AFTER last week’s trip to the Westmoreland fells, this week’s social media feed finds us at the opposite end of the country, exploring the wilds of Dartmoor.
And in the same way that shepherdess Alison O’Neill’s @woolismybread account offers followers a welcome escape from the pressures of city life, our social media host this week is equally rooted in the great outdoors.
Sea Witch is the Twitter monicker of @fenifur or Jenny, a pink-haired thirtysomething with a love of nature and the sea, as well as a fascination with foraging and wild swimming.
An able writer and photographer, she launched a modest blog in 2018 dedicated to encouraging people to make the most of nature – without feeling under any pressure to document it beautifully or do something unusual in order to really be experiencing it.
“I spent the first half of my life almost permanently submerged in the sea or out on long walks on the South Downs, but even then I recently began to feel anxious that I wasn’t doing nature ‘right’,” she writes.
“I can only imagine how unsure some people who have grown up in urban places who have not had access to wild spaces for one reason or another may feel. Perhaps especially so when we are told that nature will ease our anxieties, yet taking part seems to involve additional uncertainties and planning.”
As somebody with ADHD, insomnia and chronic pain from hEDS and autoimmune conditions, Jenny understands that getting to grips with the natural world may not always be as easy as it sounds.
Yes, we know it can be beneficial for our mental health and how gardening or rambling can alleviate depression or anxiety. But what if you have a chronic pain condition that doesn’t mix with the bending and kneeling of gardening, or find it stressful trying to keep several things alive, or can’t afford compost and seeds?
If growing up in the south coast cathedral city of Chichester gave Jenny a lifelong love of the sea, it’s Dartmoor which has in recent years provided her and partner Pat with a place of respite and relaxation, as well as exploration and discovery.
When a serious illness left her with post-viral fatigue, exacerbating her joint pain and autoimmune problems, exploring the moor seemed to provide the perfect challenge to help her regain her strength, using John Hayward’s classic 1991 book Dartmoor 365 as an inspiration.
His book highlighted interesting features to be found in each of the 365 square miles of the park, prompting Jenny to follow in his footsteps, using a separate @DartmoorSquares account and her Instagram feed, @jennynaturewriter to build a photographic map of her walks.
“I put a pause on this during lockdown because Dartmoor was really suffering with an excess of visitors and it didn’t seem right to post walks to some of the less well trodden places,” she says. “Hopefully my posts will encourage people to appreciate and enjoy Dartmoor respectfully.”
Jenny’s explorations are about the simple pleasures in life, from picnics and river swims to foraging for mushrooms, elderberries, sloes or wild raspberries, following deer paths, watching the ponies or soaking up the last rays of a particularly spectacular sunset.
Her rambles also immerse her – and us – in the history of the place, and allow us to savour those discoveries too, from the abandoned villages and tin mines to remote “letterboxes” where visitors can still leave a calling card to show they have found the spot.
Back in Victorian times no one was better known to visitors to the district than James Perrott of Chagford, who for more than half a century acted as guide to tourists wanting to explore the wild landscape, and became known as the “father of letterboxing” – after setting up a cairn and bottle for calling cards at Cranmere Pool in 1854.
Here, luminaries of the day like Charles Dickens could leave proof that they had accompanied Perrott on the arduous 16-mile round trip from Chagford, and it remains one of two permanent letterboxes on the moor, though hundreds of others exist, hidden from view from all but the most determined explorers.
Those weekend “route marches” across the South Downs as a teenager may have given her a certain level of confidence about going out alone into spaces away from towns as she got older, but chronic joint pain and a year almost bed-bound with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome means she has a particular understanding of those who find such feats difficult or impossible.
Her six-part blog is a work in progress but provides a lively introduction to walking, wild swimming and foraging, with the promise of more posts to follow.
Her @DartmoorSquares and Instagram feed provide a pictorial record of rambles around bogs, tors, and ancient settlements, capturing some fascinating places of interest along the way, like Crockern Tor, where the ‘Great Parliament of the Tinners’ would meet from the early 14th century to legislate in relation to stannary law, regarding tin-mining.
But immersed as it is in the wonders of nature, there’s nothing cutesy about her personal Twitter account, which sometimes feels as wild and untamed as the landscape she loves so much.
“I would LIKE my Twitter feed to be a way for people to learn more about nature and the environment in general, Dartmoor, history, walking, maybe a place to inspire people to go out exploring,” she says. “However it is also my personal account so this can turn into vents now and then! Everyone who has met me in person knows that I rarely take myself seriously, though my humour is very dry and that doesn’t always come across online.”
Perhaps it’s the intensely personal nature of the account which makes it so appealing to her 2,800 followers. She has certainly proved to be no fair-weather friend, with more than 54,000 tweets since her account was launched in 2010 maintaining an almost daily presence, many clearly posts shaped by her health issues and her decision after a few years working in wildlife charity and university admin to retrain as a medical herbalist.
“Without trying to sound dramatic, Dartmoor literally saved my life,” she says. “I got sick all the way back in 2016. I’d been in hospital with liver adenomas and heart issues, and had been given four types of intravenous antibiotics, so my system was defenceless when I got a norovirus a week later.
“I had to go to part time, sleeping in my lunch break on working days. I had an eight-month wait to see a specialist, so spent that time researching on my own. I was eventually diagnosed with various things which the PVFS had exacerbated. Before the specialist I’d been seeing my GP who didn’t ‘believe in’ PVFS though, so I spent a lot of time worried I was dying with some kind of rare disease.”
Depressed and ill, daily visits to Dunsford nature reserve provided a change of scenery, but did not offer a linear recovery. “Some days I could only manage a mile, and that could take me two hours,” she recalls. But one day she made it the two miles to a meadow which was full of meadowsweet, a plant used by medical herbalists to treat stomach issues.
“I couldn’t tolerate omeprazole or ibuprofen and was desperate not to be on codeine or tramadol, so I tried meadowsweet tea twice a day and it changed everything! Suddenly I could eat without searing pain every time, it was the glimmer of hope I needed.”
More years of ups and downs were to follow, but the Dartmoor walking challenges would help immensely. “Having a challenge to complete helped motivate me to get up when it felt like the last thing my body wanted, and I had the privilege at the time of having savings in the bank to live on, which meant I could just do temp work and volunteering when I was able for a whole year,” she recalls.
That’s when she chose to qualify as a medical herbalist – although taking that leap in the dark with another two years to qualify has brought its own anxious moments.
“With 150 clinic hours under my belt I’m qualified to treat ‘self-limiting’ conditions under my own insurance, and any patient with supervision in my course’s clinic,” she says. “It’s evidence-based plant medicine, and for me the gentle, holistic approach is much more friendly towards bodies and systems that are in distress and attacking themselves.
“It’s my aim to help people with chronic illness live with less pain and if possible get back some if not all of their physical health (and therefore improving mental health).
“I live every day in pain and I have to watch out for flare-ups, but without Dartmoor and the plants I found there to help my body heal, I don’t know what would have happened to me.”
It’s doubtless that searing honesty, as well as her compassion, wit and irreverence, which makes Jenny a welcoming online presence.
In the same way that we know how much she hates drones, waste and noisy neighbours, we can also relate to those flashes of impatience over family expectations, gaslighting by doctors and her ferocious reaction to injustice or unfairness.
“Dartmoor saved my life” could be her mantra – and long may she continue tramping through the bogs, streams and prehistoric sites that make her beloved moor such a place of discovery and adventure.
Thanks to Jenny for permission to reuse pictures from her Twitter feed.
Do you have any nominations for favourite Twitter accounts which brighten your life? Let us know your favourites by writing to firstname.lastname@example.org and we’ll see if they should be featured in our Sunday night series.