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XS on the South West Shale Trail

"…the rock architecture, particularly near Boscastle, is stupendous and where adventure, commitment and seriousness are regarded as essential ingredients of a rock climb, present development represents the merest tip of the iceberg." Iain Peters' North Devon and Cornwall guide 1988

by Clark Alston

Clark belaying on Bird Brain, Lye Rock

Variety is the spice of life may be a tired old cliché but it's undoubtedly true for the crags of the South West. With dozens of rock types and thousands of routes it's surprising that climbs which tackle the highest precipices of the peninsula, usually by the most gob-smacking line, are not amongst the more popular. An acquired taste they may be but I can guarantee you'll remember a day out at Lye Rock or Bukator a long, long time after that flapper acquired at Bonehill has healed.

What follows is a quick overview of some of the mind-expanding experiences on "the loose" and should be read in conjunction with Brian Wilkinson and Dave Hope's excellent North Devon and Cornwall guide (Climbers' Club 2000). For the aspiring rubble-meister there's also some good background stuff in Mick Fowler's autobiography 'Vertical Pleasure' (Hodder and Stoughton 1995).

So if you think Portland's predictable, you're tired with Torbay or you're just plain crap at bouldering like me then get yur loins girded and read on.

Blackchurch : '….only the crumbliest, flakiest climbing…….'
The main cliff at Blackchurch is perhaps the spiritual home of North Coast shale climbing. The main pioneers (Pat Littlejohn, Keith Darbyshire and Mick Fowler ) all cut their teeth here and every route has an inescapable sense of grandeur. The cliff is only slightly affected by the tides, there is a more conventional feel to the climbs and most have idiot-proof E grades! This makes them the perfect introduction to the esoteric art.

Try Antichrist E3 5b, Sexton E3 5c or The Shrine XS 5b (ha ha fooled you!) but remember not to get caught out by nightfall as the stunted wood and ruined summerhouse on top are just as spooky as the routes.

Clark Alston on Private World

Henna and the Culm heartland : 'more sedatives in that tea Vicar?'
For a long while this part of the coast was only (in)famous for Fowler's magnum opus Breakaway HXS 5c, not forgetting all those lovely sunny slabs and Lower Sharpnose of course! Despite, or possibly because of, its scary reputation it has become the most repeated of all the big XS's on the coast with at least half a dozen ascents to date. Be warned though, climbing this route gave Dave Thomas a migraine! Lately, attention has switched to places like Warren Beach Cliff near Hartland Quay and Efford Beacon near Bude. Repeats of routes such as the two Dave's (Turnbull and Scott-Maxwell) Jerusalem XS 5b and Stag Night Fright XS 5a and Doug Smith's Fantasy Land XS 5b are awaited with interest. It would be a shame to continue on our lightning tour south without mentioning Mr. Fowler's fine-looking route at Efford, Slippery Mhic XS 5b, named after his climbing partner Tony (Slippery Vic) Saunders. " E2 climbing with E4 protection"- Frank Ramsey.

Ian Parnel on Private World

Bukator and Beeny : '….working in a coal mine, goin' down, down…..'
Big, isolated and stocked full of potential for the next wave of shale devotees, wherever they may be. The established routes like Private World XS 5c, In Memoriam XS 5b and The Tourist XS 5b A2 (yet to be freed, now there's a challenge) might leave you looking like a soot monkey but this won't hide the stupid grin on your face when you reach the top. Dave Turnbull and Andy Donson's Where There's A Will HXS 6a shows what a strong team can do here. It's undoubtedly one of the hardest routes of its type on the coast and they climbed it by mistake!

Long Island, Lye Rock and Willa Park : '….ooh that's a big WAVE!!!!'

Stunning scenery and yet more superb lines. The most well-known climb in these parts is the awesome Bird Brain XS 5b which has had at least three repeats that I know of and deserves to be on every adventurer's hit list. Mind you get the tides just right, as the sea conditions can get very "interesting" in the zawn (spot the N. Coast euphemism).

PItch one of Bird Brain

Very little is known of the Long Island routes, I guess the 100 ft swim has put most people off, but Elephantitis XS 5b, King Arthurs Crack HVS 5a and Cockney Disorder XS 5b at Bossiney and Willa Park have all received favourable reports. The former was repeated rope-solo by Frank Ramsey complete with an audience of dismayed holidaymakers, the "jungle" at the top proving particularly characterful.

If you want to make a name for yourself then how about a repeat of Echo Wall XS 5c, the super-gnarly sister route to Bird Brain. Apparently it features poor belays and "High Rocks 5c" climbing (mummy!).

The Future : 'crack French team complete North Coast enchainement'-perhaps truth can be stranger than fiction ?

Repeat attempt of Fantasy Land, Efford Beacon

The list of big repeats is now growing, especially since Fowler's return to his old haunts. His recent adventures at Trewethet near Bossiney and Windbury Point near Blackchurch sound intriguing/inspiring/insane (delete as appropriate). The wild and woolly Exmoor coast has also given up a few of its secrets over the last few years. The Chimney Sweep XS 5c (Turnbull) and Glad To Be Trad XS 5c A2 (Ian Parnell/Derek Ryden) near The Valley of the Rocks are proof positive that there's more adventurous rock on this coast than you could shake a clip-stick at.

The rock seems to vary enormously on these climbs. On Bird Brain for example, a general softness pervades most of the climbable stuff and there are no real extremes of looseness. At Bukator however, you have softness, an ash-like dusty coating and all shapes and sizes of rubble. This heady cocktail is completed by the unshuffled-playing card type of looseness. A flake is removed from a flat hold, only to find another half dozen waiting underneath. You need to keep cool and take your time.Steve Martin after a near epic descent from Bird Brain

As you can see, the thought-provoking XS grade is still the most relevant way of getting some kind of handle on these experiences. How can you rationalise softness? A sense of humour, plenty of pegs, a few warthogs, big nuts and friends and an equally mazed partner are the essentials.

Remember that these are not 'ordinary' rock climbs, but then again, neither are the rewards... Allez!

A big thankyou to Clark Alston for his words!

- South West Climbs by Pat Littlejohn Publisher Diadem
- North Devon and Cornwall
by Brian Wilkinson and David Hope Publisher The Climbers Club

- It's worth waiting for a good day as abseil retreat is not always a desirable option and the vertical mud finishes may be unpleasant when damp!

- Many of the cliffs here are severely affected by tide and swell. The Climbers' Club have a tide timetable, The webcam in Newquay will give you an idea of sea conditions and weather.


"Mazed" as many will already know, to be "mazed" is to be a bit mad... a full-on loony toon would be "as mazed 's a brish" or "as mazed 's a wheelbarrow" Back to where you were! If you're intrigued by our local Devon spetch it's time to get excited as we there are plans afoot for a special Debonshire dialect page! Ger on ma beaudy!


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