Review for Alpine Journal 2016 by Terry Gifford

Terry Gifford, one of our crowd funding donors, has written an article featuring step in stone for the Alpine Journal, a hardback publication.   Terry is the unofficial gardener of climbs at Fairy Cave Quarry, a judge for the Boardman Tasker Award for Mountain Literature 2016 and was Director of the annual International Festival of Mountaineering Literature for 21 years.  Former Chair of the Mountain Heritage Trust, he is the author of The Joy of Climbing (2004) and is in his 52nd year of rock-climbing.  Terry helped Cath attach some of her Gabions high up on a sheer rock face at Fairy Cave, and was a great support throughout the project.

The Alpine Journal won’t be published for several months and a hard copy will be hard to get, so Terry has given us permission to publish his article in advance.

‘step in stone’ exhibition, Fairy Cave Quarry, Somerset, October 2015

(Review offered for publication in the Alpine Journal 2016)

Mountaineers on the Alpine Ridge (PD) under full winter conditions, catching the last of the winter afternoon’s sun, photographed in close-up, can look very impressive on social media. But this is Fairy Cave Quarry’s easiest route to the quarry rim, all one hundred meters of it. When I moved to the Mendip Hills of Somerset four years ago, Stephen Venables was summing up the local climbing for me, adding, ‘and there are some over-rated grotty quarries’. A month after I moved into Stoke St Michael, unaware of this particular locked quarry (BMC website for access details) just a lane away from my house, it announced itself in the guise of a Climbers’ Club guidebook all of its own. It has since become the best-selling CC guidebook ever. What began as a bit of a joke – a sop to activists down in the lonely Southwest – from the CC guidebook committee has become a runaway success going through reprint after reprint.

So what is the secret to Fairy Cave Quarry’s popularity that draws climbers not just from Bristol and South Wales, but from all along the M4, from the south coast, and even tempts Iain Peters out of Devon? Most of its climbing is north-facing and it has a reputation for limestone looseness and vegetation. But it has the nearest slabs to London. And there’s not a bolt or peg in sight. The clean line of the classic Rob’s Crack (4c), benign beginners’ routes on the west-facing Balch’s Slide (4a) area, and the thin steeper challenge of Withy Crack (5a), plus plenty of tricky overlapping slabs at higher grades, attract climbers on most dry days of the year. But actually this is a cavers’ quarry, owned by a caver, the locked carpark reserved for cavers and its management committee dominated by cavers whose base is the cavers’ hut at the top of the lane. Apparently the many locked cave entrances in the quarry give access to some of the best decorated caves in the Mendips, where many cavers are also climbers. Withy Crack’s first ascent is credited to Cerberus Speleological Society in 1992. Given that it is also an SSSI (great crested newts; at least two species of orchids; ravens reared three young last year; Western Red Cedar has just been discovered there) climbers need to be aware that Fairy Cave Quarry is a place that we share, like so many of our crags, with other interests.

But what about three gabions of orange plastic hanging from the diagonal crack of Halfway to Kansas? Or the quarry floor littered with strange white tents on wheels in which green shoots grew from teapots? Or a disembodied voice speaking from somewhere up in the West End? Then over 1200 people finding all sorts of other oddities around the quarry during the two weeks (three weekends) when it was open to the public? Actually climbers seemed to have enjoyed sharing the quarry with the ‘step in stone’ sculpture exhibition for two weeks in October 2015 and may not have realised that they became exhibits themselves in the time-lapse, attention-provoking, photographs of Christina White displayed at the Earth Science Centre down the road. Indeed, climbers were responsible for hanging those gabions at the request of the artist, Catherine Bloomfield, so that their impact (unintended by the artist, apparently) as people entered the quarry was like a parody of three ducks on a wall. Actually, more subtle than that, they were the highest of a line of orange gabions that had colonised the quarry and clearly wanted to join in the climbing.

Poet Ralph Hoyte’s voice works were both an echo of the human construction of the quarry and an eerie post-industrial mysterious communication of echoing absence. Sally Kidall’s white tents on stick and sisal platforms looked like some post-industrial survivors’ attempts at nomadic domesticity that were now abandoned and being reclaimed by nature. From the climbers’ perspective on the quarry rim this seemed to be a community that had run its wheels into a dead-end before it simply gave up. Duncan Cameron developed a picture of the quarry site through evening, day and overnight ‘expeditions’, collecting fascinating found materials (including a wrist watch – but no old pegs!) that he finally mounted in his ‘Fairy Cave Cabinet’ on the dramatic cliff-edge start of the Alpine Ridge. For those climbers who walked around into the West End with their eyes open, a dome set into the ground will have revealed another miniature world of insects, ants and a dead bird. Tessa Farmer’s fairy world was a predatory one that certainly suggested ‘Alice’s unsettling journey down the rabbit hole into Wonderland’ as she puts in the excellent catalogue representing all fourteen artists who took part in the larger project involving six venues with workshops, walks, talks and performances that attracted 8114 visitors in total. Amazingly, the curator of all this, Fiona Campbell, found time to make work for at least three sites where ancient sea creatures that might have inhabited what is now limestone. Here, her ‘Eviscerated Earth’ combined rusty steel bits with wax, cloth, paper and wire to evoke, ironically, the strange formations lost in the destruction of caves by quarrying. Actually, what remains was not only the inspiration for the artists, but also for the audience: the natural folds and features of Fairy Cave Quarry itself, especially in the Death Wish Area, attracted a lot of public attention, which should remind us of how lucky we are to have access negotiated by BMC volunteer Ian Butterworth.

So could there be limits to sharing climbing rock with other artists? (Like bullfighting in Spanish culture, rock-climbing, we know, is an art form.) Only one climb was made more difficult for only two weeks here. And from the quarry rim climbers still get the benefit of various imitations of the famous Salt Lake land art ‘Spiral Jetty’. But on some gritstone boulders in West Yorkshire and Lancashire six poems by Simon Armitage have been carved into the rock to comprise the Stanza Stones Trail of 47 miles. Each poem is about a form of precipitation: ‘Rain’, ‘Snow’, ‘Mist’, etc. These are semi-permanent, although expected by the poet to be mossed over, erased by their subjects and climbed over. Unlike bird-bans, they don’t require art-bans. But they have, with a kind of hubris, humanised the natural rock we come to climb. Is it our rock? Of course not, and climbing is still possible. Indeed, you might feel enriched by being reminded of climbing ‘up here where the front of the mind distils the brunt of the world’ in ‘Rain’, for example. For years we’ve shared the crags with ravens and ring ouzels, and now we must share them with conservationists and curators.

My three nuts from which the gabions hung stayed untouched by other climbers for two weeks. When I mistakenly removed them, thinking the exhibition was finished, other climbers replaced them with stones so the final weekend show could go on. But at another, open, quarry, a weekend rave of six hundred people destroyed one artist’s work. There are other people we should resist sharing the crags with – the ‘green trail’ 4×4 drivers, the destructive trail bike riders, the access improvers, the commercial bolters, the selfish route-hogging groups. Beside these, a few though-provoking, amusing or distinctly odd fellow artists are life-enhancing presences for which we should be grateful, as many climbers obviously were at Fairy Cave Quarry in 2015.

Terry Gifford

 

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