Big Rock now reopen following major refurbishment
Big Rock Hub climbing centre in Kingston, Milton Keynes has recently re-opened following an extensive refurbishment programme in May 2019.
Back in 2016, we wanted to do something utterly unique to mark the 50th anniversary since Val and Joe Brown had opened their shops in Llanberis and Capel Curig. After much discussion, it was decided to mark the event with something never tried before; a competition that required more than today's current "click to enter" ethos, a competition that would engage with our customers and ignite curiosity – a competition where many lucky winners would find some treasure. "The Hunt For Joes Golden Nuts" was born. Joe was delighted.
Fifty limited edition, Golden DMM Torque nuts were split between some of Joe's finest first ascents in the Peak District and North Wales and hidden with clues to their location posted on social media. Permission was sought from Sir Chris Bonington to use his photograph of Joe taken while climbing The Old Man of Hoy in 1967 (during the BBC's first ever outdoor live broadcast) which they both signed. You can see the originals hanging in both of the Joe Brown shops today, but one of the 50 lucky Golden nut winners got to have one to hang on their very own wall.
This year we are celebrating 60 years since Frank Davies opened his doors as the first ever outdoor equipment shop in Ambleside and after the success of Joe's Golden Nuts we thought we would see if we could make a Lake District based competition even better!
But where to start? The Lake District is renowned as the birthplace of modern rock climbing, littered with thousands of stunning lines across the grades. Hours were spent discussing routes in between serving customers, guidebooks thumbed furiously, historic books on climbing history devoured in a quest to make sense of the hundreds of routes that everyone felt worthy of inclusion. Eventually, we decided that just 60 should be used – but which 60?? Then someone suggested: "What routes did Frank climb?"
Tony Greenbank, an old friend of Frank's, author and writer for The Guardian patiently went through his old diaries plucking out a list of climbs that he enjoyed with Frank across the years:
"Certainly our best route together was scaling Tophet Wall, the eye-popping "hard severe" up the electrifying screen of rock above Great Hellgate screes. It has an Orion's constellation belt of three twinkling stars denoting absolute quality in the Fell & Rock Climbing Club (FRCC) guidebook for Great Gable. "A magnificent mountain outing," the guide reads, "winding its way up through very impressive architecture. Probably the best route of its grade in the Lakes." The FRCC does not bandy such praise lightly. And hear this re the third pitch 130ft up the rock face: "A fantastic pitch! Semi-hand traverse 10 metres rightwards in a sensational position to a crack . . ." "What, climb up there?" exclaimed Frank staring at the impending wall adjacent to where the Peter Whillance and Dave Armstrong were filmed for Border Television climbing the overhanging wall of Incantations in 1985. "Who do you think I am? Joe Brown?"
Only Frank then pipped Tophet Wall when the very same Joe Brown (not yet quite a CBE) came to stay at the Davies residence near Cartmel over a weekend. The "Human Fly" took Frank up 300ft Eliminate "A" on Dow Crag, the one Lakeland "very severe" said by the cognoscenti to be well worth "four stars" (if only). Was Frank made up! He told me Joe Brown hadn't taken the guidebook up the climb to consult en route as craggies usually do. "Think we can see where it goes," the ex-Mancunian plumber had said laconically.
To paraphrase an extract from the FRCC guide's description of 300ft Eliminate "A": "One of Britain's greatest routes. It follows a stunning line (up through the overhangs) of "A" Buttress. The climbing is continually interesting and the atmosphere is superb." Just when all seems lost, a "secret" way leads the climber up through menacing overhangs. Joe Brown told me later in Ambleside's Golden Rule bar that that particular day on Dow with Frank was one of the best he'd had on Lake District rock.
Fools Paradise was another gem. "One of the best climbs in the valley," says the guide. Very severe, three stars. Lots of ants crawling on Borrowdale's Gowder Crag, but they didn't bite. "Ace route," I wrote in my diary.
Following this was three-star severe Gillercombe Buttress ("a justly popular route") up the headwall above one of Lakeland's three Sour Milk Gills. This one tumbles down to the emerald fields of Seathwaite Farm far beneath.
"This magnificent route winds its way up the walls and overlaps of the south buttress" states the FRCC guide describing Troutdale Pinnacle, a route. It ends with a reach at full stretch for a thank-God hold at the very top of Black Crag. Phew again.
Fisher's Folly gave us another buzz. "A fine little climb (featuring a pugnacious roof)" claims the guide. It was one of Frank's favourites.
The Fang on Gowther Crag, compares well. "A fine steep climb" says the FRCC, a three-star diamond mild very severe. Frank agreed.
The red-tinged final pitch of Little Chamonix, strikes up the impending rock of Shepherd's Crag above a bus stop on the Borrowdale road. Cool. We climbed it with the late Ray McHaffie, father of hotshot James McHaffie who is a British Mountaineering Council ambassador. Mac (NOT Ian McNaught Davis) was recovering from being avalanched 1,000ft on Cust's Gully. During our ascent, Frank broke a rib while helping him. Happy Days.
Finally, though we enjoyed so many fine courses up Lakeland rock, one of the best routes was on Eden Valley sandstone on the banks of the River Eden. Flasherman, a VS up an open-book groove, vertical and unrelenting. Three stars in the guidebook. It was to be our last, and as Frank said, a fitting farewell."
In addition to the above Tony found diary entries for the enduring classics of Route 1 on Upper Scout Crag, Langdale, Rake End Wall on Pavey Ark, A Route on Gimmer, Adam and Ardus on Shepherd's, the mighty Corvus and Truss Buttress in quiet Swindale. While most of the routes were established classics, some have since fallen down, access has been revoked from a few, others bolted and re-defined as sport climbs but all were mid-grade. This got us thinking…..
Back in the late nineties, current director Cathy worked at Needlesports with a young Saturday lad named James. Often popping in after school, James lived and breathed climbing and became the first climber to be sponsored by Mountain Works when Cathy and her husband opened their previous company in 2001, distributing brands like Marmot, Simond, Mad Rock, Moon and Zero-G Climbing. A quick explanatory text enquiring after his favourite E graded routes led to a stream of classics from the Lakeland master Mr James McHaffie himself, many of which he enjoyed on his epic solo of 100 Lakeland E1's in a day back in 2014. He could name plenty more, he assured us, if we needed them:
Lakeland Crags Man Sergeant crag Slabs, Borrowdale
Tumbleweed Connection Goat Crag, Borrowdale
Bitter Oasis Goat Crag, Borrowdale
Golden Slipper Pavey Arc, Langdale
Astra Pavey Arc, Langdale
Tumble Dow Crag, Coniston
Central Buttress Scafell
Lost Horizons Scafell (East Butress)
Gimmer String Gimmer, Langdale
Whitsend Direct Gimmer, Langdale
Dry Grasp Upper Falcon Crag, Borrowdale
Central Pillar Esk Buttress, Eskdale
The list began to take form and a conversation with British Mountain Guide and Director of the International School of Mountaineering, Adrian Nelhams, highlighted yet more significant routes that deserved inclusion. Having climbed in the Lake District for over 30 years, every-one of these gems is worthy of four stars in his esteemed opinion:
Guillotine, Reecastle, Borrowdale
Penal Servitude, Reecastle, Borrowdale
Aaros, Shepherds Crag, Borrowdale
Fastburn, Flat Crags, Langdale
Kipling Groove, Gimmer Crag, Langdale
The Gordian Knot, White Ghyll, Langdale
A bit of a theme was starting to form here – what if we combined the knowledge of the Mountain Leaders and climbers on our staff team with the biggest names in British climbing to create a really meaningful list to showcase a full graded spectrum of traditional Lakeland climbing at it's very best?
Our climbing mad Marketing Manager Helen, got her thinking cap on to share some of her best days out on Lakeland rock:
Dexter Wall Grey Crag, Buttermere: I remember this route so well, not only for the quality of climbing, but mainly because it was one of my first proper VS leads. Amazing crack and face climbing in a superb situation.
Engineers Slab Gable Crag: A route that took long enough for me to do (mainly because of the high, North facing aspect & classic Lake District weather making it hard to climb a lot of the year…) but my goodness. Great crack climbing on the first followed by awesome bridging up the final chimney. Just excellent.
Samson High Crag: A crag that deserves more traffic. Samson is an incredible one pitch wonder. I just remember having a huge smile on my face all the way up this. Solid at the grade, great rock and situation.
Tophet Wall The Napes: Probably one of the best value HS's around – it's no pushover at the grade! A brilliant mountain day out and one of my first mountain routes I climbed. Awesome exposure and interest throughout every pitch.
Eliminate A Dow Crag: Great exposure and interest. A great mountain crag VS to experience without it being too hard at the grade. Just fun!
Eliminate A turned out to be a very important route on the list as we know from Tony Greenbank that both Frank Davies and Joe Brown climbed this spectacularly classic route together. Joe describes his rare trips to the Lakes with the Rock and Ice club in the 40's and 50's in his book The Hard Years, recounting a very sporting ascent of Deer Bield Crack (the original has fallen down and the new one is currently very dangerous) accompanied to the tinkling sounds of nails dropping out of their boots. Happily, we have been able to include two of Joe's few Lakeland first ascents. The first; Laugh Not in White Ghyll is "an excellent and clean line" put up in October 1953 using a tension traverse with R Moseley and T Waghorn. These days it is climbed free with the latest FRCC guide suggesting you enjoy the last moves by "….easily but spectacularly, reach out right to the prominent flat hold from where big jugs lead to the belay ledge. Go on, commit yourself – it's not as hard or as far as it looks!" Joe later put up Eliminot with J Smith in 1957 earning the characteristic description of "quite tricky with some technical and strenuous moves" in the FRCC guide. A classic product of the Rock and Ice era is Dovedale Groove put up by the legendary Don Whillans with Joe Brown and D Cowan. A point of aid was used on the first ascent but it is now graded E1 5b when climbed freely which may go some way to explain why it defied many attempts to repeat it over the following decade.
Now in his late eighties, Joe's favourite Lakeland memories are centred around climbing on Scafell and the iconic Central Buttress. The history of this stunning route is well documented and along with Eliminate A was the most popular climb chosen by all of our key route selectors including: Doug Scott, Angela Soper and James McHaffie. Helen talks though the history and character of the route here.
Not many people know that Joe's wife Val Brown was very much a climber in her own right – regularly hitch hiking from Blackburn to Langdale from the age of 16 to climb in the glory days of the 1940's. Val remembers one particular outing to Middlefell Buttress which they finished late forcing them to hitch home in a lorry with a couple of other climbers one of whom, Harold Drasdo, became a lifelong friend. You can read more in our history of the Climbers Shop and Joe Browns which describes how the shops were intrinsically linked from the very early days.
Our Ambleside premises is owned by the Frank Davies Trust which Frank formed in the 90's for the prevention of poverty, advancement of education and lifesaving health improvement. This means that today our rent payment is split among charities that uphold these principles including Doug Scott's charity Community Action Nepal. So, we thought – why not ask Doug what his favourite routes are too?
His first favourite was the brilliant Eliminate A on Dow which he remembered climbing at Easter 1961 on the very first meet of the Nottingham Climbers' Club. "There were about 20 of us, camping on the Walna Scar Road by the members' scooters, motorbikes and minivans, although most of us hitch-hiked. Between us we climbed nearly all the routes on the Crag to be finally driven off in a snowstorm that made driving out difficult. Of all the climbs I did Eliminate 'A' was a memorable classic which had us finishing on the very summit of Dow Crag." Doug goes on to recommend Central Buttress of course, and The Crack on that most marvellous of Langdale crags: Gimmer. His final favourite (after North Crag Eliminate, omitted from our list due to its proximity to recent rockfall) is home of the outrageously exposed belay: Troutdale Pinnacle.
An e-mail to Sir Chris Bonington ignited his interest too and after allowing us to take a peek into his very first climbing diaries (he had notes of climbing with Frank Davies in Ogwen from when he was a mere slip of a lad, aged just 17) he agreed with Doug that The Crack on Gimmer was well worthy of our list explaining "it is a brilliant route - varied, interesting direct - a truly wonderful line." He went on to add Capella up to Jacks Rake on Pavey Arc followed by Golden Slipper: "Immaculate varied climbing taking a superb line." The magnificent Bill Peascod route Eagle Front on Eagle Crag in Buttermere holds many happy memories: "I did it with him in the 80s when making a film series: Lake Land Rock looking at fifty years of Lakeland climbing and climbers. In his sixties, he led the lot and it is one of the great Lakeland classics. He had an amazing career from going down the pit in his teens, going to Australia and becoming a major artist, returning to Cumbria to paint and climb. We became close friends. It's a real beauty." Finally, Lord of the Rings, East Buttress of Scafell. (14 pitches). "A magnificent expedition and a full day outing, a counter girdle of the East Buttress, pitch after pitch of superb climbing of 5a and b. The second pitch which is part of my route, the Holy Ghost, an attempt that Mike Thompson and I made earlier on in the sixties in an attempt on the Girdle which provides the crux at 5c but without Friends and no runners we frightened ourselves so much that we climbed straight out. John Adams and Colin Reid did a magnificent job in pioneering the complete girdle. I repeated it in the seventies with Ron Kenyon and definitely class it as the biggest and best expedition in the Lake District"
With climbing history dominated by men it was fantastic to see The BMC celebrating female climbing pioneers with their 50 Women Who Rock exhibition at Kendal Mountain Film Festival last year. This led us to a lady who has led all the Lake District routes in Classic Rock and Hard Rock and a fair few from Extreme Rock too. After starting to climb in the Lakes in the early 60's Angela Soper holds a very impressive diary of favourite routes describing Gimmer String as "my first extreme lead with Denise Wilson Pinnacle Club, 1969". She was part of the first ascent of The Bracken Clock in 1970 "with the great Allan Austin and Jack Soper", later to become her husband. Saxon, a magnificent sustained climb, one of the longest in the Lakes is Angela's last favourite but she did also offer a rather marvellous challenge by sharing that she once soloed Bowfell Buttress, Moss Ghyll Grooves (Scafell), Tophet Wall (Gable), New West (Pillar Rock) all on the same day in the 1970s. Starting from Langdale and finishing at Wasdale Head, she completed all four with two members of the Gritstone Club, which was men only at the time. Any takers…….?
Another, much lesser known climber who is perpetually posting epic dawn and dusk climbing shots is local Instructor and part time staff member James Gibson. In fact, we're pretty sure that he can teleport as he is quite frequently dangling off a rock face at opposite ends of the country just hours after having put in a full day at the shop. In May 2018, James and his friend Jack Olive climbed all 15 of the Lakeland routes included in Classic Rock in 22 hours 40 minutes, running in between each one. They covered a distance of 32 miles and a height gain of 4,300 meters and a decent of 4,650 meters while managing to stay awake and with total focus! It was a fantastic achievement, with a number of fellow staff members offering support along the way, so we thought it would be fitting to make sure as many of his routes were included as possible: Little Chamonix, their final route, Gillercombe Buttress, Troutdale Pinnacle, Bowfell Buttress, Jones Route Direct, Moss Ghyll Grooves, Napes Needle, Tophet Wall, Murray's Route and New West Climb.
These additions also tied in nicely with our MD Paul Casey who has also completed all of the classic rock routes but at a slightly more leisurely pace. His all time favourite is Troutdale Pinnacle because it looks so unlikely from the bottom yet offers fantastic varied climbing from the delicate slab traverse to the exposed pinnacle finish. It's also possible that fond memories of stopping to answer a phone call on the lead across the slab and securing a contract deal for climbing harnesses might also be a factor in this route taking first place, but only just, above Botteril's Slab on Scafell. "There's quite bold climbing with great protection and the position you get on the crux offers exhilarating exposure." Originally climbed in 1903 by Fred Botteril from Leeds, his gripping description in the Yorkshire Ramblers Club Journal of the first ascent includes why he climbed it while holding an ice axe along with how he stopped to remove his hat to a lady in a party watching below! Oh and of course, he climbed it in nailed boots too. Paul's final addition was the iconic Napes Needle which never seems to get any easier, no matter how many times you climb it. His most memorable trip to the Napes though was as part of a three day mountaineering mini expedition in 1997. "I was with Cathy and the weather wasn't brilliant so we decided to take in as many scrambles as we could in between Langdale and Wasdale, camping en route. By the time we got to the Napes it was so windy we ditched any ideas of going up the Needle and headed off up Great Gable via Needle Ridge instead. It was a bit challenging with full packs on – I even used a bit of aid!"
The list was now forming nicely but to make absolutely sure we had a well rounded list we needed to highlight pioneering, classic and downright scary routes that have captivated climber's imaginations and driven the sport into new territory for the past 200 years, we thought it was time to bring in the real experts: The Fell and Rock Climbing Club. Founded in 1906-07 the FRCC has produced definitive climbing guides for the Lake District since 1922 and is currently the oldest and largest rock climbing and mountaineering club in the North of England. With their vast knowledge the following "breakthrough routes" were included:
The Old West Route on Pillar Rock (1826): The first ascending rock climb in the Lake District.
Napes Needle via the Wasdale Crack (1886): Widely accepted as the first rock climb done for the sake of climbing - though this is arguable - but certainly very influential.
Jones Route Direct from Lords Rake – Scafell Crag (1898): The first route to blatantly tackle the open slabs, away from the confines of gullies.
Walker's Gully on Pillar Rock (1899): A route of the gully epoch giving imposing and atmospheric climbing – calling for techniques seldom seen at climbing walls!
Botteril's Slab – Scafell Crag (1902): Try this while carrying an ice axe and removing your hat to greet a passing lady while climbing this route!!
Central Buttress – Scafell Crag (1914): Now E1/E3 This was a huge step forward and is still a tremendous tick for climbers now.
The Buttonhook Route – Kern Knotts (1934): Awesome lead by Fred Balcombe who gave up climbing and took up cave diving for more excitement!!
Footless Crow – Goat Crag (1974): This route (now E6) changed the ethos and set the benchmark for all future hard routes in the Lakes.
Bleed In Hell – Bowderstone Crag (1992): Dave Birkett started (!) to make his mark with this stunning E8 route.
So, there we have it; a list of 60 magnificent Lake District climbs bursting with history, climbed by legends, chosen by the greats and showcasing some of the very best traditional climbing that our UNESCO World Heritage site has to offer. The list is by no means definitive but it does offer a broad range of grades for all climbers to enjoy our fantastic sport.