The Bowline Climbing Club (BCC) was founded on 5th November 1951 by a small group of climbing enthusiasts based in Leicestershire. Although the club has for many years published an occasional Newsletter (Bowlines), numerous changes of officials has meant that we do not really have a basis for a full history such as the fascinating Climb if you Will created by our friends in the Nottingham/Derby Oread Club in 1974 as a tribute to one of its stalwart members. Similarly fascinating to the historian of British climbing is Beeston’s Rock and Heather Club (R&H) history from its foundation in 1953 to its fiftieth anniversary in 2003. Oread started a couple of years before Bowline, and we beat R&H to it by a year or so, but their records give an idea of what it was like to walk and climb in those early years. For convenience the history is ordered by each of the club’s decades.
The 1950s & 1960s
Bowline’s geriatric members could go on about this for ages, but there really is no comparison with today’s rock climbing with that of the 1950s and 60s. In the 1950s rationing was still around, most people worked five and a half or even six days a week, cars were a rarity, and, just as important, there were far fewer opportunities to learn to climb than nowadays. Most people taught themselves, maybe from one or other of the few available, but usually very dated, instruction books. In those days, guidebooks were few and far between and almost all completely out of date. Horizons were necessarily limited. If you were at all serious about climbing then you simply had to join a club. The ‘toffs’ had their Alpine, Scottish Mountaineering, Climber’s and FRC clubs, but most joined the mushrooming network of small locality based clubs such as Bowline, R&H, and Oread. These clubs provided a least some experienced climbers for ‘training’ and advice, some equipment, transport (often by hired vans, Bedford Dormobiles and/or buses) , and sometimes even a hut to stay in.
This is the earliest known Bowline photograph, of a group at the first annual dinner held at the Marquis of Granby, Leicester in November 1952. From left to right are Dorothy Enderby, Mike Kestell (killed on the Carneddau, 1962), Peter Burden, Mavis Boulter (married Peter Burden), Charley Ablethorpe, Tony Jennett, Peter Barrett, Sheila Pearn (married Tony Jennett, 1959), Malcom Reee,, Barbara Kalkowska (married Charley Ablethorpe), Bob Kirchen and ano.
Presented to the club by Tony Jennett.
We don’t have much by way of records of Bowline in the 1950s and 1960s , but some years ago a bunch of Bowliners met up with Tony Jennet, who was one of the original Bowliners from 1951. Tony was a very famous climber, and it was all because of one exploit that would have earned him the club’s coveted ‘wings’ award. If you’ve ever sat at the top of the Idwal slabs and wondered why the wall above is called Holly Tree Wall but has no such tree on it, then Tony’s exploit provides the answer. Well into the 50s, the route used to be protected by a sling round a superficially stout holly that grew at the base of the crack/chimney on the standard route. That was until on August Bank Holiday 1961 when Tony tested it to destruction (Read all about it in Rock Climbers in Action in Snowdonia, page 45). Tony fell rather further than expected, broke a bone or two, and was lucky to survive.
Rock climbing in 1960: Ken Vickers, Rock climbing in 1960: Dave Unwin,
but what’s the route? Inomimate Crack.
We have a fascinating account of some of those times from John Hayto:
1962 saw club’s fist fatal accident when Mike Kestell was literally blown to his death on a terrible day on the Carneddau. It also saw a very important date in the club’s history, the purchase of a ruined garage (for all of £200) in Brynrefail, Snowdonia, to serve as its club hut.
Early days at Dinorwig Mill Cottage. The club is justifiably proud of converting an earth-floored wreck of a garage into one of the most comfortable club huts in Snowdonia
1970s The rock years
Bob Crosby kept a climbing diary and speaks of the early 1970s:
There is an entry in Dave Unwin’s climbing diary for 17th March 1974 about a climb at Yarncliffe quarry when he and Pete Meads, both at the time members of Leicester’s other club, the Leicester Association of Mountaineers (LAM), were climbing together that reads ‘ … and finally a race against a guy called Paul from the Bowline club of Leicester’. This accidental meeting led to a gradual shift from King Richard (LAM) to the Pineapple (BCC) led by Pete Meads who took up climbing with Mike Brady of the Bowline. Pete and Mike were a formidable team that a couple of years later made a rapid ascent of El Capitan via Triple Direct, and Pete Meads returned a year or so later to pick off many of the valley’s big lines including the Salathe Wall, at the time the Guinness Book of Records’ ‘hardest rock climb in the world’.
A notable event of the mid-decade was the re-discovery of the ‘crag’ at Slawston Bridge (in 1985 the club produced its first guide) that did a lot to keep up the club’s collective finger strength
The 1980s saw some huge changes in the club, some which were inevitable, but some of which were associated with an influx of new members from the winding up of the ‘rival’ Leicester Association of Mountaineers. On the rock, much of the running was made by Pete Meads and ‘Big Nige’ Riddington, and on the mountains Ian Dring and his brother Craig led the way. There were some notable achievements:. Ian Dring set out on a series of competent alpine ascents, including the Cassin routes on the Piz Badile and the Cengalo. On June 14th the club suffered only its second fatal accident when Richard ‘Knack’ Lewis was killed whilst scrambling on Ben Cruachan.
From Bob Crosby’s climbing diary:
The 80s of course saw the first great running boom in Britain, such that what started as a club summer keep fit activity developed into a highly competitive road, XC and fell running scene. 1986 saw the club’s major contribution to Leicestershire sport begin with the inaugural Charnwood Hills Race. As the ‘Mercury’ remarked at the time, the club found it had ‘roped itself into an instant classic’. The course itself was devised by the club’s resident expert on all matters to do with Charnwood, the late Ken Vickers. Ken’s idea was to find a seriously hard way to link some of the major hills of the area and to run the race at a time when reasonably bad weather could be expected. The first proper race attracted 186 runners, but fast-forwarding to 2009, the entry nowadays has to be closed at around 350 and, as the separate website for the race shows, now having aged to beyond its 21st anniversary, it is greatly valued by our friends in the local running clubs. The club was a founder member of the Leicestershire Road League and also competed in the North Midlands XC league. At the same time as all this running, winter club nights started with some very competitive circuit training supervised by our tame policemen, Noz Haynes and Howard Pymm.
All this fitness translated easily into mountain activity, with a fashion starting for very long days on the hill, with several Bob Graham completions and fast traverses of classics such as the Shap-Ravenglass, Ennerdale Round, Lake District 3000s, a pioneering and very long Sligachan Round, the Colne-Rowsley, the Peak Horseshoe, Yorkshire Three Peaks, Welsh Dragon’s Back, Llanberis Skyline, and, a perennial rite of passage, the Welsh 3000s. Only recently, in 2008, was it discovered that club Chair Paul Parker’s 1986 solo effort round the Greater Cuillin Traverse is probably the fastest time on record for this supreme test of mountaineering ability. Some challenges remain of which a sub 90 minute Snowdon Horseshoe and a sub-two hour hut to Snowdon Summit and back are the most obvious.
Climatologists will recognize that in the pre-global warming days, the 80s saw a series of ‘decent’ winters, with frequent club meets to Scotland until the warming 90s made it a fairly futile exercise and the delights of the Spanish Pyrenees and warm Mediterranean rock were discovered as alternatives. Trips in search of good winter conditions can be frustrating, but the decade saw club ascents of an assortment of classic Scottish lines such as Crowberry, Ravens, Point Five and Number 6 gullies, not to mention a few North Wales routes.
There is more to a club than just what its individual members do on the hills. Early in the decade, and after several years of relative inaction, the club finally got its act together and started to develop its hut at Brynrefail, near Llanberis. In 1980 this was more-or-less a shell, with running cold water, some bunks and a roof, but not much else. With financial support from a mix of agencies in the Midlands, the first major change was to build on the toilet and kitchen block providing proper sanitation for the first time. Further into the decade this was followed by re-roofing of the bedroom, paneling all internal the walls, laying a proper floor and even installing central heating. Further improvements have made Dinorwic Mill Cottage into what in many people’s opinion is the most comfortable club hut in Snowdonia.
The club hut: Dinorwig Mill Cottage at the end of the 1980s Further improvements have been made since
A second initiative that began in the 80s was the provision of winter public lectures by well-known mountaineers. Not many climbing clubs in Britain can boast as we do of having been entertained by names such as Mike Fowler, John Barry, Kurt Diemburger, Peter Habeler, Martin Moran and even the great Rheinhold Messner. At the beginning of the next decade the club really got into top gear for a talk from our good friend Doug Scott on his Himalayan exploits and was able to fill the De Montfort Hall with paying customers. Doug reckons that we provided him with his biggest ever audience, and, after a huge club effort, a substantial profit was spent on hut improvements.
1990s: more to be added
As Bob Crosby’s diary shows, as the old guard aged, so their interests shifted away from hard rock to a more relaxed approach to the hills but one of the strengths of the club has been that the ‘BOFs’ they have stayed and contributed to its development through the 1990s and into the present century. Bob Crosby again:
2000s: to be constructed
Newman, P. (Editor, 2003) The Rock and Heather Years, 1953-2003. (Beeston: Published privately)
Russell, Jean (Editor, 1974) Climb if you Will (Rocksport)
Smythe, J and J Cleare (1966) Rock Climbers in Action in Snowdonia (London: Secker and Warburg)
Ray Dring and Paul Parker ‘relax’ at Aber Falls after a fast crossing of the Welsh 3000s in 1979