Bouldering At The Arch Climbing Wall



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The Arch Climbing wall has three centres all over London – the one in Bermondsey has twenty-five circuits to each level, two areas to relax, moderately good coffee, and staff that double up as trainers make it a favourite amongst many climbers. You can sign up for group lessons or one-to-one lessons, or you can just choose to observe and tackle the easier routes.

The Arch Climbing Wall, The Biscuit Factory, 100 Clement’s Rd, London SE16 4DG. Phone: 020 7252 1033


Hot water. That’s what you need to avoid after your first day of bouldering. It was day one and I had just finished my first climb after having taken a month to get convinced. I was 34 and hadn’t tried a new sport in about a decade and a half, so I had good reason to be apprehensive. But there I was, in the girls’ changing room, sweaty and exhilarated with hands covered in chalk. I turned on the hot water tap and let out a howl. My hands were chaffed and the adrenaline wasn’t letting me feel their soreness. The hot water did a fairly decent job in reminding me. I had come in with soft, manicured hands that hadn’t clung on to rock/boulder surfaces, holding up my body weight ever since… well, ever since I had been born.

“Hang, don’t cling.
“Gentle footwork. Don’t make a racket.”
“Angle your body with each hold.”
“Watch some of the better climbers. You’ll learn a lot.”
“Get it! You can get it.”
“What do you mean you can’t do that circuit? Of course you can.”
“Get it! Get it!”
“Don’t cling. Hang. Hang!”

This is what I heard over the next few weeks at The Arch, a bouldering gym in Bermondsey. I was married to the man who was serving as my instructor and also happened to be a formidable climber. I’d watch him climb and would get so conflicted between jaw-dropping awe and insane jealousy as my emotion of choice. He glided vertically, holding on to the wall with his fingertips, his face expressionless and monk-like, his movements silent and graceful like a cat. I, on the other hand, would spend my time contorting my face, grunting, cursing and channeling my inner sailor. I whined about the ache in my arms and back. I talked about my newly calloused hands with sly, underlying pride to everyone I met. It was all very fascinating and fresh.

In the summers, the doors of the factory would remain open and the sweet smell of Marie and Bourbon biscuits would waft out.

I started to go The Arch three, sometimes four times a week. The pain in my arms ebbed. I didn’t necessarily need an ibuprofen smoothie the morning after a climb, and in a month I moved up a level. That week I walked around with head-exploding pride. Having sucked at every sport my entire life, this was extraordinary for my ego. I wanted to go back to 1997, walk into my school and say “HA!” at the morning assembly. It was just one level up, one above the lowly, rackety, awkward beginners, and yet I felt like The Hulk who was also a lizard.

The Arch proved to be very welcoming. The afternoons were practically empty, so all my self-consciousness kicked back and relaxed. I climbed to learn, to get strong and just for myself. The gym is also referred to as The Biscuit Factory on account of being situated in the ground floor unit of the old Peek Frean biscuit factory of Bermondsey. Peak Frean set up shop in this part of London in 1857 all the way up until 1989. In the summers, the doors of the factory would remain open and the sweet smell of Marie and Bourbon biscuits would waft out, earning Bermondsey the nickname Biscuit Town. This touch of history makes it a tad more precious to me than it already is.

Twenty-five circuits to each level, two areas to relax, moderately good coffee, brilliant beef biltong and staff that double up as trainers. The Biscuit has eaten into my weekends and a big slice of my weekdays. It’s been a year since my first day on a wall and I am now three levels above the lowly, rackety, awkward beginners. I walk around with so much hubris that if I met me in an alley I’d punch me.


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