The Culm Coast & Baggy Point - guidebook review
- Friday 4th November 2022
by Mark Kemball – The Climbers’ Club £30
Review by Chris Hindley
The last definitive guidebook to North Devon and Cornwall was in 2000 and this is a much-needed update to part of that area. It covers the big two of this coast, Baggy Point and Lower Sharpnose, plus a vast array of less frequented venues stretching down to the Bude area. There is also an extensive selection of the best bouldering in the area, including possibly one of the world’s hardest crack problems.
The moment I picked up this guide I was impressed by the whole visual layout, it’s just full of light, colour and clarity – a proper modern guidebook. First requirement of a new guide is that it has to inspire in some way, to pick it up, read through it and start planning a visit. Any climber looking for sea cliff adventure cannot fail to be inspired by this book. The many quality action photos say it all, from gentle slabs, through bullet-hard seaside boulders, to gnarly high-end trad routes (including what was, briefly, the UK’s first E12) and tottering piles of death. Variety is everything on this coast with grades of Severe, XS and f8a appearing on virtually the same page.
Regarding the key practical aspects of getting a visitor to the routes, Mark Kemball and the team have put together an excellent package of information. Properly drawn maps combined with aerial photos clearly show coastal topography and crag approaches. All routes seem to be covered by well-produced photo topos linked to full descriptions.
Despite the sunny seaside aspect, this is a wild coast. This book has adequately taken on board the task of conveying the attractions of the area whilst also supplying the knowledge of how to deal with the many challenges it presents, which may be unfamiliar to the first-time visitor. Many crags involve access and retreat along the seashore, a long way from the ‘ab in climb out’ approach to more simple sea cliffs. The first time I came across the term ‘beach belay’ in a route description I had to refer to the technical notes – it’s when a leader reaches the top of a fin or pinnacle and the only way to secure a belay is to drop a rope down the opposite side. It requires some planning, I think. The changeable nature of the coast also has to be appreciated and the description of a route is no guarantee that it is still there. As all the bouldering is at beach level, shifting sands and shingle can affect the nature or even existence of boulder problems.
Take Exmansworthy, for example, once home to a collection of excellent middle Extremes, large parts of the cliff have fallen down over recent years. The routes that remain have been described, together with the difficulties of access. It sounds very challenging and will anyone visit? Well, at least this guide properly spells out the pros and cons.
One initial quibble I had was about the provision of tidal information, having seen this in other sea cliff guides as a highlighted piece of key info for each cliff. It is there if you carefully read the crag intros and it’s quite thorough for the more popular spots. For some cliffs, it appears to be missing altogether. The approach to Dyer’s Lookout, for instance, is shown on the aerial photo as being through the sea (though perhaps, if you can climb there, walking on water may be no problem). Being generous, I think the assumption has been made that a visitor will quickly come to appreciate that most of the cliffs have the same aspect and are tide-affected in similar ways. Given the variable nature of tides and sea conditions, it’s not always possible or sensible to give a precise tidal window for every crag. Escaping an incoming tide seems to be a rite of passage for this coast, though I have done it more than once.
Some traditionalists will find this guide too big and it’s certainly nowhere near as portable as the old-style Climbers’ Club guides. Even accepting that larger format guides are what the market now requires, this is a hefty volume for the area covered. And while one good photo of a route serves to illustrate, two or more can seem a bit of overkill.
Many of the guidebook contributors have a strong personal connection with the area and this clearly shows in their work. The frontispiece, a Pete O’Sullivan painting of the Lower Sharpnose Middle Fin, and the well-presented historical section by Iain Peters are among my favourite features of the book.
The front and back cover photos, of two of the most popular routes, are quite bizarrely coloured. I suspect this is an error at the printers and it must be a disappointment to mar such a lovingly produced book at the final stage. However, I quite like it in a way. There is an other-worldly feel to this coast, sandwiched between the ocean and the moors and a perceived bending of the light towards one end of the spectrum may be quite common.
In summary, Mark Kemball and the whole team are to be congratulated for their hard work in producing a wonderful addition to our sea cliff climbing tradition.