Geology & Climbing

A marriage forged in fire and flood: geology and rock-climbing in Northumberland

An article by Dave Hume
Cheviot, Issue 7, Spring 2018

It may have taken 380 million years for humans to catch on, but the rocks of Northumberland provide a perfect playground for rock climbers, and the County* is widely respected in the climbing community as a destination for some of the toughest challenges of the modern era. The first recorded rock climbs here date from 1896. The modern ‘sport’ of rock climbing has its origins in the Lake District in the 1880’s, as a by-product of the Victorian era of alpine mountaineering. In those early days it was seen as mere training for the Alps. While shepherds would certainly have previously explored vertical rock in pursuit of lost sheep, they didn’t do it for fun, and the ‘sport’ was birthed by Victorians like Walter Parry Haskett-Smith, the first to climb the pinnacle of Napes Needle, and Owen Glynne Jones whose exploits were photographed and publicised by the Abraham Brothers of Keswick. In 1890’s Northumberland, Geoffrey Winthrop Young, a Cambridge classicist, explored the crags of the Wanneys, Peel Crag and Simonside with George and Charles Trevelyan, Marcus Heywood of Longframlington and Raymond Bicknell of Gosforth. His description in the foreword of the first Northumbrian Rock-climbing Guidebook (1950) is a treasure:

“There is no nobler country than that of Northumberland, as it rolls processionally northward to the Border in great waves of coloured and historic moorland, cresting upon the skyline into sudden and surprising Crags, which crown for us the magnificent walking with admirable rock climbs. May the growing tide of northern climbers flow onwards as great-heartedly.”

The rocks were here long before all of that, unaware of their future potential as a leisure resource. The Cheviot Volcano was active around 380 million years ago and produced andesite lavas which outcrop in the upper College valley. On one side lie Henhole Crags, which provide the longest climbs in Northumberland, up to 48 metres high. On the other side of the College Burn is the Bizzle, which is more broken but offers the County’s best ice climbing venue in hard winters. Both crags are thermally metamorphosed andesite lava. This is slippy in the wet because it is fine-grained and it produces distinctively slanting blocks, due to the predominance of feldspar.

Andesite at Henhole Crags

Andesite at Henhole Crags

Thanks to the long walk and the nature of the rock, climbing here is much less popular now than in the 1950’s when it was a regular destination for members of the Northumbrian Mountaineering Club (the NMC – formed in 1945). Other andesite outcrops can be found above the Harthope Valley, e.g. Housey and Langlee Crags, but although they have been climbed on in the past, they hold little attraction for climbers today.

About 340 million years ago, North Northumberland was a river delta of Mississippi proportions, where sediments compressed to become the Fell Sandstone, the County’s greatest asset for climbers. This rough grained rock of quartz and feldspar forms the most popular crags – Bowden Doors and Back Bowden near Belford, Kyloe Crags near Lowick, Corby’s Crags on the Alnwick – Rothbury road, Simonside and Ravensheugh beyond Rothbury, and Great Wanney between Knowesgate and East Woodburn. Fell sandstone is perfect for modern climbing, offering excellent friction, cracks, water-worn flutings, and rugosities where iron deposits add small features for fingers and toes. These crags are modest in height, typically between 10 and 20 metres, but in modern rock climbing it’s difficulty, not the height than counts, and Northumberland offers climbing at the highest standards of difficulty, thanks to a core of NMC activists who pushed up standards during the 1970’s, 80’s and 90’s.

Climbing on fell sandstone has a downside. After rain, the rock is prone to rapid erosion, and climbing on it in this condition speeds up the process. The tops of many sandstone crags also show deep water-worn grooves (flutings) which are of relatively recent origin geologically speaking.

Flutings and a mass emplacement channel Back Bowden Doors

Flutings and a mass emplacement channel Back Bowden Doors

For sheer spectacle showing the power of running water on rocks, Bowden Doors takes some beating. Here, on the appropriately named Wave Wall, you can see striking evidence of a phenomenon known as current bedding, where complex currents in the ancient river bed created twisted patterns in the sediment layers. Nearby is a very rare example of a sand volcano where riverbank sediment has been agitated by a geological event and left a distinctive pattern.

Remnants of a sand volcano at Bowden Doors

Remnants of a sand volcano at Bowden Doors

There are younger outcrops of coarse-grained fluvial sandstone which attract climbers – Jack Rock at Morwick, Rothley Crag near Scots Gap and Shaftoe north of Belsay.

The third relevant rock type, the Whin Sill, is only 295 million years old. This is quartz dolerite and forms columns and blocks characteristic of basalt. Its structure results from the abundance of pyroxene which has a near right-angled cleavage. Its fine grain means that it is slippery when wet.Despite these unhelpful characteristics, climbers have been attracted to the Whin Sill outcrops since Geoffrey Winthrop Young and his mates donned their hobnail boots and tied on their hemp ropes to kick-start the county’s climbing history. The celebrity Whin Sill crags are Peel Crag and Crag Lough, widely known from famous images of the Roman Wall’s most scenic stretch eastwards from Steel Rigg. These crags yield climbing up to 34 metres high. The cracked and blocky nature of the rock offers good purchase for hands and feet, but lacks the friction of Fell Sandstone, and rain will definitely stop play for climbers caught in a downpour.

Columnar Dolerite at Peel Crag

Columnar Dolerite at Peel Crag

Columnar Dolerite at Peel Crag

The freeze-thaw cycle of winters adds another hazard, as the annually renewing piles of large blocks at the base of the crags demonstrate.

Whin Sill outcrops are found elsewhere in the County, though few are of interest to climbers these days – Ratcheugh, between Denwick and Longhoughton, lies underneath the prominent Observatory south of the road, and Cullernose Point, where only climbers with an affinity for kittiwake guano would venture. The Whin Sill outcrops do however add much to the County by providing the upstanding bases for Hadrian’s Wall and the castles of Dunstanburgh, Bamburgh and Lindisfarne.

As climbing continues to grow in popularity – it will feature in the Japan Olympics in 2020 – local climbers will have more responsibility than ever for the County’s eighty listed climbing crags. The NMC plays a key role in this – promoting an ethical code amongst climbers to protect rock and adhere to nesting restrictions, helping maintain gates, stiles and access, and with the British Mountaineering Council, maintaining good relationships with landowners.

*In the climbing community, Northumberland is always referred to as “The County” with a capital letter, as it has no equal.

Acknowledgements:

No Nobler County, Northumbrian Mountaineering Club, 1995, ISBN 0 0504686 22

Northumberland Climbing Guide, Northumbrian Mountaineering Club, 2004, ISBN 0-9504686-3-0

Stephen Marker, Ian Patience http://www.geologynorth.uk/

Prof. John Spencer for photos of Peel Crag

John Dalyrmple for notes and photos of Back Bowden and Bowden Doors

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