I wrote this after meeting UKCs Rob Greenwood on Stennis Head. Off hand he said ‘I didn’t realise there was an actual scene down here’ – This isn’t a rundown of the scene, or even a coherent narrative, more of a – ‘My Pembroke’
‘Yeah but it’s shit in the winter…and there are no jobs’
I’ve found myself saying this a lot this summer. Living in Pembrokeshire, 15 minutes’ drive from what Steve Mcclure recently referred to as ‘Hands down the best climbing in Britain’ I keep feeling like I have to tell visitors…it’s not always like this.
Pembroke is all about one thing, the balance of disciplines resting squarely with Trad. There are zero sport routes in the county and the bouldering is limited to one or two small outcrops with a few problems apiece.
I started climbing here with the local club ten years ago, joined two years later by my older brother, Edmund, who then outstripped me by a large margin. Introducing him to climbing I overcame the first hurdle of the Pembroke scene, partners. I have been very lucky in that 1, Edmund is better than me (29 E5s and E6s this season – someone please sponsor him his clothes are falling apart) and 2, seconding his leads is great training because the nearest wall is miles away and in a leisure centre sports hall.
In a way, having such a small scene is great and due to tides, weather and the lovely Pembroke ‘greaseyness’ we often end up at the same crags. I say ‘crags’, it’s usually St Govans.
However this year we’ve sought out some superb, less travelled crags and routes. No Mans Zawn is a narrow slot just down the coast from Manorbier. A micro Huntsmans Leap giving 40m pitches up beautiful limestone with a kicker at the end of each route as the wall tilts to just over vertical for the last few metres. Go there, you’ll love it.
Another route worthy of some gushing is Arettica, a soaring E5 arete right next door to the Green Bridge of Wales. Threads and good gear are plentiful and the exposure is something else. Pembroke’s biggest single pitch? certainly one of the most ‘out there’. WOW.
With the summer being quite kind this year, we’ve fallen into a solid climbing pattern. Most of our climbing is done between work shifts or after work. We did a full day over a bank holiday once, it nearly killed us. How do people climb in the sun!?
Each day one of us has a route in mind and the other is belayer. The next day, we swap.
It’s my lead, I climb too fast, gibber and sweat profusely with Timothy Daltons line from hot fuzz ‘My, he is tenacious isn’t he’ echoing inside, forcing me to stay on.
Its Edmund’s lead, he skips around, carefully shaking out, placing rock hard RPs. ‘Watch us here Stefan’ followed by a micro shower of chalk as he revs up for it. The only hint he’s trying hard being a sound like an exploding valve as he crimps through sustained 6b cruxes.
I am watching, almost as intently as the seal. Bobbing like a cork, his black eye sockets stare unblinkingly at us, i stare back.
‘safe stefan!’ the shout breaks the moment and the seal slides back beneath the swell.
Leaving the crag we usually ignore the refreshments on offer at the St Govans Inn ‘how much for chips?!’ and think ‘we’ll get something at home’. By the time we arrive in Pembroke this has evolved into a desperate sugar craving leading to a pillaging of the corner shop and chatting to the late night shop girl, who cheerfully tells us she doesn’t care anymore because she’s off to Uni.
‘Do we know her?’
As well as sporadic purchasing of scratch cards in the hope we’ll win so the dreary Pembroke winter can be swapped for Spanish sport.
Tomorrow I’ll be back on the building site hoping to find a job out of here before the winter comes .I imagine Edmund sat behind the reception at the Manorbier YHA, sipping his coffee, recounting his lead to Martin and trying to hide the chalk between his fingers. We’ll be on it again this evening.
Damp autumn is invariably the prequel to a soggy winter giving maybe one or two days where it stops raining enough for things to dry and stop seeping. Trees along exposed ridges bow under the battering of winds sweeping in from the Atlantic. Patches of grass will squelch until March and another few thousand tons of limestone will shatter into the sea, now a depressing shade of inky black.
That shirtless sweaty ascent of a Rockfax top 50 seems a distant memory as waves as high as the crags pound relentlessly against fortress Pembroke.
Even the sheep look pissed.
But then, all at once the weather clears… crisp, clear blue skies peak out from behind the clouds and we scramble for gear. Haul ourselves up a route and proclaim satisfaction at having climbed on New Year’s Day…maybe it’s not so bad?
It’s snowed three inches by the time we reach home.