Destination - Ilkley and Rocky Valley

© Simon Caldwell

"Ilkley for me has everything you need for a great grit day out. Hard cracks, harder aretes plus top class bouldering. Check out classics like the Ferdinand finish to A climb, Wellington Crack, Milky Way and the outstanding New Statesman. Don't forget the often overlooked Rocky Valley with classics from V Diff to E8."

- John Dunne, September 2008

Sunset at Rocky Valley  © Simon Caldwell
Sunset at Rocky Valley
© Simon Caldwell

The famous local landmarks of the Cow and Calf sit majestically on the southern slopes of the Wharfe valley commanding fine views over the affluent town of Ilkley and the surrounding countryside. The moor itself, immortalised in the Yorkshire anthem "On Ilkla Moor Bahtat" is generally well frequented by hoards of tourists, dog walkers and other day-trippers but to the rock climber it offers an altogether more challenging experience! Whether you are the beginner looking to cut your teeth, the boulderer looking for problems of the highest quality or the bold traditionalist looking to repeat some of the most challenging and striking lines to be found anywhere on gritstone, then Ilkley has something for you. The Cow and Calf, the quarry, the surrounding boulders and buttresses and the quieter Rocky Valley all offer exceptional challenges to suit innumerable styles and tastes. Steep cracks, bold aretes, tempting technical walls, some safe and others utterly dangerous! Whatever you choose you are sure to enjoy a richly rewarding experience at a venue that is steeped in history.


A Brief History

Routes - Climbing at Ilkley has great historical significance and the development here has played a hugely important and influential role in the development of gritstone climbing as a whole. Some of the first known documented climbs came in the early days of the twentieth century and in 1906 Claude E Benson included the popular Flake Climb and Blasphemy Crack in an article for Fry's Outdoor Magazine.

In the early 1930's Winston Farrar made forays into Rocky Valley and in 1939 Allan Allsop climbed S Crack and Ferdinand in the quarry.

The 1940's- Dolphin was possibly the first to peg the now free, Wellington Crack and in 1943 John Cook and John Ball ascended Cherry Valley Rib, Pebble Groove and Bald Pate (the latter without the chips on Doris's Route which apparently appeared later on!)

The 1950's - Transparent Wall, Sylveste and High Street from the Austin/Evans team pushed standards further.

A general lull in the 1960's was followed by the arrival of Livesey and Fawcett in the 70's. Livesey freed Wellington Crack and Big Ron made his mark with ascents of Milky Way and Desperate Dan in '78 and '79 respectively.

The 1980's and John Dunne. Dunne started climbing at Ilkley and in a short time had repeated most of the established routes. In 1986, aged just 17, he made an audacious solo of Wellington Crack as well as establishing the bold and difficult Deathwatch and Snap Decision, both E7. He then headed into the Rocky Valley to tackle a Countdown to Disaster. This latter route was soloed as it is unprotected and despite being "only" 14 metres long there is a further 15 metres below the first move making a fall utterly unthinkable. As the latest YMC guide says, "do or die!" Amazingly this route has since been flashed by Ryan Pasquil! However 1987 is the year that brought Dunne's most significant ascent. The stunning right arête of the Cow is a beautiful and impending line offering only just enough holds and nowhere near enough protection. After much rehearsal and mental psyching The New Statesman was born, a route which has got to be the prize of the decade!

Since then development has continued. In 1991 Sean Myles climbed Rodney Mullen in Rocky Valley and Dunne returned to force the arête to the right of Wellington Crack. The resulting route, Loaded is apparently quite safe for an E8...

Tim on Cow Udder (E1 5a) at Ilkley, Yorkshire.

Bouldering - In terms of bouldering the big names have all left their mark over the years. The back of the Calf has been a training ground for many local hotshots but the boulders and buttresses have not been left out. Ron Fawcett climbed Ron's Traverse, Andy Brown climbed Bald Pate Superdirect some time around 1980 and John Dunne ascended Super Set and Three More Reps in 1987. Not to be left out, bouldering master Ben Moon left his mark with the classy I am Curious (Yellow)

The Climbing

The climbing at Ilkley takes place on both natural and quarried gritstone, most of which is of a very high quality. There is plenty on offer for all tastes and abilities with well-protected cracks, bold and serious aretes, open walls, roofs, grooves and everything in between. Ease of access makes things even more appealing as long as you don't mind being a subject for the hordes of tourists. Rocky Valley offers an altogether quieter solution however, albeit with a slightly longer approach. Some 140 single pitch routes exist at the crag and in the quarry with a further 90 in Rocky Valley. Grades range from Diff to E8. There are also around 100 boulder problems (including countless quality eliminates,) between the two areas offering grades from Font 5 to Font 8a+.

Gear Required

The routes require a standard rack of nuts and camming devices and you may also find double ropes to be useful on the less direct lines. For the bouldering take a crash pad or two and perhaps a spotter!

The Sectors

Cow: 20 routes from VDif to E8 and a circuit of problems on the blocks to the left, Font 5 to 7c. A further 20 short routes and an excellent set of boulder problems exist on the small buttresses to the right VDiff to E6 and Font 5 to 8a+.

Calf: bouldering/highball routes from HVS to E7 or Font 5 to 8a

Quarry: 45 routes from Diff to E8 and an interesting bouldering circuit (including the excellent but often overlooked Back Quarry) from Font 5 to 7b

Doris Buttress: 20 routes, VDiff to E6/7 as well as a collection of worthwhile boulder problems Font 7b to 7c

Rocky Valley: Six buttresses offering approximately 80 routes from Dif to E8 and a fantastic bouldering circuit from Font 5 to 8a

Classic Suggestions

Ali scaring us all by on-sighting Sinister Rib (E3 5b) at Ilkley


Boulder Problems


Getting There

Ilkley crags are easily spotted high up on the hillside above the town. The Cow and Calf are signposted in the town centre and marked on most maps. From the centre of the town follow signs to Ilkley Moor and Burley Woodhead. The road climbs steeply out of the town for a short distance to reach a large car park on the right, next to the rocks. The Cow, Calf and quarry are obvious from here. For Rocky Valley head onto the plateau above the crags and quarry and follow the obvious path across the moor (the rocks are actually visible from the plateau) for about one kilometre.

For those without a car the town of Ilkley can be easily reached via public transport with regular bus and train services running from Leeds, Bradford, Keighley and Skipton. From the station it's about a 30 minute walk to the crag.

Aspect and When To Go

Ilkley faces north and due to its exposed position it can be mercilessly cold, particularly on a windy winter's day. Conversely it may also offer welcome respite from the heat during the warmer months and some good bouldering conditions when everywhere else is just too hot and greasy. The quarry, crags and boulders generally dry very quickly after rain and the back of the Calf does offer some dry bouldering (during rain) as long as it is not blowing directly onto the face. Check Metcheck for up to date weather details.

Accommodation Advertise here

No Premier Listings found in this area

Ilkley and the surrounding area is well provided with accommodation options. The Ilkley Tourist Office (Station Road, Ilkley, LS29 8HA, Tel: 01943 602319) has up to date information on hotel and bed and breakfast options in the area. The nearest campsite is the Yorkshire Clarion Clubhouse and UKcampsites has a list of campsites within a 20 mile radius.


The town has a wide variety of amenities including supermarkets, pubs and restaurants. The Cow and Calf Pub opposite the rocks does excellent food and there is a snack kiosk in the parking area for tea/coffee and ice-creams! There is also the fabulous Betty's Tearoom which does scrumptious cream scones and teacakes for those who aren't so concerned about their waist line!

Which guide do I buy?

Yorkshire Gritstone (YMC 1998), Northern England (Rockfax) and Yorkshire Gritstone Bouldering (Total Climbing 2008) are the most up to date guides. Check The Leeds Wall site for up-to-date new route information.

Instructor/Guides Advertise here

No Premier Listings found in this area

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4 Nov, 2008
Should the Northern England Rockfax not get a mention in the guidebook section?
4 Nov, 2008
Good, comprehensive article from someone who obviously knows the place backwards. [Pedant alert] Yer man, from back when, is on Josephine Direct (or Superdirect?), isn't he? The photo of Tufted flatters it immensely... reminiscent of Octo area on Cloggy?? Nice pic though. More good stuff from Kevin. What's next - Secret Crags Near Silsden?? Keep 'em coming! Mick
4 Nov, 2008
I'm sure in the Calf area section it should say highball bouldering/routes not bouldering/highball routes?
4 Nov, 2008
What no mention of Illegitimate Crack? The best VS at the venue, with no queueing necessary?
4 Nov, 2008
What excellent photos, I particularly like the one at the top ;-) P.S. Yes Mr Pearson is definitely on Josephine (Super) Direct.
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