Southern Sandstone... a bit like Marmite, you either love it or hate it.
Described as “a pile of tottering choss” and “toprope heaven”, to those who live in the rock-starved south east, it offers climbing in beautiful surroundings and a relaxed atmosphere where you can enjoy improving your technique or taking in the classics – either way, a welcome opportunity to get out and climb.
It's more than that as anyone who has climbed there (and not been thoroughly spanked) will tell you. There are some great problems and though they lack length will thoroughly test your climbing skills. The local ethic is soloing or toproping, the latter an accepted practice for many years due to the soft, friable rock which is not suited to conventional protection.
Each outcrop has its own character. The larger outcrops – Harrison's, High Rocks, Eridge, Bowles, Stone Farm - are popular and have many climbs but the smaller ones like Bull's Hollow or the High Rocks Annexe are well worth a visit to avoid the crowds.
Of all the outcrops, High Rocks stands out. The garden of the High Rocks – once a hotel and now a 'function' venue - consists of sandstone buttresses up to 12m. For the climber it undoubtedly has the longest routes and the greatest challenges, such as Infidel, Krait Arête, Second Generation, Chimera, Nemesis, Renascence, Judy, Salad Days and Boonoonoonoos. Alternatively, Adder, Moving Staircase, Advertisement Wall, Henry the Ninth and Lobster are all amenable climbs that may just take a bit of working out.
High Rocks also stands out as a crack venue. From the easier Steps Crack, Effie and Krankenkopf (are they really only 5b?) through Lucita, Marquita and the obvious Coronation Crack to Knife, Fork, Something Crack, Tilley Lamp Crack, Boysen's Crack and The First Crack; they regularly spit off pretenders.
Chimneys are also abundant – the transverse passages being full of climbs with names to put off mere mortals – Spider's Chimney, Crown of Thorns, Smooth Chimney (guess what that one's like), Naked Chimney (don't ask), Rufrock Route and then there are the snake chimneys – Anaconda, Boa-Constrictor, Cobra... Ignore the grading on the chimneys, which go no higher than 5a – it'll only dent your ego.
High Rocks was once a Neolithic camp and is now a Site of Special Scientific Interest and National Monument. The earliest climbs were recorded in around 1926 and the Sandstone Climbing Club's activities during the 50s and 60s are legendary.
So, why would anyone want to jeopardise access to this paradise? It's a good question.
Climbers are historically in the ramblers' camp – free and open access to everywhere. The Kinder Mass Trespass of the 1930s helped ensure that our mountains, moorlands and sea cliffs are largely places where climbers and the like-minded may freely roam, reinforced in places by the more recent CRoW act. The Wealden Sandstone outcrops are in a very different setting, in what might be described as the Stockbroker Belt.
The BMC, having owned Stone Farm Rocks for a while and recently completed the purchase of Harrison's is designating both as Open Access land. Sandstone Outcrop access is generally uncomplicated although negotiated access agreements do exist at Eridge Rocks and the High Rocks Annexe.
There are a couple of anomalies though – in the shape of Bowles Rocks and High Rocks where you pay for access. Bowles, (a charitable trust) is an outdoor centre offering, amongst other pursuits, climbing instruction on site. Operating since the 1960's, it has, for many years, charged a modest fee for a day or half day's climbing. Similarly, High Rocks has historically charged for public access to their garden.
There have, however, been times when access to High Rocks has come perilously close to being lost due, largely, to the actions of a minority of climbers who have refused to pay the entrance fee and entered through an existing (or created their own) hole in the fence. In 1991, the situation had become fraught and the owner, tired of mending his fence, was royally pissed off and increased the entrance fee to climbers.
John Horscroft takes up the story:
"As I remember I started chatting to the owner after he raised the price as a result of people breaking in. I'm sure that then, as now, not all the incursions were climbers but some were. I don't think he threatened to ban climbers at the time but he was pissed off that's for sure. We came up with a season ticket scheme which resulted in me being condemned by, amongst others, the chair of the BMC South East Area committee and the area correspondent for On The Edge. Locals seemed pretty pleased however and it's stood the test of time.
Interestingly, it was after those brickbats that I went to the BMC SE Area Committee and they began to take SS seriously. Up to then they treated us as an irrelevant backwater. We then organised the first Southern Sandstone Open Meeting and when 60 people turned up, the BMC Access Officer Bill Wright, was astonished. So from the minor irritation of a price rise, the Sandstone Volunteer Group eventually flourished."
Interestingly, it was after those brickbats that I went to the BMC SE Area Committee and they began to take SS seriously. Up to then they treated us as an irrelevant backwater.
We then organised the first Southern Sandstone Open Meeting and when 60 people turned up, the BMC Access Officer Bill Wright, was astonished. So from the minor irritation of a price rise, the Sandstone Volunteer Group eventually flourished."
The season tickets were quite popular, even at £35 for the year although at the time a three-month ticket was available for £10.
Access at £2 settled down for a number of years until in 2003 things once again came to a head. It was the same old problem – climbers were ignoring the access conditions, damaging the fence and being abusive to staff The entry fee for climbers was put up to £5 with a requirement that prospective climbers phone to book 24 hours in advance.
Despite this, local climbers took the initiative. Bob Moulton and Mike Vetterlein met with the owner to discuss what climbers could do to improve the climbing environment. The outcome was that the Sandstone Volunteers' Group under the guidance of Oliver Hill carried out an extensive scrub and tree-cutting program with financial help from both the BMC and the CC. High Rocks was almost instantaneously popular with many new routes and boulder problems added attracting greater numbers, some of whom felt that access conditions and the laid back approach to enforcing them didn't matter however hard won they were.
This, at times fragile, access arrangement survived until last September when, once again frustrated by having to pay out for repairs to the fence, the owner doubled the day entry fee to £10 and increased the annual season ticket price to £45. He also put up signs reducing the opening hours: 11am to 4pm winter and 11am to 7pm summer, effectively ruling out evening climbing.
Bob Moulton, Oliver Hill and I met with the owner but he was adamant that the price increases were here to stay and left us in no doubt that the cost of repairing the fence and the continual abuse of access conditions, and his staff, were the reason. We met with him again just before Christmas. The admission price increases stay but the restriction on climbing times will be eased, allowing climbers who are in the grounds before 7pm in summer to remain there until dusk. We also negotiated a concession on entry costs – a season ticket holder can sign in (and take responsibility for the actions of) guests for £5 rather than the normal £10 day rate. This will continue unless there is abuse of the concession.
I'm not here to plead the case for the High Rocks management. What I am asking is that climbers respect the access conditions as negotiated - failure to do so will simply result in further restrictions, price increases or complete loss of access to climbers - it's a fine line we tread.
Occasional or 'one off' visitors may be unaffected by their thoughtless actions but the locals who have worked so hard to maintain the crag and climbing access will be robbed.
A mass trespass suggested on a recent UKC thread would be doomed to failure - we're talking here about access to a garden not open moorland.
It's also been suggested that paying for access at High Rocks represents the thin end of the wedge – well it must be a pretty thin wedge as the precedent for paying at High Rocks goes back to well before the first climbing guide in 1936 and I don't see it spreading. The BMC have a policy of not paying to climb but also have a policy of listening to local climbers and the annual Sandstone Open Meeting has never heard any suggestion that the access conditions should be ignored.
So, please call in at the lower bar when you arrive and get a ticket. Season ticket holders should sign the book before entering the grounds. It's fairly simple really.
Ignoring the access arrangement jeopardizes access to the crag but just as importantly, you're sticking two fingers up at local climbers who have negotiated with the owner and who constantly work to maintain access.
There's plenty of good climbing to be found at the other outcrops for those who object in principle to payment for climbing. Think about it...