North of the Wall at Crag Lough Crag Notes

© Sam Brown

Crag Lough - and its western extension Peel Crag - drop straight down from Hadrian's Wall. There's plenty there, especially in mid or lower grades, but the North facing location, loneliness, and scratchy plants give it a feeling of entry-level adventure. It is a taste of the esoteric, without needing an actual machete.

Crag Lough - Sycamore Gap from the belay above Monolith Wall  © Sam Brown
Crag Lough - Sycamore Gap from the belay above Monolith Wall
© Sam Brown

I've been guilty of going to the same places again and again. Slate, Peak, Slate, Peak. This summer: Cornwall is out, infection rate too high, so I casually mention to Sam that we could go to Northumberland. "... and you top out actually on Hadrian's Wall."

Sam goes intense. "I want to do that," he says. Decision made. 

When we get there it is a blinding day. We have an ice-cream at the visitor centre of one of the roman forts. There are a lot of people here, some visiting the wall, others walking along it for charity. The charity walkers are pleasant to be around. Their 'guides' - incapable of talking at a normal volume - are not. I start to wonder if we have made a mistake. 

Sam and I roll our eyes at each other and crack on. Further along the wall the trail is less busy, and we cut away on a faint track, away from people taking photos of the Sycamore from Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. Within a dozen paces we are on our own, under the cliff, from busy, orderly Rome to lonely wild Pict-land.

There are plenty of routes and lines: low-grade heaven. Most dots in the Rockfax guide are green or orange. We have no big achievements planned this weekend, just mileage and fun. There are a few harder routes I might fancy, but not today. We've been off the rock for a while, so its good just to re-learn how to place gear and run ropes. Blast away the opening nerves about being on lead again with simple climbing that we know we won't fall on.

The crack being harder than its grade suggests  © Sam Brown
The crack being harder than its grade suggests
© Sam Brown

The scratchy plants add to the fun  © Sam Brown
The scratchy plants add to the fun
© Sam Brown

The crag is a series of buttresses like wrecked castle towers. Big blocks perch on each other, too massive to wobble off. The rock is grippy (when dry) and interesting. This is the Whin Sill: dolerite, which is like granite but smaller crystals apparently. It makes for good satisfying climbing, in the early evening sun, prominent features, square joints to use and big ledgy rests to chill out on.

Crag Lough isn't popular. This is entry-level esoteric, with rowan trees and wood-rushes springing out of the cracks. Not enough to need actual gardening, but not that far off. As I work my way up one crack - stiffer work than its grade suggests, Welcome to Northumbria! - the inconvenient plants add to the fun. It feels like adventure, though safe and easy. Sam brandishes his nut key like a dagger, I'm ninety-nine percent sure that he is pretending we are raiding the wall as rebellious tribesmen against the arrogance of the legions. I definitely am.

We top out on the wall. "Sam, I'm going to abseil back down, get some practice in." It's a core skill that I still find scary, so it is good training to get everything nice and smooth in a low stress environment. Sam says "fine, I can't be bothered though," and simply walks back down the path. I zip happily down the rope, and he arrives at the bottom of the next climb slightly before me.

Before long, it is evening and we are growing anxious about the carpark and how long we have paid for. As we walk back along the base of the crag, rooks are coming to roost in the rocky cracks of Peel Crag, the western extension of Crag Lough. If anything, it looks even more overgrown and exciting. More trees spring out of the rock. More clumps of reeds and bushes. The rooks caw harshly and chatter to each other like teenagers sitting on a wall, but I don't care. I'll be back for more of this.

Slatehead Cover  © Peter Goulding
In 2020 Peter Goulding was shortlisted for the Boardman Tasker Mountain Literature Prize for his book Slatehead: The Ascent of Britain's Slate Climbing Scene. If you enjoyed this Crag Note,  or happen to enjoy climbing on Slate, we'd highly recommend purchasing a copy through his publisher - New Welsh Review.

UKC Articles and Gear Reviews by Peter Goulding

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30 Nov, 2021

I spent a few days here over the summer and absolutely loved the place. It really is amazing how busy the car park and surrounding area gets but you are almost always alone at the base of the crag. I think we spotted 2 other parties climbing over a few trips there this summer. Some great routes as well! Well worth a visit.

I've never made it, but am definitely inspired to after reading this...although maybe not for the parking...

30 Nov, 2021

I used to really like the place when I lived close enough for Peel Crag to be an evening jaunt (summer!). Lots of mileage to be had mostly on the lower and middle grades. If you like the Roman elements, there's lots to see and do in the area. You can actually spot a Roman swastika on one of the stones of the Wall above Peel, if the grass hasn't grown too long and you look carefully and closely.

30 Nov, 2021

I visited here and Peel Crag for the first time this summer having thought about it off and on for years. I was really impressed, I reckon it's one of the best S-VS crags in the country. The routes at those grades are quality, decent lengths and follow really strong lines something routes at that grade often lack.

Not a great deal to do above E1 but Whinstone Churchill is well worth seeking out at E2, excellent, varied, well protected climbing.

30 Nov, 2021

Had my first day of outdoor climbing at Crag Lough and the neighbouring Peel, in something like mid September, and got rather wet and cold. Part of me wonders why I ever went back after that...

The Crag Lough microclimate is an ever popular joke within my group of mates; not wanting to risk wet sandstone we'd head to Once Brewed and seemingly always end up shivering at the bottom of the crag no matter what time of year. Great on a hot summer's day though, rare as they may be :P

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