I was born and grew up in County Durham and am now living in Northumberland so I can’t pretend to be an impartial observer, but for me the North-east of England is a special place. The scenery tends towards a gentle beauty rather than awe inspiring but at the same time it is incredibly varied with long sandy beaches giving way to green fields, woodland and hedgerows that open out onto empty moorland. The regions natural beauty combined with its rich history, distinctive character and vibrant cultural life makes it a wonderful place to live.
The only grumble I have about life in the North-east is that having climbed here for more than 35 years I have done most of the routes that I am capable of. Although the bouldering opportunities in Northumberland are almost inexhaustible, I am having to spend longer and longer in the car to find routes that I haven’t done, where a fall isn’t almost guaranteed to lead to an extended stay in hospital. It was, therefore, fantastic to come back from our tour of South-east Europe to discover that a brand new sport climbing venue was being developed almost on our doorstep.
Stanhope is situated in Weardale on the edge of the Northern Pennines in wild open moorland. Limestone quarrying began here in the 1870s and much of the output from the Stanhope quarries supplied the nearby Consett iron and steel works. At their peak, at the start of the First World War, the quarries produced over 130,000 tons of limestone a year but by the mid the 1940’s that had become uneconomic. This was largely because they had started to cut into sections were the overlying shales were a lot thicker and much more expensive to remove. This has given nature more than 70 years to regain its ascendancy and disguise what must have been a brutal, dark scar. These days the quarry floor more closely resembles lake strewn meadows than a site of heavy industry.
The climbing potential in the Stanhope quarries was first looked at many years ago but they were deemed too dirty and insignificant. And, when looked at from a traditional climbing perspective, it is easy to understand why. Topping out through the bands of shale and mud that lie atop many of the limestone faces would have been almost suicidal. However, the potential for sport climbing, where you can lower off from solid bolt belays, is enormous.
The fact that the Stanhope quarries are only just being developed now indicates what a climbing backwater County Durham is. Although now that the potential has been realised progress has been incredibly fast with over 130 routes being put up between September last year and last weekend. The initiative was started by Jeff and Charlie Mearns and they and Richard Davies have produced the majority of the routes as well as regularly updated topos. The development is far from finished with some of the best looking walls as yet untouched. At the rate that Jeff and Richard are going at it, I would not be surprised if the number routes didn’t break the 200 mark by the end of the Summer.
The carboniferous limestone faces in the Stanhope quarries are up to 20m high and vary in angle from just off to vertical to slightly overhanging. The limestone bedding is highly stratified with quite closely spaced, thin horizontal breaks running across the majority of the faces. These breaks tend to provide good in-cut holds so even on relatively steep ground the climbing can be quite straightforward. As a result, most of the routes are in the 6a to 7a grade range. It also means that the harder routes are often quite “cruxy”, with the difficulties being confined to bypassing sections where the breaks become too thin to use. Fortunately though, the rock architecture isn’t totally homogeneous so there is sufficient variation to maintain your interest. As you would expect in an abandoned quarry, the rock isn’t always perfect so you are likely to encounter the odd loose hold. In addition, some of the breaks are quite dusty but don’t be put off by this. Many of the routes have had less than a handful of ascents and most will probably clean up very nicely with more traffic.
So far we have done about 20 routes in the quarries, varying in quality from just pleasant to the very good. Our experience is that the routes dry quickly, aren’t too badly affected by the odd passing shower and have a very sunny aspect. The quarries are also remarkably sheltered and, unlike a lot of climbing quarries, the ones at Stanhope are actually a very pleasant place to be. Everyone we have met there has enjoyed the climbing so I expect the quarries will become very popular.
Whilst you wouldn’t travel from afar to climb at Stanhope, the quarries are a really welcome addition to the climbing venues in County Durham. They may not contain routes as inspiring as those on Kalymnos but it certainly beats going to the climbing wall. Whilst, there is little fame or glory to be had from turning neglected crags and quarries into worthwhile climbing venues, we owe people like Jeff and Charlie Mearns, and Richard Davies a huge thank you for creating new climbing resources that we can all enjoy.