Tuesday, 31 October 2017

Challenge 9: ✔️ Achieved


I think this counts as an ongoing achieve.  I want to thank everyone who has already purchased a copy of my Caves & Tunnels of Dartmoor charity walk.  My mother and I attended the Autumn Meet on Sunday and we were overwhelmed by the generosity and kindness shown by Letterboxers.

In addition to the walk, I had some surplus and new Letterbox pots and clip-lock boxes which I offered - for a small charitable donation - at the Meet.  Obviously, I will continue to maintain the walk to the highest possible standards and I will post any news updates on this blog, as best I can.

I will also report back (probably in March) on how much the charity walk raises too.  I seem to recall this information being fairly normal, broadcast in the last Letterbox update before the Meets.  This is no longer the case - reasons unknown.  Thanks again to everyone for your support with this walk!

Saturday, 28 October 2017

Caves & Tunnels - A tour

Perfect for Halloween - Several spirits haunt Shaugh Tunnel, its said.
I figured that a bit of information about the selected Caves and Tunnels used as part of my Charity Walk wouldn't go amiss.  The lucky 13 chosen are just some of the far higher number on the Moor.  A few of those I picked are perhaps a little obscure, so here's the run-down.

No.1 - Potato Cave
Where?  For the image, I used the Potato cave close to Combeshead Farm, near Down Tor.  
What?  Many old Dartmoor Farms had potato caves - man made caves, dug into areas of soft, decaying granite, and used for the storage of potatoes or more... ahem... illicit produce.

No.2 - Grenofen Tunnel
Where? Grenofen, between Horrabridge and Tavistock.
What?  Designed and built by esteemed engineer, 'Greatest Briton' candidate and South West England fan, Isambard Kingdom Brunel in 1859.  Grenofen Tunnel is about 0.2 miles long, and formed part of Brunel's Devon and Tavistock Railway.  Renovated using EU cash in 2011, it is now is an important landmark on the Drake's Trail, a national cycle route.  The ceiling of the tunnel has metal baffles fitted for bats to roost between and reduce draughts!  Some areas are also left unlit, and lighting is motion activated to help minimise bat disturbance by cyclists.

No.3 - Pixies Cave
Where? Sheeps Tor
What? A human sized subterranean hole amongst giant boulders on Sheeps Tor's southern flank.  It can be tricky to find, and even trickier to get in, but contained within are candles, a visitors book, and a host of legends about Dartmoor piskies.

No.4 - Baker's Pit
Where? Beneath Holy Trinity Church, Buckfastleigh
What?  Bakers Pit cave system is the largest in Devon, with over 3.5km of caves and chambers to explore.  Discovered in 1847, then used extensively during both World wars, these stunning caves can only be entered by recognised caving groups and they're now accessed via gated, vertical shafts, set in the church grounds, since a landfill site filled in their original quarry entrance.

No.5 - Gobbett Mine Tunnel
Where? Hexworthy
What?  Gobbett Tunnel had two lives.  Firstly as an adit for the Gobbett Mine.  Then allowing for a pipe line to run from the Swincombe River to the Venford Reservoir.  On modern maps, the tunnel is referenced as a pipeline.  It is shut to the public, and locked closed.

No.6 - Phillpott's Cave
Where? On the bank of the Blacklane Brook aka Wollake
What? Natural shelter beneath enormous slab, with disputed human purpose.  More recent artificial additions including turf walls and candles.  Some additions were attributed to author Eden Phillpotts, hence the name.

No.7 - Higher Kiln Quarry Caves
Where? Buckfastleigh
What?  An astonishing jewel in Dartmoor's cave crown.  This limestone cave system is considered to be one of the oldest in the country, carved by water - the early River Dart - some 150,000 years ago.  Fossil remains of 16 different mammals from the last ice age (including lion, elephant and bear) have been discovered here, representing the greatest such find anywhere in the country.  During the Wintertime, the UK's - and possibly Europe's - biggest colony of Greater Horseshoe bats hibernate here.  There are permanent bat populations in the area, and the quarry is owned and managed by Devon Wildlife Trust.  It is closed to the public though, with highly restricted access.

No.8 - Shaugh Tunnel
Where? Between Shaugh Prior and Clearbrook
What? A single track railway tunnel on the old South Devon and Tavistock railway, a line which closed in 1962.  This curved tunnel was also the handiwork of Isambard Kingdom Brunel.  Now electrically lit and part of the Plym Valley Trail.  Tunnel also reputed to be haunted!

No.9 - Merlin's Grotto
Where? On the banks of the Cowsic river, just upriver from Two Bridges
What? A small rocky recess named in the 19th century by local landowner Reverend Edward Bray.  Reverend Bray had a deep passion for folklore, poetry and druids.  He named islands in the Cowsic, and inscribed poems on rocks in and around the river.  He imagined (hoped) that Merlin the magician would live in the grotto that he discovered and named for him.

No.10 - Nun's Cross leat tunnel
Where? Nuns Cross Farm near Whiteworks
What? Tunnel on the Devonport Leat, an epic watercourse built in the 1790's to provide water to Plymouth's dockyard.  The route from the West Dart below Crow Tor takes in an aqueduct, a waterfall, and this tunnel passing the water from the valleys of the Swincombe to the Meavy.  The well maintained leat now fills Burrator Reservoir, keeping the tunnel in operation.

No.11 - Grant's Pot
Where? Near the confluence of Wollake and River Erme
What?  A water & mud filled cave below ground level.  'Discovered' in the 1950s by hiker, pot holer, Letterboxer and scout group leader John Grant (hence the name).  He believed it was a mine adit, but this is disputed.  He decided to put a Letterbox in the hole, which may or may not survive today - depending on who you ask.  The full fascinating story of Grant's Pot can be found on Tim Sandles' excellent Legendary Dartmoor website.

No.12 - Yelverton Tunnel
Where? Yelverton, and directly beneath the roundabout in the village centre
What? A tunnel on the old South Devon and Tavistock line which has not been provided with the same treatment as Grenofen or Shaugh, as it is now surrounded by properties built over the old line.  Indeed you almost need to trespass to view this old, overgrown, neglected tunnel.

No.13 - Vixana's Lair
Where? Vixen Tor
What? A very large cave in the base of the main stack, on the side you can't see from the access land.  According to legend, Vixana the witch lives in the cave.  Unproven.

Monday, 9 October 2017

The Caves & Tunnels of Dartmoor

Just some of the stamps in the charity walk
'The Caves & Tunnels of Dartmoor' is the title of my latest Letterboxing project: a Charity Walk sited this month, and out on the Moor until the end of March 2018.

A 4-mile route in the spectacular Upper Lyd Valley
I have never sited a charity Letterbox walk, so the whole experience so far has been fascinating.  Let me explain.  I had a desire to do some good.  To raise some cash for a charity which does work on Dartmoor.  I had an idea for a set of interesting boxes.  I have a passion for the environment and conservation.  It seemed obvious to choose a wildlife charity, and Mid Devon Bat Rescue - based near North Tawton - stood out.  This charity is run by volunteers, helping lost, injured or orphaned bats.  It's large enough to care for a significant proportion of Dartmoor (a line from about Tavistock to Newton Abbot northwards in fact) yet small enough that funds raised by a charity walk will make a real, tangible difference.

The final box of the walk, also containing a visitor's book
My caves and tunnels themed stamps were suitably appropriate.  Kari, who runs the charity was on board with the idea, and so it has happened!

The boxes are sited in the Lyd Valley.  Chosen for various reasons not least because it is a stunning place to go Letterboxing in the off-season.  There are 14 boxes in the walk plus a complementary with the cluesheet.

If you would like a copy of the clues, they cost £2.50 of which all proceeds go to Mid Devon Bat Rescue.  The boxes are on the Moor now!  There's no nesting birds, no bracken, and no snow.  What are you waiting for?!  

For a copy of the clues, please post a cheque for £2.50 made payable to 'Kari Bettoney'  plus a stamped-addressed-envelope to whoisthechallenger.  Email me (see below) for my address.

Any problems or queries, please email me: whoisthechallenger@rocketmail.com

Wednesday, 27 September 2017

Challenge 8: ✔️ Achieved


Wow.  Where do I start with this one?  I really wanted to do this challenge.  It might even have been the first one I came up with.  It has taken a great deal of thought and planning as I had many things to consider:

Personal circumstances.  I have a busy job, with a busy home life, and I'd need to have 2 consecutive days to spare, considering my family's needs too.  When I put the idea to my wife she joked that I'd probably have the best night's sleep in months.

Plans.  It needed to work with the other pre-planned events and challenges, which kinda set a schedule.

External factors.  I needed decent weather and good health on my side.

Once these were dealt with, I needed to decide where to go and where to camp.  For a long time I'd planned to plonk my tent on the summit of Belstone Tor, and spend 2 solid days scouring the slopes finding as much as possible.  I concluded that this was a bit dull.  I considered the Perambulation walk, as I've never done it.  But thats 50 miles of walking, and I'm not sure I'd have time (or energy) to Letterbox!  As Autumn clumsily stumbled in, my plan changed to a trans-moor walk, camping at the Plume of Feathers in Princetown, and the cosy amenities this provided.  However, the transport issues proved tricky.  So I settled on a long distance circular route encompassing unvisited corners, typically overlooked on my day-walks.  This inevitably meant the seemingly inaccessible West side of the River Erme.

I have a hotch-potch of camping gear gathered over time, neatly stored away ready for Armageddon to strike.  With the simple addition of food and fuel, I was packed in no time.  The camping element of this challenge, it seemed, was far easier to prepare for than the Letterboxing element.  I had a route in mind, with an endless list of generally older Letterboxes to search for.  Since the New Waste car park's closure, the Erme valley lacks visitors.  I was prepared for boxes grown in, deteriorated, missing perhaps.  I was not expecting chance finds.  I was expecting pathless terrain through long grass, and a headwind.  To be honest, I saw this as a wild camp in every respect, and a Letterbox expedition unlike any other.

I wasn't disappointed either!

I last wild camped on Dartmoor 18 years ago, in a bivvy-bag at Fur Tor.  Five years before that, I had a 3 night adventure with schoolfriends as we cycled (mainly pushed) our way from OP15 to Ivybridge across the Moor.  I distinctly remember camping out at Teignhead Clapper, Deep Swincombe and Phillpott's Cave.  I may be out of practice, but I knew what to expect.

Carrying Junior Challenger last month was a useful exercise in handling a heavy, unwieldy backpack.  I saw a window of good weather in the same week that Storm Aileen hit the UK.  Aware that it would be sodden underfoot, and the Erme would be running high, I packed accordingly (extra, extra socks).  I wanted to test a potential new - albeit no quicker -  route up to Stalldown.  Parking opposite Harford Church, it involved crossing the road bridge over the river, and using access land to pass Tristis Rock and trekking due North towards Hillson's House.  I was ready.

Day 1.
Starting at lunchtime meant I could avoid packing even more food, and start walking on a full stomach.  The wind was gusty, the clouds were often dark, but the sun was out, and I was confident I'd get to the head of a stream to strike camp.  I'd hoped it to be Red Lake, but saw it more likely to be Hortonsford Brook.  Head of a stream for two reasons: a nearby source of fresh water, and a nearby hilltop for mobile signal to call home with news of my success.

I found the first Letterbox with minimal drama.  I was the first visitor in 3 years though, which confirmed everything I suspected about how this walk would pan out.  I failed to find another Letterbox until dusk, when shadows were lengthening, and my mind was more on cooking dinner than compass bearings.  I'd taken a direct route off Stalldown Barrow to Downings House Brook.  

The strength of the wind had persuaded me to take a route up the riverbank rather than across Stall Moor to the Bledge Brook.  This mazy, miry, moorland watercourse would be followed from foot to source, before crossing over the divide to the neighbouring Hortonsford Bottom.  Here, I settled on a site for the tent - not far from the rain gauge.  I'd use it as base camp for the few Boxes I had to find around Langcombe Head and surrounds.

Pitched and unpacked, I got the stove going for a cup of tea.  From the doorway of my tent, I looked East spying Ryders Hill and Huntingdon Warren on the horizon beyond Redlake Tip.  Main course at dinner was a Wayfarer meal.  If you are unfamiliar with these ration kits - imagine NASA space food.  The packet says "Can be eaten hot or cold".  I chose hot for my vegetable curry and rice.  Remove price label, place in boiling water for 4-7 minutes.  Cool for 1 minute.  Eat.  It's wholesome, unfussy, glamour-free nutrition.  Its also quite a small portion, so buy two, is my advice.

Sat in the tent at dusk, watching a rainbow move into the view and contemplating the rain laden clouds on their way, I considered the fact that I hadn't seen anyone on the Moor all day, except for a cyclist in Harford.  I enjoyed the solitude at this remote spot.

I fell asleep just after sunset, to the sound of rain on the tent flysheet.  I did indeed have the best nights sleep in months.  At 6am, as it started to get light, I emerged warm and dry from my sleeping bag, aware that the Moor outside was far from warm and dry.  It was crystal clear though, with not a cloud in the sky.

Day 2
Breakfast was fruit and tea, which I had the pleasure of taking with me Letterboxing down the valley.  Giving the tent as much time as possible to dry off before packing it away.  Finally, I could wait no more, so I packed up and headed for the river.  After a week of rain or showers, I had to walk up to Blacklane Brook Foot to find somewhere suitable to cross.  This far upstream was not on my clue sheet, so I swiftly walked down the true left bank to Red Lake Foot, and commenced Letterboxing in earnest.  Day 2's clue list was far longer than Day 1's.  I took a direct path from the confluence towards Erme Pound, then on to Hook Lake.

Again, I was all to aware of the unvisited nature of this valley by how dense the undergrowth is here.  It was difficult to locate even a horse track through the thick grass to follow.  After Hook Lake, I made the quick ascent of the hill to the (misnamed) Redlake Tramway.  It was definitely only steam trains which shuttled up and down this route once upon a time.

My 5 hours of glorious weather ended at this point.  Clouds had been building from the North for some time, but a sudden hailstorm chased me down the track to Leftlake.  I sheltered from the pelting under the bridge.  It was a lengthy storm, and confirmed my thoughts that the Letterboxing was all but over, and lunch at the car was calling.

The sun did make another appearance behind the shower.  By this point, I was on the slopes of Three Barrows - a hill I haven't visited since 2011.  The view from the summit bringing the summits of the South East moor closer to the expedition: Eastern White Barrow and Pupers.  I was able to find a couple of boxes up here, but I was on my way before long towards Piles Hill, and it was here that I met the only person I'd seen since the previous morning.  This walker was later joined by a couple of cyclists, then a couple more walkers all following the Redlake Railway into the Moor.  My tent was safely under the rucksack cover, so no comments were made about my 'camp in the rain'.

At Spurrell's Cross, I considered my next move - off the moor at Harford Moor Gate or a last box at Tor Rocks.  Then, out of nowhere, a roll of thunder from around the Yealm Head area.  With that, I ran.  The rain followed shortly after.  Heavy constant rain, but my concern was for the thunderstorm, so I'd ran for the trees around the Butter Brook Reservoir.  Some shelter, and being the lowest point in the area, some protection if lightning came my way.  It didn't, so I took my chance to leave the Moor quietly with no further boxes found.

Overall, I am delighted with the way the expedition went.  I'm chuffed with my efforts, since I must have walked about 20 miles in all, in places I don't often see, and it was a rare camping trip for me.  I found 9 boxes, which I only consider to be a negative for the valley, and it's neglected status within the hobby.  I am actually pleased that I found that many, taking into account the terrain and inclement conditions!

It was a unique, solo adventure, which I might never have the chance to repeat, though I hope one day I will.

Sunday, 3 September 2017

Rumbling on

Yennadon Quarry from Yennadon Down
The longest running saga in Dartmoor planning rumbles on.  No - I'm not talking about the eviction battle at Steward Community Woodland.  I'm talking about Yennadon Quarry, on the outskirts of Dousland near Burrator, and their intentions to expand.

If you've seen this quarry in the past decade, you'll appreciate how the boundary pushes hard against the surrounding fence, providing livestock, dog-walkers and Letterboxers alike airy cliff-edge views deep into the workings from Yennadon Down.  As early as June 2008, the quarry operators have been investigating - through official channels - the potential for expansion.  Their intention is to expand North, increasing the size of the quarry by roughly a third.  Opposition to the plan cite concerns regarding, amongst other things, the increased noise levels, traffic, dust, plus the impacts on local ecology, common land, and water run off.   Up until now, committee rejections, conditions applied, repeated delays and red tape have have frustrated the quarry owner's efforts.  Local residents and Dartmoor organisations have been polarised on the issue.  The Dartmoor Preservation Association object to the plan, whilst the Dartmoor Society broadly support it.  Proponents point at increased local employment, and the sustainable extraction of a useful, desirable and ancient resource: Dartmoor granite.
Peek Hill from Yennadon Down

The expansion plan was initially refused by the National Park Authority in 2014.  Amended, with conditions applied, it was resubmitted in 2015.  Planning Officers recommended that it be refused again, due to the "unacceptable impacts on Dartmoor's special qualities" including landscape and tranquility.  However, the Authority never got to formally consider the new application since the late arrival of some documents delayed the decision in December 2015, then again in February 2016, and it then failed to reappear at May's meeting as all had hoped.

18 more months have come and gone.  So much time has now passed, local development criteria has changed, quarry precedents elsewhere have been set, and earlier conditions have been revisited by different planning staff.  So, the Planning Officer's recommendation has been changed from 'Reject' to 'Approve'.  The refreshed application finally made it back to the DNPA Development Committee's meeting in July this year, only for the complex legalities of the planning process to thwart progress yet again.  This time, written advice from a QC had been received late in the day before the meeting, and Planning Officers had not had time to reflect on this.  The earliest opportunity for the plans to be reconsidered is now October.  Frustration for the quarry operators and local residents.  More 'ball kicking' from the authorities and legal teams.  It rumbles on.