Sunday, February 15, 2004

Stones and Rocks 

As a rock climber, how could I resist the current Ecotone topic of "Stones and Rocks"...

England is hardly known for its rockiness. Gentle rolling hills, rural landscapes of farms, fields and hedgerows are more representative of the characteristics that we associate with Englishness. True, the borders of land and sea sometimes expose the underlying skeleton in cliffs and rocky shorelines, but for the most part that skeleton remains well hidden; England does not have the body of a lean athlete, rather that of a well-fed, even corpulent, country gentleman.

But if you know where to look, the evidence of that skeleton is there. Rock climbers have been searching out these places for decades; there’s hardly a crag or outcrop in the country that hasn’t been discovered, explored, tested, documented and revisited countless times. To the casual passer by, the significance of these places may be hardly noticed –at times picturesque, brooding, decaying; yet to the climber places of challenge, adrenalin, focus, self-discovery; places to come home to, revisiting old friends. For the climber gets to know these rocks intimately; all their forms, features, colours, textures and hidden places.

Each of these crags has a unique character; they all have a powerful draw for climbers, but in different ways. The sleeping giants of rounded sandstone laying peacefully in the Kent woods at Harrison’s Rocks; the gritstone adventure playground of Stanage Edge, a riot of tumbling blocks, buttresses, bays and chimneys, running for miles at the edge of Peak district moorland; the gentler angled nursery of Birchen Edge, rocks worn smooth and ground beneath them now heavily eroded by the feet of so many fledgling climbers; and tucked away next door, the greener rocks of Chatsworth Edge – green from lichen, green from the trees that overhang, green from the grass at the rocks’ foot, grass that remains largely untrampled. This last is a beautiful place to be at the end of an Autumn afternoon – an idyll of copper leaves, green-gold rocks and burnished skies.

The mood of these places changes dramatically with the weather and the seasons. The ominous beetling grey walls and overhangs of The Roaches in Staffordshire can be intimidating and forbidding under leaden skies; yet on a spring morning the feel turns to one of rugged charm. Birchen Edge, usually friendly and welcoming in all weathers, gains an air of mystery and loneliness when approached through Autumn mists. Perhaps that is why the three huge boulders at the edge of the moor above the crag were named after Nelson’s ships at Trafalgar, appearing as they supposedly do as three great ships under sail emerging from the mist. Lawrencefield has perhaps the most consistent feel of any crag, possibly deriving from its man-made origins as a gritstone quarry - a few abandoned mill stones can still be seen scattered around, providing a useful spot to sit and don rock shoes. Surrounded by rock on three sides, the entire south-facing quarry glows golden pink on sunny days, a colour still present in the sand at the foot of the rocks even on the gloomiest of winter mornings.

Close to, the features and textures of the rock become all important. Different rock types possess profoundly different characteristics which in turn demand quite different styles of climbing.

Sandstone can be a nightmare for the uninitiated. The soft rock cannot sustain hard edges – all features are smooth, rounded; irregularities that might provide purchase for frantically scrabbling hands and feet have been eroded to the merest undulations in the surface by the action of countless hands and feet – being the nearest rocks to London, these are over-used to the point of requiring strict etiquette to avoid destroying their recreational capacity completely. “Holds” on sandstone have a frustrating tendency to slope down and out; cracks are shallow and offer little purchase; years of being been gripped by sweaty hands have impregnated some holds with sweat leaving a permanently slimy feel; other patches carry a ball-bearing layer of sand grains causing feet and fingers to skate unwillingly over the surface.

Sandstone, not surprisingly, is not well favoured by UK climbers. Its only merit is its accessibility for those living in the South East. But move further north and an ongoing debate emerges between the aficionados of the two most common rock types in the climbing areas in the central core of the country. Limestone calls for delicacy of touch; gritstone – God’s Own Rock – yields to a more gymnastic approach, earning its followers the nickname of “Gritstone Monkey” . For all its apparent smoothness, limestone, especially when weather-washed and free from vegetation, has the texture of very fine sandpaper, giving surprising grip even on smooth surfaces – in the dry. In the wet though, it turns treacherously greasy and unclimbable – best not to get caught in a storm when on limestone. Gritstone on the other hand is courser, rougher, can and will give you bloody knuckles and even a rash-like effect on the fingertips at the end of the day, caused by pressure on the skin of tiny pin-sharp grains of quartz. Yet the rough surface texture acts like the tread on a tyre, providing grip from those same points of quartz grains even when a veritable waterfall is running over the slabs. Limestone tends to have small, sharp, hard edges, demanding precision, balance and trust in the strength of the fingertips. Gritstone weathers to more rounded shapes; holds tend to be larger – the best known as jugs (short for jug-handles) for obvious reasons, especially those pulse-relieving “thanks God” holds.

So it is that, known so well, so intimately, the rock becomes a friend, sharing some of the most intense moments of relationship. Unyielding, it can stand aloof; repelling all onslaughts it can be a tormentor; calling forth focus and self belief it becomes a coach; allowing freedom for expression and deep self-examination it is a counsellor; sharing the joy – and sometimes the pain –of being alive it is a friend.

Lifeless it is not.

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