Authors: James Runcie
As the afternoon light faded over the village of Grantchester, the parishioners lit fires, drew curtains and bolted their doors against the dangers of darkness. The external blackness was a
, a nocturnal harbinger of that sombre country from which no traveller returns. Canon Sidney Chambers, however, felt no fear. He liked a winter’s night.
It was the 8th of January 1955. The distant town of Cambridge looked almost two-dimensional under the moon’s wily enchantment, and the silhouettes of college buildings were etched against the darkening sky like illustrations for a children’s fairytale. Sidney imagined princesses locked in towers, knights leaving on dangerous quests through forests, and woodcutters bringing supplies to stoke the fires of great medieval halls. The River Cam was stilled in time, its waters frozen and embedded with fallen branches, scattered twigs and dead leaves. The snow that settled on Clare Bridge made the decoration of its parapet rails look like fourteen snowballs that had been left by a giant standing astride a model of an English university. Set back and to the south, across whitened grass, the magnesian limestone that comprised the fabric of King’s College Chapel was given extra luminance by the snow that gathered on the roof and pinnacled standards of its turrets. Wind gusted round the edges of the building, throwing white flurries against the mouldings and mullions of the windows. The stained glass was darkened, as if waiting for something to happen – a new Reformation perhaps, an air raid, or even the end of the world. The stillness of the night was broken by only a few sporadic sounds: a passing car, a drunken shout, the footsteps of university proctors making their rounds. In Sidney’s college of Corpus Christi, stalactites clung to the guttering while uncertain weights of snow slithered off the eaves-cornices of Old Court and fell in heavy slabs from the keystone of the main gate. Bicycles lay against spiked railings, the spokes of their wheels frosted white. It was an evening for drawn curtains, hot toddies and warm fires; for sitting in a favourite armchair with a good book and a companionable dog.
Sidney had enjoyed a couple of pints at the Eagle with his good friend Inspector Geordie Keating and was beginning his journey home. It was after ten, and most of the undergraduates were locked in their colleges. Admittance after that time was through the Porter’s Lodge and on payment of a ‘late-fee’ of one shilling. This latitude extended until midnight, after which there was no legal admission. The only option open to those wishing to return to their rooms in the small hours was to behave like a cat burglar and break in. Sidney had done this when he was a student, some ten years before he had become vicar of Grantchester, approaching the college in Free School Lane, mounting the railings by St Bene’t’s Church, shinning up a drainpipe, and making his way across the roofs and over the conservatory before climbing in through an open window of the Master’s Lodge. Soon after this escapade, Sidney had discovered that this was a rather better known route than he had thought, and that the Master’s daughter, Sophie, often left her bedroom window open deliberately in the hope of a little late night entertainment. The practice of night climbing had become something of a Cambridge sport, as students pursued a hobby of illegal mountaineering in the name of ‘high jinks’. Onions had been rolled off the appropriately shaped dome of the Divinity School, umbrellas had been left on the Tottering Tower of the Old Library, and a Canadian student at King’s had become obsessed by a fanatical desire to put a herd of goats on his college roof.
The possibility of discovery, and the potential penalty of being sent down as a result, had deterred Sidney from taking a full part in such proceedings, but rumours of daring feats of architectural mountaineering still fed the gossip in college common rooms. The university authorities had increased the number of torchlight patrols in an attempt to stamp out the practice, but undergraduates still risked their future university careers in the name of freedom and adventure, conspiring in low voices about the challenge of photographing each other while climbing the Great Gate of Trinity, the New Tower of St John’s, or the north face of Pembroke.
The ultimate challenge for those driven by ‘pinnaclomania’ was an ascent of one of the four octagonal turrets of King’s College Chapel. Valentine Lyall, a research fellow of Corpus, was leading an expedition that very night. The consequences were to prove fatal.
Sidney was alerted to the situation by a commotion on King’s Parade. Such was its volume that he made an immediate detour, turning right out of Bene’t Street rather than his customary left.
Lyall was a seasoned night climber who was well known throughout the university. He was accompanied by Kit Bartlett, his postgraduate student, a blond-haired athletics blue; and Rory Montague, an altogether stockier third-year undergraduate who had been called upon to photograph the expedition for posterity.
The three men were dressed in polo-neck sweaters and gym shoes and the climb took place in two stages, from ground to roof and from roof to north-east turret. Lyall had taken the lead by placing his hands between the clamps of the lightning conductor and pushing himself up twenty feet with his arms. He carried two coils of hundred-foot rope over his shoulder. He used his feet to lever his body outwards and upwards against the wall, while a hand-over-hand movement worked in a semi-contrary motion, keeping him tight against the stone while sustaining his ascent.
The accompanying students followed with torches, and, after a brief rest on a broad sloping ledge, they began to ‘chimney’ up the fissure between two walls, their backs against one wall and their feet against the other, thrusting themselves upwards with their legs. The stone flange against which they pressed their feet was four inches wide and the ascent was performed at an oblique angle. Sidney could see one of the men stop and look down to the iron railings below. He was fifty feet from the ground, with forty still to go.
The university proctors were already at the scene. ‘Can anyone go after them?’ Sidney asked.
‘They’ll kill themselves if they do,’ one of the men replied. ‘We’ll get their names when they come down. We don’t think they’re from this college. They must have been hiding when the porters did the rounds. This has got to stop, Canon Chambers. They may think it’s a sport, but we’ll end up taking the responsibility if it goes wrong.’
The climbers gathered at the base of an octagonal turret that rose from the roof in six stages. Some sections were easy to climb, with pierced stone latticework offering opportunity for handholds, but the height of the parapet was forbidding. Valentine Lyall began his traverse round the base of the pinnacle and found a series of air holes in the clover-leaf stonework above the first overhang. They were fifteen inches deep and across, and he could use them as a short ladder. He was now over a hundred feet from the ground.
He climbed up on to the parapet and approached the chessboard stonework near the top of the pinnacle before calling down. ‘Careful, men, the stone gets crumbly here. Make sure you have three grips at once; two hands and one foot, or one hand and both feet.’
Rory Montague was losing his nerve. As he approached the second overhang he noticed that there was no handhold for a distance of five feet. ‘I can’t do this,’ he said.
‘Don’t give up,’ Bartlett urged. ‘Use your knees. Keep close to the stone. Don’t lean out.’
‘I’m not going to.’
‘There’s only twelve feet to go.’
Lyall was already on the second overhang. ‘We need a photograph.’
‘Not now,’ hissed Bartlett.
‘Help me,’ Montague cried. ‘I’m stuck.’
‘Don’t look down.’
‘It’s as dark as hell.’
Lyall shone his torch. ‘Get round to your right. There’s a drainpipe.’
‘What if it gives way?’
‘It stops before the parapet.’
‘That’s only a few feet.’
Montague called up, ‘I need the rope.’
‘Give me a minute.’ Lyall reached the last parapet. He leant outwards at full stretch, grasping it with both hands, and pulled himself up by using the gaps in the stonework until his feet reached the topmost hole.
Bartlett followed and the two men threw down the rope. Montague caught it and used it as leverage to make the final ascent.
Sidney had moved further along the exterior of the north side of the nave to get a better view. Snow fell in his eyes, while the high and distant figures appeared as silhouettes against moon and torchlight. ‘There’s nothing to protect them if they fall,’ he said.
‘They never fall,’ one of the proctors replied.
‘I imagine the descent is much harder.’
‘Once they’ve got back down on to the roof they return through the interior; if they’ve got a copy of the key, that is.’
‘And have they?’
‘I wouldn’t put it past them.’
‘So you’ll wait for them at the bottom?’
‘Once they’re in the roof space they can hide amongst the main timbers until they think we’ve gone home. Last year a couple of men were in there for hours. We just barred the staircase from the outside and waited until they were hungry enough to give themselves up.’
‘You mean there’s no escape?’
‘No one’s managed it so far.’
The wind dropped. Lyall gave instructions to Rory Montague. ‘Hold on to the rope and lower yourself down. Use the clover-leafs as footholds, and then make a traverse to your left. We won’t be able to see you but we can feel you.’
Montague began the descent. All seemed well until the clover-leaf stopped. He then missed a foothold. ‘Bugger.’ He pushed himself away from the wall and let the rope take his weight.
‘What the hell are you doing?’ Lyall called.
‘I can’t get a foothold.’
‘Use a hand. I can’t take all this weight.’
‘I need both hands on the rope. I’m not strong enough just to use one.’
‘Push your feet into the wall. Get the strain off the rope.’
‘I’m too far away from the building.’
Montague’s left foot hovered against the side of the parapet, trying to find a hold.
He began to sway above the abyss.
A porter shouted up: ‘COME DOWN AT ONCE.’
Montague let his hands slide down the rope. He felt his palms burn. His right elbow hit a gargoyle. ‘Slacken off,’ he ordered.
‘What’s going on?’ Lyall asked.
Montague began a short abseil down the side of the building and found a foothold. There he rested before pulling at the rope again.
‘What are you doing?’ Lyall called down. ‘You have to tell us when you’ve finished with the rope so I can untie and make my descent. I don’t need it.’
‘I do,’ Montague replied. He wondered where the hell his friend Kit Bartlett had gone.
‘I’ll lean out and give you some more,’ said Lyall. ‘We’ve got enough. Are you safe?’
‘I think so.’
‘Good. I’ll just . . . hell . . . wait . . . oh . . .’
He fell away from the building, backwards through the night air and the snow, past the contorted faces of the silent gargoyles, the body gathering an inevitable momentum until its hard arrival on ground that would never be soft enough to stop death.