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Letterboxing on Dartmoor: Part I

Volume 70: Sun May 28, 2006

Letterboxing was born in Dartmoor, our primary destination for this trip

In which our trio of intrepid adventurers explore the treacherous English countryside looking for the world's first letterbox at Cranmere Pool

March 15

In the last Great Adventure, I left you hanging with Amanda, Princess Lea, and myself flying first class to the merry old land known as England and home to the world's first letterbox.

Most of you, by now, have probably heard me mention this little hobby on occasion. Many of you may have even ignored letterboxing as the ravings of a lunatic, but this time there's no getting around it. This trip is all about letterboxing, and if you do not know what it is, it's time you learned.

Hidden all over the world are small boxes containing a rubber stamp and a logbook. They can be found in parks, forests, coffee shops, bookstores, museums, and so forth. Some are hidden in caves, and others are underwater. One letterbox even moves around the world on a cruise ship. You've probably passed by many letterboxes over the years and didn't even know it.

And when a letterbox is found, the letterboxer presses an image of the stamp in the letterbox into their personal logbook as a record of the find, then uses their own personal stamp to mark the logbook in the letterbox. The letterbox is carefully replaced, hidden from view, until the next letterboxer comes along.

It's a simple little hobby, and it all started in the southwest section of England known as Dartmoor in the year 1854 when a Victorian man placed his calling card in a glass jar on the banks of Cranmere Pool.

Tens of thousands of letterboxes have dotted the Dartmoor countryside over the years, and this was our time to find a few.

Our plane landed at Gatwick Airport, more-or-less on time. We gathered our checked luggage and moved through customs and immigration quickly, then walked over to the car rental agencies where I babysat the luggage while Amanda and Lea rented a car. The rented car was a stick and I, not being particularly well-trained in the art of driving a car with a manual transmission, would be relegated to the roll of a backseat driver.

We'd spend our first night in Salisbury, at this cute little hostel

We got ourselves a brand new Ford Focus with seven miles on it. Seven. That's really cool—still in single digits!

Lea was put in charge of the driving while Amanda navigated and I've got to say, it was a hair-raising experience. I hoped the car would see triple digits before it was crashed. If only driving on the left side of the road was the worst of it, but those English have a bizarre system of roads that make liberal use of what they like to call roundabouts. Allegedly, it's supposed to eliminate the need for stop lights. Cars just merge onto the circular road, then exit in the desired direction. The one bright side to the confusing maze of roundabouts was that you could drive around and around in circles on it for hours while deciding which is the best exit to get off at.

And then there's the fact that none of us knew what all the road signs meant. It's a rather startling fact, I think, that they'll give a car to someone (or a group of someones, as the case may be) who can't read all of the local road signs and if they gave any of us a written driving test, we'd all flunk in a heartbeat. One sign in particular—which I saw quite often—really annoyed me because none of us knew what it actually meant and we saw it everywhere! The sign was a blue circle with a red circle along the edge and a red X crossing through it. No words, no pictures, just that red X on the blue circle. We did figure out, however, that a sign with a large exclamation mark on it meant to watch out for pedestrians. I like our system in the states of the silouette of people crossing a street much better. Just an exclamation mark? That could have meant anything!

And of course, we were in a car none of us were familiar with. More than once the windshield wipers unexpected turned on during our trip without knowing why nor how to turn them back off. And all after a grueling seven hour flight suffering from a bad case of jet lag.

Lea and I stamping into our first letterbox find in England, tucked away in the cosy town of Datchet

Our first stop was in a small town named Datchet for a letterbox another passing Yankee had planted the year before. Keep in mind, almost all letterboxes planted by locals are located in Dartmoor—not in the rest of the country. The letterbox was hidden next to a cute little church in the adjacent cemetery. We took lots of photos—it was our first English letterbox, after all—even if it was planted by an American and not even on Dartmoor.

While in town, we also stopped at the local ATM to get some cold, hard cash in a land where the dollar bill won't get you very far. No, they use the pound in this country, with a strange squiggly notation that I can always recognize but never actually learned well enough to write. I got 100 pounds from the machine.

Then it was back to the car and more hair-raising driving.

Next up: the town of Windsor. Another American-planted letterbox was hidden just outside of Windsor Castle—same American as the Datchet box, I might add (TeamKing)—and we intended to get it.

We found a place to park in town, though we had no idea where the castle gate was, which marked the beginning of the letterbox clue. So we just walked toward the castle and figured we'd stumble upon it at some point. =)

Amanda and I pose with a 'letterbox'

Lea was really excited about all the swans swimming in the Thames River and took lots of pictures. I kept my eyes open for the Merry Wives of Windsor—I'd heard so much about them! I joked to Amanda, after passing a group of stern-looking woman who didn't seem so merry that perhaps times had changed and there were now only Disallusioned Wives of Windsor. She didn't laugh. *shaking head*

We walked up to the castle wall where a surprisingly long line of people were waiting to get into the adjacent Burger King. I was horrified. Burger King?!

Amanda and Lea picked up some items from a guy selling trinkets nearby who also pointed us in the direction for the gate we were looking for. We also stopped briefly at a tall, red, cylindrical object with a slot in it. In the states, we'd call it a mailbox, but in England, they call it a letterbox. We took pictures of ourselves in front of it laughing if we could count the letterbox as a find. =) Oh, we were goofy, all right.

We finally did find the gate to Windsor Castle that we were looking for and shortly thereafter found the real letterbox as well before heading back to the car and continue our way towards Dartmoor.

Widsor Castle, and not a merry wife to be seen!

We stopped at a hostel in Salisbury for the night—about halfway to Dartmoor. We wandered around town a bit, including a quick visit to the most prominent feature of the town: Salisbury Cathedral. Built over 800 years ago, it dominates the skyline of the town. A pamphlet I picked up explained that it's the tallest spire in Britain at 404 feet, contains the world's best preserved Magna Carta (AD 1215), and has Europe's oldest working clock (AD 1386). I was amused to see one sign bragging that Bill Bryson only had wonderful things to say about the place in his book Notes from a Small Island. I had forgotten that Bryson moved to England for several years and wrote a book about an English road trip just before returning to the United States to write another very influential book about the Appalachian Trail.

The details carved onto the outside of Salisbury Cathedral were stunning!

We admired the outside of the building, and I was disappointed that the whole thing wouldn't fit into my camera's field of view. So I took several photos with the intention of pasting them together later. We skipped the tour of the inside due to the lateness of the day and the fact that it would cost money for a tour.

We wandered around town a bit more. I stopped at an outdoors store and bought a compass—absolutely critical for Dartmoor, I was told, and I left my other one back in the states. We ate dinner, then retired to the hostel for the night.

Salisbury Cathedral was so large, it wouldn't fit in my camera frame, so I took several pictures and pasted them together to form this one

I sleep well that night

March 16

Amanda has concerns about driving....

We ate breakfast at the hostel—it was provided for all guests with the accommodations so we'd be foolish to turn it down, then hopped in the car and headed off to Dartmoor.

There's nothing in particular to note about the drive. This time, it was Amanda's turn to drive and she had to battle the same hair-raising roundabouts and foreign road signs that Lea had to face off with the day before, but we made it to Dartmoor and our first stop was in the tiny town of Chagford where we stopped to pick up a pub box. Rumor had it that nearly every pub in Dartmoor has a letterbox behind the bar (a clever way to pick up business from letterboxers), and this one we knew had a letterbox because it was listed in our clue book.

Once we got into Dartmoor, the driving became even more hair-raising than normal. The roads narrowed dramatically into one-lane paths where two horses would have trouble passing each other much less cars. Hedgerows ensured you had few places to pull over to pass cars coming from the other direction, and Amanda slammed on the brakes on multiple occasions as we met cars along the way. Usually she'd have to go in reverse until she found a place wide enough for the two small cars to squeeze past each other before continuing along the way. The drive was scary, but there was a scenic, tranquil quality to the hedgerows that I liked. =)

Turns out, the letterbox was missing. They don't know what happened to it, I wondered how they could have possibly lost it, so we left and continued looking through town. We went into one shop with lots of outdoor gear where Amanda purchased a bunch of postcards. Lea asked the worker if he had a letterbox at the store—we didn't know of any there, but she felt it was better to ask and be told no than not to ask and find out later one did exist. As it turned out, he answered affirmatively.

Amanda blows out the candle on her desert. March 16th, after all, was her birthday. =)

"Really?" Lea seemed surprised as much as Amanda and I did. =) "Can we have it?"

The guy behind the counter explained it was hidden in the store, and he couldn't provide the clue. We were supposed to have the clue ourselves and he wouldn't tell it to us.

I was sent back to the car to get the official clue book in the hopes of gleaning something from it, while Amanda and Lea stayed behind to start searching the store top to bottom looking for the letterbox.

By the time I got back, Lea had already found the letterbox in the Bowden Museum on an upper floor at the back of the store. We stamped in and high-fived our first Dartmoor letterbox. Granted, it was indoors, so it wasn't a real letterbox, but it was still an exciting moment.

We stopped for lunch, and a couple of older ladies came in shortly after us complaining about the narrow roads. "More like a footpath!" the one exclaimed. "We had to turn the side mirrors in at one point to squeeze through it was so tight!"

We laughed with understanding. We asked our waiter if the establishment had a letterbox, but alas, we struck out on that count.

I ordered a jacket potato—which is basically a baked potato, but I loved the name 'jacket potato.' It just sounded so English. =)

We ate, paid the bill, then headed back to the car in search of Kings Tor where, rumor had it, letterboxes were to be found in great quantities. Lea navigated with the help of the infamous Ordnance Survey map OL28. Every Dartmoor letterboxer has this map, and it's most interesting feature is the size of the map. The map is probably about five feet long. Five feet long, and another three or so feet tall. Covering both sides completely. It's huge. One book on Dartmoor warned not to open it in the wind or it'll carry you away like a kite. Occasionally, we'd pass cars with a huge sheet of paper covering most of the windshield and we'd nod in understanding. They were using the Ordnance Survey map for Dartmoor.

We found the closest road access to Kings Tor, but parked a bit up from the road because a local warned us that there was no public parking down the hill. I checked out the map and was electrified to see that no trail actually led to Kings Tor. None, zero, zilch. We'd be traveling cross-country, and it's not often I get to do that. I was excited to try using some of my map-reading skills. It seems more manly than following a simple trail to a destination. Real men need no trails.

Amanda checks out the view from the top of a tor

I studied the map closely, and explained my observations to Amanda and Lea. It seems I had more experience reading topo maps than they did, so pointed out a few tricks to help figure out how to read it. Such as, if you see a stream on the map, the contour lines will always point upstream. Always. That lets you know exactly how an area slopes without even having to look at the elevation listed for each contour line.

I figured out the plan of attack. "Okay, this is what we should do. We'll follow the road to here." I jabbed at the map like a general. "We'll follow this trail up the hill to here"—another jab—"more-or-less following this tree line until we reach the peak of the ridge. At this point, we'll turn right and go off trail following the top of the ridge to this plateau, and Kings Tor is at the south end of the plateau."

The girls nodded. I'm not sure if they were agreeing or just trying to shut me up, but I put the map away and we headed out.

The weather was frightful. It didn't take long before we felt the howling winds and biting cold weather. The week before, while looking on the Internet for information, Amanda found webcams showing snow all over Dartmoor. No snow was currently visible, but it was cold. Damn cold.

Amanda and I headed up the hill a bit faster than Lea, so we'd occasionally look back to make sure she was doing okay. While following the ridge to the plateau, Amanda spotted a large rock off to the left. "Let's check it out!"

We curved off to the rock and poked around it looking for a letterbox, but alas, there was none to be found. We waited for Lea to catch up to give her the news. =)

We continued on to the plateau, stopping a second time at some other rocks along the way. And there it was. A letterbox. Odd Spot #14, Figgie Daniel. Our first official Dartmoor find. Woo-who!

A tor is a rocky outcrop at the top of a hill such as this one

We stamped in and replaced the box, then continued to the tor. A tor, for you Yankees that are reading this (which is probably almost everyone), is a rocky outcrop at the top of a hill in Dartmoor. Some tors are small and nondescript, and others are elaborate structures with large slabs of rocks balanced precariously on top of each other. Dartmoor boasts of over 100 tors, and all of them, we had heard, have letterboxes. You just have to start looking around—a term they call scavenging—and you'll find them.

Once we reached the tor, we split up to cover ground faster. I found some icicles, which was exciting for me. It's not often I run into icicles on my hikes, so I took pictures then broke them for fun. =)

We looked for a rather lengthy period of time before any of us found another letterbox, and after at least an hour of searching, we found a total of three more letterboxes. It was a huge disappointment—we expected to find many, many more than that.

Lea had an actual clue for a box on Kings Tor requiring triangulation, which she admitted she didn't much care for. "Why can't they give normal clues!" was heard on more than one occasion during her muttering. =) This particular clue said the box would be located at a place where Vixon Tor was at a certain direction, a quarry with a white house in a second direction, and a bridge over a creek in a third direction. We couldn't find Vixon Tor on the map, so we tried assuming it was the one other tor we could see easily from our location. We didn't see a quarry either, but we did see a white house so we supposed that must be where the quarry is located. Didn't see a bridge either, but if those other two locations were correct, we could figure out where the bridge should be and did it look like there was a serious depression in the ground at that location that might require a bridge if a car needed to cross it.

I was concerned about the number of assumptions going into this calculation, and was even more concerned when the three directions did not add up at all. I pulled out the Dartmoor map and drew mental lines across it figuring out where they crossed, and it was absolutely nowhere near where we were located. Something was seriously wrong with clue, or we were using some very bad assumptions in our calculations. I gave up. Amanda gave up. Lea was a pitbull, though, and refused to give up so easily.

Amanda and I stood around in the biting wind wishing Lea would give up, and some time later, she finally conceded defeat. I tried to buoy her defeat, though. "It's not your fault. These clues are royally screwed up."

We headed back down to the car, aiming off the trees we followed up the ridge back to the road. We found a total of four boxes on Kings Tor. Not really an auspicious start.

Wooder Manor would be our home in Dartmoor

Amanda drove to Wooder Manor with Lea acting as the navigator. The Honeybags Cottage at Wooder Manor would be our home on the moors, located just outside of the small town of Widecombe-in-the-Moor. Angela, the owner, showed us around the cottage that was to be our cozy little home for the next ten or so days.

It had a wood fireplace, and she showed us the garbage can out front with dry firewood. If we ran out, we could go out back and chop some of our own wood from a shed. Electricity was metered to encourage visitors not to waste electricity, and a small coin machine was installed that took pounds to increase the amount of electricity available to us. It became a regular practice each day while we were gone and each night while we were asleep to turn off the hot water heater, lights, and anything that might use electricity. Angela showed us where all the switches were to control this stuff.

Me, man. I build fire. Hear me roar! *roar* A nice way to cap off a long, cold day.

The place also had a small kitchen with all the utensils and dishes we needed to cook the most elaborate meals, something Amanda and I decided early on was a great way to save money. Make our own meals—breakfast, a bag lunch, and dinner to avoid going out to eat every day.

That evening, while looking at the map, Lea figured out where we went wrong earlier in the day. We meant to go to Kings Tor. We actually ended up on King Tor. Notice the difference? No S. We went to the wrong tor! That's the reason we couldn't find Vixon Tor on the map while looking for that triangulation clue—the clue wasn't screwed up, we were! What kind of idiots would name two different tors Kings Tor and King Tor in the same place? In that light, coming out with four letterboxes while on the wrong tor didn't seem like a bad showing at all. =)

We got four channels on the television so our choices were extremely limited. I choose to fire up my laptop and watch Remington Steele on DVDs that Amanda brought with us instead. Amanda fell asleep halfway through the first episode, something she'd do often while watching the show during this trip. I don't know why—I was a bit young when the show was on television and never saw it then, but it was a very amusing show and I had a lot of fun watching it. =)

Finally, I turned off the laptop and went to sleep myself.

March 17

We headed out to Cox Tor next. The sky was overcast, and small flecks of snow covered our car that morning. Clearly, it was still very cold out. As Angela would tell us, "Winter just doesn't want to say goodbye!"

Do we look cold? That's Lea bundled up in the black, and Amanda's the one in blue whose face you can't see because her hair is blowing into it

Amanda, as was quickly becoming the norm, found the first letterbox, with an ugly store-bought stamp named Megan's Box. I had already found the lids for three different boxes by this point, and was getting frustrated at not finding the rest of the box. And the wind was ruthless. The temperature was probably slightly above freezing, but the wind chill was utterly wicked and we huddled behind a large pile of rocks to use them as a wind break taking off our gloves just long enough to stamp in and not a second longer.

Lea and I eventually found some boxes as well, and after a good hour or so of searching randomly among the rocks and cracks ended up with ten letterboxes. During this time, a couple of helicopters buzzed around overhead—military exercises, no doubt. Much of Dartmoor gets used as a training ground by the English. Off on the horizon, we could see one tor with a large red flag on top—a clear signal warning that military exercises were taking place and not to go into the area so you don't get shot or bombed. It didn't seem very far away, either. Certainly not more than a mile or two. I could have probably walked there in a half hour.

After tiring of Cox Tor, we decided to head cross country to a series of three tors known as Staples Tor. We angled down into a slight dip before heading up to the ridgeline with Staples Tor. Amanda and Lea had me climb the tors to search for boxes on the upper reaches of them—the wind was vicious and they felt I was more sure-footed than they were. Or maybe dumber. It's a hard call. =) Either way, I crawled around along the tops of the tors but never found anything but empty letterbox containers and broken beer bottles. The girls weren't having much luck looking around the tors either. In total, we spent over and hour and didn't find one, single letterbox. It was very disappointing.

But I loved the cross-country walk. I loved the large, frozen pools of ice I found around Staples Tor, and spent more than my fair share of time jumping on them and breaking up the ice. We trudged back to the car, defeated. Well, we still had those ten finds from Cox Tor, at least. That was still six better than the day before!

We went into Bovey Tracy where we purchased some groceries for meals for the next several days, and Lea put up an epic battle with the ATMs trying to find one that would take her Bank of America card, but alas, the effort was fruitless. For some bizarre reason, her access to cash had dried up.

Complicating matters even more, England recently started using the "chip and pin" on credit card purchases less than a month before. The credit cards have a small computer ship embedded into them, and you had to use a PIN when you swiped the card to make a transaction. The three of us, alas, had no computer chips in our credit cards so the method didn't work for us. All of us started growing a bit concerned about our access to money, to say the least.

We headed back to the Manor, and I watch more episodes of Remington Steele. Amanda and I cackled at the bad puns (I still laugh over the Abbot of Costello one), and Lea shook her head at us with pity.

March 18

I'm stamping into a letterbox, protected from the wind by the rock behind me

We woke once again to a biting cold wind, and braved the elements to continue our quest to get into the 100 Club. For those of you not familiar with that club, the 100 Club is made up of everyone who has found at least 100 letterboxes on the moors of Dartmoor. Letterboxes found in pubs or off Dartmoor do not count. So far, we had 16 of the 100 finds we needed to get into the club after two days of searching. Not an auspicious start, to say the least.

Another unique aspect of this club is that they won't give clues to letterboxes unless you are in the club. Which leaves you with something of a chicken and egg problem—how can you find one hundred letterboxes if they won't give you the clues, and how can you get the clues if you can't find one hundred letterboxes? Before arriving in Dartmoor, Amanda and Lea did some research asking where large quantities of boxes existed in the hopes that just 'looking around' for boxes and suspicious piles of rocks would be enough to find lots of boxes. At least the first hundred. I'm a slacker, though, and didn't really participate in the research. =)

Hound Tor proved to be a fruitful place for letterboxes where we nabbed sixteen letterboxes in just a couple of hours.

Lea also managed to acquire an old clue book from other letterboxers sympathetic to our plight (Don and Gwen, if you need to know), so we weren't actually as clueless as we should have been. However, our luck with trying to follow the clues was even worse than just looking around randomly, so we mostly gave up on the clue book completely. It was just too out of date.

This day, we headed out to Hound Tor and almost immediately started finding letterboxes. Along the way, Princess Lea planted a Sherlock Holmes letterbox, since one of this adventures took place on Dartmoor, and she has a thing for hounds, I guess. Amanda and Lea were ready to call it quits for the morning after 16 finds, but I was kind of annoyed at leaving so quickly because there was still a large portion of the tor we had yet to search. But they were cold and ready for lunch so I followed them back to the car.

We weren't done stamping, though. No, one of those driveable eateries had set up shop in the parking lot, this one named Hound of the Basket Meals (a clever play on words from the Sherlock Holmes story). And we happened to know that they had a letterbox in the vehicle. Amanda went up to ask for the letterbox and order a hot drink, and came back with a hot drink and a bucket full a stamps. Lots of stamps! I stamped seven of them into my logbook before stopping. We returned the letterbox then headed back into Bovey Tracey where we stopped at The Dolphin Hotel for lunch and, yes, another letterbox hidden behind the bar.

Icicles were common, and I had great fun after taking this picture by busting them all with my trekking pole =)

After eating and getting feeling back into our fingers, we braved the elements once again and headed out to Haytor Rock. It was heavily covered with tourists, though, and the non-letterboxing kind of tourists. I searched long and hard and came up with two letterboxes, both with the same store-bought Shrek stamp. One empty box I found had a big block of ice in it from water that had seeped in then frozen solid. One rock near the base of the tor was a solid mass of icicles, and I joyfully broke them all as Amanda took photos. =)

We didn't leave Top Tor until after the sun finally set

Lea found one other letterbox, but our grand total for Haytor Rocks was a measily three letterboxes. We went back to the car and decided to head out to Top Tor instead where there weren't so many tourists running around. By now we were racing against sunset to find as many boxes as we could before the light ran out, but still managed to find another eight letterbox there. Our grand total for the day was 27 official finds towards the 100 Club. Our best day yet! =)

March 19

While it was sunny and clear on our hike to Cranmere Pool, some late-season snow still lingered at pool

The day woke bright and sunny. The wind was still strong and cold, but it was sunny! Today, we decided, we would hike to out Cranmere Pool and nab the most coveted letterbox of all: the world's first letterbox.

The drive was long and slow, first on the narrow lanes blocked in with hedgerows, then later on an abandoned gravel road including one water crossing. I was in charge of getting out of the car to determine if the car could make it through the water. It didn't look more than a couple of inches deep and waved them through. I wish I could tell you the car got caught in the fast moving current and started to flow downstream. I wish I could tell you the military sent out a rescue helicopter to pick Amanda and Lea up from the stranded car. But it would be a lie if I did. The current wasn't deep nor fast. The car made it through just fine.

Hiking out to Cranmere Pool used to be an all day event. Today, the drive out is an all day event. We passed some military installations—it was Sunday today, so the training exercises were on hold—and finally found our way to an observation point marking the point where we got out of the car and began our walk.

This part of Dartmoor was devoid of the rocks and instead contained lots of marshy, mushy, and watery peat. It's not especially easy to walk on, and stories abound of people who broke an ankle or found live grenades in the muck. The rule around here is don't pick it up if you don't know what it is.

There's no trail marking the route to Cranmere Pool, so we'd have to hike about a mile cross-country using nothing but a topo map, compass, and our wits to find it. Actually, Amanda brought her GPS and Princess Lea programmed the coordinates of Cranmere Pool into it, but I told her to put it away. There was no way, absolutely and utterly no way that I was going to find the world's first letterbox with a GPS. I'd never found a letterbox using a GPS before, and of all the boxes in the world, the Cranmere Pool letterbox wasn't going to the first.

"But Silent Doug and Jennifer used a GPS," she protested.

I looked at her coldly. "We aren't Silent Doug or Jennifer."

I turned to Amanda and whispered, "Did they really use a GPS? Tell me it isn't so!"

She said she thought they did, but in their defense, they came on a day with bad weather and the visibility was bad. They may not have had a choice in the matter.

I thought about it, then decided it wasn't my problem. I wasn't going to use a GPS and that was that.

We stamped this page into the Cranmere Pool letterbox. To help speed up stamping, I carved the 'Discover Dartmoor' signature stamp to be used jointly by Amanda and Lea (Amanda designed the stamp, I only carved it). I always used my turtle stamp, but since Cranmere Pool is such a special box, Amanda and Lea wanted to include their individual signature stamps as well.

I pulled out the topo map and explained my plan of attack. The letterbox, I explained, was located at about the same contour level we were at, but it would be foolish to hike precisely at the location of the letterbox. If we were off by just one degree, we could pass just west of the box and not even know it, walking for miles before realizing we were off. No, I continued, that would be a foolish route indeed.

Instead, I explained, we'd follow another abandoned, overgrown road to Ockerton Court—a small pond along the top of the ridge we were on—then travel cross-country moving slightly down the west side of the ridge. Cranmere Pool lies at the end of this steam on the map, and there's quite a large depression at the stream. The stream might be dry, but the stream bed would still be obvious. It would be our catching feature. When we reached it, we'd follow the stream up to the source which also happens to be—and I jabbed at the map again like a crazed animal—Cranmere Pool and the letterbox. I really get into reading a topo map and making my own trail to the destination, in case you hadn't noticed. =)

It was a simple plan. It was a good plan. We made it to Ockerton Court just fine, then took off off-trail heading on a slightly more westerly course than where the letterbox should have been to use the stream as a catching feature and ensure we didn't walk right by the location. And it worked.

Once we reached the stream, the walking became decidedly more difficult. The stream wasn't really running per se, but it was a mud bog, thick with water. It was mostly frozen but break through the ice and you were ankle deep in icy cold water. At times, I had to veer away from the stream to find dry ground to walk on. Lea seemed to grow annoyed at our round-about method of getting to the letterbox and clearly would have preferred using the GPS to take us directly there without the need of a catching feature.

The world's first letterbox: Cranmere Pool

And then we saw it. Cranmere Pool. Don't let the name fool you—there hasn't been a pool of water at this place for 200 years now. Nobody knows exactly when the pool disappeared, nor even if it was breeched by man or nature, it seems. But the name remains. And off on the far side of Cranmere Pool was a small, squat cement structure that marked the Cranmere Pool letterbox.

This is only one of two letterboxes in the world with a permanent structure to house the letterbox, and in fact the letterbox itself is even listed on our topo map. The three of us took lots of pictures of the structure, then opened the door and took lots more pictures. This was where letterboxing began, about 150 years ago.

While stamping in, a few people hiked in from the other side of Cranmere Pool and sat down to rest. They weren't letterboxers, and were surprised to learn we came all the way from America to get this particular letterbox. =)

Lea pulls out the GPS and says it's telling her that the letterbox is another 35 feet to the southeast. I jokingly tell her to check it out, but I was staying put. =)

We looked around the area for additional letterboxes whose clues we had, but I came up empty handed and give up pretty easily. This was no place to be hiding a letterbox, I thought. No rocks or cracks to hide the box—just mud and peat all over the place. I sat down and started chatting with the locals as Amanda and Lea continued to search.

The local hikers were on the older side of life, two girls and a guy. The guy says to me, "So your girls are free-roaming, are they?"

Lea has the honor of opening the famed Cranmere Pool letterbox

I chuckle. Yeah, free-roaming. They're definitely that, all right.

"I like to keep my girls on a short leash," he jokes. I take a closer look at the two girls but they don't really have the look of people who are used to being on short leashes.

Amanda, miraculously, actually does stumble upon a box in a hole plugged with peat, so I amble over to her location and we all stamp in.

For the way back, I decide to follow directly along the top of the ridge back to the car rather than retrace our steps. On the way back, we have the old, abandoned road to use as a catching feature, if we went back the way we came, there would be no catching feature to tell us when we reached where the road was.

My concern about catching features was a bit overkill since after walking back for most of the distance, lots of cars and people could be seen at the trailhead. Once they were visible, it was just a matter of homing into them. The walk was much more challenging coming back, however, since the ground was decidely flatter than the slope we followed on the way out. The water pooled often, and we picked our way across the landscape very carefully. It didn't help much—both Lea and I ended up with feet that were soaking wet and nasty with mud by the time we got back to the car. Amanda had a newer set of shoes that managed to keep her feet dry.

I had another issue as well—my shoes were disintegrating at an alarming rate. Large holes started forming all around the soles and my sock could clearly be seen showing through it. A couple of more hard days of hiking like this could make them completely unusable. I thought there were still at least a few more weeks of life in the shoes, but Dartmoor had been taking a dreadful toll on them. I needed a new pair of shoes. And badly.

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