Macclesfield already has an active and lively outdoor community and it seems that a large proportion of them climb at Substation. It’s this shared love of the outdoors and the love of swapping stories, advice and experience that is building a strong new community on the mats, in the café and in the yoga studio and I feel lucky to have seen it begin.
Like many Substation regulars, I came to climbing through walking in the hills around Macclesfield. Walking led to climbing after the fascination of watching climbers brought on an overwhelming desire to find out how those jingling people in their shiny helmets felt up there. Their ropes dangled from their waists in a useless-seeming fashion and they’d inch their way up the rock with long pauses in which they’d faff with bits of metal. The ropes would be clipped – making them seem a bit less redundant – and then up they’d creep again. Outdoor climbing is not a spectator sport and the attention would wander but, when you looked again, success! The gasping leader tussled over the top of the crag to be quickly joined by the second climber. The two would beam at one another with words tumbling as they sought to describe their vivid experience. I wanted some of that!
I found it soon enough and explored the Peak, Lakes and Wales with my friends. I got to know how it felt up there with the movement singing of freedom and sometimes (ok, often!) I felt the fear and that vaguely embarrassing knowledge that I’d voluntarily entered a scary situation that I longed to escape. It dawned on me that most of the fear was that of running out of strength and falling off. The only way to tackle that fear was to get stronger. That meant climbing regularly in a place that was guaranteed to be dry. The Western Peak has a lot going for it, however, unfortunately, that does not include guaranteed dryness.
It’s hard to imagine now, but back then there were few indoor climbing walls and those were a long way away from me. It meant that, if it was raining or dark, you simply could not climb unless you built a wall at home yourself. Some of these homemade walls were great fun. Generally built in someone’s cellar and padded with old mattresses (complete with suspicious stains) many great sessions could be had and the motivated could make themselves very strong indeed.
The trouble, for me at least, was that, however imaginatively created, these jerry-built indoor boards were a far cry from the places that first tempted me to climb. When a session was finished there was the arm-tingling satisfaction of spending time on getting strong, but no rosy glow to feel while resting your eyes on the Cloud at Bosley, the sun dipping into the sea at Sennen or the dreamy islands around Skye. No, you’d be sitting between the stains in a damp cellar and fighting a vague urge to scratch yourself.
A leap forward came with the opening of the next generation of indoor walls. They were colourful and full of people and you could buy a cup of tea and a cake or a microwave pizza. They developed a social scene and many friendships were formed and fun evenings had. Every now and then a new talent would emerge with the psyche to turn that talent into a climbing idol to whom others would turn for the solution to new problems. Sometimes these people would make it outside and stories would come back of the crazy grade numbers being climbed. Indoor climbing had come of age and standards rocketed.
This new wave of climbing walls matured. Some of them had facelifts and renewed themselves while others struggled on with the same paint scheme and holds with which they opened. Sitting in them today calls to mind the damp cellar and stained mattresses of old with the addition of a quarter of an inch of chalk on every level surface.
Things were due for another change and this has come with the new state-of-the-art walls like Substation. Just stepping through the door you can feel that everything has been tailored to create a refreshing experience. There is no sense that a climbing centre has been shoehorned into a building that was clearly meant for something else. Instead everything fits, everything feels spacious, well-lit and clean. If there’s no smell of fresh baking pizza that’s because it’s fresh brownies or cake that you can smell instead. The climbing areas don’t feel cramped because they are well laid-out and, if you’re unlucky enough to visit the day before a reset, the oldest problem you’ll climb will have only been there for two months.
What about Scottish islands, the Cornish sunset and Bosley Cloud? I hear you ask. Climb the stairs to the first floor at Substation, turn right and you’ll find the only possible indoor alternative in the form of the Yoga Studio where you can find the harmony between body and mind only usually to be found at the end of a day somewhere beautiful.
I’m not going to lie to you and say that I’ll be dashing to Substation on days when the rock is dry. What I will say is that, on days when I open the curtains to find that typical Western Peak soggy greyness, I shan’t be quite so disappointed.