Articles - Secret Climbing on the Cornish Coast
Jamie Maddison, Photos: Tom Last - Posted on 22 Nov 2011
Secret Cornwall(Adventures along the Triassic Coast)
The paths leading to Trewavas Head are popular and well trodden. On a sunny day hikers stroll along the headland’s enjoyable walks admiring unrestrained sea views while the climbers themselves go for a pleasant amble up the crag’s many excellent routes. It is a truly blissful, serene part of Britain, one that a lot of people travel great distances to come visit. And yet if you can bring yourself to walk away from this peacefulness for just a moment, striking downwards to the lost shoreline below, you will find that an altogether different ambience prevails; discovering a domain untamed and a space still ripe for exploration. This is a bumbling account of two (fairly) locals who went looking for things a bit different inside Secret Cornwall.
The Trewavas Island juts out slightly from the main Porthleven to Rinsey coastline and is surrounded by good deep water. It was to be the starting place of mine and Tom’s nine-hour journey through a mere mile of under-explored coastline. There’s not too much of a coordinated deep-water soloing scene down this way, but nevertheless bits and bobs of information have surfaced across the Internet lately, submitted by locals and raiders alike who’ve looked upon many of the old trad classics with a fresh set of DWS eyes. One such account was found online for a Trewavas E3 called Ridge-Id and it gave us the impetus to finally go that way and check it out. So come sunrise two of us had our bags packed into the car (with three boulder mats for later) ready for the early morning high tide.
The water was as still as a grave and in places as grey as a corpse. It was to be a faltering start. We sacked off our initial objective quite quickly due to a lack of an abseil rope and also, upon looking at the line, suddenly becoming self-confessed cowards. Instead we opted for the more dubious honour of a DWS first ascent just around the corner. Sheltered in a narrow zawn sat a neat little arête, which wasn’t too high, nor too hard with lots of black, deep water underneath. It was perfect. And so watched only by a pair of ladies knickers, enigmatically perched halfway up a cliff just across the water from us, we took it in turns to climb up the little thing, inexplicably managing to introduce a fist-jam mantelshelf into what was otherwise a pleasant 4+ S0 route. We called it Twas Brillig, then moved on.
You don’t have to advance far around the coastline for the scenery to change quite drastically here. The altered area we were approaching is known by the few who have ever heard of it as Megiliggar Rocks. It is a site of special interest to geologists as the rock formations of the cliff faces feature a bizarre banding of Tregonning Granite with Upper Devonian Mylor Slate. To climbers, the area produces a small scattering of some of the weirdest moves ever conceived on rock, where one hand can be fighting for friction on a sweaty granite sloper whilst the other bears down in a finger-wrecking crimp on a tiny slate micro-edge.
Left: Jamie, again on the the amiable new line Twas Brillig.
But rewinding backwards for a minute (for our progress was not that swift!): having returned back up to the main path we had to strike down to shoreline once again to reach this odd little venue. And in our ignorance and in our haste to see as much as the coast as possible our descent went plumb down the first feasible looking gully we chanced upon, which slit through the imposing cliffs in a straight, vegetation filled line. Snicker-Snack! went the three boulder mats as they sliced through the swathes of nettles, bouncing their way unceremoniously onto the rocky beach some fifty metres below us. With wet flora underfoot we nearly ended up the same way, in a descent that brought back vivid memories of my brief ‘stint’ as an alpinist (two routes). And yet we had no sooner breathed a sigh of relief at having survived that particular folly before we were to be confronted by the next one just around the corner: a wide, but mercifully shallow, zawn blocking access to the impressive dual-rock boulders we had seen from the trails above.
And so from the highs of simulacrum alpinism, to a situation one would expect to encounter in some far off river-fording moment: wading up to our chests in seawater, ferrying pads, backpacks and expensive camera equipment across the impasse, all the while dodging swells and avoiding slipping over on the frictionless rocks underfoot. Finally, with several moist boulder mats but thankfully no damaged cameras, we flopped onto the beach of the Triassic rock park for the final time.
As far as I’m aware, Megiliggar Rocks has only ever had two problems put up in its domain and no routes, although the potential is there for the suitably insane. The two problems were first climbed by long time Cornish boulderer Andy Whall (incidentally, he took a much more sensible approach in than we did!) who picked the steepest side of the biggest freestanding block to produce Triassic Cleavage (V8) and The Dyno (V4). These are brilliant lines, some of the best I’ve tried in Cornwall, but their greatness is tainted with frailty. Many holds feel snappy and whilst making progress on the V8 a key crimp broke away: not wishing to destroy Andy’s route further we hastily moved on. He’s since forgiven me! Luckily there was still much more scope for exploration and we were to spend a furious few minutes working up the courage to tackle an even more friable slab highball just a round the corner, eventually racing to the top in hold-snapping panic to produce Everything Flakes (V1 X).
Picking our way through the rocks, flagging in the ever-increasing heat of an unforecast sun, we crawled across the beach front, discovering and dispatching yet another highball scare-fest with a Fontainebleau finish to produce Mome Rath (V4). Exhausted, the two of us sat in the welcome shade underneath another yet-to-be-climbed overhang and chatted about our little journey through this amazing speck of complex coastline. As small and as fragile it may be Megiliggar Rocks still retains its splendour of remaining a truly wild and extraordinary place coexisting within plain sight of the tame and certainly non-wild thoroughfares above. It has beauty, with fossils and fools gold scattered amongst the rock, and framed behind by a limitless sea. Yet there is also an air of menace to the crag as well: towering loose cliffs rise far above us visitors, hinting about the possible damage it could unleash should it have the inclination to do so.
Oddly shaped rocks by the seaside
Really, the place seemed to me an almost visual equivalent of a Lewis Carroll poem, where you read the nonsensical words and although you don’t understand you still get a vivid impression of meaning. Here too was a place, a climbing venue, that didn’t quite make sense in a conventional way. Which left you with a feeling of its importance and grandeur that although you couldn’t fully comprehend still outshone the more banal reality that these were after all just a few oddly shaped rocks by the seaside.
Left: Still ripe for a first ascent?
And with that single moment of deep reflection - or perhaps a sign of oncoming heat stroke – us two blundering fools were finished for the day. We beat an orderly retreat out on the correct approach trail and along the amiable footpaths in a desperate, verging on frantic, pursuit for something to drink. We hadn’t climbed hard, or particularly well and we certainly hadn’t discovered the next big bouldering venue. All we’d really done was make a clumsy stab at peeling back the curtains of the orderly and established to take a quick peek at what dimly lay beyond. In the process it was to be one of the best climbing adventures I’ve had in a long, long while.
For more information about bouldering in Cornwall please check out Andy Whall’s excellent website www.blocspenwith.co.uk or the Facebook Page.
The UKC crag page for Megiliggar Rocks can be found here.
Information about the unique geological formations at Megiliggar Rocks is found here.
Right: Tom powering through the large roof of Mome Rath (V4).