When people think of UK granite climbing, Dartmoor is quickly forgotten behind the famous Cornish sea cliffs or the paradise isle of Lundy. It's frequently only visited by climbers as a quick stopover on the way to or from their holiday in Kernow. But there's a lot more to Dartmoor than just The Dewerstone and Suspension Flake.
There is something different about the granite on Dartmoor. It's not just the skin-rippingest, sharpest, roughest stuff around, but it's also quiet and there is an abundance of it. With tors jutting out of practically every hilltop, and sheltered quarries tucked below, there is not only a lot of climbing, but also thousands of boulders strewn on the slopes and in the wooded valleys. There has been huge development by the locals over the last 20 years that has brought the area up to speed and Dartmoor is fast emerging from its status as a climbing backwater.
Although Dartmoor is pretty large (over 900 sq. km.) it is relatively compact and most areas can be driven between easily. The climbing is split into 5 logical areas. These are compact and easy to get around except the tors on the high north moor which are well spread out.
The Haytor Area
Anyone driving to the South west will have crested Haldon Hill on the A38 and seen the panorama of the moor unfold with Haytor (aka Hay Tor) and Low Man's unmistakable double hump on the horizon. This serves as a natural honeypot for the tourist and climber alike, being only a short stomp up the hill from the car park with its resident ice cream van. Good climbing, with fantastic views across the moor out to the Teign estuary and the sea.
Low Man at Haytor is a natural first stop for many a seasoned leader with a superb wall of high-quality well-weathered granite yielding classic challenges from Raven's Gully, Severe, to the photogenic Outward Bound, HVS, and well-known Aviation, E1. The ultimate route here and one of the best at the grade in the country is the stunning Interrogation (which was featured in UKC's Top 5 E3's in the UK? article). No pushover at E3 6a and a stunning, technical 50m pitch culminating in an exposed mantelshelf just when arms are beginning to fade.
Hound Tor is well-known with the sensational but stunted Suspension Flake, which was once voted the best VS in the country. To be fair, it isn't...but it's still bloody good! Once only famous for this route and the classic E2 - Aerobic wall, the tor is now home to over 100 superlative routes and problems from easy to downright impossible.
A mile down the road Bonehill Rocks (Bone Hill) aka. the Stanage Plantation of the South West. It is the only busy bouldering site - and justifiably so - with over 150 problems, including recent hard additions up to F8b. It's not hard to see why it is so popular as the quality is high and the walk in under 1 minute!
There are over 20 crags and bouldering venues within this small area with most of them deserted and less than a 15 minute walk. Why not sample the delights of Easdon Rocks, Tunhill Rocks, Bell Tor or Honeybag Tor?
The Bovey Valley
Technical and bold routes await in Lustleigh Cleave (Harton Chest) with a high concentration of upper E-grades and recently re-developed bouldering this is a place not to miss. Jason Maddick's recent font 6c addition The Cowboy Butcher stands out amongst over a hundred good quality problems. The routes to go for are Bamboozled, E4; The Hog's Back, E5; Lev, E6 and Javu, the moor's first E7.
In recent years. when most of the remaining gaps on the tors had been filled with ever barer and scarier additions, the local hobbits began tramping in the wooded valleys desperate to find new challenges. Tom Rainbow happened to strike granite buried beneath acres of moss whilst ambling in the woods one day and thus began the most recent wave of development. The wooded hillsides of the Bovey valley have spawned over 1000 problems so far and Dartmoor now sports its own Font-esque paradise albeit with the sharpest granite ever discovered. No coloured arrows direct you around Bovey Woods, rather a sense of bewilderment and wonder at the scale of it all. With top-quality problems from font 4 to 7c+ this is somewhere that is seeing a huge surge in popularity and is getting better for it. Dave Henderson's Devon Sent is a contender for the best problem in the South west (or even further afield?).
The Moor Tors
For those wishing for a longer day out the high moorland offers a vast array of classic away-from-it-all action. There is something special about the high moor. Even if you are only a mile or two from the car it feels remote and adventurous. Irishman's Wall and Great Links Tor stand out after recent developments and are growing in popularity. Bench Tor lies in a splendid situation above the river Dart and boasts several top notch routes including Pat Littlejohn's superb Hostile Witness, E2, or was it HVS Pat? Nothing beats a summer's evening away from it all with the sun on your back followed by a walk back in the sunset as the heather shines and the rock glows bronze in the dying light.
When a stiff winter breeze makes the open moor uninviting a hidden gem awaits in one of the many granite quarries spread across the moor. In Foggintor Quarry Limestone Cowboys, E4 is a stiff challenge and is as good as London wall – it's certainly not polished – and Swan Lake, HS is a truly hidden gem.
Combshead Tor is nestled away in the depths of the south moor and has over 150 boulder problems of the best quality imaginable. Due to the half hour walk you are unlikely to see a soul here, although the tor is starting to gain the reputation it deserves. There are too many classics to list of every style and grade imaginable.
The recently developed Down Tor nearby has great bouldering mainly in the lower grades, which make it a good place for starting out. This can easily be combined with Combshead to give stunning bouldering, to rival the best in the country, in a great location above Burrator Reservoir.
The nearby Sheeps Tor is the perfect place to cut your teeth on the granite with a clutch of easily accessible, amenable routes which are all well protected and fun to boot.
If this wasn't written up I'd come a cropper with the crag's namesake, Satan himself (Dewer being old Devonian for the devil) Dartmoor's most extensive crag sits proudly in the wooded valley above the river Plym with the 40m Devil's rock taking pride of place. This is packed with mid-grade classics and thanks to the efforts of some locals in the run up to the new guide it is at its cleanest for years. Classics such as Central Groove, HS; Scimitar Direct, E1 and Climber's Club Direct, HVS still see the passage of plenty of feet but now the upper buttresses have had a workover and it's a perfect time to get on some of Patey's great additions. Spider's Web, HVS still packs a punch even now and is a true testament to his abilities. The Dewerstone was always shy of hard routes but with several recent harder additions up to E6 there is something for the travelling hard man (or woman) to get terrified on.
With hundreds of quality routes from Diff through E7 and thousands of boulder problems there's more than enough to last a lifetime or at least tempt a visit. There's always a decent pub to retreat to when the weather comes in or you run out of skin - as one well-travelled wag put it: 'Dartmoor is the most underrated bouldering area in the UK'.
So classic multi-pitch cracks and grooves, desperate grit-style highballs and picturesque bouldering for everyone on perfect granite with cream teas and no queues… what are you waiting for?
- Dartmoor by James Clapham (2017)
- Editor Ian Smith
- Design, maps and artwork by Don Sargeant
- Photo diagrams by Mark Davies and Don Sargeant
- 384 pages of text and photodiagrams
Rest Day Activities
After you run out of skin or when the weather turns grim there are plenty of options around. Devon is diverse and there's a lot to do for everyone. On the moor itself there are many ruins and ancient settlements worth a look as well as Brent Tor church. Princetown's infamous prison has a visitor centre and is also home to England's highest brewery: The Dartmoor Brewery.
Within a short drive you've got Exeter with the Quay Climbing Centre, Roman ruins and hidden passages under the city. Dart's Farm offers a good way to spend your money on foodie treats and hide from the rain. Plymouth has the Hoe and a rubbish football team, just watch out for your wallet and your hub caps! Dart Rock have climbing walls in Buckfastleigh and Plymouth if rain stops play and you need to get pumped.
In Dartington you have the huge Riverford Farm Shop, Dartington Crystal and Dartington Hall and gardens if that's your thing. Why not pay the monks in Buckfast Abbey a visit but don't expect them to sell you any Buckfast Tonic Wine (that gets exported to Scotland). Totnes is slightly further away and has a lot of arty shops and cafés. If you make it this far then pop into the Sharpham vineyard and dairy.
Or if is tipping down that badly why not go paddling on the local rivers? The Upper Dart is regularly voted the best stretch of grade IV in the country. The caves at Pridhamsleigh make for an exciting and very dirty wriggle down to an underground lake.
When do I go?
Dartmoor lends itself to climbing all year round and depending on the conditions there is usually something to get stuck in to. The wooded valleys are a good escape from the biting wind in winter, yet the same wind is perfect to take the edge off a hot summer's day. The crags on the open moor are best spring to autumn but you'll want a crisp winter's day for that F7c or E5 project. Climbing at the Dewerstone is possible all year round but the heat can be stifling in the summer. Bouldering in the woods is best over the winter as it gets too sweaty and leafy in the summer months.
How do I get there?
Dartmoor is reached easily from the main route into the region; the M5 and A38. Good roads as far as Bovey Tracey and Ashburton change into lanes with grass in't middle and high hedges. These get narrower, winding and steeper as you drive up onto the moor and the crags. Watch out in summer when coaches and holidaymakers do battle around sheep and ponies in the middle of the narrow roads.
Where do I stay?
Bed and breakfast accommodation abounds and there are plenty of options in Bovey Tracey, Ashburton, Princetown and Tavistock. The best campsite for the Haytor area is at Cockingford Farm and is conveniently a short cider-induced stagger back from the Rugglestone. If climbing on the high moor then The Plume of Feathers in Princetown has a bunkhouse and campsite situated an even shorter crawl back from the pub!
What's the scoff like?
You can't visit the region without getting stuck into the local culinary delight, the Devonshire cream tea. (No they weren't invented in Cornwall) Widecombe is bursting with cream tea shops which can indulge you with rich gluttonous treats. Local to the Haytor Area is the Ullacombe Farm shop, a good place to stop for lunch. For more savoury tastes Dartmoor bristles with quality rustic pubs which serve a great selection of local fare and more importantly local tipples. You can't come to the area without visiting the Rugglestone, Warren House Inn or Plume of Feathers to name but a few. Where else can you get cream teas, local game and farm cider on tap?
Where can I buy gear and food?
Taunton Leisure in Exeter is the best local gear shop where you can get anything you've forgotten. There are Go Outdoors stores in both Plymouth and Exeter although these aren't exactly local or climbing focussed so you're best off arriving on the moor with all the gear that you need. There are a couple of climbing walls where you can grab some extra chalk if desperate.
James Clapham is Dartmoor born & bred, not to mention weaned on Nick White's hilarious/iconic/borderline unusable South Devon & Dartmoor guidebook. James' adventures have overflowed to six continents and a lot of mountains, yet despite all of this he still maintains that Dartmoor granite is "God's own rock". He is currently in rehab, recovering from a cream-tea and cider addiction, but is planning on heading to Scotland - far away from the Shire - to train as a British Mountain Guide this winter (the only career that affords 200+ days nag-free climbing and skiing per year).