Friday, 11 February 2011

Lakeland Pioneer- Bill Peascod

Bill Birkett is one of the UK's most respected outdoor photo-journalists.His walking and climbing books have become a fixture on the bookshelves of outdoor activists and lovers of the Lake District throughout the world, with his articles and photographs regularly featuring in the outdoor media. As a member of the famous Birkett Clan....it was father Jim,a quarryman,who established the Birkett name with his cutting edge exploits on Lakeland rock in the 1930/40/50's....son Bill not surprisingly picked up the baton and by the 1970's had become an established hard new router himself.As part of a talented South Lakes based team,Bill played his part in pushing up the standards of Lakeland climbing with routes like 'Fear and Fascination' and 'Broken Arrow' both (E5-6a:US 5.12a)which became benchmark climbs for aspiring hard men...and women!

Nephew Dave Birkett has carried on the tradition and established himself as one of the UK's leading pure rock climbers.Creating routes which lie at the limits of technicality.
Further information about the author can be gleaned on Bill's website.

Twilight's last gleaming: Don Whillans leads the first pitch of Colin Kirkus' classic 'Great Slab' on Clogwyn du Arddu with Bill Peascod on belay.Moments after the photograph was taken,Bill had succumbed to a massive heart attack and passed away.Six months later,Don Whillans was also dead.Photo Bill Birkett Collection©

It takes a man with a special kind of dedication to climb in an unpopular area, on cliffs that are large and serious due to their remoteness, looseness and vegetation. Bill Peascod was such a man. Hailing from West Cumberland, he became known for his development of the north-western fells. Previously untouched and relatively unknown there lay hidden, in this the most beautiful part of Lakeland, some large and major crags. He became respected for his bold and unprotected leads, his physical strength and his depth of personality. Naturally strong, he started work at the coal face and developed his physical strength even further by a dedicated programme of weight training.

As for his personality, he is a rare man, being both a chartered mining engineer and an internationally renowned artist. Leaving Britain in 1952 he began a new life in Australia and inevitably pioneered a number of routes over there. Recently he returned to the Lake District and intends to open an arts/adventure centre near Bassenthwaite. I have little doubt it will succeed. Bill was born in industrial West Cumberland, in the town of Maryport, on 3rd May 1920. Living in Workington when a schoolboy, he remembers frequenting the library virtually even-day, withdrawing a book, reading it and returning it the same day. He was an avid young reader. It was here, reading O. G. Jones's marvellous book Rock Climbing in the English Lake District and the Abraham publications, that he was given the incentive to take up rock climbing for himself.

He started work in the West Cumbrian coal pits at the age of fourteen, where hard work produced stamina and physical strength. At the age of sixteen he was walking into the Lakes, and the magic of his local Cumberland Fells enchanted him. These were "good walks". Starting from Workington he would walk to Grassmoor via Loweswater, climb Lorton Gully to the summit o f Grassmoor and return to Workington in the same day. Butter-mere seemed to have an irresistible draw for Bill, and he would visit there and return via Ennerdale to his home in Workington. There were good thirty-mile trips, involving many miles cat ascents and descents. Scrambling led to climbing, and he remembers soloing gullies, optimistically trailing a fifty-foot rope behind him, hoping it would 'catch' if he fell off.

Struggling to find companions on these outings, he remembered just how incompatible climbing and living in a local mining community were. Believe it or not- and I can confirm this whole - heartedly--being born and bred in Little Langdale—locals regarded venturing onto the hills as an oddity and just "bloody daft", so Bill would hide his climbing rope at the bottom of his rucksack. It was returning from one of his marathon walks and some three miles outside Workington. that he was passed by a bus containing the local Rambling Club. The bus stopped, and from then on Bill was not without people of like mind.

He remembers one of his first climbs to be Stack Ghyll (HS) on the Haystacks-Buttermere, and in this horrendously loose route his fingers were smashed by a falling boulder. Laid off work, he was in no way deterred; in fact his appetite for Buttermere climbing became insatiable. Later, on Haystacks with S. B. Beck, he pioneered Y Gully (VS), a frightening piece of climbing. Ray McHaffie made the second ascent of the Gully and the first winter ascent—he reckoned it was easier in winter! Summer ascents can be counted on the fingers of one hand. S. B. Beck told me that he thought at the time that, if he was lucky enough to get out of the Gully alive (he did not think he would), he would never climb again. Of course he did and accompanied Bill on many more first ascents.

Bill's Lakeland pioneering activities began with a couple of rather minor sorties on Round Howe, a delightfully remote and compact little crag lying at the extreme head of the Buttermere Valley. Chimney Route (VD) and Central Route (MS) were done in 1939 and 1940 respectively.
Young and fearless, his next new route was very different: in 1940 he tackled the big dank and impressive Eagle Crag. Eagle towers over Birkness Combe on the west side of the Buttermere Valley. It is a major crag, some five hundred feet high, and is comparable with the best in the Lakes.'Far East Buttress' was the route. It is graded VS and is at the top of this grade.

Until this event Eagle had remained remote, almost unnoticed by the busy climbing world of Langdale and Wasdale. It is true that Piggot had first breached Eagle's defences in April 1925, providing a route he named Western Buttress Ordinary (HS), and Cross, with Kelly and party, had produced routes, notably Double Cross Routes (VS), 1937, but these climbs did not have the same purposefulness of line.

Bill Peascod leads the final pitch of his classic VS-Eagle Front:B Birkett©

The following week Border Buttress (HS) and 'Eagle Girdle' (VS) were put up. Then on 23rd June one of Lakeland's great routes was produced. 'Eagle Front' (VS), five hundred feet, forced its way up the main buttress. It was the best and hardest climb in Buttermere at that time, and it remains a superb climb today.
Only four weeks later Peascod was back again, accompanied, as on the preceding climb, by S. B. Beck. They climbed the main buttress again by a very serious route named 'Fifth Avenue' (320 feet). It is graded VS in the guide but I think HVS is the more appropriate grade. The crux pitch involves a 150-foot run-out of rope; it is hard, and the holds are sloping, a thoroughly frighten­ing piece of climbing. When Bill led it, he was climbing into the unknown, with no protection and on belays that were hopelessly inadequate. This was certainly one of the most impressive Lake District leads. He was only twenty years old at the time, and many fruitful years lay ahead.

After Eagle Crag, Bill turned his attention to the nearby Grey Crag, with sorties onto High Crag, the massive Haystacks, and Yew Crag—all in his beloved Buttermere Valley. Then in 1946 he started the development of Buckstone Howe with the notable `Sinister Grooves' (VS). This crag is impressively situated among the slate works above Honister Pass. It dries quickly and can be reached in ten minutes' easy walk from the road. The rock is slate, the crag being surrounded with a fascinating tapestry of industrial archaeology, and requires cunning and careful ue. It is a fitting crag for a mining engineer to develop. The crag and the climb are so good that it is almost inconceivable that it had been by-passed by all previous climbers. Jim Birkett, a quarryman, lived (the youth hostel used to accommodate the quarry workman in the 1940s) and worked at Honister for a number ofyears, yet he never even looked at Buckstone Howe!

Groove Two (VS) followed, and this was a technical master­piece. Many present-day leaders fail to enter the final groove. I rate it at least 5A technically, and these days, although protectable with micro nuts, it is still a demanding lead. In 1951, Cleopatra (VS) was forced; again the VS grade seems inappropriate—I would certainly give it an HVS grade. The climb itself is just excellent and has been described as the first modem roadside classic climb. A classic route is one, whatever its grade, that can be chosen from an era and represents all that is best about that era. The designation 'classic' guarantees that the route will be of high quality and will be enjoyable—like a good piece of music or a twelve-year-old bottle of malt whisky. Cleopatra is superb: it gives technical and challenging climbing on tight slate.

Another impressive and major crag was opened up by Peascod in 1946. This was again called Eagle Crag, but this crag is situated above Langstrath in Borrowdale. The month was June and in the space of two weeks Falconer's Crack (VS), the Great Stair (MVS) and Postern Gate (HS) were climbed. Almost unbelievably, again from a crag unclimbed on before, Peascod produced three excellent climbs of their grade. Falconer's Crack remains the classic of the crag. I remember a few years ago (I was fifteen at the time), I was attempting Falconer's Crack with a reasonably experienced climber who was twenty. This lad had led Extreme climbs in Wales, and he was somewhat of a hero figure to me. We reached Delilah (MVS) on High Crag. It was climbed in 1951 and was Peascod's last new climb before he departed for Australia. He left behind a legacy of over fifty climbs, and some of these were truly great.

Ironically, Bill's worst climb bears his name. On Far East Raven Crag in Langdale, climbing on unfamiliar ground, he put up an undistinguished route. He refused to name it and did not record it. Perhaps mischievously, Arthur Dolphin found out about the climb and wrote it up in the Langdale guide. Because it had no name attached to it, he called it Peascod's Route—Arthur loved irony.
Very fortuitously I have recently had the great pleasure of meeting Bill Peascod and not only discussing his climbs but actually climbing with him. To my surprise and admiration he had no trouble at all doing Lakeland VS climbs after thirty years' absence. He climbed Eve (MVS) on Shepherd's Crag in Borrowdale, a climb of which he had made the first ascent almost exactly thirty years earlier and where he did at least five routes on a very cold February day. Watching him bridge delicately, precisely and quickly up a VS comer crack, it was if he had never been away.

Evening Sky-Grizedale Pike:Bill Peascod,mixed media

In 1946 and 1947 Bill was deeply affected by two mining disasters due to underground explosions. First the No. 10 pit at Lowca saw fifteen men killed, and a year later at Whitehaven 104 men were lost. Involved in rescue operations, he became deter­mined to leave the pits while he still had the option.

During the war years Bill worked at college and his labours bore fruit when eventually he became a chartered engineer (mining), and he left the pits to teach mining at Workington Technical College. But by 1952 he had had enough of struggling to earn a reasonable living from teaching, and he departed for Australia. Climbing, of course, did not cease, and he pioneered many new routes in the then completely virgin ranges. Based in New South Wales, notable new ascents included the Bread Knife in the Warrumbungles in 1954. And others followed, in the Glasshouse Mountains, particularly on the seventeen hundred ­foot-high pyramid-shaped Beerwah, a spectacular spike of undesite rising from the flat of the surrounding plains.

Australia saw his talents as an artist blossom and bear fruit. The seeds sown at art college, which he had attended for only a short time in distant Workington, had at last matured. Exhibition
Talking to Bill, I found it interesting how his climbing philosophy and attitude had developed. In the early days Bill was fearless, putting up major routes, Eagle Front and the like, in his first year of real climbing.
No protection, loose rock and hard climbing all felt very good, and his enthusiasm was limitless. He reckons that good climbers are born good and that ifyou are going to climb well, then you will do so immediately. Every day of every weekend was spent climbing both summer and winter.

Enthusiasm was, however, tempered with bitter experience. One morning in Brackenclose, a young man, D. M. K. Horn, eighteen years old, was alone and wanting someone to climb with. He was ignored. Later, on Pillar, Bill with S. B. Beck was descending across the top of Walker's Gully after doing the south-west route. They heard a flapping noise, like a crow exiting from a tight crack, but not quite. Bill, always eager, was at the bottom of Grooved Wall first, ready for another climb, when he discovered the body of Horn, who had fallen while soloing North Climb. Afterwards he realized the danger of falling, and this in fact had a steadying influence. "I was lightweight in experience so I got a pair of nailed boots and learned to use them." He most certainly did that, and the first ascent of Resurrection Route (VS) on High Crag and a repeat ascent of Grooved Wall were both done in nails and in the rain, shortly afterwards.

His confidence in rock climbing returned, and weightlifting provided the necessary physical strength required when he left the pits for a lecturing post. When he had been working at the coal face, he would finish on night shift and go straight out climbing, often pushbiking to the Lakes on a Saturday morning and climb­ing all weekend. He never, however, climbed weekdays after work. This was true even after he had taken up teaching, although there was enough time to do so. It seemed that certain con­ventions of West Cumberland Society were hard to break.

Apart from his Lakeland activities Bill was active in Scotland and with G. G. Macphee did early ascents of Rubicon Wall (VS) and Long Climb (VS), both on Ben Nevis. They also climbed Clachaig Gully (VS) in Glencoe in four hours, the previous best being seven hours. Bill went on to do two first ascents on Ben Nevis. These were Minus Two Gully (VS) and No. 5 Gully Buttress (VS), both with B. L. Dodson. His Welsh visits were less frequent, and he took an impressive fall off Soap Gut (in the pouring rain), only saved by virtue of his rope jamming alongside a small chockstone! No runners, you see.

The wet summer of 1950 saw Bill, along with Brian Dodson, experimenting with a climbing harness they had devised, known as the 'Gatesgarth Sling'. Bill wore it from then on. It is not unlike the fully body harness favoured by many Continental climbers today and was designed to distribute the load in the event of a fall.
Bill has some fond recollections of the climbing scene in the forties. He regards the period as a very important bridge between Very Severe and Extreme climbing. There was, of course, friendly competition but this was good-natured. He remembers doing the Girdle Traverse on Eagle Crag, Buttermere, which on the right-hand side links the Double Cross and Half Nelson climbs about half way up. He believes that the route that Sid Cross meant to climb was up the lower part of Half Nelson, across the line of the Girdle, and then up the groove of Double Cross to finish, so making a very good route. They presumably could not climb the link pitch, the line of the Girdle. Bill remembers his mischievous thrill of satisfaction when A. T. Hargreaves closely questioned him on this section of the Girdle.

There was friendship too, and he remembers how alone in the Brackenclose hut in the 1930s A. T. Hargreaves and his wife Ruth befriended him and took him climbing. Also the Thompson brothers, if they passed you on the road, would flag your car down and stop their own and jump out. They would then immediately relate what they had climbed the preceding weekend, what they were about that weekend and what they intended for the following weekend. They would then jump into their car and head for the hills.
Bill also remembers that some routes went many years without second ascents. Such a route was Buttonhook Route (HVS) on Kern Knotts. Having watched Jim Birkett float up it and making the delicate traverse appear to be covered in jugs, it took Bill three attempts to make the third ascent because he could not get anybody to second the first pitch.

On his own Eagle Front, he returned to do the second ascent eight years after he had initially led it. "Walking through the farmyard at Gatesgarth I picked up a rusty four inch nail and put it in my pocket. I banged it in to a belay on at the end of pitch five—I wasn't going to do it without a belay this time!" There is, unfortunately, a piton in place these days.

Bill Peascod on the crux pitch of Scafell's Central Buttress:Photo Bill Birkett collection©

Bill wrote of the Crux pitch:
" The view of the Coombe below is interrupted by neither rock nor grass. The Wall above and to the left may be written off; only to the right does the way seem feasible, and on this ascent the traverse, across a Water Worn Slab on rounded holds, became increasingly "interesting" when a film of water made its presence felt on rubber soled footwear. When one gets into such a position the second none too happily placed, the ground a long way below, and progress in any direction only possible by movements which are attended by 'natural hazards' I think a climber must cease to regard himself as a member of a party, welded together by three strong strands of rope, and climb with the intensity and concentration of a man going solo on similar rocks. And so it was here. The final crack led joyfully to the easier summit rocks and we had made the second ascent to Eagle Front.'
Also on Ben Nevis on the first ascent of Minus Two Gully, G. G. MacPhee was belayed on the ground and was hit by a falling rock dislodged by Bill. Covered in blood Macphee announced he would retire to the hut and off he walked. "I thought I'd killed him," Bill said, "until he just walked off."

So that is the man Bill Peascod, one of Lakeland's greatest pioneers. I asked him what led him to climb so extensively in the north-western Fells, and he replied that the potential of his local crags was vast and that really there was no need to look further for new routes. "Doing new routes is like a disease. It possesses you, and you don't want to stop." His one regret was not doing the first ascent of High Crag Buttress (HVS), for after spending all day on the route he had failed to lead the awkward move at the top. Time ran out and Bill went to Australia. It was subsequently climbed in 1963 by another party, but they succeeded only by using pitons for aid.

After climbing with Bill Peascod, I came to the conclusion that there is no substitute for ability. In his own words, "Good climbers are born good." I would like to add, "Once a natural always a natural." As Bill drove me into Keswick along the Bassenthwaite Road, the sun was just setting over Cat Bells and Causey Pike. It was October, the autumn colours, had arrived, and a velvet glow hung in the sky. "You know, there's nowhere more beautiful than the Lakes," he said.


David Craig leads Bill Peascod's classic Dexter Wall (VS-5a US 5.9) with Bill himself on belay.Photo-David Craig collection.

Bill Birkett© First published in Lakeland's Greatest Pioneers, Robert Hale 1983.

My great thanks to Bill for permission to republish this piece and use his images.