Saturday, 10 June 2017

The other half of the day

Beyond Middle Tor, and the restoration of the box there, I had an entire walk to do.  My ultimate goal was Watern Tor, for I really do love that place.  The solitude, the geology, the views, are quite special.  Along the way, there would be two crossings of the unique Manga Rails, a visit to the obscure ruin of Will May's House and a fly-by of the iconic Kes Tor.

On a hot, still day like this, I'd expect crowds but beyond Shovel Down's antiquities, I was almost alone in the hills.  Among the gorse above the North Teign River, not to far from the Rails, a green tent was pitched - entirely legitimately.  The drum-taut guy lines indicated to me that it was not abandoned.  It was an eerie outpost of civilisation, and one that made me consider how long a tent would (could) remain pitched and unsearched out here.  I, for one, would feel deeply uncomfortable unzipping a tent door just out of curiosity.

Will May was an 18th century peat cutter from Chagford.  His tiny "house" was actually only a shelter, but a very well preserved one at that, on the slopes overlooking the the Mire to the East of Watern Tor.  A number of boxes are sited for this ruin, although none are located too close to it.

Watern Combe featured on my walk, and this small valley was a suntrap today.  Often overlooked by Letterboxers, this was a successful diversion for me.  One box in this combe was last found two years previously, and averaged less than 1 visit per year over the last decade.  Far from the madding crowds indeed!

I paused and considered my return route from the Thirlestone outcrop on Watern.  By following the back to Frenchbeer, I was sure of a worn path, but a more hilly, more zig-zag route.

By contouring around hills, and flanking Kes Tor, I'd be on a smoother, potentially faster path.  So it was this route I chose.  It still took 90 minutes to return to the car though.

11 Letterboxes found.

Saturday, 27 May 2017

Challenge 4: ✔️ Achieved


Finally, an opportunity to add a clue to the Dartmoor Letterbox catalogue, and take a burden off my my mind brought about by a vow I made in 2014.
"...It was at Middle Tor that I carried out my good deed of the day.  Middle Tor Letterbox celebrates its 30th birthday this year and was registered in the catalogue as box number 1259.  Not one of the originals, but an early one nevertheless.  The box was in it's cave on the East side of the tor - box broken, and full of water, stamp in pieces, book turned to pulp.  I dried it out the best I could, confirmed it's identity and brought it home.  I intend to renovate it and re-establish it later this year..."
- whoisthechallenger blog; "Good Friday", 18th April 2014 

At number 1259, no, it isn't one of the originals, but at now 33-years-old, it is an old-timer that deserves to be back on the Moor, and not in a cupboard in my house.  I had a new stamp made, which harked back to the original design.  I provided it with a new clip-lock box, and (whisper it) a new ammunition can, complete with 'Dartmoor Letterbox' painted on it - to avoid confusion or concern.

An inkpad, pen and nice hard-backed visitors book rounded off the replacement unit.  

A trip to Middle Tor was next on my agenda, on a hot and still May day.  A short walk back to the cave under the boulder on Middle Tor's flank.  Imagine my surprise to find another Letterbox had appeared to have moved in, albeit on the rock shelf above.

Middle Tor is often overlooked, and perhaps this is how the original box survived for 30 years in a relatively obvious site.  Finally, and only succumbing, to the ravages of the elements and time.  I'm sure I'll become a regular visitor to this Eastern peak, in my role as custodian of this box.  If you have a copy of a pre-2010 Letterbox Catalogue, you'll know the clue to find it.  If you purchase next year's, with any luck, it'll be back, in all it's glory.

Sunday, 7 May 2017

Speaking of books...

Since we're on the subject of books, perhaps this would be a good time for a book review.

It seems a long time I read and reviewed John Kemp's "The Secret Letterbox": A book giving Dartmoor Letterboxing a leading role. When I learnt of novel in which a Cornish guy named Barber goes Dartmoor Letterboxing, I thought my autobiography was out, and I rushed to get a copy!

So, I've just read Mystery At Potter's Lodge: The 23rd Murray Barber PI Case. this intriguing read from St Austell writer Julie Burns-Sweeney, is set in Devon and Cornwall, following the exploits of a private investigator with the unusual ability to communicate with the dead!

The lead character is faced with a murky and mysterious mix of retribution and murder. When it's not quite clear who is guilty, and who's the victim.

I really enjoyed this read. The writer has captured the spirit of the Moor perfectly, has plot twists, humour, original storyline plus a thread of Letterboxing weaved throughout. Highly recommend. Out as an Ebook or paperback available here.

Sunday, 30 April 2017

Challenge 3: ✔️ Achieved


This month, I have been rekindling an old relationship with 'the book' - the Catalogue of Dartmoor Letterboxes.  In fact I have only been looking for the registered letterboxes found within it's pages.  Yes - I did a charity walk, which is also registered, but I was keen to avoid all the Word of Mouth boxes, that would usually form my routes.

Why?  Well, I believe this is a great way to take the temperature of our hobby.  Newbies will spend their money on this book, and use it to further their experience of Letterboxing.  They need not have already found 100 boxes to purchase a copy - that rule no longer applies - so this book could be their ticket to join the 100 club, and spark future generation's interest in the pastime.

So where did the book take me this month?  

I went on two trips.  Two vastly different areas.  One to deep Northern moor, remote, wild and rugged.  Vergyland Combe, Brim Brook and Dinger Tor, to be precise, via East Mill.  The other area more tame and familiar: Chinkwell and Honeybag Tors.  So it was up North first, and a dozen-or-so boxes on my list, besides the MacMillan Cancer Support charity walk.  The weather was great - warm, dry, calm and sunny.  The car park at Row Tor wasn't overfull, and a dry few months meant that the going underfoot was reasonable.  Everything was in my favour.  I had almost total success with the charity walk, missing just one, but my success rate with my other clues wasn't so high.  I located 5 catalogue boxes between West Mill and East Mill, but nothing further South of here.  As enjoyable a-walk it was South of the Ring Road, it was a fruitless Letterbox walk.

Of the boxes that I failed to find up North, I cannot be truly certain that any are missing.  I failed to find any ex-site, or any hint that I was searching where others had previously.  The whole experience could be summarised by "Follow that dog", registered box number 36994.  Sited in 2005, this box has distant bearings, none of which now seem to coincide.  As I have previously said, 12 years will see a lot of natural bearing changes.  There are no close up bearings, no indication of what the box is hidden under.  It is my belief, that the only hope this box has, is to be found by chance.

My second catalogue-based-walk around the stunning ridge high above Widecombe was made up of 12 boxes - some long established, others comparatively new.  I found 3 of them.  I had 5 chance finds, which is to be expected anywhere near Bonehill Rocks.  One of the 3 I did find, was registered box number 94.  An original.  Sited by Godfrey Swinscow, and now adopted by the Plymouth Get Together.

Perhaps though, this route's success could be summarised by box "Cook Family on Honeybag", registered number 49204, so less than a year old.  This box has no bearings, and a vague clue.  I paced 150 large paces from the wall up the hill, but was faced with countless rowan trees along the ridge.  Suffice to say, I did not find this box.  Perhaps the Cook family were inspired by Godfrey's 'original' clue, which is equally vague, but sadly far more obvious.

I respect the catalogue's values.  I support the removal of 10 figure GPS from Letterbox clues - anything that helps to defeat the thief is good, plus I don't tend to use or rely on a GPS.  Having a published code of conduct is vital, and 'other' boxes (travellers, boxes in other places) being provided a clear home is useful.

Perhaps the 5-year re-registration system of the 2000s was a wiser idea than we give it credit for.  The concept of having to re-register a Letterbox after 5 years encourages ownership and responsible Letterboxing.  I believe an original intention was to cap the number of 'live' boxes in the catalogue.  A Letterbox requiring checking, clue updating, and regular attention is sure to receive more visits, and benefit the hobby as a whole.  When the system ceased in 2012, the system again became 'self-governing', with deletions and new boxes balancing each other.  It does however, leave us with a book of increasingly elderly boxes, which as my walk around Dinger Tor proved, has it's faults.

I want to conclude my challenge using the wise words of the foreword to the Letterbox Catalogue of Autumn 1986: 

"The reputation for accuracy which the Catalogue has justly earned depends, in the first instance, on the accuracy of the information recorded"

This was part of a wider plea to support Godfrey Swinscow physically visit and personally check every clue and Letterbox before it's registration and publication in the catalogue.  An arduous and exhausting job!

The catalogue was founded on professionalism, accuracy and reliability of the content.  Anything that can be done to return to days when this is the norm, must be encouraged at all costs.

Friday, 21 April 2017

Past, present & future: The book.

Lets face it: the overwhelming majority of the Letterboxes I find are word-of-mouth boxes.  These are clues that I have received from fellow Letterboxers, and generally via email.  I purchase a copy of the Catalogue of Dartmoor Letterboxes (the 'book), but its not the most thumbed document in the house.

Some stats which maybe summarise my relationship over time with the Catalogue...

Of the first 1000 boxes we located, less than 90 were not registered with the 100 Club.

Yet, up to last week, of the most recent 1000 boxes I have found, only 60 had been registered, and 40 of those were Charity Walk boxes.

So what has changed?
- As a Letterboxer, I (we) developed.  Siting boxes, exchanging clues, engaging with the establishment Letterboxers and forming a network of trusted contacts - a 'clique'.  I wouldn't say I'm snobbish about my clue-sourcing habits: I've just become more selective.
- Dartmoor Letterboxing has undergone massive changes: Social (aging participants, austerity, pressures on free time), and technological (GPS, email, Geocaching), plus changes caused by internal factors (the book's '5 year rule') as well as external factors (the thief, access point closures).  

Everybody needs to start somewhere.  So we begin, (began) 26 years ago on this day, on April 21st 1991, with no book at all, but a charity walk: 'British Mammals', sited on Barn Hill and Pew Tor.  We found some of the set, after all, our compass skills weren't great (our compass wasn't great either).  Within a month, we'd hit our 100 boxes, joined the 100 club, and purchased our copy of the catalogue.  I remember a real sense of pride that came with receiving my 100 club card - being 11 years old and all!

Looking back, catalogues from this time look weathered and worn.  Beside joining us for every walk, they were highlighted and scribbled in.  Clues were colour coded:

Green = box found.  
Yellow = Box reported missing.  
Blue = Box in need of attention.  
Pink = Box deleted.  
The annual process of updating each catalogue with the highlighter was a time consuming 2-person operation.

This book was our bible.  The clues within conjured up thoughts of exciting days into distant mid-Moor spots.  With the exception of the bi-annual injection of charity walks, this was our sole source of clues.  The book was bulging with new clues.  Success rates of finding boxes was high, and we were very, very happy.

Fast forward to today.  The number of clues in the catalogue has decreased again from its 90's peak.  I treat my catalogue as you would treat a faded rock idol.  You fondly remember all the hits and best work.  You somehow ignore or blank out all the pain, disappointment and frustration it caused.  Which perhaps, eventually, led to it's demise.  When the failure rate exceeded the success rate.  When the excitement and happiness was tied to the new cluesheet emailed to us personally from a Letterboxer we knew.  When the challenge of solving a cryptic clue and beating fellow Letterboxers to be first-in-book replaced the challenge of highlighting every clue in the book green.

This feeling clearly wasn't unique to us.  Catalogue clues have aged badly.  Flick through the pages and see part-series and 'lost boxes', with clues so obscure, they could never be confirmed off-site if unfound.  One of our own fits this category.  Sited in 1993, Super Snack Sites No.10 is registered in the book.  I never registered it, it just appeared in an update and found its way into the book.  I've never been able to re-find it, and deleted it.  Only to see it, re-established, with it's original 1993 bearings back in the book.  I own it, I still Letterbox, and I can't delete it.  There must be many 'lost boxes' unmaintained by absent owners, languishing in the book.

Bearings.  There's an issue.  The world has turned over the years.  It keeps turning.  True North and Grid North have converged and have started to disconnect in opposite directions.  Not a speedy process, but a box sited 24 years ago, will see bearings be at least 6 degrees wrong by now, if they were correct to begin with.  What I'm saying is, the clues in the book lack the credibility that they once did.

Consider the future.  Imagine if you will 26 years from now.  April 21st 2043.  I'll be in my early 60s. What will the future hold for the catalogue.  You can read my fortune telling piece in a blog post from February 2011 on the future of the hobby, so I won't repeat myself, but accountability and accuracy will be key to the survival of the book.  I hope that it does survive, and offer countless Letterboxers - both new and old - the same excitement and happiness it once offered us.

Wednesday, 29 March 2017

Challenge 2: ✔️ Achieved


Godfrey Swinscow's is 98 today.  A hugely impressive age for a gentleman and a legend, Godfrey is surely the Godfather of modern Letterboxing.  I visited him earlier this afternoon in his care home near Dartmouth to wish him a Happy Birthday.  I took with me a birthday card stamped by over 100 Letterboxers who attended Sunday's Meet at Lee Moor (massive thanks to you all!).  

Back in the early 1980s, the National Park authority considered the eradication of this cheeky and unmannerly, if rather infant hobby.  Godfrey was on hand to save Letterboxing, with the creation of the 100 club, and introduction of a code of conduct for siting boxes, and a system of Letterbox registration.  The Park Authority were appeased, and Letterboxing is seen today as an attractive feature of Dartmoor by the DNPA, who call it "a great way to introduce children and young people to the joys of exploring Dartmoor and improve navigational skills".

Godfrey officially retired from Letterboxing 10 years ago.  His enduring legacy within the Letterboxing activity and community were discussed at length at our table at the Meet. Several people noted the energy he demonstrated.  How he welcomed them as newcomers to Letterboxing.  He strongly encouraged the involvement of young people in the hobby.  Some mentioned his Letterbox collection.  It is widely believed that Godfrey owned a copy of every Letterbox sited until his retirement.  A vast accumulation of stamps that the lucky few were invited to appreciate at his home.  Many recalled how generous he was to them with time or knowledge.  Almost everyone had a story to tell about Godfrey.  How they first met, or how their friendship lasted.  

Our family first met Godfrey some months before Letterboxing featured in our lives.  His wife Anne - who wrote published books about Letterboxing - welcomed my Mother, Jill and a friend to stay during a charity horse ride in November 1990.  As well as writing, Anne was heavily involved in the Riding for the Disabled Association.  This single overnight stay led to a connection - a link - around cats.  Anne and Godfrey also bred pedigree persian cats, and our family bought two.  My Mother made the birthday card, and joined me at the Meet on Sunday. As Letterboxers, we met Godfrey on countless times at the Wednesday gatherings in Bovey Tracey, and at the bi-annual Meets.  His perseverence and determination was incredible.  I took several late night phone calls from him regarding my Letterbox's tough cryptic clues. No other Letterboxer was as persistent.  Godfrey was tenacious and clever, a real legend of the hobby, and one I was delighted to meet again.

Godfrey was very cheerful today, but alas, his mobility limited by a wheelchair and afflicted with dementia, he did not recall me, or Dartmoor, or Letterboxing.  He was very intrigued by the card, which I explained was filled with the personal stamps as well as love and best wishes of his friends.  I'm not sure he will remember me now, but the card had a message that remains.
"Dear Godfrey.  Wishing you the warmest and happiest of birthdays.  We would like to take this moment as an opportunity to acknowledge all of your hard work and to tell you that we all appreciate your huge contribution to the Letterboxing community.  Congratulations on celebrating your 98th birthday!  With much love, your Letterboxing family"
He was keen to shake my hand and make me feel welcome.  He was truly grateful for the card and the visit.  I left him saying that I look forward to seeing him again.  Anne had left the home just prior to my visit, so perhaps when I return I will see them both.

Wednesday, 1 March 2017

Challenging the challenger

So this year of Letterboxing challenges: what's in store?  Besides the completed first challenge of removing Upland Trotter 'Litterboxes'?

Well, I am certain about a few, cautious about some more, and have no idea on a couple.  I'd love to share some of the challenges I do have planned though.  These include using Letterboxing to raise money for a local charity, completing a two day Letterbox expedition, restoring of of the 'original' Dartmoor Letterboxes, and plans afoot for siting a couple of my own Letterbox series.

I see a rebirth for the Dartmoor Letterbox catalogue in my house, some recognition of a few Letterbox pioneers too, plus an introduction to Letterboxing to a brand new (if rather young) Dartmoor Letterboxer!

I'm really looking forward to this year.  It should be a good one!

Tuesday, 28 February 2017

Challenge 1: ✔️ Achieved

Have I mentioned these yet?

No, I don't think I have... 

During the next year, in my solemn, executive capacity as whoisthechallenger, I am aiming to complete certain monthly Letterboxing challenges.

These challenges are kinda personal to me.  I've considered challenges which will make me try something new, pushing the boundaries of conventional Dartmoor Letterboxing, or simply to provide a motivation to get out on the Moors each month.  I hope you'll join me on my journey.  Starting with this February.  Which despite the day of this post, had nothing to do with pancakes...


Within the past 12 months, and in-spite of the belief that I'd previously cleared Dartmoor of them, I've have had 2 sketchy reports of very old our own 'Upland Trotter' Letterboxes still on site.  Stories of one came via the Dartmoor Letterboxing-dot-org forum, located on Over Tor, near Merrivale.  We sited 'Its Called What...?! No.1 - Mrs Bray's Hand Wash Basin' in 1994, as part of a Word-of-mouth series of 4 stamps.  Armed with a newly provided 8 figure grid reference and a very old clue, I set out in snow in early February.  To my surprise, it was still on site, dry and stamp-able.  The book had long gone of course.  The day turned into a cold and increasingly snowy affair around Great Mis Tor, Mistor Marsh and Clay Tor.  I had a few new boxes to find, and a long overdue Christmas Letterbox walk to complete.  The dusting of white stuff did hinder progress somewhat...  

The second - and as far as I am aware - the only other original Upland Trotter box on Dartmoor was sited in 1993.  'Haunts of Dartmoor No.11 - Nine Maidens' was the final one of this set.  We had tried and failed to retrieve it before.  This one had been located by another Letterboxer, and I went to investigate.  With newly updated 10 figure grid reference in hand, I headed to Belstone.  I took the chance to do a short walk around Halstock Hill and Scarey Tor in warm sunshine, in stark contrast to the Wintry mix a few short weeks previously.  The walk culminated in the lofty site of our old Letterbox.

Curiously, in it's place I found someone else's Letterbox, but despite some intense and lengthy searching, sadly I could not find our 'Haunts', and must surmise from this that it has been removed already.  I'd really hoped to have evidence of this box to formally conclude it's 24 years.  It was not to be.  And so I must officially claim again, that Dartmoor is clear of Upland Trotter Letterboxes.

For now, at least!

Sunday, 19 February 2017

Before the year was out - Part 2

My final Letterbox walk of 2016 was on the East side of Dartmoor.  A short stroll on what proved to be a crowded day around Holwell and Haytor Quarries.  I was eager to explore a quieter side to this popular spot, which I will come on to shortly.

I parked below Saddle Tor, and made straight for Holwell Tor.  I was searching for two new Letterbox sets sited in the area, and a host of other Boxes too.  As were several other notable Letterboxers.  The first dry weekday since the clues were released had triggered many walkers to don their boots and grab their compasses.  At times during the day, a procession from one one box to the next commenced.  It was great to meet the Brixton Pixies, the Saltash Stamper, and others.  Alas, though, I decided to cut the walks off early, missing the few boxes around Smallacombe Rocks to the West, and head instead for Haytor granite quarries.  This astonishing site of antiquities retains a level of beauty, charm and industrial wonder unmatched - in my opinion - by anywhere else on Dartmoor.  

These quarries were worked extensively between the 1820s and 1860s, providing building materials for amongst other things, Exeter's war memorial, and the original London Bridge - which now resides in Lake Havasu City, in Arizona.

After exploring the quarry, and completing my circular route, I ducked down into the Becka brook valley to visit Emsworthy.  This area belongs to Devon Wildlife Trust.  This nature reserve encompasses the mire - which is a wildlife haven - and a mid 19th century farmhouse, long abandoned, whose fields come alive in June with bluebells.  On a cold November day such as this, the bare trees and the grey walls didn't provide such a riot of colour, yet it was no less impressive.  Alone in the silent and still atmosphere, I wandered in and around the barn.  It is left to the imagination to consider this place in it's 1850s heyday.  I felt totally absorbed in the scene as I had been earlier at the quarry.  No Letterboxes to be found down here, of course.  Check out the nature reserve for yourself: I highly recommend it.

A truly thought provoking and moving day.  Which also finished with a total of 19 stamps collected.

Saturday, 14 January 2017

Before the year was out - Part 1

2016 couldn't and didn't end without further Letterboxing walks. Alas, the time to blog about them at the time eluded me!

Firstly, I made the long overdue return trip to Bodmin Moor.  The 'Southerly' peaks of Trewortha Tor and Hawks Tor proved a stunning destination.  I turned it into a round trip including Kilmar Tor and Sharp Tor - which I visited on my last trip here in 2015.  Since the weather was grey and visibility poor, today at least I was grateful to be walking on Bodmin's lower slopes than up in Dartmoor mizzle.

If I learnt one thing on this day, it is that access to Hawks Tor is limited.  There are few official ways in to this conservation area/public access land.  I found one way in, though I had every intention of finding another one out.  This restricted access ensured that Hawks Tor was overgrown - even by Bodmin Moor standards. Deep, lush foliage twinned with tall gorse made the going rough and tough as I approached the crumbling, unvisited granite stacks atop the airy ridge.  Passing the overgrown quarries and walls sparked my imagination.  I half expected the legendary local Beast to leap from it's lair as I beat my path to the Letterbox (only one here).

I negotiated through the vegetation, and soon found myself on the way to the neighbouring Trewortha Tor.  The direct route however was blocked by a series of barbed wire fences, coiled razor wire and high wall.  This was not intended to deter errant sheep and deer.  This was here to trap, cut and decapitate walkers like me.  With no obvious way around, I had to accept that the only way out of Hawks Tor was also the only way in.

Trewortha Tor was unlike anything I'd yet encountered.  Never before have I seen so many logan stones, gravity defying rock piles, and surreal landscapes on one tor.  I was happy to spend a few hours exploring the Tor, and found several Letterboxes in the process.  Visitors book entries indicated that this part of Bodmin Moor is rarely Letterboxed.  On a dry, wind-less Saturday, I saw one other individual all day, and that was on Kilmar Tor, which was where I headed next.  This immense ridge filled my view, and made for an interesting climb to the summit trig.  

The sun started to break through, so the remainder of my walk was a bit warmer.  Although I had no further new Letterboxes to find.  

A fascinating day overall. An unknown distance walked, and 9 Letterboxes found.