What’s the most special thing about British climbing? 20-foot gritstone adventure routes? The overgrown mountain crags? The loose limestone sport routes? No, its sea cliffs, where quality, adventure and stunning natural beauty are washed up in the most incredible and unique landscapes.
And ask any seasoned British climber where their favourite sea cliff is and you will see their eyes glaze over as their mind drifts off to perfect sunny days on flawless limestone, and you will hear them utter the magic word: “Pembroke.”
The UK’s greatest sea cliff with mile upon mile of flawless, ever-varying limestone. And now the perfect sea cliff has the perfect guidebook.
Pembroke Rock is the second production from the Wired stable, the gang who brought you the award-winning Lake District Rock last year. And like that guide, Pembroke Rock delivers all the greatest routes in one fantastic book.
These range from off-the-peg classics on St Govan’s, North-Pembroke gems on St David’s Head and Carreg y Barcud, army dream-routes on Range West, the great fords, zawns and bays of Stennis, Huntsman’s, Rusty Walls and Misty Walls, ultra-classic wall climbs at Trevallen, Mowing Word and Stackpole and the unforgettable voyages at Mother Carey’s.
The guide is available now, with discount for BMC members, from the BMC Shop, and inspiration and dreams drool off every page. Treat yourself.
WATCH: Steve McClure tackle the mighty E10 Choronzon in Pembroke on BMC TV
To get a bit of a flavour for the area, we bugged Pembroke pundit and guidebook author, Emma Alsford, for more info on the book and the area.
What was the idea behind the new select guide?
There has been a growing pressure for the Climbers' Club to provide selective guidebooks, to complement their definitive volumes. Climbing areas are now becoming so large, in terms of numbers of routes, that buying guidebooks can become an expensive business. Pembroke itself now has over 6,500 climbs, which cannot possibly fit into one. However for the large market of climbers who only come to Pembroke once or twice a year, and for students and younger climbers who may find affordability an issue, this new selective Pembroke Rock is far more suitable to their needs (initially anyway). This selective 'showcase' guidebook provides an up-to-date and affordable tome of information for new climbers to the area. And the hope is that by sampling and enjoying Pembroke through this initial inspiring volume, climbers will develop an enduring love for the climbing here and thus will gradually want more.
What do you think the new guide brings to the table that is new?
Pembroke Rock has a new format and size compared with the Climbers' Club definitive guides, and is part of the exciting new Wired brand of award-winning guidebooks (Lake District Rock won at Banff last year), it is bigger than the traditional 'pocket size' book which the CC usually produce, and the new size makes it more of a 'showcase' guidebook. It’s inspiring to leaf through, makes for particularly large and clear topos for easy route finding, as well as allowing plenty of room for those inspiring action shots. Along with these, and also new, are the small location maps for every crag, particularly useful for those climbers who are not quite so familiar with Pembroke yet. There is also a really easy to use and well displayed Crag Guide at the start of the book, making navigating around the whole area and choosing which crag to go to a much easier process. Also included, and adding no small amount of interest, are some 'anecdotal' quotes from key Pembroke activists, captioned over various photos throughout the guide. All this gives the book a fresh and modern feel. It's basically sex between two covers giving over 1,000 of some of the best climbs Pembroke has to offer. And offering helpful pointers to the definitives for those wanting to go a bit deeper… :-)
What crags would you recommend for the first-time visitor?
This obviously depends on the grade at which you climb, but what is inspirational in this selective guidebook is the fact that there is a huge number of climbs for the lower grade climber, as well as a good selection of much harder climbs, which is what Pembroke is traditionally better known for.
For those operating up to VS, one is hard-pushed to beat Saddle Head, and although this crag has a reputation for attracting the crowds, over 30 climbs have been included in this guide, reducing the likelihood of queuing for routes. For getting away from the mainstream, Becks Bay and the delightful Giltar Slabs come highly recommended, also for the lower grade climber. And if a visit to the area is timed with a briefing weekend for Range West (see the BMC website for dates), Western Walls has to be one of the best crags in the country at this more amenable end of the grade spectrum. Of course there are also the slab delights to be found in North Pembroke, at places like Porthclais, as well as the alternative gabbro rock of crags such as Craig Coetan and South Buttress on the St David's Head peninsula, all providing a very different outlook to that of the limestone cliffs in the south.
For the extreme grade climber, of course it's hard to know what not to recommend for the first-time visitor! I suppose some of the top crags which should be on the list during a first visit would have to be Huntsman's Leap, Trevallen, The Castle and Stackpole Head. And as for the mid-grade climber, the choice is endless at Mowingword, the access couldn't be easier at St Govan's Head, nor the rock more delightful at Mother Carey's Kitchen, whilst the adventures are simply thrilling at Mewsford Point and the arm relief somewhat noticeable at Carreg-y-Barcud, if one requires the change from gym buster to rock dancer!
Paul Donnithorne getting technical on Green Peace E2 5b at Chapel Point. Photo: Don Sargeant.
Where would you point the seasoned Pembroker to for something new?
It's surprising how few climbers frequent the tucked away No Man's Zawn, with its handful of gems between E3 and E5, when its character is not dissimilar to a miniature Huntsman's Leap. Whilst a little nearer the seaside resort of Tenby one can also find the slightly more obscure Scoop Wall, a most unusual, very water worn crag, full of quirky solution tubes. And still very few climbers seem to have even heard of Chance Encounter Zawn, with its fine selection of routes between Severe and E5 – somewhat bizarre, though on wonderfully solid limestone, which is only a ten minute walk from the popular Broadhaven Beach. Climbers also rarely venture into Range West, which has one of the best VD-VS venues in the country, the already mentioned Western Walls, reached after a long and beautifully scenic walk into one of the more remote areas in Pembroke – there are vast numbers of jug-infested adventures here, on unusually striated bands of fossil infused limestone. For those operating between HVS and E4, Mount Sion East is hard to beat on a hot summer day and has a character all of its own, which not many Pembroke stalwarts have even experienced.
In Range East many climbers think they have seen it all but I often meet those who have never been to Madman's Point, Triple Overhang Buttress, Mosaic Wall or even Hollow Caves Bay, each with their very different characteristics, and no small amount of classic rock climbs. Try The Gong, Beachcomber, Rollerwall or Gravy Train if you don't believe me!
In North Pembroke the majority of seasoned Pembrokers go to Carreg y Barcud, but there is so much more adventure to be had at the atmospheric Trwyn Llwyd or the sombre Mur Cenhinen on a warm summer's evening, with the involved journey that is 'Barad' and the intimidating 'Goneril', both a must on any climber's ticklist.
Asides from route choice, what other advice would you give first timers for having the best experience?
Check tides carefully, and if you're visiting during the week look for options other than the popular Range East, where firing can often stop play – North Pembroke, Stackpole, Lydstep and Penally are all areas with plenty to go at. And whilst famous crags are great and definitely should be visited, don't overlook the lesser known cliffs which have plenty of surprising gems up their sleeves. Have long lie-ins, and take jumars and a sense of humour to the crag.
How did your own love affair with the crag start?
Bonking Paul (Donnithorne, co-author).
Favourite routes at the crag?
Act of God, Billy Spragg, Spacewalk,The Gong, Daydreams, Gravy Train, Space Cadet, Ghostly Galleon, Soup Dragon, Heart of Darkness/New Morning, Swordfish, Magic Flute.
WATCH: Church Rock Sea Stack, Pembroke on BMC TV
Can you think of one experience that sums up the Pembroke adventure for you?
I never tire of the adventures here. Just when you think you have everything under control the very nature and closeness of the sea can provide you with a complete epic, the survival of which gives a feeling of utter elation – and all under the feet of unsuspecting tourists only moments away, yet as distanced from your world as it is possible to be.
The thing is, there is no 'one experience' that sums up the Pembroke adventure – there are many! However, just as we were coming to the end of this particular climbing guidebook project, an experience with friends does sum up everything that Pembroke is to me; namely good climbing, adventure, camaraderie and sheer unadulterated fun – and it seems the most appropriate story here.
We were a month away from printing the book but still struggling to find the elusive cover shot. I'd had an idea that had stemmed from an earlier shoot, and was a bit put out that it was proving rather difficult to obtain. After all, it couldn't have been an easier shot to set up – one could walk to the crag (up to mid-tide), the shot could be taken from the ground, and the crag wasn't within the firing range… well, not quite, anyway. The climb could even be reversed, as the shot required was only 10 metres up a relatively easy slab section. However, the shot had to be taken after 2pm, due to the right light conditions required, and this didn't always coincide with the best tidal state. Another spanner in the works was the weather – it just wasn't playing ball for weeks on end, and then suddenly it was post August, and the regular firing schedule re-commenced; and although the climb wasn't 'technically' within the firing range, the problem was the potential for being cut off by the tide, and then being forced to climb out, which would land us within the boundary fence.
But eventually we seized the day when models and belayers were available and everyone was up for a relatively easy day by the sea. We found ourselves at the bottom of the crag with an hour or two to spare before the light came around, and so whilst waiting for our other friends to join us we put this time to good use by climbing Ultravixens, in order to set up an abseil rope in case we were cut off by the tide later on. At this point I was feeling rather smug and super organised. As our friends joined us, we casually chatted away and carried on with the task in hand, with no sense of urgency whatsoever (despite getting cut off not more than one week before at the very same crag…mmm…I feel a Darwin award coming on, but that's another story). As Flo posed around under instruction, and I was busy concentrating on snapping, none of us noticed the encroaching tide, or just how fast it was approaching. Well not until Alex, dutifully belaying, was starting to get splashed around the ankles. And before we knew it a somewhat innocuous looking sea had turned into a furiously boiling and raging one!
The scene that ensued would have made the funniest viewing comedy drama ever, although being the main characters within it the word 'retrospective enjoyment' or 'second degree fun' springs to mind. Trying to get four sodden rucksacks and three even bigger drowned rats up a 9.5mm soaking wet abseil rope, with two of the party unable to jumar was a challenge. I escaped quite lightly by bombing up the rope at break neck speed, while it, and the rock face, were relatively dry. I lowered the jumars back down and next Flo, a relative beginner to the whole 'sea cliff experience', decided to have a quick lesson in jumaring techniques from Kate, in order to avoid climbing up a now sodden crag (the waves were breaking 1/3 of the way up the cliff by this point). What resulted was a whirling dervish on the end of a rope, whilst Alex looked on in utter amusement, laughing his head off and seemingly unaware of the escalating danger, despite disappearing beneath every second wave in the process. As you can imagine communication was difficult, as the wind had picked up and the cliff was severely overhanging in its lower third. Kate meanwhile gave up on instructing Flo, tied into one of the climbing ropes and heroically started climbing the saturated rock face with one of the stupendously heavy rucksacks on her back, trying to get as much of our kit up as possible before the sea claimed it.
Eventually we all made it out safely, albeit a tad wetter than we had started out, but also now buzzing from the whole experience. Unfortunately we were now on the wrong side of the military fence, with firing not due to finish for another hour or so… despite not being in a real danger zone as such, walking up to the sentry at such a time and in such a bedraggled state would not have been a good look for us and we had no doubt would not go down so well, so we sat it out, laughing and joking about our 'close shave', whilst awaiting the flags to go down.
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