The South West peninsula of England sticks out into the Atlantic; a rocky spur on the boot shaped island, hewn by the wind and waves that race in from the ocean. This tiny rural corner of a small country houses a diversity of climbing equal to any in the world.
Steep limestone sport climbing rubs against granite bouldering on windswept tors, deep water soloing; and some of the wildest traditional adventures anywhere.
The climbing sits in an ancient land of smuggler's coves, pixie's grottoes and winding lanes. The sea cliffs yield an interesting array of unusual objective dangers; tides, birds, waves, and guano lend an atmospheric edge to the experience of pulling down hundreds of feet above the ocean.
The South West of England is a relatively out of vogue area as far as most UK climbers are concerned, a perceived long journey and sleepier, more scattered crags perhaps keeping many away.
The SW, however, offers a diversity of rock types and climbing styles only matched by honeypot areas such as North Wales, with the added benefit of fewer crowds. Here are a few tasty samplers to whet your appetite for the rock, before a hankering for a cool draught of local scrumpy or a rich cream tea takes over....
1) Alison, D, Bosigran
Like most obsessed climbers I invest a great deal of time in improving strength, technique, and mental resolve in order to be able to achieve higher standards of difficulty and climb inspiring pieces of rock. Alison is in many ways a good reason not to bother. If every route this easy was this good, would anyone hang out on a campus board rather than at a cream teashop? I think not. Alison climbs a near perfect rounded arête for a hundred and fifty feet. It has exposure, the blue waters of the mighty Atlantic Ocean lap or crash depending on the day many hundreds of feet below yours. The moves are thoughtful, requiring subtle shifts around the rib on rounded mounds of orangey-golden granite; yet they are delightfully straightforward leaving you room to appreciate the wonderful situation, sights and smells of a classic sea cliff day out.
2) Suspension Flake, VS, Hound Tor
Suspension Flake; short on length but huge on character. In its diminutive fifteen feet, it packs an impact on my memory equal to many much grander seeming routes. Suspension flake is proof that size isn't everything: purity of form is the real standout-stunning feature of this route. It is a real pint-sized dose of exposure, commitment and adventure. The tiny footholds enhance the position and excitement, but don't worry; these are balanced out by some of the biggest handholds known to man. There may be many other VS routes in the SW, which live long in the memory, or are far more adventurous, but perhaps not such a compressed few feet of brilliance anywhere. All of this not two minutes walk from the finest tea van (and pun) in the world; ‘Hound of the Basketmeals'.
3) Incubus, HVS, Sanctuary Wall
The Sanctuary Wall is, to put it mildly, not a very friendly crag. Martin Crocker's E7 Balls of a Child is encouragingly described in the guidebook as ‘the stuff that nightmares are made of', and it includes at least one use of the word ‘decaying', which is never an encouraging thing to hear about a route. Hopefully you are still reading by this point, as Incubus is an utterly amazing way of experiencing this incredible, adventurous environment without being pumped out of your mind 30ft above a rusting excuse for a peg. It starts apparently on top of the crag (!) and traverses the ridiculously steep wall at half height, with a few tricky manoeuvres, but very good protection. The rock quality is really good for the most part. The final easy section requires a bit of care, but nothing too distressing is encountered on either of the route's fine pitches. It is much less known-about than the other classic Torbay HVS, Moonraker; but in my opinion, it is an experience of at least equal value! Incubus is one of those routes which puts you into ground usually encountered on routes 5 or 6 grades harder, but without the technical difficulty or danger often associated with these undertakings.
4) Aviation, E1, Haytor
Ideally, you would catch Aviation late on a summer's evening, when the sun turns the whole of the considerable expanse of Low Man a bright bronze, but it is a great classic at any time. The pancake belay is a highlight, as is the long, rounded runnel feature that the second pitch follows. The first pitch, though shorter features excellent, steep crack climbing followed by that Dartmoor speciality: crystal climbing. The novelty value of all points of contact being small quartz crystals, yet the difficulty remaining very reasonable should not be underestimated!
5) Freeborn Man, E4 / F6c, Connor Cove
The old DWS guidebook had it best: soloing Freeborn Man is like passing your driving test, leaving school or burning down your first public building. This is the sort of thing that really inspires me to get on routes - strange how a few choice words will sometimes send you into the most memorable and exciting situations. Like the first route in this selection, I'd contend that how hard you can climb almost doesn't affect the amount of enjoyment offered by this route. Whether you can lap it to warm up, or half height sees you popping back down or a quick swim, it will be a great experience. One of the highlights of DWS for me is that it can be a way of climbing freely as much as you want, or a slightly extended method of playing about by the sea with some mates and going for a dip. It rediscovers the spontaneity and sheer fun, which may well be why you started climbing in the first place?
6) Darkinbad the Brightdayler, E5, Pentire Head
This really is one of my favourite rock climbs in the world. I really would struggle to think of anything better; its balance of difficulty with boldness, perfect rock, thoughtful protection and exposure on a great sea cliff make it very hard to beat. It even has two stunning pitches; so both members of the team get to experience a glorious lead, and a satisfying follow of the other's pitch. Pentire's Great Wall has a dark majesty, it is often compared to its namesake on Cloggy; but, for my money, the addition of the sea cliff atmosphere makes it even more appealing than the Welsh mountain. Pentire certainly has a far more appealing walk in!
7) Empire of the Sun, 7b, Ansteys Cove
This has to be, for my money the best 7b in the UK. Partly, it is just so atypical of the bouldery, sharp white and grey limestone, which typifies so much UK sport climbing. Empire follows a line of mostly large, positive holds up a beautiful overhanging wall, The situation, high above the blue waters of the Cove is idyllic, and (seepage allowing) can be enjoyed in ‘shorts' conditions at almost any time of year - you'll want to wait for the shade in the summer, but a dry midwinter can yield outstanding days basking in the few hours of low, golden sunlight before congratulating yourself that flying abroad isn't always necessary to enjoy an experience of this calibre.
Empire of the Sun image kindly supplied by Keith Sharples
8) The Cider Soak, 8a, Ansteys Cove
The Cider Soak is an almost perfect power endurance challenge up the Ferocity Wall at Ansteys Cove. It features exciting, dynamic climbing on a great selection of crimps, pockets and jugs which lead up an appealing, slim groove to a top out which keeps the outcome in doubt right up until the chains are clipped.
The Cider Soak video by Gav Symonds
9) Rippled Wall, V4, Bonehill Rocks
Bonehill was one of the places that I really started climbing, and despite the slight detraction of the improbably sharp holds, I still love it nearly a decade and a half later. Rippled wall is a beautifully sculpted piece of rock with a selection of holds that just allow it to be difficult, yet eminently achievable. Paste your feet to those tiny little crystals of quartz; slot fingers precisely into the deceptive breaks, and lock smoothly (or slap wildly!) up to the top out, which is just high enough to be fairly exciting, and requires a little care. Best enjoyed in the evening sunshine, when you can sit on top and look down the valley over the absurdly picturesque village of Widdecombe-in-the-Moor.
10) Pantagruel, (E4), Daddyhole, Main Cliff
This isn't so much of a recommendation, but a very clearly defined memory....
The stratified, twisted chaos of ochre stone leers over a jagged boulder beach. It's early spring, and the afternoon shade and thin sea breeze make it feel cold. I climb up onto a rotting pedestal; several of the routes on this crag have rubbly starts and turn into better rock higher up, I tell myself. I make a few steep moves up a jagged, crumbly crack and try to bury some cams as deep into the cracks as possible, hoping to seat them in the solidest available piece of rock. My hands are covered with the powdery red-orange residue of the Devonian new red sandstone, which twists and contorts in blended layers with the white limestone that provides the bulk of the climbing around Torquay.
Nothing seems solid; the leaning angle is pushing me out, the surface I am clinging to is sloughing off like a bad tempered snake shedding its old, hated skin. I want to rush, to scrabble upwards as quickly as I can and get this over with, but sudden movements mean more force on the holds, and bits are flaking off when I am almost motionless. I try to inch muscles, stiffened with chill and terror up the steep groove, pushing on the walls as much as possible, as though to press the excrescences that allow my progress into their matrix rather than pull them out. I try and concentrate on strange little mind games, imagining the next hold is a fine bone china teacup handle, and moving my feet slowly and silently. It occurs to me that the ideal way to climb this is by being as close to not being there as possible.
If, for some reason, this isn't inspiring you, Daddyhole also has a splendid selection of routes; Last Exit to Torquay HVS, Gates of Eden VS and Zuma E4 are all superb adventures on good quality rock!