Articles - Trad Climbing: Tor Bay
Photo: Mark Glaister
by Mark Glaister
The ebb and flow of an area’s climbing popularity has as much to do with the contemporary trends and fashions as the quality of its climbing; and for a long time now the varied collection of limestone sea cliffs surrounding the English Riviera’s premier tourist resort of Torquay have languished near the bottom of the popularity league table. Whilst Torquay’s sports climbs still pull in a steady stream of visiting teams, and just up the M5 the hundreds of newly restored climbs of Cheddar Gorge are set to become the ‘next big thing’ in the South-west, for those looking for something a bit different Torquay’s trad offerings might well prove to be the adventures that live longest in the memory.
Tor Bay’s sheltered and sunny aspect boasts some of the best weather in the UK, and provides a reliable venue for both the summertime holiday cragger, and those in search of climbable rock in the depths of winter.
At the outset it is probably worth stating that although the benign location and alluring nature of the crags conjures up dreams of sun-baked days of ticking, the climbing experience is distinctly adventurous. Most of the climbs across the grades require a sack-full of traditional skills to deal with route finding, a smattering of loose rock and vegetation, and tricky gear placement. The lines provide some surprisingly exposed and serious positions given the modest height of the majority of the climbs and their close proximity to an ice-cream van! The cliffs are wildly diverse in structure, ranging from some of Britain’s steepest – at the awesome Sanctuary Wall to some of its slabbiest – at Long Quarry Point.
Climbing around Tor Bay is a uniquely British undertaking and it therefore comes as no surprise that these and the nearby crags of Berry Head were the stomping ground of a young Pat Littlejohn, the UK’s most respected sea-cliff explorer. Pat and an active group of Exeter based climbers roamed all over these crags in the 60’s and 70’s picking off many of its best and toughest lines and laid the foundations for others, most notably Martin Crocker and Nick White, to take up the reins in the 80’s and 90’s and push standards to the highest levels, mopping up the remaining major challenges in the process.
Torquay’s crags are slotted in between beaches and hotels along the shoreline that stretches away eastwards from its busy harbour, and all share a slightly surreal mood. One minute you are parked up next to and old couple dozing in their car, or a family sorting out beach towels and lilos, and the next a quick hop over a fence sees you all on your own descending steep bush lined paths to the base of a secluded cove.
A long, low line of cliffs runs east from the harbour past the prominent sea arch of London Bridge, and provide a whole host of possibilities for the deep water soloist, ending at a huge scooped-out bay of quarried rock known as Telegraph Hole. The telegraph pole that gave the crag its name has long gone but the massive sheet of perfect, high angled rock that has made this spot a favoured place for many over the years remains as immaculate as ever. The half dozen best routes on this section of rock are all superb, and require a balancey touch and a steady head although adequate gear is always, if not at waist level, then close by. Protection is usually a combination of small wires and a lot of in situ pegs which are, thankfully, in pretty good shape and away from the worst clutches of salt water.
Just around the corner is one of the better multi-pitch crags in the region, Daddyhole Main Cliff, The Daddy being the local name for the Devil. Barely tidal and cut by some magnificent lines this is the place for some reasonably graded classics that combine ever increasing exposure with good holds and gear. Another short wander east reveals yet another old quarry close to Meadfoot beach. Meadfoot Quarry does not retain as many good lines or rock but it does have a few easier lines that can be conveniently top roped or tagged on to the end of a day.
At nearby Babbacombe the holiday hubbub is just as frenetic but the scenery becomes more tranquil thanks to the closure of the beach beneath the crags hereabouts. Anstey’s Cove is the centre of Devon’s sport climbing, but a number of its original traditional pitches are well worth the trouble of carrying down a few nuts and cams. The best here are clean and see plenty of action although some of the older classics are vegetated and could do with more attention. The final area of cliff, Long Quarry Point, is once again just a few minutes away and is the abode of Torquay’s most impressive traditional climbs. The Sanctuary Wall is a truly awesome piece of rock lurching out over the sea at a witheringly steep angle and having some of the most difficult and impressive trad routes in the South-west along with two easier ventures that spacewalk into some insane situations. In stark contrast, just around the corner are the huge boilerplate slabs of Long Quarry Point itself rising to around 60m. Finally tucked away in Babbacombe Cove itself are a number of rarely trodden excursions that take in some very intimidating ground. Although they get the morning sun these are really warm weather venues.
Torquay’s top trad adventures
Crinoid (E1 5c)*** A route of pure elegance, taking the subtle blunt arête of the central off-vertical wall. The technical crux wall is in the lower third and protected by a couple of pegs, beyond which less pressing but more runout climbing on fine rock can be enjoyed to the full.
Flashdance (E3 5c)*** Incredibly sustained moves will suit those with polished technique and good footwork. A mid-height left-to-right ramp raises the pulse whilst the final wall provides the hardest moves. Like most of the routes here, the key is in finding the best gear placements between the pegs.
Gates of Eden (VS 4c,4a,4a)*** Torquay’s most famous expedition winds its way up the Main Cliff’s biggest and best bit of rock via three increasingly exposed pitches. The first pitch has been up graded from 4a in recent times due to a small rockfall.
Gargantua (E1 4c,5b,5a)** One of Torquay’s best multi-pitch experiences on some of the crag’s best rock (after a slightly unnerving initial wall). The last pitch is wildly exposed!
Last Exit to Torquay (HVS 4c,5b)** A stupendous line up the soaring corner in the centre of the Main Cliff. The climbing and rock match the line but the second pitch requires a determined approach.
Zuma (E4 4c,6a)** A gradually steepening, big and bald arête is Daddyhole’s most prominent line. The climb sneaks in from the left via some sustained, fingery wall and groove climbing before tackling the exposed upper section of the arête.
Diamond Rib (Hard Severe 4a)** The reclining long arête on the left-wing of the quarry is the most popular of the easier climbs in the area and sees plenty of traffic. Good rock and spaced gear in a pleasant setting make for a memorable experience.
Pegs’ Progress (E3 5c)** An overlooked gem of a pitch taking a thin crack straight up the middle of the impending headwall.
The Mitre (E3 6b)*** is the original big trad line here and is still a beacon for many planning a trip to the area. The start is a nightmare in warm conditions but all is welcoming above. If failure rears its ugly head on the original start, grab a couple of spotters and try the arête just to the left which, although still no push over (6a), at least has some decent small holds.
Devonshire Cream (E6 6a)*** Not one to be underestimated. The left arête of the famous Ferocity Wall is both hard and serious in its lower half – take care.
Cocytus (E2 6a,5b)** Lower down the hillside from the ferocious sport crags is another less steep crag with a fine selection of technical and fingery routes. Cocytus follows the appealing slim groove line and steep headwall in two contrasting pitches. Short but packed with some brilliant and surprising climbing.
The Long Traverse (V. Diff)*** A splendid jug-infested sea level traverse beneath some seriously steep ground providing a fine view of the Sanctuary Wall. Low tide needed at this grade.
Free the Spirit (E6 6b)*** An awesome route taking on the middle of the Wall at its most intimidating. The climbing is superb. Much of the gear is in place but the climb is a serious undertaking especially in its lower reaches.
Call to Arms (E4 5c,5c)*** The severely overhanging narrow corner that dominates the main section of the wall yields a daunting line. Very strenuous.
Incubus (E1 5b,5a)*** A route with a fearful name and reputation, this sensational adventure onto the Sanctuary Wall at a reasonable grade provides instant exposure from the very first move.
Long Quarry Point
Black Ice (E3 5c,5c)*** The centre of the huge sweep of ‘boilerplate’ slabs provides some exquisite slab climbing. All the difficulties are close to gear, but there are a few runouts in between.
Iconoclast (E2 5b)** A striking line tucked away from the main crags and rarely trodden these days.
Torquay Trad – What you need to know
These limestone crags are located on the coast and headlands stretching from the east side of Torquay harbour to the hidden cove of Babbacombe about 1.5 miles to the east. The character of each crag is very distinct; sun and shade are easily mixed and matched as are climbing styles. Most of the climbing is not affected by the tide although access to the Sanctuary Wall requires a very short abseil to easy ground beneath the wall from mid to high tide. Travel between the crags is easy allowing more than one crag to be visited in a day. The surrounding area is a major tourist centre with many busy family beaches, some good secluded beaches and lots of excellent swimming. Beware of heavy traffic congestion in season.
From Bristol via the M5 to Exeter and then on the A38/A380 directly to Torquay. The best way to locate the crags on a first visit is to head to the harbour and then pick up signs for Daddyhole Plain, free parking (for Telegraph Hole, Daddyhole Main Cliff and Meadfoot Quarry). For Anstey’s Cove and Long Quarry Point also head for the harbour and pick up signs for Babbacombe. Follow the road up out of the harbour for around 1.25 miles and just past the huge Palace Hotel park is the (free) carpark for Otter Nurseries and a large discount store. Rail services run to Torquay from where all the crags can be reached by bus or on foot.
When to go
All the crags in Torquay can be considered to be viable year round venues. The cliffs dry very quickly after rainfall and do not generally suffer any major seepage although climbing in the rain is not really a possibility. However the steeper sport climbs at Anstey’s Cove will provide dry lines in the wet. The majority of the crags have east and west aspects so sun or shade can be found throughout the day.
What to take
A standard traditional rack of wires, slings and cams plus quickdraws and double ropes are ample for the routes here. A spare abseil rope is handy for accessing the Sanctuary Wall at mid to high tide and for setting up on the Main Cliff at Daddyhole to descend back to the base of the cliff and avoid a long descent. Shorts and T-shirts are the norm but in winter bring warm clothing. Swimming kit, a sun hat and sunscreen are a must for the crag and beach.
Guidebooks and route information
Three excellent guidebooks cover the traditional climbing in the Torquay area:
South Devon & Dartmoor by Nick White. (Cordee 1995), South Devon and Dartmoor Supplement 2nd Edition by Dave Henderson is a very useful addition updating all the areas since the 1995 guidebook.
South West Climbs by Pat Littlejohn, (Diadem 2002). A well illustrated selective guide that includes many of the routes mentioned in this article.
Shops, gear & pubs
There are large superstores on the outskirts of Torquay. Smaller food shops and supermarkets are located nearer to the crags at Babbacombe and close to the harbour area. Very good food and beer is available at The Cary Arms down by the beach at Babbacombe. The harbour area has many pubs, clubs, cafes and restaurants. The local climbing shop is a bit of a drive away in Ashburton and further afield larger climbing and outdoor stores are located in the centre of Exeter.
Where to stay
Camping sites are plentiful but get busy during summer and many don’t allow all male groups. The better sites are those offered by farms with limited facilities but are good value and often in quiet locations. Camping Barns and B&B are also available.
Other climbing in the area
The Old Redoubt on Berry Head, just across Tor Bay has lots of brilliant trad routes and is home to both Hard Rock and Extreme Rock classics (ticks!). The major crags of the North Coast such a Lower Sharpnose and Baggy Point and those on Dartmoor are the closest to Tor Bay. Cheddar Gorge and Portland are around one and a half hours’ drive and West Penwith around two hours. There is stacks of bouldering on Dartmoor, see javu.co.uk
If you enjoyed this article and want to explore other sea cliff venues in the UK then why not read about Bosigran in Cornwall, Baggy Point in North Devon, or Pembroke in South Wales.