How mending windmills led to a career in climbing in famously-flat Norfolk

PUBLISHED: 21:56 10 August 2020

Peter Goulding   Picture: Benny Hiscocke

Peter Goulding Picture: Benny Hiscocke

Benny Hiscocke

Peter Goulding came to Norfolk to learn to repair windmills. Our county cured him of his fear of heights - and now he’s a writer too

With no mountains and not a lot of slate, famously-flat Norfolk is an unlikely base for an expert in slate climbing. And climbing vertiginous walls of almost sheer slate is an unlikely hobby for someone once afraid of heights.

However, Peter Goulding is now a climbing instructor at Center Parcs, Elveden, and has added to his achievements with a prize for new Welsh writing with his first book. He describes Slatehead as ‘a punk-rock’ history of climbing disused slate quarries in north Wales. He introduces the culture and camaraderie of the unemployed climbers of the 1980s who set many now-classic routes, and also became fascinated by the quarrymen who created the landscape with ‘sweat

and gunpowder.’

It isn’t just for climbers. “You don’t have to know what a ‘bolt-hanger’ or ‘belay-plate’ is,” said Peter. “I’d like to think anyone could get something out of it, there are parts about fatherhood and bereavement and how we take risks, how we live our lives. I try and act as a guide to the quarries, and give you some of my personal history too.”

Peter came to Norfolk for a Broads Authority course on repairing windmills. “The course was where I realised that although I was scared of heights, I could still do the work and adapt to the fear,” he said.

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And in his mid 30s he began to climb. “One thing about being a Norfolk climber - you keep running into climbers you know. Literally every trip I go on, I’ll bump into other Norfolk climbers,” said Peter, now 41.

However, Norfolk has a thriving indoor climbing scene. He called the bouldering wall at Norwich’s Highball Climbing Centre ‘world-class’ and said: “Indoor bouldering walls are now massive. It just seems to be something people do in their mid-20s.” He said it is good for camaraderie and gaining skill and strength - although his passion is for outdoor climbing.

“It’s everything: the mates, the days out, having an identity as ‘a climber’, the places you get to see. But there is also a very specific sensation. I will be on reasonable holds and looking at what to do next. It will look impossible and I won’t want to try. I’ll be scared, and then at some point I’ll decide just to go for it anyway. IF you make that move, then the sense of achievement is unbelievable, it is like you have physically walked through a wall - actually mentally you have walked through a wall when you decided to try. Very addictive that.”

Peter, who lives in Mundford with his partner and their 11-year-old son, won the New Welsh Writing Awards prize for writing with a Welsh theme or setting when Slatehead was still unfinished. He is not Welsh, but the slate he climbs and writes about is. “This was what gave me the hand up - no agent, incomplete manuscript, no social media following, not famous already - and directly led to Slatehead actually becoming a proper book, with pages and everything,” he said.

He is now working on a book ‘about forests and tree-surgeons and chainsaws.’ He has worked in environmental conservation and said: “I still love working in the woods, plants, trees, animals.” He has also worked in pubs and kitchens and on building sites. “I did that for years between pouring concrete, fixing windmills, solar panels on roofs, electrical work for NHS refits. If you’ve ever been to Bowthorpe Medical Centre you’ve probably been lit by a light I put up.”

Slatehead is available now as an e-book, with paperback publication on September 10. “I don’t think it will ever be a best-seller, but if it is a cult classic that would be just fine by me,” said Peter. u

Slatehead: The Ascent of Britain’s Slate-climbing Scene, by Peter Goulding is published by New Welsh Review.

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