Swanage Revisited

Perhaps the most outstanding aspect of Britain’s climbing is its seacliffs, which are unique in the world for their variety and the extent to which they have been explored by generations of climbers. Regular readers will know I’m a huge fan of climbing with a sploshy outlook, with Gogarth and Pembroke in my all time favourite places anywhere. Roll in Cornwall and Devon plus the myriad stunning venues dotted around the Scottish coastline and you’ll see what I mean.

Somehow, it’s easy to leave Swanage out of this discussion, and it’s not just me. A casual browse of UKC logbooks reveals that Dream of White Horses and Army Dreamers (the poster-child HVSs at Gogarth and Pembroke) have around three times the number of ascents of Finale Groove (the equivalent landmark route on the Dorset coast). Swanage falls between two stools: it’s not as user-friendly as Pembroke (harder to navigate and less solid rock) nor perhaps as adventurous as Gogarth (lacking the scale of Main Cliff or the absurd rock architecture of Red and Yellow Walls). Swanage trad also perhaps suffers from the temptation to skip the scare and clip bolts on one of the adjacent sport sectors or at nearby Portland.

I had a brief immersion into the Swanage scene around the turn of the Millennium when I was working in Poole 4 days a week for around 15 months. I was lucky enough to be adopted by a group of local climbers for the occasional mid-week evening climb, and the novelty of the odd after-work route by the seaside was some compensation for being away from the family (certainly a better deal than Helen got as a solo parent with two little ones during the week). I managed to tick my way through most of the 2 and 3* routes in the HVS to E3 range, especially those with the shorter walk-ins (operating with limited daylight!) By the end of my secondment I’d got more or less tuned in to the unique climbing style, and had a real fondness for the area. Weird then that I’ve not been back in 20 years! Time for Swanage Revisited!

Tom’s Field is a “proper” traditional campsite, with luscious grass pitches, a bunch of quirky vans and a very warm Dorset welcome.

As an added bonus you can walk down to the crags directly from the campsite. Just follow the signs for Dancing Ledge:

Actually it looked like a lot of people had done just that… I wonder what kind of dance they’d be doing – maybe the Hat Dance?

Dancing Ledge is almost exclusively sport climbing and actually quite a way above the sea, so we had our sights on climbing at Guillimot and Cormorant Ledges. The rap into the former is short

… though the anchor has seen better days…

… and you can access a number of the routes at all states of tide. We did The Spook, E1, a Dorset Top 50. Here’s Jim on the first 5a pitch (tough with the holds feeling a bit pasty before the sun had come around) with a stiff pull into the upper continuation groove.

The Rockfax description for P2 features the word “bold” not once but twice – happily it’s use is misplaced on both occasions and it’s a fairly cruisy pitch.

Having allowed the tide to recede a bit we moved a couple of hundred metres along the coast to Cormorant Ledge where we found a handy ab rope already in place – sticking my head over the edge I spotted the owners on a hanging stance a few metres above quite a lively sea, and they kindly offered us the use of their rope. Being careful not to knock the leader off, but also getting a bit of a swing going, I managed to land on a boulder rather than in the briny. Here’s Rob and Mel on Wall Street:

We should perhaps have given it another hour or so to go out a bit further, but I got away with no more than a fine spray as I belayed Jim on Quality Street, HVS, as the waves lashed around the base of the crag. An outstanding route that fully lived up to its name.

Back on Guillimot, Yellow Wall, E1, looked like a good option and I foolishly decided to run both the 5b pitches together. Despite careful ropework, the zigzagging nature of the line as it threads its way through the bands of overhangs made for a pretty draggy rope, and the rock on both pitches leaves a little to be desired. I don’t think E2 would be unreasonable.

We certainly felt we’d earned a visit to that other quirky Swanage icon…

Boulder Ruckle is arguably the main event at Swanage, and has a reputation for being a bit hard to navigate your way around and being the home of some of the most crumbly and brambly top-outs anywhere! Both are somewhat justified! To help alleviate the later it can be advisable to leave a rope in place to protect the last few harrowing meters of vertical earth and choss, but of course that relies on you knowing where the top-out is. We went in search of Jo, HVS and Thunderball, E1, both of which rank in the Top 50 and are conveniently adjacent. To save you the harrow, here are the GPS coordinates of the point where the path leaves the main coastal path: 50.591704,-1.9698023 and of the actual Joe Belay Post: 50.5914319,-1.9701511

The start of Jo is marked by an unmistakable triangular block, which also provides a handy hanging belay if it’s looking a bit sploshy:

The first pitch (honestly – I only spotted the comments about it being “the birdshit pitch” AFTER Jim volunteered to lead it) traverses up and out from the back of a cave…

and over a roof into a hanging V groove. 4c my arse!

The second pitch is supposed to be harder but it’s certainly more straightforward – just a thuggish pull over a small roof, until you get to the tottering top-out…

Thunderball starts with a wild pull through a roof straight off the deck:

… followed by steep juggery up a cracked wall and corner.

Pitch 2 involves yet more roof manoeuvres, but at least this time you’ve had the sense to leave a rope in place for the final bit!

Another cracking route and a great conclusion to a great couple of days of Dorset fun. Swanage isn’t a poor man’s Gogarth or Pembroke – it’s a worthy companion to both those venues with its own unique charms and character. I really mustn’t leave it another 20 years before my next visit!

2 responses to “Swanage Revisited

  1. A very nice blog as always. Just wondering, did you ever fall at Swanage and test the gear? I’ve never really trusted the placements there and consequently never got into it. Which is a shame as it’s clearly an excellent cliff…

    • Hiya Bridbeast – only once, when a hold snapped on Marmolata Buttress. It held 🙂 No guarantees from a sample size of one though! Cheers, Dom

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