The Joy Club member Roger Davies reveals how he came to become an enthusiast for this niche hobby…
It was Easter 1986 when I first became aware of a local phenomenon. I had been living in Exeter for 15 years and we thought we knew all about the beautiful, wild area near my home, Dartmoor, because we had visited a few times by car. We had driven to Princetown and seen the prison; we had parked up at the side of the road and had a picnic; we had even been for a pint at the Warren House Inn. But we had never really explored…
That Easter, my sister and her family were visiting and I was looking for something to keep them entertained. Two of my friends, Tom and Don suggested going for a walk up on the moors. So we drove past Oakhampton and up on to the moors and parked at the Meldon Reservoir car park. We then walked around the Lake and up over Homerton Hill and down into Black-a-Tor copse. It was a normal run of the mill Dartmoor walk. However Tom had told my young niece that there were special boxes hidden underneath rocks and, if you found them, there were things you could collect from within them. I thought he was just winding her up to keep her interested in the walk. It worked and she rushed ahead to each rock as we passed and looked all around them for the “boxes”. No surprise, we didn’t find anything. But on the way home Tom explained to me that the “Dartmoor Letterboxes” were a very real thing and that there are lots of them hidden out on the moor.
Back home I did some research and discovered that not only were there Letterboxes out on the moor but that there was an organisation that looked after the hobby. It was called the Dartmoor Letterboxes 100 Club. If you could find 100 boxes then you were entitled to join the club and could buy a copy of the biannual Catalogue of Dartmoor Letterboxes (a list of all the registered boxes and clues on where to find them.) I also discovered some of the history about this strange hobby.
It all started back in the late Victorian age when the richer members of society wanted to prove how hardy they had been by leaving their calling cards in a bottle placed in a bank at Cranmere pool, in the heart of the North Moor. Back then the Military roads were not yet in existence so it was a hard trek out from Okehampton to climb up onto the moors, then to get to the head of the West Okement River. This area is blanket bog and I know from experience how easy it is to end up waist-deep in a nasty smelling, water filled pit that looked like firm ground.
Some of these people started leaving post cards in the bottle for the next person along to fill in their name and post it back to the original walker. Eventually the bottle became a box and a visitor’s book was placed inside. Later the box was encased in concrete. This Letterbox site is still there and marked on the OS map of Dartmoor. Over time, other boxes were placed on the moor. By the 1970s lots of people had started leaving boxes out there and all sorts of containers were now used from old army ammunition boxes to empty medical pill pots. Now instead of just leaving cards people were leaving a rubber stamp in the box. The finders would have an ink pad and a book or cards to stamp to prove they had found the box – Purists still leave some post cards in the boxes for the first finders to send back – There is also a visitor’s book to stamp or write in, to show you have found it.
On May 31st 1991, together with Joyce, I set off for, what on the surface looked a good place to find a letterbox. Sheepstor is near a carpark, it is absolutely covered in rocks so there were a lots of hiding places. All day we wandered over the slopes looking under rocks. Then, in the late afternoon, I noticed an ice-cream carton under a rock hidden behind a small pile of stones. There it was: our first letterbox. Inside the carton was a crudely, hand carved, rubber stamp. We inked it up and stamped it onto the first page of our books. It was called “Witts End”.
Two days later, together with Tom and Don we set off again heading to another touristy area of the Moor, Houndtor. I was in seventh heaven. We found seven more boxes. Some were shop bought stamps, some were hand carved and one was a specially made letterboxing stamp. Tom lent me an old copy of the “Catalogue” of stamps complete with clues on how to find them, and using this we rushed up on the moor to try to find our first 100 stamps.
On 27th July 1991 we duly found our box number 100. It had taken us 10 trips to the moor and we had become quite proficient at finding the boxes. So I sent off our list of boxes found to the organisers of the 100 club and I became member no. 8189.
The 100 club still exists.
At first we thought that all letter boxes were the same but I was wrong. There are different types of letterboxes and stamps.
- Catalogue Boxes. These are boxes that have their clues printed and are listed in the the Biannual Catalogue that the 100 club produces. You can have monthly updates posted/emailed to you.
- Word of Mouth (WOM) boxes. These are secret, but the clues can be sent to you if you are in a group that passes them on between themselves. The reason for the secrecy was that as Letterboxing grew in popularity so did the activities of the “Box Thief” more on that later.
- Moving Boxes. These do not stay put and have no clues. They are placed in with another “normal Box” and the next person that finds it, moves it on to another appropriate box, ready to be moved on by the next finder.
- Charity Walk Boxes. This is a set of letterboxes that are put out in a circular walk so that you have a chance of collecting the whole set in one go. The clues sheets are sold and the profits go to Local Charities. They are advertised in the Catalog Updates. (I was able to raise considerable sums of money to buy kit for my schools “Ten Tors” team but that is another story.)
- Traveller Boxes. These boxes travel over the moor carried by “letterboxers”. If you meet someone on the moor and you suspect they are a “boxer” you can ask for their Traveller.
- Personal Stamp, this is used to stamp the visitors book in a letterbox to show you have been there.
How do you find the boxes even if you have the clues? First you have to understand the National Grid System. The UK is covered by imaginary lines horizontal and vertical. The first set are 500km apart. These are subdivided in to 100km squares and each square has a designation such as SX which covers most of Dartmoor. Square SX is then again subdivided into ten, each square is given a numeric designation. So square SX 60 85 is covers one square kilometre. You can keep on subdividing and getting smaller and smaller squares until you have a 10 figure grid reference which indicates just one square meter eg SX 60295 85838. Then all you have to do is to be able to use a map and compass accurately to find the said square. (And hope that the person who set up the box is also able to do this accurately.) GPS devices eventually made this possible. When you are in the general area of the box then the clue gives directions from local landmarks. Ie, Go 100 paces from the lone tree on a bearing of 260°. (Did you know there are over 10,000 lone trees on Dartmoor?).
You also have to learn the letter-boxer’s shorthand ie PVCR means partially vegetation covered rock. HP means high point. Plugged means a small circle of turf has been removed and a hole dug then the box buried and the grass plugged back over it.
Here is a clue to a box I set up many years ago:
Celtic Fringe 8000 Boxes
Grid ref 61170 – 69192
Box is well plugged next to the E side of a PVC rock in a small loose group. Nuns Cross Farm 320°. White Works Cottages 000°. HP Belever Tor 025.5°.
The first line is the name of the box. Then the grid reference then the clue itself. As far as I know this box is still out there.
As well as looking after the letterboxing catalogue, the 100 club also organises a bi-annual meeting for all letterboxers. This usually held in one of the many Dartmoor hostelries. At this meeting you can meet up with like-minded people and exchange traveller stamps, WOM clues and generally catch up with the world of letterboxing. There will also be many stalls where you can buy equipment, and sheets of charity walk clues. Oft times the chat will be about the “Letterbox Thief”. Many boxes just disappear every year. Mainly because people find them who do not know what they are all about so they take them home. However, every so often you will find an empty box with a little note inside that simply says “The Letterbox Thief strikes again.” There are some very sad people in this world!
This may seem like a very niche hobby but there are a huge number of letterboxers and there are thousands of letterboxes out there on the moor at any one time. I have found and collected nearly 9000 stamps from letterboxes in the 20 years I’ve enjoyed this hobby. I only stopped letterboxing once we moved back to Wrexham.
Before I became a real teacher, I was so enamoured with this strange hobby that I volunteered to teach Dartmoor Letterboxing as a night-school class. To my surprise, Devon County Council accepted me as a tutor as long as I passed their Dartmoor Mountain leadership course. So I did. Then, at my first lesson, I was amazed that dozens of people signed up. We did three or four classroom sessions then, one Sunday, I led a group up onto the bleak North Moor to go to the first letterbox site at Cranmere Pool. It went really well til’ I stepped right into the middle of a peat hag and disappeared up to my waist in the bog.
Eventually this hobby spread and there are now letterboxes in remote spots all over Britain. Some Americans got hold of the idea and Geocatching was born, this is a similar idea using GPS units but the caches are all over the world. However there is only one real area for Letterboxing and that is on Dartmoor.