Castle Naze – Derbyshire Grit
- Friday 4th November 2022
Sublime gritstone climbing on Derbyshire's western fringes
by Martin Kocsis
When the Neolithic tribesmen of northern England were looking for a home, some of them spied the prominent craggy escarpment of Coombs Moss. At 1,400 feet above sea level and high above approaching brigands on the surrounding land, it was the perfect place to set up home. The original inhabitants built typical Iron Age earthworks with still visible ramparts and the original sunken approach ditch that is now used by climbers and antiquarians. The history of our ancestors is writ large upon the land there, and you could do worse than go to Dove Holes (about two miles away). There’s an excellent Neolithic henge there called the Bull Ring that will interest any curious visitor to the area. As an aside, infamous graffiti once adorned the railway platform at Dove Holes. To the merriment of many, some comedian had written, beneath the sign saying 'Welcome to Dove Holes', the words 'Twinned with Siberia'. Every time the authorities removed the offending words, they would quickly and mysteriously reappear. Perhaps they realised that in anything other than high summer, the comparison was not far wrong.
My first experience of the Naze came when I volunteered to write it for the BMC’s Staffordshire guide. I picked off a few unclimbed lines of my own on occasional day raids, but there was one line that held out against my punterish efforts. Around that time I happened to go to a BMC Peak Area meeting where various hotshots were gathered, quaffing ale and filling their faces with free butties. Amongst the throng was the well-renowned climber Neil Foster, who I tempted along to the crag for this amazing last great problem. I lured him with the promise that once the route was in the bag, there’d be free cream horns all around. Suitably inspired Neil brought along Claire Reading and Graham Hoey both consummate gritstone technicians. Despite the apparently simple-looking crack, Neil had a right old ding dong on it and later complained that he’d lost more blood on it than on any other route in the previous six months. Iron Age Fortitude (E4 6b) is the hardest line on the crag and sees few repeats, which is a shame as it has got quality stamped all over it.
Sadly, no one really goes to Castle Naze to do hard routes, although many people end up doing them quite inadvertently despite the allegedly accurate guidebook. There is one 'easy' route that always sends people packing, and which I’ve only ever seen on-sighted once. The victor in that case was the same Graham Hoey who’d come along with Neil Foster when he climbed Iron Age Fortitude. Pod Crack was given HVS 5b for decades, and always stopped every single leader in their tracks. In the current guide it gets the preposterous grade of E1 5c but, as the guide remarks, it’s still criminally under-graded. The guide also suggests that should you manage then you can forget easy stuff like Regent Street at Millstone as that is far too easy and you should go onto something much harder as you’re clearly ready for it.
Castle Naze has a weight of history upon it, and many of the players who have been instrumental in developing the crag have gone on to make significant ascents elsewhere. Without lingering too long on whether Neolithic gentlemen ever climbed the easier chimneys and gullies, the first recorded route was by that fine old chap of the mountains Siegfried Herford, when he did his girdle traverse in 1910. John Laycock, a keen recorder of climbing history and one of Herford’s regular partners, recounts that 'At Castle Naze Herford originated the idea of traversing horizontally along a line of cliff, so was born the Girdle Traverse'.
Once the crag became known in gentlemen’s climbing circles, Stanley Jeffcoat became obsessed with the crag and set about it with gusto, before the tragedy of World War One cut explorations short. Between 1910 and 1913, Jeffcoat climbed The Crack (VS 4c) which was one of the hardest lines in the Peak, only really being outdone by Cave Crack (E1 5b) at Laddow. That was done by the talented Norwegian Ivar Berg in 1908. The line had resisted all assaults and a number of imaginative (but unsuccessful) attempts until Berg came along. He eventually succeeded on the line after bivouacking beneath the route and then swarming up it at dawn wearing pumps and (to the shock of English climbers present) without even removing his jacket.
Jeffcoat’s other major contribution to Castle Naze was The Scoop (HVS 5a) which he climbed only a few months before the outbreak of hostilities in 1914. The traditional method of doing the route was barefoot, and one was not considered to have climbed it correctly unless you left your pumps behind: fine stuff indeed!
Apart from an outrageous descent of The Crack by Harry Kelly in 1915, nothing much happened at the Naze until after World War II. From then on there was sporadic development with a handful of routes every so often from the likes of Al Evans, Malc Baxter and Keith Ashton, but the bulk of development had been done by Jeffcoat. More recently, the climbing on the many small crags around the edge of Combs Moss has been developed and has yielded well over 70 micro-routes of varying quality and esotericism. Perhaps the best of these is the superbly named Flies of Ambition, Windshields of Fate and perhaps the finest V Diff in the area.
From a climber’s point of view, the crag has been thoughtfully laid out. As one approaches the left-hand end of the crag from the parking, the crag stretches out before you. The shortest and easiest routes are generally nearest to you, whilst the longest and hardest are furthest away. Castle Naze has long been regarded as something of a beginner’s crag and, whilst there are plenty of good easy routes, there are certainly enough harder routes to keep an Extreme leader absorbed for multiple visits. Out of the 70 routes, roughly a quarter of these go into each of the standard categories of M to V Diff, V Diff to HS, VS to HVS and finally E1 and above; clearly the Naze is an equitable crag and one that has more than 'just' a selection of decent beginner’s routes. As we’ve already found, some of the routes are terrific sandbags and provide a huge amount of entertainment for bystanders.
Without wanting to be prescriptive, it’s certainly a good idea to start as the crag directs and warm up early on in order that you might be more capable when the real tests start. If you start with Sheltered Crack (S 4a), Move on to both Muscle and Bloody Cracks (about HVD or thereabouts) and finish off – before pausing for morning tea – with The Niche (S 4a) you’ll begin to appreciate the nature of climbing there. The rock has a degree of smoothness to it which is geological rather than human. Careful foot placements pay dividends and will prepare you for a rather tougher time the further right you go. Once suitably refreshed, Niche Arete (VS 4c) is a classic frightener. The guidebook mentions the route being 'rounded, bold and satisfying', but only if you don’t muff it and fall off. Once this has been dispatched, the really meaty bit of the crag hoves into view and it’s time to get your shizzle on.
We’ve already mentioned Pod Crack, so assuming you’d really rather not (which is wise) then a selection of good routes soon comes to hand. Pilgrim’s Progress (HS 4b) and A.P. Chimney (S) are fine examples of their respective crafts. But the real reason you’re there is to deal with the challenges of Scoop Buttress. Keep Arête (VS 4b) with its vanishing thread starts things off, but Scoop Face (HVS 5a) is the real prize. A tough and balancey start beginning above a perennially eroding floor is a testing start, leading to airy and excellent finishing moves. To pull this off in bare feet over 100 years ago deserves respect.
Beyond here are the super classics of the crag: The Crack (VS 4b) and Nozag (VS 4c) are 'must-do' routes for anyone. The degree of boldness required for Nozag in particular reflects a different attitude among the pioneers. It’s common to find modern leaders placing small cams and offset micro-wires on this, and one just has to shake one’s head and keep on walking around the path to the quarried section and by far the hardest routes at the crag. Every line follows a pegged crack and provides some testing climbing for those who’d have liked to have gone to Millstone but couldn’t quite face the drive and the worn placements.
Climbing on the quarry face at the Naze is what it would have been like climbing on Millstone 40 years ago... and queues are guaranteed to be absent. Five E1s are within reach, the best being Keith George: The Movie, with undercut and dicey moves for a brilliant jug, and the sustained crack-line of Morocc’n Roll. Beyond, are dozens of micro routes on the many buttresses that protrude from the sides of Coombs Moss. All are detailed in the BMC’s definitive Staffordshire guide which, for the committed obscurist, has years of weird and wonderful crags and craglets to visit.
Castle Naze once provided safety and sustenance for hunters and farmers tens of thousands of years ago. These days the sustenance and protection are rather different in nature but if you approach the Naze with an open mind and a willingness to not worry too much about the grades and just go climbing, I can assure you of some very fine days indeed.
Guidebook and the crag
The BMC’s The Roaches; the extensive bouldering on Coombs Moss is covered by the seminal and privately published High Over Buxton guide available from Jo Royle’s on the Market Place in Buxton. The crag faces west, is fairly sheltered with the usual westerly winds in these parts, and is consequently clean and quick drying. There are around 70 recorded routes, with at least that number again on the nearby craglets of Coombs Moss.
This article first appeared in the print issue of Climber magazine.