Saturday, November 03, 2007

The Night Climbers

Tom Whipple at the Sunday Times on a magical secret society:
For my first six months at university an antique book, battered and tattered, sat unopened on my bookshelf. The Night Climbers of Cambridge, published in 1937, has a lot to say about drainpipes.

“The drainpipe is the most urgent thing to be mastered by the beginner,” an opening section explains, before describing in detail how to achieve that mastery.

Seventy years on, the book that many regard as the forerunner of the urban sports of free-running and building climbing — not to mention one of the first climbing guidebooks published — has just been reissued by Oleander.

My copy was a present from my father. With a look of conspiratorial glee, he had thrust it into my hand on the day I left for university. Then I promptly forgot it.

But the Night Climbers is too much a part of Cambridge folklore to remain forgotten for long. When a friend in the mountaineering club breathlessly passed on rumours of a guidebook — long out of print — that described routes up every building in Cambridge, I returned to my bookshelf and began to read.

Written by the pseudonymous “Whipplesnaith” (no relation), Night Climbers is a lot more than a guide for climbing the colleges of Cambridge. It is also a ripping Boy's Own romp, with climbers pictured performing heroic feats of derring-do when “as furtively as the bats of twilight, they shun the eyes of the world, going on their mysterious journeys and retiring as quietly as they set out”. What 18-year-old would not want to be part of such a society?

With the Night Climbers as my guide, I headed into the Cambridge night. After drainpipes came the easier buildings — Fitzwilliam Museum, Caius College Old Library. I soon learnt to deal with college countermeasures, with revolving spikes on fences and downward-pointing spikes on popular routes.
Shades of Roofworld! Hmmm, I really do not want to master drainpipe climbing, but certain kinds of story give me an almost irresistible urge to cast aside all my worldly responsibilities and sit down to write a novel, and this is a good instance of such a story...


  1. This story has delighted me all day.

    I was glad to find a copy of the book is available online:

    -- CAAF

  2. At a conference I was at a few years ago Alan Garner told a handful of us a story of his Oxford days that ended with him climbing down a drainpipe and stepping on C. S. Lewis's bald head.

  3. That is a delightful anecdote! I love Alan Garner, too...