THE FINEST CRAGS IN THE UK & IRELAND Range East, Pembroke Mike Hutton in association with
The jagged coastline of south Pembrokeshire is undeniably home to some of the best sea-cliff climbing in the UK, perhaps in the world (some would say). In just a few miles of coastline there are over 3000 routes on some of the best limestone in the country. There is no place in the UK where the density of top-quality climbing is as high as it is in Pembroke.
Charming sun-bleached rock platforms, hidden zawns, fossil embossed walls, and damp intimidating sea caves present the climber with such a variety of options that they may never want to leave. Combine this with an abundance of clandestine beaches, sparkling water, remarkable wildlife and you have the ultimate climbing holiday destination.
St Govan's Head - A crag with a colossal spread of highly-charged classics.
Jim Perrin and Collin Mortlock were the early pioneers from the 1960s and utilised Colin’s sea kayak to scour the coastline. Colin published the first guide to the area, which started to draw in a wider number of people from up and down the country. Pat Littlejohn was enticed into the Cauldron in 1970 but wasn’t too impressed after his brief encounter with a route he fittingly named, Toil and Trouble.
Although developments took place in the seventies these were often restricted to when the MOD gave permission, but this didn’t stop people sneaking in on the odd occasion. Pat Littlejohn eventually got over his earlier experience and during the next two decades was so become the area’s main developer.
The real game changer occurred when the Range was finally opened in 1980, following much negotiations between the BMC and the MOD. The BMC invited a wide selection of people to attend an organised event during the Easter weekend and new routes fell by the dozen. Climbers flocked from around the country to sample the delights of this newly accessible venue and Mountain magazine’s editor Ken Wilson commented that routes were going up ‘like machine gun bullets’ - 150 in fact! Although Littlejohn proved himself to be the most active during this particular weekend the publicity laid the way for others to make their mark.
Maddy Cope on Snake Charmer (E5 6c) at Huntsman's Leap
Over the following four decade the likes of Ben and Marion Wintringham (amazing couple), Jim Perrin (amazing writer), Colin Mortlock, Pat Littlejohn, Nipper Harrison (stamina man), Jon de Montjoye, Gary Gibson (bolt man), Steve Findlay, Steve Monks (bolt remover), Martin Crocker (Cheddar activist), Crispin Waddy, Paul Donnithorne and Emma Alsford (developers of hundreds of routes), Dave Pickford, Tim Emmett and Dave Viggers contributed so many routes that it’s impossible to miss their names as you flick through the guidebooks.
By 2001 a new trend of solo climbing had emerged and over the following two decades Mike Robertson, Gav Symonds, Julian Lines, and Neil Gresham were to scope out various cliffs and deep water solo many routes that had previously been led on gear, as well as a multitude of their own DWS routes. Mike became particularly well known for his bold soloing above insanely shallow water; many warranting the elusive S3 grade. This new style became so popular that several unofficial deep-water solo festivals were run where you could literally climb all day and dance through the night. This culminated in Neil Gresham putting up the hardest UK DWS to date during the opening day of the 2012 Olympics which he christened Olympiad 8b.
Dave Pickford climbing a new DWS route in Chance Encounter Zawn, Saddle Bay
A brilliant place to come if you want solitude, easy grades and access to a wonderful secluded beach. Flimston Slab offers you the chance to follow in the footsteps of Colin Mortlock and climb the classic lines of Flimston Slab VD and Flimston Crack VD which he likely discovered whilst scouring the cliffs in his kayak back in the late 1960s. The Bow Shaped Slab is even better with Bow Shaped Slab HS 4b and Bow Shaped Corner HS 4b being the main events.
Mewsford Point and Arches
Definitely the place to come if you crave multi-pitch adventures and challenging terrain in the extreme grades. Ben and Marion Wintringham’s extravaganza of Daydreams E2 5b, climbed with Jim Perrin, is perhaps one of the best multi-pitch E2s in Pembroke and manages to weave its way all over the crag, taking in the best rock on the cliff. This was very much a style that they both loved, searching out natural lines of weakness throughout big, intimidating cliffs.
Surprise Attack E2 5c is another must do line that is more direct and in your face.
Just around the corner on the magnificent Mewsford Arches lurks Emma Alsford and Paul Donnithorne’s Underneath the Arches E2 5b that literally traverses the full length of the arches in 10 mighty pitches. In no way underestimate this challenge which is currently the second longest route in Pembroke.
An interesting approach to Mewsford Point. You may have left it a bit late, guys!
There may not be loads to go at but this is a charming little sea cliff venue with an opportunity to enjoy a day’s climbing in the knowledge that you won’t be affected by tides. The lines of B-Team Buttress Direct E1 5b and Aero HVS 5a are excellent low stress routes and a great introduction to sea-cliff climbing.
Simon Dale on B-Team Buttress at Crickmail Point.
A fascinating headland with opportunities to climb on south-west, south, and east faces make this a really useful venue particularly if you’re chasing the shade. When you encounter the impressive east blowhole it’s not hard to imagine why Jim Perrin and Martin Boysen were sucked in to climb the line of Ourobouros E4 6a. Thankfully we all know better than to get involved in something so dangerous - it looks horrific!
The Castle itself is definitely a crag for those that operate in the extreme grades, since the highest quality routes tend to be well protected crack lines of E4 and above. Ben and Marion Wintringham’s Downward Bound E4 6a, on the shady east face, is brilliant, as are Nipper Harrison’s Heat of the Moment E5 6b and Chasing Shade E6 6b (which have since been soloed at S2 7a by the talented Julian Lines).
One of Gary Gibson’s best lines in these parts is the amenable Wishful Thinking E1 5b, named after the China Crisis 1983 chart hit. A route of contrasting styles, with a slabby technical start and juggy haul through the overhangs to finish.
In 2009 Paul Donnithorne, in dramatic style, managed to pull off a monster block that landed on his partner Emma Alsford’s leg. The route was aptly named Fractures of the Deep E5 6a; another brilliant addition by the adventurous couple - even better now the block is off.
Stephen Horne on Out for the Count (E4 6a) at The Castle.
The standout route by a long way is Pat Littlejohn’s photogenic Lucky Strike E2 5b. You literally do one massive diagonal left to right rising traverse across the blankest section of the brown wall. The positions are exhilarating and you’re always on your toes as you fiddle in just about enough gear. A very rewarding route, particularly for the second.
If this isn’t challenging enough then Gary Gibson’s Circus, Circus E5 6a should satisfy your thirst. It climbs a more direct line up the left-hand side of the wall and certainly has a bold feel to it.
A climber on Lucky Strike (E2 5b) on Rusty Walls.
Hollow Caves Bay
An intimidating and adventurous venue with varied climbing in some pretty serious situations. Many of the best E5s and E6s lurk on the back walls of the sunny Box Zawn which is best approached by abseil. When the Wintringham's put up Jabberwock E5 6a in 1981, this was an incredible achievement and the first route to ascend the full height of the daunting wall. It didn’t quite go to plan as the in-coming tide thwarted the initial assault.
Martin Crocker’s string of E6 crack lines; Knock Yourself Out, Grezelda Grezelda and The Obsession Box rank as some of the best in the UK. For the monster of all chimneys then you have Donnithorne and Alsford’s Rubik’s Cube E5 6b, which is likely to kick the arses of most people.
On the eye-catching pillar to the right are a set of fairly outrageous DWS lines put up by the likes of Waddy, Lines, Symonds and Gresham. The most impressive of the bunch being Charlie Woodburn’s San Simian E8 6c, which Gresham and Symonds later soloed at S3 F8a after multiple 20m splash downs.
Rob Greenwood on Jabberwock (E5 6a) at Hollow Caves Bay.
Many will agree that this is one of the best venues at Pembroke for the VS climber. The sunny main cliff hosts the soaring multi-pitch arete line of Blue Sky VS 4b, 4b, which ranks as one of the best sea-cliff VS’s in the UK. An utterly brilliant discovery by Littlejohn back in 1978. The corner and steep groove-line of Landvetter VS 4c,4b is equally as good and you should count yourself lucky if you manage to get on either of these gems to yourself during an Easter weekend!
For when the tides aren’t playing ball then there is a huge array of good routes on the upper tier in the VD-VS grade range, which explains the place’s popularity. Sea Mist HS 4b is probably the best because of its fine positions.
End of the day at Saddle Head
Definitely one of Pembroke’s more committing options, since many of the routes are hidden from view, but take the plunge and you can be guaranteed a high quality adventure. For many visitors their first experience will on the technical orange walls of Keelhaul Slab. Jon de Montjoye’s Keelhaul E2 5c and Intensive Scare E2 5c take some beating and will keep you - quite literally - on your toes.
As you bask in the sun and enjoy these fine lines it’s hard not to gaze over to the outrageously overhanging wall to the right. John Dunnes’s Big Issue E9 6c was a matter of great controversy back in the day when Pete Oxley installed a line of bolts. After removing the bolts, John climbed it and claimed the area’s first E9. Ever since it has attracted global attention and has only seen a handful of ascents by the world’s most talented. Emma Twyford just this year became the first UK women to climb it in a very fine style.
Bob Hickish on Star Wars (E4 5c) at Bosherston Head
It was Dave Scott-Maxwell and Paul Dearden who made the history books on the April fools day of 1995, disappearing into the darkness to see if it was, in fact, possible to link the south face with the blow-hole that lurked back into the hillside above. They eventually emerged into the sunlight and Preposterous Tales E2 5b became one of Pembroke’s all-time best adventures.
The all-time classic of the area has to be the Wintringham’s Star Wars E4 5c, which should be on the tick list of any E4 leader. Nowhere is it that difficult, but there is only just enough gear to make it a safe proposition.
Emma Twyford on John Dunne's 'The Big Issue' (E9 6c)
The evolution of the TwinGate system continues with the double wire carabiner.
Super light carabiner with super light double wire gate.
Only 39 grams for the safest wire carabiner. A clever S-design of the first wire offers the key-lock benefit.
The Sigma Twingate is a classic offset carabiner for to be used in place of a normal snap link or wherever you want to add extra security like on your cams, hexes or on your last quick draw before a crux.
The main problem with the belay carabiner on the harness was always to keep it in the correct position. Grivel has designed a totally new carabiner where a simple second wire gate isolates the belay loop and keeps the proper orientation, both with and without the rope, even when the carabiner gate is open.
This distinctive narrow zawn is a mecca for the climber operating in the upper E grades. It offers some jaw-dropping lines on beautifully pigmented limestone. Many have made the jump over the narrow gap and a few have screwed up in the process.
The best of the ‘easier’ climbs has to be Andy Sharp’s Bloody Sunday E4 6a and for some this serves as an introduction to the harder challenges.
Of all the E5s Jon de Montjoye’s The Minotaur E5 6a has to be the better protected but it does have a super reachy move near the top. Head Hunter E5 6a is another classic by Littlejohn that is possibly easier (or at least it is for some) but has a more serious feel.
Marcus Payne on Head Hunter (E5 6a) at Huntsman's Leap
Littlejohn’s ascent of Terminal Twilight E7 6c was arguably the stand-out performance of the eighties, especially when considering he refused to use any chalk. It’s still received relatively few ascents to this day.
The Leap is littered with hard climbs that in the context of this article aren’t worth mentioning simply because they are unobtainable for the majority of climbers. The sunny side does offer some reasonable easier routes; The Beast from the Undergrowth E2 5c probably being the best of the bunch.
Theo Moore looking terrified on The Minotaur (E5 6a) at Hunstman's Leap
With its simple access and array of easier routes it’s not hard to see why this venue is so popular. The star attraction has to be the magnificent rising traverse of Rider’s on the Storm HVS 5a. It’s just about as exciting for the second and the positions above the sea are sensational. On the upper main face is a good selection of low stress VS’s but it’s the lines of Manzoku E1 5b and Cool for Cats E1 5b that get most attention. Both are fairly steep but the rock is sound and protection is excellent.
Littlejohn’s Pleasure Dome E3 5c seems to be the one that stops many in their tracks. A combination of an exciting traverse followed by a steep section where you simply can’t recover result in many making a complete meal of things. Rope drag certainly contributes to any difficulties on the final groove too.
Mia Stacey on Pleasure Dome (E3 5c)
St Govan's Head
If all you have time for is one crag on your first visit then come to St Govan's. It’s hard to fault a place, with a short abseil to access non-tidal platforms that serve as the starting points for an array of steep mid-grade climbs on impeccable rock. It’s sunny, there are 300 metres of the cliff to play on, routes eat protection and there are loads of solid stakes to belay from. Combine this with the fact it’s just 5-10 minutes from the car, and most of it is bird free, and you will understand why it’s so popular.
Pat Littlejohn, Gary Gibson, Nipper Harrison, Jon de Montjoye, Pete Whillance, Andy Sharp and many more have all contributed to some of the best lines here. The general theme is steep protected crack lines with plenty of jugs. Despite this, the place does see it’s fair share of accidents. This is in part due to the fact it attracts a lot of inexperienced climbers and the juggy nature of the routes can often lure them into situations where they are simply too pumped to place any gear.
Ed Booth on Blucher (E5 6a) at St Govan's Head
Some of the classic HVS’s such as Front Line and the arete of Army Dreamers are showing their age but they are very worthwhile introductions to the area. The Arrow, Cupid’s Bow and Tactician represent some of the best E1s whilst Deranged, Ricochet and Clean Hand Blues Band are some of the best E2s.
The steep and well-protected groove line of Test Case E3 5c is on another level in terms of quality and although it’s very safe, the amount of laybacking and under-cutting required can catch people out. In some ways, the line of Space Cadet E3 5c is more straightforward and amenable of the E3s.
Debbie Birch on Deranged (E2 5c)
James McHaffie on Monster in a Box (E7 6c) at Box Zawn, Hollow Caves Bay.
When to go
Pembroke is technically an all-year-round venue and it is not uncommon to be climbing in a T-shirt (though maybe not shorts) during the winter months. In reality, there are more ferocious storms during January and December and the swell can often put an end to your fun as enormous waves surge up to the full height of the cliff tops.
Late March through to the end of October are the most reliable months with April, May, June and September perhaps offering the optimum conditions. Even during the hottest days in July and August it’s possible to escape the sun on the east faces of Stennis Ford, Huntsman’s Leap and the Castle by making a late start.
Paul Fleuriot on Cool For Cats (E1 5b) at Stennis Head.
The 3 most important things to remember are MOD firing, tides and birds!
The tides present the climber with perhaps the biggest challenge. Pembrokeshire has one of the greatest tidal ranges in the UK, up to 9m. Paying close attention to the tide tables is essential if one is to avoid a soaking or even worse a full-on rescue or drowning. During spring tides, the range is greater so technically the low tide is lower but don’t be lulled into a false sense of security as it will come in faster and to higher levels. All of this can, however, play to your advantage if you are partaking in the deep-water soloing (DWS) activity. Thankfully there is a plentiful supply of non-tidal crags. Namely St Govans Head, Stennis Head and Saddle Head (upper-tier).
Range East is a live firing area and used all year round by the MOD for training exercises and effects all the crags from Madman’s point to Chapel Point. This normally occurs during the week in the daytime so weekends and weekday evenings aren’t normally a problem. Firing stops entirely during August. Between Trevallen and St Govan’s East, there is no firing, with hundreds of un-restricted routes for most of the year.
Many of the cliffs are affected by nesting birds and red markers will designate banned areas. All information can be found on the BMC Regional Access Database at https://www.thebmc.co.uk/modules/RAD/
Emma Twyford on Barbarella (E5 6a) at Trevallen
Many of the pitches are over 40m so it’s wise to carry at least a double set of wires (possibly triple) and a full set of cams. Many of the routes weave through multiple overlaps and overhangs whilst traversing considerable distances so in order to avoid rope drag it’s essential to bring many extendable quick draws. It goes without saying that twin 50m ropes are required.
It’s wise not to fully rely on any pegs or worn threads as the sea water drastically reduces their lifespan.
Many of the routes are accessed by abseil so an in-situ static rope can come in handy. It’s also advisable to leave a jumar on the end in the event that the route is wet or you’ve misjudged the tides and need to escape
Crispin Waddy on Dynamite (F6b) at Skommar Arch West
The definitive Climbers Club guides 3 and 4 cover all the areas in this article and the Pembroke Rock wired guide offers a selection of the best routes for the whole of Pembroke.
The Rockfax 2009 guide covers all the classic routes in the whole of Pembroke plus there is a downloadable app that was updated in 2018 and contains a further 350 routes.
Where to stay
The Camping in Simon’s field at Buckspool farm is by far the best option as it’s within walking distance of the St Govans Inn. The farmer is an extremely nice guy and it’s very well priced.
Howard Lawledge on Circus Circus (E5 6a) at Rusty Walls
Mike Hutton is an Adventure Photographer and Writer working for the Outdoor Industry.
During the past decade, Mike has travelled to over 30 countries capturing images of climbers in places rarely visited by people. He has accumulated over 2000 photo credits to his name and his work has been extensively published in the world's leading magazines and books and on national television. His editorial client list includes Daily Telegraph, Sunday Times, Daily Mail, Geographical Magazine, GQ Italia, Red Bulletin, Rock and Ice, Women's Adventure, The Outdoor Journal, Rockfax, Climbing, Derbyshire Life, Klettern, Desnivel, Pareti, Vertical, Climax, Climber, Summitt, Outdoor Photography and Rock and Snow.
Mike has worked with sponsored athletes from many of the top commercial outdoors brands such as Casio, Berghaus, Patagonia, Rab, Wild Country, Mammut, Boreal, Edelweis, Scarpa, Five Ten, Sherpa and Sterling. His sporting background as a Climber, Runner and Cyclist has given him the edge to keep up with some of the best athletes.
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