Oak & Stone (a spring, 2021) | Mark GoodwinPosted: April 18, 2021
I would like to share my feelings for stone & wood. Especially the shapes that they can make together, and that in turn can make memories solid … and though such memories will weather, their crisp shapes don’t diminish.
To climb is to ‘place’ – very carefully – one’s feet & hands & body. This placing of parts of one’s self so as to fit stone holds or tree branches makes a series of very small but intense places. Places that one visits with touch. The old friend of a rock-hold, or that companion crux made where a certain branch meets a certain trunk. In winter that crux holds a small cold pool of black water one-knuckle-deep, and in summer it is a dusty socket. And that rock-hold, green and treacherous all winter, then suddenly in spring … it gives back to you its edges & friction. Such holds are places in miniature, and because they are miniature they are condensed. So potent.
Wood & stone make good company. I think of parts of Burbage Edge, in the Peak District, where gritstone & oak commune, or Gardom’s Edge where the woods & grit do impressions of each other, affectionately mock each other’s shapes & textures. Places where lichen makes faces at us whilst the upholstery of moss invites us to recline.
One of the very best places I know for becoming involved with the trysts of rock & wood is in Charnwood, Leicestershire. And there is one particular spot, one intricate landscape in miniature, not far from an active monastery called Mount St Bernard Abbey. The focus of this place is Oaks Pinnacle – a small but elegant balancing of one block atop another, accompanied by a young robust oak tree. The rock is ‘weathered Precambrian slate agglomerate’, and is as good as mountain rhyolite. It has that same immediate deep ancient buzz of hardness that so lets a climber feel the intensity of their so very brief moments upon it. The horizontal break below the perched block allows light to pass through the pinnacle. You can see and feel why such a location would be revered as magical. No doubt Druids made their place here in the ancient past. And the monastery nearby, no doubt, was placed in honour of the religious charge already given to the ground hereabouts. Apparently, one should not hang around Oaks Pinnacle at dusk. One should go home, seek shelter, and leave the old gods to haunt themselves. But just before twilight, and whilst the bells of the monastery are tolling, just as the fall of light to the west slants its last orangely through the companion oak’s branches … it is irresistibly beautiful …
The main climb, some 6m in height, is called Central Route. In the guidebook – Leicestershire Climbs – this little route is given a grade of Very Severe, not at all hard by modern standards. It is also given three stars, to signal its fine aesthetic qualities. Central Route – such an obvious name, as indeed this VS rises … centrally … bisecting the pinnacle’s algae-coated north face. And although on some evenings I’ve thought of other names for it, such as Oaks Oddity or Druidic Agglomerate, in the end, it being so prosaically and classically named is actually potent. This matter-of-fact label – Central Route – is typical of many Victorian climbs, so often named simply for their obvious features … and such no-nonsense, masculine ‘taxonomy’ has been carried on into later decades. And so here, in Leicestershire, this prosaic tag echoes poetically bigger climbs on far greater crags to the north or the west, waiting in the mountains that I have missed so much of late. There is here for me a concentrated whiff of elsewheres that only thickens the thisness of here. There is of course no abseil required to escape this pinnacle’s summit … one’s body is invited to simply step into the branches of the close oak and so descend via wood.
The rub of skin on bark, or the rub of wood against stone. Just as sleep tips us. Just as our bed becomes vertical and we feel ourselves fall gorge
ously into the space of s leep below us …
… the old familiar resistance of stone’s touch and the s way of pliant branches, the storms that w ear away parts of our world and also the breezes that gently rattle twigs … they come along with us into our sleep … and we dream of them … and our dreams c reak …
So many years ago, as a very young man, I dreamt, rather vividly, and then wrote a poem. I dug it out the other day, reminded of it by Nikki’s photo at the start of this piece – an image of such a long conversation of wood with stone. I never got round to publishing that poem … it feels as if it has been waiting. The poem is dedicated to a close friend – Jonny Mitchell – who back in the 80s was one of Leicestershire’s climbing activists. Jonny still climbs every now and again on Peak District gritstone. He was closely involved with the climbing development of The Brand – a quaint & pretty old slate quarry in Swithland, actually situated in the expansive garden of the one-time Lord Lieutenant of Leicestershire. In 1988 Jonny put up, directly above the old quarry’s pool, a three-star climb, which he named Splash, and graded as Extreme 3. A tryst between climber, slate & water! When I climbed with Jonny, in the 90s, he was also a tree-surgeon, and so he was as much at home in trees as he was on rock. On a number of occasions we went tree climbing in Leicestershire. And sometimes we would trespass across Charnwood’s precious properties in search of, what climbers call, Crag X. A Crag X is a crag of the imagination – that as-yet unfound gem that has somehow been missed by generations of climbers. In all climbing areas, and throughout time, there are always rumours of actual Crag Xs … with actual projections of solid climbs. I’m daft enough to still look out for such crags in Charnwood … and often in woodland I’m fooled … the lines of trunks & the crack-like squiggles of branches morph into the beckoning form of some fantastic buttress …
Anyway, these are memories, and are as much defined by crisp lines as what has been worn away. Here is that poem … made in another world in another time:
for climbs in woodland, found
the curved puzzling limbs of beech –
smooth skinned and ladder-easy but
punctuated with sudden cruxes. We greened
our hands on algae’d willow, balanced
on bendy branches, risked
willow-wood’s swift crack. We read
many meanings of leaves, named
all the names we knew
we’d climbed amongst. We jumped
from one woodpecker-pocket to the next. We clung
to the blank challenges of trunks. Thrutched.
Weeks later I dreamed we’d scoured
an expanse of sloping woodland
tree-to-tree to identify
criss-cross promises of branches.
Then suddenly we stumbled on it – a new crag ! It stretched
a mile or more along a scarp amongst
a crowd of guardian trees.
We whooped. We ran
to touch its rock. We found
the whole crag
was carved hard woods.
The word crux for a climber denotes the most difficult part of a climb. However, the crux formed by a branch meeting a trunk more often provides an easy hold, and so, in the poem the use of the word crux is ambiguous. Trees can, however, and often do, have difficult moves, or cruxes in the climbing sense.
Here is the route description for Central Route, from Leicestershire Climbs:
Central Route 6m VS 4c ***
A superb route going direct up the middle of the front face. Sharp holds lead you to a horizontal fist-jamming break. You can see daylight through this break. Finish by laying away up the sharp crack. [The first ascensionists are not given in the guidebook.]
And here is the description of Jonny’s climb, in The Brand:
Splash 21 m E3 5c ***
The climb takes the discontinuous flake crack in the wall to the left of Rhythm Collision from a nut belay 1.5m to the left (Rocks 3 and 4) at water level. Move diagonally right and climb the flake crack (in situ wire). J. Mitchell and E. Jones, June 1988.
Pages from the original 1993 Leicestershire Climbs guidebook can be found via the following links. The guidebook, especially regarding The Brand, includes interesting general historical information.
Oaks Pinnacle: http://www.leicesterclimbs.f9.co.uk/OakspinnacleI.htm
Photos, of Oaks Pinnacle & miniature environs, by Nikki Clayton.
Mark Goodwin‘s publications include All Space Away and In (Shearsman, 2017), Steps (Longbarrow Press, 2014), and Rock as Gloss (Longbarrow Press, 2019), acclaimed by Andy Clarke in Climber magazine as ‘An exhilarating journey through the glorious variety of UK rock, including mountain rhyolite, eastern grit, Llanberis slate… a fascinating and rewarding collection that amply repays backtracking and re-reading.’ Click here to visit the Rock as Gloss microsite for extracts, essays and audio recordings. You can also order the hardback via PayPal below: