Climbing the Sensational Coronation Street in Cheddar Gorge

Climbing the Sensational Coronation Street in Cheddar Gorge

Coronation Street is widely revered as one of the best routes in the country.  Nestled deep in the South West of England in Cheddar Gorge, it is a 115-metre route featuring outrageous exposure, difficult and committing climbing for the whole team. 

Coronation Street is featured in Hard Rock.  The first edition of Hard Rock was produced by Ken Wilson in 1974.  It features routes in England, Scotland, and Wales which embody all that is great about traditional climbing in Great Britain.

First climbed in 1965 by Chris Bonington, Tony Greenbank, and Mike Thompson.  Chris Bonington had been asked to take part in a documentary where he would be filmed climbing in Avon Gorge.  As Avon Gorge is an old quarry, he felt it “didn’t have the architectural appeal” of other crags and opted to climb on the picturesque, looming, natural limestone cliffs of Cheddar Gorge [1].  The trio climbed this historic route in January and now with the Cheddar Access Rules, Coronation Street can only be climbed between 1st October to 15th March.  Everyone who follows in their footsteps must also take on this mighty route in the colder, darker months.

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High Rock in Cheddar Gorge the long crack in the middle in Coronation Street

Access

Cheddar Gorge has seasonal access rules.  The south side of the gorge is privately owned by Cheddar Caves & Gorge and forms part of the Longleat Estate.  The north side of the Gorge is owned by the National Trust so is open access land under the Countryside and Rights of Way (CRoW) Act (2000).  Due to the proximity of the main road with passes through the Gorge, the risk of dropping a piece of gear or dislodging a rock has a greater likelihood of causing injury to person(s) or property.  For this reason, the climbing in Cheddar is divided seasonally.  Any failure to abide by these rules could jeopardise access in the future!

Further information on Cheddar Access is available on the BMC RAD, link here.

An important point to note, text taken directly from the BMC RAD Cheddar Gorge South page:

“Anyone climbing on the south side of Cheddar Gorge must carry civil liability cover of at least £10 millionThis comes as standard with BMC or MCofS membership or can be organised separately. BMC/MCofS membership cards or details of your individual policy must be carried as proof of cover whilst climbing on the south side of the Gorge and the climbing warden and CC&G staff carry out frequent checks. Civil liability is also recommended for anyone climbing on the north side of the Gorge but is not a requirement.”

Cheddar Gorge is easy to reach from the M5 and is in the Mendip Hills Area of outstanding Natural Beauty.  The following address will take you to the cliffs.  Cheddar Gorge, Cheddar BS27 3QF.

Parking can be hard to find in the peak tourist season and at the weekends but thankfully if you are coming to climb Coronation Street, it is off season.  Parking is easier to find but still worth arriving early.  It will also mean you more likely to be first at the Crag.  Parking costs approximately £5.00 for the entire day.

A small tip, if you drive up the Gorge, away from the tourist attractions and the marked bays, there is parking to the side of the road in gravelled laybys.  These are not ticketed spaces.  There is space for a couple cars opposite the base of High Rock, and the start of Coronation Street.   

The Climb

Coronation Street has been on my wish list for a while but combining a free weekend with a climbing partner and enough good weather for the route to be dry, is a hard thing to come by.  On the 5th December, all these ingredients came together, and I found myself driving to Cheddar Gorge. 

On the drive over from Bristol, there had been a few light flurries of rain splattering my windscreen.  I was not feeling full of hope, but it is likely that the couple beers from the night before were adding to that.  As I pulled into the parking space, Alex was already there, eyeing up the conditions on the rock.  Hopping out of my van, I was greeted with a big grin, “it’s looking good”. He was right, the rock was looking good.   Due to the direction of the wind, it had missed any rain and it seemed dry.

Coronation Street is 115-meters across 5 pitches [2]:

  • Pitch 1, 45 m 4c
  • Pitch 2, 20 m 5b
  • Pitch 3, 15 m 5a
  • Pitch 4, 20 m 5b
  • Pitch 5, 15 m 4c

A big route needs a big rack.  We doubled up on cams and nuts with 12 draws of various lengths between us.  We got our harnesses on and racked up ready to climb.  Alex had opted to climb pitches 1, 3 & 5 and I would climb the 2 crux pitches. 

Alex ready to roll at the muddy base of Coronation Street (apologies for the blurry image)

Alex dispatched the first pitch with a casual style that I am always a bit envious of, he is a strong leader and took the start in his stride.  The first pitch follows long crack, but the moves are not always obvious.  There is a lot of choss with plenty of vegetation to contend with.  An easy start leads to a small roof which is surmounted before reaching a large belay stance.

Seconding up the first pitch

Once the belay was made, I wrapped my down jacket around a sling over my shoulders and got climbing.  Immediately, my fingers went numb as the limestone sucked the warmth out of them.  I did not enjoy the first pitch; I could not get “in the groove” of the climbing and my movements felt awkward.  To say I was feeling anxious was an understatement.  As I got to the belay I said to Alex “I am not enjoying this, I feel a bit edgy.  You might need to lead the next pitch”. 

We changed over the rack and with a few words of encouragement, I set off on the hot end of the rope.  A few minutes earlier I could not feel my fingers but a short hit of adrenaline later, and all sensation came back, and worries disappeared.  The second pitch follows a crack to a triangular roof.  With difficulty, this is passed on its left to a small belay ledge.

Being a crack climb, the cams just kept on sinking in.  The ample protection gave me confidence with the difficult climbing and the crack being in a corner meant I could find rests to shake out my arms.  I reached the roof and put in a couple pieces of bomber gear then committed to the crux.  This was an awkward sequence of moves stepping into exposure and reaching for a jug above the roof.  Pulling hard on the jug and wedging feet in where I could, I pulled through the roof and made a few more moves to a bridging rest.  I looked behind me and realised it had started to rain, so I shouted down “it’s raining, what do we do?” “Keep going, the roof above will protect us for now” came the response.  I placed another cam and then pushed on to the small belay ledge.  The pitch was brilliant, none of the movements were overly difficult, requiring effort rather than grace but the position and protection made it really enjoyable.  It wasn’t until the belay ledge that I looked around, soaking in the exposure.  It really is an extraordinary position.

The epic belay stance at the end of pitch 2

Alex followed up on second and then the gear swap began.  The rain had stopped as quickly as it had started but I was anxious about heading on.  The next pitch is the infamous Shield Pitch, a traverse into space under the huge overhanging roof.  When a team commits to the shield pitch, you are committed to the route as escape becomes more complicated.  Alex was full of confidence so with the decision “made” he set off climbing up the crack to the large roof.  A few shouts of “I hate polish” and “this is a really nice jug” later and he was setting up the hanging belay.  The belay at the end of the shield leaves the belayer hanging with approximately 80 metres of space under their feet. 

It was my turn.  I dismantled the anchor and set off up the crack.  At the top, I looked across at the traverse line.  There were no footholds of any value, just smears on cold limestone with bomber hand holds. 

Committing to the jugs on the Shield Pitch

With no elegance or style, I butchered my way across the shield pitch.  Near the end of the traverse I managed to wedge as much of my body into the crack as I could to rest my arms.

And this move is called the “desperation wedge”

My forearms were pumped.  I was struggling to hold onto the jugs with my feet slipping around.  I hauled across making a few desperate moves to the final large holds, where thankfully, better feet could be found. I clipped into the anchor and let my arms relax.  I had no idea how I was going to climb the next pitch, the crux of the route.  There was no plan on moving for a while so I could rest.  We shared some Haribo, and I thought it is funny how calm you feel eating sweets with nothing other than 80 meters of air below. 

After a good rest, a swig of water and a handful of sweet, I was ready.  The 4th pitch follows a corner crack to another roof which is passed on its right.  Then there is a long strenuous crack which just keeps going until you reach the jugs leading to a sensationally positioned ledge. 

Climbing up to the roof was awkward but no more difficult than the 2nd pitch.  Before committing to the roof crux, I found a hands-free ledge to the left of the roof where I waited to claw back some energy into my tired arms.  There are 2 stuck nuts in the roof which make for excellent protection.  This crux was more complicated than the lower roof, the holds were not obvious, but I found a right hand gaston and by leaning into space I could get my left foot higher which enabled me to pull through the roof.  I thought the difficulties were over, but I was mistaken.  The remaining half of the route follow up a long sharp crack, with difficult to find rests.  I could awkwardly bridge but was never comfortable, one stance could rest my right calf and the next my left, but I could not find a position where I could shake out properly.  Feeling my biceps tire, I pushed on.  Thankfully after the roof, I was able to keep sinking in cams which gave the mental boost I needed to push on without losing my mind.  A few more moves and I clipped a large thread.  Right hand up to the jug.  PULL! 

I made it.  I did not climb this pitch with any style or panache, it was an ugly fight between awkward rests and pump.  Stepping onto the final belay ledge is possibly the best position in the entire gorge.  Even the sun came out to make it a magical position.  I built the anchor and then looked around taking in the amazing position until I heard a small voice from below shout “are you safe?”  I had completely forgotten to shout down.  After this I pulled in the slack, “on belay”, Alex started climbing. 

The belay stance at the end of the 4th pitch even more spectacular than the first

Whilst I had cold fingers on the easier pitches, Alex was suffering with cold fingers on the harder pitches.  I did not envy him fighting up this pitch with cold hands.  As he neared the top he looked up and said, “there’s a really good crimp here but I cannot use it, my fingers are too cold”.  A few grunts and some choice words later, we were both on the ledge.

Alex reaching for the finishing jug

The final pitch is a 5a slab.  The climbing difficulties feel trivial compared to the previous 3 pitches, but the rock is very unstable.  There are lots of crumbly holds that require utmost care as dislodging a rock will send it 100 meters to the ground which could easily injury person(s) or property.  Even when belaying from the top, care is needed to ensure the ropes do not dislodge anything. Alex stepped off the ledge and began climbing his way to the top. 

A few minutes later we were both stood at the top of Cheddar Gorge, one of the most famous routes in the country under our feet. 

Golden Hour at the top of Cheddar Gorge

What a sensational route with varied climbing styles throughout the pitches, hard moves and jaw dropping exposure.  Each pitch in isolation would not have been as difficult but the combination is a big day out with the crux 4th pitch being exhausting, nerve-racking and stupendous.  The climbing required maximum effort rather than delicacy and style.  I cannot recommend climbing this route enough.  It is certainly one of the best routes I have climbed in the UK.  

The view from the top towards Cheddar Reservoir

Sources

[1] Chris Bonington – Ascent: A life spent climbing on the edge

[2] Martin Crocker – Cheddar Gorge Climbs

Cheddar Gorge…

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