There are, I would say, only a handful of guides that could truly be rated as something out of the ordinary. By out of the ordinary, I mean to say something special, something unique, something that defines an era, yet is somehow timeless, something that is - to an extent - unrepeatable.
Nick White's legendary 1995 guide to South Devon and Dartmoor is an archetype of this. In fact, I cannot think of another guide that exudes as much character, strange creatures, meaningless passages, foreign languages, and unorthodox grades. Personal highlights include the sanskrit description for Tower of Babel (which I still dont understand), the Hand of Power (which again, I still dont understand), or the Geological Survey Map of South Devon, which involves a psychedelic spiral unfolding across the landscape leading to a butterfly with a goblins head at the end of it (which I'm pretty sure nobody will ever get).
Still, it's a thing of great mysterious beauty; however.
In/amongst this glowing recollection of what is undoubtedly one of my favourite guidebooks, it has to be said that the guide is pretty unusable by modern standards. Also, its legendary status has made future editions somewhat thin on the ground, because its an intimidating prospect producing a follow-up to a guide that clearly couldn't be followed up on without bridging into the fourth dimension.
Despite the absence of a modern printed guide, it's not like Dartmoor didn't continue to develop, and it's not to say that development wasnt recorded. In between putting up some of the area's hardest/best routes and boulder problems, local legend Dave Henderson kept everyone (who was listening) updated with news and topos via his excellent Javu website. However, the Dartmoor area was - at least in my eyes - crying out for a new, specific, and printed guide, which had by this time flourished to something far, far different than the 88 pages dedicated to the area within the previous edition.
This leads us to the present edition, which features over 600 routes and 1200 boulder problems, not to mention the countless* number of action shots and colour topos. It would suffice to say that this guide has been a substantial development. In terms of usability this guide is lightyears ahead too, with its rather unique format that works on in landscape orientation (i.e. you turn it on its side). This is the first time I've seen this done within a climbing guide and it works very well; surprisingly so, giving a greater width for the images/topos (something that the author has taken full advantage as there's lots of them). Due to the way the guide is bound, this should last much longer than a guide of actual landscape orientation, as these - at least in my experience - tend to fall apart at the spine after even moderate use.
*obviously this is countable, but Ive got better things to do with my time than count each and every action shot within the guide (like drive to Dartmoor to go climbing)
As important though all of the above is, it wouldn't be a guidebook to Dartmoor without some degree of quirkiness, and thankfully it has this in abundance thanks to the author's stream of consciousness style of writing (think cider, cream teas, and derogatory references towards anything even vaguely Cornish or limestone...). This is a guide you can pick up again and again, each time noticing a little gem that you missed before. I would list some of my favourites, but would much prefer people to discover them for themselves. In light of the above, the author has very much kept the spirit and soul of Devonshire climbing - and winter climbing (would you believe it?!) - alive within its pages.
For those that havent visited before, this book will hopefully give you an insight into what I think is the UK's most underrated bouldering area. Thats not to say that the routes are bad either, its just that the Moors and Tors lend themselves more towards the shorter stuff. That said, I did include Interrogation on my Top 5 E3s in the UK? list and were I to have written the E1 list would have also included Aviation (theyre that good). Aerobic Wall, Limbo Dancer and Nether Edge would also be on my Top 5 highballs at their respective grades too, as would No match for climb id:36870 for bouldering. Anyhow, I digress - if you havent been before this guide will hopefully give you the necessary impetus to go, as its lavish use of colour action shots and topos give a fantastic representation of what the area is all about. Not only is the climbing good, but it is a stunning place too - plus theres a fraction of the people compared to honeypot climbing areas such as the Peak (or at least there was until this guidebook came out). In terms of grade range there is also something for everyone, with a good spread of routes from Diff to E7 and boulder problems from the 3s to the 8s, and stars throughout (not just in the higher grades, as some guides are guilty of doing). The only word of warning I would have, and this is echoed time and time again within the gudie, is that the rock is somewhat sharp...
For those that have been before, the guide has unearthed many a gem that until now have been locals only. With some of the more esoteric areas, most notably Bovey Woods and Lustleigh Cleave (The Nutcrackers), the issue was twofold: the first that the information was hard to find and the second being that the boulders themselves were even harder to find!! As suggested earlier, it is a very difficult area to document and the fact that this guide manages to is a testament to the job the guidebook author has done. In fact, I used the aforementioned crags as a testing ground whilst putting the guide through its paces, because if you can locate the boulders there then the likes of Haytor (which is a round 5 mins from the road) or Bonehill (which is a round 1 min from the road!!) will be easy.
In recent guidebook reviews I have been saddened to see a lot of the first ascent information left out, which made it all the more refreshing to see the FA info next to all the routes within the guide. Due to the complexity of who actually did the FAs of a lot of the boulder problems this info has been left out, as there are a great many that have been retro-named and claimed - thus it would be very difficult to pin down exactly who pipped who to the actual FA post. For those wishing to know a little more about the areas history there is also a fantastic six-page historical section at the start of the guide; with many guides this focusses on a certain golden age located somewhere in the past, but the nice thing about the history of climbing on Dartmoor is that the golden age is very much a recent affair - some may even say it is now - with many of the classic boulder problems in particular having been done in the last 5-10 years and no doubt many more to be found.
A fantastic guide to a highly underrated area, that succeeds in the impossible by providing a worthy successor to a legendary and unrepeatable guidebook. The unique A5/landscape layout works extremely well, as it provides both the excellent topos and action shots with much greater space than a traditional portrait format would have allowed for. As such, whether you're a first time visitor or a local cider soak, this guide will have something for you.
If you're in need of any further inspiration check out James Clapham's recent Dartmoor Destination Guide, then treat yourself to a copy - you wont regret it (although your skin may be shredded for days).
ABOUT THE GUIDE: The topos and maps from this article are taken from the new definitive Climbers Club Pub Guide to Dartmoor. This eagerly anticipated new definitive guide is packed with tongue-in-cheek Devonian wit, plus some 600 routes and 1200 boulder problems with full photo-topos. These are partnered with stunning action shots showcasing this unique and fantastic area at its finest.
- Dartmoor by James Clapham (2017)
- Editor Ian Smith
- Design, maps and artwork by Don Sargeant
- Photo diagrams by Mark Davies and Don Sargeant
- 384 pages of text and photodiagrams