Whipplesnaith, The Night Climbers of Cambridge
Barbara Vine, Grasshopper

Don’t try this at home. Or rather, don’t try it in Cambridge. The Night Climbers of Cambridge circulated in samizdat form for a while, and a copy in the University Library could be consulted by special permission, but has now been reprinted. It is a guide to how to ascend various buildings in the city by external routes, based on the exploits of a group of climbers in the 1930s and illustrated with photographs.

Detailed instructions on how to achieve various climbs are interspersed with accounts of cat-and-mouse games with College porters and other anecdotes (the footnote to p. 156 is particularly entertaining, even if one can see the punchline coming way in advance). The style parodies that of guidebooks of the day: ‘We go to Trinity, the aristocrat of the college climbing-grounds’.

The pièce de résistance is of course King’s College Chapel. The caption to a photograph of the ascent of a pinnacle ends: ‘With three simultaneous grips for the rest of the way up the climb is safe’. Here I can only quote from Douglas Adams: ‘This must be some strange use of the word safe I wasn’t previously aware of’.

Many a night-climber’s career started by climbing into College after it was locked for the night, but other aspects of life in those days, such as patrolling policemen, seem almost as outdated. A Night Climbers’ Society, with its own tie, still existed around 1990 (I knew the President slightly) but little actual climbing appeared to go on by then.

Did this happen at Oxford too, or was it one of those things like circus skills which Cambridge in particular goes in for? The Oxford equivalent seemed to be navigating mysterious subterranean waterways, and if the Oxford Today letters page is to be believed, at one time most of the men and quite a lot of the women had a go at it.

The characters in Grasshopper also go in for climbing on roofs, though they normally get there from dormer windows, which I expect their Cambridge equivalents would disdain. If you enjoyed King Solomon’s Carpet, you’ll probably enjoy this novel too, set in Maida Vale.

I repeat: these exploits are not to be emulated by the reader. But I’m now going to look at a lot of old buildings in a rather different way.

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