Friday, 2 July 2010

A winter day at Harrison's

Gordon Stainforth soloing Unclimbed Wall in 1982: G Stainforth©

“The thing I remember most was the smell of the sandstone and the leaves on the ground,and of cigarette smoke....almost everyone there seemed to be smoking!”
Gordon Stainforth describing an early visit to Harrison’s in the mid sixties.

“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!”   Al Alvarez (recently).

“Harrison’s Rocks, a miserable outcrop for London picnickers!”
The late Robin Smith.

Although I’m fortunate enough to have lived in Derbyshire for most of my adult life, I am originally from that vast urban wasteland called South London. These days, by choice, my visits to the capital are rare but an invitation from my oldest friend to celebrate his sixtieth birthday had me driving down the M1 in bitter cold February weather. Needless to say, the celebrations were highly enjoyable, as the pints and the stories flowed and next morning saw me more than a little hung-over with a bad head. To quote Nick Lowe, it was a case of the full metal trilby! However the morning had dawned bright and sunny and I was determined to stick to my original plan to pay a visit to Harrison’s Rocks. I needed to get back to Derby that night, but the idea of visiting the outcrop came from an exchange of letters I’d recently had with Al Alvarez. In his letter Al had made it clear how much he had come to miss his regular visits to Harrison’s as he could no longer get around easily and he ruefully cursed the passing years:
“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!”

For myself, as of course for many others, Harrison’s is where it all started; it is where as an awkward teenager I first tried (with minimal success it has been said) to climb rocks. In no time, I was captivated by climbing and all that went with it and was making every effort to get out most weekends. Like Al and of course countless others, the sandstone outcrops of East Sussex and Kent hold a wealth of treasured memories for me. It was here that I tried to make that often fraught transition from school kid to adulthood and on the way I had a lot of laughs and met some excellent characters. Nonetheless, it was more than twenty years since I’d visited Harrison’s and this being a bitter cold midweek day, I was looking forward to having a quiet stroll around without many people being there.

Now, I’ve long subscribed to the notion that if you climb for long enough, in my case well over forty years, the intensive nature of the activity coupled with deep friendships you form cause your memories to be particularly vivid. Recollections of long ago can be triggered off by the most mundane things like a road sign or a trivial fragment of music on the radio. Today was to be something of a day of memories and of long forgotten recollections. Despite my hung-over state, I left my friend’s house and pointed the car down the A21, heading for the M25. A sign came up for a place called Green Street Green, a small village near Dartford. This was the home of seventies gritstone ace John Syrett before he went up to university at Leeds. I never actually met John, but I saw him climbing in Wales around 1970. My friends Tim James and the Stainforth twins Gordon and John climbed a great deal with John and had a very high opinion of him both as a climber and as a person. As I drove south I pondered on the great sadness of his early death in 1985, seemingly a victim of alcohol and deep depression. A prince among gritstoners, John’s contribution to Yorkshire climbing was considerable and his memory is still cherished by many.

My favourite approach to Harrison’s is to drive down to East Grinstead and Forest Row, our usual hitching route out of London in the early days, and then to head east along the quiet B2110. This allows you to appreciate the real beauty of this part of the Ashdown Forest. Here are pretty rolling hills dotted with areas of rich woodland and tiny villages with weatherboarding on the buildings, old Saxon churches and oast houses. It is a truly lovely part of England, and on this cold and sunny morning, I thought it had never looked better. Many years ago when I still lived in London, a climbing mate from Huddersfield came to stay. We envied him living in West Yorkshire with easy access to so many superb crags, but he was completely bowled over by the beauty of this part of East Sussex and Kent, something we at the time took for granted. On this bright morning his warm reaction to the place came back to me and I smiled at the memory. On this approach to Groombridge you pass through two particularly pretty villages, Upper Hartfield and Withyham. Upper Hartfield is where A.A. Milne the creator of Winnie the Pooh had a large house; the place where Rolling Stone Brian Jones died in the summer of 1969. Withyham is where you find the Dorset Arms, a wonderful country ale house of rare quality.

With it being midweek Groombridge was very quiet and I drove up past the station and the cricket ground, lamenting the passing of the much loved Festerhaunt. I drove down to the Harrison’s car park, to find only two cars there. The leafless trees rustled in the breeze and a light fall of snow lay on the ground; it was delightfully peaceful and I felt very glad to be back there after so many years. The walk up to the top of the crag is probably less than half a mile, yet I fondly remember as a youngster, it seemed never ending so eager were we to get our hands on rock! Living now as I do in very close proximity to the wonderful crags of the Peak District, it is easy to forget just how rock starved London based climbers are and how important these small sandstone outcrops are to them. One of the best overviews on visiting these places came from Jim Curran* back in 1991:

“The wonderful, heady smell of sandstone, leaf mould, hemp rope and sweat; a grim struggle, plimsolls flapping, up one of the two or three easy climbs we managed on a tight top rope; furtive skulkings down rhododendron-lined paths with the bulging rounded buttresses like big beer guts poking through the undergrowth……a long dark walk to East Grinstead station to catch the last train back to Victoria. There, sitting looking out into the dark night and the lights of suburban Surrey as London drew closer, nursing aching arms and fingers, I felt the stirrings of a strange elation that thirty years on is as addictive as ever.”

Walking up towards the crag, I met a friendly couple out walking a lively Springer spaniel but otherwise there seemed to be nobody about. I reached the rocks and peered down Slab Direct immediately noticing how the trees below the crag seemed to have been thinned out, giving quite a clear view over to the railway tracks. I scrambled down to the foot of the rocks and then had a wander up to the North Boulder. Despite the snow on the ground, many of the holds were chalked up and it was good to see that plenty of bouldering was getting done. The sun shone brightly through the leafless trees and I walked slowly along the foot of the rocks delighting in having the place to myself. I made my way to the foot of Diabollikal Crack and Slab Direct------something of a pilgrimage this, these were the very first climbs I ever did. We had travelled down from Tooting in a minibus, with very little idea of what lay ahead. It was May 1967, someone had a radio playing Purple Haze by Jimi Hendrix and Waterloo Sunset by The Kinks, and we were really just after having a good laugh and a pint afterwards. None of us showed much talent for climbing, least of all me, but walking back to Groombridge that night something clicked in my mind. I’d enjoyed the day hugely despite showing little or no talent and with a like minded mate Dave Heddon, I was back there a week later with a borrowed rope. The passion for climbing just grew from there, augmented by the brilliant music of that period, the discovery of alcohol and the adventure of hitching up to Wales, the Lakes and Scotland. Nothing unusual in this, many people have gone down a similar road, but they say that you never forget first loves and I cherish the memory of those early visits to Harrison’s. The place seemed so beautiful compared to where I grew up in London, the air never felt cleaner and the beer had never tasted better.
Nigel Chadwick©

To the right of Slab Direct, next to the Hangover routes and Long Layback, is the fine wall that contains such classics as The Flakes, Coronation Crack and the Limpet. Over the years I watched some excellent climbers in action here and certainly sandstone with its own peculiar nature soon rewards those with the right combination of strength and technical ability, yet utterly confuses some climbers. I’ve seen the same thing happen at Helsby and particularly in Northumberland where many visitors are humbled by this rock type. In the late sixties and early seventies, I often saw people like the Holliwell brothers with their mate Robin Harper, Trevor Panther who always seemed to climb barefoot, Ben and Marion Wintringham and perhaps the finest of them all Martin Boysen who always seemed to look relaxed even on the hardest of routes. Later I recall seeing a young Mick Fowler here and powerful climbers such as Guy McLelland and Dave Jones. Northern climbers are often scornful of the Sussex/Kent outcrops because of the general practice of top roping due to the soft nature of the rock, but a lot of bold soloing has gone on over the years and continues to this day. The Holliwells were notorious for not bothering to use a rope and would sometimes notch up thirty routes in a session, though to quote Les, “We did take a few tumbles on the way!” The Harrison’s classic Slimfinger Crack (a fine strenuous 5C) was soloed as early as the late 1940s by the likes of Tony Moulam, Menlove Edwards and Johnny Lees and wide scope for considerable boldness on these rocks remains for future generations.

At the Kendal Mountain Festival in 2008, Jim Curran had an excellent exhibition of his paintings and drawings that included many images of the Sussex/Kent outcrops. I thought it very significant that Jim, who has travelled extensively amongst the great mountain ranges of the world, should find such inspiration for his work in a return to his own climbing roots. As I’ve already said we never forget first loves and Jim’s work was of great charm and captured much of the essence of Harrison’s and the nearby High Rocks. One of the paintings was a large work about 20ft x 10ft, of the wall at Harrison’s between Long Layback and The Limpet. It dominated the gallery and I joined other sad sandstone refugees who were picking out the lines of the various routes much to Jim’s amusement! It seems that early Sandstone addiction has this effect on many devotees. Gordon Stainforth started visiting Harrison’s in the mid sixties with his brother John, cycling down regularly from boarding school at Tonbridge. On one very funny occasion in a pub in Derby when we were shall I say somewhat well refreshed, Gordon stood up and commenced to enact every single move on the Harrison’s classic Niblick. His attention to detail was astonishing and  gave a clear indication not only of a healthy level of slight insanity, but a deep level of affection for the place just like my own. I’m pleased to report that no beer was spilt during Gordon’s performance! People in the pub looked on bemused as all this took place, but I know that such behaviour is not unusual among southern sandstone addicts.

The Niblick was on my mind as I continued to walk along the foot of the rocks, past a very wet (as ever!) Sewer Wall area with the fallen tree still leaning on the rocks. I glanced up at Sewer Wall and thought back ruefully to my first ever abseil there, a most unnerving experience. Like many climbers, I only abseil when it is really necessary and can’t understand why people do it for fun! I glanced down through the trees as a train rattled past on its way into Eridge station and enjoyed the gentle bird song in the trees. I was aware of that distinctive sandstone smell and could hardly believe that it was twenty years since I’d been to this place. When we first started climbing here, the routes we aspired to were Slimfinger Crack, The Niblick and Unclimbed Wall and with good reason. All three are excellent and require not a little strength and plenty of technique.

As I’d mentioned, so far I had met no one else at the crag, but as I approached The Isolated Buttress I was delighted to see that despite the snow on the ground, two people were climbing. Two greybeards (i.e. they were even older than me) were engrossed in the delights of the excellent Birchen Wall. One of them was halfway up the wall, top roped by his mate who was wearing an old overcoat. Frank and Chris turned out to be very friendly and were down for the day from somewhere near Croydon. They were keen sandstone regulars and enjoyed having the place to themselves midweek avoiding the weekend crowds. Frank had known Al Harris and Tony Willmott and we chatted awhile about times past and friends no longer with us. I was then offered the end of the rope, so I got my rock shoes on, tied on with a traditional bowline round the waist and turned my attention to Birchen Wall. It must have been thirty years since I’d done this lovely climb, but I moved steadily up the wall savouring the moves. The rock was bone dry, but very cold and I soon had numb fingers, but it was an unexpected treat to be climbing today and all too soon I was at the top.

We chatted a little more and then while they moved on to climb elsewhere, I carried on walking down towards the Unclimbed Wall area. This was always on of my favourite parts of Harrison’s with several excellent climbs to choose from. Talking to Frank and Chris caused me to think about Al Harris and Tony Willmott. I only met Al a couple of times but around 1969/72 I used to chat with Tony regularly and often in the YHA shop at Charing Cross where he worked. Tony came from Sutton and at that time was rapidly making a name for himself, particularly in the Avon Gorge. I fondly remember one occasion at Harrison’s late in the day when we were packing up, ready to head for the pub. Tony was in action, climbing that fine sandstone test piece Sossblitz. He was being heckled by his mates from the North London MC, but proceeded to cruise up the route (a particularly demanding 6B) giving a running commentary on how to execute each move amidst much general banter and laughter. Somehow that memory has always seemed to me, to sum up just what Harrison’s was all about.

In truth, I can never think about Tony without a pang of deep sadness, as his death at the age of only twenty three was a tragic waste, that deprived us of a charismatic and intelligent lad. He had just settled in Bristol and was getting established as an outstanding rock climber with some excellent first ascents throughout the South West. I was at Avon with my mate Sid when he had that fatal fall soloing home on wet rock and I’ve never forgotten the shock and dismay of everyone there on that awful afternoon.

I sat on a tree stump below Unclimbed Wall and fondly remembered the old days when a short walk from Eridge station, led to a crossing over the railway and a quick access onto the crag just below Unclimbed Wall. One delightful aspect of the Harrison’s experience is the reopening of the railway line from Tunbridge Wells, past High Rocks and through Groombridge, to join the main line at Eridge and the use of steam locomotives on the line. A lovely touch of nostalgia, particularly for those of us who remember steam trains in this party of England from our childhood.

What had caught my eye in comparison to visits many years before, was the degree of tree removal and thinning that had been carried out giving the place a welcome, much more open feel. A notice on one of the trees indicated that this process is known as coppicing, a process of well thought out management by the Forestry Commission. The sandstone is at its best when tree cover is reduced (i.e. at Bowles Rocks and increasingly at High Rocks) and this work seems to bode well for much of Harrison’s.

I walked back along the bottom of the crag and then dropped down to the lower footpath, which with the thinning out of the tree cover, gives a good wider view of the place. The afternoon was getting on now, the sun though still quite bright was low in the sky bathing the rocks in a pleasing winter light. As I looked up through the trees a train rattled past en-route for Croydon and then Victoria, but as the noise of the train faded away all I could hear was lovely birdsong and occasionally the voices of Frank and Chris who had moved along to climb the mega classic Niblick. Chris was halfway up the climb, as Frank belayed him whilst enjoying a fag. They were the only people I saw there for the whole day, and as I walked on I reflected on what a lovely contrast this was to weekends, when the place is nearly always badly overcrowded. Walking along the lower path was very pleasant. Somewhere quite near I could hear a woodpecker drumming away and despite the coolness of the afternoon, I sensed that the place would soon be covered in bluebells, always one of the great delights of much of the woodland in this part of England.
Gordon Stainforth on Slimfinger Crack 1968: G Stainforth©

I started thinking about a little of the history of the place, a crag that means so much to so many. In the late 1920s Nea and Jean Morin climbed here with companions such as Eric Shipton and Charles Marriot. The wonderful Unclimbed Wall dates from this period and in the early thirties Courtney Bryson produced the first guide to the rocks. How peaceful it must have been back then, long before the boom in popularity. The rocks are thought to be named after a local farmer William Harrison, who manufactured firearms there until around 1750. The Forestry Commission bought the land in the early 1950s and in 1958 the rocks were purchased by a group of climbers including Dennis Kemp and Joe Jagger, father of Rolling Stone Mick. The rocks are now owned by the BMC Land & Property Trust. Long may they provide pleasure for future generations, in this delightful rural setting. The relatively close proximity of London is always going to result in considerable pressure on this fragile environment but sterling work has been done over the years by a great many people and a huge debt is owed to Terry Tullis in particular.

I wandered back up to the crag, touched the sandstone fondly for the last time and then scrambled back up to the main forest path back to the car park. It had turned very cold now and I was glad of a wool hat and gloves. It would be dark in half an hour and to the north over London the sky looked full of more snow. I walked quickly back to the car, aware that I had the delights of the evening rush hour on the M25 and a 200 mile drive ahead of me. It had been worth it though, my hangover was but a memory and today’s visit to Harrison’s had been a delight and a fond reminder of so much. As I’ve grown older and I hope a little wiser, I have learnt to be wary of nostalgia as memory can so often distort and give an unbalanced sense of significance. Life should always be focused on the present and the future, but just occasionally some places, smells or perhaps pieces of music can ambush us all and our lives are the richer for it.

My first few visits to Harrison’s were followed a few weeks later by the wonderful BBC Outside Broadcast from the Old Man of Hoy. Like millions of others, I watched spellbound as our heroes laconically made their way up that amazing sea stack. The place seemed so excitingly remote and as a boy still at school I never dreamt that twenty years later, I’d climb the Old Man myself. To this day, the sounds of Procol Harum’s ‘Whiter Shade of Pale’ and Traffic’s ‘Paper Sun’ transport me back to those gothic black and white images of the climbers and the reverential almost hushed commentary of Chris Brasher. Even to a total novice like I was, it was obvious what strange charisma was possessed by both Joe Brown and Dougal Haston.

From the peace of the woods around Harrison’s it was only about twenty minutes drive to the mayhem of the M25 and a reminder to me of how glad I am that I live in Derbyshire. The motorway became even more congested as I approached the Dartford Crossing. Whenever I pass this way, I’m always reminded of a conversation I had some years ago with Les Holliwell. Les described how sometimes on midweek evenings after work, he would meet brother Lawrie at the crossing and then drive over to Harrison’s or Bowles Rocks to try and knock off 15-20 routes before it got dark. In his words “We used to crawl home absolutely exhausted!” Now, north of the Thames over to Groombridge or Eridge these days is not too bad a drive, but they were doing this long before the M25 was built------they must have been knackered next morning getting up for work.

I drove through the Dartford Tunnel and on towards the north. It was dark and my mind wandered back to the kind letter I’d received from Al Alvarez, which had started me thinking of visiting Harrison’s after so many years. For many years Al was a regular weekend visitor to the rocks, part of a group that frequently included Ian McNaught-Davis. I remember sometimes seeing them there and the frequent good natured banter that was a feature of that team. Good natured banter and laughter; they are perhaps the things I remember best about those days down on the sandstone forty years ago. I can still hear the voices of my mates Dave, Sid, Ray and Mick encouraging and mocking in equal measure as the occasion demanded and then the tired, dry mouthed walk to the pub and pints of wonderful Kentish bitter. Pretensions deflated, good honest efforts admired, all parts of learning to be a bloke and not a kid any more------laughter, joy and good friendship.

As I continued up the M1, the snow from the north got gradually heavier and I only just made it back to Derby before the motorway was closed. I was very tired when I got home, but it had been a precious day remembering long forgotten joys of a place that has a place in the hearts of all London climbers. As I said before, I’m wary of nostalgia, but sometimes it can remind us of deep truths about our lives and of our depth of feeling for friends and special places. Good old Harrison’s! That little crag put so many of us on the road to countless delights and exciting times, long may this continue, for climbers still to come.

A Winter day at Harrison's: Andrew Hughes©

Steve Dean 2010©

My thanks to Gordon Stainforth , Andrew Hughes and Nigel Chadwick for use of their photographs.Not forgetting of course, Steve Dean for the article!