Challenge 8: COMPLETE A 2-DAY LETTERBOX EXPEDITION
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.
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 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.
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.
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 too 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.
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.