I was over in Britain last week for just 4 days rock climbing, and it reminded me of the times when people ask me if I’d ever move back to the UK. The answer is “No, but…..” but there are several reasons why I really love returning to Britain every so often. Here are 3 of them:
Reason number 1: The quality of the rock climbing
We had planned to get to Pembroke for 3 days and then get back to the Peak for the birthday party of my ex-boss at Troll, Tony Howard, 70 years young this year and still climbing, an inspiration to anyone who says “I’m too old to climb, trek, cave, leap around to AC/DC”. I flew to Bristol and met Pete Barrass at my folks in Gloucester, already knowing we needed to amend the plan. Both Range West AND east in Pembroke were closed by the army for a “let’s practise shelling seven bells of shit out of Afghanistan” brigade level exercise. For realism, they should really let the sheep on Castlemartin range explode in an improvised way now and again.
So first stop was Nesscliff Quarry in Shropshire. Even here, the peace was disturbed by small arms fire and helicopter flights at the nearby army range. Fortunately we were able to concentrate on the soaring sandstone arêtes and corners which have had full treatment from Nick Dixon and a cast of all stars like Johnny Dawes, with a resulting clutch of top quality adventurous lines since I last visited in the late 80’s.
Not having climbed on leader placed pro for … oooo… quite a while, we picked the best protected lines to start with. Red Square at E1 served as our warm up, and then seeing as how the classic E4 of Marlene was being top roped by a visiting German team, we jumped on Trouble in Toytown. Going in at E5 6b for just the second route felt a bit bold, but in the event it proved to be more than protectable enough with fantastic moves through a cheeky bridging crux. That route alone was worth the entrance money. This was Pete’s first E5 lead as well. You wouldn’t think so, given the way he smoothly dispatched the crux. By contrast, a lead of Marlene felt pretty poky, with a 6a crux well out from two cam placements and you really wouldn’t want to take a 30 foot swinger to near the ground even if they did hold. A quick ascent of Imagination followed and then we both played on the sequency Yukan 2. At E6/7 6B, we had no chance at this on the flash, especially as the temperature was rapidly rising, so we scooted off to North Wales to stay with that un-ageing hippy, Graham Desroy, still in bandanna and flares.
With the weather set fair, the obvious choice for day 2 and a total contrast to Nesscliff was Clogwyn d’ur Arddu. Climbing on Cloggy is special anytime, but when it’s dry and warm it’s a real privilege. As Adam Wainwright put it, “if Wales was like this all the time, it would be the best climbing venue in the world. I last did West Buttress Eliminate in the 80’s as well, so had very little memory of it apart from horrendous thrutch up Walsh’s Groove. I certainly didn’t remember how bold the first pitch felt. British mountain rock routes have a special feel, and Cloggy is really serious. you can feel the weight of history bearing down there on any route you climb, just like climbing on the Eiger even if you’re not on the Nordwand.
Even on Cloggy, the military were following us around. Army Puma choppers circling round Llyn d’ur Arddu slowly (boys – it’s a good job climbers aren’t Taliban with RPG’s) and even a Chinook overflying the walkers sweating up Snowdon. Anyone would think the country was at war.
After too much red wine chez Desroy followed up by Ledaig (a fine single malt from Mull). we felt a little jaded on day 3 so opted for a shorter walk in to Clogwyn y Gafr at the top end of Llanberis Pass. Pete acquitted himself with honour on Pulsar, but I got spanked on Nectarine Run. If it was a bolted sport route, it would be about F7b, but at E5 6b with lots of RP’s of varying solidity, and with my hangover reinforced with dehydration, I just wasn’t up to the job.
Escaping back to Sheffield to avoid further liver damage, the rain on Friday night put paid to the plan of either Chee Tor (not fancying climbing in a tropical jungle) or natural grit, so Millstone beckoned. After a warm up on Great North Road (candidate for the best E1 in the Peak) Pete put paid to Time for Tea and I had a lap on London Wall. Top value finger jamming, something sadly lacking in France. Having started my climbing on Derbyshire grit, it’s always been close to my heart. It’s still as good as ever.
Reason number 2: The grub
Yep – the food in France and (even more so) Italy is amazing, but there are certain things you can only get in Britain. Try to explain the concept of a chip buttie to a French gastronome: “see, what you do is, you chop potatoes by hand into chippy chunks, fry them, but not too much so they stay crisp, and then serve them between two slices of white bread with butter for the extra lard factor and ketchup for a dash of colour. Then wash it all down with a pint of strong tea.” It is that simple, and like climbing itself, if we have to explain it, you won’t understand it.
Then there’s the curry: the only Indian restaurants in Cham are overpriced and not the greatest. The best Indian food in the Chamonix valley gets made in my own kitchen. Another mini-reason to get back to the UK: stock up on spices, pickles, poppadums and bombay mix (though Pete B will tell you that bombay mix is inedible spiced cardboard – he’s weird like that). And there’s nothing like the whole curry experience, especially somewhere like Sheffield and the associated…..
Reason number 3: BEER (and the craich that goes with it)
Climbing culture in Britain revolves around the pub. Our arrival in North Wales coincided with “pizza and a pint” at the Gallt y Glyn. Walk in there and it’s a mini who’s who of North Wales climbing. Dave Brown and Lynwen Griffiths, responsible for the amazing Welsh Connections DVD (and now they have Timmy Emmet’s Stennis Ford project in the can too), Adam Wainwright, Graham Desroy, Ginger Dave, Ginger Cain and a warm family atmosphere that maybe does exist somewhere in Chamonix, but I haven’t found it. Despite having lived in Cham for 10 years, I’ll never be Chamoniard, Savoyard or even French. The feeling of belonging in a pub with brain buzzing from the adventure and fingers still sore from pulling hard on rough rhyolite wrapped round a pint of bitter is something you can’t put a price on.
I’ll always be a British rock climber, heart and soul.