25 years ago today, on 17th October 1994, we stood, bleary eyed and unwashed behind our newly built counter, made from materials we had recovered from the building, waiting for the till to arrive. We had worked till 1:30am that same morning with several volunteers and workers, finishing the painting, the sweeping, cleaning toilets. All the holes in the tea room floor were patched up by then. The exhaustion hadn’t quite set in at that point, and we still kept going on our nerves, though we hadn’t got there without injury. Steve had fallen head first down a stairwell (before the stairs were installed), and I’m sure I broke a bone when the huge steel passed through the back windows of the main room got put down on my foot. We had spent more than four months on site after at least a year’s planning, building a climbing wall using mostly first principles and an engineer’s plan of our concept, and an architect’s drawing of the rooms and toilets we needed to install. We winged the rest of it.
Steve and I in our naivety had decided that building a climbing wall in North Wales was a good idea – Sheffield had one, and that was where all the local climbers were travelling to in the winter. We had never built anything, and neither of us had ever run a business. We had very little money to spend – less than £10,000 of hard-earned savings between us, working as teacher / outdoor pursuits instructors and living a miserly life – and our money was generously matched by a Welsh Government grant, so although the wall was rock solid, everything had been done on the cheap. We had spent many months experimenting with making our own climbing holds in the shed, and later in a back room of the old Beacon, and every single one we made appeared sparsely on the ply wall panels we had also prepared ourselves. In addition to exhaustion, we had probably also poisoned ourselves with resin fumes, or would have done if the old place hadn’t been so draughty.
We were lucky to have been able to build it at all – Paul the landlord, master of wacky and innovative ideas himself was completely at home with having a huge steel and plywood structure fixed to the inside of his building. We couldn’t have achieved what we did without the volunteers and a small crew of patient tradesmen who knew what they were doing. We became well known in the builder’s merchants, especially for asking stupid questions, and even they patiently nurtured us. As work had progressed and we were running out of money, we offered early bird discounts for annual tickets, bought by a handful of generous individuals who had faith in us, and we spent that cash too before opening day. The name – Beacon – was decided upon because of the Old Marconi Building’s original history. Built by Marconi it was once the most important long wave radio station in Britain, and achieved a first by transmitting directly to Australia in Morse code towards the end of the First World War in 1918. The station provided a unique and vital facility then and later, enabling official communication with the USA and Australia and with ships on the North Atlantic. The building subsequently had a history as a camp for evacuees in the Second World War, a strip club in the seventies (we decided not to derive the name for our new climbing wall from that, but it seemed that some of our new customers had dawning recollections of being in this building many years before as wild under-age teenage drinkers), a rabbit farm and stables.
So there we stood, October sunshine filtering through the tall dirty windows, with a motley crew of faithful friends and volunteers waiting for the till to arrive. We wondered if it would be followed by any customers. The man arrived with the cash register and rapidly explained how it worked, the information not really sinking in, and asked how much of a float we wanted to put in. Float? Yes, we need to put some change in. Good point. Hands rummaged in pockets, a trip to the van to scour the footwells for change, and with help we came up with nearly thirty quid, literally all we owned now. Then, to our relief, our first customers came to climb. They were happy and didn’t seem to mind too much that they got black paint on their hands when they did their first climbs on the wall. We were incredibly relieved and grateful that people came to climb, and eventually we got used to charging our friends for the privilege, even though it felt weird.
Many of our first customers to the original Beacon in Ceunant are still regular customers now, 25 years later in our new climbing wall in Caernarfon, and some of them are in their eighties now. They will remember the cheese toasties we served by the hundred on busy days, the buckets catching the water that poured in when it rained, the potholes in the slate car park, the long dodgy drive up to the car park especially if it snowed, the hurricanes, and also the brilliant atmosphere of the busy nights and fun competitions. On clear days, the views and the sunsets were spectacular, though fewer people to see them. I see climbers now who were introduced to climbing in our original Kids’ Clubs, and are grown up with kids of their own now. It was a fun place, but the huge old building was deteriorating and we needed to relocate.
Barcud on Cibyn Industrial Estate in Caernarfon were the studios used by S4C to create Welsh TV programmes for around 20 years before the company had to liquidate. It was sad, but it left a big empty building begging for a new climbing wall, so fate (and those potholes and proliferating buckets) dictated the move to where we are now. The move in July 2012 was the best thing ever – we had carte blanche to create a big new 21st century climbing wall and introduce climbing to a whole new population. And it’s got a nice car park! We’re proud of what we’ve achieved, with the help of many dedicated staff over the years and other individuals who care about our community’s climbing wall. It’s moved into a new era, with so much more happening around the centre than just climbing, like the health practitioners and the exercise classes, meeting rooms, events and courses of all kinds, giving the place a real buzz and greater purpose to the community. And the climbing is better than ever! Some say the best in the UK.
Now we are working on our next little project, the new training area, and looking at ideas for future improvements. We hope all our young (and not-so-young) climbers are still enjoying the place with their own children in 25 years’ time!
The cover image is taken from KEITH ROBERTSON’S excellent website, where you can view the original Beacon virtual tour from circa 2004 – scroll down the home page to find Beacon Climbing Centre.
Details of our 25th Anniversary event, taking place on Satuday 14th December can be found on our website HERE.