Six of the best spots for rock climbing and bouldering in the south of England

Set to feature as an Olympic sport for the first time ever in Tokyo later this summer, the popularity of climbing is reaching new heights. Keen to get involved? We recommend six of the best outdoor landscapes in Southern England to scramble over.

Harrison’s Rocks in East Sussex — a popular spot for day-tripping Londoners keen to practice climbing outdoors.

Photograph by Alamy
By Tamsin Wressell
Published 1 Jul 2021, 08:00 BST

This summer, climbing makes its debut into the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo under three disciplines: bouldering, lead climbing and speed climbing. And, as athletes around the world prepare for their big moment, the newfound popularity of the once-niche sport has led to a host of new centres springing up across the UK. According to the Association of British Climbing Walls, an estimated 1.5 million people visited an indoor climbing wall in 2018 — with 120,000 of the doing so regularly.

It’s no wonder. Not only does it offer an intensive workout, but also the opportunity to travel — observing landscapes from a unique perspective. Its intrepid edge hasn’t escaped the attention of the silver screen storytellers, either: the critically acclaimed 2017 documentary films The Dawn Wall and Free Solo opened the public’s eyes to the worlds of tenacious climbers, as they followed their ascents of legendary cliffs and mountains.

It’s widely agreed that newbies to the sport should pace themselves — rock climbing comes with its dangers, so beginners should book induction sessions at climbing centres first to understand the various climbing disciplines and take stock of each one’s required equipment. Beginners might find the simpler logistics of bouldering easier to grasp: climbing shoes and chalk for grip, a crash mat and hard hat. And once techniques, strength and problem-solving skills are established, climbers can quite literally see how far they’ve progressed in the sport, making it a wonderfully rewarding endeavour.

Climbing walls are an ideal introduction to the sport — not only are they immune to the vagaries of English weather but they offer the option of practising different styles, including bouldering, top rope and lead climbing. Beyond the walls, the South of England offers excellent landscapes for outdoor climbing, from routes traversing dramatic gorges to scrambles with ocean views. Below, we recommend some of the best places — indoor and outdoor — to get started on a climbing adventure

1. The Castle Climbing Centre, London

This centre in north London is tucked inside a Grade II-listed former Victorian water pumping station. It’s one of the largest centres in Europe, with 450 routes and 90 roped lines to navigate in the turreted towers. There are routes for children and beginners, intermediate and advanced climbers, spread across five floors and an outdoor boulder field. It’s also a fantastic space to hang out in, with a community garden, cafe and shop, plus reservoirs for open water swimming.

2. The Cuttings, Portland, Dorset

The island of Portland is a popular spot for climbers, where steep cliffs give way to dramatic ocean views. With a sunny microclimate, conditions are fairly reliable here even in winter. Over 200 routes run along the limestone cliffs, with The Cuttings — an inland crag on the east coast — having a range of routes for all levels, including some bolted climbs. At the foot of the cliffs is Boulderfield, a mass of boulders that make up an easy route for beginners, with small, relatively low-risk climbs to tackle.

Bosigran, Chair Ladder and Sennen are some of the more popular crags in Land's End, Cornwall.

Bosigran, Chair Ladder and Sennen are some of the more popular crags in Land's End, Cornwall.

Photograph by Alamy

3. Land’s End, Cornwall

At the westernmost tip of Cornwall, golden granite crags, cove beaches and sea cliffs give intermediate- and expert-level climbers routes with beautiful scenery overlooking the Channel and Atlantic. Bosigran, Chair Ladder and Sennen are some of the more popular crags, and while the area is a busy tourist destination, these cliffs and climbs are tucked away in more secluded spots. Climbers here are advised to keep an eye on tidal times, to avoid getting stuck.

4. Cheddar Gorge, Somerset

Cutting into the Mendip Hills, Cheddar Gorge has wild goats, stalactite caverns and ancient woodland that add an ethereal edge to its landscape (it’s considered one of Britain’s natural wonders). It’s the biggest gorge in Britain and its three-mile-long limestone valley has hundreds of climbs that reach up to 450ft tall over 27 crags. A mix of routes cater for all ability levels, from short, easy pitches all the way up to the UK’s longest climbs. While climbing is allowed all year round on most cliffs, there are seasonal restrictions on others due to the numbers of visitors.

Climbers heading to Dartmoor will enjoy a range of granite tors suitable for all levels.

Climbers heading to Dartmoor will enjoy a range of granite tors suitable for all levels.

Photograph by Alamy

5. Combeshead Tor, Dartmoor

Granite tors that sprout from the ground create fine options for bouldering and climbing in Dartmoor. The scenery is wild and beautiful and often the climbs are remote. The landscape in the national park is protected, with rare plants and habitats surrounding the tors. A 20-minute walk from the nearest car park, Combeshead Tor, above the Burrator Reservoir, is recommended for its peaceful atmosphere. Here, you’ll find a good range of climbs for all levels, from beginners through to pros.

Read more: Four of the world's top climbing spots, to suit every climber

6. Harrison’s Rocks, East Sussex

A popular spot for day-tripping Londoners (it’s close to Tunbridge Wells) keen to practice climbing outdoors — the southern sandstone outcrops here have over 380 routes to explore. The area is very accessible, while the sandy soil makes for soft landings. Climbs are suitable for all abilities, although placing trad gear into the rocks is not allowed due to their fragility — most routes have fixed rings for top roping instead. There’s a campsite here, as well as parking.

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