By Dave Westlake
Superlatives seem inadequate when trying to describe the atmosphere of the island that sits in the Bristol Channel, just twelve miles from the North Devon coast. The imposing granite cliffs found along its West coast possess a natural architecture that is as exquisite as it is unique. They are made from rock of the highest quality and provide some of the finest routes of their kind in the UK. Nevertheless Lundy retains a rarely encountered sense of esoteric mystique.
Lundy may only be a short distance from the mainland where I grew up but it feels a world away. A world away from the stresses of everyday life; work, traffic jams and the tax returns; a world away from the internet, televisions and whirring computers. It even seems a far removed from most of the other places we go climbing, almost like stepping back in time a few years. Mobile phones are outlawed in the island’s only pub, the Marisco Tavern, and there are no jukeboxes or TV’s to be found either; these are replaced with the simple pleasures of jenga and chess. Leaving all the concerns and complications of modern life on the pier at Ilfracombe brings a sense of escape and this is undoubtedly one of the key attractions for the many people who visit the island each year.
The Marisco is Lundy’s social hub, and an obvious venue for climbers to congregate and share the adventures of the day. Many non-climbing tourists also visit the island to experience its otherworldly charm and far flung beauty, so the atmosphere in the bar is often lively. A large part of this is thanks to the friendly (if a little odd) bunch of ‘islanders’ who are always eager to show off their jenga skills to visitors who take up the challenge (we did and we beat them).
The ambience of adventure
Lundy could be accurately described as a grassy-topped lump of granite, and as such it effortlessly combines the tranquillity of a grassy meadow with the turbulence of a sea cliff adventure. A trip to the isle presents the perfect opportunity to de-stress for the many visitors HMS Oldenburg © Dave Westlakewho restrict their roam to the grassy plateau. But anyone intent on sampling the superb climbing will need to descend from this peaceful utopia into the hidden depths, prepared for all the familiar stresses that adventure climbing entails. Embarking on this journey, down the steep slopes to the tops of the cliffs and then on to ride the abseil rope to sea level, it certainly feels like you are dipping into the dark side of the island. The atmosphere of some of the shadowy zawns and hidden chasms adds a definite intensity to your experience. Once the safety of the tourist paths rises out of sight the tranquillity of the grassy meadow suddenly seems almost as far away as those aspects of life you left on Ilfracombe pier.
In this sense Lundy could not a be better choice for a climbing trip; it has all the laid back charm of an evening playing cricket by the landmark old lighthouse, as well as the nearby resources for pushing the boat out on the imposing granite fortress of the West coast.
One reason for the sense of mystery the island exudes is perhaps the fact that arranging a trip there feels rather more involved than visiting somewhere so close really should. For all the island’s positives, going on a climbing trip to Lundy is not as simple as going on a trip to many other places. Despite growing up on the North Devon coast, a mere fifteen or so miles away, and seeing the island on the distant coastline every week, it was only last year that I finally managed to get things together and make it out there. One of the reasons for this rather Devils Slide HS © Rob Nasonpathetic state of affairs is that experience has taught me to leave trip planning to the last possible moment before committing time and money on what could be a week of rain. Organising a Lundy trip does not fit well with this approach, as the accommodation on the island needs to be booked well in advance such is the situation with supply and demand.
Never much of a gambler, I felt a bit uneasy about the prospect of wasting a week of precious annual leave, no to mention more money than a trip to Europe would cost, when I handed over my deposit several months before. Sometimes it is wise to roll the dice, and even if the odds of wall-to-wall sunshine may not be stacked in your favour in the UK, the reward in this instance is worth the uncertainty. I soon realised that the gamble was well worth it once I had chance to sample some of the climbing the island had to offer...
The choicest routes
Just like fine ales claim to be made from “the choicest hops”, Lundy is comprised of the choicest routes. This makes narrowing down a selection of recommendations rather difficult. Besides, tracking down a list of Lundy classics at whatever grade is easy in the age of the internet, so the following are a selection from my personal experience of one short week on the island. In truth, I did not climb a ‘bad’ route all week and could easily submit twice as many suggestions.
Seal Slab / Diff
This is a not only a nice introduction to climbing on Lundy, but on sea cliffs in general. The cliff has an unusually friendly feel to it and the line of the route can be left to your own interpretation since the whole slab is covered in good holds and excellent protection. The setting for this route is an intricate series of hidden zawns and this gives you a good perspective on the other opportunities hereabouts. In particular, the view across to the harder climbs in Phantom Zawn is excellent from here.
Quatermass / E2
This route reminded me of why I started climbing. It embodies all the good aspects and none of the bad, three fun pitches on perfect rock that take you up the most impressive feature on the island. I usually seek solitude and tend to steer clear of busy crags, but on a good day the slab of the Devil’s Slide takes on a very friendly community feel, as you chat to the various other climbers weaving their way up the various routes on the slab – all of which are superb.
Double Diamond / HVS
This is another route that whisks you off on a trip up a unique piece of rock architecture – the flying buttress. Although no pushover at HVS, this adventure comes at a relatively amenable grade but if you like it there are always the harder Cullinan (E5) and Flying the colours (E5) to the right. After doing these any spare energy can be spent making a bid for the Flying Dutchman (E7) just round the corner on the steep side of the pillar. The rock quality in this area is unrivalled, and Double Diamond gives a great tutorial on the kind of climbing that involves connecting the slightly flared, incipient cracks that are commonly found on granite.
Wolfman Jack / E3
Dark and foreboding, the wall that is home to this and a range of other classics is a must for anyone operating around this grade. The climbing on Wolfman Jack is pretty sustained from the start and rather tricky if (like me) you can’t hand jam! Like many of the best routes, the interest builds until the last few moves where a bit of ‘thuggery’ will land you at the top with a big smile on your face. The protection is good throughout and with long ropes it is possible to climb this in one magnificent pitch. Remember to pause to take in the exposure though!
Football commentators often describe ‘a game of two halves’ but they could just as easily be talking about this cool classic of the landing craft bay area. The first pitch is characterised by a thin crack that is followed to a comfortable stance in an obvious niche. The second is regularly avoided by teams who abseil off at the niche, but takes a taxing groove up and right that feels like a bit of a struggle - an excellent route to put those ‘all rounder’ credentials to the test. There are also several other great options in close proximity including Formula One (HVS), The Indy 500 (E1) and Le Mans (E5).
This Pat Littlejohn classic is one of the best E5’s I’ve ever done, for a number of reasons. The setting is superb and the crag is rarely busy. The route has a ‘big’ feel to it and there are several other three star climbs nearby, all of which take very striking lines. The climbing style on the crux pitch of Olympica is rather atypical of Lundy, but exemplifies face climbing at its highest quality. In essence, the name of the game here is sustained climbing on generally positive holds. The protection is very good when you get it but there is a lot of space between pieces so expect some exhilarating run-outs! The route takes 3 pitches, the first being around E3 and the last being much easier. To me, the crux second pitch felt similar to doing Pacemaker at Lower Sharpnose Point on the not so distant mainland (another Littlejohn classic, and also E5). Only on the Lundy version the fun begins a pitch up.
In between adventures
Despite the excess of superb routes I find that trips like this are rarely just about the climbing. While there may not be a tonne of obvious rest day activities, the island presents many activities that can enhance your stay when you’re not clinging to the side of it. Most of these involve a large portion of relaxation, which in my view can only be a good thing. Walking, fishing, swimming and hanging out in the pub are some of the options but personally I wouldn’t want to leave without taking a trip up the Old Light and soaking up the stunning views.
Rumours of the pub and shop being overpriced are largely unfounded; they are both reasonably priced and excellent. Some of the members of our group who reside in London even signalled amazement at the good value! The pub serves real ales brewed at St Austell brewery (famous for Tribute and Proper job), and pints cost around £2.80. The beer is well kept and I can confidently report that every serving of ‘Old light bitter’ and ‘Lundy Experience’ I remember drinking tasted superb.
The shop is small but very well stocked with just about all the things you could possibly need, as well as a good range of souvenir items to keep the loved ones at home happy. All climbing gear needs to be taken with you but the good news is that the weight allowance for the ferry is very much negotiable. Many of the bags in our group were overweight but none seemed to contravene the “if a sailor can lift it, its okay” policy that appeared to be in operation.
The only real problem with visiting Lundy is that it is very difficult to avoid the desire to return. The vast number of climbs on offer means one trip is never going to be enough to satisfy. So I would only recommend going if you don’t mind getting drawn into the atmosphere, falling in love with the place and vowing to return on an annual basis. I am planning my next visit already.
More information about Lundy island, particularly on the logistics, can be found here: www.lundyisland.co.uk and bookings can be made at the Lundy Shore Office: The Quay, Bideford, North Devon EX39 2LY Phone: 01271 863636 email: firstname.lastname@example.org.