Share this post
Excerpts from the History chapter of Schooled By Rock.
We are not makers of history. We are made by history.

Martin Luther King Jr.

Mr Wilson droned on and on, dates and wars and Kings and Queens floating over my head and hitting the wall behind me. Sat at the back with the other misfits and dullards, double history dragged on, two hours of my life I wasn’t getting back. Appropriately, the lesson was shaded in grey on my weekly planner, in colourless contrast with the blue of geography and the orange of chemistry.

There was some history that I did like, but not this one served up in stiff lifeless monotone. Avebury and Silbury Hill were just down the road, and it was their visibility, their baffling origin and purpose that fascinated. Stonehenge too – back then at a time when you could get up close and personal, place hands on the smooth sarsens, wonder at their past. But mostly I was looking forward, not back, counting down the terms until leaving school and the thrill of an unknown life ahead.

I have a shameful lack of knowledge about my family history and ancestry. It’s like the dog ate my personal history homework. It’s only now, in the last few years as my parents passed away, that I have been motivated to record their memories, to find out more, to ask them questions about the whys and wheres and whos of their pasts. My family tree was losing leaves and I tried hard to sweep them up, to hold them close, to pass them on. I came up short. That’s the thing about history: it’s hard to hold, it trickles through your fingers; and it’s not nearly as interesting as it would have been if you were there living it.

Realising I had gaps in my past, I set about writing during Covid lockdowns, recording all I could recall about my climbing life, travel and work in Africa and Cambodia, having children and my family’s adventures. I wanted to capture my past to pass it on to my children to make sure they knew their origins, their places in the interlocking links of lives that led to them. It wasn’t until I was an adult that I really got history.


For many years my mother worked as a physiotherapist in the local hospital. She came home one day talking excitedly about one of her patients who had been married to a climber and wanted to meet me. Her name was Eleanor Winthrop Young. History, time and space bent before me. I had heard of Geoffrey Winthrop Young, but associated him with a time long gone, the players of which had long since died. He had been at Marlborough College too. His legacy lives on, underlying some of the traditions of Welsh rock climbing, and nighttime ascents of school buildings. To be able to meet his wife seemed extraordinary.

How wonderful it was to have several tea dates with Eleanor, to hear first-hand of her and Geoffrey climbing together: his one-legged ascent of the Matterhorn and other mountains, dressed in tweeds and britches and hobnailed boots, wearing an artificial leg with a selection of attachments for ice or rock; their hosting of many parties at the Pen-y-Pass hut in North Wales. She founded and was the first president of the Pinnacle Club, a climbing club for British women, over a hundred years old now. She heard of my fingery crimps and monos, my modern terminology, the bouldering at the bridges, the Chip Shop Slab, and climbing with Gilbert, Andy, Luke and John.

Over tea in china cups and Rich Tea biscuits chatting with this lovely remarkable woman – “Call me Len!” she insisted – the years were swept aside. She opened up a hidden history, gave a face and a beating heart to dusty hard-backed books, poured colour into black and white. She passed on her copy of On High Hills, written by her husband, within which, used as a bookmark, I later found a postcard from Geoffrey to Eleanor.

It’s a colour painting of the Weisshorn in Zermatt. On the other side of the card, in slightly smudged pen, Geoffrey writes:

Sunday, R’alp 3PM. [Postmarked Riffelalp 21. VII. 35]

Lovely weather again: [? starts on W.horn] so I’m going over this afternoon to Schwarzsee, for the night. More good discipline for muscles! Back here tomorrow. Peaks all amazingly clear and brilliant. Going to get hot running down and up those zigzags! Hope the sports went spiffing! Here’s our old Weisshorn, for luck, to you – G. from the Grumsee, too.

I turn it over, put it back into the book to mark my place. Eleanor looked back, my friends and I looked forward, our generational perspectives. I looked forward to seeing her for tea once again, but she died, just shy of 100.


We remember now, John and I: we just had to do Coronation Street! The picture in Hard Rock of Chris Bonington traversing the shield feature, right foot in a sling for aid, had grabbed our imagination years before. Perhaps the closest classic route to our school. It was a Bonington route: my Dad would be impressed!

That experience we shared of climbing Coronation Street, we share again. Driving only months after getting a license: did we bunk off school or had we left school? Not sure; there’s a lot we don’t remember. It was only the second route I’d done at Cheddar after Knight’s Climb. Did we climb it outside of the restrictions? Again, we weren’t sure; we didn’t see anyone else.

It was cold and grey and frigid, the road silent and empty. We parked below and just climbed it, flipping from horizontal grey tarmac to vertical grey rock like the flicking of a switch, stepping off the road into instant otherness and adventure. Long and rambling initial pitches covered in ivy – meat and two veg, we called it – then John led the first beautiful clean crack pitch. Up here, beside and above us: big clean squares of perfect grey limestone. I did the shield traverse, (look, Chris: not stepping in a sling!), which was mind-blowing. Good holds were there but the position was extraordinary, a semi-hanging belay at the end, clipped into ancient pitons. We were just glad we weren’t Jim Perrin who had written about being terrified up here with no ropes in his essay Street Illegal. We were freaking out with ropes. So Bonington had been here, Perrin had been here. Who else? Cheddar Man, did you get this high? How extraordinary it was not simply going to the same places as our heroes, but in doing their climbs, moving the body the same way, arranging our limbs into the same shapes they had, touching the same holds, learning the same lessons of movement and commitment. As I brought John up, I watched the present moment on the rock in front of me: woodlice tumbling out of cracks, greenery shaking.

A family parked directly beneath us and spread out a picnic blanket, kids sat on corners. Somehow, we managed to sort the ropes out, maintain composure and safety and not drop anything. The odd rattling block was cause of much caution and concern. What a weird place to picnic. I led the next long pitch that has two tricky sections: one a groove, one a crack, the rock damp in places and gripped with numb fingers; strong rope drag at the top, a taut line connecting me to John. Such relief to untie, deep satisfaction now that anticipation and effort had become memory.


They’re funny things, memory and history: different people have different perspectives, different sensory experiences, unique ways of seeing the world, personal filters and foci, different memories of the same events. Can we trust our memories? History is all around us all the time – yours, mine, theirs, ours. We create it without knowing quite how the present so rapidly slides into the past. Those choices with their little details hold consequences and biases that rattle down through the years and become our stories. And we tell our histories as stories, adding what we know to what we knew, and the past evolves; it isn’t fixed.

There are gaps in our accounts, but the details don’t matter; it is the co-author of this story that matters. My Coronation Street is not the route, it’s John and the experience we shared. He remembers: we got back to my mum’s Vauxhall Viva and drove off home, windows down, feeling like real climbers at last, briefly looking back at the huge line of the climb, at where we’d been, The Rolling Stones’ Wild Horses playing loud.

Childhood living was easy to do. Was it really?

I reach behind me and take a book down from the shelf. It’s back to Geoffrey, and his concluding line from On High Hills. Thinking back about the mountains he has climbed:

“…and we may take from them, when the time comes for memory and reflection, a perfected home for our thoughts more generous, more liberal even, than their own great spaces of air and height and freedom.”

Isn’t that great? He was there before us.