Move over Fontainebleau, Lancashire bouldering has come of age. That doesn't mean it's gone mouldy, though of course if this was a cheese metaphor, the Bleausards would still be salivating. For years, gritstone boulderers have flocked to Yorkshire and the Peak District to sate their friction addictions. But there is a third option, another county with another collection of crags that are well worth travelling to. Yes, it's Lancashire.
You might have heard of Lancashire. You might also have heard of black puddings, black peas, Eccles cakes, parkin and of course the eponymous hotpot. You might not have heard of clapbread, jannock, goosnargh cakes, pobbies, ran dan, throdkins or red rose bouldering. This article is about the only thing on that list that you can't eat. Sorry throdkin fans. Someday someone will champion your cause, but today is not that day.
Today is the day on which Lancastrians can hold up their heads, look Yorkshiremen square in the face and say "Eh up." Whatever that means. What's more, citizens of this fine county are now entirely justified in making proud exclamations about their local bouldering. Even if you can't understand them. Because Lancashire bouldering is officially Pretty Good. This is a big change from previous years when it used be a Pretty Good Secret, because now there's even a guidebook so you can find your way to the rocks.
It's been happening for a while of course. Brownstones has always been a good friend to the ropeless, Longridge has in recent years been plumbed for ever harder challenges and Thorn Crag has been steadily developed to the point that it is now a must visit for any gritstone fan. But thanks to the obsessive explorations of local climbers, there is a lot more to Lancashire bouldering than just these three well known locations. So much more, in fact, that even Yorkshiremen have something to smile about, because the large collection of newly documented venues opens a whole new world of gritstone for every boulderer to enjoy.
What To Expect
Bouldering in Lancashire can be divided into three rough areas – Bowland, The Quarries and The East Lancashire Moors. There are two main styles – moorland gritstone and quarried rock. Visitors to the area will doubtless opt for the moors, where fine views, natural rock formations and haggard old ladies with sorcerous powers are all big attractions. Lovers of esoterica, or more likely, desperate locals, will also be interested in the plethora of problems populating the many disused quarries – locations ever-useful for an evening session.
Situated east of the M6, there is an expanse of heather and hills which goes largely ignored by climbers. Overshadowed by the Lake District, the magical land of Bow is often bypassed in favour of more craggy environs. It is true that you could quite easily walk for hours and catch nary a glimpse of anything remotely clamber-compatible, but this great emptiness is part of what makes being in Bowland so special. Dotted sparingly on the crests and flanks of these grand fells there are more bouldering spots than most people realise.
Such as? Thorn Crag is the reigning monarch, with suitably impressive lines, a great wealth of variety and even a host of resident corgis, albeit that rare variety which has wings and is sometimes shot by people wearing tweed. But read on, dear read on-ers, for there is more. Other highlights include The Great Stone Of Fourstones for roadside wonderment, Wolfhole for the intrepid and The Bull Stones for a kilometre-long stretch of mainly low grade problems in a spectacular setting. As well as several other moorland crags, there is also the small matter of Craig Y Longridge to the south, a hundred-metre frown upon human frailty. There is esoterica too – a circuit of mini venues on Longridge Fell, limestone near Dunsop Bridge and even a decent local's grumbling hole near Clitheroe. Taken as a whole, the bouldering in Bowland probably weighs about as much as the combined mass of Stanage and Harrison's Rocks (minus the toilet). If that's not a good reason to visit, you could just go because of the bouldering.
Are you over eighteen? If so, does your spouse approve? And if you aren't married, why aren't you looking for a partner instead of reading about The Quarries? This way lies only darkness.
That was the warning. Now for the truth. The quarries are unusual man-tampered places, an ever-evolving sculptural comment on the nature versus nurture debate. Nature is winning. Although you may sight litter drifting through, or graffiti fading on the walls, you're also likely to see more greenery and wildlife than you will on the moors. The quarries divide opinion. Some people like them and the others can't climb well enough. Luckily for those eager to indulge in this most specialist of styles, there are a lot of them...
Brownstones is the great welcomer. Everyone can enjoy Brownstones. Sometimes it even hands out party bags when everybody goes home. Beyond Brownstones, the quarries contain excellent climbing but the problems tend to be less densely clustered and the crags are rarely suntraps. The Wiltons are the best of the rest with several hundred problems hidden here and there. In fact, for climbing in the harder grades, the Wiltons probably have better quality on offer than Brownstones. Or there is Stronstrey, if you'd like a view. Or Stanworth, if you want something really hard. Or Ousel's Nest, to try the legendary Ouselballs. Or Healey Nab, if you like Nabs. And who doesn't?
There are of course many more, most of them useful for evening sessions when time is short. On a sunny eve, with birds singing, grass at your feet and a day at the office behind you, it's hard not see these places as a little slice of climbing heaven. Unless you shut your eyes. That would be silly.
The East Lancashire Moors
You haven't heard of the East Lancashire Moors, have you? And it's not because you shut your ears. Until very recently, most of this area's boulders were undocumented. Trad climbers have roamed the area and nibbled at the edges, though it's possible I might be confusing trad climbers with sheep. Blackstone Edge has come closest to fame, yet despite boasting nearly three hundred problems, on a perfect autumn gritstone day it is still usually a climber-free zone. Not far away, Stony Edge has Lancashire's best white sand beach and nearly a hundred problems, Cow's Mouth has some brilliant highballs and Dove Lowe has wonderful shapes. In addition, a whole host of smaller venues round out the area with enough bouldering to keep you going for yonks, or perhaps even a bit longer.
There are two wonderful things about the location of the East Lancs Moors. 1 - They are so close for so many people. 2 – So many people don't go. You'll see walkers and bikers, but never in the same quantity as in the two other grit kingdoms (the Peak District or Almscliff). Despite being on the doorstep of several large cities in Lancashire, Greater Manchester and Yorkshire, you can enjoy a feeling of remoteness. The new guidebook is unlikely to change this state of affairs as most of these crags require 25-60 minutes of perambulatory exertion. If you are one of the lucky few boulderers with fully functioning legs, then set forth and explore!
When do I go?
The usual rules for gritstone apply. When it's cold and dry, the climbing is much easier, though climbing is possible all year round if you pick your venue wisely. On hot summer days, the moorland crags are idyllic places with a bit of wind. The quarries are also very pleasant during summer, but beware the midges which attend still evenings. Winter can herald seepage in the quarries, but the moorland crags are all fast drying so even an absolute deluge one day won't prevent climbing the next day, as long as there has been some wind.
What about doing a weekend trip?
If you are travelling from further afield, you could have a lot of fun if you spent a weekend in either Bowland or the East Lancs Moors. In either of these locations you'll be rewarded by a collection of superb natural grit venues, well off the beaten track. There is a wide range of accommodation options, from camping to YHA to B&B's.
Any child friendly venues?
Try taking the family to Stony Edge. The approach is easy with bicycles if you go from the Cow's Mouth parking and you can leave the kids on Lancashire's best white sand beach while you go bouldering.
What if I haven't done any outdoors bouldering?
There are several venues perfect for beginners. Get yourself a bouldering mat and head to Brownstones, Cadshaw Small Quarry, Stony Edge, Bull Stones or Blackstone Edge. You'll find flat landings and plenty of problems ideal for fledgling rockstars.
Where can I buy the guidebook?
The guidebook is available from lancashirebouldering.com, priced £25.
About the author...Robin Mueller
Robin Mueller is a freelance writer and obsessive boulderer. He was born in Lancashire and has been bouldering on red rose rocks for nearly twenty years. He has roamed the world in search of unclimbed lines, from the Peak District to Tasmania. Lancashire was the winner. He is the author of the new Lancashire Bouldering guidebook, pictured right.