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Letterboxing on Dartmoor: An Addictive Pastime... for the Brave!

by Jane Gilbert

It doesn't take long before visitors to Dartmoor get hooked on its quirky weather, delicious delicacies and curious tales. From barren rock-strewn tors to picturesque river valleys, and from derelict Roman camps to welcoming country inns, Dartmoor has something to offer every traveller brave enough to cross it. But behind the mist, and the myths there is a growing army of followers for a little-known and quintessentially Devonshire hobby: letterboxing.

DartmoorLetterboxing began in 1854, when Dartmoor guide James Perrott left a glass bottle at the remote Cranmere pool. He encouraged fellow walkers to leave a calling card in the bottle as proof of their achievement. Soon a tin box replaced the bottle, and a visitors book was provided. In 1937, local newspaper The Western Morning News built a granite box at the site. People began to copy the idea in other moorland spots, and 'letterboxing' took off. A map was produced showing the locations of other boxes, and when they discovered them, hikers would leave a card before replacing them in their hiding places.

Today there are over 3000 letterboxes on the moor. They are hidden in the rocks at the top of tors, in nooks and crannies in forests, and in inns and shops. Inside a typical box, there is a rubber stamp and inkpad. You take an imprint of the stamp and leave your own message in the visitors' book. There are 'travelling' boxes which are carried by intrepid walkers, and 'moving' boxes which change their position regularly and when found should be moved to the next location that letterboxer visits. But, due to fears of vandalism and the natural tongue in cheek reticence of Devon folk, the whereabouts of these letterboxes is a well guarded secret. Unless you are in the know, of course. Or if you learn to ask the right questions.

The best way to get into Letterboxing is to talk to people you see walking on the moor. If you are nice to them, they may give you the necessary information to find your first letterbox. And after you have collected 100 stamps, you can get a special ID card which proves you are a serious letterboxer. There are even rumours of a secret book, available only to initiates, with clues on how to find them. You can even put your own letterbox on the moor.

Walkhampton Common

Whether or not you decide to become a serious letterboxer, there are plenty of other things to entice you to linger around Dartmoor. People have lived there since 4000 B.C. You can see their legacy today, from industrial-age stone quarries to ancient standing stones and Bronze Age burial sites.

Even an aimless meander on open moorland will often bring you to a stone circle. These are the remains of bronze age houses. They often have a larger enclosure beside them which was for animals. You might find a cairn, which although it looks like just a pile of stones, is in fact a burial site. Sometimes the bodies or ashes were put in a stone chest which was sunk into the ground. This was then covered with a mound of stones. Sometimes bodies were placed within the pile of stones itself.

Everyone is familiar with Wiltshire's Stonehenge, but there are many similar structures of equal mystery dotted around Dartmoor. Imposing stone rows and triple circles may have been used for religious, ceremonial or astrological purposes. No-one really knows, but it's worth spending some time soaking up the atmosphere of these ancient and magical places. All these prehistoric sites are marked on the Ordnance Survey map of Dartmoor. The Ordnance Survey's maps, which cover the whole of the British Isles, show an invaluable amount of topographic and cultural detail. They are cheap, readily available and a worthwhile investment if you're thinking of exploring. A quick check on the O.S. can make all the difference between being stranded at dusk on an unexpected crag and reaching the warmth of a well-hidden pub in time for dinner.

Princetown Area Dartmoor

In Roman and medieval times, Dartmoor was an important centre of commerce. From the 12th to the 19th centuries, tin was mined. Many of the towns on the edge of the moor, like Tavistock and Okehampton, are old stannary towns. Granite quarries provided stone for building. Peat was cut and used for fuel. Networks of channels, called leats, were dug and used to carry water to industrial sites or houses. Today, china clay is quarried on the southern edges of the moor. It is a strange bluey-grey substance, used for such diverse things as building materials and toothpaste. The big lorries trundling along, coated in a ghostly grey dust, are a common sight for visitors.

Since the 19th Century, large swathes of moorland have been used as military training grounds, and when there is firing practice some parts are out of bounds to visitors. It is not unusual to see bands of soldiers running about in their uniforms or performing mysterious manoeuvres with maps and compasses. Indeed, letterboxes used to be kept in old tin ammunition boxes. Now it is more usual for them to be in ice cream containers, as the letterbox authorities decided it was a bad idea to encourage people, especially children, to pick up objects which could be real military equipment.

Trowlesworthy Area

Dartmoor's isolated location, wealth of history, and the local love for a good yarn, give it many stories of the supernatural to tell. Even Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was caught up in its atmosphere. After his visit, he decided to set the ghostly Hound of The Baskervilles there. As you search for letterboxes, you are sure to hear many other tales, told with delight and a certain amount of eye twinkling.

There is a marked path across Dartmoor, leading from Okehampton to Buckfastleigh, called the Bishop's Way. You will know when you cross it, as it is marked by huge granite stone crosses. On this route, near Sourton Common, there is a small granite-topped hill called Branscombe's Loaf. In the late 13th century, the Bishop of Exeter, Walter Branscombe, was travelling across his diocese of Dartmoor, accompanied by his chaplain. He accidentally strayed from the Bishop's Way and became lost in the mist which often envelopes the moor with no warning and can disorientate even the most seasoned traveller.

After they had been wandering around for a while, they became hungry. Out of the mist emerged an old, cloaked, skeletal man, who offered them bread and cheese. The Bishop was about to accept this offer when his chaplain cried out. The old man had a cloven foot: it was the Devil. The uneaten food fell to the ground and turned into the rocks of Branscombe's Loaf. The old man vanished, and the bishop and his chaplain went on their way unharmed. It can certainly make you jump when strangers materialise out of nowhere on Dartmoor. But today they are more likely to be wearing anoraks than old cloaks.

Walkhampton Common

The story of the hairy hand is one of Dartmoor's most famous. This tale is located on the B3212 road between Postbridge and Two Bridges, both good spots to stop on a daytrip to Dartmoor. The Two Bridges hotel offers a splendid cream tea for grockles (as Devon people call tourists), whilst Postbridge, with its picture postcard clapper-bridge is a good starting point for walks in the high moor. It has an informative visitors' centre, and, for the less energetic, it is the perfect place to linger by the river for a picnic. But take care when driving between these two places as the road is notorious for some peculiar goings-on.

In 1910, a series of strange incidents took place just outside Postbridge. Carriages went out of control, cyclists felt their handlebars wrenched out of their hands, and all victims ended up in the ditch at the roadside. In the 1920s cars and motorbikes experienced the same thing, and some people were even killed. An army officer who was thrown off his motorbike survived to reveal that a pair of large, muscular, hairy hands had grabbed him and forced him off the road. The story led to front page headlines in the national press. Investigators were sent to the site. The more cynical among them concluded that the culprit was an adverse camber. Others suggest it might be something to do with motorists sampling the ales in the local inns before continuing their journey. The Hairy Hands have not been spotted for some years now, but you might want to keep a firm hold of your steering wheel just the same.

Nearby, there is a not-to-be-missed pub called The Warren House Inn. Situated in the high moor, with breathtaking views on a clear day, it's a good place to start your letterboxing career, whilst enjoying some local ale and a delicious Devon pasty.

Princetown Hessery Tor

One harsh winter, a visitor arrived at Warren House wanting overnight accommodation. In his room there was a large chest. Wondering if there might be treasures within, he opened it. Inside was a corpse with a white face. Thinking he had discovered a murder victim, he ran downstairs where the landlord casually remarked with typical Devon sang-froid, 'Don't worry! Tiz only Faaather!' The landlord's father had died a few weeks earlier. His body had been salted to preserve it until the weather improved and he could be taken for burial at the parish church, miles away across the moor.

There are few sites as sobering on Dartmoor as Dartmoor Prison, especially if you are lucky enough to see it shrouded in mist. This grim building was originally built for French prisoners during the Napoleonic wars. Later, during the 1812 war, Americans were held there. In 1850 it became a convict prison. With its drizzle-grey walls, imposing barbed wire fences and the barren land that surrounds it, it's easy to see why it's the perfect place to incarcerate criminals.

Dartmoor GorseIt's not an easy place to escape from. One conman managed to convince the warden that he could be trusted to work outside the prison. Instead, he slipped away from his working party without being seen. However, once out on the moor he lost his sense of direction, and as night fell he began to despair. Suddenly, two soldiers marched out of the mist towards him. He decided they must know where they were going, and he decided to follow them.

They marched through the gloom, and straight into the lights of the search party out looking for him. Then they disappeared. It is believed that these two men were part of a group of soldiers who were caught long ago in a blizzard on the moor and died. As you pass the prison, you'd be forgiven for thinking prisoners would be better off staying inside than taking their chances escaping across the surrounding moorland.

If you are brave enough to walk the Bishop's Way, or to take on the Hairy Hands in search of letterboxes, it's a great way to get to know Dartmoor. And while you're there don't forget to try the local ales, the traditional cider, the wonderful Devon pasty (not to be confused with the Cornish imitation!) and the calorie-laden Devon cream tea. With its wild beauty, temperamental weather and wealth of folklore, many Dartmoor visitors get bitten by the letterboxing bug. (They have started letterboxing clubs as far afield as Yorkshire and Holland.) Just don't wander off the path too much, and if you do, be sure to take a map. They are a lot more reliable than waiting for a passing ghost to show you the way.

More Information:

Dartmoor: The Online Guide

A great overview of the history and prehistory of Dartmoor.

Dartmoor National Park Authority
The official site for the park, with seasonal guided walks programme and a selection of fact files covering various aspects of Dartmoor life. (Warning: I was not able to access this site without freezing)

Dartmoor Way
"The Dartmoor Way is a circular walking and cycling route that sweeps for almost 140 km./90 miles around Dartmoor National Park."

Discover Dartmoor

Discovering Dartmoor

Dartmoor Letterboxing Dot Org

Dartmoor Letterboxes

HIstory of Dartmoor Letterboxing

The Official Dartmoor Letterboxing Club

Legendary Dartmoor Letterboxing
Part of an interesting site that covers much of the lore and history of Dartmoor.

Writer, teacher and psychologist Jane Gilbert comes from Devon, England, and lives by the sea in Italy. After studying English Literature, she ran away to Brazil where she travelled extensively and cuddled sloths. She likes giraffes and curl reviver.

Article and photos © 2006 Jane Gilbert
"Gorse and granite" photo © 2006 Moira Allen


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