For climbers in the South East of England, sandstone crags such as Harrison’s Rocks are oases of adventure in a region otherwise seriously lacking in opportunity. The fragility of these crags means that they need extra protection – and small groups of activists are doing their best to keep the climbing top-notch for the rest of us. Meet the unsung heroes of Southern Sandstone.
The outcrops of sandstone scattered around the border of Kent and East Sussex are possibly the most fragile climbing environments in the country. Ongoing erosion means that holds are constantly changing, routes are in flux, and repairs have to take place on a regular basis to protect the areas for both climbing and conservational purposes. We tracked down three Southern Sandstone activists – all local climbers themselves – to find out the secrets of the trade and discover how you can make their job easier.
Tim Skinner, Harrison’s Rocks Management Group (HRMG) Chair
The biggest conservational problems affecting southern sandstone are erosion of the hardened outer surface of the rock and, in the case of the most popular crags, erosion of the ground beneath the cliffs. The rock is very soft and wears away comparatively easily, meaning that holds change and if poor ropework is used then grooves are worn in the top of the crag.
The most popular and heavily used crags – Harrison’s, Bowles and Stone Farm being the main ones – are worst affected. At Harrison’s in particular the number of visitors means that there is constant erosion of the loose, sandy slopes below the crag.
Repairs are made in several ways. Rope grooves are usually repaired using cement, where the SSSI status of a crag doesn’t prohibit this. Damaged holds are repaired using shellac furniture polish (known locally as ‘resin’), PVA and sometimes wood hardener. Ground erosion control is achieved using ‘revetments’ – low wooden barriers usually made from materials found on-site to stop sand being washed down the slopes below the crags – and by ‘brashing’ areas with branches to discourage foot traffic.
At the BMC-owned crags of Harrison’s and Stone Farm, repairs to the rock are done by the management group, or by volunteers or contractors as appropriate, although we struggle to find people able and willing to do this work. At most of the crags erosion control work is done by members of the Sandstone Volunteers Group (SVG).
Graham Adcock, SVG Coordinator
‘Conservation’ on the sandstone outcrops has been going on for many years now. It was realised in the late 60s and early 70s that moving ropes were causing considerable damage to the rocks and also that ‘footfall’ was increasingly wearing the footpaths, particularly along the crag edges. This in turn conspired with water run-off to further erode the sand, leaving the newly exposed rocks vulnerable.
In 2003, I set up a project to clear Bull’s Hollow – a small crag near Rusthall that I’d climbed on as a youngster that had become overgrown and unused. There was much support from the local climbing community and we constructed a maintenance plan, got the necessary permission from the various agencies involved and carried out the cutting over the winter months. This transformed the hollow, brought together climbers into a conservation group (the SVG) and paved the way to a more ambitious plan at High Rocks which Oliver Hill directed using volunteer labour from the newly-formed SVG. Again, this was a huge success.
Since then, the SVG has worked, mainly over the winter months, on Bull’s Hollow, High Rocks, Stone Farm Rocks, Eridge Green Rocks, High Rocks Annexe and, of course, Harrison’s where there is an on-going 14-year tree management plan as well as general crag maintenance. It’s an uphill struggle really. The SVG carry out essential work, as without this many of the crags would be in a very poor condition.
The most pressing need is for education of those coming into climbing. Particularly those who start out on climbing walls where the transition to climbing outdoors on natural crags needs a new set of skills and procedures to be adopted to ensure no further damage is done. Climbers, generally, are encouraged to challenge poor belay setups and other practices that could result in damage to the crag – this is not a ‘police’ state, rather a friendly word of advice or the offer of an additional sling to extend the belay over the edge of the crag.
Sarah Cullen, HRMG member and director of Nuts4Climbing
Climbers can use their own ‘tools’ to reducing erosion. You’ll find them at the start of climbs standing on off-cuts of carpets (we call these ‘prayer mats’), wiping their rock boots with beer mats to remove every last grain of sand which might cause the climbers sole to slip in the hold, but more importantly stops the sandpapering effect loose sand has on the hold being stepped on.
Climbers can also damage the rocks, particularly the edge at the top of the rocks by the poor setting of belays. Look around carefully and see the extent of repairs which have gone on over the years.
Everyone should be aware of the ways damage is minimised and have read the detailed document the BMC produce: the Southern Sandstone Code of Practice. The code of practice (pdf) can be found in all good guidebooks to the area.
It’s essential to hang the karabiner and belay cord over the edge of the rock and its very good practice to use a rope protector to avoid the possibility of damage even using static rope. The use of typical ‘dynamic’ climbing rope is not really acceptable on Southern Sandstone. Good instruction outfits wouldn’t be seen dead on Sandstone using it because the manufactured 10-15% stretch of the rope when it’s loaded causes a cheese-wire effect on the soft rock which creates rope grooves. Much better for the soft Southern Sandstone is ‘static’ rope, traditionally used by cavers with much less (typically +/- 3%) stretch.
When climbers fall off, the etiquette says that they should immediately be lowered to the ground to avoid ‘dogging’. Dogging is the term given by climbers to the practice of the falling climber being held on the rope in the same position by the belayer whilst continuously attempting and failing to make a hard move.
If rope stretch is important then so should be rope diameter. The thicker the rope the greater the spread of forces on the rock and the less likely it is to become damaged by falling climbers or moving static rope.
How to get involved
If you're interested in getting involved in conserving Southern Sandstone, why not go to the Sandstone Open Meeting on Sunday 17 May 2015 at the Bowles Outdoors Centre, East Sussex.
READ: The code of practice before you get started.
You may also find the following pages from the BMC Community site useful, which contain information and minutes of meetings for the two key BMC groups in the area:
WATCH: How to look after Southern Sandstone on BMC TV
WATCH: A short film following GB paraclimber Phill Mitchell as he tries his hand on southern sandstone on BMC TV. A film by George Sewell.