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The Magic of Pembroke – by Emma Alsford

Twenty years ago I wouldn’t have thought twice about going to Scotland for a long weekend to get my kicks – an 8-9 hour drive at best – so is it the price of fuel and the negative environmental factor of travelling that puts climbers off making a trip to Pembroke today? During the 1980s the St Govan’s Pub in Bosherston was rammed most weekends with enthusiastic young pretenders just chomping at the bit – desperate to jump on the majestic cliffs lining this impressive coastline. We all know that sports crags can go in and out of fashion and seem to have a certain ‘life span’. Is the same true of British trad crags?

For years the limestone cliffs of Pembroke had a fear inducing reputation as a destination only suited to those operating at the extreme end of the climbing scale, but this should not put lower grade climbers off today. For there has been a huge development of climbs below HVS in the last decade or two. The esoteric gabbro of St David’s Head and the slabby sandstone of the Southern Bays, both in north Pembrokeshire, certainly provide a fantastic alternative to the sheer limestone cliffs further south, and there are sections in Range West which have some of the best lower grade climbing in the country.

“Pembroke is the unsung hero of modern British trad climbing – beautiful, leisurely and ferocious – in whatever measure you want. Every time I go there it’s like a holiday with fangs – I love it.”

Charlie Woodburn.               

Act of God, VSThe main reason climbers make the effort to travel down to Pembrokeshire are the hundreds of 4 star routes to go at.  Described here are just a few of these to tempt you to travel to Pembroke during the spring, summer and autumn.

Christmas Chasm, VD, Western Walls – Range West
Sometimes the prize is hard won – for this route is in the heart of Range West, a live firing range, and on one of the more tidal cliffs in the ranges. It is also necessary to attend a briefing at the Castlemartin army camp in order to gain access, although quite conveniently these will be held on several dates during February, March, April and May in 2016 (see the BMC website, access and conservation). So if one is willing to combine a trip to Pembroke with a briefing weekend, and one can also suffer a 50 minute walk in, this cliff has to be one of the premier climbing venues in the country for those operating from VD up to HVS. This ‘big feel’ VD is a stupendous, jug infested, yet intimidating journey, up the characterful striated limestone bands synonymous with this area of Pembroke.

Bow-Shaped Corner, HS, Flimston Bay – Range East
This friendly climb takes the climber away from the central hub of the main areas, and into the less frequented parts of Range East. The small slab containing this strong line is tucked away discreetly at the back of the very scenic Flimston Bay, and whilst it cannot accommodate a large number of climbers, one is very often the only climbing party there. Lovely rock and a great feature, with nicely sustained climbing and no surprises – one for a calm and mellow day.

Act of God, VS, Craig Coetan – St David’s Head Peninsula, North Pembroke
Quite simply a sublime experience, unequalled by many and on a par with the better known Blue Sky (also VS) in the south of the county. On a sunny day the rock here sparkles, quite literally, a sight that wasn’t lost on Martin Crocker during the first ascent in 1975… ‘Everything sparkled – the sea, the rock, our mood – must have been an Act of God.’ The picturesque St David’s Head peninsula provides a wonderful setting, with the majestic Ramsey island adding a worthy backdrop. The longer and more involved climbs, on the gritstone-like gabbro of north Pembroke, also give a welcome change to the single pitch limestone offerings in the south. A great adventure. The above photograph shows Olivia Colson taking a leap of faith on “Act of God, VS”.  Photograph taken by Emma Alsford.

Heart of DarknessHeart of Darkness / New Morning, E1, Mowingword –  Stackpole, Lydstep & Penally
One of the better-known established classics, courtesy of Jim Perrin, one of Pembroke’s early pioneers, in the early seventies. It’s hard to beat the cliff of Mowingword in the late afternoon of a warm autumn, when the setting sun brings out a dense orange glow to the perfectly formed limestone. On turning the initial arête this climb takes on a whole new meaning, and suddenly one’s attention is sharply focused – as you disappear out of sight from your faithful belayer all conversation ends, and suddenly you are very much alone, dealing with steeper rock than expected, with a watery abyss beneath your feet and wishing desperately that you could jam. By the time you reach the first belay it feels like your partner is lost in another world. Add to this the striking finishing crack of New Morning and this combination of routes supplies a mind-blowing experience indeed. The photograph opposite shows Sam Brown on the classic traverse of “Heart of Darkness”.

Magic Flute, E1, Becks Bay – Stackpole, Lydstep & Penally
Despite not having the towering majesty of some of the cliffs further west, this small crag in the heart of Becks Bay contains some pretty unusual miniature gems. The sea has carved some great features into the rock hereabouts, with plenty of caves and water-worn solution tubes littering this section of the coastline. The moves start straight off the beach, and a degree of more traditional techniques are required to overcome the difficulties. The one set back is that the experience is over all too soon, but you can be assured that the novelty of the climb takes somewhat longer to wear off.

The Fascist and Me, E4, Trevallen – Range East
An ‘ol favourite which most extreme climbers would find hard to pass by, and possibly the most photographed route in Pembroke. Just 2 minutes from the car park and with two completely contrasting pitches – what’s not to like? Trevallen has to be one of the most popular extreme climbing destinations in Pembroke, not least because of the ease of access and lack of firing restrictions, but also because of the sheer concentration of hard routes situated side by side. Yet this testing classic is still far from being polished and the eye-catching flying arête finale never fails to attract the unsuspecting tourists above. With the adjacent and even more popular cliff of St Govan’s Head, there is always plenty to go at here.

Class of ’86, E5, No Man’s Zawn – Stackpole, Lydstep & Penally
No Man’s Zawn is like a miniature Huntsman’s Leap, surprisingly under-utilised, but if sustained wall climbing is your thing, there is no better location to test your skills. While the climbing crowds are flocking to Mother Carey’s Kitchen, just a stone’s throw away, you can be climbing in perfect isolation all day. Though the grades do start at around E3, which makes it quite restrictive to many parties. This route certainly has ‘class’ and it takes the appealing, soaring crackline running almost the full length of the wall. Don’t relax too soon – it saves the best till last.

Magic Flute, E1 5b The Fascist and Me, E4 6a Class of ’86, E5 6b

The photograph of the left shows Mark Davis on the bizarre solution-tube of “Magic Flute, E1 5b”.  The middle photograph shows Paul Donnithorne cutting loose on “The Fascist and Me, E4 6a”.  The photograph on the right shows Matty Rawlinson on “Class of ’86, E5 6b”.  All photographs by Emma Alsford.

Spacewalk, HVS, Mount Sion East – Range West
Another gem to be found within Range West, but thankfully requiring a much shorter walk. This characterful cliff should not be missed on a trip to Pembroke. From the unique square-cut and sheltered gearing up spot hidden within the shattered remains of the expansive cliff-top, to the curious descent through the ‘squeeze hole’ that is the abseil tube, and the scramble across the unique geology on the tilted, tidal platforms at the base of this cliff – the adventures begin before one has even set foot on a climb here. This particular 3 pitch cosmic classic goes up inside an impressive chimney, always challenging but never desperate, taking the climber on a surprising and memorable journey. Dry conditions are essential, as with many Pembroke climbs that venture into caves and zawns.

The Beast from the Undergrowth, E2 5cThe Beast from the Undergrowth, E2, Huntsman’s Leap – Range East
A well-known Gibson classic, with a well-known ‘Gibson reach’ on the crux move. Yet a cheeky, and not so well-known, undercut unlocks the puzzle for those of a shorter stature. The route is situated in one of the most atmospheric places in Pembroke – Huntsman’s Leap. Abseiling into this intimidating ‘hole in the ground’ can induce a jaw-dropping moment when experienced for the first time. There are no end of classics at this cliff, so long as E2 is your starting grade, and the ‘Beast’ has to be one of the more popular ones. The photograph opposite shows Trevor Massiah on “The Beast from the Undergrowth, E2 5c”.

The Wizard, F8a, Kato Zawn – Stackpole, Lydstep & Penally
Over recent years the art of deep water soloing has become extremely popular in Pembroke, which is well suited to the activity, especially around mid summer when the seas are calm. There are now several places along the coastline which have a good selection of these routes, and many of the trad climbs have also been deep water soloed and support a French grading system in the guides. The area of Penally is particularly well-suited to this activity as the cliffs are somewhat smaller than elsewhere, and they don’t tend to receive the full brunt of a westerly swell. The Wizard in Kato Zawn was Pembroke’s first F8a, courtesy of Neil Gresham, and it takes a ridiculously steep line up an attractive, but gravity-defying, pillar of rock.

Giltar Slab Route, S, Giltar Slabs – Stackpole, Lydstep & Penally
Quite simply a gem of a route in an idyllic situation. Beautifully sustained all the way, with plenty of gear and lovely moves. This route is a great introduction to the slabbier side of Pembrokeshire climbing.

These are only a handful of the routes that are on offer here, but to sample a whole lot more check out the brand new Pembroke Rock published by the Climbers’ Club in December 2015, the second guidebook of the award winning ‘Wired’ series of selective guidebooks to the UK.

Pembroke Rock (from the editor Paul Robertson)

Pembroke rock climbing guidebookPembroke is a world-class climbing area, renowned for its atmospheric sea cliffs and dramatic rock architecture. With an exclusively trad ethic, steep wall climbing, crack, and groove systems abound, while delightful areas of slabs and easier grade climbs can easily be sought out. Regardless of the climbing, the stunning scenery and great beaches make for a hugely popular holiday destination.

Pembroke Rock showcases a selection of more than 1050 of the very best climbs, across the full grade range, and covering 48 cliffs from St David’s Head in North Pembroke all the way to Penally in the south. Selected crags are included from each of the five areas covered by the definitive Climbers’ Club guidebooks, and a number of new climbs from 2015 are included.

The guide covers climbs across the full grade range from Diff to E11 and a number of popular deep water soloing venues are described.

Authored by two of the area’s devoted activists, the detailed route descriptions are supplemented with essential access information and expert local knowledge regarding weather and tidal conditions.

A crag guide, full colour photo topos and detailed maps complement the text and make it easy to locate crags and routes. The guidebook is in an A5 format, has 416 pages and describes 1,050 routes. Buy this guidebook from our shop.

Morocco Rock guidebookEmma Alsford is a key Climbers' Club member involved in the production and publishing of the five definitive Pembroke Guidebooks, co-authoring Stackpole & Lydstep, the two Range East volumes and Range West, and also shooting a vast majority of the photographs in all five volumes. Also project manager in the new selective Pembroke Rock (part of the award winning 'Wired' series of selective guidebooks), co-authoring this publication, as well as page setting, overseeing topos and photographing much of the action contained within the book, as well as the cover shot.

Together with partner Paul Donnithorne self-published the Morocco Rock guidebook, a definitive volume for the very best areas around the north side of the Jebel el Kest and Jebel Taskra areas of the Anti-Atlas mountains - under the new publishing company 'Crack Addicts' - and bringing this little known area into huge popularity and sparking the keen interest of hundreds of British trad climbers looking for adventurous climbing in unique places abroad, especially over the winter months.

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Pembroke rock climbing guidebook

The Pembroke Rock Climbing Guidebook is a selective guidebook describes a selection of 1,050 of the very best climbs, across the full grade range. It covers 48 cliffs from St David’s Head in North Pembroke all the way to Penally in South Pembroke. 

Buy this guidebook from our shop.


Find out more about rock climbing in Pembroke


Are you a budding travel writer? 

Climb Europe are looking for exciting destination articles about various rock climbing areas around the world. 

Earn money from your travels by sending your articles to Climb Europe.  Contact Us directly.