For over a hundred years, rock climbing has been a significant activity on the Sandstone Ridge. The most obvious, and important, location has been Helsby Crag, the imposing outcrop overlooking the M56 motorway. There are also a series of smaller, hidden, outcrops below Woodhouse Hill at Frodsham. About 200 yards south west of Helsby Crag is Tennis Court Buttress. Twelve miles south of Helsby is Beeston Tor where climbing is not permitted but which nevertheless is likely to have seen some illicit climbing activity.
Climbing in Britain dates from the mid nineteenth century. The poet, William Wordsworth was an early exponent. Those Victorian climbers in their Norfolk jackets with great long ice axes regarded themselves as alpinists and viewed climbing in Britain as training for bigger stuff in the Alps. Towards the end of the nineteenth century a sort of subculture developed which saw climbing in Britain as a worthwhile and legitimate activity in its own right.
Serious technical climbing in Britain was born. Some of those early climbs are still regarded as classic routes and taking account of how primitive was the equipment, those climbs were formidable undertakings. Nailed boots and hemp ropes have, these days been replaced by high tech gear and Olympic athlete style training regimes.
The earliest reference to climbing at Helsby was contained in a book called "Some Gritstone Climbs" by J Laycock published in 1913. That book details over twenty climbs at Helsby and describes the Overhanging Crack as "one of the hardest gritstone climbs in England".
Over the next hundred years some of Britain's greatest and most famous climbers have made their mark at Helsby. These days there are over 300 separate climbs on Helsby Crag. Much of the climbing is delicate, unprotected, balance climbing on open faces, although the crag offers plenty of scope for climbers whose preference is for more muscular climbs requiring what might be called the application of technical brutality.
All the climbing is free climbing. In other words progress is made only by using fingers and toes. Or any other part of the body which facilitates upward progress. The ironmongery carried by climbers is used solely to protect them from falls. No pitons or bolts are used and all the pieces of kit are removed by the climber.
Helsby sandstone is very soft and the practice of inserting metal wedges into cracks and draping tape slings over spikes to protect a leader in the event of a fall was not always reliable at Helsby. Given the dubious reliability of the rock, many of the hardest routes were traditionally climbed using a top rope for protection.
Climbing at Helsby has traditionally been an activity for warm summer evenings where mostly local climbers congregated and often competed. The crag itself cannot compete with the big cliffs and big name routes of Snowdonia and The Lakes but periodically big name climbers would put in an appearance to check out the appeal.
For many years Helsby's most celebrated climb was Beatnik, first climbed in the 1960s by Jim O'Neil — the name gives a bit of a clue to its era. This was a climb as difficult as any in Britain at that time and was widely regarded as a technical test piece. I made several attempts at Beatnik all of which ended in ignominy. In fact I didn't even get close. In 1971 Wirral climber Alan Rouse cemented his reputation by soloing Beatnik. He simply didn't bother with a rope. In 1986 Alan died, along with Julie Tullis, on K2 in the Karakorum range of the Himalaya. One day in the late 1970s I was there when a climber called Pete Livesey turned up. He was, at that time, widely regarded as the best climber in Britain and, when the best climber in Britain backed off Beatnik that somehow made me feel slightly less inadequate.
Over the years many well regarded climbers have made their mark at Helsby. The 1930s was a productive era with leading climbers such as Colin Kirkus and Alan Hargreaves pioneering new climbs. In 1931 Menlove Edwards, a forceful climber of that period, made the first ascent of Flake Crack a feature which dominates the western end of the crag and which had already claimed its first fatality.
In the 1950s Hugh Banner, who later lived at the bottom of Helsby Hill, made his contributions with climbs such as Mangler, Brandenburg Wall, Fragile Wall and the uncompromising roof of Crumpet Crack. Twenty five years later, when he moved to Helsby, Banner was back forcing hard new routes.
Over the years many of Helsbys climbs have become longer. This was simply because the erosion caused by climbers' feet at the base of climbs has eroded the ground. A classic example is Pigeon Hole Wall which started life as a short interesting boulder sized problem and now comprises a pitch of over 30 feet. Hmmm.
Following the building of what was then the Shellstar fertiliser factory on Ince Marshes in the late 1960s Helsby Crag turned green. This was caused by emissions of nitrate fertiliser from the factory and was particularly noticeable after winter. On wet days the crag looked almost luminous. I'm sure that gardens in Helsby must have flourished but I'm not convinced the same could be said about local residents.
When the clocks changed at the end of March and the first evening forays were made to the crag it was usual at that time to take a hand brush to clear the encrustations of green gunge off the climbs. I don't know whether Hugh Banner's climb, Brush Off, was connected to that practice.
Helsby Crag is not a place for beginners. Although there are a few easier climbs most routes have a degree of technical difficulty. Many of them are ferociously hard. Over years climbing standards have increased as equipment becomes more sophisticated — sticky boots, metal wedges with adjustable cams which lock into position. This, combined with increased fitness created by rigorous training regimes, has led to ever more athletic climbers possessed of a fierce determination . As with most sporting activities standards continue to rise and one wonders where it will lead.
My early 1960s guide book to climbing at Helsby includes the following statement:-
"As regards the climbing at Helsby, the Wayfarers Club (which produced the guide book) wishes to sound a note of warning. In common with that on other short practice grounds, the technical standards are very high and the difficulties more concentrated than in the Lakes or Wales.
Those who have hitherto had experience only in latter areas are advised to begin with caution, and to restrict themselves to a lower standard than they would normally think necessary, until the nature of the rock is understood."
Right then. Nanny had spoken.
Climbing at Frodsham takes place on a series of much smaller outcrops buried in the undergrowth. The 130 or so climbs are short technical problems, which are invariably tackled without ropes. In essence Frodsham is a climbers' gymnasium. I once fell off a climb at Frodsham when a small hold snapped off. Fortunately I landed on my head so no damage was caused. I kept the tiny piece of rock as a memento.
About 200 yards south west of Helsby Crag is Tennis Court Buttress. This small crag adjoins a tennis court which forms part of a large private house. In the past it was sometimes possible to climb there with the permission of the owner but that permission is no longer granted.
Beeston Tor is a dramatic outcrop which, presumably, is why it boasts a castle. For many years the tor and its castle was owned by the Department of the Environment but is now, I think, owned and managed by English Heritage. Climbing is not permitted and, given the risk averse nature of all bureaucracies, that permission is never likely to be forthcoming. Although I have no direct evidence of climbing having taken place at Beeston Tor, climbers tend to be resourceful, determined and subversive. I should be surprised if some enterprising characters have not sneaked in there and, in the argot of the trade "done a bit".
If any reader remains baffled as to why people are drawn to climbing let me leave you with the words of Alan Steck, an American mountaineer:-
"We do not deceive ourselves that we are engaged in an activity which is anything other than dangerous, debilitating, kinesthetic, euphoric, frivolously essential. economically useless and totally without redeeming social significance. One should not probe for deeper meanings."
I hope that has cleared things up.
Any reader interested in learning more can Google "UKC Logbook — Helsby". Click on the photo at the top of the page to see dramatic, not to say scary, photos of climbing at Helsby.
30 August 2018