“At this very moment there may be a dozen climbers on the buildings of Cambridge. They do not know each other; they are unlikely to meet. And inadvertently they will find what we procured, a adore for the buildings and the clambers upon them, a love for the night and the thrill of darkness.”
This is the passage that concludes The Night Climbers of Cambridge, a 1937 book that remains an influence on those with a head for altitudes in this famously low-lying city.
The tome describes a familiar skyline: the four perforate steeples of King’s College Chapel, the tower of St John’s, the pale Portland stone of the Senate House.
And for decades, a clandestine group has sought distraction from the boredom of study by scaling some of these landmarks.
“If you like mountaineering or rock climbing, Cambridge is perhaps the worst place throughout the whole of Britain to be, ” says Tom Whipple – now science editor at The Times – who tiptoed from all the regions of the rooftops as a restless maths student in 2000.
“I’m used to modern plastic drainpipes, but these were really sturdy cast-iron ones – you could get your hands behind them and climbing.
“Sitting up there in the haze, the clocks are sounding midnight; you cannot see anything of the modern world.
“You flatter yourself; you feel part of this secret culture, this continuum. I was hooked.”
Whipple talks of abseiling into the Trinity Ball in a dinner jacket – and the kudos to be gained from “leaving a wheelie bin on New Hall dome”.
“The fear of being caught was more intense than the fear of injury, ” says Rebecca Wetten, who studied biography of art between 2010 and 2014.
She says her favourite ascents were at the New Museums Site and the Faculty of History, which is noted for its resemblance to an open notebook.
“None of the climbs requirement special material but you worked out a pattern to them; you needed all individuals who knew the lane and would help you figure out shortcuts. That’s why it was good to do it as a pair.”
And although the states members of a sorority isn’t required in order to partake in this renegade pastime, it does appear there is a shadowy group dedicated to nighttime climbing.
A reporter with Cambridge student newspaper The Tab, who in March 2016 followed a small working group on the rooftops, claimed to have appreciated a list of 24 initiation questions for nighttime climbers who hoped to join trade secrets society dedicated to the practice.
These ranged from “How close have you come to dying? “, “Do “youve been” have to consciously prevent yourself from intentionally jumping when you find yourself standing on a cliff or rooftop? “, to the apparently irrelevant: “What do you are aware of central banking and currency constitutions? “
Looking up at the rooftops, tourist Leo Hayes, 70, who is visiting Cambridge from Ireland, is incredulous to learn of the activity. “Just a single word: mad, ” he says.
“Risk your life for nothing except a dare? Hopping between buildings? Crazy.”
In 1899, British mountaineer and poet Geoffrey Winthrop Young was the first person to certificate the activity in his notebook The Roof-Climber’s Guide to Trinity, written in part as a parody of an alpine guidebook.
The third edition in 1960, revised by Richard Williams, describes the practice as “like cat burglary, but without the robberies”.
But 1937 ‘s The Night Climbers of Cambridge, by Whipplesnaith – the pseudonym of the author Noel Howard Symington – is the publication that is credited with inspiring generations of night climbers.
It describes in detail the roads up particular colleges – and indeed the routes off them: the “Senate House leap” is obtained by jumping across the 6ft( 1.8 m) breach between the roof of Gonville and Caius College and the neighbouring Senate House.
Jon Gifford, of Oleander Press, which reprinted afterwards publications of Whipplesnaith’s guide, says the task has “great literary appeal”, with language that’s “evocative of another age”.
“It is melodious and romantic, ” he says. “The thrill of being alive and one with nature, in many ways.
“But it was also about civil disobedience, letting off steam, about gambling lives.”
Tom Whipple, who was given a emulate by “his fathers”, recollects a particular passing with fondness: “As furtively as the bats of twilight, they shun the eyes of the world, going on their mysterious passages and retiring as calmly as they set out.”
Whipplesnaith likewise writes of injured backs and torn trousers, of near misses and scorched hands – although no-one is known to have been seriously injured or killed.
Two students were rusticated, or rejected, by their colleges for clambering King’s College Chapel in June 1937.
Another two were also “sent down” in the early 1960 s when he was caught by police was seeking to scale the Senate House.
“One moment we were protected, isolated students, the next we had been abandoned, jobless, penniless in the last stages of a degree course, ” one of them wrote.
The Fleet Street photographer and filmmaker John Bulmer – an engineering undergraduate between 1957 and 1960 – was “asked to leave” King’s College six weeks before his finals after one of his images “caused upset” when it appeared on the front of The Sunday Times.
“It was a photo of a climber on King’s College Chapel window. I was hauled up before the proctors, ” he recollects.
“The college was dissatisfied that I was investing more day on photography than my studies.”
The image is a component of specific features written for Life magazine, which witnessed Bulmer, armed with a Canon 35 mm and “big old-fashioned flashbulbs”, following Cambridge’s night climbers.
“It was challenging, but the aim with any photograph is always to kick the viewer in the gut, ” he says.
These periods, Cambridgeshire Police “strongly discourages” these best practices on security dirts, however such forces says that no violation is being committed by night climbers, as long as impair isn’t caused to the buildings.
The Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents has previously forewarned urban climbers not to tell an “appetite for adventure” override safety concerns. It points out that any collision alters is not merely the climber, but the families of such, the emergency services and staff who work on the sites.
Trespassing, police say, is largely a civil offence, although darknes climbing can be considered a “public nuisance”.
That’s surely how it must have seemed to the university over its first year – although it declined to comment for this article.
In June 1958, a battered Austin 7 appeared on the roof of the Senate House overnight.
Seven years later, a flag speaking “Peace in Vietnam” was attached to the lightning rods on the steeples of King’s College Chapel.
And in November 2009, climbers scaled an 80 ft( 24 m) external wall of the chapel to tie four Santa hats on the pinnacles.
Ian Gray, the porter at King’s at the time, “says hes” and the college chaplain moved up on to the roof to try to poke off the gala headgear with a stick.
“As it transpired the hats were on the very top of the steeples and there was no way us less daring sorts were going to go up there and get them down, ” he says.
“I remember at the time just saying, ‘wow – that is quite a feat’.”
In the end, a steeplejack had to “rescue each one in turn at great expense”.
Andy Buckley , now a particle physicist at the European Organization for Nuclear Research, was a night climber during his time as a physics student between 1997 and 2005.
By the time he had arrived at Cambridge, the contour of the colleges had just changed from the days of Winthrop Young, although CCTV cameras have been installed, as have wall-top spikes in a bid to deter nocturnal ascents.
“I was secretary of the climbing society at the university, and it had this old work about nighttime climbing, and I thought it was a good yarn, ” he says.
“A lot of the building wield was decomposing and I felt bad about the possibility of injury them. But you are able shinny up the drainpipe and get a terrific belief into the inner sanctum of the university.
“You feel very disclosed up there but you hear the structures very differently.”
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