The Night Climbers of Cambridge
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The Night Climbers of Cambridge

"Whipplesnaith" (Noel H. Symington)
Oleander Press
Cambridge, England 2013

This has nothing whatsoever to do with sailing.

First published in 1937 with a small second edition in 1952, Night Climbers of Cambridge was an almost unobtainable cult classic until Oleander Press issued a new edition in 2007. More recently a digital edition has become available through Smashwords and the other digital outlets.

Little is known of the author other than he was at Cambridge in the 1930s and stood for Parliament on the Mosleyite ticket in 1950. His only other literary effort was as the 1958 publisher of Return to Responsibility: A New Concept of the Case for Fascism in the Post-War World. He died in 1970.

Night climbing as described in this book is the practice of climbing the walls, towers and spires of the colleges of Cambridge. It could be considered a variant of mountaineering, but there was little crossover between the two groups. Wilfrid Noyce of the first successful Everest expedition was up at Cambridge during the same time as Symington but there is no documentation that he was a night climber.

Most night climbers began their careers climbing into their colleges after the gates were closed at 10:00 in the evening. Almost every undergrad had to do this at one time or another, but a select few found the experience so stimulating that they went on to scaling the sheer walls and dizzying spires of the local halls, libraries and chapels. The two primary methods were shimmying up lead drain pipes and wedging up parallel walls, the mountaineering technique known as "chimneying." The book contains good technical detail on these methods. Most of the time this was ropeless free climbing, though on occasion a rope was used for protection - never as direct aid - and it is amazing that limbs were not broken and lives were not lost.

I might add that the book is copiously illustrated with photographs taken on the actual climbs, which adds greatly to its charm.

The following passage will give an idea of the quintessentially English eccentric character of the book:

There is a multitude of climbs in this, known indifferently as Lodge, or New Court. A number of ominous cracks run haphazard about the face of the building, but the stone is probably safe from a climbing point of view. A porter explained to us that the foundations of the building were inadequate; it is gradually subsiding, although quite new, and cracking as it goes. He also told us – informative fellow – that the name of the college was Pembroke, and Emmanuel was down the street. Because we asked for information, he took us for tourists. We thanked him.

It is not difficult to reach the roof in this court. We selected the north-east corner, and remember little of the climb except the last few feet. Here a broad ledge had to be surmounted without holds above until the bottom of the parapet could be reached. As it was in the corner this was easy, and the first climber, with his back to the corner, reached the roof in peace. The second climber, facing the corner, found himself looking at the ground through a crack in the ledge, reaching to the wall. It was a good tenth of an inch wide, just by his knee. With the memory of the Old Library still fresh in his mind, he wasted little time in joining his companion above. No photographs were taken of this climb.

At the top one can climb up to the ridge of the roof, going up squatting backwards in the corner. The method is to press upwards and outwards against the tiles, using the thumbs only. It would seem that this should press one downwards, and it requires thought to understand how the stresses work to produce the contrary effect.

Coming down from the ridge, it is quite amusing to go along to the western end of the court. This is a very strenuous business of surmounting gable after gable, rising and descending ten feet for every ten feet forward, and will be found exhausting. At the far end, after the corner, the balustrade bridges a gap of about ten feet in space. It can be crossed and exploration pursued, if one be so minded.

Our own party were not so minded. Deciding that they were tired after the ridge and furrow business (which was worse than beagling in a nightmare), they decided to enter the nearest window. It was just too narrow for them, and they wanted help from within to pull them through.

A call to a lighted window below produced the usual Pembroke request to "buzzer off ". At length a head appeared, and in a few moments five men were in the room above. Shedding superfluous garments, the two climbers managed to squeeze through.

They were warmly welcomed. Sherry was offered to them, and the traditional Pembroke salutation of a punch on the jaw was conspicuous by its absence. After suitable congratulations on their climb, they were asked if they knew an easy way into the college. The Bridge and such ways were no good; it must be suitable for evening dress. The only easy way had been sealed up the previous term.

Their hosts suddenly became coy, and produced a tin box. There was a fund – it was still in its infancy – for providing a new way in. The visitors contributed their mite, and as the fund reached the sum of five shillings a cheer was raised.

Pleasant and hospitable as were their hosts, they were fine young Englishmen of the best Pembroke type. One of them was in pyjamas; a friend – his best pal – had just poured a pint of beer over his trousers.

This is just my cup of tea, and I read the whole book through in a couple of days. It would not surprise me at all to find that the young climbers described in the book became sailors in their later days.

Reviewed by Paul M. Clayton