No “sportswear”. Climbers shun pretension, and see no need for showy spandex gear. A seasoned climber knows that flexibility is a state of mind. Instead, climbers roll out of bed in their sporting slacks – lightweight, multi-pocketed trews in varying degrees of putty and sage, hop onto their fixie bike and glide over to the climbing wall in Bermondsey.
The Arch is a plywood and polished concrete dreamscape – an idyllic screensaver conjured up by the fevered mind of a successful hipster overlord. It is a haven for the indecorous. Wilfully uncomfortable. A serious space. There is a rack selling snacks for people about to embark on a long-haul trek. A lone book (The Unknown Ben Fogle) in the ‘honesty library’ (a small wicker tray on the floor of the dressing room, plaintively hoping you will “give a book a decent home”.) There is even a coffee bar decked out in chipboard with dribbling greenery strung up in macramé nooses. (They missed a trick not employing a few horticultural climbers! These people don’t appreciate symbolism.)
The coffee bar will make you a flat white if you fancy – but this is a trick: climbers do not condone a flat white. Flat whites are for yuppie wankers, trying out the wall on impulse or for a dare. Climbers save a fiver and warm their hands around a free filter coffee, pumped from a no-nonsense urn straight into their thermos lid.
On the mezzanine floor, are lockers, in which to keep your bicycle clips, an unbranded snood, a copy of The Hidden Life of Trees and a can of kombucha for later. Climbers long-departed leave an echo of righteous BO. The musty signature of a morning spent mindfully conquering the tops of walls.
During my morning at the climbing wall, a visiting footballer remarked scornfully on the physique of the climbers, their ‘love for the game’, and the inescapable truth that every last one of these blokes must have been benched for the 3rd team. Silly, vulgar footballer! Typical Div 1 derision. This is the thinking man’s sport. Climbing is a noble pursuit that requires a great deal of mental agility and tactical planning. Not just thuggish juggernauting and then flinging yourself on the ground to score points by default. Poncy over-paid football bastards! Climbers are thoughtful, pragmatic types. Unmoved by frivolity, haircuts, point-scoring or cornerflags. They have an alternative goal. Oooh yes. And they will not give up!
Climbers will not be beaten by a wall, or a lack of a foothold, or a cup of burnt coffee. They’ll walk sideways up a vertical face if the situation demands it. They will happily abandon the laws of physics and nimbly swing forth, upside down, with the balance and dexterity of a mountain ibex – while you remain grounded and ashamed, like a useless guinea pig. Quite honestly I cannot fathom how a lot of them get from Crag A to Outcrop B other than sheer force of will amplified by the desire not to be an estate agent. Or a Tory. Their death and gravity-defying progress beggars belief. Some of the courses are so ungenerously flat, it would be like trying to traverse the Rushmore George Washington’s forehead. (As opposed to, say, Keith Richards’ head, which would be a doddle.) Which is why, in spite of it all, you can’t completely take the piss out of them. Climbers are as Good, Honest, Local and Hard Working as if they had been rolled out of sincerity dough and baked in Jamie Oliver’s oven.