Night Climbers of Cambridge

For over a century the buildings of Cambridge University have been subject to clandestine visitations from shadowy figures.


Camouflaged beneath the nocturnal sky, the daredevil explorers are known as ‘Night Climbers’. Attempting to conquer the unique challenges posed by each building they scale; Night Climbers traverse the urban environment with which they are presented through techniques traditionally found in bouldering and rock climbing. Any climber valiant enough to reach the building's summits is rewarded with breath-taking panoramas of the city, as well as bragging rights amongst fellow students. In Cambridge, the Night Climbers have achieved legendary status amongst students and townsfolk alike. Stories of their exploits are recounted daily by punt chauffeurs giving tours of the ‘College Backs’, a stretch of the River Cam that passes by some of the most famous colleges within the university.

The intricacies of the city’s gothic architecture provide climbing surfaces that are not dissimilar from the crimps and holds found on mountains or artificial climbing walls. Due to this, Night Climbing proved a popular sport with members of Cambridge’s mountaineering club. For the particularly intrepid amongst the club, it was viewed as a solution to the quandary posed by being an avid climber attending a university situated in one of the flattest areas in Britain. To encourage others to participate in the sport, Geoffrey Winthrop Young authored the first book dedicated to tutorials on urban climbing in the city with ‘The Roof-Climber's Guide to Trinity’ published in 1899. Along the College Backs, Trinity faced their biggest inter-collegiate rival, St. John’s College. The two have been engaged in a bitter rivalry stretching as far back as King Henry VIII’s reign and so it was only natural that a group of John’s students should release ‘The Roof-Climber's Guide to St. John's' as a riposte. Published in 1921 under the moniker ‘A.Climber’ the book sought to expand upon Winthrop-Young’s work through instructing climbers on the best routes around their own college. 

The tradition of preserving anonymity for the risk of potential reprisal would be continued in 1937’s ‘The Night Climbers of Cambridge’, the most famous chronicle on the niche subculture. Re-published in updated editions multiple times, 'The Night Climbers of Cambridge’ was written under the alias ‘Whipplesnaith’. ‘Whipple’ was derived from Middle English meaning to move around briskly and ‘snaith’ was taken from the old Norse for a patch of ground. The use of an alias subsequently added to the book’s legend, and it wouldn’t be until 70 years later that the elusive author’s identity was finally revealed. The foreword to the 2007 edition of the book includes a letter from Whipplesnaith’s son who identifies him as Noel. H. Symington, an eager mountaineer who appears in many of the photos included in his book. Like its predecessors, Whipplesnaith’s guide aimed to provide students with detailed methodologies, complete with diagrams and a plethora of photographs instructing readers on the best routes and techniques to use when traversing the university buildings. The book encouraged climbers to climb these routes in the safest and most efficient way possible.

With the undergraduate population constantly changing, the majority of climbers were afforded a 3-year period to climb in, minus the weeks spent revising and writing essays. By providing a comprehensive guide, complete beginners to the sport could go on to master the art as quickly as possible. Alongside the praise it receives for its invaluable guidance, the book is also highly celebrated for the poetic language and philosophical musings included within its pages. Whipplesnaith elevates Night Climbing from a sporting endeavour to an artistic call to adventure, even presenting climbing as a way of achieving some form of enlightenment ‘from the height a climber reaches, his range of vision increases, and he sees himself as well as the world around him.  The inclusion of these aphoristic observations means that readers, who have most likely never even dreamt of attempting a climb, can still find the book an engrossing read. 

He states that the beginning of many students' climbing careers stemmed from the evenings when they would have to climb back into their colleges or face a fine for returning after 10 pm when college gates would be locked. Whilst these incidents were commonplace amongst students, Whipplesnaith delineates that of those who have had to climb back into their college, ‘it is the few, the handful of men (and women) in each college who are caught by the fascination of buildings at night, who become the night climbers’. Whilst there is, of course, no official grading system for these routes other than the difficulty levels agreed upon amongst climbers, some climbs have become notorious within the community. A few of the better-known climbs documented in the book include the clock tower of St. John’s College accommodation, the ‘New Court’, the Bridge of Sighs, Fitzwilliam Museum chimneys and the Senate House Leap. The Senate House Leap is infamous as it involves jumping from Caius College to the Senate House, the buildings in which graduations are held, with no run-up and a sheer drop to the street below. Of all the climbs in the city, it is only fitting that Cambridge’s most iconic building should in turn be considered the most iconic climb of all. King’s College Chapel is considered a marvel of Gothic English architecture with its construction taking almost an entire century, beginning during King Henry VI’s reign and ending in 1515 under King Henry VIII’s rule. The view through to King’s College Chapel and the Gibbs Building is synonymous with Cambridge University and can be found on countless postcards and paintings. Its recognition as the university’s most famous landmark meant that conquering King’s College Chapel was (and still is) considered the ultimate accomplishment amongst climbers.

In the impractical clothing of 1930s fashion; climbers wearing 3-piece suits, tweed jackets, loafers and plus fours, whilst clambering to the summits of Cambridge. Even more impractical were the large format cameras of the time. As photos were being taken in the dead of night, a large external flash was required to capture images and could jeopardise the success of a climb. Great care would have to be taken when photographing a subject who was balanced in a precarious situation to avoid distracting them too much. Alongside this, there is the ever-present threat of college porters, guards who walk the college grounds in suits and bowler hats. The repercussions of being caught by a porter are always in the periphery of a climber’s mind and they must train themselves to concentrate on climbing treacherous routes whilst maintaining their invisibility.

Despite the obvious physical dangers posed by scaling these buildings, students who engage in the activity also run the risk of being suspended or expelled, also known as ‘rustication’ in Oxbridge and Durham. Night Climbing is seen as an act of rebellion undertaken in the pursuit of the adrenaline rush and pride that comes from mastering an arduous city climb. Of the numerous students rusticated for the act of Night Climbing, one of the most notable is John Bulmer. Merely weeks before he was due to take the final exams of his engineering degree, John was expelled for a series of photographs he took of student climbers scaling King’s College Chapel. When university staff saw his photos plastered across the front of the Sunday Times, they were enraged that Bulmer was encouraging the sport and believed he was dedicating more time to photography than to his degree. Leaving for London upon his expulsion, Bulmer was offered a position working at the Daily Express. He would go on to achieve tremendous acclaim as a photojournalist with a career spanning over 60 years; his expulsion from Cambridge ended up being one of the best things to happen to him.

Over the years some climbers have decided to take their capers a step further by leaving behind mementoes to mark their achievements. These are often practical jokes, designed to baffle and entertain people walking on the streets below. Sometimes however they are left as a form of activism, such as in 1965 when a banner reading ‘PEACE IN VIETNAM’ was attached between the pinnacles of King’s College Chapel. Leaving a souvenir as an attestation to your visit also acts as a way of proving to friends and fellow climbers that you had triumphed in your ventures. If you told your friends the day before a climb to check the rooftops for a pre-disclosed item, should they spot the item you promised to leave, they would know you had delivered upon your promise. This was also a way of getting around having to carry a large format camera during a climb as it would avoid the risk of potentially exposing your whereabouts with a bright camera flash to any college staff that may be wandering below.

In 2009 during the festive period, Santa hats were left on the pinnacles of King’s College Chapel. Desperate to see the hats removed before camera crews arrived to film ‘Carols at King’s College Chapel’, a choir service which is broadcast worldwide every Christmas Eve, college porters were sent up to the roof to devise a way of removing them. This proved a significantly more difficult task than it appeared from the ground, however, partly as the porters were older gentlemen who lacked the strength and bouldering skills to climb the pinnacles, and partly because they didn’t particularly fancy risking their lives for a student prank. King’s College ended up paying thousands of pounds to hire professional steeplejacks, much to the university’s dismay.  

The most remarkable prank pulled off by a group of students happened in 1958, when a car was brought up onto the roof of the Senate House. The car, a vintage Austin Seven, was driven over from Essex and hoisted onto the 70-foot-tall building, its engine and wheels removed. It was winched up with a scaffold and cables and once complete they propped the wheels up against it to give the appearance of a fully functional vehicle. In the morning, professors, porters and students were left trying to understand how the car had appeared there overnight. Strongly suspicious of which students were responsible, the college’s master decided to leave a bottle of champagne outside their dorm instead of punishing them as he saw the prank as ingenious. The culprits would eventually identify themselves as a group of 12 engineering students and their prank still remains the most famous ever pulled off in the university’s history. 

An Austin Seven was used in another prank 5 years later when students punted one down the river and suspended it from the Bridge of Sighs which connects St. John’s New Court to the older side of the college. As the story and photographs of the prank spread, rumours developed that the car in question was stolen from a college master’s prized vintage collection, leaving him livid. In truth, the car was collected from a garage in town. A group of students approached a mechanic interested in buying the old car, which also had no engine or gearbox like the one found atop Senate House. The mechanic’s suspicions grew when the group seemed unbothered by his warning that it would take quite a bit of effort to get the car in working order; he then also noted the similarities between the Austin Seven in his possession and the one in a similar state of disrepair used by student prankster a few years before and asked them, ‘this isn't for some stupid prank is it?’. Whilst he didn’t want any involvement with aiding them in their mischief, he was desperate to be rid of the ramshackle vehicle so told them if the car was gone by the morning, he would say nothing.

The tradition of Night Climbing continues today with the guidebooks of the early 20th century still being used to advise new generations of wide-eyed undergraduates, matriculating into the university. As a great number of the university’s buildings are protected under-listed status, the guides are still as useful today as they were when first published. Climbing is particularly prevalent around mid-June during ‘May Week’ when the colleges throw extravagant balls for students to attend. During ‘May Week’ you may spot a climber dressed in a tuxedo or ball gown attempting to scale college walls to gain access to the parties without paying for a ticket. The incentive behind this is that, as the May Balls are all-inclusive, a brief climb could save you hundreds of pounds on a ticket and once you’ve found a way in you can enjoy endless free food and alcohol.

‘At this very moment there may be a dozen climbers on the buildings of Cambridge. They do not know each other; they are unlikely to meet… they are out in search of adventure, and in search of themselves’.
Whipplesnaith, 1937.


Words by Jared Phanco and accompanying images sourced from an edition of 'The Night Climbers of Cambridge'.

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