Posted on June 23 2013
The everything you need to know review about climbing at Harrison’s Rocks.
London is the epicentre of the United Kingdom. Some say it is the best city in the world. However, if you love climbing where can you go if you have a short weekend off or maybe even just a day off?
All the major climbing sites are not justifiable for such a short trip. Scotland, the Peak District, Wales and the South West Coast are incredible and challenging places to climb but are just too far. Cheddar Gorge is just close enough but you still have to spend several hours in the car to get there.
So it seems that there is only one area to climb near enough to London to be almost local. This is the Sandstone rock faces left behind from the last Ice Age in the South East of England. By far the most popular is Harrison’s Rocks which is only an hour away by car from parts of South East London.
Harrison’s Rocks is a great site managed by the BMC which has over 400 climbs. They manage it really well and the paths and base of the rocks make access really easy. They have made the car park free (with an appreciated donation of £1 per car to maintain it) but there are no facilities at the site (bar some toilets only open when the campsite is open). Unfortunately due to a burst toilet pipe the campsite is closed for the foreseeable future as there is no sanitation at the site. Nearby there are some great country pubs and the local town is Groombridge and Elridge. It’s best to drive but is walkable from Elridge station if you are coming by train. Groombridge has some great local shops like a bakers and flower shop (useful to apologise to your partner that you were late to your anniversary becasue you went climbing).
It depends on the type of climber you are to how much you will enjoy it. It definitely suits the beginner to intermediate outdoor climber and frankly, if you climb above 7b or V7 you have probably experienced several types of rock and know your favourites and those sites where challenges await you. High Rocks in the area suit a more advanced climber. As the name suggests they are higher (still no higher than 12m) and harder.
This review is mostly for climbers who climb at indoor walls in London and want to experience the thrill of climbing outside. It is also worth noting that the guide book I have used here (where I have got names and routes from) is Southern Sandstone by the climbers’ club guides. We have this book in our store for sale and it is highly recommended. It shows clearly the best routes and the must climbs and is full of maps and pictures to help you find your way.
There is some bouldering but the only dedicated boulder is really the North Boulder. With 19 climbs on the one boulder and problems ranging from 3a to 7a it gives you plenty of variation. The problems are also classics with some really interesting natural hand holds (one fantastic circular undercut on Groovy Graeme) and even some overhanging problems. The rest of the walls can be bouldered to a certain height but how brave you are and how safe you want to be is really down to you.
The rest is mostly top rope climbed but as they are not that high plenty of climbers choose to solo these climbs. That brings us to the other issue with these rocks, there are no big walls. The highest is maybe 20m high (and even that is generous) so there are no multi-pitch routes and few routes which are really going to test your stamina. If you are used to walls in London this will be perfect as you will most likely need to build up your strength before you can push for something higher. Also it is worth mentioning that your first big wall climb can be really scary and it is best to build up to it and practice creating anchors at easier sites so you don’t freeze somewhere where you might have to be rescued.
Another major issue is that you are not allowed to lead climb here. I am sure some cheeky climbers do but all the books advise against it and it is also dangerous. Expect a hostile reaction from other climbers if you are attempting to do this. The sandstone is naturally soft and owes all its strength to a couple of mm of weathered crust. If you fall your protection is likely to fall out and also chip away at the rock potentially ruining routes and natural features of the rock. For this reason lowering off and absieling is also banned.
If you are new to outdoor climbing Harrison’s Rocks could be perfect for you. The BMC have placed some bolts at the top of every route (which are backed up for safety) which makes it really quick and safe to anchor up a top rope. It will also be much cheaper as all you will need is a 40m single rope, a couple of LONG slings, a few screw-gate carabiners, a couple of harnessed and a belay device. This will be so much cheaper than investing in all the rocks, hexes, cams, quick draws, nut tools and other wonderful climbing devices necessary to lead climb. The reason you need long slings are that the rock is very fragile and you should run the rope over the edge of the rock face with a sling (or with rope if your knot tying skills are more advanced) and then run the rope through a screw-gate carabiner on the end of this sling. If you just run the rope through the bolt the rope will rub against the rock wearing huge grooves in the rock and also damaging your rope and reducing the lifespan of the rope.
When you are there you will see these signs of rope wear and also where the BMC have concreted the grooves to protect them from further damage. There is also signs of chipping and even people who carve their name in the rock. This is strictly forbidden. Climbing is a relatively free sport where you can do what you want if you are truthful about it. If you can’t do a climb, that’s ok. If you solo, on sight, lead, flash, trad or top rope a climb just be honest. No one needs to make new holds to do a climb, just try a different hold.
Again though this is all just good practice for the serious climbs. Harrison’s rocks has some tough climbs but for the real challenges you do have to go further afield. It is easy and great fun. What type of rock you climb is personal preference. Sandstone is very smooth and rounded, has some great slopers and can also feel very slippery. When it gets wet unfortunately it takes ages to dry and some locals told me there are areas there which have been wet for years. This all seems to be at the fallen tree (very obvious when you see it) section and I think there is probably a spring or a stream going through this point.
In areas it can even feel sandy. This can easily be solved by brushing the rock with your hand or blowing on it but it can make it feel slippery. Be careful not to use anything abrasive to brush or soon holds will be brushed away. The perfect thing about sandstone is it doesn’t polish, it will wear down so it should be there still after years of use if care is taken. Your shoes can get really sandy and all sorts of leaves and vegetation can stick to the bottom. In the spring thousands of seed pods litter the floor that your shoes pick up. This makes the rocks really hard to climb as no matter how good your rubber is it will get no contact with the rock. I really advise taking a rag or a floor mat to brush this off your shoes before you climb to get great grip. If everyone at Harrison’s starts to use floor mats you know you heard it at Overhang first.
There can be some slimy cracks to so take some hand wipes. Even on a sunny day the tree cover stops sun getting to the wall almost everywhere but the Isolated Butress down to the Zig-Zag Wall. The deep cracks under overhangs are the wettest as they get no sun and your hand can litterally be green after holding onto one of those. The infamous Sewer Climb and Monkey’s Necklace routes are soaking even when there has been no rain. Go figure! The trees can shade most of the rocks and the only rocks normally in full sun lie between the Isolated Butress and the Zig Zag Wall.
On the other hand when it is dry it is really grippy, it is not too abrasive on the hands and there are some great cracks to work your way across or up like at The Flakes or Long Layback. The Flakes (6a) is my favouite climb here. It is so delicate, your footwork has to be spot on. You switch cracks and then traverse under an overhang before coming around the side of an arete. It took me several goes to get it but the cracks feel so good. It’s just the feet which are a nightmare.
Harrison’s Rock’s also tend to have some amazing pocket features which are actually quite rare. This is most apparent at the Isolated Butress which has some great climbs. The aptly named Isolated Buttress Climb (4c) is brilliant. It has a rib which you really have to get your hands around and some excellent pocketThese features create great little pinches to pull yourself up on which can be reminiscent of those tiny holds up bouldering routes. When these pockets form in cracks they create tiny pillars which you can maybe put a finger or two around to use as a small but really solid hold.
Other rocks like the gritstone (still a type of sandstone) in the peak district can be much more abrasive (especially on your shoes and hands) and the features tend to be further away from each other so suit taller climbers more. Sandstone has smaller more delicate features (mostly) and is great for practicing technique and developing a more controlled approach. Obviously there are exceptions to the rule such as Elementary (5c) which involves lots of laybacking and the last move is very spread out which needs a lot of strength to get to the top.
Next to this are two of the best climbs at these rocks. The Zig-Zag Wall (5a) and the Unclimbed Wall (5c). The Zig Zag wall is great fun. It is a bit nervy as you could swing quite a lot at one point but the holds are brilliant if you can find them. I had a massive smile on my face when I got to the top. All the traversing makes it seem like a much longer climb. The Unclimbed Wall probably has every feature a climb could have. There are slopers, pockets, cracks and crimps. You could also probably do it in several different ways. The holds are not the best but the holds at the top are the best natural holds I have ever experienced. I felt like I could just do pull ups of them. I seriously thought you only got those holds in climbing walls. It was a great way to finish.
I hear that great climbs include Niblick (5b) and Birchden Wall (5b). Any one with experience of these climbs leave your comments below and if I get to try these soon I will add to this review.
There are a lot of climbs here with great variation. It is not the only place in the area though so do check out High Rocks and Bowles Rocks. Being free Harrison’s are always going to be the most popular (and gets really busy on the weekends) but £5 at High Rocks and £1.60 at Bowles Rocks won’t break the bank so try them out. Their season tickets are even more reasonable so if you live close by you will definately want to try these out.