Cheshire Sandstone Climbing Tour
- Monday 10th February 2020
Paul Evans takes us on a whistle-stop tour of some of the major areas and routes in the Cheshire & Merseyside sandstone climbing area.
These are generally countryside crags with short approaches, in easy reach of the major northwest towns and cities. For locals, they’re ideal for cragging after work. If you’re visiting the northwest, check them out while you’re in the area. And if you’re local and haven’t been on the sandstone yet, do yourself a favour and go exploring – you’ll learn to love it. The locals are a cosmopolitan mixture of Mancs, Scousers, the odd border raiders from the Welsh Marches, posh folk from Cheshire, and the mysterious ‘Woollybacks’. We’re generally friendly and won’t sandbag you too badly.
Emily Huzzard on Eliminate 1 (E1 5b) at Helsby. Photo: Paul Evans
For those new to sandstone, it can take some getting used to. Footholds can be tiny and sloping – or just seem to have gone AWOL (look harder). Handholds are often small, poor and rounded. Sequences can be desperate and baffling – but all the more rewarding when you finally work them out. Stick with it – it’s good for you. This rock is easily eroded, so keep your shoes clean. Give it time to dry after rain, and remember, small flake holds can be fragile when wet.
Many crags are bouldering venues, but some problems are pretty highball, so mats, spotters, and bravery are useful; the bigger/harder problems are often top-roped. If you do top rope, don’t run moving ropes over edges – it’s not good for the rock or your rope. Helsby is a ‘proper’ crag, with routes running up to 20m. When trad climbing, exercise particular care with cams – I know two locals who have taken short falls onto cams, in both cases the cam ripped and the leader decked; fortunately both walked away. Nuts (especially larger ones) are safer in sandstone. Not falling off, or top-roping, is safer still.
It’s big, multi-coloured, multi-tiered sandstone heaven. Subtle slabs, beefy jamming cracks, steep walls, overhangs festooned with amazing holds – and how many different colours can sandstone be? Often looks green and out of nick from the M56, but appearances are usually deceptive – go and have a closer look. Faces north-west and can get amazing evening light, as the sun sets over the Mersey estuary and North Wales. Helsby is a complex crag with three buttresses: East, Central and West. Central has three tiers and West has two. Many people never get beyond the Lower Tier of West but it’s all worth a look. From the parking, it’s a short uphill approach through tranquil woods, ideal as part of your warm-up.
As well as routes, Helsby has excellent bouldering. Above the Upper Tier of West Buttress there is a long low wall right at the top of the hill which provides excellent short problems and traverses. Less well-known is that a few hundred metres to the west of the main buttresses of Helsby, there is some excellent bouldering just below the top of the hill, down in the trees. I was given the guided tour by local expert Andy Popp and his friend, Tom Coulthard.
Andy Popp on Roll Out the Barrel (V3) at Helsby Boulders. Photo: Paul Evans
As a complete contrast, from full-on trad to well-bolted sport. For a long time this was a rarely visited backwater, tales of the odd serious trad route, and dodgy bolts did little to attract the crowds. In 2010, the place got a good makeover, being retrobolted by local activists to modern standards and popularity has soared. The crag is at the top of the hill in Runcorn, located in a small country park. When I visited for my shots it was a beautiful June evening, gorgeous clear light and very warm. Mark had helpfully arranged a large crew of locals to turn up and give the routes plenty of traffic.
I always think of Pex as having a slightly two-sided character. There are the relaxing, friendly, lowball (is that a word?) easier routes and traverses and then there are the far harder and scarier highball desperates, with their imaginary holds and ankle-breaking landings. As many of the latter are green and unchalked, I may not be the only one who’s avoiding them. Pex is owned by United Utilities, who ask climbers not to attach belays to the fence stakes around the quarry top. Given the state of some of the stakes, I’d say this is good advice.
A beautiful little spot on the hill behind Helsby. A group of locals have purchased the wood, and look after it for the public to enjoy – what nice people. There are four small quarries in total, of which two have worthwhile climbing. Apparently been climbed on for years by ‘those in the know’ but about to become more popular and is best after a few dry days, the trees can hold the damp for a day or so after rain. If you’re climbing late into the evening on a clear day, wander up to the top of Helsby Hill and enjoy the sunset before your post-climb pint.
In Wallasey on the other side of the Mersey, a chic little city venue with an ‘urban grunge’ feel to it. The local graffiti artists are particularly active, so make sure you bring matching coloured tops. Very handy if you live or work on the Wirral. Overhanging Wall (with the most graffiti) is definitely highball and the routes are nails. Bluebell Wall, Who Wall and the Granny Rock are more amenable and safe.
Jim Symon bouldering on Bluebell Wall, The Breck. Photo: Paul Evans
Another of those secret little spots that won’t be secret for much longer. The rocks are semi-hidden in a small wood just off the B5393. A short walk uphill through the trees brings you to some idyllic bouldering in a quiet backwater. The problems are a mixture of the ‘small but perfectly formed’, and the ‘rather larger and more character building’ – the two big arêtes left a distinct impression! The route names are a plus… Manley Virtues indeed.
In this article, all I can do is scratch the surface and highlight the crags, and show you a little of what this wonderful area has to offer - the route selection is up to you. The sun nearly always shines, it never rains, and conditions are consistently wonderful, so anyone getting the guide and visiting the area will have endless opportunities to have fun!
The BMC Cheshire & Merseyside Sandstone guide is the definitive guide to the area with all of the routes and bouldering.
Pete Chadwick on Yuppies Arête (E7) at Helsby. This is the front cover of the BMC’s Cheshire & Merseyside Sandstone guidebook. Photo: Paul Evans
Mark Hounslea climbing The Flying School (F6c+) at Frogsmouth Quarry. Photo: Paul Evans
A longer version of this article appeared in Climber magazine.