best I could. The lookouts in the streets surrounding the chapel were to communicate with us via Bernard and Enid (Dave's girlfriend), who were to be in a high room in Caius, overlooking Kings Parade and the Chapel. The idea was that I would wave to Bernard from the N.E. pinnacle when we were ready to haul up the banner. He would then flash a light on and off — this was the signal for the lookouts to indicate whether all was clear or not. If it was, Bernard would then flash the lamp twice. It it was not, the signal would be repeated at two minute intervals until it was. As it will be seen, this was not quite how things went, but at the time everyone seemed quite happy with the arrangement. We decided to start climbing at 1.45 a.m. and lookouts were to be in their positions a few minutes earlier. With this settled the meeting dispersed. As Bernard left the room, looking particularly conspiratorial in his large donkey jacket and beard someone was heard to say, “Exit Bernard with bomb.” We were all set.

The evening passed very slowly for Dave, Nick, and myself. We were all very tense and we smoked heavily. At about 10.00 we went for a meal, but none of us felt like eating much. We soon left and went back to Willow Walk. Shouts of horror bellowed out — it was raining; for the first time for days. But nothing was going to stop us now. The equipment was at Willow Walk; Bernard had taken the banner there earlier and was now in the Caius tower with Enid. We took the minimum of equipment, a rope, three waist-lengths, two slings, and two descendeurs. In a small rucksack the banner was neatly packed. At last we were ready. It was 1.30 a.m. and the long hours of waiting were over. We were lucky in that Murphy, one of the lookouts, had a car and we were quickly driven round to the back of Clare.

As we came across the backs into Kings and up to the Chapel, we could see Dave W. in one of the lookout positions, watching the porters Lodge from a good vantage point near the Gibbs building. Murphy and Mick were at the north gate of Kings. We had a final word with them as to tactics in an emergency, and impressed upon them that above all it was they who must not panic, as our safe retreat depended entirely on their help.

Warily we moved to the chapel, and began climbing at 1.45 a.m. It had been raining and the stonework, already mossy, was very slippery. Even the first pitch we did badly, owing to nerves and wet stone. We pulled ourselves together at the second pitch. Dave was brilliant: he was going to lead it, and the burden lay heavily on his shoulders. He climbed up very slowly, and as he said to me at the top, he had been a bit too cautious and was tired by the time he got the runner on. What must be made clear is that this route is very severe in dry conditions, and with adverse weather and the nervous situation, it was phenomenal climbing. Nick was next to go up, so that he could sort out the banner on the roof. He was fantastic, though he says he almost came off on the lay-back. Dave, however, assured him that he was not — “Come on you...” The amazing thing was that although he never wore klets or proper climbing footwear he was at no disadvantage this night, for our klets proved no real grip at all, while his strange shoes seemed to revel in the conditions. I remember that it was not a pleasing climb that night — my log book recalls “step out looked huge tonight”, and then “it never was very comfortable”. When I got to the top. Dave and I sorted out the rope, ready for the descent. and Nick laid out the banner on the roof beneath the pinnacles.

Our plan was for Dave to climb the S.E. Pinnacle and me the N.E. We had 50 ft lengths of nylon string attached at one end to the banner and at the other to Dave and myself. Nick, below us, was to make sure the banner came up all right untangled, etc. I tied the appropriate length to my waist length, and began climbing the N.E. pinnacle. I had just reached the spikes, when panic almost struck. A burglar alarm went off, and Dave and Nick who were on the roof could not tell where it was located, as the noise was reverberating from the pinnacles. Fortunately I was well above the roof and realised that it was coming from a long way away. No one panicked.

Meanwhile Mick, the lookout at the north gate of King's had not been idle. Several foreign girls appeared to be in need of assistance in climbing out of Kings and Mick was only too ready to oblige. At another time he was accosted by a drunk who demanded to know what he was doing. “We're going to burn down the chapel,” said Mick. This apparently met with the approval of the drunk who happily went on his way.

Back on the chapel we had both climbed the pinnacles without any difficulty. Reaching the top, I took a sling from round my neck and tried to tie on. It was too short to go round the pinnacle, so I tied on to the lightning rod. Dave did the same. Soon it was obvious to both of us that the signalling system had broken down, but from our positions we had such a superb view of Trumpington Street, Kings Parade, Market Square, and all the surrounding streets, that we were pretty confident that we had the best idea as to whether it was safe or not.

The system broke down because Bernard could not see me waving to him (though I threw my arms about wildly for several minutes). After looking at the silhouette of the pinnacle his eyes could not distinguish anything small — the silhouette began to move and he says “I soon saw people climbing all over it”.

So, after a consultation (we were able to talk to each other from one pinnacle to the other) Dave and I decided to go ahead immediately. We were pretty fed up by then with standing on small holds for five or six minutes. So we hauled the banner up.

The thick cord of the banner was tied at each end to the thin cord we were holding. As we pulled it up the banner got caught twice on the parapet by the ridge of the roof. Had the banner ripped we would have shed tears, not only for our failure, but also for all the people who had spent so much time making it. However, all was well for Nick, performing indescribable acrobatics, managed to free it undamaged on each occasion. The banner was not very heavy and we soon hauled it up. At this point we were both covered with cord — our bodies were covered with the hauling cords, and as we were tying the top of the banner to the lightning rod, we were holding the bottom cords in our mouths. The string often became entangled and, recalling the “Save Ethiopia” Climb again, we were glad to have brought knives with us (on that occasion the unfortunate climbers had to cut through the rope with their teeth).

After securing the top cord, we both moved down about five feet. We were in tricky positions and could not tie ourselves on anywhere. Then we had a few agonising seconds of waiting — Bernard had underestimated the distance between the pinnacles, and, despite an additional 10 feet safety margin, the cord was too short to go round the pinnacles. We both thought quickly and then, quite independently of each other, tied the cord to the lightning conductor, which we prised away from the stone in one place. The knots were secured and reinforced time and again, for we had to be certain that it was put up to stay. Everything seemed all right so we came down from the pinnacles.

We had been on top of the pinnacles for nearly twenty minutes, and had spent half an hour in all on this last stage of the climb. We were so preoccupied during this time that neither of us had noticed the exposure at all. Even when the lookouts on Kings Parade started chatting to a crowd of French people in a big black van, and we thought it might have been the police, we were determined to carry on until the job was finished.

As we reached the roof, Nick came over and shook our hands. This was the greatest moment, as the three of us stood there together, looking upwards, in silence. Unfortunately we could see nothing — the banner was so well made that it could scarcely be picked out at night unless at ray of light caught it. We had no time to lose. Nick had put the rope in position for the descent — it was doubled through the battlements with the two loose ends on the lower roof. Dave quickly abseiled off. Then Nick and I followed together, one on each half of the rope (using the double descendeur technique) counter-balancing each other. We sped rapidly down, and the rope, too short by about five feet, stretched sufficiently to facilitate a quick landing. We had one nasty moment, half way down when Nick's hair became entangled in the rope and descendeur. Fortunately we managed to lift him and untangle it — in any case I had my knife with me so there was no real panic, though Nick insists that he would not have let me use it. On the lower roof we quickly gathered all the equipment together into a rucksack, and climbed down at great speed. It was 3.15 a.m.

We were elated, and after picking up Murphy at the back gate we ran across the lawns towards the backs. In our haste we almost forgot Dave W., dutifully keeping watch on the Kings Porter's Lodge, and unaware that the climb was completed. We all got into the car and drove back to base, stopping in Kings Parade on the way back to see the banner — but we could barely see it. We quickly got changed in Willow Walk and congratulated each other — not least the lookouts.

We could not sleep, and spent most of the rest of the night walking round Cambridge. As it got light we saw our efforts had not been in vain. The letters on the banner stood out large and clear. It was a wonderful sight. Eventually we got tired and went back to Willow Walk to try and get some sleep. Bernard and Enid had to spend the night in Caius, and they walked out at seven o'clock when the gates were opened. Enid came round to Willow Walk (she was sharing the flat there) whilst Bernard stayed to take a few photographs. He came round half an hour later and we greeted him with loud cries of “Got any cigarettes?” (Despite the large supplies we had run out of ours a long time before.) Fortunately he had some left, but they did not last very long.

He told us how, at about 4 o'clock, he had seen a policeman outside King's who, after looking up at the chapel, spoke into his radio set, whereupon, a few minutes later, a patrol car drew up and three more policemen got out. After looking at the Chapel for some time, they knocked up the Porter. “Here, Mate, have you seen your Chapel?” What a rude awakening it must have been for a heavily sleeping porter. They soon realised that they could do nothing, so the police drove off and the porter went back to bed. Bernard said he found it rather unnerving when the police, on several occasions, seemed to look directly at the room which he was in. He also told us how a couple of hours later, one of the first people to see the banner came riding down Trinity Street on his bicycle. As he gazed upwards in amazement, he was temporarily transported to another plane, only to be quickly brought back to earth by the railings round Great St. Mary's which came at him faster than he had imagined.

By this time we were feeling quite hungry and so went to the Copper Dive for breakfast. Everyone was talking about it by now and we felt tremendous, revelling in our anonymity. In such a situation, it was very hard to remain silent when someone makes a foolish statement of conjecture — “How did they get ladders on the roof?”, someone asked — but we managed very well. During breakfast, we decided to write a letter to the Dean of Kings. It ran thus: “We would like to inform you, on the basis of our experiences last night, of the very dangerous condition of the stonework on the pinnacles of your chapel. We suggest that unless restoration work is carried out immediately, the safety of future climbers of your chapel is in grave jeopardy.” It had three main purposes. It was, of course, meant as a big joke. Also we wanted to cause the authorities to worry about the danger, so that they would not allow any attempt to take it down. Finally it was meant as a deterrent to stop inexperienced people from trying to climb the chapel. The press made rather too much of the letter and not enough of the political message of the banner (with one exception), but this was only to be expected.

The rest of the day was spent in the Caius tower watching people's reactions as they saw the banner. These varied from the obvious delight of some to the equally obvious anger of others such as one American who was jumping up and down shouting: “Communists, Communists.” We like to think that the majority of people agreed with the Domus Bursar of Kings who said that “it was a very good climb, whoever did it”.

Later in the afternoon, I decided that it was time my feet had some attention. The barefooted night was having its repercussions. The unenviable task fell to Enid. My feet were in a horrible state — black and sweaty from the nights climbing, and ferociously torn and blistered. Somehow she withstood the smell, and after bathing them, applied great wads of cotton wool and bandaging to them. It was a tremendous effort on her part, and I was now able to walk in comfort. We then set off to the Criterion, where we were bought many drinks by friends who had guessed that we were responsible for the banner.

Meanwhile, Dave W. had been incredibly active. He had informed all the newspapers, and unknown to us, was arranging interviews. The next day held even bigger surprises for us. I get up late that morning, and came into college at about 11.30 a.m. I parked my bicycle in the cycle racks and made my way to Bernard's room. I did not get that far. Dave W. screamed at me from across the court: “Mike, it's the television people,” I was not functioning properly, and his remarks by-passed my brain. However, he soon made his point, and I grasped what he was trying to say — we were wanted for an anonymous appearance on television. Nick and Dave were still in bed and were not resident in college, so we both jumped on to our bicycles and rode like mad to find them. At Milton Road we pulled Nick from his bed and told him we would call back in five minutes to collect him, but at that moment Dave came riding down Milton Road and we pulled him off his bicycle and had a quick discussion as to whether we should appear or not. We did not want any publicity, there were obvious reasons for this, and some of us were camera shy anyway. But there were other considerations. We wanted to set right several misconceptions that had already become wide spread, about the method of ascent, “unsporting” techniques, and other current gossip. But above all we needed money. This was not a mercenary venture, by any means, but we felt we had to reimburse the people who had paid for the banner, and other small items at a time when most of them could ill afford to part with the money. We felt that we should not let this opportunity pass, and so off we went to the Globe.

Len, the barman, greeted us with a pint. We had not eaten but nevertheless it was welcome. Four of us were to appear: Dave W. who did so much organising, besides being a loyal watch-dog, Nick, Dave and myself. B.B.C. Television and Anglia both wanted interviews, but they did not seem to be in a great hurry. The beer flowed for hours. When at last preparations were made, Anglia conducted the first interview. The interviewer, Dick Graham, was to come in and say “Good-evening landlord”, pick up his pint, and then address the viewers. Everything was so lighthearted, that he kept forgetting his lines. Since our glasses had to be topped up each time this happened, we were soon in a hilarious mood. Fortunately, everything want well. Mike Geacock then interviewed us for the B.B.C., and it was a relief to get things over with. However, Dave and I had to rush off to the B.B.C. Studio for a radio interview for the programme “Today”. It was after 5.00 p.m. when we finished.

We all got back to the Junior Combination Room in college to see the television programmes. We were horribly surprised to find that, even with our backs to the camera, occasional half-face shots, and no pretence at disguising our voices, we were easily recognisable. But even more amazing was that we never heard any official comment to concern us, though from one or two remarks it was obvious that the college authorities knew it was us. Our Head Porter, after seeing the television programme, called over Dave W. and myself the next day and said “I was watching the telly with my wife last night, and a programme came on about the banner on Kings Chapel.” He paused for a moment to relive the scene. “Here, I said, They're my boys.” We left quickly for a lecture. And my Supervisor remarked after my Tripos results were out at the end of the same term, “Ho! Ho! not a bad result, M., considering all those television interviews. Ho! Ho!” He was a good natured chap.

However, the whole story is not yet told. Brian, as I have said, was away in Paris at the time, but ran out of money and returned rather prematurely on the Tuesday morning after the banner had been put up. He guessed immediately that it was us, and when I saw him, I confirmed it. This was his chance. The banner had made its impression and would get little more publicity, and the strong winds would, surely, soon break it up? We agreed. “So, I will climb it in daylight,” he said, “with the Domus Bursar's consent, and take it down.” What an opportunity — a daylight ascent of the pinnacles with official permission, we would be the first to cheer him. We wished him good luck as he set out for Kings a staunch English gentleman, immaculately dressed, with a mission to free the Bursar of embarrassment; he could hardly be refused.

Unfortunately, our letter had worked too well for him. The Domus Bursar, while overjoyed at the volunteer before him, was adamant that the Pinnacles were too dangerous to be climbed. But having volunteered, Brian was committed to help take down the banner by any means. He then remembered a trick that had been used before. So, early the next morning, at 2.30 a.m. he was taken up the stairway with a Kingsman and the Bursar, and there set about the operation. The plan was to fire a pellet by catapult over the banner, with a length of string attached. This thin string was attached to a thicker piece and so on. Tied to one of the lengths of rope was a piece of wood, tilled with razor blades, and this was to cut through the middle of the banner. The banner itself was not sewn to its ropes, and would slide off. After much trial and error the mission was accomplished, but at the time of writing the ropes of the banner can still be seen stretching down the pinnacles. Next day the Domus Bursar of Kings told the Press: “I had it taken down very early this morning, and how it was done remains my secret.” This gave us hours of laughter, as we all whiled away the evenings, drinking the crate of fine Amontillado sherry that Brian had been given by the Bursar for his trouble. It is one thing for him to say, “It was a fine climb,” but to donate us a crate of sherry — well!

Chapter 7. The First of the New Routes

After a long bout of intensive climbing, we exhausted all the classical routes. I have already mentioned the main features of classical climbing, with its emphasis on the drainpipes, chimneys and horizontal ledges. It was, above all, limiting. We had realised this very early on, and had seen that new routes must exist, and could be found with a careful eye. So we set about our task.

The best way to look at any possible climb is to study it in daylight. So we spent many hours wandering around the colleges and the streets considering every likely looking route, and it was not long before we saw our first possibility — the Pitt Press (or Old University Press) — surprisingly undiscovered.

We learned that several climbers had considered an ascent on the front face, but had been put off because of the condition of the stonework, apparently very suspect. We looked at it for hours, and then wandered off, rather dubious of the whole idea, in the direction of the Mill. As we entered Silver Street, Dave and I saw the solution — a drainpipe to the first level. We hurriedly sought Nick and Brian, and soon had them at the Pitt Press. We all agreed; this was the possible answer.

We planned to attempt it that night, but it was horribly cold and wet and we decided to delay the assault. The next day was my twenty-first birthday, and it proved a real occasion for celebration in more ways than ones I began by getting drunk at 11.00 a.m. — a most philistine hour. The day slipped rapidly by with vague memories of gunfights on top of beer barrels, chases across the college lawns and quiet repose in Bernard's armchair. I was sober in the evening, or almost anyway, when the others announced their birthday present — “the first ascent of the Pitt Press will be tonight”. I was not overjoyed at this particular time, but the hour was still early, and I would waken. We had a few more drinks in the Volunteer and then went to the Kismet for a meal. It was midnight when we got back into college. Every one was still in high spirits as we climbed into college and made for Bernard's room for coffee.

It was half past one when we ventured forth with quiet dignity. We got to the Pitt Press and started up the long square drainpipe, to the right of the archway in Silver Street. This is quite straightforward, except where it occasionally lies close to the wall. The four of us were soon on the roof; before us was the tower. A protuberance on the right hand side of the tower holds the key to the next pitch. Brian decided that he would do it first, though there was some debating. I was overruled in all my attempts to lead, as the others said I must be suffering from alcoholic poisoning. The second pitch consisted of bridging up a very wide chimney, between the protuberance and a narrow wall where the building is recessed. It is far too wide to chimney, and the method is to face directly outwards with one hand and one foot on each side of the recess, and then move the feet up together, then the hands and so on. It is best done quickly. Brian accomplished this with considerable speed, and then belayed on the roof of the protuberance. The rest of us followed.

Another debate ensued, but this consisted mainly of — myself trying to persuade the others to allow me to go first. I was outvoted again and Dave began climbing. One can get easily onto the pillar to the right of the small roof, but the pitch gets interesting at the top where it tapers and one is obliged to trust some small holds. Foot jamming between the pillar and the wall helps the confidence. A good thread runner can be put over the top of the pillar. The final move of this pitch turned out to be quite straightforward — no desperate mantelshelves or delicate balance moves — for, standing on the pillar, the parapet can be reached with the left hand. We were all on the roof, and I was eventually allowed to set forth up the pinnacle. This is very easy, but quite exciting and very exposed. We congratulated each other and then returned to earth.

That night we had noticed two more possible routes; one up a drainpipe to the top of the tower, and one up the very exposed north-west pillar overlooking Trumpington Street. Some time later, we decided to try the latter route. After a curry, we moved down to the Pitt Press.

Figure 7.1. Pitt Press

Pitt Press

Ascending the pillar above Trumpington Street.

Pitt Press

Bridging — the first move.

Pitt Press

Transferring to the base of the second pitch.

Pitt Press

Ascending the pillar.

Pitt Press

Reaching the parapet.

We soloed up the first drainpipe, and assembled on the lower roof. The plan was to go up the old route and then give the top rope for the pillar climb. The first part of the plan was executed with little difficulty, and Nick gave Dave a belay from above. Dave managed it all right. Just as we were about to follow a police van stopped in the street below. Soon we realised that it had broken down and was waiting for help. It was over half an hour before another police car came along, and by this time we were freezing. We then started climbing again, which soon warmed us up,

Nick got up without incident, but had difficulty with his footgrips on the slippery slanting holds. Then I began. The first bit is quite good where one steps out over the parapet with the road below. Then up the first pillar. This is similar to the top one the other side, but slightly less pleasant. Most of the stonework was covered with moss and debris, and the ornaments seemed even more doubtful than those on the first route. The tricky bit is to get from the bottom pillar onto the top one. The method is to walk up the small ornaments onto the top of the first pillar, with the hands gripping sideways on the square stone projection below the top pillar. This is slightly precarious on account of the treacherous nature of the footholds, but once the bottom of the top pillar is reached the difficulty is over. From then on it is similar, though not identical, to the top pillar of the other route. This is a route best done with a top rope, for the stonework leaves much to be desired.

We were greatly encouraged by our recent successes, and began searching the buildings for other climbs. We had looked carefully at the Fitzwilliam Museum, and had considered the possibility of a direct ascent. The idea was to take the classical line up the Lion Chimney, which stops at the top of the pillars, and then continue directly over the overhang. Dave and Nick were both in bed with influenza, when Brian and myself decided to attack the Museum. I felt on great form and Brian was equally keen.

We arrived at the Fitzwilliam at 12.45. It was a fine night. I looked at it from the ground and decided that the inside chimney, on the southwest part, less exposed to the street than the outer one, was the most feasible. Brian climbed up to the top via the classical route at the back, and after much searching, managed to find a belaying position on the lead roof, using an old drainpipe. He lowered the rope, as we considered a top rope essential for the first ascent. The stonework near the overhang looked suspect, and it is pointless bravado taking unnecessary risks.

The chimney itself was as usual quite easy; it is of ideal width, and the ribbed stonework provides good grips for the feet. Soon I was on the top of the pillars, gazing apprehensively upwards at the enormous overhang. I rested for a while. From this position, one is just able to reach rather crumbling ornaments on the underside of the overhang. Pull up on these, until one's feet are on a small ledge. One is now leaning out at a sensational angle. Now let go with one hand and reach over the top of the overhang; now the other hand; swing out and mantelshelf onto the flat ledge at the top. The last part is done quickly (or not at all).

I was fantastically overjoyed. What a route! Brian could hardly wait, and quickly disappeared over the edge on a descendeur. When he reached the bottom, he clipped onto the rope and began climbing almost immediately. I could see nothing of the climb, as I was belaying him, but I can still remember the look of ecstasy on his beaming face as he came over the top. We shook hands for minutes, almost danced with joy, and eventually sat down quietly in a corner and enjoyed a long cigarette.

Figure 7.2. Fitzwilliam Museum

Fitzwilliam Museum

Overhang at the top of the Lion Chimney.

Fitzwilliam Museum

Overhang at the top of the Lion Chimney.

Fitzwilliam Museum

Overhang at the top of the Lion Chimney.

Fitzwilliam Museum

Overhang at the top of the Lion Chimney.

The next day we told Dave and Nick about the climb. They were equally thrilled, and as they had recovered from their attack of 'flu, we all agreed to go up it that night. We decided that it would be led instead of top roped, and that Dave was to attack it first. This first lead was absolutely brilliant. Apart from the enormous psychological barrier of the overhang, he had to find a way of fixing a runner on at the top of the chimney. Dave moved steadily up the chimney, with Brian taking the photographs. Nearing the top of the chimney he looked for a place for the runner. The top of the pillar is flat, with corners projecting in Corinthian style, and he managed to attach a runner by lassoing the far projecting corner with one sling and tying it tightly to one around the near corner. All this was done when still in the chimney position. It was a brilliant manoeuvre, and showed the rest of us the way to tackle it. This made possible a wonderful night for us all.

Afterwards, we had promised to take Mick T. up the Wedding Cake and some effort that would be, for he was quite large, physically unfit, and quite afraid of heights. But he wanted to do it. So off we all went to St. John's. Unfortunately, the only way up to the roof level that we knew of at the time, was by the classical drainpipe route, and this is not exactly for novices. We apologised to Mick, and headed for our beds. The Fitzwilliam had certainly proved us with two glorious nights.

In the opening chapter, I told of our first night on the Old Schools looking for a new route. This attempt was frustrated by an irate porter, but we were soon back. We had seen two possible routes on the east face, one on the northern side where two small drainpipes lie in a small recess, and the other up the main gate. Brian and Nick did both routes on a top-rope one night — a tremendous effort — while Dave and I were climbing in Derbyshire. When we returned, we decided to do them, and Brian and Nick came with us. We tackled the drainpipe route first. I found it technically very interesting, and far from easy in places. All sorts of bridging tactics can be used to advantage, as the pipes themselves are not much use. The first half is definitely harder, because after this various drainpipe bowls appear and provide the only really good holds on the route. Great care must be taken, however, as some of the holds do not seem too safe. There is no point in giving a detailed description of the climb, for it requires above all improvisation from the individual. There is no standard technique to recommend, except, as I have said, bridging, which is a very useful method here.

We then made for the Gateway climb. Here a top-rope is advisable, for the stonework is in no place safe. The start is a bit awkward. One has to climb up the window the left hand side (looking from Clare) of the Gateway, and then traverse round the pillar, on slanting footholds and vertical pinch-grips as handholds. One then climbs directly upwards on small ornaments. Here again, there is no one technique to be recommended, and the only advice is that extreme care must be taken in order to avoid damage.

The first of these routes was certainly seen as a possible one a long time ago, but there are no recorded assents of this recess route or of the Gateway climb so we feel justified in labelling them new routes, though we admit that the first may have been climbed before and possibly both of them. This I feel, is a justifiable way of viewing any “new route”, for one cannot rely on rumour.

The next new route, we embarked on with some reservation. I do not really know why. We had looked at a possible chimney route between Trinity Hall and Clare, but had gone no farther for a long time. Then one day we decided to do it.

We came down the Senate House Passage at 12.45 and we wanted to warm up on the S.E. Corner of Clare, but a light in one of the corner rooms made us decide against this. So after brief excursions up walls and gates, we approached the chimney. It is a fearsome looking climb, for the spikes tend to be a repellent. Anyway, we were here so we might as well try it. It proved to be less obnoxious than it appeared. The climb starts with an easy chimney by the door and then one climbs up using the vertical spikes as handholds, and spikes projecting from the wall as footholds. Near the top one moves into a chimney position facing Clare. It is a bit wide, but if the feet are kept high it is not too bad. A small ledge gets in the way by pressing into one's back, but one can sit on it a couple of moves later. The difficulty is over once the feet have reached the holds below the overhang. Then it is best to continue chimneying, which obviates any difficulty the overhang might pose. It is not a hard climb really, less difficult and more enjoyable than we had anticipated.

Figure 7.3. Old Schools

Old Schools

Gateway climb

Old Schools

There are many holds available for this climb.

Figure 7.4. Old Schools: Recessed Drainpipe

Old Schools: Recessed Drainpipe

Figure 7.5. Trinity Hall — Clare Chimney

Trinity Hall — Clare Chimney

A chimney move for confident climbers.

After all these successful climbs we were really buoyed up with hope for the future. The University buildings are large and rambling, and there would be more routes to climb.

Chapter 8. The Senate House

Until degree day, most undergraduates are ignorant of the location of the Senate House, and even then a large number avoid acknowledging its existence. This is both surprising and understandable. It is surprising because it is the parliamentary chamber of the University, and it is here that the Chancellor or Vice-Chancel1or confer degrees. It is understandable for several reasons. First, designed by Gibbs in l730, it is almost totally without inspiration, externally at least. Second, its use does not impinge upon the student until degree day, when many prefer to be elsewhere. It is a functional building, that is all.

But, to the climber, it has for some time commanded a certain amount of attention and reverence. It was a building to be climbed and a building to be feared. It was the latter because no one had achieved the former. For this reason, from the climbing point of view, its history has been theory or plain rumour. All the discussion revolving around it has comprised either suggested methods of ascent (universally untenable) or dramatic stories of climbers falling off in a variety of acrobatic ways (highly entertaining). One of the suggested methods (Whipplesnaith) was to get into the lower window of the south face, and then climb on someone's shoulders to reach the upper windows and repeat the process to attain the roof — a sort of desperate man's human ladder. Unfortunately, the 1930's climbers were limited by their classical outlook. Relying on drainpipes (which are non-existent), chimneys (which are too narrow, too broad, or too shallow) and flat ledges (which are too sparse to be of use by themselves), they could not hope to achieve a successful assault on the building. Other suggested methods are too complicated to explain, or involve cheating. The stories surrounding the building are far more entertaining.

One climber we had heard of was obsessed with the Senate House. If there was a way up, he was determined to be the first to find it. He tried every climbing technique he knew (which apparently did not amount to many), until he was forced to resort to other tactics. One night in the early hours, he staggered up King's Parade laden with equipment. His method was simple. Positioning himself at the foot of the south face he threw a grappling iron tied to one end of his rope on to the roof of the building. It returned swiftly with a deafening clang. Refusing to be defeated, he cast it up again and again with no success. Utterly exhausted from his efforts and dejected by his failure he wandered back to his digs. Had he known that a sloping lead ledge surrounds the edge of the roof, things might have gone better for him. But perhaps it is fortunate that he went down ignorant but still breathing.

We had a friend in college who was an inveterate boaster. He spent one evening telling us how he had climbed this “God-forsaken eyesore”. How his arteries filled with terror at every move. How his fingers wanted to snap off at the joints. How his toes clung onto the tiniest holes he had ever seen. How his knees shook. But still he held on. He reached the top, physically exhausted. coma-like, only to be resurrected by the thought that he had just done the impossible. But the drama was not over. Suddenly a policeman appeared on the roof. The climber in his distraught state thought it was a visitation and almost fell into the hands of the law. But luck was on his side. The adrenalin surged back into his blood, and he dived over the edge of the parapet onto the drainpipe and escaped in a cloud of glory. The picture conjured up was marvellous. We did not disillusion him about the ridiculous route he described or the absence of drainpipes. It was a fine story.

There is, of course, one easy way up the Senate House. This is to climb up the South face of Caius, and then get on to the building by way of the Senate House Leap. This method has been well known for a long time, and the only argument concerning it that I know of has been over the distance to be jumped.

One night we decided to go up and measure it, and at the same time to get some photographs. Most people put the distance between Caius and the Senate House at 7-8 feet, but it proved to be only 6 feet at the narrowest part. It was very wet and slippery that night so we decided that a rope would be necessary protection, especially with flash guns going off. Brian jumped across first and belayed everyone else from the Senate House. This is a necessary precaution, since if an accident occurred the climber would dangle under the overhang of the Senate House, instead of smashing into the face of Caius, probably through a window. We have all done the leap several times without a rope, the only difficulty being summoning up enough courage on the first attempt. The reverse jump onto Caius is equally easy.

Figure 8.1. Senate House Leap

Senate House Leap

It was quite a few weeks later before we had a good look into the possibility of a direct ascent of the Senate House. We spent about two hours looking round the building, eliminating different suggestions. We were all of the same opinion that there was only one feasible method of ascent, this being to lay-back the entire climb up to the overhang near the top. We agreed there was only one way to do this; to have one's feet on the vertical pillars (or half-pillars) and one's hands on the flanges of the windows. The two best faces to attempt this are the East (that facing Great St. Mary's), very exposed to view, but has the advantage that the footholds on the ribbed half-pillar are quite good, and the West, relatively hidden from view, where the pillars are however smooth and square. Having decided the route, the next thing we did was to brood over it for another couple of weeks. We were not going to rush into success or failure. Unfortunately, several things happened that term to delay us, and soon the summer vacation was upon us.

It was not until October 1965 that we planned the first assault. It was about this time, as Nick remarked, that fortune deserted us. Dave pulled a muscle in his arm and was out of action for a while, and Nick suddenly went down with a huge fever. Brian and I were left. and we could not wait. We had thought of nothing else for days, we were in an excellent state of fitness, and nothing could stop us now. At midnight on the 28th October we gathered our equipment together and left college.

It was a superb night. The stars were barely visible, but we felt that they were close. The air was not exactly crisp but we sensed its presence. We paced the streets anxiously, thinking of an easy climb to warm up on. We chose the Clare Ladder climb and walked there briskly. We soon climbed this and got rid of some of our pent-up tension. We were much more relaxed as we came up to the Senate House Passage. It was decided that we would both go up on the Senate House, by way of Caius and the Leap, and then decide who was to belay and who was to climb. At the top of the Senate House we smoked a cigarette (note the singular) and then tossed a coin. I lost.

There are excellent belaying positions on the parapet and I tied myself on and then lowered a rope down. Brian went down on a descendeur. We had chosen the East face because we had seen no one around, and, anyway, we reckoned that we had a good chance of getting away in an emergency. We decided to climb the left hand (S.E.) pillar, though the other is equally possible. One cautionary point is that the belaying position is to the left of the climber in the corner of the pediment, i.e. the rope is not vertical and if the climber falls he will pendulum.

Brian began climbing at the previously agreed signal and the rope started to come in steadily. I was in a secure position but could see nothing of the climb, so I spent my time trying to figure out where Brian was.

Everything was quiet for a long time, except for the strenuous heaving noises and in an unforgettable moment Brian's head came into sight above the overhang. His forehead was dripping with sweat, but he was enjoying himself to the full. A last desperate mantelshelf and he was on the parapet. We spent about five minutes shaking hands and doing a quiet celebration jig. Now it was my turn.

Figure 8.2. Senate House

Senate House

Layback up square pillar.

Senate House

Top of first window.

Senate House

Moving into second layback.

Senate House

Beneath final overhang.

Senate House

Second layback as seen from immediately below.

I raced over the edge on the descendeur, and covered the 60 feet to the ground in seconds. After a brief pause to collect my thoughts, I began climbing. From the bottom windowsill I moved into a layback position with my feet on the set-rated pillar and hands on the projecting flange of the window. I continued lay-backing until I could mantelshelf onto the upper window sill. I felt no great strain at this point. I then repeated the layback position up the second window until I could reach a tiny ledge near the top of the pillar with my feet. At this point I found that my hands were far out on the curved flange of the upper window and that I was in an almost horizontal position beneath the overhang. It was then necessary to adjust my balance and, taking my left hand from the flange of the window, I made a long and difficult reach for the projecting top of the pillar. This is the crux. Quite exhausted I then swung onto the pillar, having transferred my right hand, and hand traversed around to the corner. Here it is necessary to mantelshelf until one is crouching beneath the final overhang. The last move is another mantelshelf, and one may use the ornaments on the underside for balance. This is a short vicious climb, sustained, with little or no protection, certainly none below the crux.

It is difficult to explain the feelings that we had at such a moment. To have climbed a building, any building, fills one with joy, but to have climbed something which had hitherto been thought impossible fills one with ecstasy. One is taken with supreme, almost boyish, emotions that have to be felt to be understood. As I reached over the overhang for the final move my fingers almost spoke my happiness — then the police came.

Chapter 9. The Aftermath

We both saw him at the same time — a single constable, standing staring up at the building. Had he seen us? We watched anxiously as he peered through the darkness. Then he turned away, and for a wild moment I thought we had got away with it. He paced up and down the pavement, seemingly undecided in his own mind — undecided as to what he had seen or to what he proposed to do.

He's using his radio.” Brian gasped in my ear. This was it then. Quickly we scrambled our equipment into our rucksacks. We may have left the odd karabiner or sling, but for once it did not concern us. Our position was serious, but not yet desperate. If we could jump back over the Senate House leap into Caius College, we could still make a getaway in the darkness. It would be a dangerous attempt; there would be no time for any safety precautions. The prospect of imminent capture, however, docs marvellous things for the nerves.

It was at this point that our luck began to run out. As we made our way to the jumping all place, Brian tripped on the parapet. There was a horrible noise as he fell on the roof. He got up immediately, and tried to carry on, but stumbled as he put his weight on his left foot. It was hopeless, of course. His ankle was badly sprained, and he could scarcely hobble along. In his condition the Senate House leap was out of the question.

Our only hope now was to abseil down the blind side of the building (facing the Old Schools) before police reinforcements arrived. When I looked over the edge though, even that slim hope disappeared. There were police everywhere, circling, talking, flashing torches. A spotlight flashed on, and then another. We were trapped.

Never had our hearts beaten so fast, or the sweat poured so profusely. Whatever we decided to do had to be done quickly. I crawled round the edge of the roof and surveyed the scene. Never had I seen so many policemen, their torches anxiously scanning the roof tops. At the Kings Parade end of the Senate House Passage stood a police car surrounded by uniformed men, one of them directing a spotlight. At the other end was a Black Maria.

The police could do nothing for the moment, so I spent the next few minutes strapping Brian's ankle. He was then able to use it, and I decided that we ought to try escaping over the Senate House leap. At the edge of the leap I suddenly stood up, to be immediately dazzled by the mass of lights shining from below. I called out to the Police: “Switch off your torches and we'll come down by the Senate House Leap and the south face of Caius.” There was an agonising silence before a voice called out their assent. It was a gamble but I reckoned our only chance of escape was to get onto Caius and then create a diversion. I planned to start descending the south face, whilst Brian tried to escape through a corridor in Caius and thence out into Trinity Lane. If I could capture the attention of most of the police then we had a chance.

As the lights were switched off, I prepared to jump. Midway through the air, an unthinking policeman switched on the searchlight and I was very lucky to reach the other side intact. The words on my lips at the time are unprintable. As I threw a rope to Brian, I explained what I was doing to the watchers below. Above all, in such at delicate situation, it is essential to hold the attention of the audience. Brian managed marvellously, taking off and landing on one leg. I coiled the rope and made for the route downwards, leaving Brian standing next to the open window.

Luck was not on our side. Defying all the laws of average, an intelligent policeman emerged from the mass beneath. Noticing the open window, he rushed around to the front gate of Caius, knocked up the porter, and soon had other constables patrolling every means of escape inside the college. Now there were only two possibilities of escape. One was to climb down to within ten feet of the ground, jump and run like mad. The other was to come down and be very nice to the police, explain what we had been doing, and trust the rest to their humanity. This latter course was forced upon us by Brian's injury. Reluctantly, we descended.

We soon got into conversation with the constable who had first spatted us. He thought we were burglars (an extraordinary assumption, considering the building), and would have dealt with it himself had he known otherwise, he insisted. It had now gone too far, too many men and cars were involved, and the Inspector would want to know why. He would have to take details and make a report. False names? False Colleges? As fate would have it, a sergeant reminded the novitiate that he should check the details on the radio telephone to the police station. We were foiled. Our only hope was that the report would reach the police station and no further. We left the scene dejectedly looking at the baffled throng, who were still trying to decide among themselves exactly what we had been doing.

For two days there was official silence. We began to relax. We felt like men reprieved on the execution morning. We began to talk of climbing again.

Life carried on normally until Tuesday night, four days after the police had caught us. It was then that I stumbled on a curt note from my tutor in my pigeonhole asking me to go around and see him. Brian too had been summoned. It was pretty clear that he was not inviting us around for sherry.

The meeting was a four-cornered one — Brian, myself and our respective tutors. We were told coldly that the police had reported our nocturnal activities. Had we been on the Senate House? We nodded. Had we anything to say? Of course we did, but this did not seem the most opportune moment. We decided to hold our fire. There were bound to be more meetings.

Meanwhile our friends were at work. Twenty-four of them offered sureties of £10 each to the college, as a guarantee of our future good behaviour. Then, ten pounds was a lot of money to a student. There were pleas for leniency to individual fellows, and a circular letter, urging clemency, was sent to all the dons in college. Six of our more imaginative friends even went to the lengths of “confessing” that they had been on the Senate House roof with us, in the hope that the college would hesitate to expel eight undergraduates. Their story foundered under the efficient individual cross-examination conducted by the Senior Tutor.

To be fair, the college authorities also did their best for us. Our tutors, who were already labouring under the onerous duties of prosecuting council and members of the jury, very generously offered to defend us as well. They had obviously swatted up their Alice in Wonderland.

  “Fury said to a Mouse, that he met in a house. 
  ‘Let us both go to law: I will prosecute you — come. 
  I've nothing to do.
’ Said the mouse to the cur, 
  ‘Such a trial, dear sir, with no jury or judge, would be wasting our breath.’ 
  ‘I'll be judge, I'll be jury,’ said cunning old Fury, 
  ‘I'll try the whole cause, and condemn you to death.


Entering into the spirit of the game we accepted.

Yet still they stalled for time. They decided nothing on the Wednesday, except to believe us when we admitted to the misdemeanour. Thursday was a pretty poor day all round. As I recall we only had one meeting and no one had much fun. Still there would always be another day. Then someone realised — Friday, November 5th. How superb! Surely the bullets would fly? Eventually, at 9.00 p.m. on the 5th November the College Council met. They had all met each other before, but now they had something to talk about.

The College Council is composed of all senior members of the college, and chaired by the Master. It is the governing body of the establishment, deciding college policy, coordinating college facilities, and occasionally sitting as the supreme court of the college. It is rather like a mini-Parliament. Since major decisions are arrived at by an ostensibly democratic vote, our only hope lay in convincing the majority that expulsion was too harsh a penalty in our case. It was a forlorn hope, but it was all we had; and by this time we were only too ready to clutch at straws.

Our trial was held after Hall on the Friday. We were told to hold ourselves in readiness from 9.00 p.m., and this we did, smoking and drinking coffee in Dave's room. We were dressed in unaccustomed suits, sparkling white shirts and sober ties. If clothes really make the man, we were just about the best men in Cambridge at the time. For over ninety minutes we sat there, growing more nervous by the minute. Besides Brian and myself, Dave and Nick were there, and so were Dave W. Bernard, Mick T., and Carol. They all did their best to cheer us up, but we could see that they expected the worst. At last the porter came and told us that the Council wanted us. We had a few cheerful words with our favourite college custodian, shrugged on our gowns, and walked across the dark courtyards to the Master's Lodge. Up the stairs, an agonising wait, and in we went.

Our judges sat solemnly round a long polished table. All were in academic robes, all looked stern. I recognised a few of them immediately, but the majority were new faces to me. We sat down in very comfortable chairs, and were then asked by the Master if we had anything to say. Brian said something about us both having better Tripos results than half the college, but no one was quite sure if that was really relevant After all, that was not the point at issue. The decision that we were to be sent down was delivered in a fine, solemn tone, with the merry afterthought that we had to leave college by 6.00 p.m. the next day. We took our leave of the proceedings and went first for some coffee, and then re-climbed the Senate House to get some photographs. It had been a curious day.

In many ways it was an unforgettable experience. One moment we were protected, isolated students, the next we had been abandoned, jobless, penniless in the last stages of a degree course. Being cut off in this way, makes quite an impression on one's whole feelings. It was, then, in many ways a sad experience to leave college on our last day.

The Council's decision had two aims: one was to stop climbing activities, the other to stop us from entering college. The first was stillborn. The second posed some interesting problems. On one occasion, about a week late I went into college with Dave to remove the last of my belongings, when I was apprehended by an irate Tutor. The conversation went as follows:

Have you any permission to enter college?


Will you leave at once?


No, not by the back gate, I want the Porter to see you.

How thoughtful.

We made our way to the Porters lodge and the Tutor called on the porter. He then had a few words in the servant's ears and stood back. “Have you your Tutor's permission to enter college?” the porter said.

Ah,” I replied, “I have no Tutor.

They were both stunned to silence as I smiled and took my leave.

Our departure created a storm in college. There were noisy demonstrations in hall (students banging spoons on the tables), petitions, a boycott on lectures given by the Master, and an angry and rather intemperate article in a University magazine. Mick T. and Bob actually went so far as to write to the Minister of Education, asking for an enquiry into College discipline, and a question was asked in the Commons by Mr. Raphael Tuck, M.P. for Watford. All this fed the pressmen for days and days.

It is hard to assess our own personal feelings at the time, though we obviously felt bitter about the whole affair. Looking back I can even sympathise with the college for its trials at the time. It was sadly lacking a good public relations officer.

Chapter 10. New Routes II

Sending down did not stop our climbing, but it certainly made it more difficult. To begin with, there were fewer occasions when it was convenient for all of us to go out, and we had to exercise more caution because Dave, Nick and Bernard were still in a vulnerable position, if caught (though they were least worried). The real effect of this was that it made our climbing more purposeful: we could not really afford to repeat many easy climbs, but had to concentrate on now routes or old hard classics. We therefore wasted little time in looking for unconquered buildings.

Modern architecture has a tendency towards concrete and brick faces and is rarely any good for climbing. It usually lacks ornamentation and buttresses and drainpipes are often inside the buildings. There have been many new buildings in Cambridge of late, mostly with little climbing potential (the multi-storey car park is certainly possible, but was really too dull for us). New Hall (a women's college) proved the exception.

The idea of the climb came to us while it was still being built, but we did not get a close look at it until after the Senate House incident. One night, aided by builders ladders, we had at close look at it. The prospect was quite upsetting. Instead of rough concrete, always excellent for grip, the surface was made of fibre glass (far too smooth for comfort). Nick mumbled something about frauds, while Dave tried without success to do a layback (feet on the inner dome, hands under the flange of the outer dome), but this was obviously not practicable. On that first night we gave up as it had been raining, and the already smooth surface, was hopelessly slippery.

But we were not beaten. There was something rather sneaky in building a dome of fibre glass and making it look like concrete. and we meant to climb it. The “dome”, in fact, consists of a double fibre glass dome. The outer dome comprises four segments, covering and slightly overlapping the inner dome. These segments are about 2 feet thick, hollow, with translucent boarding on the underside of the overlap to allow for lighting of the dome.

Now to the climb itself. Two unexciting stages (a bridging pitch and a chimney pitch) have to be climbed to get to the roof of the hall. Between these two stages there is a long flat roof to walk along, the only difficulty being that it is covered with gravel (tread carefully). While moving along this roof we saw a light on behind a frosted glass window at the far side of the college. Fortunately, we need not have worried, as it proved to be a girl taking a shower. This, of course, vaguely raises the issue of climbing in women's colleges, as one could easily be mistaken for a potential invader or something-or-other, and the police would no doubt be called if one was seen.

However, do not let this worry you, tread carefully and keep your head, for once you are just under the dome, a parapet shields you from view, and you are in much less danger. As Nick said, at this stage, even if one was seen, one would clearly he seen to be a climber not a sex-maniac. Now you are beneath the dome. Do not look for climbing protection as there certainly is none for the leader, and the dome is not very high anyway. It is best to start the chimney with one's back against the side wall which joins the inner and outer dome, and one's feet on a very thin ridge on the underneath of the outer dome, to which the translucent board is fixed. The board is too weak to carry any pressure, and as the outer and inner domes are very close together at the bottom, this is the best way to start. As the chimney progresses (it is quite a struggle in the early stages), the two domes get wider apart, and it becomes possible to slowly change the chimney position so that one's back rests more on the inner dome. When one's back is entirely on the inner dome and one's feet are high above one's body on the underneath of the inner dome, the chimneying continues, getting easier as the dome curves out. At the top of the chimney the inner dome has almost completely flattened out.

Figure 10.1. New Hall Dome

New Hall Dome

The usual chimneying position at the start.

New Hall Dome

Nearing the top, where it is at least possible to stand upright.

Now comes the crux, moving out from under the overlapping part of the outer dome, which seems a safe point, one stands up on the inner dome with no grips for one's hands and quite a good feeling of exposure. In front of one is a short vertical wall, the top of which is transparent board, and which is, of course, extremely smooth. The structure appeared to be too weak to take the weight of the body in a mantelshelf position, but eventually we found a place where a metal rib ran underneath the board. Putting one's weight entirely on this part, one then mantelshelves and puts one's foot up and onto the same reinforced strip. This is primarily a balancing move, but because of the lack of any holds and the fact that it is quite a reach for the foot, it can be quite worrying for a moment.

Now one can stand up, reach over the top of the two sections of outer dome converging at this point, and keeping the feet from treading on the transparent hoard underneath, one does a form of hand traverse (or rather, walking suspended from one's hands, with the feet getting friction grips for balance against the sides) until one reaches the point where the two segments of outer dome converge. Here one has to do a quick, easy mantelshelf onto quite a large round flat area at the top. The view from the top of the dome is excellent.

To get down again, we recommend two methods, both of which should be tried. The first is simply to reverse down, using the same route as that on the ascent. The second is to bring a rope along and stretch it over the top of the dome, and with counterbalancing weight, two climbers can come down on opposite sides of the dome. The latter way is quite fun.

All in all, this is an excellent climb (about 55 feet in all, I suppose), and is probably just very severe. It is unusual in its architecture, facade, and setting and makes quite a refreshing change from the older buildings in Cambridge. An important point is that plimsolls or baseball boots should be worn rather than the normal climbing footwear. Four months after our first ascent, the dome was desecrated with black footprints. We were all pretty worried about this because, although we never caused damage to any building, we thought that we might be suspect because of our known climbing activities. However, it was not long before we discovered who effected the “artistic” daubings. Surprisingly, it was a group of assorted architects and “anti-philistines” with the aid of a rock-climber. They all had one thing in common — an avid disgust and hatred for this “cancerous sore on the beauty of Cambridge”. One of them was a very good friend of ours who had remembered us speak of the new route. He came along to Dave's room one night and told us the story.

After painting footprints over the dome, they were about to descend when one of them saw three dons watching from the opposite side of the court, and the night porter down on the lower roof. The climbers came down hurriedly to make their escape, but the porter shouting: “This way officers, here they are”, came running up and grabbed all three of them. The porter was apparently getting the better of the struggle, when a don appeared in her nightdress upon the roof. The porter wanted to tie the culprits up with their own rope, but after a long discussion it was agreed that they would go peaceably to the porter's lodge. At the porter's lodge, the dons were about to check the names and colleges given (false, of course) when one of the three yelled “Run”. The porter gave chase, but the three split up and he followed the one who knew the college best. The porter was soon outrun. The other two, meanwhile, ran to the Huntingdon Road side of the college and locked themselves in a shower and “having persuaded the window to open a little wider than usual”, scrambled out and made their escape. They all hid for a day not knowing if the police were looking for them or not. When the fuss died down, an architect friend admitted a certain pride in both the escape and the “attraction” of the footprints, though he insisted that he would never even consider damaging a worthy building. On this, the last word is his: I content myself with an interesting escape story packed with more drama than the three realised at the time.

Our next big climb was to be the Senate House, but this time the back route (the west face). It was 1.30 a.m. on the 7th March when we made for the Senate House Passage. We decided that it was not worth going up via the South face of Caius, as this was too exposed to view, and went up the stairway inside the Tower, and thence onto the Senate House roof. Brian tied the rope and threw the other end down. We decided to try the right hand route (from the ground) as it is less visible from Caius. Dave, Nick and I went down the rope on descendeurs. Dave went up first in brilliant style, and Bernard managed to get some good photographs. The first layback one finds easier than expected. With the left foot always above the right (in a layback position) it is fairly easy to move up and one's feet show no sign of slipping (though the half-pillar is flat, unlike the ribbed one on the east face). As soon as one's left hand reaches the first ledge, swing out, pull up, reach the curved ledge above this, mantelshelf on it, and with a stretch reach the “window” ledge above (there are no windows on the west face, but there are ledges, flanges and curved tops, just like the east face). From here it is easy to get up onto this ledge which is pleasantly wide. After a brief rest there is a second layback. Now the climbing becomes a little tiring. At the top of this section one puts one's feet on a tiny ledge (most of which is missing, but that remaining is adequate). and reaches for the top of the pillar. Reach up for the ledge and hand traverse round until one can get the other foot (right) onto the corner of the other pillar. Using pinch-grips stand up and reach over the top. Fortunately, there is no lead on this side of the building. Then swing out and mantelshelf in a manner that is similar to the final move on the Fitzwilliam Museum.

This climb is similar in many ways to that on the east face, but is much less exposed to view. In fact, we all felt quite safe despite the numerous flashes from the camera. The photographs, I think, speak for themselves.

Our last two noteworthy routes belong entirely to Dave. They are both on the Gibbs building in Kings and though they have certainly been noted previously as “possibles”, we found no evidence of any other ascents. It is a curious building which offers no easy route up it, the two possibilities being that up the central archway on the west face, and that up the drainpipe on the north face. Dave persuaded us to go out and have a look at the routes one night, and Bernard came along to photograph.

Since there was no simple method of ascent (thus precluding a top-rope for the first ascent) Dave decided to lead the easier of the two routes, that on the north face. The drainpipe has a few good resting places, its only difficulty being that it stops short of the roof, a few feet below the overhang. Added to this, there is no securing clamp on the top section. This was a most unenviable first lead, as we had no idea of the safety of the pipe at the top. Dave climbed steadily up and put a couple of runners around the pipe above the top two clamps for safety. The top section of the pipe seems quite firm, and from the very top one can reach over the overhang without too much of a stretch. From this position, one can pull up in the usual way and mantelshelf, this move being made easier by the use of the top of the pipe as a foothold.

We then moved along the roof till we were above the central archway. Here there is no obvious belay, so we tied the rope right around the chimney. We went down the rope on at descendeur, with Nick ready to belay us. Bernard was waiting at the bottom with the camera.

The climb starts up the slotted stonework on the inside of the archway (back to the pillar). This section is straightforward. Then one swings across behind the pillar, on a reasonable handhold, to get on the ledge on the outside of the archway. Dave thought the next section might not go, but he did it surprisingly quickly. This part is in fact quite hard. Using a small foothold near the bottom of the window flange, one puts one's left foot upon a small ledge about a foot below a larger one and bridges until one can get a foot on the larger ledge. From here it is possible to reach over the overhang onto a slanting ledge, and then a higher one above the window. Pull up on this and swing onto the sloping roof. This is a good resting place. From the next ledge only the curved flange offers a possible hold (the smaller ones being unsafe). Here, technique is all-important. Pull up on the curved flange, and with the help of knees and feet, move the hands up until the angle of the flange eases off. Now one can reach the ornaments above: they seem desperately fragile, but there is nothing else, After at mantelshelf (similar to that on the Ornamentation Climb, Trinity), one can reach over the overhang and mantelshelf. From here it is possible to go straight up to the very top.

Figure 10.2. Gibbs Building: Archway Climb

Gibbs Building: Archway Climb

Chimneying between the pillar of the gateway and the wall leads to the top of the gate. The climber now ascends the curved window until he reaches the ornamentation.

Gibbs Building: Archway Climb

Standing on the ornamentation.

Figure 10.3. Gibbs Building: Drainpipe Route

Gibbs Building: Drainpipe Route

A long drainpipe climb, ending in an overhang.

The whole climb is a really excellent excuse for one's technique and stamina. It is not an inspiring building, but the archway climb is certainly one of the finest (though not the hardest) new routes put up recently.

Chapter 11. Concluding Words

Farewells do not require a chapter. Like our climbing nights, their word content should be kept to a minimum. Words of encouragement and incitement to would be climbers are not necessary. I hope that the book will speak for itself in this respect. However, a few words of advice to those who want to carry on the tradition are not out of place.

Like ourselves and those before us, the new climber should be motivated by the desire for pleasure and nothing else, for this is the sole justification for the sport. He should, therefore, abide willingly to the unwritten nightclimbing code. He must avoid at all costs, the possibility of causing damage, annoyance or any unnecessary trouble. He will therefore plan his every climb and every move. It is as well that he should begin on well-tried routes, but his ambition need not be circumscribed by the limitations of his predecessors.

My hope is that this book, which belongs, above all, to Dave, will multiply the number of climbers on the Cambridge buildings. If it does that it will have served its purpose.

Chapter 12. The Climber's Appendix — A Classification of Routes

Any attempt at rigid classification is bound, by its very nature, to invite criticism; and this section of the book is no exception. We all felt for some time the need for some sort of documented grading, and recognised the inevitable pitfalls. We have not side-stepped them all, but we feel that we have reached a fair compromise.

The classification is not intended to be rigid by any standard. It is based primarily on the experience of four climbers who know the buildings of Cambridge well. In addition there were innumerable other people, friends and acquaintances, who weighed in with their own views, and those whose suggestions helped broaden the discussions out of which arose the following system. All four of us had advantages and disadvantages of height, reach, weight, etc., and in finalising the grading, we hope that we have produced something that will serve as a useful contribution to Cambridge Nightclimbing.


V.S. = Very Severe
S. = Severe
H.V.D. = Hard Very Difficult
V.D. = Very Difficult
D. = Difficult

Kings College

  1. Chetwynd Chimney (H.V.D.)

    Strenuous climbing in awkward and restricted positions. The drainpipe is now being renewed, after a top section attempted to fall on Dave and myself. A good climb in a select area of the college.

  2. Porters Lodge (Just V.S.)

    A strenuous climb, particularly on the hands, in an exciting position. Few people have been known to finish it without arousing some interest from below. Avoid the middle of the clock face — the key to this section is to move over to the right hand side of the clock face, where a small finger grip can be found on the corner of an otherwise useless ledge. Do not spend too long at the top.

  3. Gibbs Building
    1. Drainpipe Route (V.D.)

      The pipe can be trusted, but put runners on near the brackets for safety. 1st Ascent 1.45 a.m. 10th May 1966.

    2. Archway Route (Just V.S.)

      Interesting technically, and takes the natural route. 1st Ascent 2.45 a.m. 10th May 1966.

  4. King's Chapel (V.S.)

    Long and sustained. The second pitch is the most strenuous. It might be noted that the crux (the move out from the window to the drainpipe) is /not/ irreversible. The lay-back is one of the hardest in Cambridge, certainly on drainpipes. Pinnacles are straightforward. Caution exercised near glass.

Trinity College (Night Porters)

  1. Main Gate (V.D.)

    Straightforward. Good practice for novices.

  2. Gateway Column (Hard Severe)

    A tricky climb, requiring a little thought before starting (see Whipplesnaith). Good balancing moves. Secluded. Key to overhang on the first attempt is an iron ring on the flat ledge above, which can be used as a good pull-up. Once experienced use a straight mantelshelf from the arched position. Good classical climb.

  3. Hall and Lantern (Hard V.D.)

    No great problems. Beware of careless feet next to glass, and of angry porters. Quite nicely exposed.

  4. Fourth Court Climb (Hard Severe)

    An excellent climb requiring technique, balance and stamina. Very secluded. For the last pitch it is important to place the right hand on the ledge, the left on the pipe. Then placing the left foot on the clamp of the pipe, stand up on it, put the right elbow on the lower ledge and reach for the upper ledge. Now use the top part of the drainpipe.

  5. Ornamentation Climb (S.)

    Short and classic. Good mantelshelf at top.

  6. Wet Bob's Traverse (V.D.)

    Good balancing. Ledge is missing in places.

  7. Library Chimney (V.D.)

    Face the library as protruding bricks give holds early on. Change around later.

  8. Castor and Pollux (V.D.)

    Easier going down. Tight chimneying.

  9. Fountain (V.D.)

    Disappointing climb. Key to it is the pillar with a drainpipe. Too much made of it in the past.

  10. Great Court Circuit (V.D.)

    A marathon, but well worth it. A real classic that should be done by all.

St. John's College

  1. Main Gate (D.)

    Good for beginners.

  2. New Tower (V.D.)

    An excellent climb. Good exposure. No real problems. A variety of routes to delight. Often lit up — do not worry.

  3. Third Court Climb (S.)

    An excellent climb coming up or down. Intricate balancing. Well covered in Whipplesnaith.

  4. Eagle Chimney (V.D.)

    Wall at your back tapers out at the top. Use one shoulder blade. Good width but not ideal.

  5. Bridge of Sighs (V.D.)

    An excellent climb that one often repeats. No danger to the swimmer. Remember, before the fall across one can turn around on the buttress ledge and face the bridge.

  6. John's Chapel (Just V.S.)

    One of the finest climbs in Cambridge. Consistent and well sustained. Good stonework and excellent views from the clover leaf and the top. Never fails to impress.


  1. South Face (Hard V.D.)

    Good route but not an end in itself.

Fitzwilliam Museum

  1. Back Chimney (D.)

    Spikes provide no difficulty. Very straightforward.

  2. Lion Chimney Direct (V.S.)

    Excellent chimney width, good grips, and large intimidating overhang make this a fine natural route. Takes the obvious line, direct. Belay well back. 1st Ascent 3.00 a.m. 30th October, 1965.

Senate House

  1. East Face (V.S.)

    Little or no protection before final overhang. Short and vicious. Dry conditions essential. Good footholds on louvred half pillar. Excellent climb. LSAT Ascent 2.00 a.m. 29th October, 1965 (Top rope), solo two nights later.

  2. West Face (V.S.)

    As previous: except the half pillars are square and smooth. 1st Ascent 2.45 a.m. Monday. 7th March 1966.

Pitt Press

  1. Bridging Route (S.)

    Good positions. Stonework slightly unreliable. 1st Ascent 26th February 1965.

  2. Pillar Route (H.S.)

    Exposed with loose stonework. 1st Ascent 5th June 1965.

Clare College

  1. Ladder Climb (Just Severe)

    Good practice for finger grips.

  2. S.E. Corner (Severe)

    Good for pull ups and balancing.

  3. Chimney (with Trinity Hall) (Just Severe)

    Spikes are forbidding.

Old Schools (A paradise for beginners)

  1. Sunken Drainpipe (H.D.)

    Excellent for novices. Ignore rattles,

  2. Chimney (V.D.)

    Tricky, but not too bad.

  3. Recess route (facing Clare) (S.)

    Lots of room for technique. 1st Ascent 17th February 1965.

  4. Gateway Route (S.)

    Fragile stone. 1st Ascent 17th February 1965.

  5. Tottering Tower (Just D.)


New Hall (Just V.S.)

  1. Unusual climb. Good practice.


For future reference, here's the lowdown on the technical geekery used to digitise this book, having learned some lessons in efficiency from the previous experience of transcribing The Nightclimbers of Cambridge.

This digitised version of the book was produced using the Linux XSane scanner package, a Canon MP510 combo printer/scanner and a loaned 1970 copy of Cambridge Nightclimbing.

I scanned the pages mostly in pairs (which XSane made very efficient). The filenames were chosen to contain a "-l" if a left-hand page was in the image, and a "-r" if a right-hand page was present. Hence most of the images contained a "-l-r" character string. These flags were used to automate the auto-cropping of pages out of the raw scans.

Next, a small shell script was written to chop the images into single pages with the chapter headers and page numbers removed so as to help the OCR process. The same script also did some greyscale thresholding to convert darker area to black and lighter areas to white, with a small range of grey shades retained — this improved the OCR response. The clever bit here were done by the excellent ImageMagick command line tools. Finally, script converts the generated, cropped page images to plain text by the Tesseract OCR program, and concatenated to form one big plain text file with the page breaks indicated. Here is the script in its entirety:

#! /usr/bin/env bash

CONVCOLOROPTS="-type Grayscale -black-threshold 50% -white-threshold 65%"
CONVCROPOPTSL="-crop 660x1000+100+95"
CONVCROPOPTSR="-crop 660x1000+850+95"

rm -f *.tiff *.raw *.txt *.map

convert ../0013.png $CONVCOLOROPTS 0013.tiff
for i in ../*-l*.png; do
    newname=$( basename ${i%.png} | sed 's/-r//' ).tiff
    echo $newname
    convert $i $CONVCROPOPTSL $CONVCOLOROPTS $newname
for i in ../*-r.png; do
    newname=$( basename ${i%.png} | sed 's/-l//' ).tiff
    echo $newname
    convert $i $CONVCROPOPTSR $CONVCOLOROPTS $newname

for i in *.tiff; do
    echo $i
    tesseract $i ${i%.tiff}

rm -f $OUT
for i in `ls *.txt | sort`; do 
    cat $i >> $OUT
    echo -e "\n----------------------\n" >> $OUT

The final stage was manual: using GNU emacs and the aspell spell-checker, and occasional reference to the scanned pages, I corrected the spelling and pieced the chapters together, removing the page break indicators. Once I had a coherent plain text version of the book, I added Docbook XML tags to structure the chapters, sections and so-on. The photographs were manually cropped and added to the Docbook source as the final stage. HTML and PDF forms of the book were produced using Norman Walsh's Docbook XSL style sheets and the xsltproc program.

And that's all. I'm very pleased to say that the whole process only involved Open Source tools, produced by people much cleverer than myself.

Andy Buckley, 8 March 2008