Paul Harrison & David Hope.
Vertebrate Publishing £27.50 422pp
When I started climbing over sixty years ago, the deprivations of the recent war had virtually ceased. It was, after all, the time when, according to the then prime minister, Harold MacMillan, people “had never had it so good”. There was, however, one serious shortage and that was the production of rock climbing guides. Those that had existed were long out of print or, owing to the explosion of new routes, completely out of date. Moreover, such had been the leap in standards that the only people capable of describing the recent advances were too busy chalking off new routes to spend precious time on retrospective assessment.
Nowadays climbers decide where they want to climb then buy the relevant guidebook. In the fifties the destination was dictated by any guide book you were lucky enough to get your hands on, which accounts for a) my first proper climbing being on the West face of Pillar Rock and b) A Climbing Guide to Brassington Rocks sitting on my bookshelf. It was a question of seizing any opportunity to broaden horizons (frantic scribblings of routes from Scottie Dwyer’s library comes to mind) and it was as a result of this habit that in 1965 Cornwall Volume II by V. N. Stevenson came into my possession.
In this review I hope to see how much has changed in terms of guide book production since my 1965 edition. The most obvious change is the general format. My early guidebook is 150 pages long and describes around 200 climbs. The combined effort of Harrison and Hope has multiplied the number of routes tenfold and have taken almost three times as many pages to do so. Two black and white photographs in ’65 have been replaced by a multiplicity of colour shots showing the blue sky, foaming sea and golden rock that is Cornish cliff climbing.
The second difference is equally pointed. In my earlier edition the General Editor explains the absence of ancillary material. A description of the local flora and fauna together with local history and geography had been omitted in the interests of prompt publication. Today’s guide makes up for that in spades. In a section entitled Access and Environmental issues, you are given not only a very thorough and well-illustrated account of the relevant plant and bird life but are also encouraged to take a responsible attitude to where and when you climb. Rightly, with the inclusion of The Green Agenda, the authors want to make clear the cavalier approach described in C. E. Montague’s short story Hanging Garden Gully has no place in modern exploration.
In the same way, the historical section is both more detailed and better researched. In 1965, it was acknowledged that the early ascents by local explorers had not been given due recognition, but did little to unravel the mystery other than to suggest that Kirkus’ Original route probably wasn’t. The record has been set straight. Starting from “The Twilight Years” that preceded the Second World War through the arrival of 5 Commando stationed in Falmouth to the “The Spirit of the Seventies” we are given a carefully constructed picture of the early development. Matters then move apace through the bolt controversy of the eighties up to the present day when, as always, the sea had the last word first demolishing Yankee Doodle at Lands End in 89/90, then 24 years later tearing away the lower portion of Chair Ladder’s classic, Terriers’ Tooth.
But what particularly interested me was what tone would be used when describing the climbs. The Climbers’ Club has a proud tradition of producing guides that were not only informative but also readable. Menlove Edwards set the bar in a review of a Fell & Rock Guide which he criticised for not giving a sense of the climb as a whole. His preferred approach may be gathered from the following description of the routes on the notoriously rotten Clogwyn y Geifr - It is not, of course, the cliff for those who attack the problem tooth and nail nor yet for those who rise by seizing every opportunity but I think it may be now considered safe for democracy. It was years since anybody was killed there. Although not quite so flamboyantly, this approach was maintained (I remember the long-awaited Banner and Crew guide to Cloggy being described as “more exciting than the latest Bond”) and I am pleased to say the current authors have not let the side down. Phrases like “the next mantle shelf will wipe the smile off your face” and the cheerful encouragement of “Do not despair when you discover that anything bigger than a 42-inch chest will not fit through the exit” show that there is still a human being behind the computer.
All in all, this is a magnificent effort by all concerned and any climber who, after even a cursory glance, does not immediately book a seat on the train to Penzance is advised to move along the book shelves to the section marked “Golf”