Monday, 15 October 2018

A welcome return

Junior Challenger made a welcome return to Letterboxing last week with a short stroll on Bodmin Moor. I was aware of two Cornish Letterboxes on Berry Down - a 282 metre hill just North of St Neot. With hopes as high as the lofty destination, we set off through tight bridleways and dense gorse in search of these hidden Boxes. I was aware that they were last found some three years ago, but was bouyed by their easy-sounding clues, updated grid references and the sunny weather - always a gauge of success!

Junior has grown up a lot since his first Letterboxing experience at Kings Tor a year ago. However he does struggle in uneven terrain, and, as it transpired, Berry Down is really quite uneven. In fact it resembled a giant bramble patch strewn with ankle braking holes and deep grass patches, devoid of paths. This kind of undergrowth makes Letterboxing tough for anyone - let alone the under 2's. Perhaps understandably we failed to find one of the Boxes. The other, however was a total hit. Its discovery, on site and in good condition, was greeted by manic applause and cheers from Junior.  A reaction quite dissimilar to that that we've encouraged when doing litter picks together. This is reassuring, since his memories of finds at Kings Tor must be, at best, fleeting.

We disassembled the Letterbox "Wenmouth Cross" and studied the contents together. Junior got inked up before inking up the stamp, imprints were taken.  The Visitors Book (unmarked in 3 years as expected) was duly marked.  Junior helped pack it all back in the pot, and I suitably rehid it. The Letterboxing education has moved on considerably. We've now covered the long arduous walk, disappointment, perseverance, success, stamping, hiding and the triumphant return to the car.

Junior looks forward to the next Letterboxing adventure, as does Daddy.

Friday, 7 September 2018

Laid to rest

Today, on a sparkling, sunny day in Devon, a beautiful and dignified funeral service took place. Well over 100 people saw Godfrey and Anne's seagrass caskets arrive in style, one in a horse-drawn hearse. The order of service included a deeply personal and moving choice of readings and hymns. One of the smartest and most inspiring eulogies you'll ever hear was read by the vicar. Oh, and the late Ken Dodd sang Happiness as the caskets were carried from the church. What a charismatic, heroic, devoted, talented couple Godfrey and Anne Swinscow were. 

They will be sorely missed.

Friday, 31 August 2018

Not the walk I'd intended...

...but the walk that I needed. Yes.

I was relieved to be back on Dartmoor turf. Climbing over High Down towards Brat Tor.  I have been here too often of late and there are numerous other places I need to go, but I had hopes of visiting the Rattlebrook, Dunnagoats and Green Tor this time around.  The weather forecast was in my favour, and I was hopeful the early mist would clear and a good day's Boxing would be had.

Not far from the car, I remembered that I hadn't checked my emails for any late arrivals of clues in this area. I logged on from my smartphone and was stunned by some terrible news.

Early in August the Letterboxing world was rocked by the death of Godfrey Swinscow. Aged 99, Godfrey had had a good life. He would, of course - to quote a forum contributor - be disappointed not to have made it to the 100 Club.  The sad news that stood out from my email on this particular morning was the death of Godfrey's wife Anne - author of the books I blogged about in May this year. Just 2 weeks since Godfrey's passing, this was so tragic.

I was in a daze. I'd come out here -as per usual - to clear my head, but was now feeling confused and upset. I just kept on walking.  Here I was, ascending the col between Brat and Arms Tor, when the rain came. 

Thoughts of clues and original walk plans had gone.  What was I to do. My head was more than full now. I had to go to Cranmere Pool! It seemed the obvious thing to do! In memoriam? Out of respect? To seek some solace? To report this latest sad news? I don't really know why. It certainly wasn't Letterboxing weather, and this certainly isn't the best route to Cranmere. Perhaps for my own mind, I simply needed to return to the original Dartmoor Letterbox.

I knew the way, but adjusted my map anyway. Over Rattlebrook Hill and Chat Tor, skirting Amicombe Hill before the climb up to the Okehampton Range plateau - Great Knesset and the slog over Black Ridge. Then on to the head of the West Okement and 'The Pool'.

Driving rain and low cloud soaked me to the skin. The deep wet grass, tussocks and water filled peat ponds atop Black Ridge did little to lighten my mood either. I found three boxes by chance. But I was focused on my target.

I reached Cranmere in time to witness a couple of walkers rushing away in the direction of OP15. They didn't see me approach as their hoods were up and they were attentively watching where they stepped.

Amazingly on this wet day I was the 6th visitor to write in the book.  I wrote in my route, the weather and a short tribute to Godfrey and Anne.

I didn't hang around. It was almost 3pm and I needed to get home.

As I packed up to leave, contemplating the damp stomp ahead, my luck changed and the rain subsided. By the time I reached Black Ridge, the mist had lifted, and as I approached Great Kneeset, the clouds disappeared and the views in all directions were inspiring.  The sunshine even made an appearance.

I continued on obvious paths over Amicombe Hill, over Green Tor to Bleak House. I took a moment to wander the ruined building: Trying and failing to imagine a lifetime spent in a remote and cold dwelling.  It took 40 minutes  from here to walk the last few kilometers to the car, from where I reflected on my day, and considered my achievement. Not thinking of a day's Letterboxing missed, but of friends remembered. Rest in peace God and Anne.

Tuesday, 31 July 2018

On the road - Part I

I've been hearing and reading plenty lately about the environmental impact of our roads.  Whether it be air pollution, biodiversity on our verges, or routes through protected landscapes, subject matter has been everywhere.  Now, to my shame, I drive lots, especially on my commute to and from Dartmoor.  Yet recent walks (and drives) have made got me thinking, in this case, about where I parked.  Forgive me if this goes a bit off topic...

A loop of the Staple Tors above the Walkham Valley was in order. I was searching for a birthday series sited for a highly regarded, well respected veteran of the hobby. It was a walk during the June/July heatwave (set to make a return in August!) The past few months have seen a glorious spell of hot, dry conditions on the Moor. 

Low river levels, drier marshy areas, parched grass Letterbox plugs. OK - so not everyone was happy with the weather, but it suited me. This was my first Letterbox walk in some time. I'd missed Ten Tors, cuckoos, cotton grass and bluebells. I was returning to the season of horse flies and bracken.  Packed and dressed accordingly, with extra fluids on board, I was anticipating a breathless ramble.

The car park I headed for was beneath, and on the same side of the road as Little Staple Tor, overlooking Vixen Tor.  At the back of the parking area is an enormous granite boulder.  Upon it, though suffering from age and clear vandalism, is inscribed the following:


This is known locally as - rather obviously - the Rees Jeffreys car park.

This got me thinking.  I was vaguely aware of the name this car park had, but no how that came about.  This memorial lead me to the story of William Rees Jeffreys, perhaps the most powerful and influential voices in recent UK transport history.  Born in 1872, Rees Jefferys: mechanical engineer; keen cyclist; campaigner for safer roads and supporter of using an aesthetically kind transport infrastructure to connect people with the countryside for recreation.  He was Secretary of the RAC, Secretary of the Cylists Touring Club, but most importantly, Secretary for Roads when the Ministry of Transport came about in 1919.

It was WRJ who championed the sealing of the UK road network, a system which was previously dusty during the Summer, muddy in the Winter, and always a noise nuisance.  He promoted the First Severn bridge.  He pushed for a UK Road Classification System, dividing the UK into 9 areas, and resulted in all major routes in the South West beginning in the number 3 (A30, A39, A386 etc).  WRJ was an exponent of road safety, investing heavily upgrading what he considered an inadequate and hazardous road network in the 1920s and '30s.  In 1937 Prime Minister Lloyd George described WRJ as "the greatest authority on roads in the United Kingdom and one of the greatest in the whole world".

Ahem.  Back to my Letterbox walk though. The SSW'ly breeze was in evidence throughout the walk, combined with building clouds, helping to keep me cool. The route was generous on Letterboxes, and, still dreaming of hitting the 16000 landmark this decade, I was grateful of this.  I sought more sheltered corner for lunch, out of the wind and perhaps ironically, away from the ever-present road noise!

It wasn't much of a social experience though. I didn't see another soul walking all day.  On current evidence, perhaps the work of Rees Jefferys to link people with the beauty of the countryside had gone to waste.

Or maybe not.  Upon his death in 1954, a legacy trust fund was set up, to help fund training, research and projects which improve the highway network and roadside environment.  Aims include a better and safer system with an enhanced experience for road users.

The fund accepts applications for funds via their webpage ( and publishes annual reports.  These are available for every year back except 1955-1962, when interestingly the trustee board admit they don't know who got what, and ask the public if they have a copy they could have!

Besides Dartmoor car parks, the breadth and range of investment projects is heartening.  For example, in 2017, the Royal Society of Wildlife Trusts was granted £28,000 for a 3 year project tackling flooding through roadside wildflower planting.  A noble cause.

I considered my day out as I drove West into the sunset.  14 Letterboxes found.

Sunday, 29 April 2018

Musings from a bygone age

When we pause to consider why participation in Letterboxing has stalled or declined in the recent decades, its easy to blame the Letterbox thief, or modern pressures on time and disposable income. The truth is, for many Letterboxers, the hobby has evolved too far from the Letterboxing they recall.

I have just purchased two books by Anne Swinscow which highlight my point. 'Dartmoor Letterboxes' and 'More Dartmoor Letterboxes' strangely never featured in my Dartmoor library.  These two volumes, lovingly scribed by the wife of Godfrey "God" Swinscow, provide a fascinating insight into Letterboxing circa 1984. As a snapshot - a moment in time - this pair make a fascinating museum piece. They go into detail of how modern Letterboxing happened, whilst offering humorous anecdotes, memories and stories of a pre-internet pastime.

Refreshingly, informally written, Anne has captured the playful, witty side of Letterboxing. For example, Chapter 5 of the first book is dedicated to Calveslake Tor's Visitor's book, which in the late 70s/early 80s encouraged all who signed in to write a few rhyming lines to form a Visitor's book full of prose. Chapters describe Letterboxers and their pet cats, and - curiously - pet hens going Letterboxing.  Throughout her work, Letterboxers are described by the author as clever, cunning, dedicated, fit and crucially engaged and involved in the direction of Letterboxing. The hobby is clearly young and nimble, repeatedly pushing boundaries. There is an excitement in the author's style which makes the reader wish they could join in today.

Both published books are punctuated by cartoons, poems and selections of vintage Letterbox stamp collages.  They offer the reader a great impression of where the hobby has been as I've described. They offer a vague clue of where it is now, albeit given the high's and lows in the intervening 33 years, the rules and the goal are still the same. Alas, there is no clear indication of where it is heading. Anne considers the "future" as the - then - infant Catalogue and Letterbox chatter over C.B. Radio.

When people cease this Letterboxing game, perhaps it is because they don't recognise the hobby of yesteryear. Much like comparing black and white images of tweed-clad Victorian gents and ladies posing at a Cranmere Pool cairn to today's images.  Having read Anne's books, the differences are all too obvious.  How will our technology-led version be viewed in the future, I wonder.

Sunday, 25 March 2018

Caves & Tunnels Of Dartmoor: Over and out

My Caves & Tunnels charity walk is now off sale.  Thank you to everyone who bought a copy of the clues.  The walk remained on site for the full 6 months, so thank you also for looking after the Letterboxes and their sites.

The walk raised a total of £307.50 for Mid Devon Bat Rescue.  An impressive sum for a Winter walk on the Northern Moor!

Work commitments and bad weather have prevented me from bringing the Letterboxes off the Moor today, but they will definitely be coming of the Moor within a week or two, so be very quick if you have yet to complete the set!

Friday, 23 March 2018

Mmmm.. Magic boots

I bought myself some new walking boots in January, and I've been wearing them regularly and often since.  I am quite particular about my  footwear, so I thought long and hard about the decision.

For the past 20 years of Letterboxing, I've only worn Meindl leather boots, and considered them to be the best option on the market for me.  I've worked in outdoor retail, and have tried and tested many boots, but the Meindl Nepal Pro, and latterly the Meindl Burma Pro's I selected were comfortable, capable, and generally indestructible.  They were at home on the Inca Trail, Scottish mountains, snowy streets, and - yes - Letterboxing on Dartmoor.  Perhaps they were a little unnecessary for these lowland hills.  The 3-4 season boots are crampon compatible, high in the ankle, and at £200, a bit pricey too.  But I loved them, and I was reluctant to replace them.

So why the change? Well, I turned vegan in 2015 and leather is not a material that I felt happy owning or wearing.  Whilst the environmentalist in my head could reconcile that these were old boots, and my wearing them out was avoiding textile waste, their Moor days were inevitably numbered.  I have been investigating alternatives for a long time.

Vegan walking boots are a thing.  We're talking here about synthetic fabrics (avoiding leather, suede and nubuck) man made linings (ie, no wool), and glues with a conscience (avoiding those derived from animal bone, which is the norm for footwear adhesive).  Merrell, Patagonia, Montrail, Zamberlan and Ecco are just a few of the brands which make vegan options.

I settled on the Innox Mid GTX by German brand Lowa.  I wore them out to Ducks Pool and Cranmere Pool recently, and they were put to work as I brought in my Christmas Walk, checked my charity walk and more local wanders, especially during Storm Emma.  Here is my verdict...

Comfort:  Straight from the box these boots felt good.  Indeed, Lowa pride themselves on comfort as well as durability.  The Innox is a lightweight walking boot, and I didn't feel the need to break them in.  A well cushioned sole and ankle cuff contrasted starkly with the rather simple construction of my Meindls.

Weight:  900g per pair.  Equivalent to two tins of beans (or 2000 blank postcards)  Clearly a very well designed, technically advanced, very lightweight piece of kit.

Support:  Letterboxers clearly spend a lot of their time stood on their feet. But there's a good deal of crouching, squatting, crawling involved too. Flexibility is needed in both boots and wearer. The Lowa's mid sole is stiff enough, but the synthetic, plastic/nylon upper perhaps lacking a bit here.  It leaves the feet feeling a bit exposed when clambering over clitter or scrambling around peat hags, but then this boot doesn't claim to be more than a 2 season rock hopper.  

Durability:  The Lowa outsole is bearing up very well to granite and tarmac.  The lugs underneath aren't too deep, so I expect they will wear down relatively quickly.  The fabric uppers bears a few scars of the scrapes in journeys taken, despite initial concerns about the quantity of nylon fabric and stitching involved.

Waterproofness & breathability:  None of my past Meindls have been waterproof - let alone Goretex lined.  I'd always resisted waterproof membranes as I had genuine concerns about breathability on warmer days (Letterboxing being a generally fair-weather pursuit!), plus water garnered from crossing a deep bog or stream inside a waterproof boot stays inside.  The Goretex in the Lowa's case has held firm, and my feet have been dry after every use.

Sizing & fit:  I selected a UK size 11.5, which compares to my normal shoe size of UK 10.  I wear a thin liner sock, and a mid weight walking sock combined.  I have average width feet, and these fit comfortably, with mild signs of straining the laces, so they will suit wide footed Letterboxers.  There is a combination of D-rings and ski hoots to vary the tightness around the ankle, which is handy.

Price:  The Innox Mid is available from £112-£150 online in a selection of colours.  Cotswold and Taunton Leisure stores in Devon both stock Lowa boots too.

In summary: A comfortable, lightweight all-rounder - perfectly suited to Letterboxing.  Recommend.