Bouldering In Dartmoor | We Swapped City Problems For The Wild West Country
Here's what happened when we made a pilgrimage to the "spiritual home of Dartmoor bouldering"
This was it. The moment all our training had been leading to. 18 months of indoor climbing, in South London, coming to the boil at the spiritual home of Dartmoor bouldering - Bonehill Rocks. Our team, consisting of four climbers forged in the fires of the city, versus granite; lots and lots of notoriously painful granite. This was going to be clash of the titans stuff. A real battle for the ages. And then, well, I grabbed a hold.
“Ow. Shit. Ow. Fuck. Ow. Kill me. Ow. This hurts so much,” the words pour from my mouth as tears of agony well in my eyes. I’ve been bouldering in Dartmoor for less than thirty seconds and already I’m convinced that I’ve done irreversible damage to my hands. My poor, precious, hands. R.I.P hands. You are with the angels now.
"R.I.P hands. You are with the angels now"
Before the trip, I’d been supremely confident about it all. I’d made real, significant progress in my technique since the turn of the year and was feeling primed to tackle anything. Loading up the hire car at Heathrow, with our crash mat and various bits of camping gear, we headed west in good spirits. Sure, we’d never actually gone bouldering on proper rocks before but, really, how different and difficult could it be?
I look down at my hands. They’re bleeding; bleeding blood. I’ve made it to the top of the boulder, an accomplishment in and of itself, but my fingers have paid the price for it. A massacre borne of the volcanic magma that burst from these grounds roughly 300 million years ago, before cooling and becoming the Dartmoor granite that climbers now come from all over the world to experience. Us down-from-the-capital weekenders, it would seem, are ever so slightly out of our depth.
Joining up with my mates back down at the mat, I can see that they’ve already got the finger tape out and that they aren’t being stingy with it. They’re all hurting just as much as me, and are very much going for the full nuclear option by effectively mummifying every single finger and thumb. Not wanting to miss out on all the sticky tape fun, I decide to take exactly the same approach.
“It feels like hundreds of tiny daggers stabbing me in the hands,” says Tom, referring to the granite’s skin-ripping crystal texture. We all nod in agreement.
Of course, it wasn’t supposed to play out like this. A Bank Holiday weekend in May, with nothing but blue skies and hot weather forecasted, spent outdoors in the wonders of Dartmoor - the only place in England where wild camping is legal. It was going to be idyllic. How could it not be? Things started off well enough.
"The only place in England where wild camping is legal"
Rocking up in the dead of the night, right near to Bonehill Rocks, we parked the car and set off into the darkness with just our head torches to light the way. Settling on a flat spot equidistance between a tree, a rock, and a stream, we put our tents up as best we can; relishing, while doing so, the joyous freedom of camping outside the restricted confines of an authoritarian campsite.
Waking the next morning, and rolling sideways out of my tent, I’m treated to a postcard-perfect view of Widecombe Valley. Skies above bluer than an Avatar’s backend, rolling green fields as far as the eye can see, and the 120 ft tall St Pancras Church, also known as the “Cathedral of the Moors”, sticking out of the tiny village of Widecombe-in-the-Moor like a very lovely sore thumb. It’s a sight to behold.
The view behind me isn't bad either. Bonehill Rocks. We’d been vaguely aware of it the night before, a sort of looming, shadow in the dark, presence. But now, in broad daylight, it takes the breath away. A naturally formed rocky playground that resembles the living room after an Easter Island house party. There’s rocks slumped sideways in the recovery position. Rocks spooning up against each other, in a way that suggests they’ve tried to get to second base before passing out. It’s a beautiful, rocky, mess and we can’t wait to get started on it.
Over the course of the morning, we grit our teeth through the pain and tackle a number of really cool, uniquely Dartmoor, bouldering problems. After spending so much time at the indoor centres, with all their colour-coded routes that tell you where to cling to next, climbing the way nature intended is a liberating type of challenge - if a little confusing in places.
For us, a group of lads who spend our Thursdays mucking about at a converted biscuit factory in Bermondsey, this green light to put our hands and feet anywhere we want feels like a brave new world. Bouldering is a game of logic, as well as strength, and this session serves to simultaneously underline, highlight, and draw massive great big arrows in the direction of that.
"A naturally formed rocky playground that resembles the living room after an Easter Island house party"
Often, we’ll approach some rock and then just look at it for ages; wondering what the Hell we’re supposed to do next. We do a bit of pointing, sure. Then point at other bits. Then scratch our heads. Then point some more. Consulting Glenn’s route book, we grab some holds, shuffle about, and almost inevitably fall back onto the mat. That’s not to say we don’t progress, it’s just there’s a lot of trial and error en-route.
Bonehill Rocks is an extremely popular bouldering spot, especially with the locals, so what with it being a sunny Saturday, and a Bank Holiday Weekend to boot, it’s not long before this remote pocket of wilderness is overrun by a surprisingly high human-per-square-metre ratio. It’s nowhere near as busy as a midweek evening climb at The Arch but there’s definitely a buzz about the place, especially when some dudes at an adjacent boulder get out the boombox and put on the jams.
At about 12:30pm, with our hands flayed and our muscles aching, we do what any sensible group of blokes would do. We hop in the car and head to a pub; but not before making a quick diversion to enjoy the view from the top of Haytor Rocks - a view that author and columnist Simon Jenkins rates as one of the top ten in England. Believe the hype.
In the 19th century, steps were cut into one side of the tor and a metal handrail fixed to allow visitors easier access to its peak. This was met with much derision. In 1851, for example, one Dr Croker went in two-footed when he complained that the rock steps had been cut “to enable the enervated [weakened] and pinguedinous [fat and greasy] scions of humanity of this wonderful nineteenth century to gain the summit.”
These criticisms of the staircase clearly worked because just over 100 years later, in 1960, the handrails were removed. The cited reason for this decision: rusting. The real reason? Croker’s fire in the park diss. That’s our theory anyway.
After Haytor, the pub we end up at is The Rugglestone Inn in nearby Widecombe in the Moor. On a hot one like today, the beer garden feels like a gift from Zeus himself. Soothing my sore bouldering hands on the cold beer glass, under the shade of an umbrella, it’s a properly nice place to spend an afternoon. Throw in the tasty food on offer, as well as a cameo appearance from what must surely be the world’s biggest dog, and you’ve got an establishment that we’re genuinely reluctant to leave.
But leave we must. And, after a stop off for supermarket supplies, we set off in the direction of Luckey Tor - the secluded little place we’ll be wild camping that evening. Do we buy rum? We buy rum.
Parking up at the Dartmeet Car Park, we gather up our things and head off into the trees; sticking, as we do so, to the side of the River Dart. It’s hot, humid, and the terrain is tougher going than we’d expected. I hesitate to call it the West Country Amazon but, well, it’s basically like the West Country Amazon.
Finally, after walking non-stop for what feels like forever, we arrive at Luckey Tor. A crew of hardcore climbers, who look like something straight out of Valley Uprising, have already claimed a spot at the base of the rock formation so, after introducing ourselves, we retrace our steps about one hundred metres and set up camp.
There’s Captain Morgan, crisps, good chat, more Captain Morgan, more crisps, and more good chat. It’s ideal. There’s even enough know-how between us to get an actual, real-life, campfire going. We men. We make fire. *beats chest*
Tom’s brought his one-man tent with him. Dave and Glenn, brothers in arms, have brought their enormous three-man tent with them. I, meanwhile, have left my tent in the car. A deliberate choice, inspired by the weather forecast and an overwhelming urge on my part to get out the bivvy bag and spend an evening under the stars.
When we finally call it a night, the boys retreat to their shelters while I make do with a camping mat, a sleeping bag, and what, if I’m being perfectly honest, amounts to not much more than a red sack. I’m wearing a lot of layers, probably too many layers, but I feel cosy as I drift in and out of sleep with nothing but the sky above me. At one point, I’m not sure what time, I just wake up and stare at the beautiful view. Unhindered by light pollution, it’s a computer screensaver brought to life. Lovely stuff.
I awake peacefully with the rising of the sun. “This is the life,” I think, looking out from my bag, “This. Is. The - fuck me. What in God’s name is that?!”
There’s a slug sat on my shoulder, doing an awful impression of a pirate’s parrot. I make a noise somewhere between “Errrrg” and “Aghhhh” and brush it off with a stick. Then I look around and see that the bastards are everywhere. Literally all over me, and my backpack/pillow. There’s also loads of them just loitering about near me; surrounding me on all sides like I’m a castle and they’re medieval infantrymen laying siege. I’m not sure whether to laugh or cry.
"I look around and see that the bastards are everywhere. Literally all over me, and my backpack"
I meticulously move each slug, and set them down well away from me. I lose count but the slug number is definitely in double figures. Once I’ve got this unpleasant job out the way, and I’ve triple checked that I’m 100% free of molluscs, I get out of my sleeping bag and start packing up. Anything to distract me from the trauma really.
After a cheeky bit of scrambling, and a quick exploration of Luckey Tor, we head back to the car and make a start on our return journey to London. Although, not before making a much needed pit-stop at The Carpenters Arms in nearby Ilsington.
While chatting about our weekend’s exploits over beer and pub grub, I notice a salt shaker. Salt. Of course. Enemy of the slug. If only, I’d had some with me the night before. Things could have turned out so, so, differently. Anyway, Dartmoor. Great place. Great bouldering. Great craic. Just watch out for the granite... and the slugs.