“We got lucky,” Nick Harms – the owner of The Send, a new cathedral of climbing opening in Hereford next month – tells me.
“Without Bulmers moving out there aren’t any building this big in the city.”
Herefordshire's not flush with buildings that stand above two-storeys. The chances of finding one, that's both empty and available, must have seemed pretty slim.
But we’re standing in a vast Rotherwas warehouse big enough to comfortably house a 15-metre high arch, the type of structure that - in the wild - you’d see extending in to the ocean, and the first of its kind to feature in a UK climbing centre.
The giant arch will form the centrepiece of the centre.
As we wander the around the warehouse, the arch is noticeably skeletal, but a small army of Bulgarian climbing wall fitters – the unlikely international hub for a booming industry – were, hour-by-hour, adding flesh to the frames, both panels and a myriad of handholds which range from ergonomic, palm-sized grips, to plugs barely bigger than a 50p-piece which you’d struggle to hang your coat on, never mind hang your body off.
When the arch is completed, those grips will allow climbers to scale both vertical towers, and – for the brave – traverse across the gap.
Even Nick, an ex-professional climber who hardened his fingers on North Wales’ rock, admits the set-up will provide climbers with a unique challenge.
While you’ll have to complete a four-week course at the centre before being allowed anywhere the top of the arch on your own, one of the areas nearing completion is a vast bouldering section – perhaps a more accessible starting point for beginners – which wraps around one side of the warehouse.
Bouldering is a type of low-level climbing which is currently enjoying a huge surge in popularity. There are no ropes required, no harness, instead there are huge crash mats positioned at the foot of the synthetic rockface.
“Anyone who wants to give it a go, we’ll take them through the basics with a group for about an hour, and then you’re more or less okay to start exploring the bouldering walls,” Nick said.
With the huge take-up of this short-form, weather-proof discipline, along with climbing’s newfound Olympic status (it debuts at Japan 2020), the sport seems poised to take a big step in to the mainstream.
“When I started, the only climbers you’d see out on the crag were middle-aged, middle-class men,” Nick said.
“Things have changed. The GB women’s team is now one of the favourites for a medal in Japan. There are loads of younger climbers getting involved, I think my kids started grabbing on to walls when they were about three.”
The plan for the Send – which takes its name from an outdoor sports expression that roughly translates to “doing something very difficult, with style” (thanks Urban Dictionary) – is to start running its own competitive climbing teams sooner, rather than later.
“It takes a while to build up the finger strength, but I was competing within a year – and that was back when it was all outside, with your training sessions at the mercy of daylight and the elements,” Nick said.
He already has an area earmarked for strength and conditioning equipment and for exercise classes, a sign of the sport’s ongoing transition from hobbyism to professionalism, even at club level.
And much like the painting of the San Francisco bridge, Nick and his team will plot new routes and alter the placements of handgrips, section by section, in a near-constant rolling programme that means if you visit the centre twice in six months, you are likely to be faced with an entirely new challenge on both occasions.
Ultimately, the hope is that The Send will become a hub for the sport in a wider region that has little by way of comparison, with the exception of several well-used, but now well-worn, traditional indoor climbing centres like the one in Gloucester.
The final handholds are set to be drilled in, and final testing completed, by the first week of February. The plan is then to hold a big launch event sometime over the next few months that will feature some speed climbing competitions and a load of activities to give people a taste of climbing.
The pictures in this piece were taken by the incredibly talented photographer Tom Glendinning. And whether you want to hire him, or just look at gorgeous shots of cloud-topped landscapes and Parisian accordionists, I recommend clicking here for more.