Dartmoor, England

The UK does not tend to have that much in the way of granite; certainly nowhere near as much as other countries and it’s gem must surely be England’s South West peninsula. Compared to the other granite i’ve encountered, it is fairly unique too, with a particular rough aspect to it: large pebbles embedded in the rock, friction as rough as a badgers arse and all perched atop rather barren moorland! Not really the same as your run of the mill Alpine wonderland. But does that mean they don’t compare?

In a word, i’d have to say to say they don’t. In a choice between a trip to the Alps and a trip to Dartmoor, there isn’t really a contest but that’s not what this site is about – this is about going places to explore and experience. Does any of the above mean Dartmoor isn’t worth visiting? Certainly not! In fact, i’d probably go so far as to say that to get a true feel for what the UK has to offer, it’s kind of a must, purely to find out what i’m on about with the rock.

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It’s a fantastic area to be in too: historic and scenic, with castles, tea rooms and world-renowned ice cream (if it’s warm while you’re there). Much of my trip was spent exploring the local towns and villages, it’s architecture and feel of the place, not to mention the eateries and drinking establishments. The first thing that came to mind for me when thinking Dartmoor was Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and his classic Sherlock Holmes novels, including the Hound of the Baskervilles (that i’ll probably mention again later) although the second option when searching for Dartmoor in Wikipedia gives “Dartmoor (HM Prison)”… The towns are pleasant and obviously survive on tourism, as the old tin mining industry seems to have all but vanished, and you’re far more likely to see some wild ponies than a gruff working Englishman walking the moors on his way to work. Like Snowdonia and the Peak District, Dartmoor became a National Park in 1951, becoming the fourth in the country at the time and it certainly has it’s own character.

But you’ll be here for the Tors, no doubt, and the small outcrops that surround. Again, like the Peak, don’t expect any steep and extreme walk ins – the moor’s high point is a giddy 621m. Most can be reached within a five-minute walk from your car, with a couple of exceptions, so plenty of pads isn’t gonna be a major problem. In fact, at the first crag i visited, i made frequent trips to the car as it was so close, it wasn’t worth dragging things like lunch around with me.

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The Areas

This was Bonehill Rocks, one of it’s best spots on offer and a great starting point. There is plenty here for a day, as with most of the crags, and there are plenty of them for a week or two. I stayed for four days and could quite easily make a return trip. There are a few things to bear in mind though: landings are often a touch rocky or slippy, problems are often quite high and the line between highball and route can blurr slightly. I don’t know if i was there at a particularly quiet period but i saw next to no other climbers and only a small handful of people in general, most of which can be summed up by three initials: DofE. Not exactly great if you’re there alone and twist an ankle. These are the few crags i went to explore, with a bit of info on what i found when i was there:

  • Bonehill Rocks. From speaking to people, i get the impression this is Dartmoor’s crowning jewel and it does have it’s fair share of good lines. Practically roadside from any one of three car parks with a fantastic view, it’s a great little venue with some fantastic lines overlooking the farmyard and villages of Devon. The downside to this is that it’s very exposed so when a breeze comes in from the south coast, you’ll feel it. If you’re unlucky enough to be there when the snow comes in horizontally at you, there are some nooks and crannies you can hide in, such as around the brilliant Rippled Wall V4, and even around blocks like The Cube.
  • Combeshead Tor. This is one of the exceptions to the short walks in of the area, being about half an hour from the car, with little to no shelter if it’s needed. It’s a nice walk that feels like it goes on forever. Is it worth it? Well, there is a fair bit to go at, with a handful of quality lines such as Sharp Arete 6a (sneaky beta in the Boulder Britain guide by the way) and Sloper’s Problem 6b+. The issue is that this is one of those crags that can get a bit hairy when you’re there alone, with one or two pads, and it’s far too far to carry a lot in. As such, it’s one of those places worth grabbing some mates to come with – it can get a bit lonely if you don’t, in more ways than one.
  • Hound Tor. I really liked it here, with the Hound of the Basketmeals van leaving before i could get a sandwich being my main disappointment. There was plenty to go at, at a good grade range from nice easy warm ups to testing 7s, some higballs but plenty that aren’t, and even some routes to have a play on if you’re into your string. The notes in my guide tell me i found Nose from a Sitter 6b particularly “gorgeous” but the one i really remember is Prowed 7a. I managed the fun line of Little Prow 6b to it’s left but my fingers got too close to freezing to hold the small crimp on Prowed; i’d love to go back and finish it off. And get that sandwich.
  • Saddle Tor. The topo picture of this monolith looks inspiring, with grades all around the 6s and 7s and all (bar the obvious crack line in the middle) looking like they just ache to be climbed. What the topo doesn’t show you is a sense of scale: this is no small wall. It is just the height, with a perfect landing and, from what i can gather, no particularly nasty falls to be expected, so just a single spotter would do the job, to give you enough confidence to feel through the upper breaks. Once again, Saddle Tor follows the pattern of being perched atop a hill and open to whatever weather front comes your way so if you’re unlucky enough to be caught out in the rain, there are a couple of other little traverses, cunningly named Hidden Traverse. 

Local amenities

It may feel like the back end of beyond when driving in but as with the rest of the UK, civilisation is never very far away. Plymouth on the south coast is pretty big, and Exeter and Torquay to the east are also classed as cities, with neither very far away, while towns like Tavistock are useful. I stayed in Princetown, and with a handful of shops and a pub there wouldn’t be much reason to return other than to grab a quick bite or get my head down. Here’s some of the breakdown of other places i found in the area that are useful:

  • Guides. The definitive guide to the area, and in my opinion one of the two premium online topos in the country, is javu. It’s a bit primitive but it’s fame is well-founded – everyone has heard of this website. It’s been going for as long as there’s been bouldering on Dartmoor (not actual statistic) and is as close as comprehensive as you can get. Javu’s only major downside is the lack of photo topos. A selective but much more modern guide can be found in Boulder Britain.
  • Food. As with almost every other village in the country, you’re bound to find at least a little corner shop somewhere nearby. That doesn’t make it cheap or great for variety so i’d probably suggest Tavistock for the bigger Co-Op.
  • Climbing Shops. Erm, i have absolutely no idea. I came across none and a quick Google search suggests your only nearby option is Snow + Rock in Exeter. Probably best to make sure you don’t forget anything!
  • Accommodation – Bunkhouses. Again, a bonus of this being a tourist-orientated area is there is no shortage of places to stay! It was too cold to camp, so i’ve had to neglect that option for you, but there is a campsite at the pub i chose: The Plume of Feathers in Princetown. I opted for there because of their dog-friendly policy and it turned out to be a pretty good choice with good food and a friendly atmosphere. Just don’t expect anything too fancy…
  • Cafes and Bars. We’ve touched on this but i’ll spell it out for you again: they’re everywhere. Well, the cafes are, the pubs aren’t as popular as once they were. The two i frequented were The Plume, obviously, and the Fox Tor Cafe, a few doors down, with free WiFi. I was disappointed with neither.
  • Other handy places. None that particularly spring to mind; from speaking to a few people, the Plume seems as good a base as any and as long as you don’t expect too much, it’s pretty good.

Relevant blog posts: here (if you’re that bored or psyched).

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