Articles - Classic Routes: Regent Street, Millstone
John Horscroft - Posted on 29 Apr 2010
Regent Street (E2 5c), Millstone
First Ascent: Terry King 1968
It’s very much my pleasure on a Sunday afternoon to have a stroll up The Mall or to shilly shally on The Great West Road. I’ve had a sniff around Billingsgate and taken a cup of tea by Lyons Corner House, spent many a happy hour on the Embankment and enjoyed the delights of Bond Street. But amongst Millstone’s urban sprawl, there are roads I fear to tread. Although I’ve been dragged leaden footed up Saville Street, the wild spawn of a handsome cab nag wouldn’t drag me onto Coventry or Jermyn Street. Too hard, too scary.
For a time you could add Regent Street to that list. How often did I walk past it with a lingering glance, like an adolescent in love, too shy to approach the object of desire? Every other route in the Keyhole Cave area pales into insignificance. Either punctuated by the hideous crumbling sandiness of the cave or rock of a semi-permanent nature, they are second rate compared to the simple brilliance of Regent Street. How fitting that London’s Regent Street should be paved not with gold but with gritstone.
When Terry King climbed Regent Street in 1968, it was a revelation. The chime of hammer against peg was still a common sound when he took on a climb that was steep, technical, futuristic even and, in all likelihood, loose. It was an instant classic and an immediate target for the aspiring hard man, a route that fell originally to Peck and Biven in Millstone’s initial aid era transformed into a free route of the highest quality.
Prior to Regent Street the peg dominated dark ages had been illuminated by very few hard, free climbs of real quality. Len Millsom had chipped in with the unsung yet excellent Watling Street, a typically bold E2. Harold Drasdo’s Dexterity is pure class and Steve Chadwick’s Billingsgate a beauty but they’re both HVS in my book, only recently succumbing to IGC (Insidious Grade Creep) and rising to E1. King’s masterpiece may have heralded Millstone’s free climbing new age but it took a while for things to kick off with a vengeance. A year later, Tom Proctor realised the potential and scratched his way up Green Death, albeit with a peg for protection. But it was five years before Richard McHardy astonished everyone, and usurped Proctor, by soloing the peerless Edge Lane. Arguably however, it was the phenomenally talented John Allen’s ascent of London Wall in 1975 that produced Regent Street’s true successor. A contender for gritstone’s greatest climb, it was fully three grades harder and a singularly lonely lead. At the time it was technically cutting edge and still claims many a scalp, making Alex Honnold’s recent on sight solo all the more impressive.
I tried Regent Street first with my Aussie mate, Paul Riviere. We’d climbed on Embankment Wall initially, ticking off Route 3 and Time For Tea. To my consternation he seemed distinctly underwhelmed, damning the routes with faint praise. The moment we strolled round to the Keyhole Cave though, his face lit up. I was suffering from one of my periodic crises of confidence and was secretly hoping Paul would lead Regent Street so I could take a good look at it. He saw it differently however, had noticed the far away look in my eye, heard the enthusiasm with which I extolled the climb, and insisted I lead it.
Which left me with little option. Geared to the gunnels, I stood at the foot of the initial crack, wondering where the crux was. I’d always assumed it was the finger crack high on the route. Now, I wasn’t so sure. The projecting block at 20 feet looked awkward, just the sort of innocuous feature guaranteed to prove an impassable road-block on this particular one way street. Sure enough, off I came cursing and swearing. Having matured in an era when dogging a route was tantamount to, well, just dogging, I lowered off and had a breather. Second go, with the gear still in place, I huffed and puffed my bulge over the bulge and made my way to the rest below the finger crack.
Where, in time honoured fashion, I proceeded to talk myself out of the climb. “Christ,” I muttered. “That looks hard. What’s the gear like? Will I have the strength to place it?” and so on until I was on the verge of hysteria, at which point either Paul or the missus shouted “Are you bivvying?”. Miffed, I set off and, to my utter astonishment, fired off the crack in short order. The finger locks were sinkers, the foot holds sparse but positive and the gear confidence inspiring. I whooped with relief as I hauled myself up the vertical scree to reach the inevitable wonky fence post belay. I was chuffed in spite of the questionable ethics and Paul even admitted to being pumped at the top, hitherto unheard of. Back at the foot of the climb though, that bloody bulge just winked at me, “Didn’t do it clean though did you? Had the gear in place didn’t you? See you next time loser.....”