Tucked away in the far reaches of south-west England, Devon probably doesn't get as many climbers as it deserves. Indeed, before the end of the Second World War, there were only four officially recorded, or 'graded' routes put up in the whole county. Despite its 'cream teas and grockles' reputation, the county boasts a wide diversity of climbs and, from novices to hardcore free climbers, there is something in Devon for everyone. This entry hopes to give climbers a brief overview of the best bits.
The venues can be broadly split up into three areas: the coast, granite and limestone. Bouldering (short climbs usually undertaken without a rope) venues are also dealt with under these headers where appropriate.
There are two unmissable areas for the coast climber: Torbay and the Culm Coast. Add in a few odd venues that are dotted about, and you have enough coast to keep you going for years.
Be aware, however, that there are seasonal climbing bans in force on parts of the coast, to protect nesting seabirds. The Old Redoubt at Berry Head and parts of Baggy Point are important examples. Bans generally run from April to the end of July, and fines for breaking them are severe. Check your guidebook and avoid banned cliffs.
Torbay has over 25,000 feet of sea-level traverses1 alone, which should set your mind boggling at the possibilities when you actually starts climbing upwards. The coast here became a source of massive interest in the late 1960s, when names like Pat Littlejohn, Frank Cannings and Pete Biven began a frenzied exploration. Rock here is generally sound, although some routes, particularly at Berry Head, are intensely weathered. Check routes carefully before climbing, and if there have been recent rockfalls, go elsewhere.
At the northern end of the bay, Torquay's climbing possibilities begin as you leave the harbour and start to end around Babbacombe beach. The whole of this area is a continuing mass of limestone, and it is possible (for the truly insane) to traverse right around from beach to beach. Most of the climbs, happily, have far easier access than this. Stand-out locations are Anstey's Cove2 (exposed routes on walls that feel much higher than they are), and Daddyhole Main Cliff (with lots of multi-pitch opportunities), while Meadfoot Quarry and Telegraph Hole offer endless possibilities for introducing novices to the sport.
South from Torquay harbour, the coastline changes and disappoints as the limestone gives way to poor sandstone. Happily, just before Brixham, we come upon Churston, where the climbing starts in earnest again. This patch of limestone extends past Brixham, all the way around the headland of Berry Head to Durl Head and beyond. The whole coast can be traversed at sea-level (mostly under the fabulous 1960s name of 'Magical Mystery Tour'), although you will need to get out and walk for a mile or so at Brixham harbour, where cream teas and local scrumpy may become a welcome distraction. Berry Head has the most popular climbs in the area, and here the Quarry and Coastguard Cliffs are arguably the best areas; although it is worth taking a look over at the cliff known as the Old Redoubt, over 300 feet of intensive multi-pitch3 climbing. One route, 'Caveman', on this cliff is described by one guidebook as 'Awe-inspiring... probably the finest hard adventure route in creation.' Most climbers never get past the 'taking a look' stage.
The Culm Coast
The Culm Coast, named after a peculiarly peaty type of grassland in the area, runs roughly from Clovelly in north Devon down to Bude, just across the Cornish border. There are dozens of places to climb here, and although the area has a reputation for crumbly rock, most locations are suitable for adventurous souls. A key site is Baggy Point, a National Trust owned headland with rock that is generally solid and a choice of slabs of varying difficulty. Names of some points in the area have become confused over the years, and before climbing here it is recommended that visitors purchase the North Devon and Cornwall climbing guide by David Hope and Brian Wilkinson, which sets the record straight. This guidebook will also direct you to other routes in the area, most notably around Hartland and at Sharpnose Point, north of Bude. The best climbs here are hard to pinpoint in such a brief entry as this, but an inspiring guidebook will set you on the road to (potentially) a lifetime's exploration.
Other Coastal Areas
With so much coast and so many cliffs, the rest of the Devon coast is worth an excursion at almost any point. Sadistic sandstone aficionados will find much pleasure at Exmouth and around nearby Sandy Bay. The more adventurous could paddle out in a kayak to the 'Parson and Clerk' (between Dawlish and Teignmouth), Bantham Hand (at Bantham) or Cod Rock (off Berry Head, Brixham), all of which require a boat and a flying descent4. Make sure you look before you leap, especially if the tide is low.
When checking guidebooks for coastal routes, check how old the book is and remember that rockfalls and erosion are important factors when considering how relevant or not the published route may be. The north coast and sandstone areas are particularly prone to rapid change, so be absolutely confident you are on the right route if you intend to lead climb on the coast. Conventional wisdom suggests starting a climb before low tide in case of any problems, especially if using a 'hanging belay' where the belayer is close to the water. If in doubt, go elsewhere. It's not like Devon is short of inland options, as we will see.
A mystical land full of excellent walking, bogs, great views, scenery, pixies and Devon cream teas and arguably the best single-pitch climbing in the county. Bouldering possibilities are endless, the rock is sound and responsive, and an ice-cream van or pub is never far away. The only limitation is that there are few venues where climbs go over 80 feet, but the quality and variety of routes and locations more than make up for this.
Granite can be rather trying for the uninitiated. The local term 'cheesegrater', for a typically abrasive climb, is in constant use. Sloping holds, sharp crystalline pinch grips and the odd pair of ripped trousers (or knees, or hands) are the order of the day. Until you get used to it, climb lower than your usual grade and, if leading, take camming devices.
The venues presented here are the most popular on the moor. Having said that, you would be unfortunate to turn up and find other climbers already on your route. Being large, attractive lumps of rock, tourists will abound, so be ready with a witty response when being humorously told that 'there's an easier way up the back' for the 20th time that day.
Haytor consists of two lumps of rock, which dominate the skyline from much of south-east Devon. From the car park, the large lump of rock on the right is known as the Main Tor5, the small pimple rising to the left is Low Man. Peer carefully over the top of Low Man and you will see that a pimple it is not: the highest vertical route here is 150 feet, easily the longest on the main part of the moor. Grades here run from an M and a couple of Diffs on the Main Tor, to an E5 6a on Low Man that has never been repeated since it was first climbed in 1987. In between, there are over 50 routes to suit all abilities. If you have a good sense of humour to fend off grockles, and don't mind occasionally playing up to the crowd, this is the venue for you.
This is a bewildering array of rocks, just a few miles on from Haytor, with a seemingly endless supply of graded and ungraded routes. The tor is very spread out and fragmented, and just finding the climb you want to do can involve much head scratching and can be regarded as an achievement in itself. The downside of the skittish organisation of the rocks is that it can be difficult to get to the top of the climb to set up a top-rope, and as many of the routes are graded quite highly, options for most climbers can be limited.
That is not to say that this is a venue to be avoided. Go with an open mind; be prepared to boulder, top-rope a route way beyond your grade and try any unoccupied climb you can find. If this is how you approach a venue anyway, fine; if you set yourself stringent targets and are highly motivated, Hound Tor is a great place to remember why you started climbing in the first place.
It also has a takeaway café in the car park, with the wonderful name of 'The Hound of the Basket Meals', making it worth a visit just for the photo.
Sheepstor (or Sheeps Tor)
A superb venue for low- to middle-grade climbers, as the hardest grade is E1 and the longest route only 35 feet. It is an astoundingly good place to climb on a windless, balmy summer's evening and gets few tourists. However, it is well-known and used by local colleges, schools, outdoor centres and climbers due to the profligacy of low grades, so don't expect to have the place to yourself (although compared to some parts of the country, you could almost be on a desert island). Due to its high use, the rock is polished6 and lead climbers should take great care, particularly with footholds.
On the very edge of the National Park, this is one place where the multi-pitch climber has a choice of routes, many of well over 100 feet. It is exceedingly popular, having over 100 routes in a majestic setting. The National Trust, as landowners, are concerned about the Dewerstone due to erosion and littering of its many paths, and this is one place where a few unethical folk could actually get the crags closed. Collective responsibility for the site is requested and expected.
The crags are set in an idyllic fairyland, starting beside a river and climbing through the trees for improbable distances. The rock itself is sound here, although again popularity has polished some routes, particularly at lower grades. Tragically, the Dewerstone takes its share of climbers, and the advice of this researcher is to 'push your grade' elsewhere. Historically, this is not the place to try something new.
Pick any tor at random and you will find bouldering. Dartmoor is covered in rocks of various sizes, and the odds are that any ice-cream van will have an eight-foot tall rock somewhere nearby worth a go. The best rocks, however, are to be found at Hound Tor (described above), Coombestone Tor (near Holne), and Bonehill Rocks (above Widecombe). All these venues are guaranteed to satisfy for a day of exertion and picnicking or a pleasant evening's muscle burn and are within 100m of a road. Bonehill also has a couple of graded climbs, and one or two worth giving a go for new lead climbers.
The limestone 'belt' of Devon, geologically, runs roughly from Torbay in the east to Bideford in the west, interrupted by the more recent formations of granite on Dartmoor. This would suggest that there are many sites suitable for climbing inland in the region, and historically this is true. Even to look at recent guidebooks would suggest an array of possibilities. However, many of these venues are now unsuitable for climbing - whether due to a re-growth of foliage (Seale Hayne Quarry), or access problems (Galmpton and Bulley Cleave Quarries), or the landowner using the site for other purposes (Chipley Quarry is a manure store for a local farm). These three sites represent the pick of what remains and much time and petrol can be saved by checking with local climbers before planning a climb at other places. All these are near Newton Abbot in the south-east of the county and there just isn't much worthwhile further north.
Nestling in a sheltered valley within easy reach of Exeter and Torbay, Chudleigh is a very popular venue. It has a north face (fairly unpopulated and on private land so check in with the friendly landowners before climbing this side, and avoid if there has been any kind of recent precipitation because it takes forever to dry out) and a south face (where there can be queues for climbs on sunny summer weekends, and can get very hot too). The intense popularity of the site, though well justified, means that many of the lower grade routes are shiny and polished and some damage is being caused by excessive top-roping. Local advice suggests only top-roping routes above HS in grade.
There are over 150 graded climbs here ranging from 30 to over 170 feet, and any serious climber in the area should consider Chudleigh a must.
Outside of Torbay, this is the only sport climbing venue in south Devon. It is located near Ipplepen, just off the Newton Abbot-Totnes road (A381). The climbs here are technically difficult, but are slightly overhung and can be climbed in most weather conditions. Though the routes vary in quality, for the sport climber this is a venue well worth seeking out.
Devonians can be coy about the real gems dotted about, and the very publication of the words above may well start a search for the local whistleblower. Actual directions to White Rock would require a separate entry: suffice it to say that making it as far as Denbury (near Newton Abbot) and asking for directions should lead you to a riverside car park, and from there a keen eye during the ten minute walk through the woods should help locate the crag.
There are only four graded climbs here, but the location and quality more than make up for the limited choice. Apart from the occasional dog-walker a few hundred metres away, this is one place for a pure backwoods experience on sound rock.
Concise and comprehensive, the following guidebooks are essential for climbing in Devon:
- South Devon and Dartmoor, by Nick White, published by Cordee in 1995 (ISBN 1-871-890-32-2). A good read, even for non-climbers, due to its witty style.
- North Devon and Cornwall, by David Hope and Brian Wilkinson, published by The Climbers' Club in 2000. (ISBN 0-901-601-62-4). As comprehensive as you can get for a coast that keeps falling down.
Don't just go out and climb without learning the ropes, read up on techniques and go to an approved course to figure out the basics. These sites should get you started:
- The National Mountain Centre is the key resource for mountaineers and climbers. Details of courses and safety can be found here.
- The national governing body for climbers is the British Mountaineering Council. Members can check access and safety issues as well as find out details of courses at centres UK-wide.
- Also check out the h2g2 resources for Rock Climbing, Sport Climbing and Climbing Terminology for more information.