Around the Bloc: Shaftoe, Northumberland
- Wednesday 2nd October 2019
Climber's regular feature on the best bouldering venues
David Simmonite gives the low-down on one of the best bouldering venues that Northumberland offers, and all within reasonably close proximity to Newcastle.
Shaftoe is one of Northumberland's popular venues, owing in no small part to its location relatively close – 20 miles northwest – to the city of Newcastle and it is quirkily described in Boulder Britain as, ‘The Fontainebleau of Northumberland for those who haven’t been to Fontainebleau’. Shaftoe has a wealth of excellent problems, over 300 on more than 50 boulders and outcrops of all grades from Font 4 to 8b with the majority in the low to mid grades. Sitting on the lovely Shaftoe Moor at a relatively low altitude (approx 220m) it is the most widespread of all the bouldering areas in The County spread over an area of 1.5 kilometres.
The rock is mostly quality grippy sandstone, almost grit-esque, however, some bits can be soft so are well-avoided, especially after rain. It’s a very complex area and it can be tricky to find your bearings at first, sometimes people jump on the first small bit of rock they come to and wonder what all the fuss is about but study the guide and once you’ve found the bigger and better blocks you’ll soon see why it’s so good. Shaftoe’s an all-year-round venue with the problems facing in all directions so shade or sun is easy to come by but it should go without saying that a breeze is essential to keep the midges at bay on the balmy summer evenings.
The style of problems is varied too, from long and short traverses, scary highballs, some crimpy, slopers, cracks, steep walls, overhangs, super pockets and the occasional slab. It's easy to see why it's well-liked by many with such diversity on offer. Another plus is that the majority of the problems have generally good landings although, and speaking from experience, some can be very soggy at the wrong time of the year and a muddy walk-in is guaranteed. I have actually walked in wearing wellies before now following rain. Over the years I’ve visited the moor on many occasions climbing (or trying unsuccessfully) many problems and below is a selection of what I feel are amongst the best there, plus I’ve also asked around for further opinion and these should be as good a place to start with some of these classic ticks of The County.
Ed Booth climbs Salt n Pepper graded Font 5+ if climbed on the left and a tough font 6a on the right. It's located in the Central Area on Salter's Nick.. Photo; David Simmonite
Classic Arête (Font 6a)
Given Font 6a but I feel it's more like 6a+; this is a beautiful problem as is The Long Reach (Font 6a+), a classic move with the clue in the name, desperate for the short though, grrr. Both are at Arête Land, Hallions Rocks.
Incipient Crack (Font 6a)
On the Font Boulder offers excellent climbing via the hanging crack and devilish mantel to finish, a common theme at Shaftoe. If you fancy upping the ante then the sit start to gain the crack is a brilliant baby Font 7a.
Mantel Madness (soft Font 6c)
At Dishpan Alley is worth seeking out as is Soft Centre on Turtle Rock and is improbable looking at Font 6a.
On the Neb Boulder are three equally absorbing and worthwhile problems at a reasonable grade.
Sloper Masterclass (Font 5+) is a little classic with a beefy pull over the small initial lip and fine slopers leading to the top. If you don't like rounded holds best keep away and leave it for those that do. The Neb Roof (Font 6c) has a cool sequence where you have to spin 180 degrees round in the roof and just when you think it’s in the bag, a mantel to finish. The Original is given Font 6a but again feels a bit tough for the grade as it takes you on a journey to yet another mantel finish. If these feel too easy there's always the long, demanding and memorable Power is Nothing without Control (Font 7c).
The Roadside Boulder at the Halfway House area features a pair of crackers climbing the same piece of rock but with two alternative starts (and names). Slim Shady (Font 7a) is amongst the best problems in Northumberland and a great technical number from a sitter. It’s all about unlocking the right sequence, especially for the feet. The powerful, and practically lay down, start to this matching a big undercut is Real Slim Shady at Font 7a+ and the extra moves add real value in terms of grade and quality.
Another equally brilliant Font 7a+ is Timmy Tip Toes on Main Buttress and according to local guru Chris Graham is: "The arête everyone wants to climb, unlocking the sequence is the hard part." A scary top-out awaits if you manage to work it out effectively.
Just right of Timmy Tip Toes is the amazing feature of the Magic Fluting (Font 5). A highball that looks trickier than it turns out to be, it's got nice flowing moves up the fluting with a problematic sloper move where the fluting runs out but thankfully given the height there's a pleasant surprise waiting at the top (not a mantel).
Over to the right of these two is the delicious Cob Arête (Font 5). It climbs what it says with some lovely holds but is tougher if you stay on the right all the way and, finally, Sharp Arête (Font 6a+) at Salter’s Nick in the Central Area is super as is the easier Salt n Pepper (Font 5+) or taken on the right at Font 6a.
Hopefully that small selection will get you inspired and trust me, given the amount of sweet problems at Shaftoe, these barely scratch the surface. Have a great time and please respect the rock and area.
Magic Fluting (Font 5). Photo: David Simmonite
FACT FILE: SHAFTOE
Guidebooks and websites
The Northumberland Bouldering guide by the Northumberland Mountaineering Club is easily the guidebook to get. There's also a small selection of problems described in Niall Grimes's tome Boulder Britain published by Ape Index. Information on the internet is sparse so buy the guide but there's a smattering at http://thenmc.org.uk and there's sometimes information on Steve Crowe's website www.climbonline.co.uk
Northumberland is a national park so there's a wealth of accommodation possibilities. www.visitnorthumberland.com is a good place to find details of places to stay or camp and is particularly useful if you want a B & B.
There is a sensitive access issue so follows these guidelines:
Please respect the 5mph speed limit as you turn off the main road and drive past the Bolam West Houses, the track is not a right of way for vehicles and residents of the cottages have every right to ask the landowner to ban cars. Also parking is by the wall after the cattle grid not by the pond. Remember, this is a private road and there's no right to drive down other than through the kindness of the residents and farmer.
Gus Hudgins climbs Classic Arête (6a+) on the small outcrop of Hallions Rocks. This is situated in the Arete Land area to the Northern end of Shaftoe. Photo; David Simmonite