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.