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Autumn South-West Sport Climbing Destination Guide

© Tom Skelhon

Tom Skelhon shares his top tips for South-West sport climbing spots...

Please be aware that COVID-19 travel restrictions and lockdowns may be in place. Tirpentwys and Foxhole are currently affected by local lockdowns.

September heralded the fast approaching end of the summer climbing season with many praying for an eternal Indian summer to get that last project clean. However, truth be told, the deteriorating weather can turn many crags into a dank seeping mess within a few weeks. Normally, this is the time to book that winter fix to the Costa Blanca, Mallorca or Kalymnos to soak up some vitamin D and bag some holiday grades. Unfortunately this year the lingering effects of the COVID pandemic are hampering hot rock trips abroad.

Dr Tom Jordan in the Zone at Blacknor.  © Tom Skelhon
Dr Tom Jordan in the Zone at Blacknor.
© Tom Skelhon

However, all is not lost. Although we can't quite guarantee the climes of the Iberian Peninsula or Dodecanese islands, there are many venues in the South-West which can stay dry outside of summer and even offer the possibility of a sun tan midwinter.

Here's a few sport climbing areas in the South-West which are good bets during autumn and early spring, with some staying in good condition throughout the darkest months and with a little bit of sun can transport you to the southern European sport climbing spots for a few hours.

 Blacknor Central (Dorset)

A fairly obvious choice, but for the uninitiated Portland is hands down the best choice for off-season sport climbing. Being on the South coast on the Channel, Portland sees some of the mildest weather during winter and is less affected by the Westerly storms battering Cornwall and South Wales. You can be climbing in T-shirt and shorts in January whilst your mates are struggling to feel their fingers at Burbage. So if the weather is naff in your area, just check Portland before resigning yourself to the indoor wall for the weekend. The climbing surrounds the whole 'isle' with routes facing at every aspect to get all the sun and avoid the wind. Extensive development over the last few decades mean that Portland boasts over 1000 bolted routes covering every grade well into the 8s. Despite being limestone, and a lot of it historically quarried, all tastes are catered for from slabs to overhangs including a few exceptional flowstone routes - try Reptile Smile (6a+) or England's Dreaming (7a+). Check out the most popular sectors of Blacknor, Battleship and The Cuttings.

Top tip: Make a holiday of it and get some bargain out of season accommodation in Weymouth.

Guidebook: Rockfax Dorset

Jen Warner high on Battleship – one of the taller crags at Portland.  © Tom Skelhon
Jen Warner high on Battleship – one of the taller crags at Portland.
© Tom Skelhon

 Brean Down (Weston Super Mare)

Possibly the worst kept secret for a SW winter sport venue since the Rockfax West Country Climbs guide came out. On a dry weekend during winter, Brean Down sees climbers from far and wide getting a taste of the Costa del Somerset. It's easy to see why – sun kissed steep limestone right on the beach. The sport routes are packed into the Boulder Cove sector, recessed into the cliff and facing south over the Severn Estuary. As such, the crag stays impressively dry in wet weather and catches the sun all day so it's possible to get a tan in January. As the rock is quite compact, edgy limestone, the routes tend to be very crimpy and vertical or slightly overhung, putting that moonboard training to good use! The grade spectrum ranges from 6a+ to 8b, although the best lines are from 7a to 7c. Quality lines include Chepito (7a), Chulilla (7b+) and Storm Warning (7c+). Once you've smashed through the 'normal' routes, there are endless quality linkups as the routes are close together. Just don't try the girdle traverse on a sunny Saturday!

Warming up on Coral Sea (6c) at Brean Down   © Jonny Aylwin
Warming up on Coral Sea (6c) at Brean Down
© Jonny Aylwin

Top tip: Pop over on a weekday to avoid the crowds

Guidebook: Rockfax West Country Climbs

Jonny ‘All Win’ Aylwin on Storm Warning (7c+) at Brean Down.  © Tom Skelhon
Jonny ‘All Win’ Aylwin on Storm Warning (7c+) at Brean Down.
© Tom Skelhon

 Tirpentwys (Pontypool)

Climbing in the South Wales Valleys has always been a bit of a gamble – and you're never quite sure what to expect (burnt out cars, bolts falling out of crumbling rock and/or illegal raves). However, Tirpentwys is one of the gems.

Alex Erusalimsky sampling Mental Mantles (5).  © Tom Skelhon
Alex Erusalimsky sampling Mental Mantles (5).
© Tom Skelhon

It's a small crag of quarried sandstone tucked away in the country on the outskirts of Pontypool. The hard sandstone typical of the area features plenty of crimps, flat edges and cracks, whilst the quarried nature gives satisfyingly vertical and sustained climbing. The routes range from 5 to 7b+, but the sweet spot is 6a to 6b+. As it faces due south and is quarried into the cliff, it's very sheltered and pleasant in the sun, although it can seep after prolonged rain.

Top tip: As the Black Mountains are nearby, bring along your hiking boots for a post climb ramble.

Guidebook: Rockfax South Wales Sport

Charlotte Macdonald on Flakes and Chips (6c).  © Alex Erusalimsky
Charlotte Macdonald on Flakes and Chips (6c).
© Alex Erusalimsky

 Wyndcliff Quarry (Chepstow)

Although part of the Lower Wye Valley, Wyndcliff Quarry is less well known than the key venues of Ban-y-gor, Wintours Leap and Tintern Quarry. Contrary to these crags, Wyndcliff gets loads of sun and dries relatively quickly as it's not hidden in the woods. The limestone quarry is split over two tiers giving mostly short but fierce bouldery routes. Recent extensive development has resulted in over 100 bolted routes from 3a to 7b+ especially in the 5 to 6a+ range. A great place to bag many routes in a session with quick access from the M4 motorway at Chepstow.

Top tip: Excellent venue for those wanting to get more mileage in the 5 to 6a+ range

Guidebook: Great Western Rock Wye Valley Sport

Jon Warner cashing in on December sunshine at Wyndcliff Quarry.  © Tom Skelhon
Jon Warner cashing in on December sunshine at Wyndcliff Quarry.
© Tom Skelhon

 Foxhole (Gower)

This is worth a visit for one route alone – Pioneers of the Hypnotic Groove (7b), a long overhung jug fest which is Gower's answer to Poema de Roca in El Chorro. Foxhole is a south-facing crag in a small tidal cove below the quaint village of Southgate on Gower, featuring a cave and a consistently overhanging 30° wall. Thanks to the cave and steepness of the adjacent wall, it's not too affected by the usual UK wet weather. During the summer Foxhole becomes an oven with greasy holds, so cooler conditions in spring and autumn are best. It can suffer from seepage after a lot of rain, but routes on either end of the crag are climbable throughout the year.

Is it Kalymnos? No – it’s Foxhole on Gower – Jon Warner on Chicken Licken (6c).  © Tom Skelhon
Is it Kalymnos? No – it’s Foxhole on Gower – Jon Warner on Chicken Licken (6c).
© Tom Skelhon

Guidebook: Rockfax South Wales Sport Climbs

photo
Tom Skelhon starting up the fantastic Pioneers of the Hypnotic Groove (7b).
© Spike Murray

 Cheddar Gorge South,  Cheddar Gorge North (Somerset)

I often get a funny look if I suggest Cheddar as a winter crag. During the off-season months a Baltic wind funnels down the gorge, and sunlight especially on the South side is sparing at best. However a few sectors higher up on the side of the gorge which are sheltered, catch the sun and generally don't seep. The Remnant on the north side is one such venue that catches the sun during the morning and sits in a sheltered nook. It also hosts some fantastic hard sport lines such as It's a kind of Magic (7a+), Skullduggery (7b) and Right Hand Man (8a). These tend to be steep and very crimpy. Nearby facing the same aspect, Easter Island gives some more moderate routes, with 6 bolted routes around 6a including 'Hot Enough' and 'The One-Armed Man.

Top tip: Parking is free on the North side and there are no climbing restrictions during the year (National Trust property)

Jen Warner on ‘Everyday Lives of Ordinary People (7c) at the Remnant Cheddar.  © Tom Skelhon
Jen Warner on ‘Everyday Lives of Ordinary People (7c) at the Remnant Cheddar.
© Tom Skelhon

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8 Oct

I don’t understand why the ‘Top Tip’ for Portland is to book some out of season accommodation in Weymouth.

There’s good accommodation options on Portland, less driving involved, and makes a direct contribution to the local economy.

8 Oct

Tirp & Foxhole are in Welsh Government local lockdown at the moment (Torfaen and Swansea areas respectively). That means it's a criminal offence to enter or leave the area without a reasonable excuse.... What's the logic behind posting this article now?

Also, since when was the sport at Foxhole tidal...? I know there's some tidal trad lower down and the slabs can get occasional spray but none of the Cove is affected by this.

We've debated long and hard about destination articles within the current climate, so here's a bit of background:

At the beginning, during the lockdown, it was obvious - there was no need to publish destination articles, as nobody was going anywhere. Once restrictions were eased, and people were able to move about again, we published a few, but only a few - barely a fraction of what we might have within a usual year. Why? Because travel - particualrly foreign travel - did not seem like the right thing to promote. Now we're in something of a state of flux, with rapid changes to regional restrictions, our plan is much the same.

The following article is an unfortunate case of timing, and is by no means a 'green light' to climb at either Tirp or Foxhole whilst the local lockdown is in place. That said, articles such as these have perennial appeal - hence it is as much for next year and the year after as it is for now. We've included a disclaimer at the start to make this obvious.

As a summary, it is quite unlikely that we'll be publishing many (or any) other destination articles throughout 2020 for the reasons outlined above, but hopefully this one will give you - and others - ideas for 2021.

8 Oct

Keep em coming I say... a bit of inspiration is what climbers in the UK need at the moment.

As per the above post, I'm conflicted, not least because writing destination articles is one of my all time favourite things to do.

I also operate on a similar basis to yourself by the sound of things, whereby I quite like reading about places I might like to go - even if I can't go there today.

With that in mind, let's see how things go :-)

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