Articles - Libby Peter's Crag Tour: Vicarage Cliff, Cornwall
There’s a 20-mile stretch of crenulated coastline straddling the North Devon and Cornwall Border, known as the Culm Coast. Culm is the local name for the peculiar combination of alternating shale and sandstone rock bands. The mix has lead to a complex coastline where the soft and crumbly shale sections have eroded into chaotic bays filled with boulders and coarse shingle beaches, while the harder sandstone beds typically run at right angles to the coastline creating fin-like promontories jutting defiantly into the relentless and mesmerising swell of the Atlantic. It’s these fins that provide climbers, willing to venture a little off the beaten track, with superb steep slabs and walls to play on.
You’ve probably heard of Sharpnose, a popular crag packed with starred routes from HVS upwards, but you maybe don’t realise that there are 46 other crags in the CC guide to this area and plenty to tempt the mid-grade climber. So which one to choose? Flicking through the guide, one crag sounds particularly appealing, billed as ‘the place to remind you that climbing should also be about enjoyment’.
Vicarage Cliff, a few miles north of Bude, typifies the nature of Culm climbing; a quiet peaceful setting, slightly awkward access, tides to take into account and rock quality that alternates between reassuringly solid to terrifyingly friable. In other words, the whole experience has an element of uncertainty, but if you don’t give places a chance you’ll never know!
The village of Morwenstow is tucked away down winding lanes a short distance off the main A39 coast road that runs passed Bude towards Bideford. There are three notable attractions in the village worth lingering at: The Bush Inn (save it for the end of the day), The Rectory Tea Rooms (sadly only open high season) and Morwenstow church (check out the numerous gravestones of drowned sailors). Oh yes, and of course there’s the crag as well!
From the village green parking head towards the sea (well signposted) and join the coast path southwards, i.e. turn left. You’ll soon spot the curious driftwood Hawker’s Hut, which overlooks the fin of Vicarage Cliff. The bus-shelter size hut was built by the eccentric Rev Hawker in the 1800s as an eyrie from which to gaze out, write poetry and smoke opium, now it’s one of the National Trust’s smallest properties and makes a good vantage point for checking the tide level at the crag.
The guide implies there are two approaches to the crag, but the direct descent past the hut looks lethal. Instead continue along the cliff top, south over a rise and down towards a stream. The coast path carries straight on here, but you follow the curve of the cliff top to the first spot that looks at all possible to descend. Vicarage Cliff is in full view at this point across the bay. A faint path takes you down to a steepening where a stake and rope is normally in-situ for a much needed hand-line. The cliff is crumbly and insecure here so the rope is very welcome.
Routes to seek out
If you arrive at low to mid tide you’ll have the pick of the whole main cliff, plus the climbs around the corner on Lucky Hole. Claire (Diff), the easiest climb at the crag, is found here on the small natural arch at the back of the bouldery narrow zawn. The first few moves feel more V. Diff than Diff, but the remainder is just delightful, with bomber gear to reassure you as you tackle the disintegrating top out (see photo). The guide suggests a scramble off the back but it doesn’t look remotely appealing. It’s possible to abseil back down the line of Romping Robert (VS 4c), another great climb but hard for its grade. The best of the dubious looking blocks are on the top of the ridge but check thoroughly and choose carefully, just because there’s a sling on a block doesn’t mean it’s a good idea to abseil from it. A single 60m rope will get you back to the beach.
Climbs left of Vicarage Tower
In order of difficulty, Sol and Tombstone are the next best climbs to try, both with flawless rock, flowing moves and straightforward descents by abseil from (normally) in-situ slings on the fin. Box of Delight’s is possibly the classic of the crag, but to be honest the whole wall to the right of the prominent central Vicarage Tower is brilliant. You can nip up and down the climbs so quickly the place almost has a sports crag feel.
The route Vicarage Tower (V. Diff) climbs an uninviting block-filled chimney on the towers left side, and was the first recorded climb on Culm. Though it was climbed in 1957 the rest of the crag wasn’t developed until the 1980’s and 90’s. The line of Spotted Dick (S) up the middle of the huge block that makes the top half of the tower is compelling, but the long-term stability of the entire block has to be questioned.
Climbs right of Vicarage Tower
As you move along the fin to the right of the tower rock quality gradually deteriorates, Harpoon (E2 5b) being the notable exception. Mad Mag’s Parasol (VS 4c) climbs rather flaky and poorly protected rock and though the climbing is delicate and absorbing, the abundant quality further left overshadows it. If you’ve ticked the rest of the crag and fancy a go, it’s worth noting that the best belay is around the whole of the huge block on the left, and descent involves a scamper rightwards along the alpine-esque ridge to an abseil point in the notch.
Take an extra rope to use on the stake in case the in-situ hand-line for the approach isn’t in place.
Be cautious of landslips after heavy rain.
A normal rack including cams will do the job, but carry some tat or old slings and old karabiners to replace the lower offs.
Don’t try Vicarage Tower as a descent as the guidebook suggests – it looks horrible!
Vicarage Cliff is a south facing cliff and given the right wind directions allows year round visits, but do try and go there in the summer too so you can sample the Vicarage Tea Rooms!
Libby has been climbing for 20 years, she is a qualified Mountaineering Instructor and IFMGA Guide and is the author of Rock Climbing – Essential Skills and Techniques published by MLTUK. Her base is North Wales from where she runs the guiding outfit Llanberis Guides email@example.com
Don't miss the rest of Libby Peter's Crag Tour at Castell Helen and Pot Scar.
How about combining the Vicarage Cliff with a visit to Baggy Point?