Friday, 22 February 2013

Cornish Connections

This week, as a tribute to veteran South West climber, Mike Banks who died recently, the republication of his 1995 High article-Connections- which looks at the historical links connecting the early days of South-west exploration to the modern era.

The figure silhouetted against the skyline on the Bosigran cliff top was clearly that of an elderly man, his white hair blowing in the wind. The year was 1947 and I was being trained to become a Commando cliff climbing instructor. The Cornish coastline was a very empty place in those days; strangers were noticed. I was told that he was Arthur Westlake Andrews, who lived a few miles away. He was, I gathered, the founding father of Cornish climbing.

Not long afterwards I joined the Climbers' Club and realised that Andrews was the custodian of the Count House, the Club hut at Bosigran. He was a friendly and hospitable man, always interested in what was developing in Cornish climbing. Despite the disparity of our years — I was 25, he was 80 — we got to know one another. I would be invited to his house at Tregerthen, next door to Eagle's Nest above Zennor, where he would show me faded photographs taken in the Alps in the previous century. Together with his sister, Elsie, we would hold grave discussions on the etiquette of the Cornish cream tea. He held strongly to the view that the jam should be put on first, then the cream on top.

Andrews was the quintessential English gentleman mountaineer, educated at Charterhouse and Oxford where, of course, he read classics. A notable all-round sportsman, he attained national standard in athletics, winning the mile in Berlin. In tennis he got as far as the semi-finals of the Men's Singles at Wimbledon.
At Magdelan his rooms were above those of Coolidge, the eminent if fractious Alpine mountaineer some 20 years his senior. Through him Andrews became acquainted with mountaineering and from 1890 was active in both the Alps and the British hills. With Archer Thomson he was to produce a guide to Lliwedd.... the first Welsh guidebook.

It so happened that Andrews spent his holidays in Cornwall staying with his uncle who lived at Zennor. Having taken up moun­taineering he naturally examined the coastline with a climber's eye. In those early days the Alps were all the fashion. The British hills were widely regarded as a convenient form of Alpine training. Mere outcrops were dismissed as 'scrambles'. It is interesting that Andrews and Tom Longstaff, both West Country pioneers, initially opted for long coastal traverses. I suppose that the ascent of a cliff appeared to them ridiculously short whereas a long coastal traverse might offer a rock climb of near Alpine length. Indeed, Andrews harboured the ambition, never to be realized, of traversing the whole coastline of Britain. He also devel­oped the practice of climbing in gym shoes for which he deserves great credit. It enabled climbers to make far harder friction moves than was possible in nails. Remember that Vibram soles did not appear until after World War 2.

Even so, vertical routes were not neglected and Andrews made the first climb on nearby Bosigran in 1902, the Ledge Route. Cornish climbing, as we recognise it today, was born .Andrews went to live at Tregerthen in 1922 and continued to climb actively. Through him the Climbers' Club acquired the Count House at Bosigran in 1938 and he became the first custodian, always showing great warmth and interest towards visiting climbers. The hut gave a stimulus to West Country climbing and focused it firmly on West Penwith, perhaps retarding the devel­opment of other worthy West Country areas.

Zeke Deacon leading Monolith Slab: Rosmergy

I move on now to 1957 when I was in charge of the Commando climbers and often teamed up with the redoubtable Zeke Deacon on the lookout for new routes. On one occasion we were virtually provoked into a new route by Andrews. In 1923 he had traversed into the Great Zawn of Bosigran and had written that, if the ledges on which he had seen cormorants perching could be connected, then a notable route might be created. He urged us to try it. The Green Cormorant Face route resulted. It should be remembered that we were in the pre-nut era but  thankfully, rock boots had been invented. Artificial climbing was the flavour of the month. Zeke, who of course led, used several pitons with etriers on the first pitch. Even so, I found it at the limit of my ability. In any case, the second's job was no doddle. His task is to get the pitons out and doing this swaying on a wobbly ladder, walloping a peg at ankle level was both acrobatic and exhausting.

We duly reported back to Andrews and received his congratulations with an accompanying cream tea. Now Andrews was also a poet and a few days later a poem arrived in the post in which he parodied Flecker's famous lines on the pilgrims setting off on the Goldern Road to Samarkand. He was making a wistful, but not judgmental, comment on 'progress' in climbing technique; a lament at the loss of innocence perhaps. Looking back to his early Cornish years he asks:

Who are these beggars in their ragged clothes
And old felt hats and roughly mended hose
Who wear old pairs of worn out rubber shoes? 

 He gives the answer:

We are the pilgrims of a bygone age
Who traverse on the shore from stage to stage
In lust of seeking what no man has seen
Between Bosigran Head and far Pendeen.

But what of these Commando climbers?

Laden like Tartarin with all the gear
For storming citadels that climbers wear
Pitons and karabiners, ropes and slings,
And everything except pair of wings.

They reply:

We are professionals and this crusade
Is but the usual practice of our trade.

It is interesting that the use of pitons, which had inflamed British climbers when used by Germans on the Munich Climb on Tryfan in 1936, were approved by the climbing establishment in the 1950s. Might there be something prophetic in this if applied to the bolt controversy and might not Andrews's tolerant reaction have a message for today? Andrews died, ripe in years, in 1960 to be succeeded as custodian of Bosigran by another quite splendid old gentleman, Rear Admiral Keith Lawder. Keith had retired from the Navy at the age of 55 and taken to climbing with infectious enthusiasm. He was the most amiable of men, always ready for a joke or a prank. In fact the Admiral had never ceased being a Midshipman.

Rear Admiral Keith Lawder
I remember a naval club meet based at Bosigran. Keith, looking outrageously scruffy, was at the sink washing up. A young able seaman came up to him and said: "Wotcher Chief, what's this buzz about some bloody admiral coming on this meet?" With his conspiratorial grin Keith replied: "Don't worry. I hear he's not a bad old stick."
When he was well into his '60s, Keith set about exploring Lundy with Ted Pyatt. His memorial as a climber must surely be his first ascent, at the age of 68, of the incompa­rable Devil's Slide (Severe). It is arguably the finest slab climb in Britain. Whatever his or her talent, it is a route that any visitor to Lundy, who has an eye and a heart, must feel impelled to climb.

One of the most joyous climbs I have ever done was to repeat The Devil's Slide with Keith Lawder, then in his 79th year. The third on the rope was his grandson, Iain Peters who, instead of playing childrens' games, had since his early youth, been taken out on climbing adventures by his adored grandfather.
I have climbed with Iain, mostly in the West Country, from his boyhood until he blossomed as a climber. He is the author of the current guide to North Devon and Cornwall and the architect of many first ascents in this area.

So, from my youthful acquaintance with Arthur Westlake Andrews to my avuncular climbs with lain Peters, I seem to have spanned West Country climbing from its inception to the present day. It is a kaleido­scope vision. The '50s and '60s were rich decades. Three Commando instructors were pre-eminent: Zeke Deacon, Vivian Stevenson and 'Mac' McDermott. They climbed in the friendliest of rivalry with Peter and Barrie Biven and Trevor Peck. The guidebooks are witness to the rich harvest of their routes. The Commandos tended to fade out from the '70s onwards when their role changed from cliff raiding to Mountain and Arctic Warfare and they were less in evi­dence.

Of course there has been no let-up in the development of the area. Improved equipment, techniques and training methods have pushed up standards. New routes have prolifer­ated in the West Country as elsewhere.
I suspect that all climbers of mature years have one range of hills, or a particular crag, to which they instinc­tively return for solace. Unhesitatingly I head for West Penwith. It has given, and continues to give me, so much. It is, of course, greatly changed from those far off days just after the war when the Bosigran face and Chair Ladder were crying out for detailed exploration and Carn Barra was virgin ground.

The dreamlike quality of the far west is vanishing. The old friendships have given place to the acrimony that bolts seem to bestow and the environ­ment is under siege, eroded by climbers' feet and scoured by the gardening of routes. Long ago I remember the raven's nest on Bosigran that gave the route, Raven's Wall, its name. It is long gone; no longer do buzzards soar over the Great Zawn. I must leave the last word with Andrews who, decades before the environment became an issue, wrote:

Will there be ravens on Bosigran still and has the buzzard got his usual nest in the Great Zawn, or will they too have passed, To other hunting grounds with all the rest?

Mike Banks 1995 ( First published in HIGH 153 August 1995)