This account of my earliest rock climbing experiences was written after the publication of 'While Giants Sleep' but is very much of a piece with that anthology and therefore this blog feels like its natural home
1964. She loves you. Yeah, yeah, yeah.
I had joined the church youth club down among the tightly terraced houses near Weymouth railway station not to find God but to meet girls. My friend Colin told me that the girls there were less restrained than our grammar school contemporaries but that the price to be paid for access to these temptations was the mid-evening coffee break. At around half past eight, Bob, the young curate who ran the club, began scraping the wooden chairs back into rows, barring the clanking, heavy exit door with no more than a keen eye and a chilling charm. The tap and cluck from the table tennis room died away and we sat, avoiding his glance, beneath the buzz of a yellow strip light while Bob dispensed spiritual guidance for the stipulated fifteen minutes.
Wearingly-familiar Bible stories gained some lift, however, when Bob forced them into the world we tried to claim as ours. Frank had been coming to know the Lord, he told us, he really had, in the days before his huge Norton roared from the road splintering a row of fence posts before its fatal impact with the telegraph pole. The evening when the snooker tables crashed onto their sides and the billiard balls ricocheted and whined against the tiled walls and flagstone floors, Bob strode between them parting the sea of missiles. He halted hostilities by dragging out a large, dusty gymnasium mat, as brown and bristly as a fox. ‘Queensberry rules chaps. No punching or biting, no knees and no hitting below the belt.’ First he took on one ringleader, circling in an almost polite fashion until the first engagement, the assault on balance, the thud of bodies against the floor, the assertion of strength and the weakening in one shoulder and then the other. Afterwards, blood, sweat, spittle and torn clothes with Bob extending a handshake, wiping his mouth and then turning to repeat his challenge to the other gang leader.
No milk and water respectability, this. No Holy Joe, genteel and practiced among his catechisms.
Bob’s curriculum vitae was transcribed directly from the adventure stories of my childhood – public school, Cambridge, the Marines with whom he had crossed the Sahara and become a rock climber and mountaineer. Divinity college. Not one glimpse of any such experiences in all my years growing up in Corporation Road, nor across the whole of the Westham Estate. My friend Colin and I became willing recruits as seconds on the rope as Bob explored the untouched sea cliffs at Lulworth Cove and Portland. We were
conscientious students in matters of the waist belay and bowline, the three points of contact with the rock, the superiority of balance over brute strength and the careful footwork.
He sparred, to my delight, in the correspondence columns of the Dorset Evening Echo with Mr Plant, the local coast guard:
sheer irresponsibility, treacherous terrain, endangering others
the spiritual need for unimpeded adventure, the full exploration of one’s limits.
The thrill of debate, the ripostes and the counter-arguments.
over-stretched rescue services, the duty to set an example
clashing directly with
teamwork and the ultimate level of trust, skills chiseled during disciplined apprenticeships, the testing of character.
I had always avoided the clubs and organisations designed to deliver a disciplined experience of adventure to young people. The enthusiasts for the Scouts I had known in my younger years were most often the boys with a profligate strength, the fighters. The later enthusiasts for the Duke of Edinburgh award, on the other hand, were the supporters of order and leadership, of Queen, country and the responsibly-constructed outdoor latrine.
Perhaps it was the daily expounding of my father’s too ready support for his wartime experiences in the RAF, the imposition of a firm military order giving him the best days of his life. Or maybe it was my mother’s unhappy experiences with the various church clubs and societies she enthusiastically signed up for only to scurry quickly away after some early tiff or altercation with another of their members. But whatever made me wary and suspicious did not apply out on the cliffs.
Standing with Colin on a small ledge above a sullen, restless sea on one of our first trips, no escape but upwards, I could hear Bob above us hammering in a piton that would provide a secure anchor for the three of us, his voice booming in full song and the blows of metal on metal providing cold chinks of accompaniment.
‘For - those - in – thwack – per – il – thwack – on – the sea - thwack’.
Here was adventure devoid of the smothering oversight of institutions. No packs, or troops or gangs. High stakes on walls of sea-scoured limestone. No hierarchies, no accrediting bodies, the only disciplinary forces, God and gravity.
Only in his mid-twenties, hospital visiting and a subsidiary role at evening service were insufficient to keep Bob in Weymouth and he was away within a year or so to the new challenge of running a Boys Club in Bermondsey. A year later, aged seventeen, Colin and I hitched there. Along the line of shuttered warehouses down from Tower Bridge at night, Earth had not anything to show more menacing or more frightening. In an empty light early the next morning, the city already in motion along its streets and river, we each requisitioned a best fit set of equipment from the club’s store room – boots, anorak, sleeping bag and inflatable mattress – and set the compass further north, the furthest in this direction ever for me, to the recently opened M1. Running in his new yellow Ford Anglia at speeds never in excess of forty miles an hour, we were heading into thinly sketched mountain marvels. The fourth member of our party was Eric, a young man probably no more than ten years our senior, whom Bob had first met as a regular inmate on his rounds of visiting at Dorchester gaol.
After a whole day, we arrived in Snowdonia. Driving through the Nant Ffrancon Pass, looking for the track down to our barn, massive hillsides scooped the single road and rose in slides of scree and rubble. Buttresses of the deepest Celtic green, rough ground tumbling out of the mist and down to the valley floor, these were landscapes beyond anything I had ever imagined. Our base - our lives - for the next week.
Eric’s eyes followed another waterfall upwards, its source hidden in the sky.
‘Thuck-in nell, Bob. Look at those bath-tuds.’
Silence from the driver. Mortification from the other passengers.
‘Caw, thuck me!’
‘The ears, Eric. Getting a little red.’
‘What? Oh! Oh, thuckin nell, Bob, thorry.’
All week heavy mist and cloud dominated the valley, each morning their insolent parade around and between the isolated farm dwellings and the bluffs of inhospitable ground. In the barn, we attempted to prepare meals over primus stoves, the smell of the meths never completely absent, the pans never fully free from the burned-on remnants of our previous efforts. Bob modelled orderly living among the privations. Each evening, after soakings and exhaustion on the hills, he led a session of prayers accompanied by mugs of cocoa. Nobody dared raise the possibility of a lift to the village pub.
On our final day, we attempted a rock climbing route on Lliwedd, a mountain composed of north-facing cliffs and buttresses. Some years later, when I met a wider circle of contemporary climbers, I learned that this abandoned place had once been a favoured haunt of that generation of pioneers from the 1920s and 1930s, men with a vanished ethic of risk and hardship.
We were only two or three rope lengths up the route, about two hundred and fifty feet, and I was standing alone in snow left over from the winter on a tiny ledge, when the exposure took a grip on me. To either side, un-climbable walls thinning out into nothingness. The line by which we had just ascended disappeared quickly into cloud beneath our feet. Improbably steep rocks above looked just passable, at least for the few feet into which visibility extended. As soon as somebody climbed into the mist, their voice was snatched away by the sideways buffeting of the wind. Out of contact, except for the wet rope around my back and wrists, the void in front and beneath, the hopeless features of the rock walls all around, I was incarcerated on this tiny, snowbound stance, held in by emptiness and despair.
As my turn to climb again arrived, my resolution dissolved into the vast indifference of the landscape, the dripping rock pillars, the patches of stale snow, the grey tumult above, below and to my sides. There was the best part of another thousand feet of this, continuing upwards, further and further from safe, solid ground. I was already shaking before the needles of cold began to explore each point of entry into my clothing, shivering at the lost hope of ever feeling safe again. Part of me wanted to jump, to untie my waist belay and cast free, to end the accumulating sense of hopelessness. Part wanted to blame Bob or kick at the rock and withered heather. I could only just bite back the adolescent howl that said I wanted to end it all, a howl that nobody would hear.
When I reached Bob he was hunched up against the weather, bringing in the rope, and still smiling.
‘I’m sorry, Bob. I can’t …. I just don’t think I can …. I’m sorry, Bob.’
He seemed to appraise the situation quickly, made some mental calculations, and decided it would be best if we abandoned the route and attempted to reverse the climb.
‘I can’t lower you, you’ll have to climb down. But I can give you a nice tight rope’.
Miserable and fearful, I forced myself backwards off the ledge, my boots sliding and scraping in their search for holds. I looked back up to Bob as if there were something else he could do.
‘Don’t worry, Andy. God loves you.’