Nares Craig's night climbing reminiscences

Here's an excerpt from the memoirs of Nares Craig --- communist, radical architect and the night climber stood atop St John's College "Wedding Cake" in the frontispiece of "The Night Climbers of Cambridge". He was rusticated for trying to hoist an effigy of George VI up King's Chapel...


In March '36, having, somewhat to my surprise, passed the University entrance exam, I had preliminary interviews at Trinity College, where, by custom there were four main tutors, each responsible for the welfare and general behaviour of a proportion of the colleges students between them. It transpired that my mother must have let it be known that my "religion" was Christian Science, so that I found myself under the jurisdiction of the senior tutor J.R.M. ("Jim") Butler himself a devoted Christian Scientist. He was a cousin of the prominent Tory education minister; R.A. ("RAB") Butler.

Having him as tutor proved a mixed blessing, since, if I was to remain (importantly) in his "good books", it involved attending his incredibly tedious Christian Science "Sunday schools", where I had to "go through the motions", with all the meaningless jargon involved.

By custom at Trinity, one's first two years were spent in lodgings, so I was allotted "digs" in a large house on the Chesterton Road owned and run, fortunately by a very amenable landlady. There were three other occupants: impeccable Etonian, Donald; scruffy Ivor, (in appearance, more tramp than student, and with highly dubious morals) and "Anton" Jacobs (later a successful actor). We each had a reasonable-sized ground floor room, and a separate first floor bedroom. Basics, like beds, were provided, but the "living room" could be furnished or decorated according to choice.

Guy Fawkes Night, 1936

The exceptional events of the evening of November 5th '36 in Market Square, Cambridge, really set the tone for the months to come. Because of the uncertain international situation resulting from Chamberlain's vacillating leadership, the unsettling threat of war loomed large over our lives, especially because so many of us were at an age most vulnerable to conscription, and thus considerable abandon and cynicism tended to prevail.

The near-anarchy of "bonfire night" was no doubt driven largely by that atmosphere of abandon, exacerbated by the excessively large police presence, well equipped with truncheons and handcuffs, who made numerous arrests, mostly resulting in riotous rescue attempts.

My first successful climbing of one of the extra tall lampposts and extinguishing its light, was met by wild cheering and my being borne away to safety. Later, to my surprise, (because I had always thought of him as wholly law-abiding) Wilfred Noyce joined the fray, and repeated my effort by extinguishing the last remaining extra-tall lamp to ecstatic applause, after which he himself was duly arrested. Later, however, along with several others in court, his charge was in fact, dropped. With continuing friction between us and the police, one constable entered a phone box (mobile phones being then unknown) evidently to call for reinforcements, whereupon the box was duly turned over, door downwards, effectively trapping him inside.

After the boisterous events of 5th November had quietened down, I began to get to know fellow students, the staff at the school of architecture, the university generally, and the town with its various pubs and other amenities. It proved customary --- once or twice a week, to attend dinner in the great hall of Trinity, surrounded by the portraits of Henry VIII, Lord Byron and others of the colleges famous founders or members.

The "Night Climbers of Cambridge"

In the somewhat "heady" university atmosphere, I was not unduly surprised, in January '37, apparently on Wilfred Noyces recommendation, to be approached by a recent graduate of Kings college, Noel Symington who, while an undergraduate, had done some roof climbing, and had evolved the idea of producing a book based largely on flashlight photos of climbers in action on University buildings, and was looking for climbers to help put his idea into practice. I had never climbed buildings in daylight, let alone in the dark, but I was intrigued by the invitation, which I accepted, and soon began to help plan operations and to enlist further volunteers.

Noels father owned the well-established firm of "Symington's Soups" of Market Harborough, so sufficient funds were available to cover the quite considerable costs involved, due, particularly to the flashlight equipment required. This consisted of a terribly bulky 22 inch diameter reflector with central sockets for three bulbs, all of which burned out each time it was used, which involved a suitcase to carry all the replacement bulbs. So, our nightly "caravan" consisted of two or three climbers (sometimes carrying ropes), of which I was normally one, together with the photographer, the "flash" man, and the suitcase carrier.

Following agreement on a suitable location for a posed (preferably dramatic) position for a photograph, our highly unwieldy team members had to make their way to their appropriate positions, moving as quietly as possible in the shadows, often surmounting quite serious obstacles, such as revolving spikes, and somehow coordinate their movements as necessary until the critical moment arrived of the use of the flash and concurrent camera action.

During the twelve or so weeks, when weather and other conditions permitted our activities, with what must have been astonishingly good luck, we managed to obtain some 40 or so photos which were sufficiently good for publishing, and naturally they proved the main attraction of the book, which was published in due course by Chatto and Windus, and sold well immediately afterwards in October '37.

In spite of the difficulties of some of the climbs, we suffered no accidents although there were some narrow escapes, one of which occurred on our way up to obtain the picture: "O'Hara: Senate House Pinnacle." While climbing an easy drainpipe, the man above me inadvertently put his weight too near the outer edge of a stone cornice, a 15" length of which fractured and, missing my head, fell across my two forearms, and I was able to pass it down safely. We much regretted that single case of damage which was something we were always at pains to avoid.

A dummy "coronation" over Kings College Chapel.

In early May 1937, in connection with the coming coronation, a rash of bunting and union jacks etc, suddenly appeared in the town. Strung across the narrow streets they clashed starkly with the beautiful old college buildings, and prompted me to think of some appropriate way of mocking the whole pantomime of royalty. The idea of making use of the astonishing "publicity site" (above the East End of Kings Chapel facing Kings Parade, and visible all over the town) soon took shape. The remarkable pre-eminence of that "publicity site" is best illustrated by the reproduction of the press-cutting headed "All Cambridge saw it", dated June 1963. I discussed the idea with my close climbing colleagues, OHara Murray, and Alec Crichton, and both were enthusiastically supportive; O'Hara agreeing to share the climbing with me, while Alec offered to help make the dummy, and with getting it to the site. The dummy figure of the king was formed by a boiler suit stuffed with newspaper, wearing garish checked trousers, a red, white and blue jacket, with a football bladder for a head and a cardboard crown somehow suspended above it. A six foot length of hollow curtain rod through the two arms, with a generous length of sash cord threaded through it provided the means for suspending "George" (as he soon became named) between the two east end pinnacles of the chapel. To add to the levity, "George" carried a quart bottle in one "hand" and some kind of lightweight tankard in the other. Being before the days of plastic, the bottle was inevitably glass, which added seriously both to the weight and to the risk of calamitous breakage. Having already climbed to the roof level, and then up one of the pinnacles, I knew what times would be required for each stage of the operation, and was able to prepare a strict timetable for both hoisting George to roof level, and then further, in order to finish before day-break at 5am, and this time-table O'Hara and I agreed on and memorised. At dusk on the evening of 11th May, carrying George, we left my rooms and reached Kings without arousing suspicion. We soon got George over the gates and to the usual starting point for the climb, which was the bottom of the "chimney" (a climbing term for a vertical cleft, say, approximately three feet wide, in which the climber can "wedge" himself, with his back against one side and his feet the other (see illustration) and thus make his way up the 100 feet from ground to roof,(Alec remained nearby as "lookout") while O'Hara and I made ready for the off at our agreed hour of 12.30 am. I then made a start, carrying a 150 foot length of rope, and, in due course, reached the roof. Following my lowering the rope, O'Hara attached the end to George and I was able to start pulling him up, which, naturally had to be done slowly and with great care. Having freed the rope, I was then able to lower it back to O'Hara to tie himself on so I could offer him the usual degree of protection as he himself climbed and joined me on the roof.

We were now ready to start the final phase, so O'Hara climbed the south east pinnacle with one of George's supporting cords tied to his waist, the end of which he then attached to the pinnacle top, and then climbed back down to the roof. I then set off up the north east pinnacle with the other one of Georges supporting cords tied to my waist, and the pulley in my pocket. Following my securing the pulley near to the top of the pinnacle, I passed the supporting cord from George through the pulley and threw the cord down to O'Hara, which was the signal for him to start pulling. Then, just as it was getting light and George started rising to his appointed position catastrophe struck! The pulley squeaked so loudly that I could actually see the porter and two or more "bulldogs" looking up and clearly able to appraise the whole situation.

The "proctors", the main guardians of student discipline employed assistants, nicknamed "bull-dogs" (invariably ex-rugby players) specifically to chase and apprehend offenders.

Shortly before, I had taken the precaution of securing both 150 foot lengths of climbing rope and lowering them to the ground to provide for escape, by abseiling, for each of us, and we immediately made use of them, with O'Hara going first, and I following, having been delayed by the considerable difficulty of descending the pinnacle. On reaching "terra firma", I found at least two "bulldogs" struggling to hold down O'Hara who called out: "run, Nares, I can manage!" Unfortunately, having had no food or rest all night, I was unable to outrun one of the "bulldogs", who dragged me from the water half way across the Cam and delivered me to the Dean, dishevelled and dripping water over his beautiful oriental rugs. Whatever protestations of regret I may have tried to make were soon rudely interrupted by O'Haras arrival in the clutches of at least two "bulldogs". His trousers had been so badly torn in his struggles that he was virtually bare from the waist down, and not a pretty sight. Further, in spite of my efforts to calm him, he was uttering a succession of oaths --- probably due to exhaustion and hunger --- which did little to assist our predicament. As soon as possible, we made our ways back to our respective lodgings, to await our fates.

Meanwhile the Dean had asked Wilfred Noyce to take the stairs to the roof, and then climb up and rid him of the embarrassment of "George" suspended over his chapel on coronation day. In those days we were not very "publicity conscious", or I would have warned the local press in advance. Therefore it remains solely to the imagination to visualise what our dummy coronation must have looked like, occupying an identical position to that of the many years later "Vietnam" banner illustrated. Wilfred of course had no option but to comply with the Dean's request.

As he experienced the quite severe difficulties of climbing the pinnacles, he very probably realised that it must have been I who had "done the deed" and he may well have regretted having to cut down the handiwork of his old climbing comrade. However, he managed to lower "George" carefully to the ground and then took him to his rooms, where the Kings dons gathered to inspect him, apparently with considerable interest. We learned this later from Alec who had rightly kept well clear of the fray, but, being a member of Kings, he was able to walk around freely and assess the situation generally. As we expected, Milner White, Dean of Kings, demanded that Trinity send me down ("rusticate" me) for good, and that Pembroke College do the same to O'Hara Murray. However, when "Jim" Butler called me before him, it became evident that, although extremely angry, he was not keen to fulfil the Deans demand in full, no doubt realising that he risked the permanent loss of one of his Christian Science Sunday School "flock", and I then realised the important "insurance value" of my having been, at least from time to time, an attendee at those Sunday Schools. So, a compromise was arrived at in the form of "rustication" (dismissal) for the remainder of the current term for myself, and, in fairness, for O'Hara as well. Alec later explained that Wilfred, who was held in some esteem by the Dean, assisted nobly with pouring oil on the troubled waters, and promoting the two lesser, compromise penalties.