To say climbing in Somerset's iconic Cheddar Gorge is special is an huge understatement. It's rich history, jaw dropping landscape and many high quality routes ensure it's fame. But access to the south side of the Gorge is fragile and continued access relies upon climbers taking care to ensure they follow the agreements in place with the landowner, Cheddar Caves & Gorge. Mark Courtiour, our superstar BMC Cheddar Climbing Warden and Somerset Access Rep, reflects on what it has taken to get the current access gains we enjoy today, and why its so important to follow the restrictions that are in place...
In the past, climbing in Cheddar was a hard and committing experience. For a start you could only climb there during the winter months – regulars referred to it as ‘The Fridge’. It was almost always cold, damp and windy. When it wasn’t, in what passed for good dry conditions, it was arctic. But at least then the friction was supposed to be good. On top of that loose rock abounded, often onto visitor’s cars, and ivy advanced relentlessly, swallowing up holds and routes.
In 2000, government introduced the CROW Act which allowed climbing as a legal right in many areas of open land, regardless of the land owners wishes. Climbing on the North side suddenly became an all year round possibility. The South side remained outside the scope of the Act however.
In 2006, as a result of negotiations with the land owner, Longleat Estate, Martin Crocker and the BMC, the South side of the gorge was opened up to climbers for most of the summer months. The result was a renaissance for climbing here. Routes were cleaned, lower offs installed and many new routes bolted. Some trad routes too were retro-bolted. Martin produced a definitive guidebook to the restored climbs. Suddenly it was a very appealing place to climb and one of the country’s best sport climbing destinations. Naturally, it quickly became very popular.
The land owner attached some conditions to their newfound affinity for climbers. Freedom to climb on their land came with some complicated restrictions based around the safety of visitors to the Gorge during the busiest times of the year. It was made clear that failure to adhere to the agreement could result in climbing being forbidden. In addition, fearing expensive legal action should climbers injure visitors through rock fall or even dropping gear, they insisted that all climbers should carry civil liability insurance.
Initially, all went well. Most climbers adhered to the restrictions and as a thank you, Cheddar Caves and Gorge management hosted two climbing festivals in midsummer, even allowing for summer ascents of Coronation Street.
However in 2012 things started to go wrong. More climbers were ignoring the restrictions and climbing as they pleased. Worse still, a few people were rude to the Caves staff and some were actually abusive. Relations took a turn for the worse and the very real threat of a total ban on climbing on the South side of the gorge loomed.
The loss of access would have been a disaster for the climbing community. So the BMC, Martin Crocker and the then Director of the Show Caves (Hugh Cornwell) got together to work out a solution. It centred around the BMC fielding a Warden, contracted to talk to climbers during the critical times for access, making sure of their insurance compliance and asking any climbing without it, or climbing in out-of-season areas to “cross the road”. It worked well and, along with a take up of self policing, with many climbers showing a willingness to talk to others climbing at the wrong time or place, the number of breaches fell dramatically. The pressure on the Caves staff was removed and everyone was happy. Martin continued in the role of “climbing warden” until 2016 when I took over from him. My experience has been, almost without exception, a really positive one, with climbers expressing their appreciation of the work of the BMC. Those climbers inadvertently out of bounds have always been apologetic, appreciated my explanations and readily moved on.
Sadly this year things slipped a lot. Perhaps not surprisingly given the restrictions on travel, pent up frustration at being denied the outdoors for so long and a loss of the sense of time bought on by the pandemic. The Whitsun period had always been very quiet for climbing, with most climbers wanting to avoid the hordes of visitors and travelling away to climb. But this year was very busy. Too many climbers were climbing in places that were restricted. Most were very apologetic when I talked to them. But a pattern emerged - they had not read their guidebooks, had not looked at the signs I’d put up and had not checked the BMC’s RAD and so did not know that they were putting access into jeopardy by their action.
I spoke to fifty climbers, most of whom were very apologetic. Other climbers also told me of people they had seen climbing off piste, and many had themselves suggested they stop, so the number of contraventions is even higher. Should the trend continue, the risk to our access is very real. The fact is we must take responsibility, know when and where we can climb and stick to the agreement. Should we ever lose access to this great place, it will be because of climbers, and the losers will be climbers. It’s in our own hands.
The summer season continues until the end of the month. From the 1st of July restrictions still apply but some areas have been newly opened up. Routes from the Reservoir Walls up Gorge are being trialled as open all year round and access has been given for evening climbing on Ginsberg, Yew Tree and Horseshoe Bend. Please check the access arrangements before you start climbing.
WATCH: Cheddar Gorge - Respect the Rock on BMC TV:
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