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Extreme Culm - Recollections of Climbing on the Coast Article

© Stu Bradbury

Stu Bradbury provides some personal recollections and highlights of climbing on the Culm coast.


Spring 2020 arrived and with the imminent blooming of the new eagerly awaited North Devon and Cornwall guidebook in its final stages and the frustration of lockdown coinciding with a month of the best weather we have had since last summer, it has given me the motivation and time to sit down and reminisce on some of the highlights of the past 20 years of living, climbing and guiding on this beautiful section of sea cliffs.

The Culm coast offers a unique stretch of isolated and contorted coastline situated in the South-west of the UK and lies between Clovelly and Bude, crossing through the borders between Devon and Cornwall, giving a stretch of around 15 miles. It is a spectacular location which begs to be explored and is a magnet for those drawn to trad adventure climbing. Its rock in geological terms is classed as metamorphic shale, a sedimentary rock of sandstones and slates laid down over millions of years under the ocean and then shifted and compacted under enormous pressure and buckled up to form steep slabs and walls, erosion did the rest, leaving a playground for the climber which varies from tottering towers of shit to solid compacted slabs and walls up to 50m in height.

Exposed to The Naked God (E6 6b), Blackchurch.  © Stu Bradbury
Exposed to The Naked God (E6 6b), Blackchurch.
© Stu Bradbury

From a climber's perspective, the sea cliff environment gives more depth to the overall climbing experience, adding uncertainty, excitement, commitment and judgement into the mix, forcing you to deal with both objective and subjective dangers.

In this article, I would like to take you on a whistle-stop tour of some of its harder and lesser-known extremes.

I have chosen a selection of routes at a variety of crags ranging from E3 to E7 which I feel are the best of the harder side of the Culm, all of which I have personally repeated. They are all routes that have, for good or bad, left an indelible stamp on my soul. Most of them are big leads and were early repeats (some waiting 20 years for a second ascent!), whilst others are lesser-known hidden gems which are rarely repeated. All were approached in a pure onsight or ground-up style.

If you find yourself drawn to something off the beaten track and are looking for a truly memorable trip, then this is your ticket. You won't be disappointed.

I first became aware of the Culm coast after racing classic motorcycles at Hartland Quay Hill Climb in the 1980s and was instantly taken by the stunning coastal scenery with its views across to the mysterious Lundy Island, taking the full brunt of the Atlantic storms.

Ironically I climbed on the distant granite of Lundy island before I got to grips with the North coast and didn't get engrossed in its delights until I did a whistle-stop tour in 1997, after which I was addicted, so much so that in the early 2000s I moved down from the Midlands drawn by the adventure of sea cliffs and having all of that rock on my doorstep!

At that point, the updated guidebook (Hope/Wilkinson 2000) had just come out and I could see not only the new route potential but the unrepeated hard routes brooding away awaiting second ascents. These routes became my inspiration and along with a small group of keen locals, I set about ticking them off and adding our own chapter to the coast's rich climbing history. My initial aim was to add something new to every crag on the Culm, an ambition I'm not sure I have quite achieved but it's been fun exploring and getting to know its nuances.

Its rock can be snappy and unpredictable and requires an experienced hand. On first acquaintance it is wise to drop your grade and get a feel for the work, likewise, with protection, its slabs require a large selection of RPs and small kit and when you combine the two you will notice from the guidebook that it throws up some interesting grade combinations with wacky grades such as E1 4c, E4 5b or E6 6a not being uncommon, so beware! Here be dragons!

Access can also be problematic; all crags are tidal and forethought is required for a safe approach and retreat.

Rust never sleeps.  © Stu Bradbury
Rust never sleeps.
© Stu Bradbury

For me, motivation and inspiration lie not just in strong lines but in history and ethics and I feel without either of these then climbing loses depth and meaning, so those that have gone before and their approach is a big part of the picture for me.

The pages of the guide are adorned with climbing royalty; often these have been local South west climbers using the area's testing crags as a springboard to go onto bigger things and cementing their names as local legends with audacious ascents of bold lines. Others have been marauding interlopers stealing treasure - one thing is for sure, some really strong climbers and climbing partnerships have been made here.

My personal motivation came from the inspirational lines in the higher E grades put up by the likes of Andy Grieve, Ken Palmer, Pete O'Sullivan, Pat Littlejohn, Steve Monks, Frank Ramsey, Ian Parnell, Dave Turnbull, Martin Crocker, Dave Thomas and Martin Corbett, not forgetting Iain Peters (Grandson of the original pioneer Admiral Lawder)! They all offered standout achievements of the day, with the '80s and '90s being a prolific period for the best of the hard routes.

Nick White wrote a superb article in his usual humorous, off-the-wall style on climbing in Devon called 'Cry Creamdom!' for Mountain Magazine (No 139) in 1991, giving a round-up of the scene and its achievements at that time, which is well worth searching out.

With that said, let's get our travellin' shoes on and wonder down the coast from North to South and take a trip into the extreme side of the Culm.

Mad Max Dutson pushing 'Hellbound' (E6 6b) in one massive pitch.  © Stu Bradbury
Mad Max Dutson pushing 'Hellbound' (E6 6b) in one massive pitch.
© Stu Bradbury

 Baggy Point

Although Baggy point does not sit in the above jurisdiction of the Culm coast it has always been part of the North Devon and Cornwall Guidebook and as its rock is of the same makeup, it really is an honorary member of the Culm, hence its inclusion here.

Its real gnarl factor is situated on the Cheese Grater cliff; a fine piece of rock architecture offering some extreme test-pieces on interesting if less-than-perfect rock. This is the location of Ian Parnell's 1994 offering, the spicy E5 'Dark Angel' - a route with a strong unmissable line.

It starts with everyone's favourite style, an offwidth crack! Which to make matters worse has been polished to marble by the tide and offers zero friction and not even a Camalot 6 will hold as it's so smooth!

It is then followed by a steep, shallow groove giving sustained climbing. Rumour has it that Ian abseiled the line armed with a piece of timber and a saw to cut a makeshift wooden big-bro style wedge for protection, unfortunately by the time we arrived on the scene it was long gone.

I don't normally have to barter with folk for big north coast leads, but my partner for the day was the ever keen and efficient Nick Dill who had other ideas, so rather than rolling up our sleeves and punching the shit out of each other for the lead, we ended up opting for a more civilised game of rock, paper, scissors to decide on who got the prickly end of the rope. As it turns out, I lost anyway.

With some initial slipping and sliding on the marble rock, Nick dispatched with the offwidth and pulled out at its top to get established in the upper groove. Minutes later, we were staring into each other's eyes with Nick inverted on the end of the rope after attempting some uncontrolled aerial acrobatics with a large loose block which ended up shattering my helmet to all corners of the crag. Luckily it wasn't on my head, so as things turned out I ended up with the lead by default. All in all, a superb battle requiring a solid approach on some less-than-solid rock in its upper reaches and certainly not to be underestimated. Is it E5 or is it XS? I will leave that for you to decide. If you find the work pleasing then check out Dave Pickford's harder offerings further left.

 Blackchurch

Blackchurch sits at the northern extremities of the Culm, situated just below the picturesque fishing village of Clovelly and is reached via a long and spirit-lifting wander through beautiful woodland to access a secluded beach.

For most climbers, Blackchurch conjures up images of the Littlejohn classic 'Sacre Coeur' (E2) situated on the unique free-standing slab of Blackchurch Rock, which represents an iconic image of climbing in North Devon. But the huge sea cliff which provides its backdrop holds darker secrets for those brave (or silly) enough to be drawn in by its spell.

The main cliff, dark and brooding, sits in the shade offering big routes of memorable significance that provide fuel for nightmares that will wake you in a cold sweat depending on your chosen route and personal experience. Needless to say, they are not for the faint-hearted!

Close to the edge: 'Lord Bafta' (E5 6a) at Blackchurch.  © Stu Bradbury
Close to the edge: 'Lord Bafta' (E5 6a) at Blackchurch.
© Stu Bradbury

The best routes, in my opinion, are situated on the right-hand side of the crag; not only does this hold the most aesthetic lines but it offers the best rock quality (relative to the rest) and all routes give big and serious leads at their grade and climbing in a variety of styles. With 60m ropes all can be done in one huge unforgettable pitch from the initial ledge, topping out into dark woods complete with haunted folly.

The routes of merit here are The Archtempter (E3) Lord Bafta (E5) Godspell (E4) and The Naked God (E6).

All routes on the main cliff as a whole give memorable climbing depending on your poison but the second and third ascents of Lord Bafta and The Naked God have given me some of the most indelible experiences of my climbing career and taught me a lot about myself and what makes me tick. Both routes were early '90s creations by bold Southwest climber and unsung legend Frank Ramsey, who not only proved himself a dark horse and a solid climber, but obviously had a cool head! The huge soaring arête of Lord Bafta puts you in one of the most exposed situations on the coast and I will never forget those upper moves; stepping left on the hanging arête and staring straight down the full length of the groove of Archtempter whilst stood on tiny creaking edges. A real classic.

The Naked God sits to the right of Lord Bafta's striking arête and takes a 45m journey through a fine-looking blank sheet of slab into the heart of nothingness. It gives very bold and sustained climbing and a cool approach whilst dancing on its creaking 'After Eight' size flakes is essential. I had to dig deep on this one whilst working hard to find marginal protection to back up the run-out and totally shagged 30-year-old pegs. I didn't feel like falling off was an option. Let's just say my onsight ascent felt more like an exorcism! It is a fine piece of climbing, which was bold even when the pegs were new.

 Cow and Calf

Cow and Calf is situated just south of  Hartland Point with its lighthouse and shipwreck. The crag faces North and offers some superb steep lines, many following cracks and grooves. It lies in a remote section of the coast and rarely sees visitors, so access is not easy to find and can get overgrown, so approaching in your mankini and flip flops is not advised.

The standout routes for me are Elisa Johanna (E4) and Over the Moon (E4), both Martin Corbett creations which give some fine challenging climbing. Whilst you're there don't pass up on Pete O'Sullivan's steep groove offering, Tsunami (E3), which feels pretty bold at the grade now its pegs have rotted out.

The route Elisa Johanna is named after the shipwreck whose rusting remains sit on the rocky beach just North of the crag and offers climbing opportunities of its own to those with a twisted sense of fun. The route itself offers fine technical climbing following a thin crack just left of the arête and is no pushover with some spicy climbing in its upper reaches. Don't forget your small wires or you'll find yourself shipwrecked on your maiden voyage.

Over the Moon (E4 6a) further right offers excellent steep crack climbing on a strong line taking the dog-legged feature for the full height of the crag, requiring a light touch with some brittle rock. My own offering to the crag at E5 is 'Werewolf by Moonlight' and takes the diagonal crack in the very heart of the crag which breaks out left from 'Howling at the Moon' (E5) at half height.

 Smoothlands

Smoothlands' 'Great Slab' is a venue of national significance giving intense technical slab routes of 45m to 50m of nail-edge climbing in a style akin to Rainbow Slab on the Llanberis slate. All can be done in one big pitch if you take plenty of small wires and quickdraws and I would advise using double 60m skinny ropes to cut down on weight, allowing you to reach the stake belays at the top. The rock is compact and laced with thin seams and all routes follow intricate lines offering sustained and psychological dances with little chance of rest, so bring strong calves and a cool head.

All of these routes were pioneered by Andy Grieve and Ken Palmer or the ever-enthusiastic dynamo that is Martin Crocker and during my obsession with the crag, I was honoured to find independent space for my own route 'Monkey gone to heaven' (E5).

I believe Grieve and Palmer's agreed ethic on new routes was ground up, two falls each and swap lead. That's some commitment and one hell of an incentive to dig in and keep pushing.

A while later whilst trying to snatch the second ascent of 'Hellbound,' Southwest climber Andy Donson is rumoured to have taken three 50ft falls onto RPs! A sobering thought which should help to pinpoint your focus if you're thinking of taking a look!

Smooth movin' on Smoothtalkin' (E5 6a), Smoothlands Great Slab.  © Stu Bradbury
Smooth movin' on Smoothtalkin' (E5 6a), Smoothlands Great Slab.
© Stu Bradbury

My first foray onto this slab was in the Foot and Mouth outbreak when, to my total joy, I onsighted Creeping Flesh (E5 6a). Although to be honest, I have always felt it was more 6b, an opinion which has not changed despite having repeated every route on the slab more than once.

Creeping Flesh is of stunning quality and a good introduction to the slab as everything else is more intense and Hellbound gives an immense lead, particularly if done in one pitch.

Whilst writing the crag section for the forthcoming guidebook, I decided to remove the pegs from the routes and lead them without. This for me felt like the right step forward, as not only did it feel like progress but meant that future issues regarding grades in relation to rotten peg issues or further need for replacement were removed. I chose to leave strategic pegs in place, not because they are needed for protection but more as line markers because when you are engulfed in a sea of concentration on that vast slab, it is easy to get lost and go off-route, particularly on parts of Hellbound.

Without question, Creeping flesh and Hellbound are the lines of the crag, but for me I hold a special place for Andy Grieves' rarely repeated line 'Slave to the Rhythm' which gives totally engrossing marginal and technical climbing which now feels more E6 6b without the pegs. All in all, a stunning crag with some of the best hard lines on the Culm.

 Dyers Lookout

A little further down the coast towards  Hartland Quay and almost visible from the top of the Smoothlands' Great Slab is its brooding sister,  Dyers Lookout; a staggering sheet of smooth Culm and the home to three of the area's longest and hardest routes: the legendary lines of James Pearson's 'The Walk of Life' (E9 6c) and Dave Birkett's reply 'Once Upon a Time in the South West' (E9 6c), which sit alongside Nick White and Dave Thomas' original and equally incredible line 'The Earthsea Trilogy Part 1' (E6 6b).

Keita Kurakami walks the fine line on The Walk of Life (E9 6c)  © Stu Bradbury
Keita Kurakami walks the fine line on The Walk of Life (E9 6c)
© Stu Bradbury

In the early years of my arrival on the Culm, I abseiled the line of 'Dyer Straits' (later to become 'The Walk of Life') to take a look. I can't say I was ignited. Not only did it lack any real line for my taste but at that time it was so full of ironmongery that it looked like a vertical scrapyard, with about 14 decaying pegs sticking out at all angles! The thought of a fall and hitting those on the way down was horrifying! What did capture my attention was a stunning line out to its right, which offered a route of strong character taking a fine seam and crack for the full 50m length of the wall, starting just left of the arête before following a diagonal crack out left near the top to finish up what is now 'The Walk of Life'. Thinking it was Littlejohn's Classic 'Earth Rim Roamer ll' (E4), I enlisted the services of Mark Kemball to grab an ascent. To cut a long story short, it turned out to be a new variation on Earthsea Trilogy which I claimed as 'Earth, Wind and Dire' (E6 6b). As it turned out after Dave Henderson had reported it in Climber Magazine, the marauding Mr Crocker came forward to claim he had already done the route 10 years earlier but failed to record it! I had to settle for a second ascent, but wow! What a route and definitely one of my highlights.

I can't claim to have climbed either E9 although I had been working 'Once Upon a Time' prior to a ground fall on a route in West Cornwall which shattered an ankle and hindered my ambition for a while. It did give me a good feel of what is expected if you want success on those lines, so I feel qualified to say that they are certainly a notch or two harder than anything on the Smoothlands! I did have the pleasure of hanging on abseil and taking photos of Keita Kurakami's impressive ascent of 'The Walk of Life' and the 70ft gear-ripping screamer of a ride he took down the slab after a hold snapped near the top on his first attempt. The commitment and precision to hold it together both physically and mentally on such a long and tenuous piece of climbing is staggering.

The route had a long history prior to James Pearson's successful peg-less ascent and was looked at and tried by many of the area's top dudes of the day, including Ian Parnell and even Johnny Dawes, to name a few. It was eventually climbed with its pegs by Ian Vickers in 1998 with a variation start. He called it 'Dyer Straits' and graded it E8; a fine achievement and one I feel has been lost in the excitement of recent ascents.

James Pearson's straightening of the line and its renaming from 'Dyer Straits' to 'The Walk of Life' was a masterstroke and an amusing, very relevant play on words. His peg-free ascent is a masterpiece of difficulty which will be hard to match and will remain a magnet to top climbers for as long as it stands.

 Hartland Quay and  Screda Point

Hartland Quay is complex area reminiscent of an earthquake zone and has over the past 15 years become a major bouldering area, although personally I have never been drawn in and prefer my feet well and truly off the ground on big trad adventures.

The North Face of the fine free-standing fin, 'The Bear,' situated in the centre of all the chaos provided a fitting new route and a memorable experience with 'Gripped by the Beast' (E6 6a) where an earlier attempt ended up in a near ground fall after a micro cam snapped when a hold broke.

Screda Point sits on the other side of the hotel just south. The main slab offers the most solid rock on the Culm and gives some great technical outings. The best, in my opinion, being 'Half-life' (E3 5c). The two hardest routes that deserve attention here sit not on the main slab, but tucked away at the landward end and both offer a different style of challenge. The first is the Simon Young route 'Canard' (E6 6b); rarely repeated and often wet, it gives powerful climbing through the overlaps with a tricky rockover to gain the upper slab. Behind it sits another Andy Grieve test-piece 'Micro Non Entity' (E4 5c); an uninspiring name for a powerful and very overhanging proposition which requires a determined approach along with fine jamming and arm-barring technique for success. Take some big cams or old-fashioned hexes and a tin of spinach.

 Spekes Mill Mouth and Brownspear Point

Just south again and within walking distance of Screda and tucked away in a unique and picturesque setting, is Spekes Mill. With its scenic waterfall and long sweep of concave slab, it can resemble the hanging gardens of Babylon at the height of the season, but don't be put off, this does not affect the climbing and is home to the classic E3 5c crackline of 'Pressure Drop,' a top-quality route which is worth a visit in its own right, or a great warm-up for the harder things on the slab.

Situated to its right is the long and ever steepening 'Down to a Sunless Sea' (E5 6a), first done in '89 by Damian Carroll and Dave Viggers. The start is run-out on thin wafer-like edges and the climbing feels bold, after which it remains sustained and despite it originally having numerous pegs which provided the main protection, they have long past their use-by date. It culminates in some tricky moves through the overlap to gain the headwall below the top. If you're there in the height of summer, expect applause from the waterfall viewing area as you top out. The day I did it I was climbing for the first time with a very young 17-year-old local guy by the name of Nick Cox whom I had met at Simon Young's farmyard climbing wall a few days earlier. He had overheard me chatting to Simon about me looking for a suitable partner and piped up "I'll climb with you." What kind of grade are you climbing, I asked: "I've led HS." was his reply. Needless to say, his grade went into the stratosphere that day, and was the start of a climbing friendship which has stood the test of time despite the fact that he is now a pilot based in the north of Scotland.

Thin climbing in a stunning location 'Down to a Sunless Sea' (E5 6a).  © Stu Bradbury
Thin climbing in a stunning location 'Down to a Sunless Sea' (E5 6a).
© Stu Bradbury

To its left and climbing up the thin lower wall to reach Pressure Drop's midsection crack, is Simon Young's addition 'Ed' (E5 6a). Get what gear you can in the crack at the break before boldly taking a direct line up the fingery wall above. Both give fine routes at the grade with Down to a Sunless Sea narrowly being the best in my opinion.

 Gull Rock - Marsland

The following route is tucked away in a remote section of the Culm, situated on the very border of North Devon and North Cornwall and requires some effort to reach, but is well worth the effort and gives an outstanding route on a unique geological feature (if there is a land despute over routes then I'm picking up arms and claiming this route for Cornwall as it's worth fighting for!)

Booby Prize E6 6b is Andy Grieve's North Coast testpiece and offers one of the finest pieces of single pitch climbing I have ever experienced. The climbing is based on an 80ft gently overhanging wall covered in boob-like lumps, which are not only hard to read but totally pumpy, offering very little opportunity to rest and to make things worse, the line is very conditions-dependent.

The start is both bold and technical, giving 20ft of 6b climbing straight off the ground before you can clip the first protection, the remainder of the route is very "sport climbing" in its style requiring lots of intricate changes and cross throughs for the feet and pinches and undercuts for the hands. It has seen limited ascents over the years and very few onsights, as to achieve that you need an extra grade or two tucked away in your chalkbag.

Personally due to my old-school onsight ethics, I had taken this off my ticklist many years ago as it does not play to my strengths or preferred style and having tried it in less-than-ideal conditions I dismissed it and found other objectives, but recently with the help and clued-in redpoint tactics of strong local climber and good mate Mark Mcmanus, we both set about a throughly enjoyable journey to success...Who said you can't teach an old dog new tricks!

Big thanks to Mark for the inspiration and encouragement, to Medicine Dan for the belay and to the foresight and talent of Mr Grieve for his creation. It is a Culm "must do" for anyone with the ability, it doesn't disappoint.

 Lower Sharpnose Point

Lower Sharpnose Point needs no introduction, being the jewel in the crown of the Culm coast. But before I go further let me set the record straight. Lower Sharpnose belongs to North Cornwall, NOT Devon! Stop being greedy North Devon - you have more than enough quality crags. The setting is truly unique with the climbing based on three vertical narrow fins reaching a height of 45m and offering routes on both sides of each.

Its well-known classics are on most folk's ticklists and have featured in numerous magazine articles over the years, but as I have already said the aim of this article is to introduce you to the rarely-repeated and harder hidden gems.

Dark delights brood in the shadows, the classic 'Devonian' (E5 6a).  © Stu Bradbury
Dark delights brood in the shadows, the classic 'Devonian' (E5 6a).
© Stu Bradbury

When most folk climb here, the action is pretty well always based on the south faces of the North and Middle fin and I can totally understand why, but other than the easier offerings of Lunakhod and Mascon, the north faces don't get a look in! The north faces (particularly those of the North and South fins) as is often the case, are far more intimidating; the rock is compact, with less opportunity for rests and protection is often hard-won, which on the whole give them a harder feel.

Baby Fin

The Baby Fin, as the name suggests, is a smaller wall but size isn't everything. Believe me, this wall is a cantankerous Brat with a capital "B" and takes no prisoners. It is well worth the effort and in my 20 years of activity on the coast I have never seen anyone else on this wall. This fin gives steep fingery climbing on solid compact rock with a different feel to the other fins and although short, it gives an intense shot of some of the boldest and most technical climbing at Lower Sharpnose.

Check out 'Cold Snap' (E4 6b) and 'Grypt-Up Phynne' (E4 6a), both of which I felt were more like E5 (courtesy of Nick White and Clark Alston). Check out my easier additions 'Shadow Play' and 'Lurcher Jak' to get a feel for the climbing.

Shadow Play (E2 5c), a baby version of 'The Smile' - with teeth.  © Stu Bradbury
Shadow Play (E2 5c), a baby version of 'The Smile' - with teeth.
© Stu Bradbury

North Face, North Fin

My personal choices here are Steve Monks' E5 'The Devonian.' The start is committing, giving stiff steep
and technical moves straight off the ground protected with spaced RPs. Once you have made the rockover and got established the mid-section eases back before the upper wall hits you with a sting in the tail! Definitely one of the harder E5s and a must for anyone climbing at the grade.

And for those that want to knock it up a notch, out to its right sits Crispin Waddy's addition 'Helsinki' (E5 6b), giving pumpy technical climbing and fiddly pro.

North Face, Middle Fin

One of my personal favourites is Clarke Alston's improbable line 'The Flying Finn,' which is one of the longest and steepest routes at Sharpnose. It is situated on the north face of the Middle Fin and follows a stunning finger crack all the way to the "V" in the skyline to the left of 'Spoils of War' and gives a phenomenal outing. Originally given E4 with four pegs, I snapped two of these off by hand whilst on lead on the second ascent. The other two are completely shot, so I have upgraded it to E5 in the new guide.

South Face, Middle Fin

I can't put this together without mentioning Steve Monks' (yes, him again!) mega Culm testpiece 'Coronary Country (original start)' (E6 6b), for I have fallen off this route more than once and I have seen it give many top climbers a spanking.

Bristol-climber Monks originally gave this E7 and when you consider his track record for hard new routes on the coast I feel he was more than qualified, but for whatever reason it was downgraded to 'Hard E6.' That said, it rarely sees an onsight and I have spoken to many climbers who feel it is more like E7. As it turns out, due to some confusion in translation, the original line was not being climbed and the softer option of climbing up to the spike on 'Fay' was being followed (I have renamed this 'Coronary Bypass' (E6 6b)). The original line takes a bolder, more direct line to reach a spike further right before heading up to meet the crux, which gives a stiffer, more sustained proposition. The 6b crux is on a section of more compact rock which gives fingery and strenuous climbing with not much for the feet, before reaching a diagonal quartz break followed by an easier but bold headwall on pumped arms. The bent and rotting pegs on the crux can be backed up with small to medium nuts but it requires stamina to hang around and place them. Based on the general consensus, I have upgraded it back to E7 for the new guide.

If you're feeling brave then get on 'Azrael' (E5 5c) to it right. It gives a memorable piece of climbing, but don't forget your Valium!

Raising the heart rate on Coronary Country (E7 6b).  © Stu Bradbury
Raising the heart rate on Coronary Country (E7 6b).
© Stu Bradbury

North Face, South Fin

If this piece of rock was in a different location it would be an important crag in its own right; unfortunately, it is competing with the superb options available on the two main fins and as such never gets a look in. It is a gem of a crag offering a collection of excellent mid-E grade routes, all giving stiff technical challenges with an adventurous feel following steep crack lines which are both underrated and rarely repeated.

The best of the bunch is 'Leprosy' (E4 5c) which gives a sustained outing and is pretty intricate, along with the E3s of Angle Grinder, Uphill and Eeyore.

 Maer Cliff (aka Northcott Mouth)

Further south and just north of Bude is the huge 'Maer cliff.' This is the scene of the first hard route I did on the coast before I moved down. Dave Turnbull's 'Bugsy' (E6 6a) is very bold and the rock is never above suspicion and the first pro is at 12m. Stay focused. It is worth mentioning that a very on form Ian Parnell soloed this and the two E6s to its right in what can only be described as a moment of self-confident madness!

The second route is further right and is, without doubt, my favourite hard route on the Culm, the magnificent 40m groove/corner of 'Oceans' (E5 6a). This gives continuously interesting climbing from top to bottom. It's worth practising your yoga moves for this beast, as it's full of 3D weirdness and shape pulling. Take a good rack and it is essential to set up a pre-placed belay rope from stakes to hang down for the top-out as the last section is very unstable.

Makin' shapes on the superb groove of 'Oceans' (E5 6b).  © Stu Bradbury
Makin' shapes on the superb groove of 'Oceans' (E5 6b).
© Stu Bradbury

 Compass Point (Bude)/ Bude Pillars

When on form, Bude local Lee Bartrop has produced some great creations and pulled some off-the-wall route names out of the bag and this next route is one of them: 'Penelope Won't Leave the Pitstop' (E5 6b) is situated on a steep slab left of the Compass Point classic 'Tydomin.' It was originally climbed with three pegs and despite trying to onsight this on the second ascent, it totally shut me down and I had to revert to top rope inspection to work the crux. It features some very thin and committing moves on the tiniest of crimps and rugosities and the name came from leaving and returning to the shallow oval foot pod which Lee called 'The pit stop,' whilst going backwards and forwards to commit to the crux. I returned a year or so later and climbed it with Mark McManus and reduced the pegs to one.

Bude Pillars sits at the opposite end of the beach, south of Compass Point and is a slim pillar/fin of rock which is a protruding part of the bedding plain. Its north-facing wall provides a superb unique route called 'Brainchild' (E5 6a) (Sean Hawkin and Andy Grieve) and gives a gently overhanging 25m wall covered in brain-like features produced by load casts. These were formed in the sedimentary rock when it was part of the sea bed. 'Booby Prize' (E6 6b), which sits further up the coast at Marsland, is another must-do and both have the mark of Mr Grieves attached to them - 'nuff said!

This is where my obsession for hunting out the area's unrepeated harder routes started, I climbed this on the same weekend I did 'Bugsy' at Northcott Mouth. As soon as I saw it I just had to climb it and it was not until later in the pub browsing through the new (2000) guidebook that I realised the hollow stars meant it was unrepeated.


There are lots of other fine offerings hidden away to be discovered and some harder lines that still await second ascents, but hell, I'm not about to give away all its secrets! You will have to come and get engrossed for yourselves! Keep an eye out for the forthcoming guidebook and maybe one day whilst your dancing your own battle on creaking flakes and working in your RPs, you will catch a glimpse of a distant old dude in the shadows, watching intently and reliving the moment. See you at the crag.

Into the depths of Davy Jones' Locker (E3 5c), Northcott Mouth.  © Stu Bradbury
Into the depths of Davy Jones' Locker (E3 5c), Northcott Mouth.
© Stu Bradbury

Visit Stu's website for personal guiding and trad and crack workshops.


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21 Oct

Interesting article Stu, hopefully as a primer for the new guide which must be close to launching. All a bit too hard for me as I want a quiet life with little worry. However there is a lot of quality worth seeking out if you just drop a couple of grades. Thanks for posting.

Great article. Harder routes on the coast than I have ever climbed. The coast is a very special place, and if your head is in the right place, the climbing is awesome. Chapeau! Steve

21 Oct

Proper stuff.

21 Oct

Great read. Must get down to the coast and get Stu to take me round some of the cliffs again next year. Nothing like the tide coming in to encourage you to crack on!

21 Oct

Great article.

Can't wait to get back to The Culm, and looking forward to the new guidebook.

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