The climbers painfully making their way up the stained-glass windows of Cambridge University's King's Chapel (right) are pioneers. What is more, they are breaking the rules. Some time ago authorities at the English university, alarmed at the popularity of night climbing—or stegophily (love of roofs), as its most avid adherents sometimes call their sport—ordered spikes and blocks to be installed in the chapel's chimney. They also warned that students caught circumventing these hazards would be "sent down," or, as Americans might put it, bounced.
As these pictures by an anonymous Cambridge undergraduate attest, rather than discourage the students the university strictures seem only to have inspired them to greater, more ingenious efforts. The Cantabrigians, who work in sneakers and generally without the aid of ropes, haven't found a new route yet—it is a climb of 80 feet—but they are acutely conscious of the traditions behind them and here give notice that they are of no mind yet to allow a great past to slide down the walls of history unchallenged.
Among other things, they would regret the diminution of the much-revered practical joke, an art form which—for better, but usually worse—is inextricably linked with stegophily. One daring group at Oxford, for instance, topped off a classic climb on the face of Martyrs' Memorial by placing, in the words of The Times of London, "a domestic utensil much favored by past generations" on the topmost spire. At Cambridge, which is to stegophily what Notre Dame is to football, two umbrellas were deposited in 1932 on the pinnacles of Trinity College Chapel. They were duly shot down the following morning, but the next day two Union Jacks appeared in their place. With a cool obstinacy, the hired shotgun expert refused to fire upon the British flag. It cost the university the equivalent of $200 in steeplejack fees to get the flags down.
Whether it is for such gay pranks or because of more complicated deep-seated desires, Englishmen and in particular English schoolboys have been cascading up the sides of Gothic edifices for at least 400 years. An ascent is recorded of the Old St. Paul's Cathedral in Elizabethan times. Lord Clive, conqueror of India, is said to have slit his trousers on a church tower, and Lord Byron and Lawrence of Arabia are reputed to have climbed valorously at Cambridge and Oxford, respectively. In more modern times Westminster Cathedral's bold face has endured the grim toe holds of climbers, as has the Houses of Parliament's Big Ben, among other famous landmarks. The craze swept through the U.S.'s Ivy League colleges during earlier carefree days, and it is still practiced, though more seriously, at Reed College in Oregon.
March 9, 1959
With characteristic tongue in cheek, the English have developed a limited (four known books, to be exact) but wonderfully droll literature to memorialize their sport. One volume, The Night Climbers of Cambridge, set out to describe delectable climbs but developed into a spoof of mountain-climbing terms. In another, The Roof Climbers' Guide to Trinity, issued 30 years ago, there appeared a beautiful rationalization of roof climbing that should last as long as there are men who view architecture as a challenge. "Anyone who surveys the Library calmly and critically," the author wrote, "must conclude that Sir Christopher Wren designed it primarily for climbing and only incidentally as a bookstore." And who is to say Wren didn't?