Climbing craze inspires plan to move mountains

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An idea is germinating in the sometimes fevered minds of the climbing fraternity that the Millennium might be marked by providing its rock-starved southern England members with their very own crag.

Why should keen London climbers have to scorch up the motorway to the Peak District or beyond when the technology exists to graft 400 yards of gritstone edge on to the Chilterns or the North Downs?

The Pavlovian response of conservationists can be imagined, and there are a good many climbers who would balk at the artificiality of such a crag. But there is no doubt it would be heavily used. This weekend, hundreds of climbers will crowd on to the sandstone outcrops near Tunbridge Wells, the only natural climbing ground in the Home Counties, which is visibly eroding. Indoor climbing walls are also proliferating in London and the South-East.

But the Millennium Crag would have none of the managed security of an indoor wall. Like its natural equivalents in the Peak, the Lake District or in North Wales, it would be used for "adventure climbing", where the consequences of a fall could be serious.

The crag is the brain-child of Ken Wilson, a publisher of mountaineering books and a full-volume advocate of the traditional approach to climbing. "The combination of a risky sport and a wonderful natural setting is a very heady mixture. But ... it's not something that youngsters coming to sport on climbing walls are getting," he said. Hence his ideaidea that a southern-based club or some of mountaineering's "great and good" should apply for Lottery funding to build a crag on the north-west fringe of the M25.

The planned site - a disused chalk quarry at Pitstone, on the Chiltern escarpment near Tring, Hertfordshire, is owned by Castle Cement, which is awaiting the result of a public inquiry into their plan for a land- fill site. Local villagers have opposed the rubbish tip and say they would welcome a recreational use for the land.

The quarry could accommodate a range of rock features - buttresses, steep edges and free-standing boulders. The biggest feature would be up to 400 yards of slabs, copying the Idwal Slabs in North Wales, grafted on to the side of Picton Hill at the back of the quarry. Part of Stanage Edge, in the Peak District, could also be cloned.

Nothing on this scale has so far been attempted in Europe. The spray- on concrete fabrications, sculptured and textured like the "living" rock, would cost some pounds 750,000 for 100 yards.

But the crag project may fail for the lack of a group willing to push for it; to formulate a bid to the Millennium Commission or to the Sports Council and then raise a share of the money. The British Mountaineering Council (BMC) has offered support.

"The impetus needs to come from a club or some of climbing's statesmen in the Home Counties," said Derek Walker, a former president of the Climbers' Club and former BMC general secretary.

"It's a great idea. If people's only experience of the climbing is on indoor walls, it's totally false. This could give a taste of the real freedom of the sport."