Bempton Climmers

Report on our meeting held on 25th January 2016

Prior Rick Hudson welcomed members and invited guests and then introduced the speaker, Jeff Wardlow. Jeff describes himself as a local “anarak” of the village of Bempton were he was born and bred. His talk was entitled, “Bempton and Bempton Climmers”.

With the help of wonderful photographs Jeff introduced us to many of the people involved, such as the Hodgson brothers and Toby Wilkinson, and the equipment they used. Each team had a climmer, an anchor man and three pull men who helped retrieve the climmer. The anchor man found a suitable position where he could heel in. He had a modified horse harness around his waist to stop the rope digging into him. The rope ran over one or more pulleys on stakes thrust into the ground to keep the rope clear of the chafing cliff edge. The climmer’s harness was a homemade pair of leather shorts. A stout hat worn as protection against falling rocks completed the kit.

Jeff showed that the main rope was simply knotted through a loop in the harness. A second rope was used so the climmer could counteract any tendency to spin. The ropes were made of manila. They had a core known locally as “gark”. If the ropes became wet the gark would make the ropes soapy and slippery, so climming did not take place if rain was threatened, and the ropes would be protected in improvised shelters near the cliffs.

The climming season traditionally began on 6th May and lasted until about the end of June, and sites were chosen not to deplete stocks. It was an evening and weekend pursuit of the local farm labourers, partly to supplement their diet. Jeff said that kittiwake eggs make the best Yorkshire puddings. The sale of eggs for food and to collectors also supplemented their family finances. One well known collector was Mr George Rickerby. From Jeff’s researches we find that a basket of about 60 dozen eggs would fetch about £30 in 1936. The highest price that Jeff could find was £7 paid in the 1940’s for a single exquisitely marked guillemot egg.

The climmers were a popular attraction and visitors were transported from the local resorts. They could be lowered down the cliff themselves for free. They were only charged for being brought back up! There were a few lady climmers. One such was Hettie Pollard, and Jeff’s own mother Stella did it to overcome a fear of heights.

A highlight of the evening was a rare 18 minute film of the climmers made in 1908. It showed many of the things Jeff had talked about. For instance to communicate with the anchor man the climmer would bounce in his harness; two bounces for down, three for up. We could also see the climmers “bunching out”. They pushed away from the cliff with their feet to allow faster lowering and retrieval. Also on show was a lady visitor climming. She lost her bonnet in the process but arrived back onto the cliff top with a beaming face.

The final climming photograph was of Bob Hartley in 1954, just before the Wild Birds Protection Act of that year came into force and brought climming to an end.

The vote of thanks was given by Bro Matthew Francis. He thanked the speaker for his detailed stories and photographs, and the amazing video. He thought Jeff’s mother was a brave lady.