A personal memoir and some history
Harrison's classic 'Slimfinger Crack':Photo Gordon Stainforth
‘The rendezvous of fools, buffoons and praters, cuckolds, whores, citizens, their wives and daughters’. Edmund Waller, a poet who expressed his opinion about those visiting High Rocks in 1645.
On the night of 15th October 1987, I was in Maidstone giving a lecture to the local climbing club. At the end of which, around 10pm I moved out of the lecture venue, and joined some of the attendees in the adjacent bar of a local pub. As I did so I noticed that a strong wind had developed, and that some detritus was being blown around the yard we crossed. When I emerged an hour later and started to walk to my car, parked out in a road nearby, it was like being in a storm on the Cairngorm plateau. But with small bushes and tree branches hurtling westwards driven by the strongest wind I have experienced in an urban area. After being hit by a fairly substantial tree branch, I realised this was serious, and that to try to drive to Groombridge, where I had intended to stay with Terry Tullis the Warden of Harrison’s Rocks, might be suicidal.
Battling against this maelstrom I ran back into the bar I had recently vacated, to join some other drinkers as frightened as I was by the unbelievable conditions on the outside. And there we stayed all night, sitting in chairs, listening to intermittent news broadcasts on the radio, for the TV was down. We learnt that the wind nearby had reached 115mph, and even in central London gusts were being experienced of 94mph. Although the hostelry I had sheltered in was substantial, the building creaked and groaned as each blast screamed by.
This was the great storm of 1987, the one that Michael Fish had got so wrong earlier that evening on the BBC’s main weather forecast, when a worried viewer had phoned in enquiring if a hurricane was on its way, and she was assured by him ‘that it was not!’. It actually was an extra tropical cyclone we experienced that night in South East England, where 15 million trees blew down and 18 people died in just a few hours. The wreckage blocked roads and railways, and damaged many houses and buildings with the total cost of the storm amounting to billions of pounds.
On re-gaining my vehicle the next morning, the storm having totally abated I was relieved to find it had survived its battering with just a few indentations, but on driving on to Groombridge and Terry’s bungalow set outside that village in the grounds of a country estate I was to find he had not been so lucky. A huge tree had fallen onto the side of his dwelling, badly damaging his motor car, and trapping him inside his house. He had needed to climb out of a back window, which had required quite some contortions on his behalf. At Harrrison’s Rocks, on the twenty minute walk in through the Birchden Woods, huge swathes of the forest were down. Surprisingly some areas were totally intact, whilst in some others it was just as if some giant hand armed with a huge axe had cut through a passage many yards wide. But actually at the Rocks the damage was not so bad, something that Terry as the Warden and I as a member of its Management Committee was, relieved to discover.
This news that we had found that Harrison’s despite such a catastrophic- event was still reasonably accessible for climbing might not be historically interesting to Northern climbers, but these Rocks are probably the most popular outcrop in the UK. When I was at the BMC in the 1980’s we did a survey of use and found that on many summer weekends over 500 climbers visited the site. And ignorance of just how good the climbing can be on the southern sandstone outcrops, often clouds opinion in other parts of the UK as to their worth.
Pete Robbins, one of today’s leading rock climbers, after being persuaded to visit High Rocks almost against his better judgement, came away declaring that ‘this is one of the best crags in Britain’. And it is not just the climbing that is good, often the setting of outcrops such as Eridge Green and Bowles besides Harrison’s in their woodland sites are memorable. The list of outstanding climbers who were inspired into the sport or were regular visitors at these venues is also impressive; Nea Morin, Eric Shipton, Menlove Edwards, Chris Bonington, Martin Boysen, Julie Tullis, The Holliwells (Les and Lawrie), The Wintringhams(Ben and Marion), Mick Fowler and so many more.
My own first visit to the southern sandstone occurred in the winter of 1959, I had met and climbed that summer in Wales, at Almscliff and in the Peak District with Phil Gordon and Martin Boysen, two of the area’s leading performers at that date, and both members of The Sandstone Club. This led on to me being invited as guest to their annual dinner at the High Rocks Inn and to bolster my appearance I had enlisted Vin Betts and Ron Cummaford, fellow Rock and Ice members to travel south with me. We stayed at the club’s hut (formerly a tea house) in the grounds of the High Rocks, and on the Saturday drove across to Harrison’s. I climbed with Martin, and initially found the idea of top roping, which was the norm, rather off putting, but after a momentous struggle on a route called Niblick I realised that not only were the climbs hard, but that the rock was much different, and more friable than the gritstone I was used to. It was on this climb that I was initiated into the ‘Harrison’s move’. Pull on a side hold with one hand, press down on a hold with the other and rock up high on one foot.
Still not realising how hard some of the routes were I set off solo, up the famous Slim Finger Crack. This is climbed by a layback followed by a rock over high onto a sloping, rounded ledge out on the right side ofthe fissure. This was covered in loose sand and I nearly slid off because of this, and after such a heart stopping moment I was happy to only top rope from thereon. The climbs on southern sandstone are what we call ‘knack’ routes on gritstone; on many of them you need to get the move and hold sequences right, and local knowledge can make the difference to a successful ascent or not. I was to find this out later that afternoon when I was talked by a ground crew up both the Unclimbed Wall and Edwards’ Effort.
It was like playing a musical instrument under instruction, and though the climbs are short, 30ft to 40ft maximum, they are unusually sustained.
The Sandstone Club were the leading pioneers of the area during the 1950’s and early 1960’s and they were responsible for some of the outstanding new routes which were climbed at that time. Routes like Coronation Crack (5c), the Lobster(6a) and Advertisement Wall Direct (5c) at High Rocks and The Banana (5b) at Bowles. I was pleased to get to know them on this first visit, and later several members such as Julie and Terry Tullis, Billy Maxwell, Paul Smoker, Doug Stone, Barney Lewis and Mike Davies became good friends of mine. I was eventually to be made an honorary member of the Sandstone Club.
The hut we stayed in at High Rocks was I guess typical of a climber’s howff of that period, it was rudimentary but it bred a close camaraderie amongst its denizens, and there was a large turn-out of members at the annual dinner on the Saturday night. The club had good relations with the staff and landlord at the Inn, and the evening was typical of such climbing club events of that era. After dinner, some witty speeches were followed by a music session, provided by Paul Smoker at the piano, playing and singing from his own repertoire of climbing themed ballads, and then a ‘games’ session. This is where my two Rock and Ice companions came in, for Vin Betts was our outstanding limbo dancer, and Ron Cummaford a master at wall squatting.
Unconquered Wall:Gordon Stainforth
Our southern friends had no answer to their skills at these pastimes (Vin could dance under a rope held only 18 inches above the ground), but they outshone us at diving over chairs. These were wooden ones with high backs, and after three in line only Billy Maxwell was left to continue taking part. This not only took great athletic skill but it was obviously dangerous, with fractured ribs almost certain if you failed to clear the obstacles.
It is hard to describe the High Rocks area exactly, for climbing there is almost like being in a cultivated park. After King James the second visited the area in the 17th century it became a woodland resort, and a tourist attraction which offered a maze, a bowling-green, gambling rooms, tea houses, and cold baths! An aerial walk with a series of bridges linking across the top of the crags was built in the 19th Century, but it was to be the Sandstone Club members who really opened up the Rocks to climbing, for in the 1950s and the early 1960’s led by Max Smart, Dave Fagan, Paul and John Smoker, Billy Maxwell and Martin Boysen almost 70 new routes were pioneered there. When we visited in 1959 the last great problem was the Lobster, which had never been led. This starts by climbing up a fissure to a steep headwall, replete with a deep pocket. Vin Betts nearly managed to solo this, but fell reaching for the top of the climb, whilst heaving strenuously on the finger slot.
‘Bang’ he hit the ground from a height of over 20ft, and lay winded for some while to our consternation, but eventually he staggered to his feet and rounded on his erstwhile fielder, John Smoker. “Yer were supposed to catch me yer know! Yer a bloody Cockney drink of water!” This latter term of abuse Vin had learned from the master himself, Don Whillans, with whom he climbed on occasion, including the first ascent of Cloggy’s Slanting Slab. My own best effort at High Rocks during this visit was to on sight the Advertisement Wall Direct (5c) on a slack top rope.
Niblick-Gordon Stainforth climbing:Photo-Gordon Stainforth
Historically, Harrison’s Rocks has an interesting back story climbing wise. They are named after a local farmer William Harrison, who also manufactured firearms in the area during the 18th Century. But the crags were first explored by two members of the Alpine Club, Charles Nettleton and Claude Wilson in 1908. The first named had noticed them whilst riding along the Valley with the Eridge hunt. They left no record what actual climbing they did…. if any? The present era of development really began in 1926 with Nea and Jean Morin, who having climbed at Fontainebleau decided that the sandstone outcrops in south east England might also be worthy of some investigation.
They encouraged other climbing friends to accompany them such as Gilbert Peaker, Eric Shipton, and E.H. Marriott. They made some outstanding first ascents for that date such as the Long Layback, Unclimbed Wall and Half Crown Corner. (Jean Morin was a leading French alpinist who was to die tragically in the war). On my first meeting with Nea Morin at Harrison’s, more than 50 years ago, she marched me along to the Half Crown Corner and explained that the route had been so named, because her father who was present at the time, offered to pay her a half crown (15p) if she could manage to climb it, which she did making the first ascent. With Nea encouraging me I also managed to do that, but I found it a brute of a climb on which I struggled so hard I was nearly sick.
By the 1930’s the outcrop was so developed that the first guidebook appeared, written by Courtney Bryson. This was published by the Mountaineering section of the Camping Club, who by that date had become regular visitors at Harrison’s. Another group also active at that date was surprisingly the London section of the Junior Mountaineering Club of Scotland (a long way from the Club’s home base!). One of their members, E.R. Zenthon pioneered in 1941 a girdle traverse of the crag, which was over a 1000feet in length, and more than 20 pitches in all. This group also published the first comprehensive guide to the whole district in 1947, ‘Sandstone Climbs in S-E England’ edited by Ted Pyatt. This was revised and updated by him in 1963, helped by Dave Fagan and John Smoker of the Sandstone Club, the first such to be published by the Climbers’ Club.
It is interesting to record some of Pyatt’s comments recorded in these guides here, first noting that ‘the rock is sedimentary of comparatively recent origin’ (hence its friability) and noted the changing fashions of clothes worn by climbers at Harrison’s in those eras. ‘The wearers are divided between those wearing the oldest of old clothes and those sporting flannels with the crease still intact, or those dressed in good class mountaineering garb’ By 1963 many of the regulars must have been abroad, and doubtless observed how well turned out Continental climbers were compared to their British counterparts!
During the war a climber who had been forced south from his earlier pioneering in the Peak District was Frank Elliott, who made several first ascents at Harrison’s but everyone else’s efforts in this direction were to be eclipsed in 1945, by a shooting star Clifford Fenner, who was responsible for a real breakthrough in standards at the crag with first ascents of the Slim Finger Crack and Niblick. This latter must have been one of the hardest outcrop routes in the country at that date?
Once into the 1950’s and with a slow improvement in overall living standards, the rocks reached a popularity which could hardly have been anticipated. Harrison’s became the best known of the sandstone outcrops, and some of the long term regulars became worried about the problems this was bringing, particularly erosion caused by the friction of ropes biting into the rock at the top of the crag, the wearing down of holds because of the use of inappropriate footwear, and the need for some form of a climbing code of conduct.
In 1958 Nea Morin, Dennis Kemp and Ted Pyatt purchased the crag, this being done with the sole intention of preserving the climbing facilities. They did this on behalf of all climbers and gave Harrison’s to the BMC. There was a problem however for the Council could not then own land, being an unincorporated body, and so a solution was found in that the Central Council of Physical Recreation would hold them in trust, and a joint BMC-CCPR Management Committee was formed to look after the rocks. One of their first actions was to publish a code of conduct for climbing at the outcrop, vibrams and nailed boots should not be used: only soft soled footwear being possible, all belays should be indirect, using a long sling and karabiner, and a system of voluntary wardens was agreed.
One of the CCPR Officers was Joe Jagger, Mick’s father! He was a leading figure in the development of outdoor pursuits, and he wrote a successful book about canoe camping. Later he also made several instructional videos, and he organised numerous courses on canoeing, walking and climbing. His climbing video featured a young Rolling Stone, Mick climbing at Harrison’s. I only met him once, and that was in a corridor at the old CCPR HQ in Park Row in London. I was introduced to him by Fred Briscoe, just at the changeover of the CCPR staff and facilities into the newly created Sports Council, early in 1972.
We started discussing the future administration of Harrison’s which was being transferred along with Plas y Brenin, into the new National Centre’s programme, when a burly guy sporting an England Rugby Football blazer stopped by us, and vehemently declared at Joe(obviously having recognized him), ‘If I had a son like yours I would horse whip him’. He then moved off down the corridor, leaving the three of us staring in amazement at his huge backside. I often wonder what he would think of now, ‘Sir Mick’ a darling of the establishment and his band The Rolling Stones, acknowledged as one of the most outstanding rhythm and blues band in the history of popular music.
The ever increasing popularity of Harrison’s began to cause serious problems during the decades of the 1960’s and into the 1970’s, for with increasing car ownership, the volume of parking in the nearby village of Groombridge became a difficulty for both locals and visitors. This forced the Management Committee into action; and after negotiations with the Forestry Commission, a Car Park was built on the edge of Birchden Wood, and a toilet and washing block added in the interests of meeting local hygiene standards. To climbers from other parts of the country this may sound extreme, but by the date these facilities were built besides the hundreds of climbers descending each weekend on the site, mid-week many youth, school and disabled parties were also visiting the area, to say nothing of the walkers hiking through the woods.
I continued to visit the area, especially once I had become the first professional officer in the sport at the BMC in 1971. Old friendships stayed intact and of two in particular, their memories have stayed with me throughout the subsequent decades, despite their tragic deaths whilst climbing. The first such memory is of Julie Tullis, who I originally met in 1959 and with whom I remained in contact with her and husband Terry, until her death on K2 whilst descending from the summit of the mountain caught in an horrific storm, during which several other climbers also perished in early August 1986. Julie had started climbing on the sandstone in 1956, where she met Terry.
They were probably the best known couple in the area, and from 1970 until 1979 they ran a climbers café and shop ‘The Festerhaunt’ in Groombridge. Unfortunately Terry was injured in a freak accident which limited his climbing, but this did not stop him from being a voluntary warden and then subsequently a full time professional in charge on the ground at Harrison’s. Julie was an all action personality, dark and petite,it was easy to underestimate her abilities and determination, for despite the demands posed by having a family of two children, she was a practitioner of Japanese martial arts, a climbing instructor and in her later life she had an outstanding career in high altitude filming on Nanga Parbat, K2 and Mount Everest.
She also with the legless climber Norman Croucher and Dennis Kemp climbed Huascaran (6,645mtrs) in Peru. And with the Austrian mountaineer, her filming partner, Kurt Diemberger she climbed Broad Peak (8051mtrs) at the age of 45 in 1984.The year of Julie’s death, her autobiography was published, ‘Clouds From Both Sides’ to wide acclaim.
After Julie died members of the Sandstone Club formed a committee to set up a memorial to her memory. I was privileged to be invited to help with this, and after many fund raising events and difficult negotiations over planning permission, we managed first to set up a camp site at Harrison’s in 1991, then an award for exploratory women mountaineers administered by the BMC International Committee in 2009.
Julie TullisDennis Kemp was also one of the most memorable of climbers who I first met at Harrison’s Rocks. He was very much responsible for publicising the need to combat the erosion occurring to the outcrop, and at his own expense produced a booklet about good practice to combat this. At first meeting he looked to me like a southern hippy, bearded and with straggly hair, spare, muscular and of medium height. But once I got to know him well I realised how talented he really was.
He worked for Kodak, and he was one of the first photographers in the climbing world to develop an audio visual show. He had been the photographer on the 1958 Minapin- (7257mtrs) expedition, a high peak in the Karakoram Himalaya, on which two of his companions Ted Warr and Chris Hoyte disappeared.
Despite efforts by Dennis and another companion to discover their fate, they could find no trace of the missing pair who had been in the lead on the mountain.Dennis’s audio visual of this expedition was outstanding, and I organised a showing of this in Manchester, where he received an ovation at the end of the evening from a group of hard bitten climbers, who were so moved by his story.
I got to know Dennis well on a visit to Bowles Rock; he camped there alongside my family and self. My children were still young at that time and he made a great rapport with them, showing them how to use a camera, and shepherding my eldest son, Stephen up some easy rock climbs. He was unable to have children himself, for he had been badly injured by a sniper’s bullet at the end of the war. He originated from the Brighton area, but was wedded to climbing and the mountains. I never found out how he entered the climbing arena, but he was pioneering new routes as early as 1953 in Cornwall, including the classic Nameless Route (VS) on Bosigran with Nea Morin.
In 1974 he produced ‘The Know the Game Rock Climbing’ for EP Publishers which received BMC approval. This was a concise, easy to follow instructional book which became a best seller. By this date he had moved to live in Mold in North Wales, and I did meet and climb with him in the Llanberis Pass. But he did keep returning to his first love Southern Sandstone to renew acquaintance with the Tullis’s and other friends in the area. Surprisingly as he grew older he returned to expeditions in Peru and to travelling widely to climb in Yosemite and Australia.
His final trip of 1990 was to Arapiles in that country at the age of 67, where after leading a pitch of a classic climb ‘The Birdman of Alcatraz (23)’, a huge block he was belayed to, which most other parties had used, detached and killed him. The news of his death hurt all of us who were his friends, for he was a joy to be with and an enthusiast of our sport to his end.
Generations of activists have now enjoyed climbing on the southern sandstone, their continued popularity is assured, and they are now as popular with boulderers as routers, and outcrops like Eridge have come into their own in that respect. Almost every decade an updated guidebook is needed to keep abreast of developments with over a 1000 routes recorded, and there is now a separate volume to the bouldering for so many such challenges have been developed.
My last visit to the area was as the guest at the 60th anniversary dinner of the Sandstone Club (It has now merged with the Tunbridge Wells Mountaineering Club). On the Saturday I was at High Rocks and I was surprised to meet climbers there from Eastern Europe bouldering, and a mixed, women and men large contingent of climbers from Germany who were routing. On the Sunday I was at Harrison’s and there I met a group of French climbers. Intrigued I asked why they were visiting southern sandstone, and the answer was like the other continentals I had met the day before they were working in the Big Smoke (London).
The Southern Sandstone has always drawn enthusiasts from that conurbation, and in recent years groups like the North London Mountaineering Club have been amongst the leading activists at the outcrops. Whose members, Mick Fowler, Chris Watts and Vic Saunders from this base have gone on to outstanding mountaineering careers in the Alps and the Himalaya, with both Mick and Vic writing, best selling, award winning books about their climbs.
Casual visitors have not always understood the delights of climbing in the region, the late Scottish ace Robin Smith thought that Harrison’s was, ‘a miserable outcrop for London picnickers’. But if he had stayed around long enough, learnt just how unique the climbing is, he might also like me have become enamoured of the whole scene.
How deep this feeling can make itself felt is perhaps best expressed, by the London based poet and a former regular at Harrison’s, Al Alvarez, ‘I can’t tell you how much I’d like to be back at Harrison’s, but you can’t climb with a bloody zimmer frame’.