“Wild scenes amid the heathy fells,
Where rocks ascend and torrent swells.
Wild seems yet fair! – may song essay
Your lonely grandeur to portray.”
Whilst recently trawling through my letterbox stamp collection I came across a page dating back to 1993 which I had completely forgotten about. Then having seen the stamps the memories came flooding back of the day I collected them. It was on the occasion of what was then the annual ‘Ten Postbox Walk’ which sadly no longer takes place.
The start point was from the back of the Fox and Hounds Inn and in those days some people would camp over the previous night and have a ‘ram sammy’ in the pub. On this occasion I forwent that pleasure as a clear head seemed prudent. On arrival one had to book in and have a kit check before being given the route sheet containing the various check points. I remember there was some consternation when I was asked who was in my team – “err, just me,” was the reply, apparently most people made it a team event. “What’s your team name,” I was asked, “Team Billy No Mates,” was the reply. For me in those days such a challenge needed to be achieved without any assistance or hindrance, today things would be very different – nothing to prove anymore.
So having been deemed to be adequately equipped, competent and fully briefed team 123 – K10 -1 (Billy No Mates) set off at 8.30am. As Dartmoor weather can go the day was not the best for a trudge up over tor and down coombe, it was windless, airless and threatening to be baking hot. Still it could have been much worse, at least there was good visibility which would make navigation much easier.
The first checkpoint was located on Great Links Tor which meant an uphill trudge from Nodden gate, the second checkpoint was located at the nearby Rattlebrook Peat Works. Here you will have to forgive the 21 year memory lapse but I am fairly sure it was a direct route. From the peat works the next leg involved a gentle climb up to Kitty Tor where the next checkpoint was sited – so far so good.
At this point the plan was to complete the trek as soon as possible especially as Mr. Sun was ramping up the heat. However this was a period in my life when I was ‘fanatical‘ about visiting as many letterboxes as possible. I had already rudely ignored several box sites which were nothing to do with this walk and on spotting another the temptation was too great. I stopped, performed the necessary routine and headed down to the West Okement river and back up to the next checkpoint on Lints Tor.
From there the next objective was OP15 on Okement Hill which involved what seemed to be an endless slog, probably due to the presence of some more unrelated letterboxes. According to the record sheet it was 11.03am when I reached there – two and a half hours to cover eight kilometres – not good. It was here that I met some friends that were manning the checkpoint who did not refrain from pointing out my rather lax timing. I explained the reason why and was promptly taunted with the fact that Cut Hill was literally littered with letterboxes. I was also kindly offered to have a cup of cocoa waiting when I finished as it would probably be bed time – yeah right!
The next objective was Hangingstone Hill with two options; go the long way around by using the old military track or slop across as the crow flies on the much shorter route, I decided the latter. Hangingstone Hill in those days was another Mecca for letterboxes and that offer of a cup of cocoa began to seem inevitable. According to the sheet it was 11.55am when I reached there which meant nearly an hour to cover two kilometres – oh dear, and I hadn’t even got to Cut Hill!
Cut Hill was about four kilometres away and would involve bog hopping over to Black Hill, taking the peat pass, along the ridge and ending up at this holy of letterboxing holy. It seemed that everywhere were the tell-tale dried turf plugs that suggested a letterbox would be hidden deep below them in the peat Hags. Never mind a cup of cocoa when I got back it would be more like a bacon butty for the following day’s breakfast. Anyone who has walked over the northern ‘badlands’ in blistering heat will know all too well the sense of airlessness and the smell of gently roasting moor grass. Every now and then a welcomed, cooling breeze would waft across the moor giving a temporary respite before disappearing. The only benefit of such days is that you can pick up a wicked suntan. Well I say ‘wicked’ but that only applies to where the shorts and sleeves end and the rest of face not covered by sunglasses.
From Cut Hill the next checkpoint was at Watern Oke which meant going past the ‘Queen of the Moor’ – Fur Tor, another area which was home to numerous letterboxes. Now, one cannot pass this tor without paying respects and logging in at the visitors box of the ‘official’ letterbox, that is if one can find it. Having eventually located the box a quick glance at my watch said it was time to saddle up ‘Shanks’ Pony’ and head across Pinswell and down to Sandy Ford where I could cross the Amicombe Brook. This was rather fortunate timing as my water supply had run dry and gave me chance to replenish stocks. Yes, I know all about the dangers of drinking straight from watercourses, dead sheep upstream etc. But I did take it from a rather vigorous mini waterfall and I here I still am punching the keyboard.
Having crossed the Amicombe Brook the next checkpoint appeared and after a rapid check I headed down and then up to Hare Tor. By then it was 3.14pm which meant I had taken just over seven hours to cover about nineteen kilometres. Now if when walking over Dartmoor terrain I would estimate that the average speed should be about four kilometres an hour. Then allow 1 minute for every ten metres ascended and one minute for every twenty five metres descended. I will leave you to do the maths but maybe one can see what an embuggerance letterboxing can be, certainly in this case.
From Hare Tor it was nearly downhill all the way back, over to Doe Tor, cross the Doe Tor Brook, hike up to Brat Tor and back down to Nodden Gate which I reached about 4.00pm. So after all that I wasn’t first back home and I wasn’t last back home, more to the point I had a pint of beer instead of a cup of cocoa and a stack of letterbox stamps to boot. The whole walk was around about twenty kilometres and one which twenty odd years later I don’t think I’d relish too much.
What is the point of all this? Well the event is no longer held and so has taken its place in both Dartmoor’s and Letterboxing history. Why is the event no longer held? Firstly the event itself, this was first held in the late 1980s and each year it took place either on the North Moor or the South Moor. The whole event was organised and manned on a purely volunteer basis, many helpers coming from the letterboxing fraternity. It was a social event open to all comers with a convenient camp site for anyone wanting to make a weekend of it. There was a choice of routes which ranged from ‘family friendly’ to ‘ball breaking’ distances. The entry fee in 1993 was £3 per team and once the walk was completed each entrant had a collection of ten letterbox stamps (or in my case some thirty odd) and a badge. So far so good.
Sometime in the late 1990s (please forgive the vagueness but after twenty years the old ‘mind library’ has numerous books overdue) one team member wandered away from his group to collect an unrelated letterbox. Again the memory is lax but I have a feeling it was somewhere near OP15. The rest of his companions moved on but soon realised he was missing. Sadly he was eventually found when it was discovered he had collapsed and died. Following this tragedy the event had lost its appeal and it was decided that no more Ten Postbox Walks should be held.
I dread to think what would be involved in organising such an event today; liability insurance, health and safety protocols, permissions, first aid cover, so on and so forth. How did we manage back then?