Sunday, November 22, 2009

Past imperfect 1 - Bowden Doors

December 1984 - Bowden Doors

Main Wall, 45 Feet - Hard very severe (5b)

A fine route up the centre of the first major wall of the crag. Start in a small corner below an indefinite crack. Climb the corner, exit on right and climb the wall above on good holds to the top.
Northumberland - A Rock Climbing Guide

Bowden Doors is a sandstone outcrop on Belford Moor, east of the Cheviot in the Scottish Borders. In my twenties it was the place of my dreams; the place I learned to climb and where I came of age. It is a place that has never left me.

And so I find it astonishing to think that this picture was taken 25 years ago.

The route had obsessed me for years - almost since I began climbing. Main Wall: the name said everything - no nonsense, just an obvious line up the centre of the crag; hard, steep, uncompromising. And appropriate to the bitter winds and big skies of Northumberland.

I had known for some time that I was good enough to climb it. But I wanted to do it in style and many times refused to practice on a top rope. The route took on a significance well beyond its grade, beyond most other things in my life - climbing it was about more than just moves on rock. By December I had been putting it off for months - for far too long, in fact.

I remember fragments of the day. Ken perched on a ledge taking photos; Simon and Katie flirting and not very interested. The rock, dry and sharp - the smell of it muted by the cold. There was mist that day too, a pale blue mist that the sun slowly burned away. By early afternoon the crag was warmed with a golden light. I walked over and uncoiled the rope.

In the picture I am at the crux move - a high step to leave the corner and pull onto the blank wall. I am heading for the pinkish scoop about four feet above me - there is a tiny nubbin that appears as a dark brown dot half way between my body and the scoop - I will transfer both hands to this and step up, my right foot smearing on a thin groove.

I know all this because there are certain climbs that stay with you: the easy first moves, the awkward balancing in the corner, the dry mouth, the wall above. And I remember the nubbin,the sharpness of the grit as it bit into my fingers - the tension in my tendons as they held my weight.

And the joy as I made it!

I remember too the snug placement of a nut, to save me should I fall - and stepping onto the upper wall, all difficulties behind me - powering upward - jug holds for my hands, and the rest of my life ahead of me...

The Wave - northern end of Bowden Doors, Northumberland
One of the most astonishing natural features I have ever seen

Post script:

I returned to Bowden Doors last year; it was a pilgrimage of sorts.

My father was dying and I had travelled north to see him - the first time in twenty years. That evening I drove to Wooler and the next day returned to the crag where I had sought to escape.

There was a young lad struggling on the same route. You reach for the nubbin, I said to him - place your right foot high, and pull for all your life...

When I die, I'd like my ashes to be scattered there.


  1. You've made me watery eyed. Lovely post. Hope some brave climber homours your wishes (but not too soon)...

  2. It isn't far from where I live. Wooler is about 20 minutes drive away - I live near Bamburgh. I haven't been to Bowden Doors but I'm sure my husband will know it.

    A very interesting post.
    CJ xx

  3. I now have a huge lump in my throat!!

    Beautiful writing

    C x

  4. Well written and the photos add a lot to that making it a remarkable post.

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