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.