Sustaining Sandstone

The Wealden sandstone outcrops provide an outdoor climbing medium for those of us who live in the rock-starved south east of England. It’s somewhat isolated both geographically and in terms of ethics and, as those who ‘know’ will tell you, it’s a pile of tottering choss and not worth climbing on at all. Of course, for those who do know, it’s far from the case – the enduring popularity of Harrison’s and the other outcrops is clear to those who enjoy the laid-back, friendly atmosphere where top-roping (well, technically bottom roping) or soloing is the norm; the rock being far too soft, friable and unsuitable for conventional leader placed protection.

The outcrops have undoubtedly been climbed on for generations but first came to prominence when explored in the 1920s by, among others, Nea Morin (nee Barnard) and her husband Jean who had climbed on ‘similar’ rock in the forests of Fontainebleau to the south east of Paris. The Morin’s and their contemporaries succeeded in climbing a number of lines at High Rocks, Harrison’s and Bulls Hollow, some of which – Unclimbed Wall and Isolated Buttress climb at Harrison’s and Steps Crack at High Rocks are well respected today.

Over the years, each generation has added a wider variety of usually harder climbs, gradually filling the blank spaces and discovering other outcrops.

Ethics has always been a bit of an issue due to the top roping that commonly takes place. On warm sunny weekends, Bowles and Harrison’s can appear to be tied down by the number of ropes set up and it is not uncommon to have to wait a while to get on a particular climb – particularly frustrating when there is an unused rope on the climb, but it usually only requires a question to those nearby to find out whose rope it is and be told “feel free to use it” – which you do at your peril as some of the older climbers have ‘older’ ropes… There are also some ‘old skool’ belaying techniques used – climbers tied in with a simple bowline around the waist being held by a waist belay alongside kernmantle leading ropes, shiny metalwork and harnesses. Like it or not, the toprope belay method seems here to stay and in reality is probably the main reason for sandstone’s popularity.

The popularity of the sandstone outcrops (now known collectively as Southern Sandstone since Tim Daniells’ 1981 Climbers’ Club guide coined the phrase) has increased with the newer generations often learning their skills indoors and using the sandstone outcrops for their initiation to the world of outdoor climbing. Although not entirely responsible, this introduction has led to a noticeable increase in dubious ascent techniques that rely to some extent on assistance from the rope.

Over the years, the crags’ popularity has necessitated constant maintenance to alleviate as much as possible, the wear that even light-footed climbers inflict let alone those who have not mastered the art of absolutely minimising the impact their climbing has. In the 50s, 60’s and 70’s with its popularity growing, significant damage, in the form of rope grooves appeared at the top of the crag – carved by moving topropes belayed to trees and roots well back from the crag edge. Some time ago, large eyebolts were fitted at Harrison’s, Bowles, and Stone Farm with half a dozen or so at Bulls Hollow and, most recently, on the Hut Boulder at High Rocks. This and much repair work with cement has largely restored the crag tops to their former condition but the work is constant.

So who does all the work needed to keep the crag in climbing condition?

Over the years, it has been climbers themselves who have acted singly or in groups as well as the warden (The Tullis family) at Harrison’s. Since 2003 however, a slightly more organised group has emerged, the result of a suggestion to the 2003 Sandstone Open Meeting that Bulls Hollow was suffering badly from overgrown trees and was in need of restoration work. Successful negotiation with the various agencies, a huge help in the way of a local arboricultural company donating time and expertise and a band of willing volunteers saw Bulls Hollow transformed in a few weekends’ work. This momentum was carried forward into a similar but much larger project at High Rocks where the northern end of the crag had become all but unused, again due to unmanaged tree growth. Again, careful negotiation and planning brought about a very successful outcome with 100+ man days of volunteer labour being employed. The Sandstone Volunteers’ Group has been in existence now for 9 years and worked every year on some part of one of the local crags to keep them in good order. It’s not just the trees and shrubs that are cut back either. The huge footfall some crags see and constant erosion by the weather has needed some larger engineering projects in the way of revetments along the base of the crags to hold back the ground.

Harrison’s Rocks is currently the main focus of the group’s work – a woodland management plan has been developed in conjunction with and approved by the Forestry Commission that will allow us over a period of time to coppice existing trees, remove non-indigenous species, replant with suitable types and generally reduce the canopy on the lower slopes allowing sunlight in and free air movement along the crag.

We cannot do this without volunteer help and, as users of the crag; you can put something back into climbing by lending a hand. You do not need to be a forestry expert!

The Sandstone Volunteers’ Group mailing list (used solely for SVG communication) can be joined by emailing me directly at”mailto:adcock@clara.net” adcock@clara.net

Please support the work of the Sandstone Volunteers’ Group. 

Thanks,   Graham Adcock.

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