Caian Night Climbers in the Long Vacation of 1957

  • 01 April 2024

In the long vacation term of 1957 James Anderson (Law 1955) and his friend Neville Gunther (Medicine 1956) scaled the most prominent feature of ’s Waterhouse Building under cover of darkness. 

There are many other examples of Cambridge night climbing antics, none of which are encouraged due to genuine safety concerns, but this escapade is perhaps less well known.

James, a retired Vicar now in his late eighties, recalled the night in question, and his own part in completing the planned deed, to adorn the spire above the Great Gate with an old umbrella.

“The instigator was my friend Neville who had a room on the top floor in Tree Court and noticed that work was being done on the roof,”  James says.

“One evening we gained access and found long ladders lying on the leads. We decided we would use them to scale the spire.

“During the previous term I had collected items for a jumble sale in aid of the Cambridge Mission to Delhi. I gave the proceeds to the Revd Robert Runcie, then Dean of Trinity Hall, but among the unsaleable leftovers was a torn black umbrella, which I suggested to Neville would form a fitting finial to the spire.

“So, on a dark, and luckily for us, windless night, we made our way to the roof and carefully managed to lay one of these very long wooden ladders against the spire above the Great Gate. The umbrella was split from edge to crown, but by linking the tips of the ribs with string, it could be effectively erected and kept from turning inside out. I think we gave the umbrella extra height by attaching it to an old broomstick.

“I volunteered to attach the proposed new finial and scaled the ladder but when I got to the top the necessity of leaving my hold on the ladder and using both hands to wire the umbrella to the existing terminal made me dizzy. Even now when I think of it, the very idea makes my vitals tighten uncomfortably! Needless to say I retreated, trembling, back to the roof, still ignominiously carrying the umbrella.”

A collage of two black and white photos showing an umbrella as a finial on a gothic roof

It was Neville who completed the task.

“He confidently took my place and returned triumphant with the new finial firmly attached to the pinnacle,” James adds.

“The following morning I took these photographs, which I still think give a bizarre touch to one of Cambridge’s most prominent buildings. I recall the Cambridge Daily News also took note of the event with a photo.  The College Porters, however, lost no time in having the indignity removed and few if any will remember it now.

“It was a truly dizzying experience. I can clearly remember the feeling of looking down from such a great height with the night sky above and the lamplit length of King’s Parade below.”

Fortunately both Neville and James lived to tell the tale and James became Neville’s brother in law when he married Phyllida, Neville’s sister, in 1962. Neville became a Consultant in Geriatrics and, when he died in June 2022, James was privileged to take his funeral.  

James adds: “A colleague, Dr Christopher Foote, who spoke at his funeral said that Geriatrics had been a Cinderella speciality and had now been 'rescued from the long and dark shadow of the Workhouse'. Neville had a leading part in this uplift.”


Although posted on April 1 (April Fools Day), the above story is true. Thank you to James for sharing this story.

3 minutes