Monday, 21 November 2016

Northern exposure Part 2

Some Letterbox walks simply don't go as planned.  Take my latest, for example.  It has taken three attempts to complete my circuit of the 'track-formerly-know-as-the-Ring-Road', South of Okehampton Camp.  On each occasion I have parked at Hart Tor and the adjacent Observation Post.  I was time-bound on my first outing, and I only made it to Deep Ford.  My second attempt was thwarted by poor weather, Mist gave way to drizzle which gave way to heavy rain.  I barely made it to East Mill Tor.

Yesterday, however, on a cold, crisp morning, I tried again...

3rd time lucky...
Storm Angus, which struck the previous day was still running off the moor.  Water levels were high, but not extraordinary.  Deep Ford was not impassable.  Indeed, I saw some members of the public in a Land Rover ignore the warning signs, and drive around the military track negotiating this watery crossing of the East Okement with minimal concern.

I was determined to reach the highest point of the former Ring Road.  Observation Post (or OP) 15. I recall learning about this fabled spot through the visitor's book of the Letterbox in the Warren House Inn, way back in the early 1990s.  As novice Letterboxers, the family were eager to reach Cranmere Pool via the quickest and shortest path possible.  Parking at OP15 provided this path.  Today, it is over 3 miles on foot (unless you own a Land Rover and ignore rules) to reach this remote spot.  I had a number of Letterboxes to find up on the plateau.  However, it was other man-made objects which surprised and disappointed me on this occasion.

I am well used to finding abandoned (non-explosive) Military debris within all the ranges on the Moor.  Yet, never before have I seen it on such a scale as I did yesterday.  I counted 4 empty flare casings and 3 heaps of empty cartridge shells and clips on Okement Hill alone. 

I believe that before leaving a range, the Ministry of Defence (MOD) range wardens expect visiting army units to clear up and care for the environment.  I am aware that there has been no live firing in Okehampton range for over a week. Who knows how long this stuff has been out there!  In light of the advice of military notices everywhere ("DANGER Do not touch any military debris.  It may explode and kill you"), I didn't pack it up and remove it myself.  I tutted and left it behind.  In hindsight, I should have recorded the 10 figure grid reference and reported them to the Defence Infrastucture Organisation.  Its worth noting that the Dartmoor National Park Authority advice is to report finds of suspicious military material to the Devon & Cornwall Police non-emergency line.  The DNPA website lists the old Police number (switched off in September 2012), but the new number is 101, which works from mobile phones too.

I hope that MOD cutbacks are not impacting on their obligations to protect and care for Dartmoor's rugged, beautiful environment.  Perhaps, we'll see learn how tight the budget is in the latest minutes of the Dartmoor Steering Group.  This MOD focused party had their annual meeting at Okehampton Camp last Wednesday, and the meeting minutes are yet to be posted online as per their own rules. Rules, as we have learnt, are there to be broken.  Aren't they?

The sunshine faded away early.  The temperature plummeted, and I descended beside the Black-a-ven Brook and New Bridge, completed my circuit, and headed for home.  Mission achieved, and 21 boxes found.

Thursday, 17 November 2016

Northern exposure Part 1

It has occurred that I haven't walked much since my declaration of love for Dartmoor Letterboxing in the Summer.  I sought to rectify this recently, with a commitment to visit some wild spots before the days became too short.  Walkham Head has become quite fashionable since the hobby of Dartmoor 365'ing has become a 'thing'.  John Hayward's 1991 book: 'Dartmoor 365' encouraged the exploration of each of Dartmoor's 365 square miles, providing a highlight, an item, a landmark or a story for every one.  The Dartmoor 365ing hobby has spawned a popular Facebook group.  It has also an associated game operated by Dartefacts.  Walkham Head Peat Pass is considered the only real highlight of grid square 57 81.  Indeed, there isn't too much else here.  Or is there??

Boots on, and Baggator bound, I made the familiar journey to west Dartmoor on a bright and breezy day.  I had many boxes to find on a circular walk out to Tavy Hole, and returning via Standon Hill.  After a long absence, even the long slog up to Lynch Tor was enjoyable!  From beside the flagpole, the views were as incredible as can be.  The absence of haze allowed for distant points of Cornwall to be visible.  Limsboro cairn is shrinking though.  According to, between 1979 and 2004, the diameter of this rock pile went from 22.5m to 14.3m.  I neglected to bring my tape measure, so cannot vouch for any further reduction.

Where have the rocks gone?  Are they sheltering Dartmoor Letterbox sites? Er, no.  Progress in locating my list of clues was steady but not amazing.  The Thief likes this tor.  Perhaps they were migrating to Ken's Cairn in nearby Black Lane.  Er, again, no.  As you'll see from the picture in my previous post.  It is growing but, not to that extent.

My walk took me East now to Turf House.  This curious series of banks and standing stone, all that remains of it.  I was surprised to find a box that lay unfound for 3 years.  Although, that I required all my skill and keys to dig it out of it's peaty hole, suggested otherwise.  The recent dry weather allowed for a direct walk across the usually boggy river head here to the peat pass.  The going was rough, but not tough.  This grid square, which John Hayward describes as "desolate" in "dreary weather", but "invigorating" in Summer sunshine, certainly resembled the latter today.  However after finding a few Letterboxes out here, I became acutely aware of the setting sun.

A warm glow fell upon the scene, which encouraged photography, but also quickened my step back towards the car.  I wanted to complete my 'circle' which involved the East bank of Baggator Brook and Standon Farm.  Suffice to say that I made it, and was back at the car just in time for sunset.

A cracking day all in all, with 21 boxes found, and the appetite for more Northern exposure well and truly whetted.

Wednesday, 16 November 2016


I was delighted to see that, earlier this month, my blog passed 50000 page views.  A significant milestone in the life of an insignificant collection of ramblings!  Many thanks to everyone who reads my blog, and for taking an interest in Dartmoor Letterboxing.  My blog was always a bit of a self indulgence: an opportunity to form a record for my future self, as well as sharing my experiences and journeys with the World.  It has helped me to remain motivated, and keen to explore more that the park has to offer.  In the cases of the MOD plans and Mires project, it has provided a platform to share my findings.  

The blog is also a bit of a legacy for the 'The Upland Trotters', a family personal stamp which might - at some later date - make a reappearance in the Dartmoor's Letterbox visitor books...

I put this idea out there inspired by another recent momentous milestone in the lives of our family.  Last week my wife gave birth to a happy and healthy baby boy!  Our first child, and the second Cornishman (that we know of!) in the Barber clan, after my late father, John.  This one too is a sure-fire born Letterboxer - if ever I've seen one!

We'll have to give it until the Spring, at least, before my wife lets me pack him into his little carrier and take him out on the Moors.  Then I can introduce him to the joys of searching peat banks and patches of clitter around lone trees.  The heights and the scrambles of the North Moor.  The thrill of first-in-books and fleeting glimpses of deer and fox.  I hope you'll join me - through this blog - on our journey.  Exciting paths lay ahead: I cannot wait!!

Wednesday, 2 November 2016

Wednesday, 31 August 2016

Sort it out!

I returned from my latest walk (around Broad Falls and Heap O'Sinners) and lay my bag down.  I reached down deep in the rucksack to pluck out some the rubbish I'd gathered off the Moor during my day (#2minutelitterpick). I suddenly paused to consider what I'd been carrying all day that hadn't been used, or indeed touched.  It was then that I decided to have a proper sort out of my walking gear.

I carry a Macpac 20 litre rucksack.  It celebrates it's 9th birthday this year, but continues to serve me very well.  Only when siting a large number of boxes does my much bigger Lowe Alpine sack get a rare airing.  A meagre 20 litres focuses the mind.  I know I must carry the essentials.  For me, this includes a whistle, survival bag and first aid kit.  Though I pray I never need to use these in an emergency.  This is my fifth survival bag, but all predecessors have simply perished and corroded in their alternate roles as sit mat, snow sledge or simply as a flat rucksack back support.  On emptying my backpack, I learnt I'd somehow gained a 2nd first aid kit!  Neither were well stocked with anything useful.  So I took the chance to refresh the contents of just one, including a laminated 'In Case of Emergency' contact list, spare boot laces and blister plasters.

Waterproof overtrousers, now washed and reproofed are neatly stashed too.  I always take them - fulfilling the extra layer requirement to some extent, if not being used.

Rations.  I discovered a Foxes 'Rocky' chocolate bar stuck at the base of my rucksack, gathering fur and dust.  I've been vegan for almost a year, and cannot imagine eating this except in a dire emergency.  Dutifully binned, I replace it with a peanut bar.  I'd read somewhere that an emergency bar - however squashed - is a useful survival ration to maintain.

Letterboxing gear.  I keep this within a bright yellow carrier bag.  My wooden postcard box, a small selection of ink pads, and a clip lid box containing my personal and date stamps.  The carrier bag served as container, weather protector and an emergency beacon to wave.  Never let it be said that I didn't have my personal safety at heart when out walking!  The postcard box and personal stamps were in fab state.  However, the same couldn't be said about my ink pads.  Over the years, I've amassed a huge collection from the letterboxers in the family.  In 12 assorted colours, although for ease I tend to only carry 3 or 4 on each walk.  I have neglected many of them, and took the opportunity to discard the worst.  Those I retained needed a damn good clean and re-inking.  All - especially the yellow ones - were beginning to turn a universally brown colour. Eeeuggh!

Then I considered my Letterbox repair kit.  This consists of a spare book, which when combined with the clip lock box which my personal stamp lives in make a handy pathside fix.  My spare book had clearly gotten wet, then dried, then wet and dried again.  Time to update this, complete with a sandwich bag protection, me thinks.

The GPS.  Ah yes.  My Garmin Dakota 10, now 5 years young, still joins me on every walk.  It's spare AA batteries in their old Actimel yogurt pot too.  I occasionally bring it out to check GPS references on boxes I cannot find on bearings alone.  As a navigation aid, it is invaluable.  Almost as much as my compass, which went back in the bag too.  Only one compass though, with the permanent removal of a keyring compass/thermometer combo that hung from my rucksack front pocket zipper.

I should add that this is very much a Summer reboot of my bag.  I found an unused disposable handwarmer in my first aid kit, which I removed.  Hat and gloves will be added as necessary.  I allow space in my pack for one additional warm layer too, for when Autumn comes!

Refreshed, repaired, refilled.  Bring on the next walk, I say.

Considering your own gear? Check out GO Outdoors recommended hillwalking kit list here

Sunday, 17 July 2016

Up North....

I regularly visit Meldon Reservoir.  Its proximity to the A30 makes it a convenient stopover to refresh on my frequent drives up country in recent years.  The narrow lane from Okehampton thick with Summer growth leads to a National Park car park and the smashing views around the reservoir here - an easily accessible and home to a unique island nature reserve.

My walk was to take me up the West Okement, with views North and West towards Cornwall. I had to dig deep in the family archives to find clues to justify a walk up here.  Yet I was keen to explore the hills above the - now well worn - trails around Meldon.

The weather was terrific.  Hardly a breath of wind.  My mind wandered, considering the path closure on the Western side of the reservoir.  A different circular route was required today.  I would head out to Snipers Gully, Fishcombe Water and Black Tor, returning via Longstone Hill.

I was surrounded by iconic Dartmoor features. The Slipper Stones, Fordsland Ledge, Black-a-tor Copse, High Willhays. Features which make the West Okement such a gem in a granite setting.  My walk finished with a sighting of another iconic feature of the West Okement valley.  The Ring Ouzel.  In 2014, there were an estimated 15 breeding pairs of Ring Ouzel on Dartmoor, the most Southerly population in the country.  I spotted one individual hopping amongst the clitter near Black Tor, only the second time I've ever seen this elusive bird. Their numbers have been in global decline for decades, vulnerable to climate change.  An action plan is in place to support them on Dartmoor.

Another fascinating day out all round.  Unknown distance walked, 11 boxes located.

Who says that my blog lacks imagination, by the way!  The North and South moor have so much in common!

Down South...

The car park at Harford Moor is not one I've visited much.  Certainly not in recent years.  The narrow lane from Ivybridge thick with Summer growth lead me to a rutted but refreshed parking area. No self-serve gate of old, but a cattle grid.  The National Park interpretation board remains intact.  This despite Harford Parish Council arson worries voiced prior to its installation 2 years ago.

My walk was to take me up the River Erme, with views South and West towards Plymouth.  Not far away from here is the topical village of Sparkwell, currently making headlines for the zoo's missing Lynx.  I had other cats to find though, amongst a host of boxes on a short route out to Sharp Tor and back.

The weather was terrific.  Perhaps a bit blowy, but not enough to prevent bearings.  My mind wandered off, considering possible walks which might bypass the New Waste closure.  Perhaps from Harford Moor Gate, I could descend to the River and cross at Piles Copse.

I passed the Money Pit, Piles Gate, the old clay pipeline, Redlake Tramway, Hobajons Cross.  Just some of the relics which help make the Erme valley such a gem in a granite setting.  My walk finished at a very different relic, and perhaps the most dilapidated of them all: the disused Butter Brook Reservoir.  I say disused, although South West Water - who withdrew it from auction in 2014 - reserve the right to extract water supplies from it irrespective of owner, says Tim Sandles in his Legendary Dartmoor article.

A fascinating day out all round.  Unknown distance walked, 16 boxes located.

Sunday, 19 June 2016

The Comeback Kid

I haven't been Letterboxing in a long while.  I haven't blogged for some time either - although I did apologise in advance for this.  To say that I am 'out the groove' is something of an understatement!  It was a windy day late in March last time my map and compass were used.  I cannot remember the last time that I actually plotted a route, printed out clues and donned my walking boots.

So, with studies concluded, gardening taking a back seat for a day, and the weather in my favour, I decided to make an overdue return to the Moor.  Filing through my charity walks, purchased in March, I settled on one which would make an interesting, productive day on the Moor.  The Crohns & Colitus UK Charity walk from Norsworthy Bridge up to Hingston Hill and Down Tor.  I doubted my fitness because although at work I am on my feet all day, I don't walk huge distances.  Perhaps a few diversions from the charity walk could be planned, but 3-and-a-half miles sounded fine to me!  

A few years back, I'd have thought nothing of 3-and-a-half miles.  I say a few: I walked the 27 mile OATS walk in under 7 hours over 20 years ago now!  Each of my letterbox walks since 2014 have been comfortably below 10 miles.  I'd love to believe I could recover my hill fitness.  I see it as my goal now.  To get back on Dartmoor more often, walking a bit more, and reforming a relationship with my favourite place on earth.

What happened to this bond with Dartmoor?  This place so special to me.  I've really missed it.  To me, as with many people, Dartmoor is my escape.  My antithesis to the stresses and strains of everyday life.  In the past 18 months, I've had a few of these.  A close friend advised me to simplify my life.  This wasn't easy.  My wife is expecting our first child.  Work isn't getting any easier.  If the advice meant: take control of the things I could control, then getting back on Dartmoor regularly would be how i'd interpret it.

Norsworthy Bridge car park was closed when I got there.  A fishing competition was underway at Burrator, so I parked up in the Arboretum car park.  I took a short cut through the mixed plantation to join the track near the Middleworth Farm ruins.  In typical Saturday style, the reservoir seemed alive with dog walkers, runners, cyclists.  The speeding motorcyclists on the Princetown road were audible as ever, even from this distance.  It did not take long though to leave the noise behind, as the walk took me out to Combshead Tor and Cuckoo Rock.

I found myself resting regularly and often.  I've never been one to break unnecessarily when Letterboxing.  Yet, here I was, desperate to refind my groove.  To clear my mind, and rekindle the enjoyment of being on the Moor.  I wandered off the trail up Newleycombe Lake towards Drivage Bottom.  The going underfoot was tough.  I found unexpected boxes, and explored mine workings I doubt I'd seen before.  The lush valley was remote, narrow, winding, and symbolised the experience - the Dartmoor - I sought.  At one box, a young foal, within sight of it's mother, guarded the site.  Watching me as I stamped up, it nibbled on my walking boots, moving me along.  I returned to the reservoir late in the day, tired, but partly restored after a great day of Letterboxing.  It'll take a few more walks like this to feel fully revitalised, yet I know that this will happen.  25 boxes found today, which means I've passed the 15,300 mark at long last!

I am the comeback kid!

Friday, 29 April 2016

Battle Plans: Part VII - Ceasefire?

Every year, normally in November, a formal meeting takes place of the Dartmoor Steering Group.  This collective of stakeholders discuss the military involvement within the National Park.  Participants include the National Park Authority, Natural England, English Heritage, the Duchy of Cornwall, Dartmoor Commoners Council and various parties from within the Ministry of Defence (MOD).  I have blogged regularly about their progress since the release of an Integrated Rural Management Plan (IRMP) in which the MOD indicated their approach to maintaining the ranges over a 10 year period 2010 to 2020 (available here). 
In 2010, intentions were made to - amongst many other things - limit the visual impact of the military by:

- Removing 3 flagpoles in the Okehampton Training area, with Yes Tor being a priority for removal, along with Blackdown.  Roos Tor flagpole in the Merrivale range would be removed too.

- Combining Watern Oke Flagpole with a 'look-out'.

- Relocating Walkham Spur flagpole, with a 'look-out' constructed and access works to take place on slopes near Fuges Post and Walkham Head

- Relocating 9 flagpoles including Fordsland Ledge, Steeperton Tor, Kitty Tor and Great Mis.

- Replacing the existing hut at Holming Beam, which (in 2010) was deemed to be shortly nearing the end of it's extended useful life, and considered by many as an eyesore.

A very ambitious action plan, which would almost all have been completed by now, if the original budgets and timescales were accurate and to be believed.  Several objectives have been completed, such as renegotiating consent for the Cramber Tor Training Area, and making repairs to the West Mill Tor/Target Railway track for general vehicle access.

However, it has been the visual intrusion elements that have caused emotions to run high at Steering Group meetings since.  A major sticking point has been the Military Byelaws.  These legally binding agreements affect the boundaries of the ranges, and the locations of established MOD infrastructure within them.  Only a change in the byelaws can result in the removal or relocation of flagpoles or look-outs (huts).  Okehampton byelaws date from 1980.  A byelaw amendment last took place in the Merrivale range in 1995, following an accident that left a girl seriously injured by an unexploded device.  This amendment led to Great Mis Tor and Roos Tor summits being removed from the range, and an incident that resulted. partly, to the notices on all Range Poles and the outlawing of Dartmoor Letterboxes placed in ammo cans.

Visual intrusion is a subject the National Park Authority take very seriously.  In my last blog post, the plantations that interrupt wild skylines are being tackled by the Forestry Commision.  The DNPA planning department are also very strict on wind turbines and development design.

It was with these concerns most prominent that last November's meeting took place at Parke.  Following contact with the DNPA, the minutes for November 2015's Steering Group meeting have finally been uploaded to their website (here).  Here it was confirmed by the Defence Infrastructure Organisation (DIO) that the Dartmoor ranges had recently been considered as 'safe', and due to the small review team and limited Government budgets, any byelaw review was at least a decade away. No flagpoles would move prior to that.  Military byelaws are being reviewed nationwide, but have been prioritised to address areas of safety or security concern first ie: nuclear establishments.  Similarly, all previous work by the DNPA and Duchy of Cornwall to redesign and replace Holming Beam hut was superfluous since their was no longer any MOD budget available to carry out this work.

The Steering Group also learnt that the Ten Tors - an iconic Dartmoor event - would be supported by the MOD for as long as possible. Yet the military would not be committed to sustaining Ten Tors indefinitely, again, due to budgets.  The meeting must have been an uncomfortable reality check.  The group took time to reflect on it's membership, and the declining numbers of stakeholders present in working parties.  The group vowed to encourage participation at forthcoming gatherings.  The next Steering Group meeting is on November 16th 2016.  I'll wait to see who reports back first - the DNPA or MOD.  We all wait to see how this working relationship develops in the future.

Friday, 1 April 2016

A new plan for Dartmoor's forests

April Fools Day was the last of the 28 day consultation period for Dartmoor's new Forest Plan.  'The what?', you may ask.  The Forestry Commission are defining their long term vision for Dartmoor's forests including Bellever, Fernworthy, Soussons and Brimpts.  These four plantations account for about 1.5% of the total National Park area.  Their plan sets out how the woods will be managed for the next decade or so.

Felling, thinning, restocking, species composition, protection of artifacts, public access and recreation, are all covered by the forest plan.  So what have the Forestry Commission (FC) got in store?

Their proposals seek to maintain the Public Forest Estate in line with current forestry policy... blah blah blah... Yawn.

The two key changes that I noted from the Plan are:
1. Up to 10% of the FC's wooded area to become permanent open space through forest clearance. These cleared patches include the high profile Fernworthy forest skyline distantly visible from Postbridge, the plantation on Bellever Tor's Eastern slope, plus Soussons' Southern, roadside edge. Where these trees exist now, moor will eventually take over.  More space for Letterboxing, and less visual impact on the landscape.  Unless you like the dark green walls wrapping over the horizon.

2. Implementation of proposals will "soften and better integrate the woodland with the surrounding landscape".  Proposals such as making a feathered edge to the forests, minimising the contrast between high forest and open moor.  This graded edge will be made up of clusters of trees, regenerating forest and open space.  This will surely affect many Letterbox bearings on forest edges.

It is a long term plan, but we look forward to seeing how this impacts the forests, the Moor and Letterboxing.  As I stated above, consultation closes on April 1st, but more information is available at:

This is not an April Fools.

Sunday, 17 January 2016


Betwixtmas : The period of time between Christmas and New Year

This Winter has been poor so far, hasn't it?  If this is what 'climate change' has in store for Great Britain's bleakest months from now on, it is high time someone should arrange a mid season break for the hobby.  In spite of my extra curricular activity, I have been aching to venture out on the Moors again.  Yet, I have found just one single day in the last 3 months that suits both my plans and those of Mother Nature.  It was before the current snow fall, and after the rains stopped.  It was obvious when I arrived that I was in the eye of a storm, or that I was interrupting something.

Tis the season, although it seems ages ago, for Christmas walks!  There were many word-of-mouth letterbox series sited for this year, but I was as yet to search for any.  I intended to make the most of my day and seek out 3 such sets. The first stop was at the village of Belstone.  A short trek down the ridge to Taw Marsh, and returning along the river.  An overtopping river that bubbled and boiled with the previous nights downpour alive between (or betwixt) its banks.

The early light, the rain and the washed atmosphere made for dramatic images, across a valley that never fails to impress.  I couldn't hang around though, and I splashed my way back to the car, having located 5 letterboxes, and headed to Bellever.

The owners of a series of letterboxes on Riddon Ridge actively advised wellington boots to complete their walk.  I anxiously considered their words as I pulled on my trusty waterproof socks overlooking the angry East Dart.  Fortunately, there were no river crossings to negotiate, and my feet stayed dry on this entertaining stroll over the ridge to Snaily House and back.  In the shelter from the Westerly wind here, the day was turning out quite pleasant.  The crowds were absent today, and judging by visitors books, they had been absent for most of Christmas too.

I had one final set to find, although the sun had already set behind a large bank of cloud that engulfed Princetown.  Four Christmas boxes to seek around Wind Tor.  From up here, I couldn't quite see the rushing River Webburn in spate, but I suspected it was down there in the valley washing Widecombe clean. I found these Christmas stamps easily enough, and so I returned to the car to reflect on my day of Dartmoor.  

Despite the cruel weather (and other, perhaps more human factors) dampening spirits in Northern England and Scotland this Christmas, I was personally pleased to see Letterboxing, Dartmoor and Devon have shook off the worst of the storms, and carried on.  

Lets hope I can return before the Spring!