In my former life as a touring theatre professional, I not only visited a lot of theatres across the UK but also plenty of bouldering gyms. I was determined not to let my nomadic lifestyle get in the way of my climbing training so every week I would hit the Google machine to find myself a nearby gym.
Below is a list of my favourites and some memories I have from them.
I’ll begin in Northern Ireland, hop over the water to Scotland, and then work my way from the north to the south of England. Please forgive me people of Wales. The only reason I’ve not included a Welsh gym is because I haven’t been to any. Hopefully I will correct this terrible personal failing at some point in the near future.
I am bias toward this gym as I spent significantly more time at Boulder World than any of the other gyms on this list. I worked on a pantomime in Belfast for three years, so I was there for eight weeks over the festive period. Having access to this gym was a big reason for going back to Belfast every year, despite the inconvenience this caused to my family who had to visit me from the mainland to see me at Christmas. Sorry Mum and Dad!
This gym was a place of refuge for me during stressful times. Working on a pantomime is a special kind of crazy and can be physically and mentally taxing to put it mildly. Having this place down the road to help me forget about the sparkly, diva filled chaos that was occurring at work was key to my survival. I also climbed my first 6b at Boulder World so I have some very happy memories of this gym.
My emotional attachment aside, this is an excellent bouldering gym. The building is vast and put to very good use. The main bouldering area takes up the majority of the ground floor. There’s a long chunk of slab, vertical, and gently overhanging wall along the left-hand side that has a mammoth traverse set all along it as well as the boulders that follow the colour coded grading system. Along the back of the building and the right-hand side is the comp wall, where you’ll find some of the more dynamic and creative boulders, including the one in the image above. On one attempt I totally missed the foothold of this running start and slammed face first into the wall. Good time.
In the middle is a large island with some more overhanging boulders. The long and challenging roof is worth a go if you’re into particularly power climbs.
Upstairs is a training area complete with a Moon board, Lattice board, and another training board, which I don’t believe belongs to any specific brand. There is also a campus board, some weights, and some comfy chairs to watch other people sweating from while you sit back with a cup of coffee and a chocolate bar from the cafe below.
I found this gym to have a great selection of boulders and a very welcoming atmosphere. I saw 4-year-olds climbing along 74-year-olds in this gym and would highly recommend checking it out, whatever your experience level, if you’re in the Belfast area.
I first went to this gym in 2016 in its former location. I’d describe the original venue (pictured below) as old school. The walls were brownish yellow and grubby. The room was tightly packed and filled with faded holds and chalk dust. As a relatively new climber, I found the place intimidating at first. It certainly felt like the kind of place that “real” climbers went to rather than punters like me.
However, thanks to an extremely stressful show, this time at the Edinburgh Fringe, I came to see this place as another safe haven in a world of theatrical nonsense. I got married in the middle of the rehearsal process of this show and picked up a nasty virus during the run itself. Yet somehow, I still managed to go to Alien Rock 2 twice a week. I certainly wasn’t climbing hard, but I climbed enough to keep me sane.
By the time I returned to Edinburgh in 2018 the gym had moved and been renamed Alien Bloc. The new gym is much more in keeping with contemporary gym design with white walls contrasting a multitude of holds and volumes of different colours, shapes, and sizes. It’s a much bigger and brighter space and much more welcoming to a nervous newbie.
An unusual feature of this gym is the golf ball shaped section of wall that curves inward in the middle. I’d never seen this indented shape on any other wall before and it certainly makes for some interesting moves.
I’ve only been to this gym twice but I remember the setting on the slab walls being absolutely top notch. The argument between climbers about whether slab climbing is a dream or a nightmare will probably continue until all the rocks have eroded away to nothing. In my opinion, slab climbing is a fine and noble endeavour and I often find that the setting on the slab wall can make or break my impression of the whole gym. Alien Bloc passed this test with flying colours.
Anyone who has been following this blog or my Instagram feed for a while will know how much I love Eden Rock. It’s been my local gym since returning to life in the Lake District last July (2020) and I’ve been spoilt by the delights this gym has to offer.
The main wall runs the full length of the building and weaves its way through corners, slabs, overhangs, and horizontal roofs. In the middle of the building are two islands with boulders on all four sides, which provide plenty of opportunities for sneaky moves and nifty footwork around aretes. At the far end there’s a circuit board for working on endurance as well as steeply overhanging boards, campus boards, and peg boards for all your training needs.
It’s just the right level of grimy. I’ve found that brand new climbing gyms take a while to wear in and develop a homely feel. Contrastingly, older gyms, like the old Alien Rock, can be too dark and dingy and intimidating to newer climbers. For me, Eden rock is in the perfect sweet spot of being big, light, and modern enough to feel very welcoming but reassuringly scruffy enough to make you trust that the people who run the place know what they’re doing.
I’ve praised the route setting at Eden Rock in previous posts but it’s definitely worth repeatedly banging on about the quality of the boulders at this gym. I don’t think I’ve found another gym with boulders that climb so well and with consistent difficulty for climbers of different physiques. Despite the far from negligible difference in our strength levels and the 4-inch height difference, Husband and I perform remarkably similarly on the bouders at Eden Rock. Husband's extra reach rarely makes boulders significantly easier for him and he can rarely just power his way through a problem. You really need skill and technique to get the best of the boulders at Eden Rock and this makes climbing them even more satisfying.
I came across this gym when looking for somewhere to break the journey between Cambridge and Cumbria. Sitting to the east of Leeds city centre and just off the M1, the Last Sun Dance fit the bill perfectly.
It’s a relatively new gym, having opened in the summer of 2020 (then closed and opened, closed and opened again thanks to lockdowns!) but it’s certainly hit the ground running. The space itself is clean and crisp with light wooden walls contrasted against the black matting. With the massive shutter doors wide open you could almost be tricked into thinking you’re climbing outside.
The day we visited the Last Sun Dance was a hot one and we’d spent several hours in a car with no air conditioning. The breeze felt throughout the venue was very much appreciated.
The hold selection and route setting also reflects how modern and up to date this gym is. There are elements of competition style climbing in many of the routes, even those in the lower grade bands. This is helped by the impressive selection of holds, especially the vast number of volumes and big slopers. There’s also plenty of little crimps and pull-hard style climbing to keep climbers of all tastes entertained.
Last Sun Dance also has the biggest fitness gym I’ve ever seen in a climbing centre. The upstairs level has every shape and size of weight you could ever want as well as treadmills, rowing machines, gymnastic rings, and campus boards. And it overlooks the bouldering area below so you can distract yourself from the pain by watching people climb.
Husband was a big fan of the style of climbing here as well as the delicious coffee he got to swig while I finished off a sweaty bouldering mileage session. He’s decided we’ll be stopping off here every time we drive between Cambridge and Cumbria and I’ve decided not to argue with him about it!
I visited Rock Over while working at a theatre in Oldham for a week. This involved braving the local bus network, which is something I shied away from doing while touring. Not because I don’t like taking the bus. I just find the timetables and routes very confusing! Thankfully I managed to get on the right bus going in the right direction (not something I’ve always managed to achieve) and my courage was rewarded with an excellent day out at Rock Over Climbing Centre.
I remember Rock Over for its overhanging walls and big cave section. I was still relatively new to climbing when I went to Rock Over so maybe these boulders stuck in my mind because I didn’t have much experience with especially burly climbing at the time. I remember finding one of the first cave boulders that I ever managed to climb in Rock Over and feeling like I was making genuine progress on this style of climbing.
There’s certainly far more to this venue than great big overhangs. It’s expanded since I climbed there but even before this you were spoilt for choice at Rock Over. The walls feature a lot of angles, corners, and unusual shapes, which creates some fascinating moves. The main bouldering area is huge so there are always plenty of boulders to choose from.
They even have a dedicated competition style boulder room called The Hub, where the national team sometimes trains. You can get a good look at this space in this lovely video by Hannah Morris (subscribe to her YouTube channel for top notch relatable and soothing bouldering videos). The delightful Faye Hine (pictured left), who featured in a previous blog post, also shares some lovely climbing content from Rock Over on her Instagram profile.
Highball was another climbing wall that kept me sane while working in touring theatre (spotting a pattern yet?) I was in Norwich for the opening week of an Agatha Christie murder mystery, which opened in a traditionally stressful fashion. I took my frustrations out on the walls of Highball.
My memory of the centre is a little fuzzy as I’ve only been there twice approximately four years ago. However, I vividly remember having some excellent fun in the roof right at the back of the venue and getting obsessed with a boulder on a corner between a vertical and a slab wall. This boulder taught me a very valuable lesson about the value of brushing holds.
I was still quite new to climbing when I visited Highball and thought brushing was a bit of a myth. I’d seen people brushing holds in gyms and competitions but, as a newbie mostly climbing on positive holds, it never seemed necessary to me.
The penultimate hold on this boulder was the slopiest hold I’d used at that point in my climbing experience and I couldn’t put any force through it. I felt like the move was well within my ability, yet I kept getting spat off it. As I stared at the hold in quiet contemplation another climber was diligently brushing the holds on his own boulder on an adjacent bit of wall. He then very kindly offered to brush my new slopy nemesis while he had the brush handy. Why not? I thought. It couldn’t hurt.
The hold was transformed with a few well-placed strokes of a chunky brush. I got up for another go and finished the boulder with ease before catching my brushing friend smiling quietly to himself at my success. Sometimes all you need is a wise person with a brush.
I was converted. I am now a vocal (sometimes annoyingly so) advocate for regular and enthusiastic hold brushing.
As it says on Highball’s website:
As the name suggests, it’s in a frickin’ castle!
The Castle was the first proper climbing gym I ever went to. By that I mean it wasn’t a tiny room in a sports centre but a building totally devoted to the art of climbing. The Castle is located in Finsbury Park in north London, making it the easiest London gym to access from Cambridge, where we lived when we took up climbing.
I was completely overwhelmed by the size and twisty-turny layout of the Castle at first. There are bouldering sections in every available nook and cranny and it’s not always immediately obvious which staircase leads to which section. There are signs all over the centre to guide you through the maze but it’s easy to feel confused while trying to storm this castle.
That being said, it doesn’t really matter where you end up within the venue. There will be excellent bouldering wherever you find yourself. I have particularly happy memories of the slab wall and the roof section (pictured right) on the first floor but you’re generally spoilt for choice in The Castle. With all that space they’ve got climbs of every angle and hold type you could ever wish for.
This was also the centre where Husband discovered his love of comp walls with boulders that aren’t given a grade but a number depending on their difficulty level compared to the other climbs on the same wall (e.g. 1 being the easiest and 30 being the hardest). He has no interest in entering competitions but give Husband a wall of boulders labeled from 1 to 30 and he’ll have a wonderful time seeing how close he can get to the top number before his skin gives out.
Aside from the excellent bouldering, it’s worth taking a trip to the Castle for the food alone. The café is next to the comp wall so there’s entertainment while you eat. They source a lot of their ingredients locally and even grow some of them on site, which equals seasonal produce and fewer food miles. They do far more than the usual coffee and cake you get in a lot of climbing gym cafes. You can stuff your face with breakfast, lunch, and dinner at the Castle. I’m not sure how much climbing you’ll be doing in between all those hearty meals but you’ll be too full and content to care.
Finally, we reach Poole on the south coast of England and The Project Climbing Centre.
Continuing the theme of visiting climbing centres during stressful times, the week I worked in Poole was the same week that Donald Trump became president of the United States. Additionally, the backstage area of the theatre I was working in was half built when our show arrived there. The room where I was meant to be taking care of the costumes, known as Wardrobe, was covered in paint and sawdust, strewn with filthy work benches, and bereft of running water when I arrived to set up for the show. To top the week off, during our final performance a drunk man in a tuxedo managed to escape from the event he was attending in another part of the building and stumble backstage. Luckily one of our more quick-thinking actors grabbed him and bundled him out of a nearby fire escape before he could make his onstage debut.
An eventful week indeed.
Luckily the Project was directly opposite the theatre and a mere three minutes' walk from the chaos. The building reminded me of the sports hall at my secondary school with the squeaky shiny floor covered with coloured lines to denoting the field of play for all conceivable indoor sporting pursuits. Only nobody ever plonked an incredible bouldering facility in the middle of my secondary school sports hall. Mores the pitty.
They got pretty creative with the plywood when they put the Project together. There are arches, corners, a top-out boulder (complete with a slide so you can avoid the dreaded down-climb) and a giant traverse wall along with usual roofs, overhangs, and slabs.
Due to stressful work environment and the close proximity, I went to the Project four times in a week (normally I’d climb twice a week at most while touring) and I’d barely scratched the surface of what this vast gym had to offer. I remember spending a very happy half an hour of my life trying to work out how to get around an arete on a small number of big blobby blue holds. Each attempt saw me swung off the wall and sprawled out on the floor in a new manner and shape but also put the troubles of the outside world out of my head for a while.
This is the gym that sticks in my mind the most from my time touring the UK and I sincerely hope that I have the opportunity to return and joyfully fall off some more of their wonderful boulders again one day.
What a lot of miles we’ve covered and memories we’ve shared. I hope you’ve enjoyed this tour of my old stomping grounds. If you’re interested in bouldering gyms outside of the UK here are some useful resources that might point you in the right direction:
This traveling and climbing blog has guides to gyms all over the world including Singapore, Bangkok, Germany and Malaysia. There’s also lots of information about things to do outside of climbing gyms. Check out Lydiascapes for post-Covid travel inspiration!
This YouTube channel has some delightfully detailed tours of some of the biggest and best bouldering gyms, used by pros and punters alike. Highlights include wanders around the Kletterzentrum in Innsbruck, Domen Skofic’s massive wall in Slovenia, and the Blockhelden gym in Bamberg, which has a massive lead route over a net so you can ditch the rope and get the full deep water soloing experience without the inconvenience of getting wet.
This community minded website is well worth checking out for so many reasons including their funny and honest reviews of climbing gyms in America. I particularly enjoyed their review of Texas Rock Gym, where they met some very good dogs.