Top 10 British bouldering venues for beginners

Posted by Tina Gardner on 15/05/2014
Sunny day at Bonehill, Dartmoor. Photo: Niall Grimes

So you’re ready to test your new bouldering skills, strength and equipment. You've packed the essential flask and cake, but where to begin?

This is one of many great articles from our new special edition magazine: Get into Climbing.

Good news! The UK is full of superb venues, so no matter where you live there should be something within reach. To help, here’s a rundown on ten of the best places for beginners, along with hints on what each is best for. Of course, there are hundreds more besides, so look at the websites mentioned for further info, and check out your local bouldering guidebooks.

1. Portland

One of the most popular areas in the south with relatively straightforward access from some big cities and very reliable conditions. A couple of hundred smallish problems (routes) lie on the scattered super-scree around the base of a popular sport crag. The Cuttings Boulderfield offers loads of problems on smallish boulders, usually around 3m high. Sit starts are the norm to make the most of their height. There are problems on slabs, bulges, aretes, cracks, pockets, crimps and slopers. Landings can be poor, with lots of rocks lying around, so one pad is a necessity, more are better. The rock is fairly smooth and the climbing tends to be fairly powerful.

  • Where: Portland, on the south coast of Dorset
  • Web: www.dorset-climbing.com
  • Guide: Portland (Climbers’ Club), Cuttings Boulderfield (Rockfax)
  • Best for: Cool limestone bouldering near the sea
  • When to go: Good all year

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2. Bonehill

The epicentre of Dartmoor bouldering with over a hundred blistering problems concentrated into a  small and beautiful spot mere seconds from the car park. The rock is rough and unforgiving, so if you’re doing any washing up before you go, then wear your Marigolds, to avoid softening your skin. Family-tastic.  This will be the first port of call for the visiting boulderer. Very convenient, friendly and easy to navigate. The problems follow good lines and have a variety of styles. Not as busy with tourists as Hound Tor but more popular with boulderers. You could easily spend a whole day here, or at least as long as your skin lasts.

  • Where: High in the wilds of Dartmoor
  • Web: www.javu.co.uk
  • Guide: Boulder Britain (Ape Index)
  • Best for: Wild moorland with big views and rough rock
  • When to go: Spring to autumn

3. RAC Boulders

A beautiful and relaxed roadside circuit for gentle year-round fun. Popular, but never crowded, and a good alternative for easier stuff when it’s too crowded in the Llanberis Pass. The RAC Boulders are a superb venue for lower-grade bouldering and, in many ways, nicer than the more popular hard  shoulder that is the Cromlech Boulders. The adjacent road never feels as busy or as oppressive, the valley has a softer feel and the views are magnificent. Parking is always easy and it never seems to get as bitterly cold as it does in the Pass. A great choice any day, especially a sunny winter day. Great for beginners and the hungover.

  • Where: In the shadow of Snowdon in the heart of Snowdonia National Park
  • Web: www.northwalesbouldering.com
  • Guide: North Wales Bouldering (Ground Up), Boulder Britain (Ape Index)
  • Best for: Friendly bouldering in mountain wilderness
  • When to go: Good all year

4. Thorn Crag

Gritstone with a sea view. A mega-session of top quality problems overlooking one of the more pristine wildernesses of northern England. A beautiful and majestic spot with great lines to match. Remote and exposed, it is best enjoyed on a long sunny day. The approach is a bit of a slog for a boulderer’s legs (40 minutes), but once the golden contour is reached, these clumps lie just off a good track. The majority of the bouldering is on three small boulder-clumps that lie a few minutes walk from each other. A fl ask and sandwiches would be a good way to celebrate each new venue. Family friendly.

  • Where: In the middle of nowhere inland from Lancaster
  • Web: www.lakesbloc.com
  • Guide: Yorkshire Gritstone Bouldering Volume 2 (Total Climbing)
  • Best for: Getting away from it all
  • When to go: Spring and autumn

5. Brownstones

The pride of Lancashire bouldering with endless technical and fi n g e r y problems in a friendly,  sunny and sheltered quarry close to the road. A happy place for happy people. This little sun-trap is justifiably one of the area’s most popular climbing venues. Endless problems exist on these short walls and slabs of polished holds and smears. Local rules often apply. Good landings, if sometimes a little high-ball, and clean rock make it a fun venue. Generally technical and fingery on quarried vertical walls.

  • Where: On the outskirts of Bolton
  • Web: www.ukclimbing.com
  • Guide: Lancashire Rock (BMC)
  • Best for: Urban action on a Lancastrian evening
  • When to go: All year

6. St Bees

One of the nicest bouldering venues in the country. A seaside sun-trap with over 60 problems of all grades on magical sandstone boulders. Generally non-tidal and quick drying. A bit out of the way so, if you go, plan to spend the entire day. It will be one of those great days. Stunning, guano-bedashed rock walls tower behind, and the deep blues of the Irish Sea lie below. Scattered between are dozens of perfectly-sculpted boulders all fielding a great collection of fi ne problems on strong lines above usually perfectly fl at landings. A magical place. Problems are seldom high, although one mat is needed to take the sting out of the hard rock platform.

  • Where: On the coast of the Lake District near Whitehaven
  • Web: www.lakesbloc.com
  • Guide: Lake District Bouldering (Rockfax)
  • Best for: People who like beautiful climbing beside the seaside
  • When to go: Spring and autumn

7. Caley

An exotic zoo of brilliant boulders nestling across a ferny hillside. Problems at every grade. As good as it gets. Technical, fi erce, bold and legendary. The essence of gritstone: feel it. Enough projects, circuits, high-balls and problems for a lifetime at a venue that just oozes quality. Trashed skin, twisted ankles, a bloody shin, screaming fingers, bloated biceps, scared silly – but let’s just do one more. Crimps, slopers, aretes, pebbles, jugs and chickenheads. Sitters, high-balls and everything in between. Can be sore on the skin.

  • Where: Just outside Otley, north of Leeds
  • Guide: Yorkshire Gritstone Bouldering Volume 1 (Total Climbing)
  • Best for: Tons of quality on technical rock
  • When to go: All year

8. Almscliff

The spiritual home of Yorkshire bouldering and the brainstem venue for locals, this is an exposed mini-mountain with lovely views and endless lines. Generally burly climbing across all grades and with a great supply of test-pieces of the highest historical value. An essential venue.

Great for people who think with their biceps, the climbing here is steep, sometimes very steep, and fairly brutal on boulders and crag. It’s sometimes high-ball so bring a lot of pads, although there’s plenty of low-ball stuff too. Great across all grades and good for beginners. Aretes, cracks, walls and some easier slabs. Lots of crimps and slopers and some pockets. Brilliant for traverses and link-ups.

  • Where: Just south of Harrogate in Yorkshire
  • Guide: Yorkshire Gritstone Bouldering Volume 1 (Total Climbing)
  • Best for: Getting your biceps destroyed
  • When to go: All year

9. Burbage South

A beginner’s bouldering paradise. A dozen friendly blobs of gritstone mooching around a broad field in a setting as fi ne as any in the land. Amongst many a gentle ruminant are a few with a bit of bite but still, for those operating in the lower grades it’s a gentle pick ‘n’ mix of pleasure. It’s hard not to think about a blue checkered rug thrown out on the grass, cream cheese and some spilled coleslaw.

The flanks of the boulders give generally rounded and slabby or slightly overhanging climbs where your feet seldom get far above great grassy landings. The problems are still technical, often smeary, sometimes pebbly.

  • Where: In the Peak District just outside Sheffield
  • Web: www.peakbouldering.info
  • Guide: Burbage, Millstone and Beyond (BMC)
  • Best for: Friendly bouldering in a beautiful, accessible location
  • When to go: All year

10. Dumbarton Rock

The steelworks of Scottish bouldering. A hard-edged proving ground for the greats of Caledonian cranking.  A messy back yard for Glaswegian climbers and little local delinquents. Always a place of intensity and wild times, and very much somewhere with its own special ambience. Dumbarton is the sort of crag where you’ll try an unattractive little sitter in a damp crevice and, for some reason, be unable to move on until you do it. You’ll probably get it with the skin of your teeth as the sun disappears over the Clyde. You know the kind of place.

  • Where: Very close to Glasgow
  • Web: www.dumby.info
  • Guide: Dumbarton Rock (Stone Country)
  • Best for: Hardcore urban cranking
  • When to go: All year

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