Most sports have sub-cultures. It is rumoured that Subbuteo table football has a national league, and some people go canoeing along underground sewers. One spin-off from rock-climbing is the rarely publicised but much-practised art of climbing on "natural" outdoor walls. This is particularly widespread in South London, presumably to do some violence to Mallory's famous answer, "Because it is there" ("it" being the real thing, in the form of famous cliffs like the Sobell Sports Centre). In fact, the origins of outdoor wall climbing in London lie north of the river, but a combination of indoor facilities and gentrification knocked that on the head. In the early 1970s the lovely century-old red brickwork of the towpath walks and bridges of the Regent Street Canal, in Camden and Islington, was turned into a high-standard playground by legendary figures like Mickey Rock. Water Bailiffs and stomach pumps if you fell in were among the hazards in those romantic days, but the final blows to climbing were the mortar and trowels of council workmen as the canal banks went up market.
Only faintly-painted signs like "Rouse's Climb" and "Arthritis Wall" remain today of those desperate problems. It was about this time that the Isle of Dogs sightings began. London's Dockland is the biggest development area in Western Europe, or possibly the world. When it rains you can taste the saliva from the finance houses' mouths on the drops. Chris Hoyland saw it first, and just as Elvis's "Sun" recordings fixed the definitive image of the rock singer as the half-crazed guitar strumming country boy singing his heart out, so his descriptions of the dock wall exposed by McAlpines, 40ft of dimpled granite, glistening like an Eskdale outcrop, fired the imaginations of a generation of London climbers. For years after, the Isle of Dogs Wall would surface occasionally, but like its fabled Loch Ness cousin, never long enough for those who sighted it to get an A-Z reference.
I stumbled on Cottage Grove Wall by chance, even though it is only half-a-mile from where I live. The graffiti was the first attraction. It was not quite up to the "Open the second front now" which until recently adorned a wall in Leeds, but references to "Frampton" and "Hendrix" gave it quite a respectable age. Indeed, the medieval spelling of "wancking" suggested a more ancient lineage. It lies against a railway line, 300 yards south of Clapham North tube station, 18 by 100 ft. of gnarled brickwork, Bedford best. At first the aim was upward progress, but the ten or so vertical lines are never climbed now. Rectangular holes just below the top explain why. Leaving aside the perils of dogshit, you risked your life in at least three ways: a broken back, a second later a crack on the skull, and then a pulverised wrist as the brick to which you had entrusted your weight landed on top of it.
So traversing became the order of the day. Although I say it myself the full length is a masterpiece, sustained 5a/5b climbing, never more than a few feet above the ground. Lest you be thinking that paradise awaits on Cottage Grove Estate, beware — there are some unpleasant features. Like Fair Head in County Antrim, it faces the wrong way. Unless you are in training for a winter traverse of Cloggy's West Buttress, stay away until the spring. The small asphalt playground at its foot doubles as a toilet for the local rag and bone man's horse, many dogs and the occasional human. Views differ as to whether the other users of what the local town-planners designate "a community facility" add or detract from the ambience. A variety of sports are played, often simultaneously.
Dave Cook: Photo Ian Smith
Bold spirits among the climbers sometimes enlist their players to add excitement, and then "Rollerwall" is played. The object is to hit the sideways-moving "spiders" as local legend describes us. Tennis and footballs make this a good game, but beware the local roller-skate hockey-players. Their "corkies" can maim. Further south in deepest Lambeth lie walls awaiting the next generation. At Emmanuel Road, dripping railway arches fill the sky. I hope that when the long-awaited Brixton Sports Centre finally opens, purpose-built indoor wall included, some of the young "spiders" that it trains will test their steel fingers on these sombre walls; Map Reference: 3F 77 or 89 Z8, depending on which A-Z you use.
Stop Press: The author wishes to inform readers that urban development is now threatening access.*
First Published in High-April 1985