As an undergraduate at Oxford I came across a gang of mischief-makers who liked nothing better than to climb in and out of places they weren’t welcome. A dangerous activity and not my thing at all. But once, once, they got me drunk enough to join them. Wearing black tie, high on egg-nog and P.G. Wodehouse, we gatecrashed the Corpus Christi College ball by climbing in over a wall that backs onto Christ Church Meadow. I can’t remember quite how we managed it. There was a straining of a groin, a tearing of a tuxedo, a collapsing in a dishevelled heap on the ground. We then spent a paranoid couple of hours running away from bouncers – a terrible evening, all things considered.
But for those goatier of foot, and hardier of soul, Oxford is a playground of drainpipes and dormers, chimneys and stanchions. Cambridge too – more famously so, since the appearance of the cult 1937 text The Night Climbers of Cambridge, by the pseudonymous Whipplesnaith. Much revered by generations of Cambridge students, the manual contains detailed instructions on how to climb the walls of various colleges, as well as advice on tackling the notorious Senate House Leap, from the South face of Caius onto the Senate House roof.
Before Whipplesnaith, though, there was Geoffrey Winthrop-Young, a British mountain climber and former Cambridge student whose Roof-Climber’s Guide to Trinity was published anonymously in 1900. Encouraged by the runaway success (5000 copies sold) of their recent edition of Whipplesnaith, Oleander Press have reissued Winthrop-Young’s book, a comprehensive guide to the hand and foot holds of Trinity College. Primarily a practical handbook, it describes a series of routes up and over sections of the college – Cloister Court, The Chapel, The Library – with the kind of attention to technical detail that inspires trust. Sentences like ‘Here the slant roof is ascended over the dormer until near the summit of the gable, when the hand is able to grasp with a stretch the edge of an embrasure above’ not only have a certain lyricism (Winthrop-Young was a prize-winning poet), but are bound to make you feel more confident as you wing it across the Trinity sandstone – provided you know your gables from your embrasures.