Chapter 9. St. John's'


"Hark, hark? I hear The strain of strutting Chanticleer Cry Cock-a-doodle-doo"

--Tempest, I. 2 

"The Devil damn thee black, thou cream-faced loon"


And now we will go to St. John's, By now our novice of the first few chapters is becoming more self-confident, and occasionally starts off up a climb without permission. In the caution of our staid experience we find ourselves being left behind, and must see to it. Have we gone stale? Here was a fellow who still considers himself a novice, leading up climbs where we hesitate to follow. It is all very well to say, "By Jove, that was a good climb; I wouldn't have done it myself"; if we say it too often, he will believe us. He is as eager to gain a reputation as we are to justify our own. "I will not yield, to kiss the ground before young Malcolm's feet --- lay on, Macduff, and damned be he that first cries, Hold, enough!" In other words, we must all tackle severe climb after climb and pretend to enjoy it.

Here we are outside the Main Gate. As we stand facing it

there are three drain-pipes on the wall dropping away to the left. Of these we choose the middle one, because it fulfills all the requirements. It is reasonably firm, it stands away from the wall, and there is a zigzag half-way up which makes it easier than its two rivals. All these pipes are of lead.

The first part of this pipe is the most difficult. From the kink in she pipe one can step on to a window-sill, and thence with a short pull-up on to tho arched tops of the windows on each side. We believe the window on the right to be occupied by a porter or a resident don, but there is little need to disturb him. The pipe does not rattle.

After surmounting the battlements and taking a well-earned rest, we turn to the right. Here we mount a gabled window, and step from gable to gable until we reach the last one by the square tower. We now come to our second drain-pipe.

Within arm's reach from the top of the gable the pipo recedes over a sloping ledge. From hore upwords it stands out from the wall, and it is an easy scramble on to the ledge.

From the sloping ledge it it but a short distance to the horizontal ledge on the left, a few feet short of the top. This is an awkward moment, The pipe stops level with this ledge, and the question is how to got up the last few feet. Is is impossible to reach straight up. To the left is a gap, but it appears to be out of reach. By moving the feet along the ledge, however, it is possible to reach this gap, and in a moment the climber is on top of the tower.

The last fifteen feet, up any of the corner turrets, is made easy by a short drain-pipe on each. Above the bowl of the pipe there is a square aperture through the wall, to allow the rain-water to pass through. This provides the last hand-hold, and the top is reached.

This climb was unique among the wanderings of the photographers, in that they did it "on the spur of the moment". At the time they were on their way into Trinity, to do the Fourth Court climb. The restless Eric started testing the pipes to the left of the Main Gate, and before the rest knew where they once he was near the top, shouting for a photograph. He was kept waiting for a couple of minutes, in the position where he is shown in the photograph, and then went up to the battlements.

A much more difficult climb is the ascent to the first window, above the Main Gate. The climber must start with the help of a friendly shoulder, and from then on keep close to the left-hand wall. A small stone pillar runs up about nine inches from the wall, on the outside of the ornamentations, The climber must keep by this pillar, and can wedge his foot between it and the wall: it is a severe test for the arms.

From the window-ledge a climber in playful wood may leave his gown or surplice on the statue in the middle. This would probably cause considerable surprise to the authorities.

A much more genteel climb is getting on to the Ivy Arch, fifty yards south of the Main Gate. The name dates back to the days when it was covered in ivy; since then it has had a shave, and is now quite spruce-looking, Architecturally, it is rather unimaginative. Built to conceal the fact that behind the gate it adorns is a vulgar back-yard, it goes up in broad steps to a veritable plateau on the top.

We climb on to the arch by mounting the railings [1] at the left-hand side. A stone knob at the font of the curved flange above the gate provides a foot-hold, and we get on to the bottom step of the arch. On this ledge we once left a camera, and only remembered it when we were twenty miles from Cambridge.

From the top of the of the arch to the roof requires a moment's care, and the roof-hiker is now free to tramp round the first three courts of the college, and peer down on the Bridge of Sighs. Or he may go up the steep slope of the roof close by the arch. Ths raised stone coping provides an edge on which he can grip.

A climb which looks easy, but is really quite severe, is the west face of the Third Court. There is an archway leading through on to the Bridge of Sighs, and over this there is a succession of ledges, going up to the roof. The difficulty is that there is not much additional help to get on to each ledge, and it is a matter of awkward press-ups, each one a few feet higher from the ground, and by that much the more unpleasant. The route up is fairly obvious, but this does not make it any easier. Coming down is quite a simple business.

And now we will go round to the back gate in Queen's Road, and climb over the railings at the side. (This, for some reason, is one of the things which the more clumsy members of the party always find difficulty in doing. It is perfectly simple and straightforward.) We then move along towards the college buildings, one or two members of the party being sure to trip over the wire at the side of the grass.

Coming to the outside of New Court, we find a gateway on the south side known as the Eagle Gateway. A pair of buttresses on either side offer a little chimneying practice. This is a good place to bring a novice to teach him to chimney, because of its complete isolation. It is quite easy to get on to the roof of the cloisters by either of these chimneys, and for those who like drain-pipes there is a splendid one at the east end, three feet from the cloisters inside the court. It stands away from the wall and the iron bindings, besides being in pairs, are broad and flat. We have not been up this, but from the roof of the cloisters it would not be very difficult. One of the party came down it on a rope, and reported thnt it was dead easy.

And so we come to the Bridge of Sighs.

The complete traverse of the bridge was first done, we believe, in 1923 or 1924. It involves nome of the prettiest balancing problems in Cambridge, with a ducking as the only penalty for a clumsy climber. The beauty of it is that once the climber has got on to the bridge, on the west side, he cannot get back again. Willy-nilly, he must complete what he has begun.

The climb starts from the lawn close to the south-west corner of the bridge. A broad stone wall, two feet high, bounds the lawn from the water ten feet below. From this wall one steps across on to the ledge of a buttress which projects obliquely from the corner. The buttress is about two feet wide and four feet long and the lack of hand-holds is countered by the fact that the flat palms can grip against the wall as one goes round the two corners. As one comes round the second corner, one is face to face with the hardest part of the climb.

Moving as far along the ledge of the buttress as possible while holding the corner with the left hand, one can reach nearly to the end of the buttress. From here to the main wall there is a gap of about four feet, with nothing but an expanse of wall on the other side. This gap must be crossed.

The fact that the climber is facing the wrong way makes it more difficult for him. Releasing his hold with his left hand, he must swing round as he falls and move his feet round on the ledge. Once he has fallen across, he must work along to the right, where a buttress projects from the bridge. By now the worst is over. Moving the feet down about fifteen inches on to a second ledge, one can step across on to a pointed ornamentation on the second buttress. A little further balancing, and one is on the bridge itself.

At the far side a sort of ornamental pillar on the bridge enables one to mount on to the top, where two alternatives present themselves. One is to climb up on to the roof of Third Court; this looks as though it might be the easier way, though we know no one who has tried it. The other alternative is to climb down in the north-east corner. This involves making use of the stone-work to the left of the pipe (looking down) until one can grasp the bowl and so descend.

Once off the bridge, one must move along the side of the river for twenty yards and then round to the right, past what the Roof Climber's Guide to St. John's calls the "Furnace Hole'. A pretty climb for about fifteen feet brings us down into the Third Court.

In our opinion, the whole traverse of the Bridge of Sighs is extremely severe from a technical point of view, without the usual grimness of a severe climb. It is described in the Cam- bridge Review of 1924. Onlookers seem to find it especially entertaining, and their cure-free laughter seems to continue the harmony of splashing waters which is the last thing one hears before going under. If we could remember what Wordsworth had to say on the subject we would quote him.

Five lawyers ate a cow,
And if you wonder how,
We agree,
You and me,
They couldn't do it now—

which, as you will agree, has nothing to do with it.

The most fitting climb to end a chapter on St. John's is the ascent of the New Tower, above the New Court. Compared with most of the climbs in St. John's it is easy, but nevertheless the height makes it thrilling. It falls into stages; the fifty feet from the ground to the roof, aad the forty feet up the tower. The second half is considerably the harder.

To reach the roof we go up the Drain-pipe Chimney, half- way along the outer west wall. Two drain-pipes run from the ground to the battlements in the lee of a buttress set at an angle to the main wall. The right-hand pipe is loose in two places and should not be trusted too far.

Up as far as the top of the bay window on the right is really very easy. The pipe runs up past four windows on the left, at the top and bottom of which a stone foot-hold can be found. The climber may go up as though up an exposed pipe (with the comfort of the buttress behind) or he can chimney between the buttress and the pipe. In the dark the climber goes on quite happily until he realizes with a shock that the buttress has tapered away, and he is almost on top of the bay window,

(A word of warning, incidentally, about this window top. Coming down from the roof, one expects it to be flat, whereas actually it is sloping. This produces for a moment a nasty sensation of diving outwards.)

From the top of the bay window the last twelve feet must be climbed on the exposed pipe. Do not touch the right-hand pipe here. Use the one an the left, and the top of the window as a foot-hold. It is narrow and sloping, but as the leg is pressing inwards, it is as good as a flat ledge.

The pipe ends three feet short of the battlements. There is no bowl; it just stops dead. The last few inches pass through a ledge, and so one can grasp the top with confidence. A stretch on to the battlement, and one is safety on the roof.

The log-book will now be allowed to speak without comment:

"At about 9.0 P.M. we parked the car in the lane opposite the back gate of St. John's. A couple of dons taking the evening air frightened as, and sent as off when we had just got the things out of the car. Stepping at Quayside we walked to Trinity.

"As we entered, a porter about to go to Neville's Court waited for us, jangled his keys and followed ten yards behind. In gym shoes and polo sweaters, and with all our impediments we most have looked a villainous trio. We talked loudly of butterflies.

"Feeling suspect, we called on M., where Willy and I each smoked an excellent cigar, and we all had a glass of beer. Then away, out of Trinity.

"At the Blue Boar I collected a blue skirt which Dorothy G. had lent me. [2] In West Road Willy took off his trousers and buttoned it with difficulty around his waist. Making his scarf into a sort of hat, he flaunted the Fitzwilliam colours on the face of Newnham. A pair of gloves was inside his pullover, and most of his right leg showed in a crack at the side of the skirt.

"Then to St. John's, to the Drain-pipe Chimney. With the rope around my waist I reached the battlements without difficulty, followed in the order Willy, impedimenta, John. Both got up without using the rope, and the impedimenta were got op without clanking. From the top Willy took a photo of John while I flashed.

"Before starting the evening Willy and I had both decided we had flu, and had nearly called the evening off. Up here there was a strongish wind, and I at least was cold and prickly the whole time. Willy looked considerably worse, and very watery-eyed. While we were climbing it was all right, but there was a lot of standing about, and several times I felt quite dizzy, as earlier in the evening.

"Following the leads round, one has to step from one battlement to the next at the corner. Rather unexpectedly after the quiet walk round one finds one's self looking down for fifty feet straight below. Then along by New Court, up some slates, on to a ledge and over some more battlements and one is at the foot of the tower.

"We chose the face down which comes the lightning con- ductor.

"The old conductor, a rusty wire-rope thing up which D. went for the first six feet, has been replaced by a formidable new affair. Of the ribbon type, it is about four times as massive as any I have ever seen, and clamped close to the wall. I tried in vain to pull it away.

"The two buttresses on either side appear to offer the possi- bility of chimneying. However, they diverge too much and one slips. From a man's shoulders one can stand with a foot on each, because they slope away from the vertical. One can now reach a ledge to the front and above one's head. A scramble lands one on a sort of terrace, a yard wide and two yards long.

"If the climber be alone, he can manage this first part by taking one of the neighbouring faces, where a clockless circle of stone provides the necessary holds.[3] Thus for the first twelve feet.

"The next twelve feet are the most difficult part of the climb. "There are windows on each face of the Tower. The Tower becomes a couple of yards narrower in diameter at the foot of these windows. Pillars rear up at the outside corners and are joined to the Tower by an arch of sloping stone, festooned on the upper side with ornamentations that should not be trusted too far. The difficulty is to get up the length of this pillar.

"At arm's length above, wedge-shaped tongues of stone pointed downwards give some help, but not a complete hold. D. recalls that he used back-and-knee methods, and the Guide to St. John's refers to this as an alternative way. The Guide prefers the method of getting on to the outside of the pillar and swarming up. Personally I used what I consider to be an easier way than either of these.

"The window was divided down the middle by a vertical bar of stone. From here to the pillar is just too broad for chimneying. Place a foot as high as possible on this bar. Then, making as much use as possible of the semi-hold above, place a foot on the pillar behind and straddle the gap. Although too broad for chimneying, it allows of this, and you can get a hold on the arch. From now on it is merely a wriggle to get on to the arch, and the rest of the way is practically a stone ladder to the pinnacle. Willy got two photographs.

"As we were moving back the clock struck twelve, and a porter moved about New Court, turning out the lights. Willy and I crouched behind battlements while John moved boldly along, visible in the lamplight or silhouetted against the sky. Nothing came of his intrepidity, although he sounded very loud to us as we crouched and listened.

"Coming down, the temptation is to take the left pipe, as it is more nearly over the bay window. Both Willy and John started with this error. Take the right (looking down) and you can use the top of the window as a foot-hold.

"We took over two hours over this climb, and did no more."

There is little to add, except that the three photographs taken were not good enough, and that six repetitions of the climb were needed to produce satisfactory results. On one occasion it was so dark in the chimney that the writer was unable to see his hand when be held it up in front of his eyes. On another occasion, in the early light of dawn, we saw a porter in Trinity standing by the river, looking at us. Hence the quotations at the beginning of this chapter. A rapid ascent of the Tower was made for a daylight photograph (shown in the frontispiece) and by an extremely rapid descent we were away in time. This was soon after two men had been rusticated for climbing King's Chapel, and the ascent of the last forty feet after he had been seen, with the prospect of a ninety foot descent before he could get away, was a good performance. The climber was in his last term, and desperately anxious not to be sent down, but he completed the job. On yet another occasion, in one of the deep rectangular cavities which occur periodically in the "bicycle track" to drain off the rain-water, we found a murdered swan. Stuffed awoy in the hole in the roof above the Bridge of Sighs with its neck lying along its back, it had been laid as far as possible from human gaze. The next time we visited the roof it had gone. Who had killed it, and why he had gone to so much trouble to conceal it, is a question that may never be answered. But since a climber would hardly be likely to climb up to the roof and haul up a dead swan for fifty feet after him, the finger of accusation points at the dons or porters. It reminds us of the old Limerick, known to most of the undergraduates of Cambridge:

There was a young man of St. John's Who tried to shoot one of the swans: The voice of the porter Cried, "Come out of the water, Those swans are reserved for the dons''.

Thus was a prophecy fulfilled in a most surprising manner.



These have since been removed.


The acquisition of this skirt recalls a pretty tale. We were talking in the Market Place to a prominent member of the C.U.B.C., a man of short stature but gigantic girth, when the said Dorothy came into sight. She did not know our companion, but politely stopped to pass the time of day. Hereupon inspiration seized us. We cried "Dorothy, can this man borrow your skirt?" and when the answer was a profuse blush we thought the abruptness of our question was the cause. However, the real cause transpired later. By a paltry eighteen inches the skin failed to girdle the strong man's waist, and someone else had to pose for the photograph.


A climber now in the Antarctic once saw in these blind clock-faces the means of a clever practical joke. One night he painted four dials in the place obviously meant to receive them, and the next day the Master sent for the head-porter to tell him that the clock on Now Tower had stopped. The porter promised to see to it, and sent a man up to see whether it merely needed winding up, or needed repairing. This man was the first to realise that there was no clock on New Tower. Legend says that the perpetrator of this joke, disguised as a travelling watch-maker offered to mend the clock for five shillings, and then painted the hands in a different position. He tells us that this legend is untrue, much as we would like to believe it.