Boatyard Builders: Bringing Notts’ Disused Boatyard Back to Its Roots of Adventure

Words: Rose Mason
Photos: Rose Mason
Tuesday 17 October 2023
reading time: min, words

With demand in Nottingham for a new climbing centre, Boatyard Boulders are bringing a disused boatyard back to its roots of adventure...

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Photos and videos of the recently opened climbing centre under the arches of Lady Bay Bridge are sure to provoke curiosity. Full of colour and energy in a unique riverside spot, Boatyard Boulders seem to be trying it all. They’ve got outdoor climbing, graffiti art, tasty coffee, a pool table, in the future maybe pizza, maybe a low ropes assault course? Full of spark (but still being honed) this Boatyard is certainly not lacking in potential.

I met Ben, who, alongside his enthusiasm and partnership with Nottingham City Council, founded and owns the business. He handed over some photos from the eighties for me to flip through, while explaining the site's deep rooted links with community and adventure.

“It was already an adventure centre and people remember it that way. This originally was a climbing wall thirty or 35 years ago. There was a lot of successful years of it being used as a youth centre. The whole site was just covered in graffiti and it was famous for it."

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With a background in making climbing holds and twenty years experience travelling up and down the country building climbing walls and installing them in schools, Ben had contacts and a strong awareness of the industry. He had also worked with artists to do murals, so when he got to know the site, he was inspired to take it back to its roots.

“I drove by this site for years, and I always wondered about it," he explains. "Then I was doing a job for Nottingham City Council, moving a climbing wall that I built ten years ago to another site. I got chatting to them and said, I'd love to build a bouldering centre, an outdoor adventure centre with realistic rock, like the first of its kind in the UK.

Someone part of the adventure team at Colwick, the other council centre, said, ‘Okay, meet me tomorrow’. We came down here, and as soon as I saw the place, I thought this is it. I stayed up for two nights solid, put this proposal to them, and they loved it. They loved the idea about honouring the history of the site as well."

As soon as I saw the place, I thought this is it. I stayed up for two nights solid, put this proposal to them, and they loved it

Ben worked with street artist Todd Jerm, who used to tag the site as a kid, to make the artwork and design the logo, and he knew friends in the industry who could build the rock structures. For years, Ben had been making climbing holds, which gave him the idea to transform one of the Boatyard rooms into a manufacturing space to make holds on site. He explains that all the pieces were in place to build something authentic to the site that offered a climbing experience unique to any other in Nottingham.

Different to the usual flat boards familiar in modern climbing gyms, the real rock structures used to make up the outdoor bouldering are created by Koda Creative, who specialise in zoo enclosures. The rock is made ‘to a geologist standard’ and is the result of lengthy research into what real climbing rock looks and feels like. Ben says it’s unusual in the climbing industry - "We've got stuff that climbs well, and looks good as well.”

Giving me a tour around the site, he pauses at a specific rock feature with a texture that looks something like scales. “So this looks like Fontainebleau, the famous climbing area in France. Some of it is inspired by different areas around the world." Pointing at another feature, he says, "This is based loosely on the Rhino in South Africa, which is a famous rock formation."

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It’s a creative approach, and somewhat against the grain to mimic real rock today. The first indoor climbing walls, built in the seventies and eighties, copied features found outdoors, and were mainly frequented by outdoor climbers for training or in bad weather. Nowadays, the circumstances have flipped, with most new climbers being introduced to the sport through the indoor alternative, resulting in the transition from rock-like structures to flat plywood indoor walls, with creative and frequent route-setting. Nottingham Climbing Centre in their recent refurbishment removed their textured tower, in favour of a featureless wall, lending itself to maximum variety.

The Boatyard Boulders approach certainly feels like a risk by industry standards, but with the growth of the sport in Nottingham, it is undeniably refreshing to see a new venue opening. Ben shares what the Boatyard offers for keener climbers.

“No one's ever done the real rock thing. There's a couple of places in the UK that built outdoor rock parks where there's a few boulders, but they haven't worked very well. They've been really expensive and there's not enough on them - there might be just maybe six or seven different climbing routes. Whereas here, we've gone for rock packed with features and then digitally you're able to create more routes on an app. There's a lot more you can do. Rather than constantly changing the holds, we add more. So it's got gritty, pure, ‘real’ rock, but also modern technology. Also we've gone for steep overhangs, quite low down, so you actually get a really intense climb, so it really caters to the hardcore climbers.”

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Ben knows his industry, and is aware of the potential hurdles, but there's no doubting his confidence in this venture.

“We can still have climbing holds here. It's harder to add them, but we're just going to evolve the structure and keep climbs that people love. Often in the climbing centre someone will find a climb and everyone loves it but then it goes.

It's not always great to repeat but sometimes it's fun, so the idea is that this will become almost as beloved as somewhere in the Peak District, where people will be like ‘there's that famous climb there’.”

After the scary thoughts of, "Am I on the right track, is this a good idea, are people going to hate it,” and the climbing forums saying people aren’t going to come, Ben says the response has been very positive. However, while keeping a keen eye on reviews, Ben tells me that amongst the five star ratings, he unearthed a four star critique. 

“We were gutted. Like, why? But they said some of the rock was too hard, which was well… a compliment! We made something that's not childish. Actually, the review helped us because people read that and go, oh it is serious."

Some climbers will only ever climb indoors and never go on real rock. The cheesy line is, it's a bridge to real rock

The realistic rock climbing experience also offers the opportunity to inspire a love of outdoor climbing. “It'll be a gateway to get them from going on the indoor wall, to going outside. Some climbers will only ever climb indoors and never go on real rock. The cheesy line is, it's a bridge to real rock."

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“We're going to offer courses in safe bouldering mat placement and hopefully then maybe even take people to the Peaks.”

All the knowledge and expensive equipment required, puts barriers in place and makes outdoor climbing feel intimidating. When it isn’t accessible for many people, then they miss out on the fun of playing outside and the value of overcoming fears, gaining confidence and creating lasting memories. 

“Because of our research in building the rocks, we bought every climbing book on the market. Little things like leaving those climbing books around to read and borrow to bridge that gap from inside to outside."

Ben wants Boatyard Boulders to inspire a love of learning and playing. He also spoke of interventions like free access to people ‘in crisis’, hoping to establish future partnerships with suicide and crisis charities.

What makes its difference is the location. It's such a cool spot

And if it's not the climbing that draws people in: “What makes its difference is the location. It's such a cool spot. There's no other water-level coffee spot. There's actually not many riverside locations and this one is a real sun trap. That's the difference. It might not work in other places but here, it's just designed for it.”

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Ben constantly springboards a list of ideas; an arched bouldering room with routes going all the way over, street food, student nights, a Halloween event, the overall theme being a community space for exciting things to happen.

“We've got to work twice as hard to make people really enjoy it and that has actually made a huge difference, because even if people have been like, ‘Oh I wasn't so keen on the real rock’ and it wasn't for them, they'd say well we'll still come and hang out down here, which is great."

Nodding back to the site's roots as an adventure provider, Boatyard Boulders has a number of exciting offerings for young people. There’s a dedicated area, with traverse walls by the river. “The kids love that bit and when they get good enough and get some experience, they can progress to the real rock wall.” Ben wants to have Scout groups use the space in the winter months, host family events and be a venue for kids parties.

There’s something wonderful about inspiring adventure in kids. Maybe it’s that they don’t learn well in classroom settings, maybe they love the playground but want something more extreme. For any age, climbing can be a form of play. And inspiring this, introducing them to the sport, to the outdoors and to team building at a young age, that could be where the value of Boatyard Boulders ultimately lies.

Nottingham is in need of more space for climbing. And maybe Boatyard Boulders doesn't fill this gap in a conventional way. Because it's not trying to. It offers something unique, a space for exploration and adventure in Notts. A site for the community, as it has been before. And with enthusiasm at its heart, it's exciting to see where it will go.

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