THE BIG, THE BAD, THE BOLD, AND THE BEAUTIFUL
The best of the British Isles’ endless sea cliffs
The best of the British Isles’ endless sea cliffs, from sport to trad to deep- water soloing.
Climbers often use the words “magical,” “majestic,” and “monstrous” to describe the sea cliffs of the British Isles. Here, the exposure above the Atlantic’s dark, ferocious waters, the taste of the sea air, the cry of the gulls, and the feeling of isolation conspire to overwhelm the senses. The British Isles have a vast, diverse coastline stretching to over 8,000 miles, with 30-plus rock types, including limestone, granite, gneiss, quartzite, dolerite, sandstone, and pyroclastic breccia.
On these walls, you’ll find more than 10,000 routes, with opportunities to climb sport, traditional, and deep-water solo—often all at the same venue. Take the limestone cliffs of Swanage in sunny south England. Infinite Gravity (F8a+; 5.13c) in Blackers Hole, Ocean Boulevard (E3 5b; 5.10d) on Boulder Ruckle, and Freeborn Man (6c S1; 5.11b) at Conner Cove represent, respectively, the crème de la crème of these disciplines just a stone’s throw apart.
The UK coast is home to some of the world’s oldest rocks. Until 80 million years ago, America and Eurasia were joined. Then volcanoes erupted in the middle of the supercontinent. Magma forced the land apart, creating North America and Europe/the British Isles—and our coastline. This cooling lava formed the granite and gneiss encountered on the Cornish and Lewis sea cliffs, respectively. UK ethics are often strict, and some cliffs are “no bolts”; the wet, cold climate keeps visitors away, as do the abseil approaches. This is definitely not the French Riviera, with its bolt-studded limestone above balmy seas. Still, there are variances in climate and commitment, and you can climb anything from a single-pitch non-tidal route in 70-degree sunshine to a multi-pitch adventure with hanging belays in Baltic temps.
The almost-tropical Jurassic south coast of England offers a relaxing ambience, with inviting waters. Along these shores, you’ll encounter steep, juggy limestone at venues like Swanage and Portland. With cliffs that rise to over 160 feet covering grades from VS (5.4) to E8 (5.13) and the convenience of moderate sport routes at the more recently developed Portland, this venue has become popular. In late summer when the seas reach a staggering 70° F, deepwater soloists flock to the sparkling coves for big splashdowns and late-night parties.
“The best is in the West,” Cornish climbers say, and it’s the granite that oozes quality at the southwestern tip of England. Yellow lichens decorate the ledges and pillars of this remarkable textured rock, and when the winter sun warms the cliffs there is no better place. Vomiting sea birds, salt-corroded pegs, and the surging Atlantic swell all serve to heighten your awareness of the elements. The dramatic cliffs on iconic Land’s End are home to some of the hardest climbs in the area, and routes like the committing Atlantic Ocean Wall (E5 6b; 5.12a) lure in more adventurous teams. Sennen Cove, with its sun-bleached platforms, is a charming place full of steep, gymnastic routes on sculptured rock, and is famous for its abundance of easier lines, such as Demo Route (Hard Severe 4b; 5.7). Chair Ladder epitomizes Cornish multipitch climbing, with its well-known classic Diocese (VS 4c, 5a, 4a, 4b; 5.8). Spending hours strapped to the rock as waves thunder in allows the mind to drift, with nothing but the cries of the gulls and the sulfurous smell of seaweed for company.
Questing north, one encounters Wales, with its extensive Pembrokeshire coast. This area