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Letterboxing on Dartmoor: Part II
Volume 71: Sat June 10, 2006
In which our trio of intrepid adventurers continue to explore the treacherous English countryside known as Dartmoor
This day would be like many we spent on the moors: Cold and oh so windy. Our first target was Pew Tor—allegedly famous for having lots and lots of letterboxes. After our first four days in Dartmoor, our found count wasn't doing so hot and we wanted to change things. Of course, with the Cranmere Pool box under our belt, we certainly have something to crow about! Even if we didn't get 100 finds on this trip, we still had Cranmere Pool. The Cranmere Pool box should count as a hundred finds! Well, maybe 10, at least.
We were not disappointed on Pew Tor and found a whopping 44 letterboxes there. That's not a typo—that's one four immediately after another four. The sad part was, we had not even finished searching the tor before Amanda and Lea wanted to call it quits for lunch. They were cold and miserable—as well they should be under such harsh conditions—but I'd never found so many boxes at one time. I wanted to keep going if for no other reason than to make the find count even more unbelievable.
We made a few other stops throughout the day, including a visit to the Dartmoor visitor center in Princetown. It has a very nice setup with lots of interesting displays about Dartmoor, but the main reason I mention this visit is so I can show a picture of Amanda and myself wearing ugly masks. I forget the purpose of them—probably to ward off evil spirits in the old days or something, but we had fun trying on the various ugly face masks. =)
We also stopped for lunch at the Old Police Station Cafe, named so because the cafe used to be a police station. I hoped to see old jails that Amanda and I could take turns in pretending to be imprisoned, but alas, I saw none. The place didn't even look like an old police station. It's a nice place, but really needs to be grunged up a bit for an authentic police station look. *nodding*
It was on our way back to the manner, not quite sunset, that a remarkable event took place. There is a stone circle there—our Ordnance Survey map calls it a cairn circle, and sunset is always the most magical time to visit strange rock formations since that is when the spirits are most active.
Our spirit was in the form of a large, overweight man, parked at a pullout along this narrow road not far from the cairn circle. We waved us to a stop and told us a story about his car not starting, stranded out of cell phone range, and could we help him. We offered him a ride into Postbridge, the nearest town with a phone where he could call AA. No, that is not a typo. For you English reading this, if you say AA in the United States, you'll be directed to Alcoholics Anonymous. For you Americans reading this, that's what we'd call AAA here.
The irony was wonderful, because our new, very large friend had clearly been drinking. You could smell it on his breath. The fact he wanted to call AA for help seemed like a great idea to us. =) Just as well his car wasn't starting, we thought. Those Dartmoor roads are scary. And with sunset approaching, a drunk man meandering the narrow roads in a motorized vehicle hardly seemed like a good idea. And did I mention that the sheep like to sleep on the roads at night? Apparently, the roads are warmer, so they like to sleep there in the middle of the road at night. Never speed in Dartmoor—especially at night!
Normally, at this point, I'd make up dialog to explain his side of the story, but since I can't write with an English accent to save my life (bloody hell!), I'll just tell it to you. While driving to Postbridge, he explained that he pulled over for a nip of alcohol. After he finished, he tried to start the car and nothing happened. Amanda had a few words to say about that and how much it had in common with my car. (I glared at her with the Evil Eye. That'll teach her!) And he explained that his wife was probably worried about him since he should have been home by then. But drats, he was stranded on the side of a road with no coverage for his cell phone.
In Postbridge, we dropped him off at a pub—it's not a big town, and there weren't a whole lot of options for making telephone calls, but I loved the idea of calling AA from a pub. =) He made a call to his wife to let her know he was running late as well, then we drove him back to his car since that was the direction we were going anyhow. (Postbridge was rather out of our way.)
We didn't hear any news the next day about a drunken man frozen to death in his car the night before, so we assume AA found and rescued him.
With the 44 boxes we found at Pew Tor the day before, we now had 89 finds to our name. Our goal for today was to break 100, and we did so on Yar Tor. Amanda, Lea, and I took lots of pictures, but I don't think any of us agreed on which was the 100th find. When we split up to search, at times, I'd find a box and they weren't close enough to flag down so they never ended up getting it as a find. Or they'd find a box but I was off finding my own boxes. So the counts for each of us weren't always identical. Close, but not identical. My 100th find is of a small frog that I stamped in with green because, darn it, frogs should be green.
Lea and Amanda wanted to search nearby Corndon Tor afterwards. Now that I had my 100 finds, I wanted to explore Dartmoor in more detail. On foot. I waved goodbye and told them I'd be walking back to the manor. Don't wait up for me. =)
I actually did go up Corndon Tor—walking cross-country was far preferable than walking along those narrow, windy roads. I didn't really look for letterboxes, though. I kept my eyes open for suspicious piles of rocks and uncovered boxes, but I didn't go walking around the tors and search the area in depth. I was sightseeing.
And what a sight to see. Fires were raging everywhere. The last couple of days the powers that be were doing controled burns, and in fact several of the letterboxes we found were damaged by said fires. The boxes were warped and melted. The logbooks burned. Smoke billowed through the air in all directions. I was amazed that they'd actually do controled burns with such a fierce wind going. Can they really control a burn with 50mph winds whipping them into a fury?
From the top of Corndon Tor, I pulled out the Dartmoor map and studied my route back to the manor. I estimated about four miles or so. Perhaps a two hour walk given the conditions. I had to hussle if I wanted to get back before sunset, but I grabbed a flighlight for my pack just in case.
I decided to follow the southern route, hiking south until I hit the Two Moors Way and follow it all the way into Widecombe. It as a simple plan. It was a good plan. At times, I thought, it was also a stupid plan. For one thing, it seemed like the path went awfully close to one of the controled burns I could see in the distance. I watched the flames soaring into the air with the thick smoke to mark its progress. Very hypnotic. So what if I came a little closer to the fire. I'd get a better view of it. =)
I hiked south off of Corndon Tor, but could not find Two Moors Way. I finally settled for road walking and followed the road to a small hamlet named Ponsworthy. At that point, I finally found Two Moors Way and almost immediately regretted following it into a mud/shit bog and where some ponies took up residence along an otherwise cute little creek. If it wasn't for all the mud with pony crap working its way into my shoes, it might have even been fun. =)
At Jordon, the path followed the surface roads again, for which I was quite happy to use now. I kept a close ear and eye on traffic coming up or down the road, though, so I could jump off into the bushes and avoid getting hit whenever possible. For all I knew, the drunk guy from the night before could have gotten his car started.
The trail led into another small town of Dockwell, and by this point, I realized something. That controlled burn that I thought my chosen route might come near—it was coming nearer than I ever imagined. It looked like I might be walking right into the middle of it.
But I continued on. If it was too dangerous for pedestrians, they'd close off the road. Right?
I reached the point where the Two Moors Way splits. To the right, the eastern route, was Widecombe and the manor. To the left, the central route, I didn't care where it went since that was not the direction I wanted to go. I was close enough now that the air was thick with smoke. Very thick, and my eyes started burning. And I could see the flames dancing alongside the road I wanted to follow. And there was no signs or blocked off access to the road.
So I went for it. I trudged up the hill to Widecombe. The smoke became thicker, and I covered my mouth and nose with my sleeve. I squinted as I walked up the road, often closing my eyes completely for several seconds at a time before cracking them open just barely enough make sure I wasn't walking off the road and into the fire.
A car coming from the other direction passed me, clearly having trouble seeing through the smoke as well.
I didn't have far to go—I just needed to get upwind of the fire where the air was clear. And it was just at the top of the hill. Not more than a quarter of a mile, I figured. The air started to clear a bit, then more, and finally I broke free of the smoke. I gulped the clean air then stopped to watch the flames crackling away in the brush just a few feet away.
I smelled my shirt. It smelled like campfire. There could be worse things, I thought. I always did like the smell of a nice campfire. Just so long as the smoke doesn't start blowing directly into you. ;o)
I took pictures and watched the wild fire continue to spread. It was a controlled burn, don't get me wrong, but there was nobody I could see that was actually controlling it. It was a fire, in the wild, running wild. So in my book, that's an exciting thing. I'd never seen a wild fire much less walked through one before! I wondered if Amanda and Lea took this route back to the manor or if they took one with a bit less smoke.
A few minutes later, a parade of national park vehicles came tearing up the hill and stopped at a pullout. One guy pulled out some shovels, and the rest seemed to hover together in a group to discuss something. Perhaps about the fire that was rapidly burning everything around us, I thought.
I snapped a photo of them, then continued my walk to Widecombe.
The rest of the hike was uneventful. In Widecombe, I stopped at a small market. I'd just hiked for two hours on foreign soil, through fires, steep hills, and narrow roads. Mud and crap filled my shoes. I was thirsty and hungry, and I wanted to splurg. So I walked into a small store that was open so I could buy a cold drink and a snack to eat and—
It was Princess Lea. Her and Amanda were there doing their own shopping. =)
We swapped war stories. They found something like 15 more boxes on Corndon Tor. I bragged about my brush with death. Okay, perhaps I exaggerated a little about the death part, but I promised I had great photos of the fire up close. =)
They asked if I'd like a ride the rest of the way to the manor—perhaps a quarter mile or so, but I declined. I got my walking in for the day and didn't feel like I really needed another quarter mile on top of that, but there was a small little book in the store that Amanda was eyeing called Bodies on the Moor—full of gripping, true-life accounts of people who met their deaths on the moor—by battle, murder, or sudden wealth, by pestilence, hooch or lead. But I digress—that's actually a line out of The Ballad of Blasphemous Bill. Seriously, though, many people have died on the moors over the years, and this book include detailed accounts of murders, escaped convicts, and wayward sheep sleeping on the roads. It was clear Amanda was torn about buying it, but finally set it down decided it was too much to pay.
After Lea and Amanda left the store, I picked up a copy and purchased it. =) I also got a nice cold Coke, a small bag of Doritos, and a newspaper. I sat down on a bench outside to consume the food and beverage, then walked the rest of the way to the manor where I presented Bodies on the Moor as a belated birthday gift. =)
I read the newspaper—paying special attention for any photos of topless women rumored to hang out on the inside cover of every English newspaper, but alas, I found none. I did read about the rising body count of English soldiers in Iraq, however, and the prime minister (Tony Blair, for those of you not following English politics) having a tough time in the polls. Which rather amused me. Different country, same problems. Then I watched some more Remington Steele and went to sleep.
Once again, I would ditch Amanda and Lea for my own little walking adventure through Dartmoor. We stopped near the cairn circle, not far from where we found our drinking buddy a couple of days before, to look for some letterboxes. I came along mostly so I could have a longer walk back to the manor—get a ride out then walk back. It would double the area I could cover rather than walk in a big circle starting and ending at the manor.
We found one box before our paths diverged. I followed a path towards Postbridge, planning to make a grand loop through Bellever Tor, Laughter Tor, before arriving at Corndon Tor where I'd largely retrace my steps from the evening before. Amanda and Lea went off to look for a couple of more boxes, then they were going to drive out to some far-flung location whose name I forget. Amanda was excited because Agatha Christie used to live there and anyone who knows Amanda knows she's a big Agatha Christie fan. Me? I'd have a long walk back. Lea and Amanda gave me the key for the manor expecting me to beat them back. Which made sense, since I planned to get back before sunset while I figured they'd spend the whole day visiting Agatha Christie sites, and probably enjoy the ambiance of an English pub for dinner—especially if it had letterboxes behind the bar.
So off to Postbridge I went. The trail was muddy and involved one stream crossing, and within minutes my feet were soaked. I should also mention, by this time, I was very concerned about my shoes falling apart before I made it back to the manor. Absolutely astonishing how quickly my shoes had fallen part on the moors. But I figured if they did fall apart, I'd wait it out in a pub of my own, call the manor asking if Angela could give Lea and Amanda a message about where I needed to be picked up. You always want a plan B. ;o)
I passed a couple of nice folks coming from the other direction at one particularly muddy place, and we took turns trying to squeeze around it—amusing each other with our attempts at trying to avoid the mud. It didn't work, but that's the natural order of things in Dartmoor.
In Postbridge, I wrote and mailed off a few postcards. If there's anywhere in Dartmoor that postcards should be mailed, it's Postbridge. The bridge in question is a scenic clapper bridge built something like 800 years ago which are basically large slabs of rocks balanced precariously over the river going through town. Very scenic, and they probably sell millions of postcards with that clapper bridge on it every year.
A few postcards lighter, I hiked up to Bellever Tor. I had no idea what the letterbox situation there was. Maybe it was legendary for boxes, maybe nobody planted boxes there. It didn't matter to me, though. I was out to enjoy the scenery and any boxes I found along the way were just a bonus. I had my 100 finds. I was a man. =)
The trail led through a small forested area, which is rather unusual since there aren't many forested areas left on Dartmoor. Hundreds of years ago that's all there was, from what I've heard, but they've all been logged and turned into farms over the years. The few forests that are left were deliberately planted to be logged.
I didn't walk far before I found them logging the forest. Large piles of downed trees and stumps littered the area while logging equipment rumbled through the valley. Kind of sad, really. There are so few forests in Dartmoor, and they're cutting down those that are there.
I counted the rings on one fallen tree, wondering how long this forest had been growing. About 50 years by my count. Perhaps in another 50 years it'll look like a forest again. Maybe by then they'll decide that preserving a couple of forests might be a good thing and not cut it down again. I like forests, in case you couldn't tell. =)
The view from the top of Bellever Tor was great, though once again the wind was cold and fierce. More controlled burns could be seen in the distance all around me. I stopped to eat lunch behind a large rock that did a decent job of blocking the wind, then started searching the area for letterboxes. After two hours of searching, I only found five boxes. Not really a good showing for two hour's worth of searching, but boxes were scarce here. Good thing I wasn't out for a high find count, because I would have been disappointed.
Then I headed cross-country to Laughter Tor after taking a close look at the terrain and the topo map. On the way down Bellever Tor, I found one more box, bringing my Bellever count to six. I was tired of looking for boxes, though, and stopped being so diligent in my searching at Laughter Tor. I walked through and past the tor, where I stopped long enough to pee from the top of a large tor, but otherwise, I didn't stop. =) I found no boxes on Laughing Tor
I followed along a rock wall down to a footpath which eventually dumped me out at a river crossing marked with stepping stones. The two people I passed earlier that morning were there! That was a nice surprise! Seems that they were doing nearly the same loop I was, but in reverse. Five hours later, miles from where our paths first crossed, they crossed again at these stepping stones. Their hike was almost done, however. I still had several more miles to make it back to the manor.
I followed the path to a road, then did some road walking until I reached the hamlet of Sherwell, not far from where I started my walk the day before. I wanted to find a couple of more boxes and decided to detour up Corndon Tor where Amanda and Lea found over a dozen boxes the day before, and that's where I headed.
I looked for a good half hour and came up with three boxes. I don't know where Amanda and Lea found the other dozen or so, but I wasn't having a whole lot of luck. Granted, there were several areas around the tor I did not search—sunset was approaching fast so at this point, time was limited. I gave myself a half hour to find as many boxes as possible before continuing back to the manor, and only had three boxes to show for my efforts. Later, after comparing notes with Lea and Amanda, I'd learn that two of the three boxes I found they had not found!
I took a slightly different approach back to the manor this time, going around towards the north side of Corndon Tor instead of the south, finally meeting up with my route the day before in Jordon. I walked through the area that had been burning the day before, and all that was left was the charred remains of bushes and vegetation. The fire was out—at least in this location. Other controlled burns could still be seen in the distance.
Amanda and Lea were already at the manor when I arrived—I guess they didn't stay long becoming one with Agatha Christie and they told wild stories about narrow roads and confusing signs. I told them wild stories of logging, stepping stones, and showed off the stamps for the nine boxes I had found. Lea seemed surprised I was out as late as I was, getting in just after sunset. Perhaps a bit later than I anticipated, but not by much. Amanda, I think, was surprised I was back as early as I was. She knows how much I like to walk. ;o)
We watched some television—The Apprentice was on. Which kind of surprised me since I didn't realize the English had an interest in Donald Trump. Turns out, I was right. This was an English version of the show, starring Sir Alan Sugar in The Donald's place. Very amusing to watch. It sounds like Sir Alan is as well known in England as Trump is in the United States, but I'd never heard of him before. We were also amazed at the profanity they'd use on the show and not even get a bleep out of it.
"Fucking idiots!" The first time I heard that, I turned to Amanda and asked if she heard what I thought they said, but I don't think she was paying much attention. Then we heard it again, along with other words you'd never hear on network television in the United States. Amanda said a few nights before, while I was off watching Remington Steele, they had found a movie playing with a very explicit sex scene on it. I wondered if there was anything they'd censor on English television.
Other than that and Sir Alan, the show was exactly like in the states. The two teams competing, where the losers would be sent to the boardroom to fight among themselves for who was at fault. Very entertaining, indeed. =)
Afterwards, I started reading Bodies on the Moor, including an account of the American soldiers buried in a mass grave next to the Princetown prison. The notorious prison in Dartmoor was built a couple hundred years ago as a place to put POWs from a war with France (which also have their own mass grave with the Americans). During the War of 1812, American POWs were sent here to serve out the duration of the war. Conditions, back then, were hardly sanitary, and many of them died before getting a chance to return to the United States.
After the War of 1812, the prison wasn't used for much, but later was used as an Alcatraz of England where a lot of the worst and most violent prisoners were sent. Many people tried to escape. Many were killed in the process. It's still a prison today, but now houses relatively minor criminals. They make pottery and stuff that gets sold at the prison's museum. =)
Then I got tired and went to sleep. *yawn*
The next morning, we packed sandwiches and hit the road. On foot. We'd be making a loop to look for letterboxes on Honeybag Tor, Chinkwell Tor, Bell Tor, and Bonehill Rocks—this ridge we could see out our window from the manor and more than once I'd gaze out the window dreaming of visiting. Today, I would. That was the plan, at least, and we decided leaving the car at the manor would be the easiest thing to do. We'd be walking in a giant circle anyhow.
This was the first time Amanda and Lea actually did any road walking in Dartmoor. By now, I was getting quite used to it and didn't think anything of it. They took pictures of striped cows, and flocks of sheep. The climb from the road to Honeybag Tor was steep, and at first we weren't finding much. Somehow we managed to find eleven boxes before moving on to Chinkwell Tor where we found another half dozen boxes.
By then, though, I was ready to call it quits. The wind was especially vicious today and I was not having fun. Extremely cold, extremely miserable. I huddled behind a rock for protection against the wind, and Amanda and Lea made what I thought were half-hearted attempts at finding boxes on Bell Tor. I don't think they really had the desire to be out anymore either.
Instead of continuing and searching out boxes on Bonehill Rocks, we took the road back into Widecombe. Amanda and Lea stopped to have tea at one of the establishments, then to go shopping. Having no interest in either of those activities, I left them and continued back to the manor by myself. Once again, I watched more episodes of Remington Steele and finished reading Bodies on the Moor including a gripping account of a man who murdered his wife and almost got away with it. Fascinating stuff.
Amanda and Lea showed up a couple of hours after I did, and that night, it started to rain. It rained buckets, and let me tell you, I was awfully glad I was inside where it was warm and dry.
The rain continued to fall throughout the night and into the next morning. We all decided that letterboxing wouldn't be much fun in this weather. Cold and windy were one thing. Wet and muddy were a totally different story. No, instead, we decided, we'd drive into Plymouth and see a little bit of the city life.
I have to say it—I really liked Plymouth. The Mayflower set sail for the New World from Plymouth, and we visited the newly opened Plymouth Mayflower Museum covering a great deal about the history of Plymouth from thousands of years ago to WWII when the city was pulverized from air attacks to the commercial ships using the port today.
I was particularly fascinated with the bombing during WWII. I'd always seen pictures of the rubble left from the bombing runs during the war, but they were always in such far flung places I'd never been to or visited. But it occurred to me that there were still people today, living right there in Plymouth, that remember when this happened. They watched German airplanes flying overhead and dropping bombs while air-raid sirens warned the city of the danger. They had old photos of the area we were walking around at that moment with horrible scenes of burned out buildings. The Mayflower is distant history, and still is in my mind, but suddenly, for the first time in my life, WWII didn't seem like a distant history to be learned about in history books. The people here lived it.
Amanda and Lea wanted to take a factory tour of the Plymouth Gin, so that's what we did. I was kind of disappointed with the tour myself. Most of the time I felt like they were just advertising themselves (buy our gin, it's the best!) rather than walk us through the factory and how it works. Oh, we did get to see inside of it, but all-in-all, I was rather disappointed with the tour. I was very amused when our tour guide made some disparaging remarks about "those Americans" at one point—I forget the context, but he said it in a lighthearted manner, then immediately turned around and asked us if we were Americans. Obviously remembering our strange accents that clearly showed us as not being loyal subjects of the British empire. =)
The tour guide also explained that the water they use in their gin comes from Dartmoor, and the peat there does an amazing job of filtering the water so it's some of the most pure and wonderful tasting stuff in the world. Amanda and I looked at each other. We'd just come from Dartmoor. We've seen all the pony crap, sheep crap, and it's hard to walk anywhere on Dartmoor without stepping in crap. I'm not so sure bragging that the water came from Dartmoor is such a great idea. =)
I also looked for some cheap shoes to replace the tattered ones that were falling off my feet, but came up with nothing which was a huge disappointment. Plymouth was the biggest city for a long way around, and if I couldn't find shoes there, where could I find them? Where do the locals buy their shoes, I wondered?
We finally headed back to the manner. In the rain. A nice day in the city.
One thing about the rain, though—as soon as it started raining, the temperature rose to much more comfortable levels and the wind didn't howl like before. It was still cool, to be sure, but it wasn't cold anymore. Perhaps spring had finally arrived.
We woke up yet again to rain. "Just like a typical winter day in Seattle," I reminded Amanda. =)
Originally, our plan was to hike out to Fox Tor to look for some boxes. Lea wanted to go there because her last name is Fox. We also heard rumors that many local letterboxers were planning to go out there letterboxing 'weather permitting.' We wondered what counted as 'weather permitting' in Dartmoor, known for it's wet, soggy weather. Would they still be out there?
We didn't know, but we didn't want to take the chance and made alternative plans. First we headed out to Tavistock to check out the town. Mostly we walked around and did some window shopping, but at long last, I found a pair of replacement shoes for myself. Knowing I'd probably need them to get on a plane back to the United States as well, I tried to find some that weren't too ratty-looking. Nice-looking shoes that could still be hiked in. They cost 20 pounds, which was a bit more than I wanted to pay, but I was in a foreign country and decided it was acceptable under the circumstances.
My old shoes, the ones I was wearing, were in such bad shape, I asked the clerk at the counter if I could dispose of them right there in the store and walk out using my new shoes. =) She said she'd take them, and I saw her grimace when I lifted them above the counter where she could finally see them. They were full of holes, smelled like the crap I'd been walking around in, and wet. She gamely took the shoes from me and disposed of them. I think I caught her rubbing a disinfectant all over her arms and hands as I left the building wearing my shiny new shoes. =)
Then it was off to Princetown where we would visit the infamous prison. Actually, it was just a small building at the edge of the prison that's been turned into a museum. Since the prison still is in use, they don't let people run around the cell blocks like they do on Alcatraz. It was a fascinating place, and discussed the history of the prison in detail over the years. Some of the more modern exhibits showed confiscated items that were turned into keys, weapons, and descriptions of attempts by inmates to escape. Plus, they sold all sorts of interesting items created by the prisoners. =)
Fascinating place, and well worth a visit if you ever find yourself in Dartmoor on a rainy day. We had time to kill in Princetown. We wanted to meet up with other letterboxers for the grand pre-meet. Twice a year, when the clocks time is changed, letterboxers on Dartmoor converge for a massive meeting of hundreds of people. So we had heard, at least. And the night before that, a smaller group of dedicated letterboxers meet at the Railway Inn there in Princetown to swap stamps and war stories. We were hanging out in Princetown until this pre-meet started.
First we hung out in the Fox Tor Cafe, a place Lea wanted to visit for the same reason she wanted to visit Fox Tor. The Railway Inn wasn't open yet, so waiting in the Fox Tor Cafe next door seemed like a fine idea.
They had a letterbox behind the counter, and the three of us started stamping in as a couple of other people wondered into the establishment. "Are you letterboxers?" they asked.
They were letterboxers too, so we swapped war stories and explained our coming all the way to Dartmoor from the United States. They seemed astonished that we'd travel halfway around the world to letterbox. =)
During the next half hour, additional letterboxers trickled into the cafe while also waiting for the Railway Inn to open. The cafe closed at 5:00, so we were finally kicked out onto the street, but the Railway Inn didn't open until 6:00 so we had another hour to kill. So we wandered across the street to the Plume of Feathers pub where we purchased dinner and killed another hour until the Railway Inn opened.
That was often a problem we had on Dartmoor. Businesses often closed for lunch, and pubs opened at ridiculously late hours. We'd try to go to a pub for a letterbox or food, but it would be closed so we'd go the one next door and wait for the first one to open up. I didn't much care for the pubs either, since a ban on smoking indoors had yet to be implemented and I felt like I was back in the wild fire from a few days before. My eyes would sting and it would be hard to breath. But there wasn't much I could do about that except try to bear it without offending any of the locals at my dislike of fags. (That's what cigarettes are called in England. *nodding*)
Six o'clock was finally approaching, so we paid our bill then crossed the street back to the Railway Inn where a large crowd of people was waiting to get in. We joined them and waited.
The pub opened, and we followed the group into the back where stamps were already out and flying in all directions. It was amazing. Some people came in carrying what looked like large toolboxes filled with dozens and dozens of stamps, passing them around to anyone who wanted to stamp them into their own logbooks. Most of the stamps were from former, retired boxes. A few were for boxes that had yet to be hidden. I wasn't really interested in recording 'unlegitimate finds,' but I'd accept any stamps that were passed my way so I wouldn't offend anyone inadvertently. I wanted to do exchanges and get personal stamps—I didn't care about the stamps that were formerly letterboxes or were soon to become one.
The pub was packed full. Walking through the crowd was tough, and we all had a grand time telling about our adventures on Dartmoor and explaining about the things we found different in England. One man I asked about the mystery of the strange road sign that kept bothering me from our very first day in England.
"What's that road sign mean—it's a blue circle with a red outline and an X through it?"
"Oh, yes, I know what you're talking about. I see them everywhere."
"What does it mean?"
"Hell if I know."
I laughed. Well, if the locals don't know, then it's obviously not something we need to worry about. =)
Lea asked another guy if they met out at Fox Tor like was originally planned. He turned to us with a look of horror. "Good lord, no! It's wet outside!" The three of us laughed some more. I guess some things don't change, regardless of what country you're in. =)
There was one particular set of stamps that did grab my attention. They looked exactly like the roundabout signs we had been seeing all over England, except the spokes of these roundabouts led to places like Muddy Boots, Inky Fingers, Tired Limbs, and Wet Clothes. I loved those stamps. I wanted those stamps. The man stamping them into his own logbook said I'd have to meet the people who created them and led me into another room with the pool table, where I met additional interesting characters, including the creators of these two wonderful stamps.
I set my black ink pad on the edge of the pool table while stamping in, then accidentally knocked it into a corner pocket. Oops. I put my hand into the pocket to retrieve it, but that didn't work. It fell between the tracks that move the balls to the end of the pool table, and I couldn't reach it. If you ever visit the Railway Inn, know that there's a small, Cat's Eye ink pad in the pool table there. Black is the color. It's mine. =)
After an hour of stamping, I started growing concerned about the amount of space left in my logbook. It was filling up at an astonishing rate, and I didn't think to bring a spare. Who'd have thought I could go through so many pages in such a short period of time? It was inconceivable!
"Wait until you see tomorrow," everyone would warn us. "Tonight is just a sample of what's to come."
We had a great time at the pre-meet and everyone treated us very well. Our trailnames became seemed to have morphed into "The Americans"—that's how they all seemed to refer to us, at least. =)
The other strange thing for us—not one person knew who we were. It was kind of nice being an anonymous newbie for once. Well, a second time, technically speaking, since I was once a newbie in the United States too. I doubt there's a single letterboxing gathering in the United States now where nobody would recognize us. And even if they didn't, some of them would certainly know us by name or reputation. Here, though, we were completely anonymous. Nobody ever heard of Green Tortuga or Atlas Quest. It was fun. =)
The night wore on, and at last we said our goodbyes and headed back to the manor. We wanted to be up bright an early for the semi-annual clock-change meet the next morning.
We drove out early to the small town of Lee Moor whose population explodes twice each year as letterboxers from all over England—with us included, you could even say letterboxers from all over the world—descend for the clock-change meet. They don't have time changes like we do in the states, but rather clock changes. I might also add, their clock changes do not happen at the same time as our time changes. The time wouldn't change in the United States for another week.
Parking was the first challenge since the town isn't designed for such large number of visitors. But we finally found a space then walked the ten miles to the public hall. Okay, maybe it wasn't ten miles, but it sure seemed like that.
We were astounded. We'd heard stories of all the people who come to this gathering, but the whole hall was packed with people making the night before look like a poor man's dress rehearsal. Hundreds of people fluttered around at the various displays selling logbooks, ink pads, stamps, GPSes, compasses, clothes, and even clues to letterboxes. We wandered around in a delirium checking out the place.
We met God, I'm happy to report, and he really does exist. =) God is short for Godfrey, a man who has probably done more to promote letterboxing on Dartmoor than anyone else alive. He first visited the Cranmere Pool letterbox back in the 1935, I think it was, at the impressionable age of 10. He didn't have a logbook, he explained, and stamped the stamp onto his hand and on his shirt. His mom later made him wash his hands and his shirt, so he has no record of that visit, but he went back later with a logbook to record the find. =)
He also told us the story of the letterboxer serving a lifetime prison sentence just outside of Dartmoor for murder. So far as I know, though, he's the only confirmed murderer who's a letterboxer. Well, ex-letterboxer, I suppose. He probably doesn't letterbox much in prison.
We registered for the 100 Club, showing our logbooks as proof of our hundred finds. We stood in line for our turn in stamping the official event stamp into our logbooks. Then we looked around and realized we were way out of our element. We didn't really know anyone except for a couple of people we met the night before, and there wasn't even any room to sit down to talk with anyone.
I went outside and hid a stamp. Calling it a letterbox would have been a bit much since it had no logbook, but it was small and easy to hide, then I came back inside and wrote out the clue for it on a small piece of paper. It gave directions to the stamp, then asked the bearer of the note to pass the note on to someone else after they get the stamp and not to copy the clue for anyone. You must have that note to find the stamp. I signed it with my turtle stamp (of course) and passed it off.
Most stamps are just handed around freely at this gathering, which seemed kind of disappointing to us. We always liked to hide our boxes, often in plain sight, but hidden anyhow. Never trust that box of donuts on the table to really be donuts—it's just as likely a clever disguise for a letterbox. Boxes might be hidden under picnic tables, behind bumpers, or in an ice chest. Here, there was none of that. The stamps were just passed around freely which seemed so anti-climatic. So I decided to plant my own stamp outside of the building, in the rain, and pass around the elusive clue for people to have to look for it. =)
Then we left. I didn't know if anyone would bother to go outside and look for the stamp or not or what the locals would think about hiding a stamp at a gathering. But we'd seen enough, we felt, and finally decided to leave after less than two hours of being there. Weeks later, I would get e-mails from a couple of people telling me how much they enjoyed sneaking outside to get the stamp I planted. =) Speaking of which, I put the stamp there originally with the intention of it being there for the day and we'd come back after the meet was over and reclaim it, but that never happened. The stamp is still there—a carving of the Liberty Bell—and I posted clues for it on Atlas Quest. It's called 'The Americans Have Come!'—just in case you ever make it out Lee Moor.
On our way back to the manor, we stopped at the Butterfly Farm and Otter Sanctuary in Buckfastleigh. The butterflies weren't in season, but we loved the place since it was heated like a nice, warm sauna which was much preferable to the cold, wet outdoors. I loved a big sign with butterfly related trivia, such as "If a human baby grew as fast a caterpillar, it would weigh 8 tons in a week." Glad I don't have to change those diapers!
The otters were outside, some playing around, some watching us with intense curiosity, and others just ignored us completely. We waited for about a half hour when feeding time came around, then watched one of the workers there throw fish and hamburger at them to eat. Lots of fun.
We finally left to see Buckfast Abbey where monks do their thing. The building was nothing short of amazing, and we were impressed. We went inside since they allowed tourists to go inside and marveled at the place. Very cool. *nodding*
But eventually, we left that too, and headed back to the manor. It was be our last night in the manor, so I made a fire and Amanda cooked pizza for dinner.
We packed up all our possessions, loaded them into the rental car, then Princess Lea drove us to the train station in Plymouth. Amanda wasn't feeling well at all and had become terribly sick the night before. Lea would be sticking around in England for another week or so to do some sightseeing on her own, with the rental car, while Amanda and I planned to head off to London to become moles and and use the Underground to get around. I'd never been to London before, and was excited to spend a day looking around and exploring some of the highlights of the city. We purchased our train tickets, said goodbye to Lea, then waited for our train to London to arrive.
Amanda laid out on a bench, still sick from the night before, and we waited for our train to arrive. It arrived, we boarded, took our seats, and headed off to London. We were supposed to spend just a single day there, but alas, those adventures will have to wait for another time, because there's a whole lot more to say about that little adventure. =)
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