The Christmas Tree Incident. December 1973 : by Brian Lloyd
I recall that it was around Christmas time in 1973 that a small group of us were looking to carry out some type of mischief that would last and be visible for a day or more so that as many students could view the display and ask who had been daring enough to set it up (as notoriety equalled fame in those halcyon days). Well various schemes where plotted and hatched in the union bar but all seemed to have their shortcomings or general lack of impact. We wanted something that would be remembered for days or even weeks after the event. Little did we know at the time that this prank would enter into college legend!
We, that is, Paul Edwards and myself along with Stephen Maisfield and friends decided to hijack a complete roller towel from a toilet block and stretch it out for its entire length having daubed in bright red paint the festive message of “Have A Very Merry Christmas”.
With this we climbed onto the canteen block at 1 am one night and with little security to avoid (Norman must have been dozing in his little hut by the drama block), we carefully made our way across the flat roof to the section that connected to the main building. We had reconnoitred this section on many previous occasions and it was a simple shinny up the drain pipe to gain the roof balcony of the main building. Once in position we unfurled the banner and draped it along the entire length of the roof balcony and securely tied it into place. Mightily proud of our clandestine achievements we slithered back the way we had arrived and went to bed with the expectations and excitement of what the following day would bring.
The following day dawned bright and cheerful and we quickly raced off for the front lawn to see our prized display which should be adorning the main building. After all, how could it be missed when entering up the main drive. We would become the talk of the college as so many students would have seen it. Unfortunately, we had not reckoned on the dawn security patrol who having spotted the obvious “desecration” had quickly and very easily cut it down before anyone had noticed it.
We saboteurs were gutted and limped forlornly back for a disgruntled breakfast. It was no good, we would just have to resign ourselves to the fact that Bingley College was simply a fortress against jolly japing, an impregnable bastion of conformity and formality with no sense of humour even at this merry time of year.
SOD THAT !!!! we would just have to come up with a plot so fiendishly clever, so brilliantly cunning, so wickedly contrived that even Satan himself would not be able to foil it. By now the intricacies of the schemes had reached far beyond the normal scope and reach of the “night owlers” so that only Paul Edwards and myself remained to perceive the audacious plot of putting something so far out of reach that it would take a Herculaneum effort or pure madness and/or insanity to remove it. The solution was so clear and obvious as it had been staring us in our face for nearly 3 years. Our aim, our target, our goal was to be…..THE CLOCK TOWER!!!!!!!
“You’re mad!” “It can’t be done!” “It’s suicidal!” “You’ll never get away with it!” These were the comments from our small group of advisors who reckoned we had seriously been overdosing on the Polish Vodka. With their distant concerns fading into the ether Paul and I in true SAS style set about planning the mother of all plots. First, we needed an object that would be a beacon for freedom and liberty, a standard that would oppose stuffiness and burocracy, an emblem that would stand for the common student and one that he would identify with.
Why, of course, a Christmas Tree fitted the bill perfectly! But oh bugger! we didn’t have one and our meagre finances did not stretch to buying even a cheap one. No matter, help was not far away, as Acland Hall had a mighty fine example of such and knowing of their past generosity would only be too happy to donate their fine tree to such a worthy cause. Now that we had the object of our campaign all we needed was a site to put it. Once again it required little inspiration or imagination to see that the lightning conductor was calling out to be adorned with this festive symbol. The plot was coming together all to easily. What could go wrong? All was set for 2 am that night.
At the appointed time two shadowy figures slipped unseen as they followed their well trodden route across the canteen roof towards the connection gantry to the main building armed with string and the looted tree. As we approached the gantry we looked down onto the main entrance to the canteen and were horrified to see an outside security guard with Alsatian patrolling just beneath us. The wind was strong that night and thankfully muffled our noises but nearly blew the tree off the roof onto the heads below. It was with a frantic lunge that I just caught hold of it as it rolled towards the edge and certain disaster.
With Ninja like stealth we waited flat out on the roof as hound and master wandered away in search of other potential miscreants. Our previous escapade had alerted the authorities and as a precaution extra security had been laid on to defeat any further efforts. Or did we have a “MOLE” in our brotherhood? We never found out.
Once the all clear was given Paul and I shot across the “open ground” and up onto the relative security of the main buildings roof. Here the darkness provided cover but also made for slow progress as skylights and loose tiles were difficult to spot and negotiate in the near inky blackness of the night. Having traversed the length of the roof we stood beneath the daunting and imposing structure of the tower itself. It looked high enough in daylight but it resembled Everest at this moment. We had noticed that the clock tower had a door at roof level but not having the Yale key could not gain entry in this way.
So, with a rope dangling from my waist I free climbed onto the towers corner edge and promptly discovered a disconcerting revelation. Having previously viewed the route that I was to take with binoculars from Priestley Hall I had assumed that the structure was fashioned from good old Yorkshire Gritstone to which I had become quite accustomed over the years on the local crags. To my horror I found that the tower was made of WOOD! and slimy, slippy, greasy wood at that. Now it wasn’t just a question of scaling it in the dark and with a gusting wind on slippery holds but now I had to contend with the prospect that the wood might not even bear my weight!
I reached about half way up and got to were the semi-circular dome overhung outwards by about 3 feet. This was directly above the clock face. Not wishing to lean out over a hundred feet of airy blackness unroped, I found a decorative balustrade with metal spike that adorned each corner of the tower. This spike provided a point of balance for the final mantelshelf onto the platform directly beneath the lightning conductor. The “crux” had been passed. Paul attached the tree to the rope and it was dutifully hoisted to near its intended position. The photo below shows the approximate route to the clock tower.
Finding an access cover beneath the dome I lifted it and climbed down inside the clock tower feeling my way in the now total darkness. At one point the “pendulum” or counter balance of the clocks mechanism nearly knocked me flying as I must have strayed off route climbing down inside. Eventually, I found some stairs which led to the tower door previously mentioned. This was easily opened from the inside and my co conspirator was let in. Paul had a pencil light which greatly aided our climb back up inside the tower to the trapdoor. Once both of us had climbed out I climbed the remaining dome to the lightning conductor and Paul handed up the Christmas Tree.
All that remained was to lash it to the 4 prongs of the conductor and retrace our steps to the door. Our final act was a bit of vandalism for which I now apologise. We pressed blue tack into the Yale lock knowing that it would take a day or two ( or so we hoped) for it to be picked out in order to protect our little treasure for as long as possible. The retreat was uneventful as it was now around 3.00 am and no security seemed to be present. (Must have decided that nothing was going to happen and that all was peaceful and calm).
Well what a commotion and uproar we awoke to. As before, and as expected, security had spotted the highly visible (could be seen from the town centre and Ilkley Moor) Christmas tree and had immediately arrived on the roof to remove it but due to a combination of gummed up lock and very inaccessible position they were impotent to do anything about it. The talk all day was about the perpetrators and who they might be. Not wishing to be found out and suffer the possible dire consequences a vow of secrecy was made.
The tree remained marooned high above for a couple of days in all it’s resplendent glory and everyone got to see it much to the chagrin of the authorities. It took the combined skills of the legendary Tom Price and others to eventually remove it with knives attached to poles but by then it had long entered into the annals of Bingley College legend and folklore and so it will remain.
As I hope the statue of limitations apply, I hereby own up to this foul deed, with the hope that you will forgive us for desecrating our beloved symbol of Bingley College but with the hope that you got as much fun at seeing it as we got in putting it there.
Best and fondest memories, Brian Lloyd.