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A Short History of Letterboxing on Dartmoor

06/15/2004
by Silent Doug

According to legend, letterboxing began in southwestern England in 1854 when a Victorian gentleman named James Perrott hid his calling card in a jar in a remote area by Cranmere Pool on the moors of Dartmoor (the setting of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes story The Hound of the Baskervilles). Perrot was a guide on the moor, and he encouraged his clients to leave their cards in the jar, as well.

Eventually, visitors began leaving a self-addressed post card or note in the jar, hoping for them to be returned by mail by the next visitor (thus the origin of the term “letterboxing;” “letterbox” is a British term for what we in the U.S. know as a mailbox). This practice ended in time, however, and the current custom of using rubber stamps and visitor’s log books came into use. (Nearly all of the Cranmere Pool logbooks are archived in the public library in Plymouth, England, as well.)

By the 1970s there were 15 boxes on the moor. In the 1980s, letterboxing exploded on Dartmoor (literally, on occasion, since part of the park is used as an artillery range by the British army!). Today, there are more than 3,000 letterboxes in the 365 square miles of Dartmoor National Park.

Dartmoor letterboxing is somewhat different than letterboxing as practiced in North America. Nearly all letterbox stamps on Dartmoor are commercially made (though often with custom artwork), while most U.S. letterboxes feature hand-carved stamps. Clues to Dartmoor letterboxes usually consist of grid references on a park map along with compass bearings and paces or landmarks, and do not include elaborate mysteries as are common in the U.S. Most clues are not distributed online, as in the U.S., but are included in a regularly updated booklet that is available to anyone who has found 100 or more Dartmoor letterboxes. (How do you find your first 100 letterboxes on Dartmoor without a clue booklet? That's all part of the fun!)

While there is no official organization that sanctions letterboxing on Dartmoor, there is a quasi-official Dartmoor Letterboxing Site where more information is available.

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