Rock music, rock climbing and rocket

Rock music and rock climbing; probably neither are on your mind as you stroll the polished flagstones of the Pantiles, or ride the escalators in the Victoria shopping centre. But at the bottom of town, on the edge of the common disguised as a Victorian public toilet is a Tardis-like rock music venue: The Forum.

I don’t remember the first time I stepped in to its dingy confines, but it was during the mellow summer of 1995, with our GCSEs behind us we whiled away many evenings on the common sitting in lochs of sunshine between lengthening shadows, chatting, laughing until the bottle of tepid cider made its final lap when we’d sweep the grass clippings from our back and wander down to the Forum. We rarely knew, nor cared, who was playing. We’d sit through out-of-tune local bands. Then, sometimes, unknown bands a month or two away from stardom, like Kula Shaker, Space and Catatonia would come from afar and we’d mosh and sweat. Even Oasis played once, but we were a year or so too late. I celebrated my 16th, 17th, 18th and 19th birthdays on its sticky beer-soaked dance floor and watched our friends’ band plight for stardom through its smoky haze. Then they got gigs in London and we stopped going to The Forum. And besides, I had become interested in rock climbing...

From The Forum, if you head east, you have a good chance of stumbling across a sandstone outcrop. Within a few miles of the town centre, lie about half a dozen outcrops large enough to offer challenges to rock climbers. In fact, these crags have been important in the history of mountaineering, with the likes of Eric Shipton, who was seminal in the first ascent of Everest, and Chris Bonnington cutting their teeth on these rounded and problematic buttresses. In the century that climbing has been practised in this area, well over a thousand climbs have been recorded. If climbing doesn’t appeal, then you should explore the canyons and gullies that cleave these rocks. In the height of summer, they offer an oasis of surprising coolness. And if the sun is at the right angle, they can be as beautiful and atmospheric as anywhere I’ve been.

These days, as I weave through the Pantiles and up the High Street on the way back from adventures on the crags, I am drawn by the appeal of the bars and restaurants with sunny tables outside and expensive meals served on beds of rocket. Maybe that’ll be part of the next chapter.

Robert Grant