Monday, 30 March 2015

Spring Meet 2015

The 72nd Meet took place this past weekend.  It has been 37 years since Letterboxing's first Meet at the Forest Inn near Hexworthy.  A Dartmoor pub which has since closed, but up for sale for just a £1!

The bi-annual gathering now calls Lee Moor Village Hall home.  I did attend.  It was great to catch up with some familiar faces, and purchase the new catalogue.

The introduction to the new book of clues offers an update on Godfrey Swinscow - the 'father' of modern Letterboxing.  In the 1980s as the burgeoning hobby threatened to incur the wrath of the National Park, it was 'God' who stepped in and created the 100 club and the concept of registering boxes.  Godfrey - who celebrated his 96th birthday on Sunday - now resides in a Devon residential home with his wife, Anne.  He still has an interest in Letterboxing, albeit by only enjoying looking at stamps brought in by his visitors.  It was fantastic to hear how Godfrey is doing, as it has been so long since the last update.

With charity walks bought, Letterboxing routes must now be planned for the Lyd Valley, Cox Tor and Mel Tor areas.

Thursday, 26 March 2015

The Getaway - Part III

My final far-flung Letterboxing excursion was to the closest National Park neighbour - Exmoor. Think of Exmoor and you may think of Lorna Doone or the Valley of the Rocks, Lynton & Lynmouth or perhaps Johnny Kingdom and the red deer.  I'd always considered Exmoor, away from the coastline to be characterised by tight valleys and grassy upland, far less rugged than Dartmoor.  I was keen to discover if my preconceptions were true.

I'd found two clues for boxes around Wood Barrow via Gamblenet.  This grassy hill sits to the West of the park, and the summit cairn straddles the Devon - Somerset border. It also is located on the Tarka Trail, an undefined long distance path that links the North coast with Dartmoor.  My walk up to Wood Barrow followed this trail from the main road at the Edgerley Stone - one of several uncut, local rocks intended to mark the 13th century boundary of the Royal Forest of Exmoor, but now marks the county line.  It is inscribed with 'F Isaac', 'F Bray', and an OS benchmark.

Wood Barrow is 470 metres above sea level - the highest of my out-of-area summits.  This puts it about the same height as Longaford Tor, but Exmoor's highest point - Dunkery Beacon - off to the East is one of the Southern England's highest points.  

The letterboxes were sited in the nearby Woodbarrow Hangings - a deep twisting combe winding off to the North.  One box, with just a six figure grid ref was found quickly and on site. Well hidden, and with just a dozen or so entries in the visitors book, this box has remained undiscovered for much of it's 23 years (!) on the moor.  The other box proved more elusive, and I failed to find it.  I suspected, as with many boxes on Bodmin Moor, it was missing, and this was due to the 10 figure grid reference it offered.  Anyone with a smartphone and a free App could locate this box, since the clue is widely available.  This is surely the same fate Dartmoor Letterboxes face with full grid references.

The views from the rim of Woodbarrow Hangings were impressive in the late afternoon sunshine.  The Bristol Channel is close by, and is full of ships, mostly large cargo vessels.  The narrow channel allowed views beyond to the Welsh mountains - a Letterboxing destination that would have to wait.  My route back to the car was via the absurdly named Pinkery Pond.  Pinkery is a local disambiguation of Pinkworthy (this IS North Devon!).  The manmade pond dams the River Barle, though the purpose for this 19th century creation remains unknown although several theories exist.

Heading South, down the river valley, I passed the Pinkery Youth Hostel and Outdoor Adventure Centre.  Clearly a significant investment has been made here in both the building and in a wind turbine to provide electricity.

This is a beautiful corner of Devon, and though it has much in common with the Moor next door, it is yet so different - not least in the geology - which is predominately shale, sandstone and slate.  The trip to Exmoor was well worth it.

Friday, 13 March 2015

The Getaway - Part II

View from the Bishop of Barf
With a week's annual leave, I put aside my studies for a while and made a long overdue visit to some friends in the North of England. This also provided me with an opportunity to attempt (again) Letterboxing in the Lake District. I've been here before.  I used to live in Keswick, in Northern Lakeland, and I have tried, unsuccessfully, on more than one occasion to find Letterboxes around here.  This time would surely be different.

The Bishop of Barf, or Bishop Rock
There are now longer lists of boxes in the National Park, but to cast my net wider still, I approached some Letterboxers who had links to the Lake District.  Perhaps they had knowledge of existing Letterboxes.  One reply sounded perfect...  last confirmed on site 2-and-a-half years ago by the owner...  No more than a mile from the road...  Hidden with a bottle of beer...  Lets go!

This particular box belongs to 'The old man of the Moor' aka 86 year-old Ken of Tavistock.  He has been Dartmoor Letterboxing for many decades, but has visited family in Applethwaite every year for 40 years.  Nearby, and on the steep, loose scree slopes of the absurdly named hill 'Barf' is a local landmark.  A bright white painted rock.  This is Bishop's Rock.  Legend has it that the Bishop of Derry wagered in a local hostelry that he could ride his horse to the summit of Barf via this direct, craggy route.  The rock stands at a point where both hapless horse and rider stumbled, and fell to their deaths.  Every few years, the local mountain rescue and other volunteers scramble up the hill to repaint the rock, which is visible for miles around.

Ken's Letterbox & Beer
In 1993, Ken climbed up to the 'Bishop of Barf' and sited a letterbox of the same name.  He informed me that the box was found sporadically during the early 21st century, and his last visit was in September 2012.  On this occasion he left a stamped addressed postcard to himself for the next visitor to return, and a bottle of local Jennings Beer.  He was yet to receive the card back so assumed it remained unfound.

Don't look down!!
Barf is located on the opposite side of the valley to Skiddaw - England's 4th highest mountain.  Barf is not so high, but quite dramatic.  At 460 metres, Barf is about the same height as Three Barrows, but the car park is at 60 metres altitude and only 400 metres distant from the summit.  You must understand that the gradients are unmatched on Dartmoor!  When asked by Ken if I wished to find his box, he did enquire if I was scared of heights, and advised against any decent from the rock, less I wished to lose the backside of my trousers!

View from Barf summit over Bassenthwaite Lake
The descent route
The box is sited 60 paces from a lone Rowan tree, named by Alfred Wainwright as the 'solitary tree'. On it's trunk I could make out some familiar, carved initials of OMOTM - the Old Man Of The Moor, not far from Bishop Rock. I found the box, and the beer, both on site and in great condition.  I pocketed the postcard, stamped the visitors book, and took a few copies of the stamp in rapidly worsening weather.  Hiding the box again, I considered how right Ken's advice was!  The box is about halfway up the slope.   I was between a rock and a hard place. So far this was a proper scramble. Above me, this terrain continued, with a semi-rock climb in gale force winds with rain and sleet pelting me as I approached the summit.  I am full of admiration of Ken who completed this route in 2012 in his mid-80s.  I collapsed in a heap upon reaching shelter near the summit cairn, struggling to catch my breath.

I took the walkers path back to the car, which was more like a stream and was very slippery in places.  

The day had proved that Lake District Letterboxing has little in common with Dartmoor Letterboxing.  Thoroughly enjoyable and hugely rewarding. Hard work, and potentially hazardous though.  The beer, unfortunately, didn't taste so good after it's long wait...

'Solitary tree' (centre) and Bishop Rock (bottom right) from descent route
The direct ascent route to the Bishop of Barf.
Next up: Exmoor

Thursday, 5 March 2015

The Getaway - Part I

- March -

Lambing season - Dogs on leads please!
Swaling in progress - Stay well away!
Ground nesting birds - Do not disturb!

Phew! Well... I didn't want to visit Dartmoor anyway...

This month I have decided to escape from the normal haunts and hidey-holes.  To explore the nation, and try letterboxing in other UK hotspots.

Yesterday was the turn of Bodmin Moor.  For me, no trip to Dartmoor is possible without a drive over this patch of green.  On the A30 approach to Jamaica Inn, my eyes are always drawn North towards the highest and steepest visible land.  These are Rough (pronounced Row - this is Cornwall) Tor and the absurdly named Brown Willy - it's Cornish name is Bronn Wennili or 'Hill of Swallows'.  I will point out, steep and high are both relative.  Brown Willy is about as lofty as Cramber Tor, and about as steep as Leather Tor.  Not to poo-poo the peak though: Kernow's highest point puts it high in the English County-Top league table.  Ranked at number 13 in fact, just behind Worcestershire Beacon.

So having stared it from behind the wheel so much, it seemed appropriate to actually visit this mysterious moor with my walking boots on.  I parked at a sizeable car park at the end of Roughtor Road - at the end of a cul-de-sac that leads straight out of Camelford.  The view from here is dominated by a ridge with three rocky Tors atop - these being Showery Tor, Little Rough Tor and Rough Tor.

There have been letterboxes on Bodmin Moor for many years.  My OS map (from 2003) actually has one marked on Brown Willy's summit.  Though this is no longer the case (though there is a geocache there instead!).  I did have a handful of boxes to find courtesy of The Stationary Traveller's excellent off-Dartmoor letterbox list at Gamblenet.  With the first on the list on Showery Tor, it was to this outcrop that I headed first.

The scenery, though fabulous, was unfamiliar: factories, plantations, lakes and wind turbines pepper the surrounding landscape.  The geology and ecology were very familiar.  Very Western upland: granite, stubby grass, heather and gorse.  This was generally undisturbed ground.  Logan stones un-tipped.  Some densely vegetated slopes and generally few paths.

Missing letterboxes however suggest there is one thing in common with the Devon moor next-door.  I left Showery Tor bereft of any stamps,  though the next destination was clear.  Brown Willy loomed in the East (giggle).  There is no Dartmoor peak like this.  A stand-alone hill, an airy ridge.  A site of Special Scientific Interest, with remnants of prehistoric human habitation low down on both East and West sides.  Plus letterboxes, some of which were on site!  A great, historic spot to visit, and I highly recommend it.  I returned to the car via Rough Tor.  Many other walkers were enjoying the scenery and the great weather.  Or perhaps they were preparing for St Piran's Day. Cornwall's patron saint would be very proud of this place.  I like it a lot, and I hope to return again soon.  

Next week: The Lake District.