Tom Gore gives an insight into some of the lesser-known and lesser-travelled Southern Sandstone spots. Escape the crowds and try out somewhere new!
Summer is here, the sun is out (sometimes!) and after a long winter indoors those of us who climb in the South East are beginning to head out in increasing numbers onto the Southern Sandstone. The popular venues like Harrisons, Eridge Green, High Rocks and Bowles are experiencing increasing numbers of climbers, and unfortunately as a consequence increased erosion. However there are other, albeit smaller, venues which you can often find all to yourself even at the weekends – which is becoming harder and harder to find across the UK as climbing continues to increase in popularity. These crags are hardly secrets, but perhaps aren’t as well known as the big four. Yet they are all worth a look for anyone hoping to avoid the crowds this summer. Hopefully this article will help direct climbers towards some quieter areas for those looking for a bit of solitude and ease some of the pressure on the other crags as well.
Top of my list is Happy Valley Rocks. This picturesque crag is covered in both the 2012 bouldering guide (p.192-202) which outlines 30 odd boulder problems and the 2008 CC guide (p.274-279) which describes almost 50 routes, although many of these overlap both guides due to the height of the crag. Based upon its height I would therefore recommend Happy Valley more as bouldering spot than as a roped venue. The crag is incredibly fast drying for sandstone – I have climbed here in late November, which is rare for most southern sandstone venues! With grades spanning from 2 up to 7C there is plenty to go at for all abilities – although the crag is best suited for those climbing in the 4, 5 and low 6s. The classic of the crag is undoubtedly ‘Red Snapper’ (6A) which climbs through an exotically orange coloured overhang. For a ‘unique’ climbing experience the man-made Sweeps’ Caves provides some strangely satisfying routes, while those looking for more of a challenge need look no further than the technical ‘Genesis’ (7C). The venue also sports a rope swing, which might be the riskiest part of your climbing day!
Next up is Toad’s Rock (also known as Toad Rocks (Denny Bottom Rocks)) next to Bulls Hollow Rocks. Bull’s Hollow (found in the 2008 CC guide, p.80-93) has a reputation for being a dank miserable quarry, and most of the year that is quite right! However, following a prolonged dry spell this crag is well worth a visit with over 70 routes including the 3 star classics ‘Bramble Corner’ (English 4c), ‘The Shield’ (English 6a) and ‘The Wall’ (English 5c) right next to each other. Ticking these three routes alone would make a very enjoyable evening’s climbing. While Bull’s Hollow often takes it time drying out, it is well situated right next to the more exposed Toad’s Rock, meaning that these two venues can easily be visited together. Toad’s Rock is mentioned in the 2008 CC guide (p.299-301) which describes about 45 boulder problems up to English 5c, while the 2012 bouldering guide mentions the crag (p.203-208) it leaves the description out. Arguably this is the funner way to experience this crag, exploring the various passage ways and jumping between boulders – it is like someone has designed an adult playground! Finally there is a pub (The Toad Rocks Retreat) situated about as close to the climbing as you can get – perfect!
Mount Edgcumbe Rocks is a small venue to say the least. With only 9 boulder problems and a brief mention in the 2008 CC guide that ‘there is now potential for a few routes’ it is not surprising that this crag has been overlooked for so long. In fact why am I mentioning it? Well as it is only a 10 minute walk from Tunbridge Wells train station this is a venue where you could be stood at the crag changing your shoes having left London only an hour earlier – ideal for busy Londoner’s without a car! The large granule composition of the rock makes this another fast drying crag which comes into condition very early in the season compared to the other outcrops in the area. With grades ranging from 5+ to 7B, what this crag lacks in quantity it makes up for in quality. The best of the bunch is ‘Faith’ (7B) (video) which offers diverse climbing and a spicy finish. However, the short but sharp ‘Covenant’ (7A) (video) and ‘New Jerusalem’ (6C+) (video) are also worth a look. Towards the lower end of the grade spectrum there is ‘Mustard Seed’ (5+) and ‘The Diaconate’ (6B+) – although this crag is only really worth a prolonged visit if you are operating in the upper 6s and lower 7s. Finally, opposite the rocks is a great bar/restaurant (also named The Mount Edgcumbe) which serves delicious food daily.
Somewhat off the beaten track is Bassett's Farm Rocks. The red colour of the sandstone immediately gives this crag a slightly exotic feel. It also boasts over 30 routes (2008 CC guide p.264-269) as well as some rather pumpy traverses (2012 bouldering guide p.39-42). The rock is reasonably fast drying and while Bassett’s does not exactly have a lifetime’s worth of climbing what is almost guaranteed is solitude. It is an ideal venue to squeeze in a couple of hours after work on a long summer’s evening, revelling in the fact that you have the crag entirely to yourself.
Ok so I’m cheating a bit by including Stone Farm but I think I can just about justify it by including Standen Rocks with it. Stone Farm is probably the next most popular crag after the big four, featuring just under 80 routes (2008 CC guide p.248 – 262), many of which have been included in 100+ boulder problems outlined in the 2012 bouldering guide (p.19-38), which makes for some ‘interesting’ highballs! The reason why I included Stone Farm at all is that I feel that it often gets overlooked and therefore underused due to it being further west than the rest of the crags situated around Tunbridge Wells. With in-place belay bolts at the top of many routes top-roping is easy and there is a relaxed feeling at the crag. The bouldering also has something for everything starting at 1 all the way up to the 7s. The stand out problem is probably ‘Stinging Nettle Variation’ (6C+) (video) which is one of the first problems to dry out due to its exposed position on the inaccessible boulder. Walking distance from Stone Farm is Standen Rocks – a small outcrop on the hillside overlooking the Weir Wood Reservoir, which leads to some nice views. Standen Rocks is covered in the 2008 CC guide (p.310-311) with almost 20 routes that could be either top roped or bouldered. With nothing harder than English 5c this won’t be everyone’s first choice of venue – but in the shade of the trees in the summer this could be a couple of well spent hours away from the crowds. It even has a rope swing which feels slightly safer than the one at Happy Valley.
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