The Climmer’s Tale

Tales from End to End
The Climmer’s Tale

by Richard Waines

‘Climming’ or (cliff climbing) used to be an important part of Flamborough village life. It involved gangs of men lowering one of their team on ropes down the vertical chalk cliffs to collect birds’ eggs and then hauling the climmer back up again.

Our family were farmers at Flamborough, but my older brother John used to love watching the climmers at nearby Bempton. He came home one day and said to our father: ‘Dad, we’re only 400 yards from the cliff edge – we could set up our own family climming gang.’ My father, Tom Waines, agreed and so we became a climming team. We were a five-man team with my father at the top of the cliff as the anchor man. He had the climbing rope wrapped round his waist. I was one of the three others who helped Dad as rope pullers. John was the one lowered down the cliff.

Health and safety regulations would never allow us to operate today. John had a protective helmet that had been left over from the Home Guard. His harness was very primitive by today’s standards. It was just a wide padded belt with two straps over his shoulders and one round his legs. The ‘body rope’ was attached to John and it was this that lowered and raised him up and down the cliff face. He could also use this as a signal with one pull on the rope meaning ‘stop’, two pulls meaning ‘carry on down’ and three pulls ‘come back up’. A second rope, the ‘hand rope’, was held by John and fixed to a peg at the top of the cliff. John could use this to help pull himself back up and so take some of the strain off the four pullers.

Two ginnies (long spikes with a wheel at the top) guided the body rope to make sure it kept clear of the cliffs. You had to trust your team mates and sometimes we worked in thick fog.

Climmer

The climming season lasted for about six weeks. From the beginning of June to mid-July when the sea birds were laying their eggs. The kittiwakes made their nests from mud and grass collected from one of our farm fields and they would lay up to five eggs at a time. The guillemots on the other hand had just a single egg on a bare rock ledge. The eggs are pear-shaped with the blunt end against the cliff side so they don’t roll off the ledge. Guillemot eggs are amazing because each one has its own unique marking pattern. You never get two eggs that look exactly the same. I suppose it’s a bit like human beings each with our own unique fingerprints.

We always went climming in the evenings because during the daytime we were busy working on the farm. We had the routine well-rehearsed and it only took John about ten minutes to go down the cliff, collect the eggs and then be hauled back up again. He would probably collect about 50 eggs each evening and we would do about three climbs a week, so during the season our team would collect nearly a thousand eggs.

Occasionally we took fulmar or puffin or razorbill eggs but mainly we relied on the kittiwakes and guillemots. It was a useful addition to the farm income. Kittiwake eggs sold for 2d or 3d and guillemot eggs for 6d. Most of the eggs were bought locally for food although some were sent as delicacies to London hotels. The patent leather industry also bought some and especially attractive eggs were sold to collectors who admired the variety of shapes and colours.

Climming is a thing of the past. Apart from a few scratches and scars, our gang only ever had one accident. That was when one young man asked my father if he could ‘have a go’ at climbing down the cliff. Dad allowed him but he broke his leg in the effort. However, it was not health and safety that brought climming to an end. We had to stop in the 1950s when bird protection laws made the activity illegal. As a farmer, I am in favour of protecting our wildlife and countryside but I must confess that from time to time I still miss a morning breakfast of guillemot eggs with salt, pepper and vinegar and eaten with a thick wedge of homemade bread and best butter made on the farm.

Richard Waines
Richard Waines

Richard Waines is a farmer who has lived in Flamborough all his life. He appeared on BBC television news in February 2011 and spoke of his memories of egg collecting at Flamborough. In his retirement he and his wife Pat are heavily involved with a group of ladies in supporting the work of St Catherine’s Hospice in Scarborough.