I’ve been meaning to write something about “my Black Rocks film” for ages, but there hasn’t seemed to be a suitable pause in the momentum. I think there is now.
I wanted to make a film about Black Rocks ‘cos I felt it deserved more respect. I’d always seen it as one of the truly great gritstone crags- architecturally unique, historically important and with an atmosphere all of its own.
When I was drawn back to this way of life in my late twenties Black Rocks seemed to be everywhere- on the pages of the guidebooks that enthralled me, in the films that filled the void of a difficult time in my life and most importantly in my own memory; a place I’d played as a child and first been introduced to climbing .
Photo: David Pollitt
But Black Rocks’ reputation, though of international reach, is far from positive. Chop routes. Green rock. Round holds. Offwidths. Kids throwing bottles down from the graffiti-covered crag top. As a new and keen climber the battle to find interested partners for it was always followed by a battle with our selected routes, but the absurd experiences of success and failure stayed long in my mind.
In April 2014 I found myself at Black Rocks for the first time in ages. I was injured and reacquainting myself with my local crags. Conditions were great and I soloed across the crag enjoying routes that I hadn’t climbed for years. In many cases, neither had anyone else.
I’d had in mind for a long time that I would start making climbing films; not the throwaway, silent films that I’d dabbled with in the past but proper ones that people that weren’t in them would want to watch. As I struggled in the chimneys and gullies I was struck by the impetus to record these experiences and so promote this undervalued place. I worked my way round to the sunset-lit west wall and the feeling only got stronger. It got stronger until my film was finished fourteen months later.
One of the most valuable lessons I learnt from the experience was the infectious nature of enthusiasm. A few of the film’s stars were as keen as me from the beginning but most were brought into the project seemingly out of curiosity for my passion for it- it certainly wasn’t on the back of my non-existent reputation as a filmmaker and almost total lack of experience!
Even if I hadn’t filmed the results I’d never forget the ascents we filmed and the simple fun of what was often a complex process and I hope the climbers won’t either. Reviewing the footage we’d created only increased my excitement for the project and the Stonnis snowball kept rolling. It’s probably a bit weird to go to the same crag all the time, in all weathers, always finding a little job to do but I was way past the point of caring about anything else.
Photo: Becca Holmes
By the time I had most of the footage the enthusiasm of others was beginning to outstrip even mine. I was flattered to be offered the chance for a premiere at the Matlock Bath Pavilion and the promotional trailer I knocked up at their request brought far more interest than I’d expected. Interest in a film that didn’t yet exist!
I watched Stonnis take shape every day of the month-long editing period, feeling the pressure of expectation but fully enjoying the requirement to meet the hype I’d created for it. Each time I watched scenes back I could only see and hear my errors and the opportunities for improvement that they created. I was just determined to do justice to the crag and the efforts of the climbers I’d filmed.
Roughly 300 people filled the Pav’s main hall on the night of the premiere. I stood at the back of this unexpectedly huge audience, too nervous and excited to sit down. As the film played it was as though I too was watching it for the first time.
I didn’t want to lose the incredible memory of that night and it was months before I watched Stonnis again. In the meantime however, I’d got the film onto the illustrious BMCTV and been asked to submit for the Kendal Mountain festival. People who’d inspired me were tweeting and writing about my film. A film that was being taken more seriously and being seen and enjoyed by more people than I’d ever thought possible.
Photo: Rob Greenwood
A few weeks ago I visited Black Rocks for the first time in six months. Returning to the real thing alone was an odd experience to say the least. While the crag was, of course, largely the same as it has been for hundreds of thousands of years, some things had changed; new cragtop graffiti, small changes in the quarry and surrounding farms and a new building development visible in the distance.
I thought about this contrast of permanence and impermanence and how it related to Stonnis- my dream was to create a lasting and definitive tribute to the crag. But I also created, unknowingly, a record of a period in the crag’s life and the same period in mine and the other climber’s lives. Not for the first time in this story I felt overcome with emotion.
Then I went straight back to planning my next project.