Written by Anne Swinscow, More Dartmoor Letterboxes, first published December 1986
The idea of letterboxing on Dartmoor originated in 1854 when a Dartmoor guide, named James Perrott, placed a bottle in a bank at Cranmere Pool as a receptacle for the cards of intrepid walkers that he had escorted there. This idea was described by one Victorian authority as "a snare for Tourists", but if one was taking a guided walk on the moor it was useful to have a goal, and, having reached that goal, a method of recording the fact. At that time there was of course no Military ring road, so the walk to Cranmere was sufficiently difficult to be worth recording. Leaving one's calling card was the "Kilroy was here" of the times.
By 1888, a tin box had replaced the bottle, and, in 1905 a visitors book was provided and gradually ones' signature in the book took over from the calling cards. Later, a rubber stamp and ink pad were added and it became fashionable to leave a post card addressed to oneself or a friend in the box, which would be stamped by the next caller to the box and posted on [via a more conventional letterbox] from his home town. In 1937, the site was taken over by the Western Morning News, and a granite box erected to replace the cairn. This box, built like a miniature stone hut, still stands and is, in fact, the only Dartmoor Letterbox that in any way resembles its G. P. O. [Government Post Office] counterpart, and one of the only two that have any permanent structure at all - the other being at Duck's Pool.
Duck's Pond letterbox dates from 1938. The box was set up by a group of walkers known as Dobson's Moormen, in memory of William Crossing, the Dartmoor writer and gazetteer. In addition to being a memorial to a great Dartmoor figure, it was intended to be a focal point for walks on the South Moor, though by this time the Military road had been built and to get to Cranmere no longer posed so much of a challenge. Both boxes were strategically placed, one at the center of the North Moor and one at the center of the South Moor, and for some years these two were the only letterboxes on Dartmoor [with the doubtful exception of the secret and undiscovered Belstone Box.]
By 1976, there were fifteen known boxes on the moor, and these were described in an illustrated chart, designed to provide interesting walks on the moor. This chart proved so popular that people started putting out other boxes to provide other sites to visit, and from then on letterboxes suffered a population explosion. Boxes were sited here, there and everywhere, sometimes not too wisely, so after much debate a code of conduct was thought up. This is designed to protect the antiquities of the moor and to insure that letterboxers and letterboxes cause the minimum of upset to the landowners, commoners and other moor users.
The Code of Ethics is as follows:
Boxes should not be sited,
1. In any kind of antiquity. In or near stone rows or circles, cists or cairns. Or in any kind of buildings, walls or ruins, peatcutters or tinner huts, etc.
2. In any potentially dangerous situation where injuries could be caused.
3. As a fixture. Cement or any other building material not to be used.
Boxhunters should follow the country code
So, though there may be up to 1,000 boxes out at a time, only Cranmere Pool and Duck's Pool will be visible to the casual observer.
The modern letterbox is usually contained in an old ammunition tin, or any other waterproof container, and before anyone has a fit at the thought of 1,000 or so of these littering up Dartmoor, I would suggest they go out and have a look for themselves. If you don't know where to look I would defy you to find any. But you do not need to be equipped with your garden spade before you join the hunt, though well concealed, these boxes are not three feet underground. You are more likely to come across a box if you look between a crack in the rocks, in a a natural niche in a peat bank or, masked by heather, under a boulder. Find one box, and in the visitors book you may well find clues to another. If you want to go letterboxing in comfort, try the Plume of Feathers at Princetown, The Kings Arms at Okehampton, The Rock Inn at Haytor Vale or the Museum of Dartmoor Life at Okehampton, at these places of course you don't have to search for the visitors book and stamp, just ask for it.
I must warn anyone new to letterboxing that each box ought to carry a government health warning . . . letterboxing is addictive! However, if you get hooked you will find that you have an absorbing hobby that will take you all over Dartmoor to places you never knew existed, you will take a great deal of healthy exercise and you will make a lot of new friends, but if you are not careful it will take over your life, so don't forget, IT'S ONLY A GAME.
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