Climbing walls are growing in popularity in the UK – and there are plenty of female-focused places to get the hang of a new hobby.
Those knobbly, brightly-coloured walls and harnesses may bring back memories of school trips or dreaded ‘team building’ office days out. But in 2020, more and more women are searching for new and exciting ways to keep fit – and taking up climbing as a result.
According to the Association of British Climbing Walls (ABC), 1.5 million people climbed indoors in 2019, with 12% of the population visiting a climbing centre the previous year. The rise in interest in climbing was also potentially sparked by the release of not one, but two heart-stopping climbing documentaries in 2018 (Free Solo and The Dawn Wall) – the same year that a major climbing centre, Building One+, opened in a former Damien Hirst gallery in Bermondsey, London. The success of Liverpool’s indoor climbing wall, The Climbing Hangar, means that a second wall is now due to open in the city on 29 March. And with competitive climbing due to make its official debut in the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo this summer, the sport will soon capture even more of the world’s attention.
So why has climbing become so popular? Firstly, it offers a full-body workout. The need for balance strengthens your core, while your legs and glutes power you upwards and your arms and shoulders hoist you higher and higher.
But beyond being a challenging and rewarding sport, climbing can also do wonders for your sense of mental clarity and wellbeing, benefits that are a big draw for many new climbers (Glow star Kate Nash previously told Stylist that climbing plays an important role in her self-care).
“Climbing has really built up my upper body strength, but it’s more than just a good physical workout,” agrees Stylist’s video production manager Charlotte Wolff. “It engages you mentally too – and you get a little adrenaline rush because of the height factor.”
And while climbing has historically been a male-dominated pastime, there are several groups specifically designed for women climbers. Vertigirls began offering grant-funded introductory climbing sessions for women with mental health issues in 2008, and has since grown into a British Mountaineering Council-affiliated climbing group that’s introduced hundreds of women to climbing. Participants say they have gained confidence in themselves and trust in others, while feeling the benefits that exercise can have on their mental health.
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Lorna Potter of Bristol Women Climbers says that climbing with women can be a more supportive and encouraging environment. Writing for Women Climb, a group that trains, supports and connects female climbers across the UK, she explains: “They’re often really honest about the challenges of dealing with a lack of confidence [and] fear, and able to work together to overcome it.”
Ready to give climbing a go? You’re in luck, as the UK is home to over 400 climbing walls. Here, we’ve picked some standouts that are particularly geared towards women.
Edinburgh International Climbing Arena, Ratho
The Edinburgh International Climbing Arena is built into a disused quarry just outside the city in the village of Ratho, from which it takes its name. Ratho is the largest indoor climbing arena in Europe, with more than 300 routes and walls reaching 28m high.
Their ‘This girl Can…’ women-only coaching sessions aim to build and nurture the growing number of women climbers with the support of experienced female climbing coaches. Whether you want to try out climbing or bouldering (low height climbing without ropes), Ratho offers up one of the biggest walls in the world. It’s a large bouldering room with free-standing boulders and ‘The Hanger’, a wall that can be raised or lowered to change its angle.
It also boasts a Clip ’n Climb obstacle course (think crazy golf but for climbing) that the 10-year-old inside of you is itching to clamber onto.
Where is it? South Platt Hill, Ratho, Newbridge EH28 8AA
When is it open? Monday to Thursday, 10am-10pm. Saturday and Sunday, 9am-6pm
The Castle Climbing Centre, London
The Castle Climbing Centre in Stoke Newington looks like just that: a castle tucked away in north London. It’s actually a former water pumping station, but that doesn’t have quite the same ring to it.
Bouldering is the strong suit here. Ahead of the game, they’ve been running their ‘Women with Altitude’ sessions for 18 years, which recently relaunched on Thursday evenings under the name ‘Women’s Bouldering Social’.
Where is it? Green Lanes, Stoke Newington, London N4 2HA
When is it open? Monday to Friday, 12pm-10pm. Saturday and Sunday, 9am-7pm.
Manchester Climbing Centre
Indoor climbing may not have the same breathtaking views as craggy cliffs or coastlines, but Manchester Climbing Centre scores pretty high on scenery. St Benedict’s Church closed in 2002 after over 120 years in action. Today, the stained glass windows and sweeping buttressing set the backdrop for a pretty special climb.
You can have a full snoop around on the virtual tour function on their website as well as take a handy quiz to find out which sessions or courses are right for your experience and goals. The highest route is over 60ft tall and bouldering is well covered too.
Combining culture with climbing, the centre also hosts music events, lectures and film nights: swing by their climbing yoga sessions for a post-climb stretch or drop in on Thursday evenings for Women’s Club.
Where is it? St. Benedict’s Church, Bennett Street, Manchester, M12 5ND
When is it open? Monday to Friday, 10am-10pm. Saturday and Sunday, 9.30am-6pm.
The Overhang, Tenby, Pembrokeshire
For the ultimate self-care experience, the Overhang Climbing Centre in Tenby has the perfect après-climb set up. Step out of the centre right onto a sandy cove straight out of a movie, lined with pastel houses looking out onto the ruins of Tenby Castle rising up out of the water.
Tenby offers half-day outdoor climbing where you can fully take in the surroundings, but before you’re ready for the rocks, book yourself onto one of their introductory climbing courses. Friday evening is social club, and the time to make some friends or find a new climbing partner.
After a physically and mentally demanding climb, press pause and soak up the sight and sound of the waves lapping against the shore and the sea breeze whistling around you. The 287 unopened emails in your inbox have no business here.
Where is it? Castle Slipway, Castle Beach, Tenby, Pembrokeshire SA70 7BP
When is it open? Monday to Thursday, 4pm-9pm, Friday, 6pm-9pm, Saturday and Sunday, 12pm-5pm
The Climbing Works, Sheffield
The first bouldering-only club to be awarded National Performance Centre status by the British Mountaineering Council (BMC), The Climbing Works is highly regarded among climbers. It hosts the Climbing Works International Festival every year, drawing in some of the best climbers from across the world.
World-class problems (bouldering routes are known as problems) challenge the most elite climbers, but newbies are well catered to with free weekly sessions for new climbers and improvers. Brownie points for the centre’s green efforts, too: it’s stopped selling bottled water and offers free tea and coffee to anyone who walks, cycles or takes the bus to get there.
Where is it? Unit B, Centenary Works, Little London Road, Sheffield, S8 0UJ
When is it open? Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday, 10am-10pm. Thursdays, 12-10pm. Saturdays and Sundays, 10am-8pm
Mile End Climbing Wall, London
The Mile End Climbing Wall is a not-for-profit organisation maintained by its own charity. They work with vulnerable young people, youth offending groups, schools and those with special educational needs to foster personal development through challenging physical activity.
Every penny of profit goes back into developing and maintaining the facilities and subsidising these programs. A great way to give back to the community, by climbing at Mile End Climbing Wall you’ll be helping others to flourish from all the benefits of climbing too.
Among courses and sessions for all abilities, there are also drop-in bouldering sessions run by women, for women on Friday evenings. Designed for improvers, the sessions focus on problems, strength and technique specific to women climbers.
Where is it? Haverfield Road, London, E3 5BE
When is it open? Monday to Friday, 10am-9.30am. Saturday and Sunday, 10am-6pm
Ice Factor, Scottish Highlands
For something a little different, visit Ice Factor National Ice Climbing Centre, where you’ll find the world’s largest indoor ice climbing wall (it’s made of 500 tonnes of real ice and snow and towers 12 metres high). Live out the arctic explorer fantasies you didn’t know you had, before warming yourself back up with a selection of malt whiskeys and ales from across the Highlands and islands at the bar.
Local seasonal produce is whipped up into hot meals till 9.30pm, seven days a week. If that’s not enough to convince you to brave the cold, Ice Factor’s climbing facilities more than hold their own: they even run instructed courses for military groups, which lets you know they mean business. Their rock climbing taster sessions are probably a little less heavy going, but this is the spot for any aspiring G.I. Jane.
Where is it? Kinlochleven, Lochaber, PH50 4SF
When is it open? Monday, Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday, 9am-6pm. Tuesday and Thursday, 9am-10pm
Warehouse Climbing Centre, Gloucester
Spread over five floors, Warehouse Climbing Centre runs weekly social sessions for new and experienced climbers to work on their technique and skills in a relaxed and welcoming environment.
Along with teamwork and communication, the friendly Gloucester institution puts climbing’s capacity for building concentration, confidence and self-belief at the heart of its sell. On top of climbing and bouldering, the centre also gives you a chance to have a crack at caving. Perhaps more crawling than climbing, their fibreglass resin cave stretches for 90 metres of “seemingly impossible passageways, tight tunnels, boulders and challenging chambers”. If you’re not keen on heights, caving is a great way to get in on the action.
Where is it? Parliament St, Gloucester GL1 1HY
When is it open? Monday to Friday, 10am-10pm. Saturday and Sunday, 9am-8pm
This article was originally published in December 2018 and has been updated throughout.
Images: Unsplash; Getty