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Crag Notes: Soft Mountains

© mrcarllewis

I liked the 70s. They were still embarrassing. Folky, overfamiliar. The decade flickered from black and white into colour and back. It was theatrical but like we were all still at school. There was just one futurist horror then: the BOMB. Where we lived was near Castlemorton, the place where battles between the travellers and police inspired a wave of repressive laws to break out. Just above were the Malvern Hills.

Beacon Hill, Malvern   © mrcarllewis
Beacon Hill, Malvern
© mrcarllewis, Nov 2015

Michael and I both went to Wells House. A gloss-paint-sweating slightly overhanging (in my imagination) red brick preparatory school, one of four in the hills. The Downs was another of them. Their Rugger team fielded huge adults covered in hair. The boys walked miles, fell out of trees, wound up matron, all the good stuff.

It was no surprise that the quarries figured in our adventures. British rock climbing was inspiring then if we'd known of it. I really like the feeling it was going on but we did not know of it because essentially I was already into it, but without the dogma. It was rip-roaring adventure. Nothing better. It was only as the 80s neared, when we were at Uppingham, and introduced to rock climbing itself – as we came to follow the great rivalries of the cream team invented by Birtles in Crags magazine – that we really tried to become climbers. Photographs of youths with lank hair drooping off scary looking faces in quarries in the north of England drove my brother and I wild until we would climb on anything. That joy of inventing crags where they barely exist, relishing things with only some of the necessary elements, is what I miss.

I have come back home to hang with the olds for three months or so. They live in Colwall where the Schweppes factory used to bottle and fizz-up the hills' spring water. All around the hills are things to discover. People whose past is still the 70s like mine.

I always try to get my brother to come and climb with me in the hills. He has memories of holds cracking just as you really start to yank on them. He is right. Any Malvern Hills conservator will happily sternly tell you that any cliff here can fall down. Rock below the surface is quietly doing its own thing, may well be preparing new colour, willing to reveal itself in an instant to be more like Battenberg cake than rock. There are some wonderful tea shops in the hills. St Anne's well and The Kettle Sings, although they are as snooty as French people there. Mike is not tempted though, preferring Fontainebleau or Yosemite to climb in. I really still like it. In two months I have not seen one toothbrush used in anger or heard one word of encouragement ... and all along the eight mile ridge new finds still emerge. Yesterday at the top of The Dingle I found a boulder hid behind a hump, invisible from any angle until one walks right over to it. It is mostly solid and has three new moves on it, if you start from sitting. Since I have now started walking up cliffs, this has doubled my potential hit rate on the hills. It's clear that the 685 million year old rock has been waiting a long time for the loving I am dishing out to it.

Malvern panorama.  © d_b
Malvern panorama.
© d_b, Jan 2009

There are substantial areas of hillside with premium Malvern metamorphia perfect for perambulants like myself. Where you least expect it the Malverns come up trumps. I find a winding ridge bounded by daffodils, and with the jeopardy of impressive brambles to the side it offers a good challenge. Ascanse one sheep cants its head, I think to ask "Why?" And for once I really know. At school we used to walk all the paths and take straight-down short cuts, striding and sliding at high speed to enjoy ourselves ... but still places I have not seen come by. There are actually amazing blocks of rock here and there that would grace Tremadog in North Wales or Millstone in the Peak District. Earnslaw Quarry has a thirty foot blank wall. Tank Quarry an intricate ramp. A roof below North Quarry has pukka slanting crack layback problems up to V9 with some more possibilities, and in the Upper Wyche Quarry is a superb V9 arête with an overhanging rib and groove arrangement above, unclimbed but clean, the like of which you only get on this curiously kinaesthetic fucked-with granite. The rock you do find, climbs with a unique body-warping delight. Its distinctive character is to mix positive holds and non-holds most specially.

As you bellow down the M5 reflect on where the rest of the roadstone like that beneath you still is. It is marinating in its unique mellow majesty along the Malverns. Whether it is sheltering in Clutter's Cave in a hale storm, watching clouds patrol the Brecons, partying on a gently leaning lawn at the Pink Cottage or more respectfully marvelling at a fine man with two sticks inching along a path on his own ... these fabulous hills are always accompanied by a silent Elgar sound track that will stir you right up. Warm and sweet, the outcropping of the soft mountains are undeniably one of my very favourite places to climb.

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26 May

Fabulous; Dawes hits the target once again. I remember the agony of living in Herefordshire and trying to find anything to climb on. The Woolhope area provided a load of crap cheese. Symonds yat was great but involved a 30 mile cycle ride.

I did find good rock eventually but can't find any valid comparison to Dawes with what I did with it. Except in my imagination.

Bl**dy hell, if you'd been born a few years earlier we'd have been competing for first ascents (you'd have won, I think it is safe to say.) I managed to trade organised sport at my school in Worcester on Wednesday afternoons for climbing in the Hills from age 16 on; every week we'd anticipate the great things we were going to do, and then every Wednesday afternoon our anticipation would crash against the reality of our limited abilities and the truly sh*te rock that is the Malverns.

But we had some great times: top roping the Gullet Quarry, all 300' of it! Clipping useless mild steel pitons leading the routes on Ivy Scar, quite possibly pegs placed by Wilf Noyce. We practiced prusiking there as well, with a single mild steel peg as an anchor. But Tank Quarry was the jewel in the crown. There was a huge central feature, a 150' slab most obviously like the Devil's Slide, but Doug Scott had just had an article published called the Big Scoop so that's what we called it. From the ground I could see what I imagined would be a perfect placement for my pride and joy, a Clog Hex 6. When I finally launched myself at the beggar, 150' up the slab I discovered my perfect placement consisted of two walls of vertical earth. Escaping upwards from that - there's another 150' to the top - gave my what I still think is my first genuine near death experience. (Somebody 'famous' interviewed by the Guardian a few years back made the same claim.)

But there were lots of really good slab problems at Tank Quarry, and we used to hope that some hotshot would visit and make us raise our game a little, stretch our ideas of what might be possible, but it never happened. You were too late!

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