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The Castle at 25

Today, the 22nd October 2020, marks exactly two and a half decades since the Castle first opened our unmistakable wooden doors to the public for the very first time. We asked Castle founder Steve to share his thoughts on the past 25 years, and here's what he had to say... 

I first visited what we now know as The Castle on a sunny day in June 1993.  We’d been looking for a suitable building for a while and Thames Water suggested I take a look at their old pumping station in Stoke Newington.  I lived in West London at the time and I had never heard of Stoke Newington so I had to look it up in the A-Z.  I got off the tube at Manor House and as I walked down Green Lanes the sky turned dark and a thunder storm struck.  By the time I got to The Castle I was soaked and my first view was against a backdrop of boiling clouds and lightning.  No one had told me it was a CASTLE! What an introduction…

Inside I discovered that the building had been derelict for 40 years, there were no stairs, massive holes in the floors, no electricity and no water (perversely) except for the stuff coming through the roof.  The massive cast iron beams subdivided the space making it virtually impossible to get decent climbing walls in despite the height.  I went home and told my business partners it was a cool building but no good for us.

However, they persuaded me that the building was so cool it was worth the commitment involved.  It took over two years to develop our plans, get Listed Building Consent, negotiate a lease with Thames Water, raise the money we needed for the fit out and get the construction work done.  In March 1995 we handed over a bond to Thames Water and took position of the building.  We had a dinner party for the project team on the top floor of the building to celebrate that day and I set the opening date for the 21st October. The next day phase 1 of the building work started with a team of specialist engineers carefully lifting out and storing some of the massive cast iron beams from the top floor.  I’d given myself eight months to get the building work done and climbing walls in plus hire staff to run the centre. The next 8 months passed in a blur.

On the 21st we had a press launch prior to the public opening on the 22nd October.  There had been inevitable delays and glitches along the way but that morning we pushed the tools and builder’s rubble out of sight and welcomed about 100 guests.  They were a mixture of journalists, climbers, representatives from the local community and our project team. Our builders were still finishing off the back doors but they stayed out of sight.  It looked great and everyone was really excited.  It was London’s first dedicate climbing centre with tall roped walls and the climbers couldn’t wait. A local policeman who’d shown a lot of interest in the project came along and he was photographed climbing the walls in his uniform complete with traditional custodian helmet.  That made the first page of The Hackney Gazette!  People kept telling me how amazing it was but I was in a bit of daze to be honest.  I’d worked so hard to get it open on time, I was really happy but all I wanted to do was sleep.

That evening my friends went off to celebrate and I spent most of the night putting up the lights for the reception desk because we still weren’t quite ready for customers.  By 10am the next morning we were ready and the first customers were already queuing outside the front door.  Back then we were only using a part of the building.  It was just the upstairs lead walls and the old featured bouldering wall (which has now been turned into a boulder in the garden) plus the inimitable wave wall woody (now downstairs).  The climbers loved it and the place started to take on a character all of its own.  We’ve spent the last 25 years gradually expanding the centre into every corner of the old pumping station and its character has grown too, shaped by the people who work and climb in it.