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Northern England



By Chris Craggs

Reviewed by Andy Birtwistle


It is generally recognised that the evolution of climbing guides over the last 15 years has been driven by the Rockfax machine. From the first foray with Yorkshire Limestone in 1990 Rockfax guides evolved into “state of the art publications” and a benchmark that set the standard for others. Their innovative approach also went some way to excuse them from the oft leveled criticism that they rely on the hard work and research of unpaid members of established clubs for their material. By re- working  information into a user friendly and attractive way of finding ones way around the crags they kept moving things on. The overall guidebook standard improved and the quality bar was raised. In doing this they also provided a great service to climbers in areas where guides were out of date or out of print. But how far this would go without straining the system too much remained to be seen.

So it was a mixture of curiosity and trepidation that I felt when I opened their latest offering “Northern England”. Curiosity, because even though I have always had reservations about the way they sourced information, I tended to use the Rockfax as well as the definitive guides. In a way they seemed to complement each other and this perceived symbiosis appeared to benefit everyone in the long run. Trepidation because on this occasion, I didn’t know quite what to expect from a guide that tried to do so much and it was also trespassing on some hallowed ground!

My first reservation is that the areas covered in “Northern England” do not link in a geographically logical way. Most of the crags in Yorkshire have more affinity to, and are closer to the gritstone edges of the Peak than the remote sandstone outcrops of Northumberland. Apart from that three definitive and up to date guides already cover this large area so what was the raison d’etre for publication of such a wide encompassing volume? Author Chris Craggs, originally from Northumberland, also admits in the acknowledgements that Alan James was unsure when he says he “finally caved in after four years of badgering and agreed the guide would be a good idea” .This suggests a strong reluctance to go down this route and leaves the reader wondering why he changed his mind.

 Was this hesitance perhaps brought about by the fact that these areas really do not have much in common? Possibly also he was aware that they had strong and fiercely independent climbing communities, and in the main modern and up to date guide books.  Maybe also, patching them together was illogical. Even the title “Northern England” requires further explanation in the introduction?

At first glance the guide is the usual professional, polished and colourful product we have come to expect from Rockfax. Crag shots are very good as are the photographs but they tend to rely heavily on a few individuals particularly that old Rockfax stalwart Colin Binks. There are also a few of a younger slimmer Chris Craggs in his native “County”. The guide contains a mixture of routes and boulder problems with V grades used for the bouldering. The usual array of well know symbols accompany the route descriptions.

Yorkshire takes up about half the book but surprisingly starts with Pule Hill and Shooter’s Nab. Where? I reach for my library as these are not the first places that come to mind with Yorkshire Grit. They are in Yorkshire but they’re in Lancashire Rock! After this puzzling introduction we are soon back to the popular favourites such as Almscliff, Ilkley, Earl, Caley and Crookrise. The crag layouts and photo- diagrams are excellent as we are accustomed to but there appears to be a lack of consistency in the selection of outcrops with boulder problems and those without. At some top bouldering venues, such as Widdop, the reader is referred to the definitive guide, whereas other areas have comprehensive details of problems. Shipley Glen is missing altogether. This makes one wonder what criteria were used for the choice.

Still within Yorkshire the guide documents in detail the isolated mainly bouldering outcrop of Crag Willas and Durham’s Goldsborough Carr. The North York Moors section in particular appears to be cherry picking of crags rather than routes, which is almost certainly going to make any future definitive guide for this region a non starter. An area such as this has difficulty warranting a guide of its own anyway as its crags are small and geographically scattered. The main crags at Scugdale, Wainstones and Ravenscar receive full attention while Park Nab and Highcliffe Nab complete the coverage. Strangely the excellent bouldering at Barkers Crag in Scugdale is omitted as are all the other esoteric but beautiful isolated outcrops in this region that are now likely to become forgotten.

So on to Northumberland, where my concerns are now beginning to escalate. The introduction begins with a mistake. The author borrows a quote by Geoffrey Winthrop Young, from the most recent climbing guide. This quote has been used in all the definitive guides by the Northumbrian Mountaineering Club since the 1950’s but the last edition had a mistake where the word “county” was used instead of “country”! Rockfax repeat this, a small but telling error. Furthermore this section begins with Causey Quarry which isn’t in Northumberland. That apart the quarry is rarely used these days having long gone out of vogue. Crag Lough, Peel Crag and the major sandstone crags get full treatment. The Bowden’s, Great Wanney, The Simonside’s and the Kyloe’s and even smaller venues such as Corby’s and Berryhill. Only a few minor crags are left out, in fact only a few routes are left out and it would appear that the reasons for this are more to do with page layout than picking quality lines. We are told in the frontispiece that this is “a rock climbing guidebook to selected routes”. It would be interesting to know what has been selected. One gets the impression that the routes have been pulled out of the Northumberland guide wholesale.

Some grades have been changed and at Callerhues in particular the authors have taken it upon themselves to adjust the traditional grades “to one more in line with modern thinking”. Sidewalk goes from MVS to HVS and Paving from MVS to E1. The latter is font 4+ in the new bouldering guide. The reason for this is that Callerhues grades have always been contentious. They have little if any protection and the crux is often at the rounded finish. The latest definitive guide did a lot to address the problem but obviously not enough for Messrs Craggs and James. Maybe the author had a hard time, who knows?  The bottom line is that most Northumbrians pride themselves on their routes and grades and perhaps it is up to others to rise to their standards as long as they have been forewarned of the grading. Many of these routes can be classed as high ball solos nowadays anyway. Rockfax itself give Crouching the Mahogany E5 6b or V8! It is no higher than many of the other described routes. This policy of upgrading strangely also applies to Second Born a route that is protectable and above a very soft bog, and as far as I am aware has not had a second ascent so how was it graded?

 I am also aware that I can easily be accused of nit picking but at the risk of this and on delving deeper, we may have a few more insights into the author’s mindset for producing this guide. On pages 346-7 at Kyloe Crag there appears to be a little dig, where First Born E4 6b gets the comment “originally given 7a”. This is obviously gleaned from a mistake that appeared in the Northumbrian Mountaineering Club’s 50th Anniversary celebration book “No Nobler County” in 1995. First Born was in fact given 6a in the 1984 new climbs supplement. One has to question the author’s research, as who in 1980 would claim a 7a?  More revealing however is Chris’s Arete where the first ascent is credited to Chris Craggs mid 1970s with the quote “he has to wait 30 years and write his own guidebook to get due recognition”! To claim this minor route at HS 4b is rather strange when in all probability it was done in the1950s, after all Devil’s Edge HVS 5a was done in 1957 and it is unlikely that such an obvious and easy line remained unclimbed until well into the1970s. Perhaps a few axes have been waiting a long time to be ground? Whatever the reasons, mistakes such as these, (and there are many, too many to mention) highlight the shortcomings of the Northumbrian section.

In conclusion, “Northern England” is a well produced a guide as you would expect from the Rockfax stable. It will probably prove popular to visitors as it contains a wealth of superb climbs between its covers. If all the information you require is the route, the grade and how to find your way there, it serves its purpose adequately. The dedicated boulderer however will be frustrated as much is missing and the keen local may prefer the greater accuracy, history and coverage provided by the definitive guides.

 A final but pertinent point is that with this guide Rockfax seems to be entering a new era. A comprehensive all encompassing “selected guide” like this will make the future production of definitive guides more unlikely. Local clubs and climbers who have as previously stated, relied on unpaid volunteers and enthusiasts to research and collate this data will be the victims. These clubs, who plough any profits back into their climbing community, will not have the resources to risk such a venture. The Rockfax data base now contains all this information and it can easily be added to for future publications. The question is will Rockfax also be the stewards for the soul of our sport? If definitive guides suffer, as they are almost certainly going to do in this case, will we be deprived of a rich heritage of our climbing history in the future?

With their latest publication Rockfax may have overstepped the mark. Not only have they bitten the hand that feeds them, they could well have eaten the seed corn as well.

Reviewed by Andy Birtwistle July 2008


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