Friday, 9 April 2010

Bouldering at Harborough Rocks

In the best spirit of play I remove myself from undertakings that have purpose and focus on one that has only meaning.

John Gill on bouldering.

The chill of an autumn breeze cools the sweat on my forehead, and I suddenly realise how tired I am after an evening of good exercise. My forearms are swollen solid, my fingers ache with fatigue and the blood throbs under my nails. My shoulders are complaining and my legs feel tired as well! But I'm happy enough. My hands and my feet are moving steadily across a favourite boulder problem I've been climbing on occasion for twenty years. The holds are almost as familiar as my own hands and are polished by the combined effects of sweat, chalk and the tackiness of butyl rubber. I muse on the fact that on my early visits to this place they were satisfyingly rough to the touch, but alas no longer! Once again I swing into the familiar sequence of a well used ( and in my case well rehearsed) fingery traverse, ten feet off the ground, my hands dropping onto a glossy round hold as the feet bridge out to allow for the long reach to the right for better holds.
My location is the steep section of the traverse across Jug Wall at Harborough Rocks, a traditional forearm pumper and bouldering spot for an ageing climber like myself with that wonderful simplicity of just rock, rock shoes and chalk bag, the warm sense of enjoyment of the moves on the little wall is as familiar as an old friend or a long time lover. With arms and fingers totally pumped out from the earlier efforts, I drop to the ground, sit down and take in the gradually darkening view out towards Carsington Water.

On settling in Derby in the mid-seventies I immediately sought out the possibilities of bouldering locally. Harborough turned out to be just about the nearest climbable rock to my home and so commenced many visits over the years, either alone or with mates, often resulting in unbelievable levels of exhaustion tempered with the occasional tendon injury or sprained ankle! The delights of bouldering; that intense form of training and play so beloved by most true climbers. I have always been convinced that someone's degree of enthusiasm for playing on boulders says much about their overall attitude to the mountains in general.
Anyway, here I am alone sitting at the foot of these fondly remembered rocks, gazing out over that familiar view, body totally spent. There is nothing new in any of this. People have been going out bouldering after work on the outcrops of the north of England for a hundred years; it has become an integral part of how the climbing game is played. Harborough itself is a strange place but I have grown very fond of it over the years. True, it is not one of the traditional bouldering spots. It lacks the superb range of problems of a Caley or Brownstones; Kyloe or Pex Hill it is not! however, these shiny little limestone walls and are^tes have helped me, and many others, to build up the strength, fitness and technique needed to achieve some ambitions on the big crags over the years.
 By Peak District standards, Harborough is really only a minor outcrop. It is formed neither from Millstone Grit nor top quality Carboniferous Limestone, the normal climbing rocks of the Peak. Instead, it's unique pocketed quality derives from it's composition of magnesian (dolomite) limestone. This rock is of varying quality, but it is mostly sound and some 6-10 metres in height. It is predominantly clean and south facing and has the obvious benefit of being very quick to dry after rainfall. The crag is therefore available for most of the year and sometimes sunny and windless afternoons on dry rock can be a lovely surprise even in December or January. The occasional loose hold is not unknown and I know of wrists and ankles being broken on account of these, but in general the rock is good and lends itself to steep, fingery climbing.

It is not my intention to outline specific routes on the crag, suffice to say that you can climb almost anywhere at 5b/5c and good problems abound. Alas, as is often the case with limestone, it is not best suited to heavy use for bouldering and some areas of the crag are now highly polished. For all it's shortcomings, not least of which are the obtrusive works beneath the crag, the place has a charming quality that draws me back again and again. Between bouts of exercise on these steep little walls my eyes are often drawn to the fine views to the south and west, as the hill country of the Peak District drifts towards the anonymity of the Midland plain. To the south is the impressive sheet of Carsington Water and the roll of the lovely countryside between Wirksworth and Duffield. The real visual attraction however, is to the west and the hills beyond Brassington and Longcliffe. In the evening the setting sun draws your eyes straight to the mysterious group of trees at Minninglow Hill, the most prominent neolithic burial ground in Derbyshire. This feature is readily visible from much of the Peak district and is situated close to the line of the Roman Road from Buxton to Derventio (Derby). The place has a sombre atmosphere, touched perhaps by the spirits of the many buried there so long ago. It would seem however that the spirits are benign, as the locals say.......' make a wish at Minninglow."
In climbing terms, Harborough has an interesting history, with some significant early Peak explorers leaving their mark on these little walls and areftes. Before the turn of the century the ubiquitous James Puttrell was the first person to record climbs here, together with W.V.Watson and Ernest Baker, writer of the classic "Moors, Crags and Caves of the High Peak and Neighbourhood" published in 1903. Here is Baker's description of an early attempt on Harborough Crack:
Gripping the thin edge of the fissure, I levered myself up a few feet, and jammed the left arm and leg well in, pawing wildly with my right for some dent or wrinkle in the smooth wall. I wriggled up inch by inch till I could all but clutch a safe little hold near the top; then my arms gave out, and I was extremely glad of a friendly shoulder to help me back to mother earth.
This particular climb still thwarts many an attempt even today and is highly polished. In later years Harborough received the attention of the early gritstone explorers, John Laycock, Siegfried Herford and Stanley Jeffcoat, while in the 1920's and 1930's it drew visits from such characters as Fergus Graham, George Bower, Eric Byne and Clifford Moyer. It remains a popular evening bouldering spot for many climbers in the Nottingham, Derby, Matlock area and during the day it is heavily used by groups from schools and outdoor centres. Despite it getting eroded and worn in places, Harborough retains a special place in my heart, particularly late in the day when bathed in soft sunlight. At such a time it's many problems are a delight.Of course the history of the place is far longer than the mere scramblings of industrialised man over the past century. The cave at the western end of the crag has yielded evidence of occupation stretching back thousands of years. Bones have been discovered here of sabre-tooth tiger, hyena, bison, brown bear, lynx, Irish elk and wolf, which all at one time roamed these strange hills. In addition, the cave was used for human habitation from the early Iron Age period right through to the Roman occupation and beyond. Indeed, as late as the eighteenth century Defoe discovered a lead miner and his family living there. The cave was partitioned into three rooms by curtains and these people were no temporary squatters as Defoe wrote: "The father and his father before him, had been born there, as were all his children, and everything was clean and neat, tho' mean and ordinary."
You might think that because I have visited the rocks and their surroundings so frequently, and for so many years, that they would lose their appeal .... not so! The different moods brought about by the weather, the turning of the seasons, or the time of day continue to delight and surprise, as does the continued enjoyment of climbing on such unusual limestone. One or two particular moods of the place remain strong in my memory, in particular a bitter cold winter visit with Mick Wrigley in the mid-seventies. It was a Sunday morning and we were badly hungover as we trudged up through deep snow, to the foot of the rocks. The place had a particularly gloomy, misty atmosphere and the only sound *as the calling of the beasts in the fields below as they gathered for winter feed. There was (unsurprisingly) no one else there. As we approached, the main part of the crag loomed out of the mist, shrouded in fresh snow and ice. In that strange light, some kind of optical trickery occurred and the rocks looked huge, like smaller versions of the Civetta or the Marmolata in the Eastern Alps. We did not stay long as the cold soon drove us away to a pub fireside in Wirksworth.
Sometimes in the summer months, the south facing nature of Harborough makes it too hot to climb on. At those times it is very pleasant to sit beneath the rocks on a carpet of daisies and buttercups and watch the Swallows and House Martens swoop about the place, for that is no weather for strenuous exercise!
 Spring or Autumn are best, the light is more interesting and the desire for physical exertion stronger. The bright vivid sunshine of an October evening on the rocks, snatched after a day of rain in Derby, was a quite recent pleasure. The brutal darkness of the sky was gradually illuminated by shafts of bright light from the west, quickly drying the rock and dousing it in a wash of yellow ochre. The air was still, the friction of the rock perfect for climbing and the views to the west not only beautiful but mysterious as well, as the darkest part of the sky framed the familiar shape of Minninglow. Later in the evening I ended up climbing on the hard little problems of Clarkey's Wall, at the eastern end of the crag. I felt exhausted and my finger ends were very sore ... enough was enough! It was good just to flop down on the grass and the thistles, as the lowering sun painted the rock an surrounding hillsides an even deeper hue. In a low slanting light of wonderful clarity after the day's rain, the rocks took on the appearance of a giant piece of honeycomb. With very tired fingers I changed my footwear and looked up as Chris and Gordon yelled cheerful abuse and made it clear that they were heading for "The Gate" at Brassington for a pint. This would perhaps be the last of such evenings until the spring, since the clocks were due to change at the weekend. I followed them down the path savouring the smell of wet elderflower and wild garlic, as an owl called out from the buildings below the crag.
By the time I reached the road, the rocks were almost in darkness, while to the west the sun was setting in a sinister darkening sky. The wind had begun to gust and it suddenly felt as if winter would soon be upon us. Later, in a cosy corner of the pub, luxuriating in front of a fire, I listened as the rain returned and battered against the windows. We sat and enjoyed the delightful tang of that first pint on a throat dry after hard exercise and fresh air. Gradually I retreated into that wonderfully satisfying state of fatigue-, aching, swollen forearms and fingers, sore finger ends and tired legs. I knew I'd be worn out at work the next day, but we're fit and still out there doing it! As the late Nat Allen once told me "....aye lad, you've got to keep the pot boiling!" Bouldering and the pub afterwards; deep, simple pleasures that enrich the spirit and keep it youthful. I once read an article in which John Beatty described with great warmth, his delight in climbing at Windgather, itself totally unfashionable and yet retaining it's own strong sense of place and the spirits of those who climb there. For me Harborough has the same effect, providing a sense of healing and continual pleasure as we travel into middle age. As I looked away from the fire, Chris returned from the bar with another round and the conversation flowed as ever. All thoughts of work could wait until the morning, as the wet Derbyshire night closed in.
Steve Dean©: First published in High magazine

A potted biography of the author can be found in the October09 archives 'You are being watched'