Friday, 28 April 2017

Dartmoor: A trip out to Cranmere Pool

Sun rising over the lower slopes of Cosdon Hill
Sun rising over the lower slopes of Cosdon Hill
When my neighbour, Neil, told me he would be knocking at six in the morning, for our excursion to Cranmere Pool, I wasn't particularly enthused about the prospect. Getting up at just gone five when you're on holiday is something I would normally associate with jet lag! But that was the decision and it proved to be the right one.

We, being Neil, Poppy (his obedient black lab) and I, left from Belstone just as the sun was beginning to poke its head above Cosdon Hill. Climbing up to the Belstone Common ridge, the local sheep were positioning themselves atop the rocks to bask in the first rays of the day.


Locals enjoying the first rays of the sun on Belstone Common
Locals enjoying the first rays of the sun
Laid out before us, wisps of mist adorned Taw Marsh and the surrounding moor was a wealth of oranges and browns. This was magical and any misgivings about the early start were forgotten.


Taw Marsh and Steeperton Tor
Taw Marsh and Steeperton Tor
Belstone Tor
Belstone Tor
Another out enjoying the morning
Another out enjoyng the morning

Neil had told me that back in the day he had been a keen "Letterboxer"; a hobby that is likely viewed as geeky as tor bagging, but a practice that promotes exploration of Dartmoor and a healthy one into the bargain. If you are not already aware, Cranmere Pool is the site of the first letterbox and visiting is something of a pilgrimage. For some inexplicable reason, I have never been there so I was glad to be going with someone with a little knowledge of how to reach it. More on Cranmere, and letterboxing, later.

Our route appeared straightforward; up along the Belstone Ridge, passing Oke Tor,  Steeperton Tor, then down over the East Okement and up onto Okement Hill. It looked a long way on paper, but with good tracks it also appeared a simple one for most of it.

The ridge to Oke Tor
The ridge to Oke Tor

We dropped down to the ford over the River Taw, below Steeperton Tor. Neil pulled out a flask and we had a quick coffee break. Still very early, no rush.

Looking back down the track, Oke Tor, and Belstone Ridge left,  Steeperton Tor to the right.
Looking back down the track

Out of the gorge, the military track to Whitehorse Hill continues to be obvious, as is the turning right to Okement Hill, more so in such clear visibility.

Approaching Okement Hill
Approaching Okement Hill

Crossing a ford, back over the Taw, we ascended Okement Hill, conversation proving a distraction to our navigating and missing the track we should have taken left to Ockerton Court. We found ourselves at the military observation bunkers and, rather than retrace our steps, we struck north; a tactic that would be frowned upon if the conditions were not as perfect as they were today.

I've seen descriptions of the best routes to Cranmere Pool and they have all involved intricate twists and turns to steer clear of the worst of the mire I was expecting. Today, a bit of bog bashing was hardly difficult, and we approached the West Okement Head without drama.

Neil approaching the West Okement
Neil approaching the West Okement

Looking to the West Okement Head
Looking towards the West Okement Head 
High Willhays ridge in the distance.
High Willhays ridge in the distance

We dissected a peat pass, and crossed the narrow West Okement, then followed the re-entrant as close as we could up to the source. Once at the top, we found the depression in the peat, known as Cranmere Pool, and the famous small granite brick letter box on a rough plinth.

Cranmere Pool and the Letterbox
Cranmere Pool and the letterbox

So what is this "Letterboxing" all about? 

It is William Crossing in his trusty "Guide to Dartmoor" who tells us that, in 1854, a Dartmoor guide, named James Perrott, built a cairn in the pool and placed a bottle within for visitors to deposit their cards. This simple practice grew into the recreational hobby of "Letterboxing", where small weatherproof boxes are hidden in publicly accessible places and clues are given to find them. Each letterbox contains a notebook and a customised rubber stamp for visitors to collect the ink imprint as proof of their visit. If you are interested in taking up the hobby, there is more information at http://letterboxingondartmoor.co.uk/.

Cranmere Pool Letterbox
Cranmere Pool Letterbox

Cranmere Pool Letterbox
Cranmere Pool Letterbox
The "pool" is more of a puddle nowadays and it takes a persistant period of inclement weather to increase it. It was, once, a permanent body of water, but that was more than a century before Crossing even wrote his guide!

Cranmere "Puddle"
Cramere "Puddle"

We left, following a trail of obvious footfall, across the peat heaps to the small pool called Ockerton Court. An easier route than the one we had arrived on but a damper affair. We rounded the pool where we could tread without a boot full of water and came across the obvious track we had missed earlier.

Ockerton Court
Ockerton Court

Track to Okement Hill
Track to Okement Hill

Back on Okement Hill, we took the military road to just below East Mill Tor, then left it to ascend the outcrop. Situated between the Belstone and High Willhays ridges, this area is often bypassed which is a shame because it is a series of tors each worthy of single status but sadly lumped together.

East Mill Tor
East Mill Tor

East Mill Tor
East Mill Tor

East Mill Tor
East Mill Tor

Poppy on East Mill Tor
Poppy on East Mill Tor
Old Observation point on East Mill Tor?
Old Observation Post on East Mill Tor

We had another break, but the wind was up on this one and it was decidedly chillier than earlier so we didn't linger. 


East Mill Tor
East Mill Tor

East Mill Tor
East Mill Tor

On our way from the lowest outcrop, we came across a spot of military litter. Despite the shell looking safe, it's always best to leave military items well alone, take a note of the grid reference and report later, which I duly did. A day later I received a call to inform me the shell had been retrieved. Please heed this advice (lifted from the Dartmoor National Park Authority website); "Although the military regularly checks for military debris the public are advised not to touch any suspicious objects as they may be unexploded ordnance. Some of the older debris can be very corroded and rusty. Mark the area, note the location and inform the police (Tel: 08452 777444)."

Military shell. Reported it later.
Military Shell

We dropped down to Henry's Ford on the East Okement. The river was sufficiently low to make crossing it no problem. Then came a pull up over the Belstone  Ridge, passed Knattaborough Tor, and down to the track along Taw Marsh.

Henry's Ford on the East Okement
Henry's Ford on the East Okement

Taw Marsh
Taw Marsh

All that was left was good ground back to Belstone. 

Track back to Belstone
Track back to Belstone

Belstone Cleave
Belstone Cleave

Gorse on Cosdon near Belstone
Gorse on Cosdon near Belstone

I had expected a long arduous day tramping over peat bogs and energy sapping mire when in reality we were back at the car just after half past one that afternoon. I did ponder whether we had missed out on the mythical experience of a Cranmere Pool hidden in a heavy Dartmoor mist and, perhaps, another pilgrimage should be made when the weather wasn't so accommodating.

Perhaps not!

And the route we took: