Varsity Archives

The challenge in describing the allure of night climbing lies not in discovering the motives, but rather in narrowing them down. Perhaps the most reductionist view is that of Ronald Turnball (hillwalker and writer): put a group of adventurous youths in an environment consisting of buildings, and they are bound to climb them. It’s a view backed up by Varsity, when in 1958 an intrepid reporter asked an anonymous organiser for comment on the Bond Mini found hanging under the Bridge of Sighs. They helpfully explained their motive; ‘we wanted to see whether we could hang a car under a bridge’.

Perhaps the most famous statement of this philosophy comes from George Mallory, when asked by a reporter why he’d climbed Everest (because it’s there). And philosophy isn’t an overstatement - read the books (seriously, do) and you’ll discover equal parts diagrams and poetry. Geoffry Winthrope-Young, who sent Mallory his application to the Cambridge Climbing Club, also wrote the first ‘Roof Climber’s Guide to Trinity’ (1930), and is a recognised poet. The tradition continues into ‘The Night Climbers of Cambridge’ (1937), which concludes, ‘the climber is as a man standing on the edge of an abyss … he cannot but visualise what would happen if he stepped forward, and realises with a shock of what very small significance it would be’.

“we wanted to see whether we could hang a car under a bridge”

Reading old Varsity however, another answer appears: people do it for press. It’s hard to find a year where nocturnally aspirational activities don’t crop up in print. It’s a paradox in some ways, for such a secretive activity - but its very secrecy makes it food for the press. And climbers aren’t unaware of this potential; the original aim of this article was to discuss the politics of night climbers, as it appeared in Varsity’s photographs and articles. Beyond ‘radical’, however, this proved impossible.


Mountain View

Vintage Varsity: In which we are born

Unfortunately for night climbers, the author of ‘The Night Climbers of Cambridge’, was a failed Mosleyite candidate - his other published works include ’Return to Responsibility: A New Concept of the Case for Fascism in the Post-War World’ (1958). He is, however, outweighed by pacifists; even in Symington’s time, a banner went up between the spires of King’s Chapel to ‘Save Ethiopia’ (a protest at the fascist / Italian invasion under Mussolini). Nares Craig (a published communist and pacifist) also climbed in the 30’s, and was rusticated along with a fellow climber for attempting to hoist an effigy of George VI on King’s Chapel’ - a way of ‘mocking the whole pantomime of royalty’. This doesn’t make the press - but using King’s spires as an aerial headline continues to this day: ‘Slava Ukraini’ went up in 2022, a more nationalist version of the 60’s ‘Peace in Vietnam’ and ‘Ban the Bomb’. And even when the headlines aren’t involved, Varsity is; some of the best photographs are from the 60’s, taken by John Bulmer - who smuggled flashbulbs to take his photographs from the Varsity offices late at night.