Boxing with Mark & Sue
Reprint of the Original Smithsonian Article entitled "They Live and Breathe Letterboxing"
Published in the April 1998 edition of Smithsonian Magazine by Patrick Ward.
"They Live and Breathe Letterboxing"
AN OBSCURE GROUP OF INTREPID COLLECTORS GIVE THIS ENGLISH VERSION OF ORIENTEERING THEIR HEARTY STAMP OF APPROVAL
ADRIAN WILLIAMS IS AN ENGLISHMAN WITH A MISSION you might call an obsession: to find plastic containers that are hidden under rocks. He is in his early 40s, and carries on with a bluff manner and considerable energy. He has worked as a garage manager, a nurse and a Web-page designer but devotes his free time almost entirely to this pursuit. The hidden containers--they're known as letterboxes--are scattered through the wild country of Dartmoor National Park, a vast region of high, barren hills in the southwestern English county of Devon. Adrian is one of several thousand people who have taken up the search for them. He told me that when he moved from London to Devon a few years ago, he'd never heard of letterboxing . Now, whenever he can, he leaves home early to get to the moor, comes back late and spends his evenings on the phone talking shop with other "boxers," or entering new clues into his computer database. "I live and breathe letterboxing ", Adrian said. "It's a way of life for me, and I'm not the only one." Letterboxing is something between a sport and a hobby, sort of a combination of orienteering ( Smithsonian , June 1992) and treasure hunting that consists of using maps, clues and compasses in the search for containers. Each letterbox contains a notebook and a unique rubber stamp. Each letterboxer carries a notebook and a personal stamp.
Once a box is found, a small ritual called "stamping up" is performed. The letterboxer inks the stamp from the box and presses it into his own notebook, then inks his personal stamp and presses that into the little visitors' book that's kept in the box. It's double proof that he's found the box. The stamp copy he takes home is the reward for his effort. Then the letterboxer reseals the box, replaces it in its hiding place, checks the clue sheet and the compass beatings, and heads off in search of the next letterbox.
There are thousands of boxes hidden on Dartmoor. They've been put out a few at a time by letterboxers themselves. The whole thing goes on without any governing body or official sanction. It came into being spontaneously, and it's the people who participate that keep it going. Anyone can go letterboxing , any day of the year.
Adrian, his wife, Melissa, and their children, 11-year-old Tegan and 8-year-old Ben, were heading out one Saturday last November, and they invited me along. On our way from the Williamses' house, in the town of Okehampton, to Dartmoor, we drove down lanes in the Devon farm country so narrow that ferns growing out of the stone walls brushed against both sides of the car. We eventually went through a gate, followed a track to the edge of the moor, where we parked, and started hiking up a boulder-strewn hillside. Some shaggy cattle ambled off before us.
Adrian said that when he gets in a new place, it takes a little while for him to get a feel for where things are and how to interpret the clues. Before long, he announced that we were in an area that was heavily salted with letterboxes. (It should be pointed out, however, that someone who was not looking for them could hike on this hill for years and never see a letterbox.) He read from a set of clues: "Hut at 113 degrees. Cairn at 108 degrees." He looked around and located what he thought were the hut and cairn referred to in the clue. The cairn was just a hundred yards up the hill; the hut was more than a mile away.
Adrian judged where he would have to put himself so that his compass readings to those two landmarks would match the ones specified in the clue. "Should be just over that way", he ventured. Melissa had a somewhat different idea about where those bearings would cross, but she only rolled her eyes and said to me in an undertone: "How many letterboxers have divorced over a difference in bearings on Dartmoor?"
In a couple of minutes, Melissa pulled the box from under a rock, and we all settled on our haunches to stamp up. Most letterboxes are actually pill bottles--plastic screw-top containers, about three inches in diameter by four inches high, that were originally used to supply pharmacists with wholesale quantities of pills. These are weatherproof, plentiful and free for the asking. We had our first box of the day, and Adrian announced, "We're off. Now we're in form."
The British are known for eccentricity, but letterboxers, one aficionado told me not long before I went afield with the Williamses, are the greatest eccentrics of all. They trace their curious pastime back to 1854, when a Victorian gentleman walker put his calling card in a bottle and stuck the bottle into a bank at Cranmere Pool in a remote part of Dartmoor, Other walkers who found the bottle also left their cards, and perhaps a postcard that the next walker could carry off the moor and send back to its owner. In 1894, a letterbox appeared at Belstone Tor. (A "tor" is a hill marked by a rocky outcropping. There are about 140 on Dartmoor.) In 1938, another was placed at Ducks' Pool.
As late as the 1970s, there were only a few dozen letterboxes on Dartmoor, though by then rubber stamps had replaced calling cards and postcards. In the past couple of decades, the number of boxes has exploded, while at the same time boxers have tried to keep the whole thing quiet. Most letterboxers live in Devon, though some come from other parts of England and a few even come from other parts of the world.
With the exception of a compass and the rubber stamps, there is refreshingly little gear to buy. The only "currency" is the clue sheets that lead to newly placed boxes--the owner can exchange these for clue sheets leading to other people's boxes. An organization called the 100 Club publishes a catalogue of some of the letterbox clues. These clues don't exactly pave the way to the letterboxes. Here are a couple I picked at random from the catalogue:
"Favourite Lunch Spots No. 22. Shapley Tor. Lone tree by road 312 degrees. Huge square boulder 346 1/2 degrees. Hut circle 277 1/2 degrees."
"Reynard's Happy Hour. Bellever 341 degrees. Hay Tor 51 degrees. Track disappears over hill 101 degrees. Under large rock half covered with heather."
And just to spice things up, some clues include cryptic references, or come in the form of anagrams. The 100 Club sells patches that advertise that the wearer has found 100 boxes, 500 boxes and so on.
The rubber stamps used in letterboxing have become increasingly (and competitively) elaborate. Many boxers put out series of stamps that commemorate some aspect of Dartmoor. Adrian has just put out a series on places with local bird names, called "Dartmoor Most Fowl." Roger and Stephanie Paul of Denbury have put out a series called "Dartmoor Farmers, Past and Present." Some artistically inclined boxers carve their own stamps out of rubber blocks; these "handcuts" are especially sought after.
By the time Adrian and Melissa had found that first box, we'd come well up the hill. Looking back, I could see the green and hedged farm country just below us. Farther off was t he city of Plymouth and the entrance to Plymouth Harbor. As I watched, the distant mist rose, revealing a silvery sheen on the water of the English Channel. The clouds above it looked ominous.
But the sun was shining where we were. It was a good area, and there were boxes to find. We worked our way to the top of Stalldown Barrow, picking up five or six more boxes in the next hour. Only once did we see another walker, several hundred yards off Adrian guessed that she was a letterboxer; she veered away when she saw us.
In fact, letterboxers seldom cross paths out on the moor, though the keen ones get to know each other nonetheless. When they find a box, they look to see whose personal stamps are already in the notebook. Being first in the visitors' book carries high prestige. Though they may never meet or even know each other's real names, the regular group all know each other by the nicknames on their "personals," which often include a play on the boxer's name or hometown: the "Topsham Torists," the "Dartmoor Carterpillar," the "Plymstock Soggy Soxers." The Williamses' personal reads "Have Feet Will Travel."
The typical letterboxers are probably a family with children who have gotten their hands on the 100 Club's catalogue and have trekked out to the moor with a compass and a picnic lunch for a day of fresh air and adventure. But a small group of the keenest boxers also go after "word-of-mouth" boxes. These are letterboxes that aren't mentioned in the catalogue and whose owners circulate the clues only to other insiders.
A strict protocol applies to clue exchange. One never asks for another's clues. You can offer your clues, but only if you've been around long enough to have the idea that your clues will be accepted. The exchange of clues often starts at the pub and continues by mail. Adrian checked the clue sheet we were using that day, and said that we should head over to the northern side of Stalldown Barrow and down into the valley.
As we walked, we could see a row of standing stones left by prehistoric people. Some of the ponies that wander free on Dartmoor had worked their way among the stones, and from where we were, clumps of ponies and the standing stones alternated across the horizon. We walked on till we came to the steep slope on the far side of Stalldown Barrow. The River Erme snaked through the valley at our feet. A "tail" of white water marked each boulder in the river. Up the mottled slope on the far side of the river, more than a mile away, we could see a farmer on an all-terrain vehicle herding sheep. With the help of a pair of energetic Border collies, he gathered the sheep toward the corner of an ancient stone wall. We could just hear his shouts to his dogs, and the sheep, which had been scattered specks on the hillside, coalesced into pools of white with tributary streams.
But we weren't there for sightseeing--there were boxes to find. We slogged our way down the hill (Dartmoor is almost uniformly wet underfoot) to a rocky gully called Smuggler's Hole. It was another rich area for letterboxes. Adrian and Melissa found a couple of boxes by using clues. Tegan found a couple just by looking. "That's two to Tegan," Adrian called. "Come on, Ben, you're lagging." Adrian checked through the notebook that he'd taken from one of the boxes we'd found. He recognized all the stamps.
"It's the usual gang," he said. Then, using the felt-tip markers he had brought for just this purpose, Adrian spent a good ten minutes coloring this stamp--it was a picture of a swashbuckling smuggler--so that he would have a particularly attractive copy for his collection. Some of the more serious letterboxers like to take copies of stamps on note cards, which they later sort and mount in binders. "When you look at your collection of stamps on a winter's evening," Adrian said, "it gives you something to remember: who you were with, and how you found it." We got a few more stamps in the gully before the storm that I'd seen earlier out on the English Channel broke over the top of Stalldown Barrow. Gusts of rain started to lash us. Even Adrian, who had told me earlier that a letterboxer's unfailing motto is "Just one more box," admitted that it was time to quit. We pulled up our hoods, put our heads down to the storm and followed a trail along the River Erme back to the car.
Once in the car, Adrian and Melissa looked through the stamps we'd collected, a total of 20. They included pictures of a fox peering from its den, a row of standing stones (a handcut), three different versions of smugglers and a female short-eared owl. There was also a stamp commemorating Her Majesty's Customs and Excise service; it was found in a letterbox hidden under a rock overlooking Smuggler's Hole. The verdict on the day? Not bad.
Pat Clatworthy has collected thousands of stamps in her 18 years of boxing, though she goes out only on weekends. Pat is a trim, vigorous woman of youthful middle age who works for the emergency-preparedness office of the Devon County Council. She agreed to take me out one day in sunny weather that contradicted Dartmoor's reputation for rain and gloom.
Pat started off at a brisk pace, providing a commentary over her shoulder as she walked. " Letterboxing seems to satisfy a lot of human traits," she said. "It gives a sense of adventure, a sense of achievement and satisfaction to collectors. You're pitting your wits against someone else's. And it's a great leveler: you'll see a doctor out talking over clues with a Boy Scout. I think it's good for the Boy Scout, and it's especially good for the doctor."
We passed Nun's Cross Farm, one of the old Dartmoor farms that's been abandoned this century, a victim of the poor, acidic soil and the harsh climate. Using i he stone cross and a fir tree for bearings, Pat soon located a box. With the alacrity that comes of long practice, she unloaded her pack for the stamping up: a plastic pad to sit on; two plastic containers filled with cards, ink pads, markers and her personal; a notebook wrapped in a plastic bag; and a thermos of tea.
"Coming out for a day of letterboxing is like planning a battle campaign," Pat said. "I'd feel lost without my pack of gear." (Pat is also a World War II buff) Her other crucial piece of equipment is a golf club handle minus the head. She uses it to probe for boxes under rocks and in mossy banks, and as a walking stick. She pokes ground that looks soft before she steps. "It stops you from walking into suspect bits," she said.
We rambled on for several miles, finding boxes here and there, until we reached Ducks' Pool, the second-most-famous site on Dartmoor after Cranmere Pool. At neither of these locations is there a pool, nor much of anything to distinguish the area from the miles of surrounding grassland, other than its letterboxing history. These are the sites of the two letterboxes that are shown on the,map of Dartmoor. And on the ground, small monuments make the letterboxes impossible to miss.
Plenty of people around Dartmoor think these should be the only two letterboxes. The very eccentricity of letterboxing seems to breed suspicion among people who don't participate. This comes out, partly, in accusations that letterboxers trample vegetation and disturb antiquities. For their part, park officials have responded by consulting with boxers and publishing a code of conduct--which seems to be well heeded. I noticed that boxers don't mind pointing to the damage done by foxhunters and trail riders. The horseback riders point at mountain bikers and hang gliders.
The farmers who have rights to the common grazing land on Dartmoor (they're called "commoners") worry about recreational users disturbing their livestock. Few people seem happy about the presence of the military, which trains regularly on Dartmoor. A park ranger I talked to said that a big part of his job is balancing the claims of various users--a job made somewhat trickier by the fact that the land within park boundaries in Britain remains in private ownership. I heard a cockeyed rumor in a pub one night that the Prince of Wales, who is the largest landowner on Dartmoor, wishes that the whole place would become a strict nature preserve. I quickly got the impression that whichever group of users was looking at Dartmoor could see very clearly the damage--real or supposed--that every other group was causing. It was not long before I got a taste of this myself.
Using compass bearings, Pat and I came to Ducks' Pool across an unmarked grassy plain. We hadn't seen another person for hours, but as we approached we saw a man coming from the other direction, apparently also making for Ducks' Pool. I hung back a bit, to observe this meeting. Pat kept to her own business, avoiding conversation. I finally came up and the man hailed me cheerily. He looked to be about 60, and had a rosy complexion and white hair. He told me that he'd just walked eight miles, and there was sweat on his brow to prove it. "This your first time here?" he asked. Well, that's a friendly opening, I thought, but I had misjudged my man. He turned out to be an anti-letterboxer on the lookout for a victim. I had walked into his trap.
"Look at this photo." He thrust it under my nose. It showed three young women having a picnic by the Ducks' Pool rock. "This was taken in 1957. Look at the erosion that's been caused by letterboxers since then. The ground around the rock was way up here, then. Look what's been lost!" Pat started to say something about natural erosion, but the man would have none of it, and continued his harangue. Finally, he seemed to have judged that he had browbeaten us into submission. He glanced at his watch. "Twelve miles to go," he said. "I'd better be off if I'm going to make it home by teatime." And away he strode over the hill.
Even though letterboxers tend to avoid each other on the moor, a group of them congregates every Wednesday evening at the Dolphin Hotel in the town of Bovey Tracey. It's a friendly, noisy gathering, and a good place to hear letterboxing stories. I met Godfrey Swinscow, who seems to be the unofficial godfather of modern-day letterboxers. He told me that he'd found his first box in 1935. " Letterboxing is better than watching the telly," Godfrey told me. "It keeps the boys out of the pub, and the girls from chasing the boys." Not that Godfrey minds some good fun. I heard about a practical joke that some still-undiscovered boxers once played on him. He went out one day on the promise of finding a new box with an especially nice stamp. Along the way, he collected a series of notes with progressively outlandish directions. Being a good sport, he followed the directions until eventually he ended up walking across the moor, dressed in a frock and bonnet, chanting, "I believe in fairies and pixies."
I heard about the boxer who had let it be known that he was planning to set out a new box at a certain spot at midnight on New Year's Eve. When he got to his spot, 45 minutes late, he came upon three cars full of cold, impatient letterboxers waiting in the dark for the chance to be first in the book.
Chris Jones told me that he thought there were maybe 60 to 100 "hard-core" letterboxers. "A lot of other people do it for their kids," he said. "That's fine. I won't decry that." But only a hard-core boxer would put himself in the position that Chris did one day. He needed two more boxes to complete a series and found himself on the wrong side of a river on a day when the rain was "bucketing" down. He and his partner walked along the riverbank for a mile, looking for a place to cross. "The river was in full spate, really flowing," he recalled. "Finally we just waded in, went up to our thighs. As wet as we were, what had we to lose? And how would we ever live it down if it got around that we were beaten by a little bad weather?"
Earlier, Pat Clatworthy had presented me with a North Dartmoor Official Passport, a whimsical document that ensured my protection from "Pixies and many other obscurities." In spite of that small honor, I got the feeling people in the pub were keeping an eye on me, not in any hostile way but out of a concern that my presence might foretell the arrival of crowds of heavy-footed "grockles"--a word from Devon for people who aren't.
A day later, I was alone on the moor, a clue sheet (solemnly lent to me by Adrian) in one hand, the map of Dartmoor (it measures approximately three by four feet when unfolded) in the other. I checked the sheet and found a set of clues that started from the eastern corner of the abandoned Doe Tor Farm. I located the farm on the map, hiked up there and read the clues.
"Go 132 paces on 107 degrees to tree." I aligned the compass with north, took a sighting on 107 degrees, and there was a gnarled hawthorn tree. My spirits rose. Adrian had warned me that "paces" is a notoriously subjective unit of measure, but 132 of my paces brought me to within a few feet of the hawthorn. I felt like a child playing find-the-thimble when everyone starts shouting, "Warmer, warmer!" Last clue: "Box is 12 paces from tree on 280 degrees in clitter" (a Devon word for a jumble of broken rocks). Standing next to the tree, I used the compass to find 280 degrees, took 12 steps in that direction and looked down. My eye caught a hint of something man-made--the box. I took a copy of the stamp. My first solo letterbox!
Then I checked the clue sheet and found one of Adrian's boxes listed. I knew he'd be pleased if I stamped his book, so I decided to try for it. Here is the clue, verbatim: "Dartmoor's Lost Unicorns No. 5--Hero, 5377, 8473, Have Feet Will Travel, FP 205 degrees. Cross 18 1/2 degrees. Large chimney on farm 241 degrees. Tip of dead tree 315 1/2 degrees. Tip of pointed rock 70 degrees and 9p away. Under rock on edge of clitter." The name of the stamp comes first: Dartmoor's Lost Unicorn No. 5--Hero. Adrian's code name is Have Feet Will Travel. The two four-digit numbers, 5377 and 8473, are the map-grid references; using them, I got myself into the right neighborhood.
Once I was in the right neighborhood, the stone cross on Brat Tor was the most obvious landmark. Again aligning my compass with north, I walked across a hill 40 or 50 feet until the cross bore on 18 1/2 degrees. Now I bad a line from me to the cross and beyond. I knew that the box had to be somewhere along that line. To find it, I needed to determine where another bearing in the clue crossed the line. I knew that "FP" stood for flagpole. I looked in the direction of 205 degrees and saw some vague smudges in the distance that might have been flagpoles. Or might not. I decided to try another landmark. "Tip of dead tree 315 1/2 degrees." I could see a cluster of trees around Doe Tor Farm a mile or so to the north, and one of them looked dead. I walked several hundred yards downhill, all the while keeping the cross on 18 1/2 degrees until the dead tree was on 315 degrees. Good. I was standing at the intersection of those two bearings. The only trouble was, I was out in the middle of a grassy area, far from the edge of clitter. Obviously, I had picked out the wrong dead tree. Back to the clues.
"Large chimney on farm 241 degrees." I peered in the direction of 241 degrees. Ahh! Miles away, almost lost in mist, was a blocky shape that might have been a farmhouse. I couldn't make out a chimney, but this was the only possible choice. To put that farm on 241 degrees, I had to walk back uphill. That would return me to the clitter, which was good, but it would leave my precious dead tree way off the mark.
I walked up the hill, using the compass to check the stone cross and the farmhouse until I thought I was at the spot where their bearings crossed. I looked for a dead tree somewhere around 315 degrees. There were a couple of trees in the distance on the far bank of the River Lyd, but neither of them was close to 315 degrees, and neither appeared to be dead. So, what about that other clue--the pointed rock nine paces away on 70 degrees? I was surrounded by pointed rocks; it was the Times Square of pointed rocks. But as I was looking around, I saw, maybe ten feet away, a five-foot-tall dead tree. Adrian, you crafty bloke! Two steps put it on 315 degrees. A few minutes later, I pulled out the letterbox.
I couldn't find the next two boxes at all, but then I got two in quick succession. The next one would have taken me back up Doe Tor. By then the sky was getting "dimpsey"--another of those Devon words. I hadn't seen a soul in many hours, and no one in the world had a clue where I was. I gave up the idea of "one more box" and started back. Pausing on the side of High Down, I looked across the valley. It was a bleak, empty scene. As I stood there, a gibbous moon came over the shoulder of Doe Tor.
I had been out with Adrian near Doe Tor a few days earlier. We had stopped for lunch on the side of a hill called Great Kneeset. Through a notch on the horizon between Lints Tor and Black Tor we could see a bit of the lowland England where people live and work. "People down there, busy, busy, busy, rushing around," Adrian mused. What we could see of Dartmoor, on the other hand, was empty but for the two of us.
For millennia, the wet bleakness had kept people away. Traces of the few who had ventured onto the moor were still visible: the tinners had left piles of tailings; farmers had left stone walls; soldiers had left some rough roads and bomb craters; religious people had left standing stones and carved crosses. And, of course, letterboxers had been there, too. By then I knew that out in the wild country before us were thousands of pill bottles hidden under rocks. "It's a funny world," Adrian said, "isn't it."
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