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What is a Climbing Wall

Bildering And Bilderers
Geoffrey Windthrop Young
Arthur Pinner

First True Climbing Structure
Clark Schurman
Camp Long

Post War Development

1960's Boom
Britians First Climbing Walls

1970's Development

Climbing Wall Manufacturers
Bendcrete Climbing Walls
DR Climbing Walls

University Walls
Brunel University
Spire Rock
University of Washington

The 1980's Wall Development
The invention of the bolt on Hold

First Commercial Climbing Centre
Vertical, In Seattle
Mile End, London

The 1990's Beginning of the Golden Age

21st Century Climbing Walls and the Future

Britains First Climbing Walls
Although the first recognised climbing wall was the Schurman Rock, built in the USA in the late 1930's and in France they were making adjustable wooden climbing walls in the late 1950's¹, it wasn't until 1960 that the first wall was built in Britain. It wasn't long before the modern climbing wall as we know it then emerged from the architect walls to wallls designed and used by climbers to develop their skills.


The First Climbing Walls
The first climbing wall was built at Ullswater school in Penrith, in the North of England in 1960.
The basic design concept of this wall was widely copied and improved upon throughout the 1960s and early 1970's, such as the University of Bolton Climbing Wall on Deane Road, Bolton opened in May 1969 and still in use to day.

The Bolton University wall shows a broad range of the development of the climbing wall systems from the early "Architect wall" through modifications of the wall to DIY constructed structures to modern commercial constructed structures.
University of Bolton CLimbing Wall (2011)
University Of Bolton Climbing Wall

Ullswater School
The Ullswater School Climbing Wall was the first climbing wall built by the then Cumberland Education Authority and the first climbing wall built in England, UK. The Cumberland Education Authority continued to develop the ideas and introduced more complex facilities culminating in the Wyndham Tower in 1965.
The fact that the first wall in Britain was built in at Ullswater School in Penrith an area with lots of natural outcrops nearby may seem strange but it is precisely this reason that is was probably built, as there was already an interest in the activity right from the start. It echoes the comments 30 years later when people said, why does Sheffield need a climbing wall, nobody's going to use a commercial wall when Stanage is only 5 miles away.

Tynefield School was a girls school built in about 1957 adjacent to it was the Ullswater Boys school. The gym was uilt in 1960. The Climbing Wall consisted of reccessed and protruding bricks with brick and concrete ledges and a bar at the top of the wall for top roping from.
The Ullswater School Climbing Wall, Penrith
Photo by Charlie Wilson who was the outdoor education advisor to the then Cumberland Education Authority at the time and a prominent Carlisle based climber along with people like Dennis English who had the Carlisle climbing equipment shop in 1960's/70's

One of the childrens activities practiced on the wall was Pirates, having a class of children hangin off the wall while one (the pirate) chased them. Bren McManus tells that Pirates was when they had 2 or 3 classes, about 60 children, they put all the equipment out and a few mats on the floor. One or two kids were give a band and were pirates, if they touched anyone they were Out, on the side or packed in the mat store, also out if they touched the floor. If the pirate touched the floor all were allowed back onto the equipment. The kids liked it especially when they climbed into the roof space and the pirate was scared to follow. Bren also says that it's, not allwed now, and, thank god we had a few injuries but that was part of life and again thank god no great injuries.

In 1970 the Ullswater School got a new sports hall and a new climbing wall built on the outside. The climbing wall was the same 'architect design' but bigger and more complex. In the late 1980's Bren and Malcom Cane added bolt on holds to it. This was used until recently when Ronnie Kenyon managed to get a modern wall constructed about 50m from the original. So the school has maintained an artificial climbing wall for over 50 years.
From the first experimental wall at Ullswater school the Cumberland Education Authority continued to develop their ideas into more and more complex schemes for 5 years and culminated in The Wyndham Tower.

At the Time of construction, 1965, the Wyndham Tower was the most advanced, complex and costly wall built in Britain well into the 1970's. Not only was the construction complex but it was housed in a purpose built tower block.

Most of the Early Cumberland Education Authority walls were built indoors for the same reason as that the Sheffield walls were constructed, it rains a lot in Britain and Winter day light hours are very small.

The Wyndham Tower 1965
Wyndham Tower 1965, Wyndham School, Egremont (Pic. BMC)
The Ullswater School design proved to be the most widely copied of all the early climbing walls and worked equally well indoor or out, and many of these early designs can still be found in sport centres or schools today. Collectively they are known today as Architect Walls or architect designed walls and are typically found on gable end walls of sports hall.

The Colin Mortlock Experience
In 1961, newly qualified teacher, Colin Mortlock began to work at a Royal Wolverhampton School in the West Midlands, with a new sports hall. On the gable wall he screwed wooden slates to the wall and created a climbing wall. Over the winter he used this wall in has spare time to develope his finger strength and stamina. He therefore became the first person to use an artificial climbing wall in this way, as a training aid to develop his climbing techniques rather than merely to teach the fundamentals of rock climbing, such as belaying, abseiling and basic techniques such as the mantleshelf. The following year he soon realised that this training had improved his standard greatly as he began to make second ascents and early repeats of some of the hardest climbs around at that time.
The Meadows Boys Club
The Meadows Boys Club in Nottingham was the first to break the mold and give an artificial climbing wall that was used for training not only or just to teach the fundamentals of rock climbing like belaying, the mantelshelf, the hand jam and abseiling but was used to increase the physical and personal skill levels. The wall was originally built along the same lines as the original Cumberland Education walls a simple architect wall.

From the start it was revolutionary in the way it was used. Firstly they extended the use of the wall by introducing aid climbing across the steel framed roof structure.
The Meadows Boys Club Climbing Wall 196

The Meadow Boys Club Circa 1965 (Pic. BMC)

Next in 1962 they modified the architect brick built wall by adding rocks to the cavities. This simple act transformed he facility from a wall to teach the principles of rock climbing to one that could be used by climbers to train on. The success of this early project was assured when Don Whillans participated at the reopening ceremony. It was said that there was a notable increase in the skill level and enthusiasm of Nottingham climbers over the next 10 years.

The Leeds University Climbing Wall
The simple act of choosing small rocks to embed into old climbing walls was used, to full effect, by Don Robinson at the University of Leeds in 1964.

The physical education department at Leeds University was responsible for modifying an existing climbing wall.Like at The Meadows Boys Club in Nottingham in 1962.

Sections of the brick climbing wall were removed and either left as a cavity or in filled with natural rocks.
The University of Leeds Climbing Wall, Cica 1970
The Leeds University Climbing Wall Circa 1970 (Pic. BMC)
The University of Leeds Climbing Wall, Cica 1970
The Leeds University Climbing Wall Circa 1970 (Pic. BMC)
It was a combination of the careful choosing and placing of these inset rocks but more importantly the way that the climbing wall facility was used that made the Leeds Wall an iconic status since it was built. It will always have that iconic status because it was one of the first climbing walls used in a sport environment for training by rock climbers.

Traversing for stamina. footwork, and finger strength were all helped. This simple climbing wall, consisting of no more than rocks set into a vertical brick wall, changed, even revolutionized the climbing standards of Yorkshire.

The Wall was 'L' shaped with a squash court in the L. Much later on DR Climbing walls put sculpted panelled climbing wall in it and even later still addes panels in the corridor opposite the original climbing wall.

It is sad that this historic wall was demolished about 2006. Before it was demolished Leeds University commissioned a short video of the wall and some commemorative photographs. The famous or notorious “balance move” was rescued from the wall but alas broken and is currently awaiting funding for its repair and reinstatement somewhere suitable.

The First Commercial Manufacturers
Commercial climbing wall manufacturers soon cottoned on to this new development and by the end of the 1960's there were several manufacturers offering a variety of climbing walls and products. These manufacturers included, Dring and Birtlesand H. Hunt and Sons Ltd. By the mid 1970's two familiar climbing wall manufacturers Bendcrete Climbing Walls Ltd and DR Climbing Walls were producing Climbing Walls.

Dring and Birtles redeveloped the French 1950's concept of adjustable wooden climbing walls These walls were built as units so could be added to, they also had the advantage that climbs were created on them using a peg board system that could be altered to change the climbs.

H.Hunt and Sons Ltd were a Liverpool based gymnastic equipment manufacturing company who developed an adjustable timber based system marketed as the Windsor Rock Climbing Wall, presumably because they were based at 89-93 Windsor Street, Liverpool. Incidentally, 17 year old, Ringo Starr took a job there in 1957 as an apprentice joiner until 1960 when the lure of Playing with Rory Storm And The Hurricane proved too much. The main feature of H.Hunt and Sons adjustable wall was that it stored vertically against the wall of a building and when pulled out for use could be used on both sides. It created two different walls or created a chimney and could be sited at different angles creating slabs and overhanging walls. The surface was covered with holes so that it resembled a peg board and therefore individual hand and foot holds could be put in to create different climbs.

Page Acknowledgements and References

1. - On Ice and Snow and Rock - By Gaston Rebuffat - 1959
2. - Artificial Climbing Walls - by Kim Meldrum and Brian Royle - 1970

Bren McManus

Colin Mortlock

Don Robinson

General Acknowledgements:

British Mountaineering Council
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