Author Heather Dawe shares an excerpt and some artwork from an upcoming book in which she reflects on her climbing adventures twenty years ago, as she slowly returns to the sport...
Scrambling down closer to the sea, I looked for the beginning of the route. The water was calm, gently lapping against the cliff, in no way threatening (apart from the obvious fact that it would be there, underneath me, as I first traversed across and then climbed up the cliff-face). I saw a line of small chalked crimps and immediately decided they looked too hard to be the route, pulling the guide-book out from down the front of my jumper to check its description. OK, those holds did fit with both the topo and the words, they must be the start of the route I had come to climb.
Riders on the Storm. When I write those words, my head reacts in the same way it used to whenever I thought about the route – Jim Morrison's smooth trippy voice from The Doors' 1971 track a soundtrack for me climbing it. A classic HVS at Stennis Head on the limestone cliffs of Pembrokeshire. Starting from a ledge just above the sea, this route first traverses low along the cliff before reaching a crack and corner that is climbed up to the finish. One pitch. A climb that I would find challenging but I should be able to lead.
It was 1998. Back then I used to listen to The Doors loads. Riders on the Storm was one of those routes that I read about time and again, memorising the description in the Climbers' Club guidebook. Formed of two volumes, North Pembrokeshire and South Pembrokeshire, blue and red in colour respectively, the red one got most of my attention, as this was where I had spent most of my time.
During the Easter break of my third year at University, instead of spending the majority of this time revising for my finals, I had trips to Pembrokeshire and Fontainebleau planned, to climb on some of the limestone cliffs of South Wales and the sandstone boulders of the large forested playground close to Paris. For the rest of the four-week break I would be in either my shared house close to university in Leeds or at my mum's in Bristol, mainly studying but also working in a newsagent to fund my climbing trips. I did take my revision notes away climbing with me, but they generally stayed unopened in their folder. Combinatorics or L'Éléphant? Number Theory or Bosherton Head? I just could not get interested in learning mathematical proofs by rote in order to pass exams.
I first went to Pembrokeshire when I was fourteen on a week-long school trip, staying at the Stackpole Centre - a National Trust outdoor education centre a couple of miles away from Bosherton. In the years to come I would find out more about and spend time in this little village as it's the closest to much of the climbing. It had a pub, café and campsite, pretty much everything you needed for a few days away cragging.
The café – Ye Olde Worlde Café - was an institution for climbers and other visitors to Bosherton. Ran by Violet Weston – known as 'Auntie Vi' – the afternoon teas (proper tea brewed from leaves, with home-made sandwiches, scones and cakes) could fuel you climbing for the rest of the day and beyond.
Mrs. Weston died in 2016 aged 95. There was an obituary to her in The Telegraph, lauding her for running the café for 75 years, along with the local shop and managing the fishing licenses for the lily ponds. The Bosherton Lily Ponds are almost a misnomer in that they are actually pretty big lakes. Freshwater and artificial (they were created in the 1760s by the Campbell family of Stackpole Court by damming the small local valleys that run down to the sea), they have water running through them from underground springs, and an outlet by the sea close to where the lakes meet the beach at Broadhaven Bay.
The ponds were found to be a place where water lilies flourished, hence their name. A haven for wildlife in general, it was here I saw my first otter, in many ways getting my eyes opened up to the natural world when I was a teenager. My first visit was a week of nature study and outdoor activities – my first times kayaking and abseiling – I loved them both. The nature study consisted of walking around the lily ponds, the local sea-cliffs and the expansive and beautiful Broadhaven Bay. Aged fourteen, this was kind of an awakening for me. I had walked on moors and mountains (mainly Dartmoor and the Brecon Beacons) with my parents, especially my dad, but regularly moaned about it while doing so. This trip to Stackpole and Pembrokeshire helped me to realise why my dad felt such a pull to these places. I started to feel it too.
I came back to Stackpole with the school trip when I was 16 (just after my GCSEs) and when I was 18 after my A-levels. The following year, during my first university summer I was a volunteer helper at the Centre – I got board, lodging, travel expenses and a beautiful place to explore out of hours.
When I was 19, with my summer exams not long over, I arrived at Pembroke train station excited for the two months ahead. Late June, I had been climbing for nearly a year, starting out with a few friends from my school on the Avon Gorge and other limestone crags in the Mendips close to where I grew up in Bristol. After heading to Leeds to study maths, I joined the University climbing club and began climbing in earnest. Most of my free time had since been spent travelling to the gritstone of Yorkshire, the Peak District and the mountain crags of the Lakes and North Wales.
I knew I would enjoy my time spent working in the Centre, and could not wait for the time I would spend climbing the sea-cliffs. At first I was not quite sure how this was going to happen – maybe I would find a local climbing club and tag along. On arriving and chatting with the instructors at the Centre, it became clear that Rachel would be good to climb with. She knew the cliffs well and led around VS, about the same as me. Living around 25 miles away, where her husband – Alex - ran a farm, she often stayed in the Centre's accommodation during her working week. The evenings when she stayed over would be times when we could head over to Bosherton and then beyond to the cliffs. To Stennis Head, Saddle Head, Mowing Word, gazing into Huntsmen's Leap. There was Range West when the red flag was not flying (which meant the army was not firing), Mother Carey's Kitchen to the south-east and the slabbier cliffs of North Pembrokeshire up the coast near St. Davids. You could spend a lifetime climbing here. There was so much to do and I knew it. I built up my ticklist for the summer; Hard Severes and VSs. While there were far more E numbers than these (the cliffs are steep) there were more than enough challenges for a climber like me, keen and hungry to push myself like I was.
Rachel had been working at the Centre for some years. Unlike most of the instructors there, she was a local who had grown up around the Pembroke area. A quiet, determined person, she mainly climbed in Pembrokeshire, also travelling north to Snowdonia a fair bit with Alex to climb. I was lucky to climb with her – around 10 years older than me, she understood where I was at and was happy to help me progress, to share her knowledge of the cliffs with me. Through a couple of months that summer we built up a rapport that pushed us both in our climbing. While we both led about the same, Rachel had far more climbing experience. She knew the local cliffs and their approaches (many by abseil) well. At the time I didn't realise how helpful this was – rocking up to some random metal stake hammered into grassy ground at the top of a cliff and abseiling off it down the cliff is much less disconcerting when you are with someone who has done it before and (as importantly) knows that the routes we were abseiling to were easy enough for us to climb and we were therefore capable of reaching the top of the cliff again. Given the propensity of Extreme-graded routes in South Pembrokeshire, this was by no means a given for me. While I yearned to go into Huntsman's Leap, the narrow chasm in the cliff around the corner from St Govan's Head, it would not be such a wise idea. The easiest route out was E1, at the time beyond me.
One Saturday I climbed with Rachel and Alex at Stennis Head. I dangled on the end of Alex's rope when seconding Manzoku, a three-star E1, followed Rachel up Limbo, a close-by VS and led a Hard Severe called Highland Fling. Later that afternoon Rachel and Alex introduced me to tea and cakes at Auntie Vi's, telling me that was all part of the initiation.
Weekday evenings Rachel showed me the classic easier routes of South Pembrokeshire. The brilliant two pitch VS of Blue Sky at Saddle Head, lines on Crystal Slabs, Bosherton Head and Flimstone Bay. To start with I didn't have my own guidebook and so borrowed Rachel's for a little while. I would flick through the two volumes, read descriptions, look at photographs and in my head picture climbing the sea-roughened limestone, placing protection, then boldly moving through the crux moves to the top.
Rachel understood my desire to go into Huntsman's Leap and the frustrations at not being able to do so. Later in the summer, after we had been climbing together for a while, we looked to make up for this by abseiling into Mother Carey's (aka Mother Scarey's) Kitchen. While it's chasm-like nature was similar to Huntsman's, this crag had easier routes so we could be far more confident of making our escape. Climbing Threadneedle Street and The Meridian on a sunny evening in August was an adventure, exactly a year after my first ever route of Giant's Cave Buttress in the centre of Bristol on the Avon Gorge. Within twelve months I was leading VS, if not always competently then generally consistently. Sometimes through pure willpower I found my way to the top of a climb. I would often swear and shout while leading, my emotions on my sleeve for my climbing partner and anyone else around to hear.
In the evenings after working at the Centre I did not always climb, I got out to the cliffs one evening out of three if I was lucky. When I did not climb I would run, around the lily ponds, up to the cliffs, to the beach for a swim. The weather was consistently warm and hot that summer, I don't remember much rain. For some reason this seemed to make it a good year for otters, they were spotted about the lily ponds more than ever. For one week I think the whole of the visiting school group got to see an otter. I don't think they realised how lucky they were. That week I saw one twice; memorably one of them swam under the eight-arch bridge that spanned a lily pond as I watched from above. Through the clear water I saw its smooth gliding movements, a fish in its mouth. I assumed it was taking it to its cubs somewhere hidden nearby.
The kingfishers were out too. I became familiar with the blue streak of light in my peripheral view, along with afterwards trying to spot where the bird had perched, maybe with a still-wriggling minnow in its beak.
When out running one evening, almost back at the Centre when it had just past dusk, I saw a badger. It ran straight across my path.
Choughs, those birds that mostly look like crows but for their red legs and beak, their finger-tip wings and their distinctive call 'Chow!', would fly by in pairs sometimes when we were out climbing. Rare in the UK, they nest in sea-cliffs and played swoopily around them, calling to each other.
I remembered finding glow-worms one evening when I first visited the Centre with my school. In the dusk as we walked back from an evening spent playing on the beach, our teacher, Mr. Kendrick pointed them out to us. They were a real thrill to see. Their dim yellow light was beautiful and fascinating. I looked for them again when I was back there by myself. Running back to the Centre after an evening swim, I stopped at the same place I had done so when I was 14. Five years on and the glow-worms were still there. Hopefully that's still the case. Nearly 25 years later, as I write these words, I'm feeling a strong urge to go back with my own children to find out.
These times spent in Pembrokeshire, first with my school and then through voluntary work, opened my eyes to the natural world. While I was loving my time spent climbing on the cliffs, everything else I did outside felt important too. The activities of scaling rock faces, running along the cliff paths, swimming in the sea, kayaking from Stackpole Quay (a seal bobbing close-by) were all enhanced by what was around me. The elemental nature of the sea, the beauty and variety of the terrain I travelled across and the creatures I shared the space with combined to collectively form the thing to which I had become addicted, the thing I needed in my life to maintain a balance in my mind. That my body followed by becoming stronger and fitter was almost a by-product, to start with at least.
In the middle of August my house-mate, Kate, came to visit for the weekend. I ran to meet her at the train station. Warm early evening, we made our way to walk back to the Centre. Given there were two of us and Kate had a rope strapped to the outside of her rucksack, when we got to the quieter back roads outside Pembroke, we tried to hitch, hopeful we may be picked up by a climber or two on the way to the cliffs.
And so we did. The climber who picked us up was called Graham, he was driving to meet a friend at the cliffs. Coincidently, it also turned out he was studying at Leeds University, in the same year as me and Kate. He didn't like gritstone so had not been that interested in joining the university climbing club, hence why we had not met before.
Graham dropped Kate and I at the gates to the Centre and headed off to meet his friend. We had exchanged phone numbers, agreeing to all climb together on the Sunday.
I took great pleasure in showing Kate the delights of the Pembrokeshire coast. The following morning we walked to the cliffs by the lily ponds; warm sun and a light breeze, it felt like it was going to be a perfect day. Starting two single pitch routes at Stennis Head, we then moved on to abseil down Saddle Head to climb the Blue Sky. By then I had climbed all these routes before, this time it was me and not Rachel showing the way. We shared the leads, Kate enjoying the climbing as much as I did.
Maybe after that we should have climbed some more but we fancied tea and scones at the café. I ended up having afternoon tea, which more than fuelled a run I did later that day, before Kate and I walked out to the beach in the evening.
The next day Graham drove Kate and I up to North Pembrokeshire, to the cliffs near St Davids. The climbing in the north is on different rock, layered sandstone making for a greater proliferation of slabs and broken ground compared to the steep light-grey limestone of the south. At Caerfai Bay we climbed Armorican and a number of other routes on the impressively smooth slab of Craig Caerfai.
After Kate went back home I still climbed with Graham. Over the next couple of weeks he introduced me to more of the local climbers. The following Saturday evening I joined a barbecue on the beach near St Govan's Head, we drank stubbies, I listened to their stories over food and wood smoke. After it was dark, a bit pissed, we made our way hand over hand back up a broken gully in the cliff up the rope that had been put there for safety, no doubt anticipating our inebriated state. With a few of the others I bivvied on the soft flat grass of the cliff-top.
Late August and my summer in Pembroke was coming to an end. It was just over a year since my first climbs outside on the Avon Gorge. I was already a much better climber, at least I thought so. In reality I was still a rookie. I could lead, place gear, set up a safe belay, abseil competently. VS was just about my grade and I so wanted to climb harder; I kept pushing it and myself. I really wanted to climb Riders on the Storm but wasn't ready for it. Though impatient I knew I needed to wait a while... I'd come back soon enough.
I shouted up from the ledge to my climbing partner, Anna, that I had found the route and to head on down, untying the rope from my shoulders, pulling it through, then tying on. She arrived and did much the same as I had done, looking towards the small chalked crimps, looking a bit more and questioning whether this was actually Riders on the Storm. I passed her the guide and she agreed it must be.
Familiar nervousness had been building up in me for a while. This was one of the routes, one of the very few I had set my heart on climbing that year, along with Dream of White Horses at Gogarth and Finale Groove at Swanage. Three sea-cliff HVSs that I knew would test me but that I should be able to manage. Now that it was time for the first one I was mildly shitting myself.
Getting on with it, I was soon holding on to the crimps and feeling that they were actually pretty big. I teetered along the traverse, putting in gear where I could, Anna calling across to remind me she needed the protection as much as I did.
The sea beneath me was calm and quiet. It was an overcast day, the sky and the water all felt very flat, the cliff an ampitheatre above and around me, formed by a sea cave to the left of the route.
The crux comes towards the end of the traverse. There were no smooth tones of Jim Morrison in my head, instead I swore loudly, working my way across the difficulties until, grasping a jug at the bottom of the finishing corner, I felt relief and got a bit more gear in.
Soon enough I had worked my way up the corner to the top. I got a belay together, joyfully shouted that I was safe and proceeded to bring Anna up. We were soon congratulating each other and decided to quit while ahead, retreating from the cliffs for tea and a scone at Auntie Vi's.
After that my head was fried, I climbed rubbish for the next couple of days of the trip. It didn't matter, I had finished what I'd come to do and Pembrokeshire is always beautiful, whatever's going on in my brain. Instead of climbing I ended up exploring the lily ponds again, running along the coastal path, revisiting old haunts. I was glad I'd waited.