Blaen y Nant Farmhouse 1953. the outhouse was the BEC Climbing hut from 1950 until 1954

The BEC Climbing Section; A History from 1950 to 1974

By R.S.’Kangy’ King

Climbing is the best of all sporting activities because it is at the same time completely stupid and deadly serious

Professor Copeland, letter to the Guardian.

Early climbing in the West Country was recorded in 1926, with climbs at Cheddar. In 1931 a Climbers Club party created ‘Knights Climb’, which was a Club favourite. A later discovery was E.G. Balcomb’s 1936 ‘Piton Route’ in the Avon Gorge. Balcomb of course was also prominent in primitive cave diving. The University of Bristol Mountaineering Club, with Hugh Banner (see Illustration). became hyperactive in the area between 1950 and 1953 and the modern era had arrived.

Member number 1, Harry Stanbury, stated in a letter to Belfry Bulletin number 501, that in 1935 when the Club was founded, the ‘Constitution and Rules’ included the phrase “the exploration of caves and mines, rock climbing and other such activities that will from time to time meet with the approval of the BEC committee”. This he said, “was because I was always scrambling about on the Cornish cliffs as a lad”. From the formation of the Club he climbed about Cheddar, Burrington (the ‘Rock of Ages’ provided sport), Ebbor and the Avon Gorge with Cecil Drummond and Charlie Faukes, though not with a rope. The Second World War put the BEC on hold but when members returned they and new recruits recommenced activities.

Roger Cantle joined the BEC in 1946 to cave. He was called for National Service and demobbed (demobilized from the Forces) in 1949. Avid reading of the exploits of Mallory and Irvine on Everest during his time away gave him an urge to take up climbing. He spent his demob. leave with Johnny Dwyer (Halfpint) in North Wales and met Liverpudlian Bob Crabtree, a kindred spirit with V.S. experience. They did their apprenticeship with clothes lines and triple hobnailed boots. Their climbs included “The Devil’s Kitchen’ at Idwal, ‘Lots Wife’ and ‘Flake Crack’ on Glyder Each. “The bug had bitten”. Hand written descriptions and the early, slender, Climbers Club guides were starting points for exploration. Leather boots were standard with a choice of nails, clinkers, good for mountaineering, or tricounis invented for ice and used successfully on harder grade rock. Johnny (‘The Menace’) Morris who had done some climbing in the Navy, was the first in the group to own a nylon rope. George Lucy, ‘Sago’ Rice, John Binden and Ron Newman along with Pat Ifold,were all original members. Pat Ifold joined this group in 1950 after being demobbed in North Africa. He hitchhiked home saving even more money by walking over mountains to avoid having to pay a toll for a tunnel.

The Lawder brothers, both Rear-Admiral and Commander, gave enthusiastic help with other areas such as Cheddar and the Dewerstone at Plymouth which they pioneered in 1948-49. The Dewerstone was introduced to the Section by Morris who lived near. At the Dewerstone the Section did a number of climbs including, in September 1950, the first ascent of ‘Climbers Club Superdirect’ climb. George Whitacker, Pat Ifold and Johnny Morris climbed this at HVS, which was outstanding for the period.

There were a number of members who were looking for more adventure than the local caving offered and in 1950 the Climbing Section was formed and Roger Cantle joined the Committee to represent the climbing interest. Roger said that he had some opposition from the BEC committee who were concerned that a separate climbing group would split the club but Alfie Collins said that his recollection was that as an Exploration Club the Club already had other sections so a climbing section would not have been a problem.

Blaen y Nant Farmhouse 1953. the outhouse was the BEC Climbing hut from 1950 until 1954A Club hut was established at Blaenant farm at Ogwen. Illn. Blaenant Farmhouse 1953. It had room for about six with an overflow into the adjacent barn and was rented from the farmer Mr. Jones who was keen on climbers and, though asthmatic, insisted on drying their clothes overnight in his house. The Climbing Log notes that the first meet there was in November 1950 (Bob Crabtree, John Monis, Pat Ifold, Roger Cantle). Regular attenders motorcycled to North Wales alternating with weekends on Mendip. They stayed at the Blaenant hut, ate at Mrs.Griffiths’ ‘Gorphwysfa’ Guest House at Capel Curig and drank at the Royal Hotel at Capel. The Royal has become the ‘Plas y Brenin’ outdoor centre.

The climbing log records much snow and ice work. Winters were harder then. Rock climbs were of the period, mostly V.Diff. and Severe, with excursions to Very Severe in Llanberis, good weather permitting. The long unprotected run-outs could make a leader feel quite lonely.

Eight members of the Section also met in the Lakes at Christmas 1950 staying at Holly Howe Youth Hostel. They climbed mostly on Dow Crag in icy conditions. The 1951 Easter meet at Blaenant was attended by twelve members who encountered particularly severe icy weather. The Bristol Evening Post recorded that Cantle, Ifold, Hal Perry and Tony Settrington went to the assistance of a man who had slid from the railway track down an icy slope above Clogwen du Arddu. He unfortunately died soon after. Pat Browne also helped to recover a girl’s body from the South Gully on Tryfan the same weekend.

Pat Browne took a job in a quarry in order to live and climb in North Wales. Sadly, before nylon became easily available, he fell to his death. He was climbing on natural fibre rope which broke.

In 1951 a group climbed in Skye for three weeks staying in Glenbrittle House. One effort was to climb up the waterfalls in the Gorge behind the House to “the amazement of the weegees”. They met there the Secretary of the British Mountaineering Council and the Club became affiliated to the BMC.

Pat Ifold and John Attwood went to Chamonix by motorcycle, survived a severe electrical storm on the Matterhom and made it back in time for Attwood to have his appendix removed on the new NHS. They still had their ex-WD axes which in spite of advice to throw axes away in electrical storms was ignored because “they’d cost us twelve and sixpence!” even though they could hear them humming with electrical charge  The Club had hired a room at St. Mary Redcliff Church Hall to meet regularly on Thursday evenings but the nearby ‘Wagon and Horses’ proved to be a more convivial meeting place. Many climbing partnerships were forged there. In those days climbing interested many active members and climbers were enlisted to explore St.Cuthberts. Paul Birt for example climbed above High Chamber in St. Cuthberts Swallet and Fred Davis from the Shepton Caving Club (but BEC by marriage) climbed with us in Wales and also climbed with us in Cuthberts.

The Climbing Log noted that the Club Hut went out of action in the first few days of May 1954 as the result of a notorious scandal. Rumour had it that Mrs Jones had let the Hut to non-members and women had slept in it. Climbers were no longer welcome. The original Section, now of marriageable age, went on its way.

Hugh Banner on ‘DesperationÙ Avon Gorge 1953.The next generation first camped at Jones’ farm but later stayed at Williams’ Gwern y Gof Isaf farm, in a bunkhouse over the dairy. Dave Radmore sallied forth from there in May 1954 with Hugh Banner, editor of the Avon Gorge Guide, to climb Ivy Sepulchre, perhaps the hardest to date. John Stafford started climbing in the Avon Gorge in 1951 on 100ft of sisal rope that he shared with Spud Baxter. Spud died climbing solo in the Avon Gorge. Stafford later joined the BEC with Dave Radmore who had been on an Outward Bound course and passed on his acquired knowledge and recruited and introduced climbers from the Bristol Aeroplane Company to the BEC. 

Photo on left: Hugh Banner on ‘Desperation’ Avon Gorge 1953. Note black plimsolls from Woolworths, bowline to snap link to waist length wrapped round several times to spread load. The runner is nylon line with an ex-WD snap link. The carpenter’s hammer is for whacking pitons

The local Police liked to be advised before climbing as the public tended to become alarmed. An attempt at a first ascent of ‘Giants Cave Buttress’ by Dave Radmore and Kangy was abandoned at the Cave because of the persistent cries of a concerned crowd on the Bridge wanting to know “are you all right?”. They traversed off and Kangy had his hand shaken by a woman who had been convinced that he had rescued Radmore. Very embarrassing.

Bowline 1953 3/4 wt nylonAt this time Pat Ifold was the original Section’s link with the new and passed on his valuable rock and snow and ice experience. One excursion with him was straight up the icy face of Pen-y-Fan in the Brecon Beacons after  spending the night in a flea ridden road mender’s hut. Breakfast was made with melted snow.. Illn. 1956, 3/4 wt. rope,bowline and prussic sling for standing in (to breath!)

Ron Newman was also a link and became a part-time Instructor in charge of the Mountaineering Association’s winter school in Bristol in 1955. BEC Climbing Section members assisted in lectures (Dave Radmore memorably lecturing on high altitude camping  his main experience having been at 1000ft at Langdale!). Instruction was organised in the Avon Gorge and North Wales and we enjoyed subsidised trips as climbing instructors (honorary). We gained a few more members from these contacts. John Eatough was extremely supportive, helping with his professional photographic expertise to turn our snaps into photographs and film some of our efforts. Eric Houghton a Bristol surgeon, another enthusiast, while looking for Amphitheatre Buttress on Craig yr Isaf on a meet in the late Fifties, went off route, fell and died in foul weather.

The BB’s edited by Harry Stanbury in the ‘50’s, had lots of interesting climbing stuff in them. Dennis Kemp wrote about duff (duff meant useless) snap-links (karabiners), Tom Fletcher wrote a huge article about climbing in Spitzburgen for the 100th BB. Jack Waddon warned about the lack of belays on ‘Tyro’s Crack’ on the Rock of Ages in Burrington. There was nothing to hitch a sling around until the top of the climb was reached at l40ft. The point was that as cable laid nylon climbing ropes were then uniformly l20ft in length and chocks hadn’t been invented, this left twenty feet in which to become creative. It was this sort of experience which led to the feeling that “leaders were expendable”. Most of our gear was acquired from ex-government surplus suppliers notably ‘Bests of Bath’. These were Commando surplus snap-links, windproof anoraks and trousers, canvas Bergen rucsacs with steel frames. wooden shafted ice axes and hearty boots which we got nailed at Brighams. Special things like slings (two per climber) and l20ft. nylon ropes came from Bryants of Old Market, Bristol, (later absorbed by Blacks). ‘British Mountaineering Council reports warned us that our ‘surplus’ snap-links would fail easily and full-weight ropes should be used to resist abrasion. We stopped using nylon line for abseiling. We were still experimenting with nylon line, especially for slings in tight places! One of these mercifully held a fall on ‘Great Slab’ on Cloggy. Food was carried in linen bags or surplus aluminium screw-capped containers from a chemist because there was no plastic. Things tended to get wet.

My first climb in May 1953 was with Chris Hawketts on ‘Piton Route’ pioneered by the amazing Balcombe in the Avon Gorge. We used 120 ft., threequarter-weight, cable laid, nylon rope which we tied around the waist with a bowline knot. Black rubber plimsoles from Woolworths were adopted not only for adhesion but because we were conscious for the need to conserve the softer rock. The hard-men tied the heel to the ankle with a lace to stop them rolling off.  There were very few climbers and lots of opportunity to explore.

The nearest cliff to the Belfry, if you exclude the wall of the old lead workings at the Minories, was Ebbor Gorge. The steep little cliff here was handy but loose. The illustration shows a club member flying off after a hold broke. There used to be “the longest scree run in the West of England” until we reduced it to the shortest, and opposite this was a fine scramble up the arête to Ebbor Pinnacle.

Ebbor Gorge 1955. Notoriously loose rock hence top rope A handhold breaks causing the fall

Left: Ebbor Gorge 1955. Notoriously loose rock hence top rope

Right: A handhold breaks causing the fall

Guide books were few and climbs were passed on to others by word of mouth. (The brand new and excellent ‘Angel Pavement’ on Craig y Bera was climbed from a verbal description given in a pub!) The two most useful books were the lighthearted and still worth reading “The Mountaineer’s Weekend Book” by Showell Styles and the more serious but thin Penguin Press “Mountaineering in Britain” by J.E.Q.Barford. Our role model tended to be Geoffrey Winthrop Young whose classic “Mountain Craft” was first published in 1929! The very first Guide to our area “Limestone Climbs in South-West England” by Hugh Banner in 1954 thanked Pat Ifold and Dave Radmore of the BEC for their “great assistance in the production of this Guide Book”. The Guide listed 98 climbs, from the Avon Gorge to Ebbor and Cheddar, most of which we’d done anyway before the Guide was published. We met the two brothers, Admiral and Commander Lawder, who cheered us on at Cheddar while we fiddled about trying to find new routes. They had shown the original Section the Dewerstone near Plymouth. The Lawders were wildly enthusiastic and the last time I heard of them they were seventy, and had just fallen off ‘Square Chimney’ in North Wales – guide book quote – “loose and filthy but provides good exercise” fortunately only breaking bones.

GAF Fowler on ‘HumerusÙ Cheddar Gorge, 1960ÙsOne Bank Holiday a crowd of weegies gathered at the foot of Knight’s Climb at Cheddar and watched us wobbling across the gap from the pinnacle. An enterprising Sybil Bowden-Lyle went round with a hat collecting for the “Widows and orphans of the poor climbers’. It worked because there wasn’t much television!  Illn. GAF’Fowler Climbing Humerus Cheddar

Dave Radmore Nails 1954We went frequently to North Wales at weekends by motor bike or in a variety of hired bangers in a group. In  1953, John Stafford led out 200 feet on a 100 foot rope on ‘Hope’, Dave Radmore gallopied up behind him failing to communicate in half a gale of wind and Kangy payed out another rope to belay both of them. Illn. David Radmore in nails on Avalanche Route 1954

At a meet in the Lakes in1954, a highlight was ‘The Crack’VS on Gimmer Crag, climbed in nailed boots, one rope sling installed at the crux sixty feet up.

On Skye in 1955, John Stafford and John Attwood had to abandon the Traverse of the Cuillin Ridge (twice) because of bad weather (they were successful on a later occasion),  On The Cioch, Skye 1955 we had a variety of footware; Tony Dunn, (Tricouni nails) – Janet Gotts, (Vibrams bought in Zermatt in 1954 after losing her clinker nailed boots down a crevasse!) – ‘Kangy’ King (Brigham plate tricounis).   Janet Gotts and Tony Dunn climbed  the ‘Crack of Doom’, Kangy sprained his ankle sliding 60 feet after being too bold on a small hold on a slab in tricouni nails. Janet Gotts introduced some of us to Harrison’s Rocks near Tunbridge Wells where we also had a meet with the Westminster Club which led to an Austrian Alps trip.

Janet Gotts and Tony Dunn Inaccessible Pinnacle, Coolins, Skye, 1955 

Tony Dunn and Kangy had an epic on ‘Longlands Climb’ Cloggy when it started to rain and rubbers had to be abandoned for stockinged feet in an attempt to get some friction on ‘Faith and Friction Slab’.

Tony Dunn and Geoff Mossman climbed Tennis Shoe on Idwal Slabs in nails in 1955. This was the last year with nails for us, vibrams became available and though the hard slippery rubber of the time was only a slightly better alternative, it was easier on the feet and was kinder to rock. Russell Jenkins (Neddy) climbing ‘Marble Slab’ on Bochlwyd Buttress did an enormous pendulum as he came off a second, and the sight of the trail of sparks from the nails from his boots will not be forgotten. Neither will his request for a tight rope on another occasion. “Tight rope, I’m nearly off!” Long pause then, “OK, slack,  I’m nearly on again now!”

Climbing techniques changed, especially in winter when crampons became necessary. A waist length was used for rock climbing, wound round the waist several times for comfort and sometimes of hemp instead of nylon line to avoid melting due to friction.

Tarbuck Knot 1955 full wtIlln. Tarbuck Knot 1956

A Tarbuck knot was made at the end of the climbing rope and clipped to the waist length with a snaplink. The BMC were very keen on the added safety of this knot as it was intended to slip and absorb energy in friction. We knew no better. If we should chance to dangle then it was advisable to step into sling as soon as possible to be able to breathe! A sling twisted into a figure of eight with the legs through the loops with a snaplink for the rope made abseiling more comfortable than the ‘classic’ method earlier climbers such as Pat Ifold had shown us.

In 1956 a small party went into uncharted areas of the Pyrenees with Vincent Lee-Brown a member of the Royal Geographical Society. The ex-WD Bergen rucsacs weighed 55lbs. Stafford and Attwood completed the traverse of the main Cuillin ridge on the Isle of Skye. Roy Bennett and Alan Bonner also did it later in 1982. In that year Kangy and John Stafford did a mountain walk from North to South Wales climbing 41 peaks in ten days. By this time rucsac weights were down to 29lbs! Both Bennett and Kangy completed the ‘Welsh Three Thousanders’ in under 24 hours on separate occasions. Janet Gotts (ultimately King) climbed ‘Meall nan Ptarmigan’ in 1997 as her last Munro (284 Scottish Hills over 3000ft).

For several consecutive years we had a Club meet in Cornwall at Easter to climb the cliffs and enjoy the warmer weather after winter climbing.

In the early 1960’s Roy Bennett organised Thursday evening meets in the Avon Gorge, and at dusk we went back to the Club evening at the Waggon and Horses for enthusiastic chats about plans for the weekend. There were meets at the usual climbing areas but now including Derbyshire and the developing Wye Valley. At the Dewerstone a short film was made of Roy climbing Needle Aréte.

Allalinhorn Swiss Alps 1957 National Service, careers and marriage started to take their toll and climbing partners disappeared. There were Club trips to the Austrian Sylvretta and Oertzal, Swiss Alps (Monte Rosa), and Illn Allalinhorn 1957

Bernina and to the Jotemheim in Norway towards the end of the 50’s and early 60’s but rock climbing and mountaineering became a private affair restricted to individuals and though visits were made to the Alps and Pyrenees involving Club members and were written about in the Belfry Bulletin these were hardly Climbing Section activities

The Section went into a terminal decline when the ‘Wagon and Horses’ pub on St. Mary Redcliff Hill was pulled down in 1969. Eventually even the subscription to the British Mountaineering Council was dropped.

Joan and Roy Bennett Nameless Cwm, North Wales 1950Ùs Climbers such as Roy Bennett started to climb with other, dedicated, climbing clubs and the larger, rock climbing meets of the Fifties no longer happened. Roy was an early hang-gliding enthusiast and applying this skill to mountaineering he carried a seventy pound weight hang-glider to the top of Skiddaw in the Lakes with his wife Joan in support and launched himself off. Joan descended resignedly much later on foot.

There are plenty of BEC caving reports but the only BEC climbing guide was a 1966 Club Report entitled “Some Sandstone Climbs in the Upper Frome Valley at Bristol” which has action photographs of ‘Eaves’ showing heave-ho moves under and over a mighty overhang. Kangy went back to the area later and dug out more. An article in the 50th (Golden) Anniversary Belfry Bulletin described these. The best was called ‘Golden Daffodil’. It is interesting now to see our more heroic efforts picked out in chalky hand marks. The climbs have been renamed and described again in the latest South West Guide. We spent hours ripping ivy and loose rocks from the steeper bits and picking out lines. The rediscoverer must have been really pleased to have found these nice bits of bare rock just waiting to be climbed! However it must be admitted that, now that the adrenaline of exploration has subsided, scrambling up the loose rock, dust and dirt of the final yard or so of subsoil was fairly unpleasant Even so they are nice, steep, energetic, climbs.

The next climbers on the scene, notably Derek Targett, Pete Sutton, Gerry Oaten, Jenny Sandicott, Bob Sell and Climbing Secretary Nigel Jago carried on the Thursday meet in Avon Gorge. Harnesses thanks to Don Whillans, and Pierre Allain (PAs’) sticky boots were now available and Joe Brown’s nuts (the concept at least!) together with double ropes gave the opportunity for better protection on hard moves. There were major Club trips to Glencoe, Cornwall and a party of ten made it to Chamonix, but otherwise they climbed elsewhere in pairs, mostly privately, taking part in the exploration of new rock faces.

Nigel Jago resigned in 1974 to be replaced by Gerry Oaten. Bob Cross carried on mountain walking, but rock climbing was now not a regular Club activity. The Club "Climbing Section" now only existed nostalgically.


  1. Letter in BB Vol. 50 no.8
  2. Letter from Roger Cantle
  3. BEC Climbing Section Log Book, Blaenant Farm, Idwal (from Nov.1950)
  4. A Club Log of Climbing, Walking and Canoeing 1973-1976.
  5. “Some Rock Climbs Near Plymouth” Ed. J.D.Derry 1950.
  6. “Limestone Climbs in South West England” Ed.Hugh Banner, Pub. UBMC.
  7. “Some Sandstone Climbs in the Upper Frome Valley” BEC Climbing Report
  8. Belfry Bulletin number 501
  9. Belfry Bulletin Vol. 54 No.1 number 521
  10. Conversations with Joan Bennett, Alan Bonner, Roger Cantle, Tony Dunn, Pat Ifold, John Stafford, Harry Stanbury, Derek Targett.

Appeal. Old climbing photographs would be welcome. Please send a copy to the author

R.S.King BEC Climbing Secretary 1957 – 1963

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