Bouldering at St. Bees, Lake District
by Simon Panton
By virtue of its remote western location, St Bees has never really pulled the big crowds. Yet for those of you aching for solitude and a change of scene, this could be your salvation. This peaceful, otherworldly place has boulder problems as good as any you will find in the UK. The bouldering occurs on a series of freestanding blocks perched on the clean rock shelf beneath the main crag, where numerous low to mid grade sport routes have been established.
The rock is simply beautiful. The intense orange hue of the sandstone has a deeply attractive, cartoon like quality. The vivid colour matched by beautiful and intricate features; wonderful sandstone pockets, honeycombing like froth on a milk shake, breaking up the edges of blank impenetrable walls; striking slender grooves and elegant flake lines leading your eye and quickening your pulse. Pure eye candy for the obsessive boulderer, it climbs every bit as well as it looks.
Having arrived at the Apiary Wall boulders, I suggest that you walk through to the Fisherman’s Steps section, scrambling up rock steps equipped with old chains and random ironmongery, before working back to the start. If you have timed your visit to match with a low tide, then access will be possible to Problem 1, a soaring V2 arête (taken on its left side) on the large free standing block close to the mid tide line. A couple of excellent, but more barnacled lines exist to the right of the arête. Adjacent to the back end of the boulder a powerful V4/5 rising traverse leads leftwards (from a starting position with feet on the right block) to a grinding rock back right onto the black slab at an obvious small flake.
Moving left again past a few minor blocks, the mighty Fisherman’s Dyno block provides a magnificent centrepiece for the circuit. On the right side of the boulder Tim’s Crack (V10) emerges from the cave (sitting start at the broken pocket); a brutal affair that eases as daylight is reached. The stand up version is tricky but short lived if the leftwards exit is taken. A more rewarding finish tackles the hollow bubbly arête – a bit nervy, but far easier than the steep start.
Fisherman’s Dyno (V2/3) can actually be done static, by the flexible and strong climber, but the steep wall to the left is far too blank to be tamed by traditional methods. Lateral Mindset (V8+) does appear impossible on first acquaintance (a lone finger jug a good 12 feet off the deck), but occasionally succumbs to an entirely optimistic running jump approach. The finish is still dynamic, yet in a more conventional sense.
The Hueco Crack is utterly classic. A steep and sustained battle of will power with a selection of starting points dictating an escalation of difficulty: from standing: V5, from the low boss: V6, from a sitting start: V7. Just to the left a doppelganger line leads up from a desperate and often damp start into an upper crack section reminiscent (believe it or not) of the crux of that Gogarth classic, The Cow. Mmm nice!
Further left, past the alarming tumble of a recent rockfall, a clean dark wall is overcome by two crimpy test pieces: V2/3 on the right and V4ish on the left. The slabby V0 groove to the left offers light relief before the steep and photogenic arête further left. This proves to be a fine and honest V6 with an alternative left hand finish.
Duck back through the leaning blocks and retrace your steps down the chained drops to the Apiary Wall Section where a brace of fine problems await you.
Problem 12 is a fine V1 that can be extended with a tricky sitting start just to the right. To the left of the descent route, another V3 sitting start leads out onto the sloping scoop. The short steep arête beneath the scoop yields a powerful, slappy V4 with a harder (V5) leftwards exit tracing dimples along the slopey shoulder to the apex of the blank face.
Chipper’s Wall (V7) takes the challenge of the blankness full on in a similar ‘basket ball’ jump style to Lateral Mindset.
A few steps to the left on the slightly lower level a superb V2 sitting start breaks up from a low flake to slopers, jams and a fluted upper wall. The final batch of problems lies on an attractive block on the far side of the boulder jumble and on the edge of the rock platform above the lower sea-washed levels. The face that forms a corridor with an adjacent block yields two contrasting, yet wonderful problems branching out from a low pocketed crack system. The V1 right-hand line soon reaches a slopey impasse, with a subtle and delightful solution (pressing out the sloping shelf to the right), that will probably feel much easier on subsequent ascents. The left hand line is more powerful and basic, again at V1/2. Both problems can be extended with a common sitting start that adds a grade or two to the proceedings. The elegant statuesque appeal of the left arête of the face belies its rather brutal nature. The starting moves appear to be entirely lacking in conventional footholds – nonetheless, the movement soon eases as positive gargoyle like holds are grasped on the upper arête.
The last problem in the circuit is a severe test of bouldering prowess, likely to upset the so-far-complete score sheet of any passing rock star. Clash of the Titans (V8) features snatchy, precise moves up the sloping left arête of a very blank wall: the sort of problem where everything needs to be working: feet on poor smears, hands not much better, body locked in tension, fighting the inevitable barn-dooring failure.
The crag lies on the headland south of Whitehaven, way out on the western coast of the Lake District. From Whitehaven follow signs to Sandwith and then take the private road on the right parking in the farm where £1 should be left in the donation box by the back door. Continue along the track towards the lighthouse, cross the field to a small stile just north of the lookout. A rather funky descent – awkward with large pads – down a series of roped rock steps leads to the Apiary Wall section.
Be warned that during the winter months (November through to February), the smooth wave platforms beneath the crag are typically coated in a rather lethal film of green slime, treacherous underfoot and potentially very dangerous. The rock platform also appears to prove too slippy for some of the boulders, be sure and check out some of the remarkable scratched trails indicating extensive movement, presumably left when the winter storms swept their mighty force across these shelves of rock.
If you are trying to dry out a wet hold at a tidal crag, firstly towel dry, then press lumps of chalk onto the hold and leave for a few minutes before brushing off and patting the hold with a chalk ball. The chalk lumps will draw the moisture out of the hold and give you a window of relative dryness before the seepage resumes.