Wharncliffe Crag – Northern Delights
- Thursday 15th December 2022
By Stephen Coughlan
It’s true to say that my initial familiarisation with Wharncliffe was not the consequence of careful planning, in fact, far from it. My initial introduction to the crag was due to two unconnected events. The first is entirely within my control and the other is most definitely not. I had, for years, been hankering about upping sticks and moving to Sheffield in order to be in a position to indulge my passion for rock climbing. In fact, the more I thought about it, the idea of not doing it became unthinkable so in January 2001 I found myself resident in Sheffield and with a job too. So hello gritstone, here I come, though not as I imagined it.
The second event was the 2001 foot and mouth epidemic, the upshot of this was that most of the Peak District was out of bounds. They do say it’s all about the timing and, in this particular case, the fickle finger of fate had deemed that my time of arrival was less optimum for living the dream. “Fear not” was the mantra of my Sheffield friends, “there’s always Wharncliffe, that’s not banned'”. If I’m perfectly honest this wasn’t quite what I had dreamt about, but beggars can’t be choosers and Wharncliffe it was. It’s probably fair to say that the drive to the crag is not particularly endowed with the same aesthetic charms as that heading out from southwest Sheffield to the Peak District. However, in mitigation, the road through Wharncliffe Side to Stocksbridge is along a pleasant wooded valley, albeit dotted with the odd industrial vestige.
It is along this journey as you head into Deepcar the first sighting of the crag can be made in the form of a number of buttresses peeping out above the trees. From this vista, some of the major buttresses are quite impressive and especially when lit by the sun. Wharncliffe is a lengthy edge and although not all totally visible it extends over two and a half kilometres from north to south. Accordingly, the edge benefits from the afternoon sun which gives the opportunity to avoid the heat and climb early in the summer or to make the most of those glorious cooler autumn afternoons.
The crag lies on the eastern edge of the Don Valley and can be potentially exposed to the weather. However, due to its location being someway north of the Peak District hills it can often avoid any bad weather afflicting the Peak. This makes it a good and refreshing alternative should the weather further west be dodgy.
So having decided to go for a day out and to enjoy, or for some endure, the delights of Peak grit Wharncliffe didn't quite fit the bill, as it is actually neither in the Peak District nor even gritstone in the true sense of the word. That is not to say that the rock is not of excellent quality and a true pleasure to climb on. The rock tends to have a finer texture than the normal hand-mashing stuff that springs to mind when we talk about true grit and is actually a Coal Measure Sandstone and, just to confuse, is apparently fairly coarse-grained for its sandstone type. The character of the climbing can also be somewhat different as well-defined, sharp-edged, incut holds are not unusual, making the climbing more akin to that encountered on igneous rock, basalt being a good example. This, however, does not mean that there are not ample opportunities to test your faith in friction and nerve accordingly. As an aside, the unique geology of Wharncliffe Crags and its environs led to the area being designated a Site of Special Scientific Interest in 1988.
Oddities and History
Another of the crag's peculiarities is the legend of the Dragon of Wantley, a myth that was made into the 17th Century satirical poem and an opera by Henry Carey. The legend was mentioned by Sir Walter Scott in the opening chapter of Ivanhoe, ‘Here haunted of yore the fabulous Dragon of Wantley’. The story tells the tale of how More, of More Hall, slays a troublesome dragon that lives on the crags. A cave at the southern end of the crags, close to Wharncliffe Lodge, is called the Dragon's Den and is marked on maps.
The rocks at the northwestern end of the crag were quarried to produce quern stones as long ago as the Iron Age, continuing into the Roman period. These stones were a primitive form of grindstone and it is believed that the name Wharncliffe actually evolved from the term ‘quern cliff’. In August 1996 an accidental heather fire burned away much of the vegetation over an extensive area, revealing many more quern stones than were originally thought. A survey in 2000 revealed there could be around 8,000 quern stones in the quarried area.
Although Wharncliffe is relatively short in stature, around 15m in places, it holds an important place in climbing folklore. Indeed the edge has a long and significant history in the development of rock climbing and was most certainly at the forefront of its birth in the UK in the 1880s. One of the leading protagonists being the legendary, J W Puttrell. JWP was a regular visitor to the crags from 1885 onwards and pioneered many of the early routes. It’s interesting to discover that by the 1900s the crag was the most popular climbing venue in the whole of the country. This was very probably due in no small part to the close proximity of the Deepcar railway station, conveniently situated on the Sheffield to Manchester railway line.
No doubt lured by its access to public transport and the striking skyline image, Puttrell first visited alone, climbing Prow Rock and Black Slab solo. He subsequently persuaded others to join him, where their attention was mainly concentrated in the Long John’s Stride and Wharncliffe Lodge areas. The exceptions being the ascents of Great Chimney and Puttrell’s Progress at the Deepcar end. As mentioned previously from these small but not insignificant beginnings, by the end of the century the edge was the most popular of all gritstone edges.
At the invitation of Puttrell, The Kyndwr Club held the first organised meet at Wharncliffe, it was duly recorded in verse by W Wightman, who wrote:
T’was Puttrell who scaled the Dargai Crack,
And chimneys and pinnacles by the pack,
Who invited the Kyndwr Club one day
To try the problems down Wharncliffe way,
And Baker and Bond and Croft and Boyd
And Wightman and Moulton were overjoyed.
Puttrell also invited members of the club to try Imaginary Boulder Climb. Following complete failure by all members of the party, even on a top rope, to get anywhere near an ascent JWP revealed that it had not actually been done and thereby was probably responsible for the earliest sandbag in the Peak – but definitely not the last.
As is clearly evident Wharncliffe has enjoyed a long and rich history and has clearly played an important role in the development of rock climbing as an entity. The 1912 issue of The Climbers' Club Journal contained an article which recognised the existence of 110 climbs on the edge. The next guide to appear was to the Deepcar end of the crag produced in 1933 by the Sheffield University Mountaineering Club and aided by the Sheffield Climbing Club; this was to become the pattern of guides for a period of time.
The crag eventually declined in popularity after the 1914-18 war and with the arrival of balance climbing and ‘rubbers’, climbers apparently deserted the crag and headed for the likes of Stanage and the surrounding edges. It is probably fair to say that the crag is now somewhat quieter than in those heady days. This is not all bad news and even more reason to take the plunge and head there with the prospect of having some of those buttresses to yourself.
The complete history of the crag up to the present day is full of interest, a roller coaster of activity and fallow years far too lengthy to detail here. One further arrival in 1971 was not a new line as we know, but a line of pylons that dominate the northern end of the crag. Although clearly visible they in no way detract from the climbing and in some sort of bizarre way add to the character of the area. I mention this purely to prepare you for the shock, excuse the pun.
Access and the Routes
Parking is possible at the southern end of Station Road, as close as possible to a concreted slip road on the left around 200m up from the Lowood Social Club. The steep path on the left heralds the way and is signposted to Wharncliffe Crags, Trans Pennine Trail and Thurgoland. The latter makes me smile and conjures up Tolkienesque visions of some mythical place, perhaps a South Yorkshire Mordor, who knows? A brisk walk through the tunnels, continuing up the path leads to the obvious track, known as Plank Gate forestry path, which is followed to the gate immediately before the huge pylon and, finally, the rocky path up to the northern end of the crag. I would suggest that it is a good idea to have a clear idea of the routes you want to do and carefully asses which area of the crag they are on, as after the initial relatively unbroken 500m section the buttresses become more isolated and negotiating the boulders beneath the crag can be pretty arduous.
The Deepcar crags are the first that you will encounter with the blocky buttress of Gallipoli Rock being the start of the edge ‘proper’. The route of the same name gives a challenging one star VS. A further 30m on, the pillar of Prow Rock is the next striking feature. There are a number of routes there with grades from Diff to E5, Outside Route at HS 4b is certainly worth a look. Hamlet’s Wall is next and the most direct line is Requiem for Hamlet’s Ghost at E1 5b and well worth it, if not just for the name. This route does require a steady head and is typical of a number of the routes at Wharncliffe. Having made this statement it is worth saying that there are many more sufficiently protected gems to entertain too.
So the edge continues with a plethora of buttresses, pillars and walls to explore, with many one, two and the odd three-star routes to jump on along the way. At this point, I would like to fast forward along the edge to some of the better-known and more established crag classics. However, one further route, before we get to the Great Buttress area is the previously mentioned Puttrell sandbag Imaginary Boulder Climb (HS 4c). Get on it, avoiding the temptation to use the boulder, and imagine that latter-day scene, as members of The Kyndwr Club flailed about on top rope no doubt much to the hilarity of their fellow climbers.
The Great Buttress
The Great Buttress area comprises a number of high-quality buttresses with excellent clean rock and is home to one of the best routes at the crag. First up though is the quality Beta Crack (S), climbing the alluring, well-marked and equally well-protected flake to the top. A slightly more challenging finish involves a steep little move high up to conquer the small overlap summiting a little further right. There is no doubt that upon arrival your gaze will inevitably be drawn to the next buttress and the striking feature of the superb Great Buttress Arête (E1 5b), with an obvious triangular flake at about one-third height, offering what appears to be the first opportunity to arrange protection. This climb should certainly be included in any ambitious E1 leader’s to-do list and something of a rarity for this crag, being a route which has been downgraded having been E2 in the 1989 Stanage guide. It is still probably at the upper limit of the grade and although now reasonably well-protected by modern gear, the upper section still has that out-there feeling.
Continuing this tour of crag’s classics, Puttrell’s Progress (S 4a) covered some pretty impressive ground for its day and still remains an absorbing challenge at the grade, requiring proficiency in a number of climbing styles as it winds its way upwards and leftwards. Having tussled with the right-hand side of the buttress, gaining entry into the sentry box is somewhat entertaining, turning what will inevitably start off as a carefully planned manoeuvre into a bit of a dilemma, just as Mr P intended. Having gained your composure in the sentry box it just remains to commit to the moves out over the void to the beckoning finishing crack, just that little further away than you wished – pure magic.
As you continue further south the Himmellswillen Area comes into view and is the most continuous section of the Deepcar end of the crag. There are a number of routes worthy of note in this sector, including the magnificent classic and bearer of the area’s name, Himmelswillen (VS 4c). This is possibly one of the most sought-after routes on the edge and one of the loftiest too. You can look forward to some great open climbing, tackling the left-hand arête before moving right to perch under the overhang, via committing moves and a sense of exposure out of proportion to the height gained. Moves out and right reach the obvious flake, where adequate gear can be placed from what will soon become a strenuous position. So before the pump takes over it’s time to commit and with the aid of the flake make the move up left to the ledge, from there it’s a formality to reach the top. It doesn’t get much better than this and you’ve yet another classy VS in the bag.
Upping the ante a little to E3 6a, Banana Wall warrants a mention and one that sticks in my mind. Fingery moves with just about adequate protection help to concentrate the mind, with that one move more than you expected, using that not quite as good as you hoped for hold, before placing the sinker hand jam and gear that lowers the heart rate. Is it 5c or is it 6a, possibly technically low in the grade and possibly E4 for the more vertically challenged, debate may continue, but I enjoyed it nevertheless.
Hell Gate Gully
Hell Gate Gully Area is an area with numerous worthwhile adventures and yields another two particularly outstanding but contrasting climbs and is identifiable from the cliff-top path by the worn appearance and nearby stone wall, this is also the highest point of the path from the northern end. Tower Face (HS 4b) is a justifiably popular challenge with bags of exposure, requiring commitment and faith in friction for the opening unprotected moves, where moving up and into the scoop appears relatively straightforward but gives a thorough test of technique, nerve and teetering ability. Once established and having come to terms with where you are, it only remains to follow the thin crack to the top. The challenge is not over yet, though the crack does offer the sanctuary of protection the holds are quite small and concentration is needed right to the very end.
One of the heftier propositions on the edge is undoubtedly Desolation Angel (E6 6b). I have no knowledge of this route and am never likely to. However, I have been reliably informed by people with considerably more ability than me that it’s a must-do at the grade. It’s also considered to be amongst the finest to be found on grit at the grade. Holly Crack area lies a further 250m south of Belle Vue Buttress which is in turn 35m on from Hell Gate Gully Area. There are a number of shorter routes worth a look but better is to come at the excellent Long John’s Stride, around 1km from Gallipoli Rock at the start.
Long John's Stride
I should say that despite its relatively urban beginnings at the northern extremity, as you progress ever southward the ambience becomes distinctly more rural and even positively bucolic. The memories of industrial architecture and pylons become a distant memory replaced by wooded slopes and sweeping agricultural land off to the right.
Grammarian’s Progress (VS 4b) is a trip worth taking and is the archetypal Wharncliffe challenge with absorbing climbing at the grade, typically requiring a bold approach. Ascending the arête and attaining the standing position needs a steady nerve and is not for the faint-hearted (there’s no good gear). This is followed by an exposed traverse, making use of the break to gain the finishing crack, yet another one to add to the list of great climbs. Back to the three-star challenge, Autumn Wall (E4 6a) is an outstanding route and commences with a committing start through the overlap on barely adequate holds to gain a standing position. It just remains to scale the wall above by the various breaks, some good, some not so; probably the best hard route of the entire edge. One more for the collection is Richard’s Revenge (VS 4b), the enticing thin crack to the right of the main buttress and this will test your jamming technique, particularly through the roof, the jams are solid but are you?
After a further 50m on the path forks, the right-hand section descends to Cascade Buttress and The Bass Rock, the left-hand branch follows the cliff top. The upper fork leads to Puttrell and Watson’s Buttress then on to Holly Route Area, both being worthy of exploration. The latter hosting Mr Mojo Risin' (E5 6b) described as an excellent route at the grade, with bold and technical climbing to a break and runners, the roof and wall above being testing but somewhat less intimidating.
Should you choose the lower path, Cascade Buttress has no less than six starred routes, Pocket Buttress at VS 4b and Pocket Buttress Direct (E5 6a) are good, albeit with different challenges. The Bass Rock is somewhat elusive and lies around 450m beyond and feels a long way from anywhere. Should you make the effort to find it there are again good routes to chase; Scarlett’s Crack (VS 5a) is a thoroughly enjoyable and well-protected jaunt and Byne’s Route (S 4a) is a good outing, and starting with the aid of the boulder is legitimate this time.
Finally, Lodge Buttress is worth a mention and is situated approximately 200m before the Lodge. You will find some old established routes there, again some warranting a star or two, including Ogilvie’s Corner (HVS 5a), and three VS climbs, Lodge Buttress Direct, Ewden Edge and Ewden Wall. If you’ve made it this far it would be rude not to try them.
In a Nutshell
So there you have it, Wharncliffe, rich in history and a veritable dichotomy, methinks, a potential contradiction in terms in many ways. Probably the best long, short and urban, rural and gritstone, sandstone, non-Peak crag you’ve never heard of, or even contemplated visiting. Don’t be fooled, there is a wealth of great climbing to be had there and in the far-flung areas there is almost a sense of remoteness not often experienced in the Peak District.