Ian Clayton: Tales of cliffs and barrels

Does beer taste better out of barrels?
Does beer taste better out of barrels?

I get a fair amount of correspondence about this column and quite a bit of comment when I’m standing at bus stops or doing my shopping, most of it very positive, not all, but hey ho!

Just every now and again I’m handed something that’s really interesting and it sets me off on adventure. Earlier this year I wrote about how seagull eggs were once regarded as a delicacy in the mining districts and that set me off researching the work of those who provided them, the “climmers” of Flamborough.



George Hepworth stopped me in Pontefract Market one Saturday morning and gave me a fantastic journal written by a “climmer” known by the initials “E G”, it’s a beautifully written account of daring do in the 1930s.

“I have had three Kittiwake eggs for my breakfast and I fancy I deserved them. I collected them from the cliff face at Old Dorr Cliff, Bempton while dangling on the end of a 150 foot rope. My teacher was Jack Petty, an old boy of Beverley Grammar School, he wore a tin hat, a harness like a bandolier and horn rimmed specs, and he carried two canvas bags.

“The bags were filled with eggs, gorgeous mottled green productions of the Guillemot, who lays an egg a quarter of her own weight. Before I knew what was happening strong hands buckled me into the harness. ‘We’ll put him over the ledge’. They did. The going wasn’t bad, the cliff sloped outwards, there was plenty of holds in the chalk and the rope was reassuringly firm. Cliff, sky and sea revolved in a tremendous panorama. Lovely white Kittiwakes cocked heads at me from ledges. I gingerly collected five mottled eggs and one cream one. I went up steadily spinning. At an inn at the top we tipped the eggs into a basket, they rolled and clicked like crocks in a sink. We shared them out taking four each at a time. The eggs sell at 18 pence a dozen but the ones with fine markings go to collectors and demand a higher price. On June 11 1937 I had pleasure in discovering the first gannet’s eggs to be laid on Bempton Cliffs, in a nest composed of seaweed.”

There is something here that really appeals to me, the sense of freedom, climbing, heights and the thrill of dangling on a rope hundreds of feet above the waves all excite me.

Of course the collecting of wild birds’ eggs is now illegal and rightly so, but I can’t help but admire these men and I believe that in another life I would have been a “climmer.”

If you go to the Yorkshire Film Archive website you can see a film from 1906 of the “climmers” in action.Thank you to George for providing this glorious insight. The extreme sports lovers of today have nothing on these lads.

Thinking on ropes, I wrote recently about the origin of the phrase “money for old rope.”

I mentioned that one theory was that hangmen used to sell bits of the noose as souvenirs, but didn’t personally believe that this could be a true explanation.

I had an email from David Bond of Normanton. He told me that on a visit to the museum at Whitby he noticed a small charm in a case. It was a skeleton on a chain with a small glass ball attached inside of which was a fragment of hemp rope. The curator said that the charms were sold as souvenirs and to ward off sore throats. There might be something in that theory then after all.

Nearer to home, I was in a pub discussion about the phrase “over a barrel” meaning to be “in someone’s power” or “helpless.” As far as I know it’s another of the seafaring idioms, unruly sailors were bent over a barrel before being flogged.

The conversation then developed into whether beer tastes better out of a wooden barrel or out of the modern aluminium and plastic ones.

Landlord at The Junction in Castleford, Neil, has decided on a practical experiment. He commissioned a craftsman cooper to make some and he is now serving ale out of oak barrels. A local brewer, Malcolm at Five Towns brewery put the same beer into two different casks, one wooden and one metal. Now you know what they say about the “proof of the pudding.” Everybody who sampled the beer, without exception said they preferred the one out of the wooden cask.

Could it be that these old fashioned ways were somehow better? You can test this for yourself, Neil generally has beers from the wood available most days.