the rocks

One of the places that acted as a developmental node in British rock climbing after the second world war was a sandstone crag called Harrison’s, not far from Groombridge in Kent. It had all the qualities you associate with that medium. The holds fell off or wore down easily. If you weren’t balancing up a steep delicate slab covered with fine slippery sand, you were thugging your way round an overhang on rounded slopers. Its advantage was that you could drive down from London and spend an evening there in the summer. Harrison’s had been everyone’s hot date since the 1920s, but access had always been a problem. There were tensions between climbers and locals, the retired bank managers and solicitors who, though they didn’t own it, had always felt able to act as if they did. So when the land from which it outcropped came up for sale in 1958, it was bought by climbers and, after a curious and tortuous period of stewardship, eventually passed into the hands of the British Mountaineering Council. For the first time in history, the idea was, British climbers would own and manage a crag of their own. That was a time of optimism all over, in the sport and out of it. I went down there by train in the last days of compartmented rolling stock. That was a lottery. You were stuck at close quarters with whoever you found in there. I won two older ladies in genuine Hermes scarves, and they won me. My own fashion choice was jeans and a tee with the words Think Pink printed on the front, set off by a faded canvas rucksack and–I might as well admit it–a silk scarf of my own, oriental & tied as a headband: California Dirtbag by way of Yorkshire. I was pretty tan & at that time my hair and beard were black. We sat and did not really look at one another for forty minutes, me on one side of the compartent and them on the other. The train had to pass Harrison’s on its way into Eridge station, and as the rocks went past, the talk between the two women turned to the beauty of the view. “We’re so lucky to have this,” said one. The other made eye contact with me across the space between us. “Oh yes,” she said. “It used to be lovely until those rock climbers got in and spoilt everything.” That “got in” was a lesson in the grammars of territoriality. They had never owned it, but it was theirs by the complex associations of privilege; climbers had bought it, but it could never really belong to them. I understood that my kind would never inherit the earth even if we inherited it, and I often think about that.