Talk to any keen and accomplished trad climber in the UK about Pembroke and you'll see their eyes light up. Let them loose and they could end up boring you to death for hours with endless tales of classic routes that you haven't yet done. So what is it about this place that makes it such a hit with trad climbers and how do you break into this elite group, since after all, Pembroke doesn't appear to be the easiest area for beginners?
Ultimately there is no doubt that the real quality in Pembroke climbing is in the higher grades but, assuming that you are an ambitious person who one day sees themselves tackling routes at these more extreme levels, you also need to know where to start to get used to the atmosphere, the approach abseils, the tides, the rock and the gear. For a trad climber, there is nothing like the satisfaction you get from abseiling into a crag, and then climbing back out with the waves crashing beneath you. Combine that with the concentration of quality routes, the beautiful scenery and the friendly atmosphere in the camp site and pub in the evening, and you will begin to understand why so many climbers become obsessed with the place.
If you have never been there, though, then the thought of abseiling into the void, onto a potentially wave-washed ledge, in order to try and climb out, can seem quite intimidating. In this article we will describe some of the things you need to think about when deciding where to climb in Pembroke. How to choose a crag, how to prepare an abseil approach, and some information about tides. Once you have mastered these basics, there is a selection of great crags that you might want to consider if visiting Pembroke for the first time.
Obviously the main consideration when choosing a crag for your first climbs in Pembroke is the spread of grades - no matter what the access or tides are like, you still need to have easier routes to climb. Thankfully there are plenty of easier routes available although they are dotted about a bit, and not all of them are conveniently supplied with easy approaches to non-tidal ledges. There are a few crags that you can scramble to the base of but, to get the most out of a trip to Pembroke, you should plan on bring gear for making an abseil descent. And if you are abseiling down a sea cliff, knowledge of tides is a pretty essential requirement.
Abseil approaches in Pembroke can vary from easy set-ups from obvious stakes, down gentle slabs, to non-tidal platforms; to scary free-hanging descents from your own belays, to tidal-washed boulders. Thankfully most of the crags with easier routes tend to have pretty straightforward abseils. Most climbers tend to use a dedicated abseil rope. This can be an old single rope, preferably a thick single 10mm or more, as long as it is solid and at least 50m long. You will also need a few extra slings for equalising any belay or attaching to the stake. Some people abseil on their climbing ropes, which is possible as long as you can get a clean pull to get them down, and they don't get soaked in the sea or rock pools when they fall. A pulled rope also won't help you get out if things go pear-shaped on your ascent - better to bring a dedicated abseil rope for peace of mind.
1) Never abseil into a crag if you aren't sure you can get back out. You can usually use your Prusik loops to reascend the abseil rope, but be aware that this is an exhausting and awkward activity - climbing out is much more fun.
2) If you do abseil on the ropes you intend to climb on, then check the crag top very carefully for loose rock before you commit. A trailing rope will almost always bring a shower of dirt and small stones down with it when you pull it - make sure it doesn't bring some big stones!
3) Use a back up Prusik brake on the rope just in case you knock something off onto your head when abseiling.
4) Use a buddy check system before committing to the abseil. Are you in the right place? Is the belay solid? Have you got your gear? Are you wearing your helmet?
The big factor when sea cliff climbing is tides and Pembroke has some really big ones reaching up to 7m or 8m on high springs, which is about as big as they come. Understanding more about tides can be a great help in making the most of your visit.
Throughout one lunar month there are two spring, or high-range tides, and two neap, or low-range tides. Spring tides occur during the full and new moons when the sun and moon are in line and the combined gravitational pull causes the highest tides, which then ebb to the lowest level. During spring tides the low tides will always fall towards the middle of the day. During the first and third quarters of the moon, when the sun's and moon's attractional forces are at right angles, we experience the lower neap high tides and the higher low tides. Neap tides will always be low at either end of the day with the high tide occurring in the middle.
By knowing the phases of the moon you can pretty roughly work out what kinds of tide you are going to get. Local tide tables (displayed on the notice boards at the entrance to the Range, available from many online sites and displayed for each crag in the Rockfax app) will give you precise times and levels of high and low tide.
From high tide to low tide takes approximately 6 hours, which means that there are two high tides and two low tides in every 24 hour period. The average time for the tide to turn around is actually slightly longer than 6 hours. This means that each day the high and low tide times are between 30 and 80 minutes later than the previous day. In Pembroke spring tide swings range from a massive 8.5m (spring and autumn) to usually at least 6.5m (summer and winter), and neap tide swings range from around 2.5m (spring and autumn) to 4.5m (summer and winter).
1) During the middle hours between low and high tide, the sea comes in MUCH faster and areas of flat rock and boulder beach can disappear rapidly and escape routes can be cut off. This means that you may have spent a few hours at the crag and not noticed much tide movement when suddenly there is water lapping around your ankles. This is significantly more pronounced during spring tides.
2) The smaller fall to low neap tides may give much less access than low spring tides to certain cliffs.
3) The lower level of high neap tides may allow access to certain routes which are cut off in high spring tides.
4) Persistent and strong onshore winds can prolong or even slightly significantly raise high tide levels as can a high swell from some distant ocean storm. It is not unheard of for a low tide to not resemble a typical low tide when the swell is high.
There is nothing particularly different about gear placements on Pembroke limestone. In general a normal rack will suffice, but with a few more smaller wires than you might usually take, and fewer camming devices which are not so good on the limestone cracks. Slings are definitely useful, not just for rock threads, but also for extending your gear to avoid rope drag. To that end, plenty of extenders of a variety of lengths are essential, better still, use long sling-draws. We have already discussed ropes. For climbing, two 50m half ropes are ideal. Although there are some places you can climb on a single rope it really isn't advised and in most cases the flexibility of two half ropes is essential. Beyond this standard items like a helmet (essential), a double rope belay device and preferably one you can also abseil on, chalk bag, nut picker and Prusik loops are required.
The cliffs in Pembroke are often battered by rough seas and high winds. This has the combined effect of making the lower sections of the crag really solid - anything loose is blown away - but the top of the crags much less so. It can also have the alarming impact of destroying classic routes every now and then as huge sections collapse into the sea. Don't worry though, this doesn't happen very often and never in conditions where you would actually be climbing. For loose finishes, the golden rule is always put in more gear than you think you need when at the end of a route. The "and an extra runner for the finish" maxim is never better applied than here. It is probably the most common accident - easy ground, pull a block and then take a much longer fall due to not placing a runner, with the associated debris problem. Be sure this doesn't happen to you by carefully testing holds before weighting them fully and making sure you have good gear in.
Bird and Firing Restrictions
There are several crags in Pembroke that have restrictions placed on them owing to nesting birds. This only affects a couple of the routes listed below in this article and most guidebooks and the Rockfax app will have this information clearly displayed. As a rule the bird nesting restrictions are from 1 March to 31 July every year on selected crags, but there is always plenty to climb at this time of year.
The firing restrictions are more significant, especially if your trip is away from school holidays. In general you will find full access to all the crags at weekends and school holidays including the summer holiday (Range West is an exception to this but that is not a place for beginners). Away from weekends and school holidays the crags in Range East can often be closed during weekdays, although often access is allowed late in the day once they have stopped firing. When there is firing a red flag is visible at the Range entrance. The firing restriction applies to everything to the west of St. Govan's car park and includes many of the best crags in Pembroke (usually access is still allowed to Trevallen and St. Govan's and St.Govan's East, but not always). There are still plenty of places to climb and North Pembroke, Mowing Word and Mother Carey's remain accessible at all times. As a rule though you will get the most out of Pembroke if you plan to come at weekends and holidays. You can check the firing times but sadly only one or two months ahead are published usually - Castlemartin Firing Times web site.
Okay that's enough on the safety, gear and restrictions, let's get down to the climbing. Below we have listed a series of crags that are worth considering to get yourself started in Pembroke.
Pembroke App from ROCKFAX
This new app version of the Pembroke Rockfax has been significantly updated with 350 extra routes, new geo-located maps and updates to the existing information. The print guide from 2009 had 650 routes and this new app package has nearly 1000! The update includes many easier routes plus extra lines at the main crags covered in the book. It also has extensive deep water soloing coverage with the majority of the crags from Mike Robertson's 2007 Deep Water book added to the mix.
To purchase, or update, go to the Download tab on the Crags tab. It is available as a single download for £12.99 or as smaller separate bundles.
More information on the Rockfax App.
Although not the main event, North Pembroke is definitely worth considering as a base for a great introduction to Pembroke sea cliff climbing. Not only is it one of the most beautiful sections of coastline in Britain, it is also conveniently supplied with four superb slabby crags that are relatively easy to get to and have some great routes in the lower and mid grades. There are several wonderful camp sites and some good pubs in the lovely 'city' of St. Davids. You could combine a visit with the South Pembroke crags but the drive is quite long and there is plenty to get your teeth stuck into here.
This beautiful crag is literally a stone's throw from the gorgeous camp site at Porth-Clais. It comprises two sections - a wonderful triangular slab of Dreamboat Annie, and a narrow buttress known as Red Wall. Dreamboat Annie requires an abseil approach to a non-tidal block at the base of the wall, and the route of the same name is the classic although there are some great easier routes to get you going. Red Wall can be reached by abseil or a scramble down blocky ledges. There are three routes on here but you can pretty much climb the slab anywhere - plenty of gear and not too hard on the arms - everything you want really. Avoid it in rough seas though, since Dreamboat Annie is likely to be washed by waves and it could all get a bit spicy.
This one is another vaguely triangular shaped slab of solid red rock. It has a similar series of friendly slab climbs to Port-Clais including a few Diffs and VDiffs. The approach is by abseil, although a scramble is possible. You will need to pay a bit more attention to the tides here though since the ledges at the base are covered at high tide. Good planning should give you a long day though if you get here as the tide is going out.
The Initiation Slabs are typical of North Pembroke - surrounded by other craglets and grass, usually quiet and sublimely idyllic. It's true to say that folk would visit the crag to take a picnic - it's just one of those spots. The routes aren't too bad either! The slabs are solid, offering good climbing and situated in a secluded bay, with one of the prettiest walk-ins known to man. The approach is by abseil from one of two stakes. The base of the crag is covered at high tide so plan your visit well to make the most of the day. For those who want to hone their Pembroke skills a bit further, you can make a belay on a small ledge at the base of the slab and still get on most of the routes at any tide - be careful not to drop anything into the sea though!
Another excellent sandstone slab, and with a good choice of grades. The rock here is well-supplied with edges and cracks and the easier lines on the higher-positioned left-hand end; the taller, darker slab on the right provides the longer and more adventurous forays into the Extreme grades plus a classic VS. Once again, the approach is by abseil from a couple of solid stakes at the top. The ledges at the base are only covered at very high tide on the left-hand side and a belay is possible in the middle at any time when the sea is calm, which should allow you access to some routes, however, a better day will be had on arriving as the tide is going out.
The main attraction and fame of climbing in Pembroke is in the southern section, from Range East along the coast to the Lydstep area. Here are many of the great classics of British sea cliff climbing, routes that become pillars of achievement in your climbing career. Range East is at the heart of the climbing with quick and easy approach walks and stunning rock formations. A lot of it is steep, intimidating and hard though and a bit of care in crag selection will certainly help you make the most of a trip without getting involved in too many epics. Further east there is plenty more with Mowing Word and Mother Carey's offering some great classic climbs.
Flimston Bay is at the western end of Range East, which is east of Range West - yes it can get confusing. The crags down this end are wilder and less busy but they also have one or two spots that are worth a look for anyone trying to find their feet in Pembroke. The approach is from the parking at Stack Rocks car park. It is worth taking a few minutes to wander over and have a look at the amazing rock architecture here - The Green Bridge, the Cauldron and Stack Rocks are intimidating places (unless you are a bird). The routes we are after are a little further along on the other side of the wide Flimston Bay where two very similar wide slabs lean against the cliff line offering long pitches starting from small ledges reached by abseil. They can be done at most states of the tide although you will want to keep away if the waves are big. The abseil is a little awkward to construct and it is a long one - 40m - but that only means you get more climbing for your troubles. Once on the slabs the routes are pure delight and you can easily tick a couple on each of Flimston Slab and Bow-shaped Slab. If that isn't enough then just around the corner is Crystal Slab. Not quite as good as the Flimston Bay slabs but an easy walk-in approach and a non-tidal base means it is worth a look if you want a bit more slab action.
Beyond the MOD buildings above Saddle Head and The Castle the cliffs become a little less continuous presenting a few great buttresses amongst long stretches of less appealing rock. For the first time visitor, Crickmail Point is worth a look if you are up to HVS and E1, but before that is another buttress that many have walked over the top of, oblivious to the sheer delights below. And that is exactly what you will find - Sheer Delight is the appropriately-named climb on Blockhouse Buttress. A long but straightforward abseil approach to ledges and blocks that are covered at high tide gains a wonderful wall of rock next to a cave with a beautiful rock pool in it. The other routes here push up the difficulty level but are worth having a go at if you are up to it. It is worth mentioning that the upper section of this wall is a bit on the loose side - a good place to get used to the essential Pembroke skill of dealing with the potentially unstable rock on the upper sections of many routes.
THE crag in Range East that offers amenable routes combined with easy access is Saddle Head. You can scramble to the base and the majority of the routes start from a ledge way above the sea. There is plenty across the grades from Diff to HVS so it is a must-visit on your first trip. That said, the majority of the routes lack some of the key aspects that make sea cliff climbing so memorable. However, lurking at the western end of the crag is a majestic taller buttress that starts from a wave-washed platform that is only usually revealed at low spring tide in calm seas. This is home to one of the great routes along the coast - Blue Sky, a beautiful VS that requires careful planning to get the tide window right. You can abseil in to a hanging belay above the sea, but for the full experience it is better waiting for a low spring tide and dashing across the platform between the waves. That you will certainly remember!
Stennis Head is one of the most easily reached crag in Pembroke - you basically just walk to the base. Additionally, most of the routes start from a non-tidal ledge. The only problem is that there isn't that much easy stuff here at first glance, but look a bit further and there are some hidden gems - although they are not quite so easily reached. Myola and Riders on the Storm are two such climbs - pretty much invisible from the main Stennis Head crag and wonderfully isolated once you commit to the abseil. They both offer great climbing in intimidating surroundings. Neither is strictly beginners' Pembroke, but both are worth considering once you have got used to abseil approaches and restricted belays above the sea. On the main crag itself you pretty much need to be climbing in the E-grades to make the most of the place and one day you surely will be, but until then you can get a great view of the harder routes by tackling the wonderful expedition on the other side of the headland. A convenient ledge system allows the big rounded buttress of Stennis Arte to be reached and here are two lovely climbs with the outlook and atmosphere of the harder stuff on the Pleasure Dome wall but at a much more manageable grade.
St. Govan's gets included here but mainly to persuade you not to go there on your first visit. It is a great crag and, for some reason, virtually everyone heads here first when they come to Pembroke, but the routes below HVS are really not that good. Above that it is one of the best and definitely a place you will come back to on future visits. Having said that, you can get to the base without an abseil rope by making a wriggly scramble down the back of a huge block which the route Army Dreamers tackles the front of, and much of it is non-tidal. If you find yourself here then avoid the big wide cracks, unless you like that sort of thing, and head right (looking out) at the base of the descent chimney. There is a wall here with some decent easier routes. If you are up to HVS or E1 then take your pick since there are enough classics to keep you happy for years.
For many Mowing Word is synonymous with splendid Pembroke scenery and isolation. The setting on this remote headland is majestic and the approach walk as beautiful as any crag anywhere. The amazing corner of Diedre Sud and the majestic traverse of Heart of Darkness appear on many people's lifetime tick lists so expect company if the conditions are good. There are a few other routes of interest and tides tend not to be a problem although you do need to carefully plan your abseil approach to hit the right spot. For Diedre Sud a hanging stance is necessary at the base of the corner. Heart of Darkness is an altogether more serious undertaking where you need a competent team of two since it is a long traverse. Once committed it is also the only way out so make sure you are confident - perhaps one for a later visit if you haven't got used to the intricacies of sea cliff climbing yet. The crag itself used to be fully restricted due to nesting birds until August, however this has been changed and much of it is now open season all year round. The exception is the route Diedre Sud which shouldn't be climbed from 1 March to 31 July. The precise restriction includes the wall to the right of the corner - more information here. As a crag it hasn't many routes in the easier grades but what it does have is as good as they come.
Mother Carey's Kitchen is a fabulous crag, one of the finest in the whole of Pembroke. It has some major classic routes on some superb rock formations, however much of this is at the higher end of the grade spectrum. In the centre of the cliff though is a cracked wall which offers three superb routes around a huge through-cave that have all the atmosphere of the harder lines without any of those inconvenient hard moves. The abseil approach is committing since it is steep from the first step, and careful tide knowledge is required here since the base is blocky and appears to be uncovered although easy access along it is sometimes awkward. A direct abseil to the ledge where the easier routes start is possible at any tide in calm seas but it is a bit awkward to set up. Once below the wall The Cracks is obvious but the real attraction is the superb Threadneedle Street which starts in the back of the cave and takes a great line out into the light on some superb juggy holds.
When do I go?
Easter and Pembroke are synonymous. It used to be an unspecified annual gathering and it will almost certainly be busy then, especially if the weather forecast is good. Before Easter you will be lucky to get enough good weather to justify what is a long drive for most. May and June are prime season but slightly hampered by the firing restrictions. Long weekends are fine but Range East will be closed on most weekdays if it isn't a bank holiday. Mid-July and August see a lifting of the restrictions, including any bird restrictions from 1st August, so then everything is available. As the summer draws to a close you can often get great conditions through September and October, but careful watching of the weather forecast is called for.
Where do I stay?
Camping is the name of the game here - if you can't camp then it will probably not be good enough conditions to climb. There are some glorious camp sites available particularly in North Pembroke - Glan y Mor Inn, Caerfai Bay and Porth-Clais. On the south coast the delightful St Petrox is great for those who like a bit of comfort (but you will need a non-drinking driver for the pub) and the really classy Glamping at Warren Farm has a bunkhouse. More rudimentary camping is available in The Vicar's Field and Buckspool Farm although the situation in these two 'fields' does change from time to time. They are very close to the pub though.
Where do I eat and drink?
There is only one place to go for the full scene - the St.Govan's Inn. This has been the hub of many a post-Pembroke adventure for the last 40 years. It does get pretty busy on bank holiday weekends so order early if you want food. The other legendary spot is Ma Weston's Cafe (sadly no longer with the legendary Ma Weston). This is in the village of Bosherston and is an essential morning venue for tea, coffee and cakes.
On the North Coast the 'city' of St. Davis has plenty of cafes and pubs to choose from and it is walkable from the camp sites.
What else is there apart from the climbing?
Beaches, surfing, coastal walks - there is plenty available for the outdoor lover. Surfers should head to Newgale beach which you pass on the way to St. Davids - this is the surfers' equivalent of St. Govan's. Freshwater East is also a mecca for those looking for big waves. For walkers, the Pembrokeshire Coast path features in many of the crag approaches although it does become distinctly non-coastal in avoiding the MOD range. Need a rest day - then head to the beach at Broadhaven which is passed on the way to Mowing Word or go for a real adventure on Flimston Bay beach. For more ideas take a look at the Tourist Information office in Pembroke town.
- REVIEW: MSR DynaLock Ascent Carbon Poles 13 Nov
- REVIEW: Edelrid's Bulletproof Karabiners 18 Sep
- JOBS: UKClimbing Ltd Full Stack Web Developer 3 May
- OPINION: Guidebooks should omit specific Sport Route Lengths 11 Apr
- REVIEW: Montane Icarus Jacket 1 Dec, 2017
- PRESS RELEASE: UKC, UKH and Rockfax at Kendal 16 Nov, 2017
- JOBS: UKClimbing Ltd Front End Web Developer 16 May, 2017
- PRESS RELEASE: Rockfax Makes Contribution to Sustainable Bolting on Mallorca 27 Feb, 2017
- REVIEW: Via Ferrata Sets from Climbing Technology 13 Sep, 2016
- REVIEW: Beal Booster III 9.7mm Unicore Single Rope 11 Jul, 2016