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.

Wednesday, 28 February 2018

A focus on the future... funding and finance

A failed Dartmoor venture: Financial and stone ruins of Rattlebrook Peat Works, which shut in the 1930s depression.


We live in austere times.  Uncertainty, stagnation, a response to the great recession, political ideology, "Brexit", whatever the reasons, the UK's national parks are experiencing a purse-string-tightening unlike any other witnessed since their creation.

Central government - through DEFRA - fund our National Parks, and they provide the Park Authorities an annual budget in the form of a grant.  For Dartmoor, this grant was cut by 25% between 2010 and 2016.  Although it did rise slightly by just over 1.7% in 2017 to a total of around £3.6 million.  

Parking fees, other charges, external grant support and interest boost this figure by a further £1 million.  The National Park Authority are proud of their ability to source additional and external funding.  They have consistently delivered, albeit small, budget surpluses (leftover cash).  The park authority does though rely on partnerships and external funding sources to fulfil it's statutory requirements.  By joining forces with the 14 other National Parks, Dartmoor can sign commercial agreements (signed by Colombia sportswear and Air Wick air fresheners in recent years) which mutually benefit them all.

A host of partnership agreements are in operation: tackling invasive plants, promoting hill farming, supporting community well-being.  Butterfly Conservation, MOD, South West Lakes Trust, Sport England, Devon Wildlife Trust all provide knowledge and finance for ongoing projects.  'Moor Than Meets The Eye' is a partnership with the Heritage Lottery Fund that has provided a 5-year, £4 million deal intended to help promote understanding of the landscape and 4000 years of Dartmoor history.  Paths and archaeological sites are being regularly maintained by volunteers.  The British Mountaineering Council and Devon County Council are fundraising to fix or create Dartmoor paths.  

In recent years, we have seen the prospect of pay and display car parking replacing honesty boxes, a decline in Tourist Information services, reduced public transport options, and an economy drive including a 25% reduction in National Park staff.  Via the Steering Group, we have seen how MOD austerity has prevented much of the landscape work connected to byelaw reviews from taking place such as flagpole removal and Holming Beam hut replacement.

Last year, the National Park Authority set aside £140,000 worth of reserves for a Public Arts Initiative titled Moor Otters.  100 giant ceramic otters were individually painted and displayed on an 'Otter Trail' around the Moor.  It was hoped that through sponsorship, donations and the eventual auction sale of the 100 otters, a healthy return could be made on the investment.  Project goals included attracting new visitors to Dartmoor, supporting the local economy, and bringing an environmental message to local schools through a 'Mini Otters' initiative.  The whole scheme generated a £62,000 surplus.  Perhaps the future will be through many more innovative projects as this.

We return to the first line of this post: Central Government fund our National Parks.  DEFRA have pledged funding until 2020.  Beyond this, and in light of loss of EU financing following 'Brexit', it remains to be seen how our National Parks will be paid for.  Commercial agreements and partnerships will continue to play a part of course.  Yet will groups such as Letterboxers be expected to contribute time (through volunteering) or money (through Park entrance fees) to enjoy Dartmoor?  Ten Tor teams are encouraged to pay up as they participate.  Have Letterboxes been considered as a potential income stream by the DNPA?

The begging bowl is still out there!  The Park Authority's own Donate for Dartmoor webpage is still live, and welcomes any sum offered.  Get your purses and wallets out!


More here:
Key Financial Systems Review, October 2017, Dartmoor National Park Authority
Audited Statement of Accounts - 2016/7, Dartmoor National Park Authority.  

Wednesday, 21 February 2018

A focus on the future... flora and fauna

My 12 months of Letterboxing challenges is over.  I've challenged myself, and I feel more motivated than ever.  I've thought a great deal, and considered the hobby and it's place in my life a lot.  I've seen places, people, and 'boxes in a new and refreshing light.  I can focus firmly on the future.  I'm planning new series and new blog posts.

But what of this future?  What is Dartmoor going to look like?  What do the experts and the authorities say?  First up:

A changing climate

In the latest minutes of the Dartmoor Steering Group (from last November's meeting) the question was raised on how a changing climate was affecting vegetation on the Moor.  Vegetation which can both help and hinder Letterboxers and Letterboxing in equal measure.  Just witness how Wistman's Wood has doubled in size in the last 100 years.  See how the flora and fauna of Tavy Cleave has become impenetrable in places.  How gorse is flourishing in more favourable conditions.  

A Climate Strategy document produced by Devon County Council in 2005 shows trends for temperature and rainfall for years between 1920 and 2000.  A mean average temperature rise of 0.8 degrees since 1900 and a significant rise in precipitation since the 1970s are shown.  Does this information appear a little out of date?  Whilst no further charts have been produced by the council, the upward trends have continued, with local, national and international records being broken on an almost annual basis, according to the NOAA.

According to Met Office projections: by 2050, even when using the most optimistic greenhouse gas emission estimates, Western Dartmoor will experience around a further 20% increase in Winter precipitation, though Summer precipitation will decrease by a similarly large amount.  Summer and Winter mean temperatures will increase by between 1.8 and 2.5 degrees respectively.  In summary, this will result more droughts, more flooding, and inevitable changes to levels of vegetation.  Ferns and grasses will see considerable growth under these circumstances.

Bracken is one plant which will spread extensively in a changing climate.  The DNPA has tried (and generally failed) to use aerial photography since the turn of the 21st century to witness how climatic change (reduced late frosts and extended growing seasons) has aided Bracken's spread.  Bracken does have it's benefits: it is great as a wildlife habitat.  Ring ouzel, High brown fritillary butterflies and 11 unique invertebrates are among some of the key species that rely on bracken on Dartmoor.  However, on the down-side, it is a carcinogenic plant, it can be poisonous to livestock, is associated with tick numbers and Lyme disease.  It reduces grazing land, reduces access to the Moor in Summer and Autumn, damages archaeological sites, and crowds out other vegetation, such as heather.

The Park authority have admitted that the distribution of bracken on Dartmoor is little studied.  The last study was in 1994.  A briefing document in 2009 coincided with the 2008 release of Natural England technical documents.  None of these provided data on the extent of bracken's spread, the state of which remains unsubstantiated. 

As a general principle, Natural England state that it is unlikely that bracken could ever be eradicated from a site.  Chemical treatment often poisons watercourses, and never lasts longer than 10 years.  Mechanical treatment is difficult in rocky, uneven terrain.  Cutting or rolling bracken reduces it's density but doesn't tackle it's vigour.  Ploughing is often impossible, leaving just trampling as the only remaining control tactic.

Bring on the Letterboxers!

I mentioned that the subject was raised in the latest Steering Group minutes.  The Steering Group - you'll remember - is a working party of stakeholders who annually review the impact of the military on the Moor.  The Duchy of Cornwall's Bailiff (of 12 years) David Marino was asked what steps were being taken to monitor changes in Dartmoor vegetation.  In reply, he indicated that he "had been looking into the matter and had come to the conclusion that although some areas had changed [he] did not consider it too serious to require monitoring".  Lt Col Crispin d'Apice, new Ten Tor's chief, and Training Safety Officer for the MOD in the South West, "suggested that the Dartmoor training estate had not identified any impacts from the changing climate".  Apart from - one presumes - the rapid pace of erosion repair, improving conditions for Ten Tor's weekend, and the MOD-funded breeding bird surveys which he mentioned earlier in the Steering Group meeting.  A case right there that an opinion or conclusion formed on the basis of incomplete information is merely a statement lacking rigorous proving.

What will rigorous proof require?  There's a contentious subject.  Next up in my future of Dartmoor focus: Money.

Saturday, 20 January 2018

Challenge 12: ✔️ Achieved

Challenge 12:  REVISIT THE FAMOUS 'POOLS'

Cranmere Pool and Duck's Pool. Two remote and wild locations. Two iconic and historic Letterboxes.

Established and endorsed by the establishment, marked on the maps. Maintained by Park Rangers and visited by "the masses".  Oh, and two woven badges are available - if you collect such things!

These two, sited some 85 years apart have come to symbolise the hobby for many people. A destination and a justification. A home in a far away land.

Perhaps it is no wonder that it is Cranmere Pool and Duck's Pool retain their lure on Letterboxers, walkers and other Moor users.  Reaching such mid-moor locations at any time of the year, especially midwinter, provides a target, a mission.  A challenge even.

Now, Cranmere Pool. There's somewhere I haven't been in some time...

This week, I carefully chose a weather window, between the snow and the ice and the gales, to visit the 'original' Dartmoor Letterbox.  I last visited here on New Year's Day 2012, on my way out to Fur Tor from Row Tor.  This destination was the subject of a couple of blog posts.  The walk (here), and my announcement (here) of it, proved to be my undoing as an anonymous blogger though...

I've subsequently visited Hangingstone Hill and OP15, but not ventured this far out until now.  I parked - as is now convention - at Row Tor, and walked the 5 miles or so up the former Ring Road to OP15 and followed tracks and boggy paths past Ockerton Court, down the peat pass, and up the West Okement river to the famous concrete and stone box.

The storm clouds brewed and stirred.  I dodged a few showers, and was pelted by others.  A wintery mix of sleet and cold rain in stong West-North West winds.  I was so determined to reach Cranmere Pool, that I was happy to suffer the worst of weathers.  I had a very short list of other boxes to find along the way.  As it happened I searched for none of them.  I only had one target in mind.  Reaching Cranmere would complete this challenge, and complete my year of challenges.  I had toyed with an idea early in 2017 of doing a Letterbox walk which encompassed Duck's Pool AND Cranmere Pool.  A pilgrimage if you will.  Although this never happened, these two independent trips in two weeks have made challenging Mid-Winter hikes in themselves.


The shallow depression at Cranmere Pool was dotted with icy ponds and snow gathered on all sides.  I ducked down in the shelter of the box to check out the contents, hoping beyond everything else that all parts were present and correct.  The visitor's book was replaced recently.  The stamps (both of them) were in good order too.  I was pleased with an entry on page 5 of the book, with the previous visitor (who merely initialed "D.K") checking in 3 days previously.  This is far from the hey-day of this Letterbox, when an average of 14 people visited every day.  I was only the second stamp carrying Letterboxer in the book, following 'Box Hunter' who - just as I did 6 years earlier - clocked in on New Years Day.


Curiously, I noticed a possible glaring error in the introduction to this new book.  It indicates that the Prince of Wales visited Cranmere in 1906, perhaps mislead by the WMN clippings stuck inside the 1906 book (as my blog detailed here). Yet I can find no evidence of George V, when as Prince of Wales, making this Dartmoor walk.

Normal rules don't apply at Cranmere, as at Duck's Pool.  I have these stamps already, and I have stamped the book several times in history, but I always repeat the process here.  Unlike any other letterboxes, this is standard practise here.  'Why?'  I pondered.  I packed up as quickly as possible, aware that the weather was due to worsen during the afternoon.  I put my head down and stomped back to Ockerton Court, and OP15 beyond.  I climbed in to the military shelter to add layers and have some refreshment out of the cold wind.

The long walk back to Row Tor down the metalled army track allowed me time to reflect on this final challenge.  I believe that most Letterboxers will make the journey at least once during their Letterboxing days to both these distant outposts.  I know many Letterboxers consider Duck's Pool and Cranmere Pool now out of reach - a walk too far.  Perhaps the aging Letterboxing population can no longer make up the majority of visitors, yet perhaps Duck's Pool and Cranmere Pool can help spark the imagination and enthusiasm of a next generation of Letterboxers.  The D of E'ers who scribble their names in the Duck's Pool book have real potential to be inspired to go Letterboxing.  Perhaps  "D.K." who visited Cranmere before me, could be encouraged to go home and have a personal stamp made.  The responsibility of these two Letterboxes is huge, but the responsibility of those who maintain and look after them is bigger.  Ensuring they are in good condition, that the books are replaced when full, that they are stored appropriately for future generations.  To quickly make repairs, replace missing stamps efficiently, and ensure details in the books - contact details, Letterbox history, how to get involved, etc) are informative, helpful and most of all correct.

These Letterboxes are our hobby's most formal ambassadors - elder statesmen, if you prefer.  We should treat them with respect, and they should reflect well on our hobby.  As I complete my year of  challenges I have grown to respect these boxes even more, and I promise that I will return again soon.

Monday, 15 January 2018

Long time, no see


Duck's Pool - there's somewhere I haven't been in a while.  This was a thought that went round my head at New Year.  As I was bedridden with flu, I was mulling over the walks I wanted to do, and boxes I wanted to find early in 2018.



This one was top of my list.  You will remember that in June last year, I discovered the location of Duck's Pool's visitor's books, and took time to study the first one from 1938.  I recall reading comments from members of the Archaeological Exploration Society who had made regular visits from their field trip base at Redlake Tip.  I remember the dedication shown by the Dobson Moormen (who first created the permanent William Crossing Memorial and Letterbox at the Pool) to visit and maintain the site.


Yet I had not been to Duck's Pool in nearly 10 years.  Time to return.


I parked below Gutter Tor, near the scout hut, which on the day of my visit was home to a large number of military reservists, who were being put through their paces around the compound.  The weather was cool, but their was no wind, no clouds, and hardly another soul on the Moor.  I set off in high spirits up the Eylesbarrow track.  I was pursued very slowly by a mountain biker, who was carefully picking a decent route up the rutted path.  **Note to BMC: This track could do with investment through that Mend the Mountains fund currently being raised for the Nuns Cross side of Eylesbarrow!



Once past boggy ground, I struck off towards the Hartor Tors and the Plym.  My first real destination of Letterboxing substance was Calveslake Tor, which is off the beaten path for many walks other than this one.  Calveslake Tor proved successful for Letterboxing as always.  Though I was soon on my way to Great Gnats Head - high on the hill above.  I revelled in the easy terrain and fast pace.  Once the summit was reached, I was up on the great South Plateau.  The generally featureless, peaty, boggy central expanse of the Southern Moor, including Nakers, Green, Skir and Crane Hills.  Plus the headwaters of the Plym, Erme, Avon and Swincombe.  I splashed across to Ducks Pool to find the area almost exactly as I recalled it in my mind.


I headed straight to the Crossing Memorial, where the original 1938 Letterbox is sited.  I was alarmed by what I found.  The box is on site, but the stamp was missing.  In the metal container was a word-of-mouth Letterbox originally sited in 1999. Activity in both visitor's books suggest both events occurred between May and July of 2017.

The overwhelming majority of visitors who left their mark in the original box's book (which has been on site since 2016) were day hikers, Duke of Edinburgh participants and Ten Tor'ers. The last visitor called in on December 6th. Some 5 weeks before me. This seems an extraordinary long time, even by Duck's Pool standards. I vowed to contact the custodian of Ducks Pool Letterbox on my return home.  I stamped the book myself, and continued my Letterboxing in and around the valley, but the sun was dipping low and thoughts turned towards my return home.



I aimed for Plym Head, then downstream to Plym Ford and the track that would lead me back to the car.  I found a few boxes at Crane Lake and Evil Combe as I passed by.  The sun setting ahead of me made for incredible photography and a very visual indication of how long I had to get to Gutter Tor car park.


My day out at had been successful as a Letterbox walk.  Ducks Pool was surprising due the state that it was in, although it should shortly be back up to standard.  As far as my walks go, it was the furthest I'd been in some months, which gives me confidence for forthcoming routes planned.


I urge everyone who can to (re)visit Ducks Pool, to make their mark in the book, and support the maintenance of part of our hobby's heritage.  Maybe the journey will surprise you too.

Thursday, 21 December 2017

Challenge 11: ✔️ Achieved

Challenge 11: SITE A CHRISTMAS LETTERBOX SERIES

Here we go then!

whoisthechallenger's Christmas Tree Walk

Statts Bridge

West Cottages   

Walla Brook 

Vitifer Tin Mine 

Warren House Inn 

Water Hill  

Caroline Farm 

This walk has now been removed from the Moor. 

I'll be back with the twelfth and final Challenge in January!  I'd like to wish all my blog readers a very Merry Christmas!