IN FOCUS: Culm Dancing - Bumbly Exploration on Culm Adventures

As a climber, Dr Dave Hillebrandt is not a household name, although some of you may have found his legacy in the form of garden gnomes placed strategically on certain crags in the South West. This says much about the man. In this latest piece in the series, Dave recounts tales of "bumbly" exploration on the Culm Coast...

David Hillebrandt 17th May, 2021

Editor's note: As a climber, Dr Dave Hillebrandt is not a household name, although some of you may have found his legacy in the form of garden gnomes placed strategically on certain crags in the South West. This says much about the man.

Dave Hillebrandt
Dave Hillebrandt
© James Mann

Long before we met, I had come across him as the author of a series of exceedingly gruesome articles about medical emergencies and also a particularly memorable piece about toileting in the great outdoors. He is one of the most enduring characters of the north coasts of Devon and Cornwall. Since the early 1980s, Dave has been exploring the coast and finding and climbing new routes in the lower grades. That isn't to say that all Dave's climbs are easy; many have certain idiosyncrasies awaiting the unwary; appalling rock, vegetation of great verticality and horrendous approaches all strongly feature in the Hillebrandt canon.

His knowledge of the coastline is unparalleled, improved each year by sea kayaking journeys to check out new crags which might yield fruit. I'd better not talk him up too much. He wouldn't like that.

James Mann


You have been warned!
You have been warned!
© Dave Hillebrandt

Summer '85 and we are moving upcountry to the Culm Coast so it seemed logical to contact Iain Peters who was writing the new North Devon and Cornwall guide. I had already developed a taste for easy new routes and realised the adventure potential of this wild north coast. Who better to show me the area where little of the exploration was recorded? A local expert who was writing the new guide and a competent climber. What could go wrong?

Iain Peters at Knapp's Longpeak
Iain Peters at Knapp's Longpeak
© Dave Hillebrandt
Iain Peters in retreat in Patagonia
Iain Peters in retreat in Patagonia
© Dave Hillebrandt

My climbing diary records: "28th November 1985 Foxhold Slabs. Nice Culm slabs facing south. Ideal for a winter's day. With Iain Peters reclimbing some of his 1977 first ascents for the new guide". I trusted the local guru as he reassured me we had one more route to check before it was time to get back. Are you surprised when the dairy entry finishes "then a wet return to the car"? We had had been forced to drop our rucksacks onto the rapidly disappearing beach and then jump into the foaming incoming tide. I saw an evil grin on my new companion's face as he quietly muttered "I had better amend the guide draft and say approach only within three hours of low tide". I have since seen that same grin many times on sea cliffs in the South West, on remote glaciers in Patagonia and on sunny Greek islands. Over the last 35 years you would think I would have learnt, but we still climb together - now as struggling old grumpies.

Dave Hillebrandt, Iain Peters and local – Patagonia
Dave Hillebrandt, Iain Peters and local – Patagonia
© Dave Hillebrandt

Friendships formed on the Culm can leader to higher places Photos: Dave Hillebrandt

Thirty five years of nosing round the Culm coast on foot and kayak delving into every nook and cranny, sometimes with one of my children in the back-carrier. I take some pride in having developed both the most easterly and the most south westerly Culm crags and consequently know most in-between. There can be few areas of the UK which still had so many unclimbed crags waiting for the mid-grade enthusiast. Real adventure - and to make it even better the rock ensures that when you feel you are running out of lines an established cliff falls down revealing potential new routes. This is trad climbing at its best.

Ben Rowe, Mainsail, Brownspear Point
Ben Rowe, Mainsail, Brownspear Point
© Dave Hillebrandt

Iain has been my most consistent partner, but I have lured others out, and some have even returned for a second dose. Ben Rowe lives locally and joined me on various excursions. A far better climber than me, but always game for an adventure. I remember on a wet day in 1990 beach hopping round a headland to find Upright Cliff with no routes. As normal we picked off the easier lines and then let others with greater talent know of our exploits. Sloo slabs were noticed on a sunny boxing day walk with the sun low in the sky. The names reflect the local stories of a witch and a landowning family who lived in the area. Dinner with the Creggs at Cornakey is named after a local family who lived in a cave and invited passing travellers for dinner, and then ate them. Some aspects of Hartland life have hardly changed in the last 100 years! Ben also joined me on Sigmoidoscopy at Bude. It goes up a tight chimney, round a slight flexure and is a bit loose at the top. I leave you to Google this useful medical instrument.

Will Hornby in the bowels of Sigmoidoscopy, Bude Pillars
Will Hornby in the bowels of Sigmoidoscopy, Bude Pillars
© Will Hornby collection

I still remember Jon bringing his 12 year old son Joe into my GP surgery in the summer of 1991 for a minor health problem whilst on holiday. Joe noticed photos on my wall and asked if I climbed. Together they had already put up two new routes on the coast. I was impressed. They had the right attitude and I decided the most appropriate therapy was another route, so on my next afternoon off we climbed Destination Unknown.

Keith Atkins following Romping Robert, Vicarage Cliff
Keith Atkins following Romping Robert, Vicarage Cliff
© Dave Hillebrandt

In an area without a central climbing scene, several Devon locals have made the mistake of showing an interest in climbing and have been introduced to the subtleties of our sport on Culm adventures. This means they develop their skills thinking that complex approaches, big tides, a degree of looseness, spaced protection and interesting descents are the norm. I like to think they enjoyed the challenges of the Culm coast regardless of technical standard but it may explain why, after many shared experiences, Ian moved to Australia and Martine and Keith to the Lakes. Dave Viggers and Captain Bob, originally raiders from Bristol, remain loyal to this coast.

Dave new routing at Sandhole Point on the Culm Photos: Iain Peters

I was asked to write about easy routes on the Culm coast and find I have written more about the people who have shared adventures and new routes with me. I make no apologies. The Culm is about memorable trad adventure with friends. It is about laughter and the pleasure of being alive and not taking oneself too seriously.

Adrian Parsons enjoying big seas on Half Mast, Higher Sharpnose
Adrian Parsons enjoying big seas on Half Mast, Higher Sharpnose
© James Mann

I hope you will dip into the new Climbers' Club guide and possibly sample our coast, where you can still have a whole crag to yourself, at least until it falls down. It is an acquired taste. Further west the Atlantic Coast guide is already being prepared and this is another area best approached with the same ethos.


The Culm Coast and Baggy Point  © The Climbers' Club
This series has been written and published ahead of the forthcoming publication of The Climbers' Club Guide to The Culm Coast and Baggy Point, which will be available later this year.

For more information visit The Climbers' Club website.

Other articles in this series

Culm Dancing - Beginnings (1898-1968)

Culm Dancing - Salute to the Admiral

Culm Dancing - A Second Wave (1968-73)

Culm Dancing - Reelin' in the Years (Mid-70's)

Culm Dancing: Voyages of Discovery (1976-1990)

Culm Dancing: Culm Ice Memories

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