Social Climbing

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When I was an undergraduate at Oxford, a friend was billeted at the top of the tall college gatehouse. The stairs to her room were so many that, in case of fire, a long rope, bolted to the wall and ending in a noose, was thoughtfully provided for descent to the street below. With no intercom at ground level, a social call became a real test of friendship. But why did I take the stairs when I could have been shinning up the stonework?

For some reason, the culture of night climbing never spread to Oxford. It seems to have begun in Cambridge at the start of the twentieth century, which saw the first published descriptions of the ‘Alpine Sports’ to be had on the slopes and peaks of old colleges. It has lived on to the present day, partly through student legend – one night climber from the 1970s spoke to me of the feeling that a challenge had been inherited – and partly through two samizdat handbooks: The Night Climbers of Cambridge (1937) by ‘Whipplesnaith’, and Cambridge Nightclimbers by ‘Hederatus’ (1970).

Below, the author and climber Robert Macfarlane describes Hederatus’ power to excite and incite. Whipplesnaith, however, remains the literary classic of night climbing, with his ability to take you up on the roofs in a few elegant sentences: ‘The sun is setting. Enthusiasts will now make a tour of some of the interesting climbs of Cambridge, we hope in fact as well as by the fireside. There is no moon, the sky is cloudy and the barometer is high. It will be a fine night.’

Seven decades on, Whipplesnaith’s sentences continue to issue their challenge to the young. A few months after an excellent reprint of the book in 2007, which restores several evocative lost photographs, the Dean of Trinity circulated an email in response to ‘renewed reports about roof climbing’ in the college, reminding ‘Junior Members’ of the hazard to ‘life, limb and fabric’.

Even for those with no head for heights, however

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About the contributor

Jeremy Noel-Tod comes from a long line of armchair night climbers: his great-uncle read Whipplesnaith at St John’s, and his father read Hederatus at Trinity.

Robert Macfarlane is the author of Mountains of the Mind and The Wild Places. He no longer climbs buildings, except by the stairs.

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