A brief history of coasteering


Coasteering — A Brief History – by Barrie Foster – http://www.barriefoster.co.uk
Take any child. Add a beach and a rugged coastline. You will see an awakening curiosity and thirst for exploration, stimulated by a playground of tidal reefs, rock pools and secret caves, and by the unknown world that lies beyond the next headland or nub of rock. If by chance that child grows to be a rock climber or mountaineer, the early fascination with the foreshore is likely to lead to more ambitious forays, whenever and wherever a rocky coast is within reach.

Coasteering is the art of sea level traversing. At simplest it involves scrambling along the base of sea cliffs and across occasional easy ground: boulder beaches, bedding planes and tiny sandy coves. At the upper limits there are long and serious expeditions along sheer rock walls, calling for highly developed skills and techniques, some of which go beyond those naturally acquired in a mountain or lowland crag environment. Coasteering at its most advanced requires an ability to read the sea, swell, tides and weather, alongside competence on rock and a readiness to take to salt water when an impassable section bars progress along terra firma.

Speculation and logic suggest that coasteering developed in the 19th century in parallel with the “gully era” of British mountaineering. This was the period when the eyes of British climbers were firmly fixed on the Alps and other high mountain ranges. The local hills were regarded as a training ground for better things, a place to develop fitness, confidence and technique. Where regular access to the mountains of Wales, the Lake District or Scotland was problematic, British alpinists sought other options. It is therefore hardly surprising that coasteering gained its first impetus in the West Country, far remote from mountain areas, but where sea cliffs offered an alternative training ground.

Coastal activity first entered the written record at the end of the 1800s, when climbers were venturing out of the gullies onto open faces. The exhilaration, and the attraction of “rock for rock’s sake”, was laying the foundation for rock climbing as a sport in its own right. In North Devon the “coasteers” of the day had explored sections of the local coastline, including Baggy Point, and in 1898 Dr. Tom Longstaff completed the sea level traverse of Baggy, together with the first ascent of Scrattling Crack. Tom Longstaff was already an experienced alpine climber. By the time of the First World War he was also an old Himalaya hand and had been selected as member of a planned two-stage expedition to Everest that was cancelled as a result of the outbreak of hostilities. He was to be appointed Medical Officer to the 1922 expedition that preceded the 1924 attempt on which Mallory and Irvine were lost. At this time he still held the record for the highest peak so far climbed and was one of a very few mountaineers to have broken through the 23,000 ft barrier.

But the generally acknowledged father of coasteering was another alpine activist, A. W. Andrews. As Longstaff was exploring the North Devon sea cliffs, Andrews was similarly occupied in the far west of Cornwall from a holiday base at Eagles Nest, some five miles west of St. Ives and close to the village of Zennor. Andrews’ stated ambition was to traverse the whole coastline of Great Britain between high and low water marks. If he fell short of this achievement, he nonetheless covered considerable sections of the West Penwith coast around the turn of the century. Interestingly, he is also on record as having reconnoitered St. Davids Head around 1900, although there is no evidence of him having set foot on rock.

It was (and to some extent still is) the practice not to record and describe coasteering routes in the way that is usual for conventional rock climbs: this to preserve the sense of exploration. As a result much of Andrews’ achievement is lost. But it is certain that this achievement was considerable – he was active in the development of Cornish climbing for many years and was instrumental in introducing George Mallory and others from the Pen y Pas group to West Penwith before the First World War. In 1923 he completed, solo, the traverse of Green Cormorant Ledge in the Great Zawn at Bosigran, a route that was not repeated until 1956 and was then graded Hard Very Severe. In 1938 he was instrumental in arranging the lease of the Bosigran Count House to the Climbers Club. As late as 1950 he collaborated with E.C. Pyatt on the production of that year’s guide to the area. Pyatt, later author of ‘A Climber in the West Country’, was active in coastal exploration in the 1950s and 1960s.

From its early beginnings the momentum of coasteering was sustained by spasmodic bursts of intense activity. In the 1940s The Culm Coast between Bude and Clovelly was the scene of arduous coastal traverses. The establishment of the Commando Cliff Assault Wing at St. Ives brought new blood into the far west and renewed interest in the coastal cliffs. But the major step forward occurred in the 1960s, when sea level traversing moved up to a new dimension of technical difficulty. Early initiators included John Cleare and Rusty Baillie, who completed Traverse of the Gods at Swanage in 1963, regarded as Britain’s first coastal traverse in the modern idiom. Cleare and Baillie were amongst a number of well known names with a particular enthusiasm for coasteering at a high standard. It is perhaps no coincidence that this activity occurred at a time when climbers in North Wales were looking away from the mountain crags for virgin ground, resulting in the discovery of Craig Gogarth and North Stack on the Anglesey coast. This recognition of the potential of hitherto disregarded rock was echoed in the West Country, especially on the limestone cliffs of Torbay. In 1967 Cleare and Baillie completed the first stage of the 7,700 ft Magical Mystery Tour, a complete sea level traverse of the Old Redoubt. This classic of the genre was completed in 1968 and 1969 by Peter Biven, who in those years traversed almost every inch of the Torbay coastline. Another Torbay enthusiast was Pat Littlejohn, who was to emerge as a leading light in the further development of coastal climbing in the West Country and South Wales, and a driving force of Pembrokeshire climbing.

It was in the 1960s that the potential of the Pembrokeshire sea cliffs was first recognised. In 1966 Colin Mortlock, taking time out from Clogwyn d’ur Arddu on the flanks of Snowdon, inspected the Pembrokeshire coast by canoe. Between 1966 and 1969 Mortlock established some 40-50 routes around St. Davids Head. During the same period a number of exploratory coastal traverses had been undertaken by John Cleare and others. The culmination came in 1970 with Cleare and Biven’s one and a half mile Eldorado Traverse, from Newgale to Porthmynawyd, involving six Tyrolean traverses, two pendules and several zawn swims. In 1974 Pat Littlejohn began his long association with Pembrokeshire with a traverse of much of the cliff base of Penbwchdy, to the south of Strumble Head. These remote, extensive and intimidating cliffs rise to more than 300 ft in places. Access is not without problems, compounded by a high tidal range – during the 1974 excursion Littlejohn and his partner were forced to escape a rising tide by forcing the line of Terranova at Hard Very Severe.

As the 1970s progressed, attention in Pembrokeshire was fixed mainly on the steep limestone of the south coast, the most popular areas of which began to take on the claustrophobic ambience of Stanage Edge on a summer Sunday. Thirty years on this is still the case. But apart from the popular venues around St. Davids Head, the north coast remains a comparatively less traveled place where solitude and uncluttered appreciation of the magnificent coastal environment sound an echo in time, back to the first beginnings of coastal exploration. North Pembrokeshire climbing remains for the most part the preserve of small numbers of local and visiting enthusiasts, with only occasional and localised intrusion from the commercial activity industry.

This is fortunate. The north coast is ideally suited for coasteering and retains that sense of isolation that is an essential ingredient of the sport. Rocky headlands and cliff walls define every beach and cove. Absence of written descriptions maintains the sense of discovery. The footprints of those that have gone before are washed away by each successive tide. There are possibilities at every standard of difficulty, from easy scrambles mixed with cliff jumps and zawn swims (an old wet suit is recommended equipment) to roped expeditions of considerable technical difficulty over steep and serious terrain.

But perhaps the greatest enjoyment can still be found in solitary and serendipitous exploration, unencumbered by rope and hardware and the company of others. A summer evening with beaches and coast path emptied of visitors. Rough rock warm under hand, a calm transparent sea and the last heat of a sun westering towards the blue line of the horizon. The quiet lapping of ocean somewhere beneath the feet. Long lines of seabirds heading for their offshore resting grounds. And beyond, at the furthest reaches of imagination, the lost lands and islands of poetic myth.

Note that climbing restrictions are in place on many Pembrokeshire sea cliffs during the bird nesting season. Information is available from National Park and Tourist Information Centres.

Barrie Foster began rock climbing on the gritstone edges of the Peak District in the late 1950s and from then on climbed regularly and widely throughout Great Britain. During the 1960s he was an Expedition Training Team Leader with the Royal Air Force, with first ascents on rock in the German Sauerland and first winter ascents in the Sud Tyrol. In the late 1960s — early 1970s he lived close to AW Andrews’ base near Zennor and subsequently moved to South Somerset, within reach of the Dorset and the North and South Devon coasts. He moved to North Pembrokeshire in 1987.