The Drasdo Brothers- Neville (left) and Harold outside Lakeland's Old Dungeon Ghyll at one of the last Bradford Lads reunions they attended together.
‘Derision is the burden that the avant-garde learns to bear; but in 1947 climbing had an oral culture, remarkable for the start of the post war ascendancy of northern working class British climbers’ Harold Drasdo
Imagine you are 14 years old, you have been climbing for three years since 1947 and in the winter of 1949/1950- March to be precise- you meet in the Hangingstones Quarry at Ilkley, a 20 year old from Bradford, just returned from Athens, on National Service. Tall and gangling, he is however so knowledgeable about climbing and climbers, as you begin to realise whilst chatting in a corner attempting to stay out of the biting cold wind, ever present on Ilkley Moor in winter. You hang on his every word. You complain about the weather and the cold, but your new found friend declares he has 'been dreaming about being here in these conditions for the last two years' whilst soldiering in Greece, where 'the heat had been unrelenting’.
There were no other climbers present that day, it being mid-week (the average worker was still employed six days a week in March 1950). I had bunked off school and my new found friend was on demob leave, so we agreed to climb together. Our first route being the ‘Fairy Steps’ a Hard Very Difficult, which was climbed in boots, followed by ‘Nailbite’ another Very Difficult , and finishing with ‘Josephine’ a Severe wearing rubbers. It is hard for me now so many years later to wonder what I must have been like as a 14 year old, but my partner that day wrote later I was a ‘streetwise youth’. As we departed to head home he to walk over the moor to Dick Hudson’s to catch a bus to Bradford, me descending to Ben Rhydding for a bus to Leeds I learnt that he was Harold Drasdo, soon to be known in local climbing circles as ‘Dras’.
'Dras' when he was working at Derbyshire's White Hall Outdoor Centre
Drasdo is an unusual name (there is a town by that name in Germany south of Berlin) , and so it stuck with me, and over the ensuing weeks meeting at Ilkley and other West Yorkshire outcrops, and coalescing into a larger group of activists, we became known as 'The Bradford Lads'. Several of whom besides the Drasdo’s; such as Pete Greenwood, Don Hopkin and Alf Beanland, were also to develop amongst the lead climbers of our area, and later until his death in the Alps in 1953, our best known group member was Arthur Dolphin. Nobody of my age was to my knowledge climbing regularly in that era, unlike today with the spread of indoor climbing, but in 1950 the popular image of climbing being it was highly dangerous, and in retrospect it actually was.
One element now revolutionised was the basic equipment then in use, another was a lack of instruction, for the only pool of knowledge was held by its regular participants and you learnt on the rock by example or experience as you progressed. And also perhaps you might have managed to obtain a copy of the then recently published Penguin paper back, ‘Climbing in Britain’ by John Barford for the princely sum of one shilling (ten pence). And before the modern reader thinks that was an incredible cheap bargain, Dras told me at his first job as a 16 year old he was paid £1 a week. But he did enjoy two weeks holiday, which made him feel lucky to be so employed!
Petrol rationing finished in 1950 and we discovered hitch hiking. And so after having perforce needed to concentrate on our local outcrops, we began to travel far and wide with the Lake District and Langdale in particular being our Mecca. We stayed in barns and the one at Wall End Farm in Langdale became known the length and breadth of Britain. Often I was in the company of Dras and eventually I met his younger brother Neville. They both made major contributions to climbing, together and individually but for me it was my thinking, my education they affected most. Like me they were both scholarship Grammar School boys, leaving at 16 years of age, and working at low paid jobs, Dras as a clerk in a Health Unit and Neville an opticians; but studying at night school and eventually gaining entry into Higher Education, their outstanding later careers being founded on an impressive ability to master facts.
Dras was reading widely from the first, and I can remember him as we spent long winter nights in a doss under Castle Rock, in Thirlmere recounting to me the story of the first ascents of the North Face of the Eiger, and the North Face of the Grandes Jorasses. I was so smitten by these stories, I sent to Paris for Anderl Heckmair’s ‘Les Trois Derniers Probleme Des Alpes’. Which despite five years of French at school I struggled with to make sense of the stories, but Dras was reading much wider than mountaineering books, and we began to think of him as an intellectual! I can also remember him recounting stories to me about hitch hiking, and one article in particular he valued highly, was written by the American poet and mountaineer Gary Snyder.
Through such sharing I found out that Dras, like me, had started climbing at Ilkley in 1947. Why Ilkley? If you lived in Bradford or Leeds, and relied on public transport, then it was easiest to reach at a time when the dislocation caused by the war was still a major factor in our everyday lives; food, clothes, and fuel were all still rationed. To visit Almscliff was much more difficult than Ilkley. For me it meant a bus to Bramhope then tramp the miles from there to reach the Crag. Despite such difficulties there was a keen spirit of adventure in our approach which was essentially light hearted. Being so much younger than my companions I was sometimes the butt of their humour, one such instance was when they contacted The Bradford Telegraph and Argus and joined me as a member into their ‘Nig Nog club'! It seems incredible now that this could have existed in a City with a high ethnic population, but this was a young person’s club sponsored by that newspaper.
I read out my ‘joining’ letter to my older companions the weekend after receiving this by post in Leeds 6. ‘Dear Dennis, we welcome you as a ‘Nig Nog’ into our club, please try and make all your friends ‘Nig Nog’s’ as well’. They laughed long and hard at this, but I got my own back. We lived next to a chemist and I managed to obtain some medicine bottles, and labels. I poured some coloured liquid into these and handed one to Alf Beanland, Dras, Greenwood & Co. On the label I had printed, ‘Peter Pan Liquid Jollop for Ageing Youths’ I think in those early years of our friendship two climbs stand out. In September 1952 with Dras in the lead, we managed to pioneer one of the Lake District’s hardest climbs of that era ‘The North Crag Eliminate’ at Castle Rock; which is still graded Extremely Severe. This was in retrospect an unusual climb, for one of its pitches meant climbing a large yew tree, then from its top most branches launching onto the rock face to make a difficult upward rightward traverse to reach a secure ledge, below the intimidating top pitch.
For me, being at that date a small 16 years old, it was the moves from off the tree I found the most difficult of the route. This climb illustrated for me that whilst Dras was not the most naturally gifted performer in our group- Greenwood and Dolphin being more so- he was the most determined, and once he set his mind to a task he was usually successful.
Another memorable day in 1952 was when Dras and I climbed Hangover on Dove Crag, and noticing on a buttress to its left hand side, an impressive line, which commenced with a steep crack. Dras set off up this, but it was seeping wet inside its edges, and some way up this he managed to hang a sling and I lowered him down. I then tried to lead this, but could not reach as far as Dras and hanging by the sling he had placed I could see that the next moves would be beyond me, so I too then baled-out. The Following weekend I met Joe Brown in Langdale, and I told him about the outstanding difficult line we had discovered on Dove Crag.
He was very interested, and with Don Whillans visited and ascended the route which they called Dove Dale Grooves. A route so difficult for its era, that a decade elapsed before it was repeated. The reader may be surprised, but Dras was not annoyed with me about blabbing about our great find to Joe, for we both recognised that if any climbers could have pioneered the route at that time, probably only Brown and Whillans were capable of achieving such a result.
The death of Dolphin and the opportunities that developed for some in the 1950s for entry into higher education, or to better ones prospects in work further afield would eventually lead to a break-up of The Bradford Lads. Dras managed to study in Nottingham and qualify as a teacher. This then led to a career in Outdoor Education, first in Derbyshire at Whitehall, but then as the Warden of the Towers Education Centre near to Capel Curig . But throughout he continued to explore and pioneer new rock climbs. A major development, in which he and his brother Neville were key figures, was the discoveries they made over several visits to The Poisoned Glen in Donegal. This came about by Neville exploring climbing possibilities in that part of Ireland in 1953, returning home and convincing Dras about possible new routes that might be found in that valley, which they visited in 1954. Over many visits in following years they did manage to climb 20 new routes, perhaps the two which have become best identified with them being The Berserker Wall and the Direct on Bearnas Buttress?Donegal Days
With his outstanding literary abilities Dras was invited by the FRCC to edit their first ever guidebook to the Eastern Crags, an area in which he had been an original pioneer with classic routes like ‘Grendel’ (VS 4b) in Deepdale. The volume he produced in 1957 was a ‘big effort’ on his part, for without transport and often minus a climbing partner, much of his checking and routing was achieved solo, and taking these problems into account, the guidebook he produced was first class. Transport was a big problem in our early climbing days, for as the 1950’s progressed hitch hiking became too slow and crowded (so many other competitor’s out on the road also seeking lifts) and therefore many climbers moved onto motor bikes.
Dras was one of these, but initially he did not display great driving skill. He bought an ex War Department machine, for I believe about £40, and drove it up to Langdale. With me riding pillion we set off from the Old Dungeon Ghyll Car Park to ride up to Wall End Barn, with our fellow Bradford Lads cheering our departure. At the first sharp bend leading up to our destination he lost control, wobbled across the road and hit a wall. I was lucky and landed on a grass verge, but Dras was injured, fracturing an arm quite badly. So it heralded for us a return to hitch hiking.
In 1971 Dras edited a new edition of the Lliwedd guide for the Climbers’ Club having been elected to that organisation in 1966. Taking this on, was truly a brave decision for despite its huge bulk and ease of access it was seen even at that date as something of a backwater, whereas once in the early years of the 20th century it was at the cutting edge of climbing development in this country. Maybe it might yet be again, but Dras had to overcome the curse of Lliwedd in preparing this volume, for its two previous editors, Archer Thompson in 1909, and Menlove Edwards in 1936 both ended their lives, committing suicide by poisoning. He remains however the only such guidebook editor to have published such a volume in both The Lake District and Snowdonia.
Latter days: HD on the esoteric Tremadog VS 'Wanda',where a basking adder held up progress!
Established in Wales and a key figure in the development of Outdoor Education, Dras decided to put his thoughts about this into print and he produced a seminal work, ‘Education and the Mountain Centres’. This was a thoughtful analysis of the role of risk and the experience of an exposure to nature in the development of young minds; in 1972 when it was first published it made a major impact on this then fast developing field of education. It remained in print for many years and sold hundreds of copies nationwide. A more eclectic work that Dras was involved with in this decade was a joint publication with the US climber and academic Michael Tobias, ‘The Mountain Spirit’ published in 1980. This was in retrospect an unusual and surprising work, a potpourri of articles, poems, and anthology, and some pieces written especially for the book by David Roberts and Arne Naess and by the authors. It was full of Zen and Tao, including a piece by HSU who visited every mountain range in eastern China in the 16th century. It was met with such a mixture of like and dislike that it remains one of the most unusual books to be published in that era.
A person who was impressed by ‘The Mountain Spirit’ however was a friend in Manchester, who at that date was a drama student, Nick Shearman. I attended at a theatre in town to see him act in a stage adaptation of the Dracula story. He was also a keen rock climber, and thus when he admitted an interest in meeting Dras I took Nick to meet him at The Towers. Shearman was an enthusiast for the plays of Samuel Beckett, and once met up they gelled and discussed Yeats, Beckett, Joyce and mountain themed writing till the wee small hours. Shearman remained impressed, and I valued his opinion for he was an outstanding personality himself, who went on to enjoy a major career in television production as an independent and at the BBC. This meeting led on to me organising in Manchester a Mountain Literature Evening, at which Dras was one of the speakers, others being Ivan Waller telling about an amazing escape from a crashed plane in the war and Tony Barley who survived an epic rescue after a huge fall in a remote area of South Africa; the theme of the Evening being ‘Risk and Adventure’.
Dras was a serious thinker, and he loved to draft, rewrite either a talk or article to firm up his ideas which is why he did not publish easily, but the articles he did finalise such as ‘The Art of Cheating’ originally published in Mountain Magazine are worth re-reading, again and again.Bradford Lads at that thar ODG.
In 1997 Dras published an autobiography, ‘The Ordinary Route’, which besides describing a life full of climbing in many different locations Yosemite, Greece, The Sinai besides the UK and Ireland he revealed his thinking about access and conservation in mountain environments. I had forgotten just what a good read this book really is, having re-read it before commencing this article, and the chapter on access campaigns underlines his lifelong belief in anarchism; which confirms the need to support local action, away from centralised decision making.
Dras was a lifer when considering his climbing activities, and in the year 2000, he and his brother Neville celebrated 50 years of new routing; ‘Cravat VS 4C’ on Bowfell’s Neckband crag in 1950 and ‘Two against nature S 4a’ on Craig Ddu, Moel Siabod in 2000. He was a consistent explorer of crags in North Wales, and continued to be active in the Arenig’s for many years, accompanied by John Appleby and other friends besides occasionally his brother.
Neville Drasdo has now retired from a stand out career in optical neuro physiology, as a Professor in the school of optometry and vision sciences at Cardiff University, producing 80 research items and receiving over 2000 citations. As a climber, many of his early years were confined due to working on a Saturday in Bradford. Climbing on his one day off he nevertheless managed to pioneer some highly technical routes on local outcrops of which Bald Pate Direct E2 5c at Ilkley and Alibi HVS 5b at Widdop are illustrations of his abilities. Physically he was a doppelganger of Dras and when I was 15 and Neville 19, in 1951 we met up in Glencoe, staying in Cameron’s Barn high in the Pass on the edge of the Inverness Road. We ascended several classic routes on the Buachaille Etive Mor; the Whortlebury Wall, Agag’s Groove, Red Slab and The Crowberry Ridge Direct.
HD on the first ascent of 'Jac Codi Baw' on Arenig Fawr
We even tried the then hardest route in Glencoe, Gallows Route; Neville almost succeeded on this but sticking in the final groove, unable to exit from it, his retreat back down the groove and across the traverse he had made to reach this was heart stopping! This climb had been unrepeated since its first ascent by John Cunningham in 1947, and for us teenagers to nonchalantly be attempting this makes me wonder at our initiative even now.
Neville went on to make some impressive first ascents on Skye and in the North West Highlands of which his 1000 ft route on the Sgurr an Fhidhleir in Coigach was a major development in that area. And in North Wales his most impressive new climb was in accompanying Joe Brown on the 1st ascent of ‘Hardd’ E2 5c on Carreg Hyll Drem.
Dras died in 2015 and though Neville is now suffering from a serious medical condition my most recent message from him was that he was still ‘Hanging On’.
And now as I finish with this, I see in my mind’s eye two figures standing together in the winter of 1951/2. We are in Borrowdale early in the morning and snow is lying deep on the ground and set like iron. This vision is one of the Drasdo brothers, wearing boots shod with Tricouni nails, and they are just leaving to climb in the Newland’s Valley. The rest of us Bradford Lads are heading for Great End, long ice axes at the ready, to do battle with its famous gully climbs. But that was not for Dras, he was ahead of the game and he had realised that the future lay in climbing rock routes in winter conditions. They did just that, climbing a severe summer route, made all the more demanding layered by snow and ice.
Harold under Pavey Ark
Harold and Neville Drasdo were two of the most outstanding, creative climbers of my generation.
From humble beginnings they carved out for themselves lives and careers of great worth and their achievements and character will keep their memories alive for all who knew them. Which in Dras's case are the hundreds of school children who were introduced to the rivers, hills and moorlands of an outdoor adventure playground, which is a truly suitable memorial.
Dennis Gray 2018.
Special thanks to Maureen Drasdo and Gordon Mansell for supplying many of these never seen before images.