A Head for Heights

How do you like your eggs cooked? Ever tried anything more adventurous than hens’ eggs? Well here’s an extract from a tale of eggy derring-do in my book “Close to the Edge”

At the northernmost tip of the Holderness coast in East Yorkshire lies the village of Flamborough and a great buttress of chalk cliffs known as Flamborough Head. In Victorian times the business of the village was fishing and farming but to supplement their income the fishermen and farmers of Flamborough went “climming” or egg–gathering – all provided they had very good heads for heights and partners in whom they could place implicit trust.

Climming was generally a family occupation with different families having “their own” bit of coast to work on. A team of between two and four men worked together with one being lowered over the cliff and steadied by the others. It was dangerous work for the man over the cliff, wearing only a cloth cap stuffed with straw and wrapping dried grass or straw around his hands to stop the rope from cutting them. This was a description in 1834 written by naturalist Charles Waterton of a 2-man climming team:

“…he who is to descend now puts his legs through a pair of hempen braces which meet around his middle and there form a waistband. A man now holds the rope firmly in his hand and gradually lowers his comrade down the precipice. While he is descending…he passes from ledge to ledge and rock to rock. It requires considerable address on the part of the descending climber to save himself from being hit by fragments of the rock which are broken off by the rope… “

When the climmer disappeared from sight a system of signals was his only form of communication – 1tug for lower me further; 2 tugs for stop lowering and 3 tugs for get me out of here.

In Waterton’s day up to 130000 eggs could be collected in the season mainly from guillemot, razorbill and kittiwake nests. They were sold for different purposes. Some were turned into souvenirs; some were used for sugar refining and some sent to the West Riding where they used the egg white in the manufacture of patent leather. Guillemot eggs were particularly sought after and most were eaten by local people who fried, scrambled and concocted egg omelettes from them.

The practice of climming continued right up into the twentieth century when the Wild Birds Protection Act 1954 made the taking of wild birds’ eggs illegal.

PS. Click here if you want to see a clip of climming in action.

Climmers - photo from Yorkshire Film Archives

Climmers – photo from Yorkshire Film Archives