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Over the Rooftops

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Senate House Leap: Slippery When Wet

The Senate House Leap: Slippery When Wet

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.

Comments on “Over the Rooftops”

  1. jaspreetsinghboparai says:

    Sir: Re. the Corpus Christi College ball: wasn’t that the night a certain friend of yours was so wasted he had to be put to bed? I can’t remember who he was anymore — I was so wasted I had to be put to bed. Good times….Diffugere nives…. JSB

    • That was the night. I’d forgotten about that. We should all have been put to bed a long time before we made it to Corpus. (Diffugere nives, we should be so lucky)

      • jaspreetsinghboparai says:

        I don’t remember terrifically much of that night, though even in that state managed to end it with a witty riposte (or so it’s been reported). Thrice I left my bed defiantly to rejoin proceedings; each time a loyal Scottish friend in regimental black tie + kilt marched me back to my rooms lest I be disciplined by the College, or worse. Poor devil must have been exhausted with me: on my final forced retreat he pleaded “Jasp: on your word as a gentleman, will you promise me you won’t leave your rooms again?” I pointed at him and mused, “well, you ARE wearing a sporran” then hit my head on a banister. That’s how it was reported to me, anyway. Come to think of it I never thanked the man for carrying me up all those stairs….

        • AussungDurchPolytechnik says:

          Ah, the backscratching dilletante pleasures of Oxford’s eternal playground!

          I, too, remember, being, young, and all the glorious commas the dons would let us clamber over, word by hamstrung sycophantic word. How nice that you still clamber, JSB. Mere Bildungsklimbing? Tush!

  2. Evidence of the fearlessness and ingenuity of current Cambridge undergraduates, who put a Santa Hat on each of King’s Chapel’s four corner pinnacles! Photo taken on 1 December 2009.
    Kings14mini

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