The Bowline Climbing Club was formed over the weekend of 3-5th November 1951. Although it is likely that the founding members were not fully aware of it, they were part of a major social change taking place over the country as it finally started to emerge from the aftermath of the Second World War whose effects lasted well into the 1950s. Even in 1951 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 climb or learn to climb than nowadays. Most people taught themselves, maybe from one or other of the few available but very dated instruction books. In those days, guidebooks were few and far between and almost all completely out of date. Travel horizons were necessarily limited, which meant that experience was hard to win and by modern standards the available equipment was absurdly primitive.
In this environment, if you were at all serious about climbing then you simply had to join a club. Nationally, the middle class had its Alpine, Scottish Mountaineering, Climber’s and Fell and Rock, but most ordinary working people would have joined the mushrooming network of small locality-based clubs. These provided some experienced climbers for advice and training, some equipment, transport, and sometimes a hut to stay in. Almost all sprung up in the early 1950s, with a large number in the wake of the successful Everest expedition of 1953. But what if, in Leicester in 1951 there was nobody around to show you the ropes and no local club to join? If you had the initiative the obvious things to do were to teach yourself to climb and to start your own club.
That is exactly what a small group of Rover (male) and Ranger (female) Scouts did in 1951. According to a feature in the Leicester Mercury dated early in 1953 the idea arose to 21-year old Mike Kestell during a Rover/Ranger rally in Ullesthorpe when he spotted a Kibworth Rover scout wearing a shoulder flash proclaiming him to be a member of the Snowdon Group, a mountaineering organization. The result was the setting up of the ambitiously named Bardon Rover/Ranger Alpine Society (BRRAS). This never amounted to much, with just nine members each paying a 2/6 (£3.50) subscription and it quickly evolved into the Bowline Climbing Club.
A Bowline History: the first 25 years by Dave Unwin
"This account of the first few decades of the Leicester Bowline Climbing Club (BCC) is not the product of any deep historical scholarship. As a sometime academic in a different discipline, I would be the last to claim qualification as a serious historian. Rather, it is the result of around 40 years membership of the club together with 60 years of rock climbing, general mountaineering, skiing, fell running and hill walking (more or less in that order), the greater part in the company of BCC members, and over 50 years immersion in the uncommonly rich literature of these sports in what might be described as the ‘promiscuous pursuit of reading for pleasure’.
I do, however, also confess to a not very well hidden agenda, which is to record the ordinary exploits of some ordinary people who just happened to enjoy each other’s company doing essentially ordinary things on the ordinary crags and hills of the UK. So here it is, my attempt at a history of the fiest twenty-five years of the BCC. Any history is moulded by its sources, so somewhat deliberately this account is called A Bowline History, and not The Bowline History, but it is probably as complete as we are likely to get. There are a lot of gaps in the archive, especially at the end of the 1950s and during the early 1960s, that have forced me to speculate a little about the state of the club. If my ‘evidence-free’ interpretation of events during these periods falls short of the mark, I can only apologise." Dave.
Nowadays are flooded with photos from phones, helmet cams, etc. But cameras were few and far between in the 1960's, especially ones that could be used on a climb. It was probably about the earliest that cameras were small enough to actually stick on a pocket. A few of the pictures from club around this time have been shared with us by Chris Hardwick.
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:
"I have been looking through my diaries, but I didn’t start recording our outings until about 1980. I think in the 1980’s the style of outings in the hills changed, with people looking after themselves a bit better, and trying to become fitter. I know I took up running, to try and be one of the boys! I have selected the following diary entries in the 80’s; Backpacking in the Berwyns 83 On the 18/19 and 20th Nov. we walked a splendid traverse along the Berwyns, from the A6 finishing over the Arans to Dinas Mawddwy. Ken Vickers had a ”mountaineering apprentice” with him, who slaved for him. Cooking all his meals and carried all his gear, in exchange for being trained as a Mountain man. The names I have recorded are: Me, Mick, George, Ken, Derek Tyers (Ken’s apprentice), John & Ann Cleaver, Reg and Jack. Pete Bottrill supported us in a van. The 1st Bowline run 15/1/83? Starting from the Bradgate Arms, Cropston. 6 ½ miles around the park. The Gartree Run 83 I think this was my first running race. It was around Gartree Prison. Of course the joke was going around that some of the inmates had entered, but carried on running at the finish. The prison warders invited us into their bar after the race. They all made us very welcome and said we could call in whenever we wanted. (I suspect they liked to see a few new faces in the place).
Via Feratta’s, in the Brenta 1983 and 2003 The first time I visited the Via Feratta, was in 83 with Gavin Carr and Colin Wright. We drove down to northern Italy in Gavin’s old Ford. After the channel ferry, we took turns driving until we were in the centre of Germany, somewhere. After booking in at the first campsite we found, someone said hello Bob, It was Jan Griffiths, and they use that campsite for a break, on their annual trips to the Med.! What a coincidence! The exposure on the walkways was amazing. We walked at high level for several days, staying in mountain huts.
Twenty years later I visited the same area with my eldest son Russell. I was struck on this second visit, how far the glaciers had receded. The Tucket hut was just above the glacier then, I remember walking onto it straight from the hut. On our second visit there was just a smallish section of ice, at the top of the valley about ½ mile away. A curve where the glacier used to be, looked like a recent excavation by Mc Alpines, with clean smooth curved lines.
Climbing on Willersly 83 With Grey Richmond as my leader on; Sycamore Flake VS 4C, Cucumber Groove VS 4A and Garot Groove VS 4C. A good day. Some other meets The Welsh 3,000 84 The Chairman’s walk, on the Malvern Hills 84 The Longest walk on the shortest day 85 The Lakeland 3,000 85 The Saunders hill marathon’s 86/87 and 88 The 2nd official BCC hill race 87 The British 3 peaks 87 and 88"
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 today, the entry nowadays has to be closed at around 350 and places sell out within 10 minutes. Now having aged to beyond its 30th 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.
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.