Staffordshire is not exactly an area known for its mountains, but it is the home of a fine set of gritstone crags known as The Roaches. Rock-climbing had been popular at The Roaches since the earliest days of the sport – the crags are near to the big towns and cities of Northern England and are of easy access. This area has a huge importance in the history of rock-climbing in the UK, and it was one of the places where climbing standards rose dramatically in the 1950’s.
In 1951, climbing legends Joe Brown and Don Whillans first climbed together on these rocks on a route that they named Matinee, as it was climbed in the afternoon with a large ‘audience’ watching! The climb’s grade of HVS (5b) is not regarded as being particularly difficult by today’s standards, but climbs like Matinee were a huge leap forward in difficulty at the time. The climbing club hut at the bottom of the crag is now named after Whillans as a memorial.
For lesser mortals, there is a fine walk out along the edge of the gritstone escarpment. I had worked out a route for Chris and Border Collie ‘Mist’ that headed north taking in the whole length of the edge, with a surprise waiting at the far end, but we started by going south to collect another rock outcrop called Hen Cloud.
Having completed the Hen Cloud diversion, we returned to the main Roaches ridge. The climbing crags were busy, their popularity guaranteed by quality rock-climbing and a very short walk in from the road. The ridge above the crags was also fairly busy, with walkers taking advantage of the warm weather.
One of the early landmarks is a tiny lake called ‘Doxey Pool’ – it isn’t very deep, but legend has it that a water nymph lives there, and when not otherwise engaged she lures unsuspecting walkers to a watery grave. The only creature venturing near to the water was ‘Mist’, but the water spirit didn’t seem to be interested in dogs, so we pressed on to the end of the gritstone rock formations to a road crossing with the inevitable ice cream van.
Beyond the road, the high ground became less dramatic, but there was a surprise in store ahead. A chasm known as ‘Lud’s Church’ has opened up on one of the fault lines in the rock, making a cleft 15 metres high, 100 metres long, and just 2-3 metres wide. In the 15th Century is was used as a place of worship by the Lollards, who were regarded as heretics and persecuted – a local legend also claims that Robin Hood hid here.
One of the most interesting legends connects Lud’s Church with the medieval poem ‘Sir Gawain and the Green Knight’, and it has been suggested that the inspiration for the Green Knight’s chapel came from here – it is certainly very green in the cleft, with moss covered walls. At the far end of the cleft our exploration ended at a large area of mud which ‘Mist’ decided to have a paddle in!
From Lud’s Church we took a slightly different way through a wood to get back to the road, then it was back along the Roaches edge to the start point. The highest point of the day was a mere 505 metres, but although I prefer my hills big and pointy the day had been full of interest. Doxey Pool came in useful on the way back as a place to wash a muddy Border Collie, but the water spirit must have been busy elsewhere.
Text and images © Paul Shorrock
Fantastic – I always enjoy your posts Paul. Don Whillans was a hero of mine – I first heard about him in a Chris Bonnington book I read some years previously – a real character by all accounts.
Cheers SP – when I started climbing I remember seeing a photo of Whillans on ‘Sloth’, and I couldn’t imagine anyone ever being able to climb a route like that! Apparently it’s one of the trade routes on the crag now, with much more difficult climbs nearby, but one heck of an achievement in its day!
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That looks great walking (although the climbing would be no good to me being typical gritstone – just can’t do that). Lud’s Church is fascinating – looks a bit like Conistone Dib.
I have to admit to not being a fan of Whillans but I love his hut!
Gritstone climbing is a bit ‘Marmite’ in my view – I started my climbing on it, but my favourite would always be good solid volcanic rock, as in the Lakes, Snowdonia, etc. I guess you’re a limestone lass Carol, especially if your climbing club goes to the Dales a lot – limestone is a bit Marmite as well, but when it’s solid it’s not so bad 🙂
I’m probably only a limestone lass ‘cos that’s all we’ve got round here apart from gritstone. But my single climb on Langdale volcanic was very firm and very obliging for holds 🙂