Steve Bowker on Swordfish.Photo: Al Leary
The venturing demanded by sea-cliffs feels quite different from inland climbing because you can't see the rock face before you have to start contending with gravity. You have only just parked the car, or breakfast is still a recent memory, and already you're having to find some way over the brink. The Good Book may encourage you with happy talk of reaching the foot of the cliff by 'scrambling down moderate standard rock' or even admit to 'tedious and at times mildly desperate descent'. The fact is,from above. all brinks are points and there is no telling whether the drop below is manageable or sheer?
From below, a small hold is the more friendly because from the moment you start to pull up on it your weight is creating friction, maximising leverage. Lower yourself onto that same hold and there is this gulp, this moment when you have to consign your body to the drop with minimal support. It grows on you, after a while the long stretchings downwards with the toes begin to feel like slow-motion dancing, and it's certainly the quickest way of limbering up the mind – of brusquely accustoming it to the day's chances.
Even when you have sussed the vertical maze, and you know how to reach this or that tidal ledge, how to avoid the coastguards' rubbish-tip and the hotel's sewage outlets, the sea-cliff still keeps- as you look up at it- a secret air. You have not been able to stare at it for an hour as you walked up the gully or across the corrie floor, identifying famous lines, eyeing up new possibilities (or impossibilities).
It is the very thickness of your native land, made visible for once, defended all along one side by that mobile sea which now quakes and tilts behind you, making your ears attend to its noise in case you have miscalculated the times of the tides. When Anne and I first climbed at Bosigran, north of Land's End, we made for the huge backbone of Commando Ridge, a dinosaur with its head lolling on steep grass slopes and its tail piercing the sea seven hundred feet below. `Very popular ... great fun in all weathers': oh good. 'The first pitch requires a calm sea': eh? In Cornwall clear weather and a low tide do coincide sometimes but, as often as not, in the middle of the night. As we nipped round the last joint of the dinosaur tail, the tide was filling and a brisk westerly threw white water up at our heels.
Anne likes to climb Very Difficult but the steep corner which is the only way out of the sea's reach felt more like Severe. She climbed it in the fluent surge that is sucked out of you by sensing that there is no other way (for eight or nine hours) to escape from the swim and churn of salt water and re-establish yourself in your homeland of heather, dry granite, and flowers yellow as butter. The sea is so alien, so hard to live in, so far (in our waters) below blood-heat. It swarms with life but, for animals formed to take in oxygen as a gas rather than dissolved in water, it is more like death – the 'cold obstruction' abhorred by Claudio in Measure for Measure. Once when I took a slalom canoe out into Loch Diabaig in Wester Ross, I dared to paddle between the last skerries dividing the haven from the outer sea. I saw the big slope of the ocean setting in, grey hills of water hulking up. abolishing the horizon, heaving past under me, and I felt balanced on the very fulcrum between being and not being, the above and the below.
I had never heard of that last pair of phrases or concepts until I found myself using them to epitomise my perception of a painting by Bill Peascod which hung in his sitting-room at Melbicks on the north-west slope of Skiddaw. It is a yard across and two feet high, big enough to embody the expanse of the elemental world. The upper third of the painting is made of watery ink-blues, the lower third of clay greys. Between them churns a zone of sand-browns, buffs, ochres, layered on by the palette knife in slices of acrylic. When I first took it in, in 1982 I told him how much I liked this seething stretch 'between the above and the below'. He seized on the phrase and told me it was in fact a concept in Zen Buddhism. I have always seen that painted vision of his as land and water mixed: below an overcast sky the percussion of the breakers stirs up the seabed and does away with the boundary between the waters and the earth. Bill felt he had been painting hills. In either case it is an image of world creating itself– the original flux, from which may emerge any and every one of those shapes which we then come to think as eternal because they outlast us.
At the very verge of the world we can inhabit naturally. sea-cliffs stand up, and as we come to know them, whether or not by climbing them, there can exist this sense that we are looking out from life into nothingness. In Cornwall the feeling is all stronger because out there, beyond eye shot, the sea loses itself over the curve of the earth. The Scillies are rarely visible. Wolf Rock lighthouse (nine miles out) epitomises with its dark slender vertical the human effort to stand against inchoate elements. This has been felt for centuries. On September 1743
John Wesley preached at Sennen just after sunrise to a congregation 'consisting chiefly of old, grey-headed men'.
We went afterwards, as far as we could go safely, towards the point of the rocks at the Land's-end. It was an awful sight! But how will these rocks melt away, when God ariseth to judgement!
Journal, Everyman ed., I, p 433
It's sublime, in its way, the crassness with which the true believer, powered by his vision, zooms right past the object of attention. For a moment Wesley is on the verge of reacting to what is there, a twinge of token thrill in the eighteenth-century traveller's manner, and then it's gone, and he can no longer see those blunt towers of granite glowing pale brass when the sun lights them directly, prows dividing the North Atlantic Drift, their roots in the sea, the salt spume rasping them till the crystals stand out faceted like gems: a landmark for the invaders from prehistoric Iberians to Athelstan the Saxon who finally defeated the Cornish at Boleit, the Field of Blood, a little north of Lamorna . . . All those strivings which the crag has stood for, people and elements with and against each other, are nothing in the sight of the zealot.
The rocks will outlast him, will they? Very well then, his god shall outlast the rocks! But however hard he shakes his fist at the gnarled world itself, however desperately he plies the wand of belief, the rock prevails, the chapels quarried out of it are converted to garages or holiday homes, and when these revert to cairns of scree with the last crumblings of our Civilisation, and there are no humans left to enlist imagined gods in the long struggle against nature, then the plied pinnacles along the coasts of west Penwith will still be raising their silhouettes against the gleaming sea.
In winter this everlasting atmosphere feels all the stronger because the swarms of people are not there, the social and the historical' shrink to a scattered presence, and the bareness of things comes through as an image of the not-yet-fully-created: leaves have only just evolved (hard, smooth, and salt-resistant for the most part) but not yet corn or flowers or fruits. The light seems new, uncertain, diffused through Gauls of moisture as though solidity was barely born. A bird-world, not vet mammal-world. On the arable plateau the plough land is monotony of primitive brown, a rich mineral mix still empty- any sprouting. When it is windless here in midwinter, the place more than ever like an unawakened void, the world on the second day, with a firmament dividing the waters, an evening an ' morning, but little else. Is there breath in nature's body? Can waters bring forth anything at all?
They can, they can bring forth seals. Soon after one New Year as Anne and I followed the North Cornwall Coastal Path from - Pendeen south towards Sennen, a round head gleamed up out of the sea, like water-polished rock but mobile. It turned this and that way, looking. We hollered to it and for over an hour two miles of walking) it followed us off-shore, diving occasionally coming up again for a look. We hallooed and hallooed and it did not go away until it seemed put off by the combers bursting_ Whitesands Bay and went down into the sea at the same time as the sun.
A day or two later another seal bobbed like flotsam in the sea that swelled up into a drawn at Pordenack Point where Rob and I were climbing comfortably in our shirtsleeves, finding our way up little ramps and clefts and zigzag chimneys blackened by the sea's iodine.
We could have felt like 'the first that ever burst into that silent sea' had it not been for one ordinary metal nut that someone (possibly Zeke Deacon the Marine climber) jammed into a crack for protection a generation before. moisture had fused it to the rock in a blob of orange. Apart from ourselves the seal was the only other evidence that temperatures could ever rise to blood-heat or animal life take shape in that huge twilight hollow of the cosmos.
Emma Alsford on B Team Direct:E1:Crickmail Point.Photo Al Leary
The midwinter trance in west Penwith, if it occurs. momentous partly because any calm down there is a lull cyclonic onslaughts. The energy of the wind is manic, inextricable. The exact point where it peaks lies on the boundary between and the above, the climax of the updraught. Further down the cliff it may be possible to live and climb in the wind provided you choose a moment of slackening between gusts.lift a foot from a hold and raise it onto the next one. And on the plateau you can get used to a gale by shouting instead of speaking and leaning instead of standing. But what Yeats called "The haystack- and roof-levelling wind, Bred on the Atlantic' becomes impossible at the cliff edge where, deflected by the two hundred-foot thickness of the granite, it accelerates upwards, tearing out clumps of sea-thrift, scouring crumbs of earth into a brown blizzard, sending the surf from the base of the cliff, where it quakes in a dense white mass like milk half-churned to butter,to blow in clots across the plateau up above. We first saw this during a late October week on Lundy, eleven miles out into the Bristol Channel, north of Hartland Point near Bideford. Force seven to force nine gales dominated us for six days on end.
We were staying in the Old Light, a great Victorian tower which had failed as a lighthouse because its head was buried so often in fog. All that week, as we rounded the base of the empty tower going anti-clockwise with the gale behind us, we were forced to run headlong. Suddenly, as you met the airstream pouring round the far side, you were stopped dead and had to force yourself forwards, head down. The froth was blowing clean across the saddle of the island, four hundred feet above sea level, in ghostly clumps like tumbleweed.
One afternoon, as the gale rose to the 'sea-wind scream' described by Yeats and fumes of sulphur dioxide choked us as flames blew right out of the iron stove's little door, we all went mad to experience the wind, to drink it, eat it, embrace it. We ran down to the cliff top nearest the old Light, between Black Crag and Pilot's Quay. You could only make headway by leaning forward, face three feet from the ground, and staggering in a long dive. At the edge normality disappeared entirely. Neil was barely recognisable, his hair racing off his head in a solid blond stream, his face squared out sideways like a rubber mask, his eyelids puffing and trembling –the grimace of the ejecting pilot in Life magazine's famous photos. Gravity became secondary and we could lean out over he edge, wind-supported, and peer straight down at the waves ramping below, their white limbs clambering up the cliff as though a tribe of polar bears were coming at us.
Two days before, we had seen a flight of curlews, flocked for winter feeding, come hurtling over the island. They should have stayed in the quiet lee of the East Midlands, a zone of deep bracken mulch, wild rhododendrons in Asiatic luxuriance, and plinths of granite where the seals haul out to bask. The moment the updraught caught them they were forced to behave like gulls. changing course at obtuse angles, heeling to flee downwind, the leading edge of each wing sharpening to an apex as they 'bent like an iron bar slowly', in Hughes's marvellous image of the windblown black backed gull. How to climb when you could scarcely walk? Yet, as we abseiled cautiously down the chute of gravel and sea-thrift next to the Devil's Slide on the west coast, a sheer plane of granite that slopes four hundred feet from sea to summit, symmetrical as some great ceremonial ramp in a Maya temple, everything became less cold and easier near the tidemark. as though we had passed inside the wind and were looking out through the storm's eyes. And so we padded upwards, clumsy baboons in treble jerseys, to the horizontal break at half-height, a serrated ledge upholstered with thrift which deflates the climb a little because you can step for a moment out of the precarious world. As I stand there, waiting for Neil to come up on the rope. I chat with Norman, who's climbing the Devil's Slide route proper with Terry. Norman is fond of dry quips - you can tell when one is coming because his grizzled beard begins to twitch.In answer to the standard climber's call, 'Is that you?' - meaning `Has the rope come tight between us?' - he's been known to answer, 'Who else would it be?' On this occasion, as the wind cuts through our woollens, I say, `It's colder up here. That wind's finding the bone.' `That's the trouble about climbing with poets he says. 'They make everything sound worse.'
Neil leads as the slab steepens, up the line called Satan's Slip The book has told us that it's 'protected solely by a bolt'. The air has eroded this to nothing but Neil finds placements for six small nuts on wire, some barely sunk in the cracks but two so good that they have to be knocked out with a krab and a Cassin peg: finicky dental work in the shuddering cold, like performing an operation at sea or trying to mend a cathedral roof in winter.
To make headway upwards, finger ends must hook into little holes no bigger than a five-pence piece, better than nothing but useless for the feet, and all this delicate balancing and frictioning begins to feel weirdly furtive, as though we're tiptoeing so as not to let the wind know we're here. Gradually we near the granite bird totem to which the Slide tapers at its summit; from the south it looks like a cartoon sculpture of a cliff-dwelling bird, as though nature has contrived a memorial to the puffins which have now almost deserted the island that was named after them.
We had heard the gale scream once before, as we lay sleeping in our frame tent on August 11 1979, at our camp in the field at Boleigh which we later learned was the very site of that last defeat of the Cornish by the Saxons in 931. Anne and I could not believe that the straight walls of the tent would stand against the demonic battering. I had laid an old telephone pole on the hem of the windward side with its metal steps sticking into the turf to prevent it rolling. Moon-shadows streamed and writhed wildly on the cloth above our heads and the whole little home-from home was bellying and creaking like a windjammer about to founder. But it held out all night, we were saved by the slope of the field to the west where tall standing stones lean – the Pipers, where Athelstan may or may not have placed himself to observe the armies grappling. In the morning, under a sky blown by the gale into a great dome of blue glass, we went along to Sennen and stood with hundreds of others watching the sea lay on a spectacle.
Beyond the horizon dozens of yachts in the Fastnet race were foundering and dismasting. Here at our feet the waves were lifting in blossom-trees of white foam. It streamed in rills off the crown of the famous climb called Demo, which starts ten feet above mid-tide and rises for another seventy. When we did it the week after, we could understand why the layer of black schorl veneered onto the granite of the final slab is fretted into shapes like the flakes of bark on a pine trunk.
On Lundy the gale began to seem as permanent as our own lungs breathing. It made communication impossible as Terry, Norman and I tried to thread our way up the climb called Cable Way, on Montague Buttress where a battleship was wrecked in 1906. For nearly twenty years they worked to salvage what they could, building a giant ladder of two-inch steel hawser with plank steps. The ruptured, rusting tendons of it still loll down the cliff. After losing my way and making an involuntary Very Severe variant that I called Bad Connection, I belayed onto a cable-end to bring the others up. The thrumming of the hawser in the gale, transmitted along the rope to my waist, was as unsettling as though the planet was shaking loose or working itself up to an earthquake.
For six days the environment was all antagonism and we went out to accept it and make the most of it. Even on the lee side, as Anne and I climbed Gannet Traverse at the north end, spiralling round the buttress below mouthed and horned gargoyles bearded with lichen, the sky sent hail showers to rattle off our helmets and rasp the green sea dark mussel-blue. The church itself was threatening to come unstuck – the gawky, semi-derelict advertisement for defunct ideals which the wonderfully named Reverend H. G. Heaven had commanded to be built ninety years before, importing bricks and stone to an island whose main export was granite. As we walked under the east wall after a wet gale had driven us off a fine route called Ulysses Factor near the Devil's Limekiln, we saw that the clock face was shattered and fallen slates littered the grass, some driven in edge ways. What a way to go, we fantasised – your skull split by one of the Reverend Heaven's slates, as though God had reached down His hand to fell a passing atheist.
But there is no divinity in the storm, it is pure energy issuing from the maelstrom of matter, you can work with it or let it envelop you, and it was in this spirit five years later that Anne and I stood at the top of Sennen cliffs again, on the crag called: in Cornish Pedn-Men-Du. A strange south-easterly gale was blowing, in January, straight up the coast. By wave refraction this bent the sea inwards against the land and, as we watched, the waters rose in a ridge with a tossing top, the white hair blown sideways off it as it came towards us. Sixty feet below was granite stage where you sort your gear before climbing Demo.A broad wedge has been bitten out of it, this is what focuses the waves and forces them skywards. Now the foam-trees were blossoming again, improbably high up into the air, and this was going to be a big one. Shep stood well back from the edge while his humans got ready to be silly yet again.
The wave hit the face of the rock-stage, burst in a white explosion, swelled on into the vee, and levitated. The gale caught the head of spume and blew it at us. Behind it Long ships lighthouse disappeared. Steeply above us the air filled with grey bees, swarming, coagulating, swooping onto us, hitting me with a solid impact as I turned my shoulder against it to protect my camera, drenching me instantly to the skin.
Lands End: Cornwall