Thursday, 6 July 2017

Visitors books - Revisited

In my previous post I mentioned that the Plymouth & West Devon Records Office held far more than just Cranmere Pool visitors books.  Ducks Pool, Fur Tor and Crow Tor books are stored at the office.  There may be even more that I haven't identified.  I requested to see some noteworthy books from each of these Letterboxes.

Here are some details of what I found:

Ducks Pool

"William Crossing Memorial.  By kind permission of the Duchy of Cornwall, for use in conjunction with the above [stamp], this book has been placed here for the signatures of visitors by Dobson's Moormen. [23rd] October 1938"

Located under a giant rock at the head of a tributary of the Blacklane Brook, Ducks Pool is another permanent fixture on the Moor, and place of pilgrimage for many Letterboxers.

I had requested to view the first visitors book, placed in the box by the 10 named Moormen. Ducks Pool received regular visits - especially from the Moormen themselves, but this hardbacked book remained on site for almost 14 years.  It bears witness to a dramatic time in history.  For instance, after the outbreak of War, it was 9 days before the first visitor signed in, adding "peace and solitude" to their name.  Two days after VE day, a "Victory walk" was recorded in the book.

Sylvia Sayer, Chairwoman of the Dartmoor Preservation Association - advocate of conserving Dartmoor's heritage with an ambivalent attitude to Letterboxing - wrote in the book in 1951:
"Perfect weather.   Very pleasant to find Ducks Pool so beautiful and unspoilt - we hope that all who visit Ducks Pool will join the Dartmoor Preservation Association."
Many wrote that Ducks Pool reminded them of the long trek out to Cranmere.  Although, generally, visitors welcomed and duly noted the quiet isolation at Ducks Pool, in comparison to the rowdy Northern neighbour at Cranmere Pool. A grid was drawn up at the back of the first visitors book, indicating that Ducks Pool Letterbox had been on site for about 5045 days, with 2994 visits recorded.  That equates to fewer than 2 visits per day.

Fur Tor

Again, the first available book for - the now missing - Fur Tor Letterbox was requested.  This book covered the years 1957-1959.  This box was sited in the cave on the main outcrop.  Registered with the 100 Club as Box No.19, it had been on site for 8 years, although this particular visitors book was showing it's age.  It had been removed (and replaced) by Captain John Joyner - Adventure Training Officer of the Junior Leaders Regiment of the Royal Corps of Signals - in September 1959.  We know this because a letter detailing as much was included in the Records Office archive.

A group of regiment captains, Junior leaders and some Norweigan apprentices carried out this mission and returned the "battered remains" of the old visitor book to Plymouth City Library "in accordance with the directions written upon it".

Capt Joyner initially sought to replace the stamp, which was missing on his first visit.  It was replaced by someone else whilst he was organising his renovation, so there was a time when there were two stamps in the box.  The old visitors book, lacking a front cover, and several of it's early pages was "in such a state that it would not have survived the Winter".  The state of disrepair that this box suffered, the missing stamp, and the informal ownership suggest that Fur Tor Letterbox differs greatly from Cranmere and Ducks Pool's more ordered existence.

The theft of stamps attracted some comments in the book.  On Saturday, August 16th, 1958, a group from Exeter University (1927-31) signed in.  They wrote: 
"The Cranmere stamp and the Fur Tor stamp both missing for the first time for about 20 years.  A THIEF!!  Kindly replace both stamps for our pleasure.
  The Fur Tor stamp was idly imprinted just once in the book (that I saw), although the image has been partially ripped out, suggesting a visitor sought a copy.

The Letterbox thief was active in the 50's too, as was frustration about their activities.  The 'Queen of the Moor' deserves a permanent Letterbox, and it is a shame that this original box no longer survives.

Captain Joyner would later become Major Joyner.  He and Lt Col Lionel Gregory (who wrote the letter featured above) were the partnership widely recognised for establishing the Ten Tors expedition.  Joyner was the 'architect', who designed the routes and checkpoint procedure.  As the regiment's commanding officer, Gregory was Chief Controller of the first Ten Tors in September 1960 (when Cranmere Pool was one of the checkpoints!)

Read more about the beginnings of Ten Tors here.  Lt Col Gregory MBE passed away in 2014.  Read his fascinating obituary here.

Crow Tor

Finally, a mystery.  Crow Tor No.1 (Registered Box No.23) was sited on the Tor itself in 1962. As with Fur Tor, this box has long gone. Visitors books for this Letterbox are definitely stored at Plymouth Record Office from 1962 to 1977. Then there is a gap of 6 years.  Curiously, a single extra, incomplete book from 1983 exists, which I requested to see.  It wasn't anything like I expected.

The quality of the hardbound book - with "Crow Tor Visitors" imprinted on the front, suggests a long established Letterbox, but the book covered just a few days - between July 14th and 16th - and the method of recording visits was simply visitor name, arrival time and departure time.  Judging by the length of stay - typically 6 hours - the group departures, and the repeated names, something odd happened here then, and probably not a Letterboxing trip...

If you can shed any light on this Crow Tor visitor book, please let me know via comments!


Log on and search for "Cranmere Pool", "Ducks Pool, "Fur Tor" or "Crow Tor".

You must arrange to visit in advance.  Email the Records office ( with the archive numbers of items you wish to view.  Don't worry - you can request to see more when you get there!  Be sensible: there are hundreds of books stored here!  Note their opening hours.

Take £5 in cash if you wish to photograph any item, as a charge applies for unlimited photgraphy, and cards are not accepted.

Friday, 30 June 2017

Challenge 5: ✔️ Achieved


I'm not one to refuse a long Letterbox walk, but I rarely seem to spend time collecting stamps indoors.  Yet, as we know, Letterboxing is so much more than stamps.  Take visitors books, for instance.  These little volumes of history and heritage: and how Letterboxing began in the eyes of James Perrott in 1854 of course.  So I went in search of visitors books indoors this month, and boy - did I find some crackers!

I had a hunch that when Cranmere Pool's books were full, they were sent to Plymouth for storage.  I called Plymouth Museum many years ago, believing they were held there, but was politely told I was misinformed.  However, a chance look at the Records Office catalogue a few weeks ago and - low and behold - visitor books galore!  Not just Cranmere Pool (Registered Box No.12) books either.  Ducks Pool (Reg'd No.35), Fur Tor (No.19) and Crow Tor No.1 (No.23) are available in Plymouth Records Office too. I requested permission to access the archive, selected a view choice books to view and I, er... visited!

Cranmere Pool

"This book and the zinc box in which it is enclosed, placed here by permission of the Duchy Authorities have been provided by two lovers of the Moor for the use of visitors to the Pool.  It is hoped they will record their names and impressions in the book and so make it of interest to those who come after them"...."Postcards or letters left in the box will be posted by the next caller who will please write on them the date at which he takes them away."
Introduction to Cranmere Pool visitors book, 1905 

The 'Original' Letterbox.  Visitor books are available from 1905 until 2012.  Where more recent books are, I have no idea.  I requested a look at the first book, and one from 1921 - a notable year in Cranmere's distinguished history.

One of the first visitors in the first available book (dated April 8th 1905) simply wrote "Moriarty" - one for 'Sherlock' fans out there...  Though the first message was on the next day from a visitor from Dublin, who sheds light on the distance and conditions in which the approach was made, typical of the Edwardian era, I suppose.

"From Lane End via Amicombe and Kneeset Mine. Weather: mist and dense fog at times... Rather wet"

I think we can all imagine how joyous that early Spring walk must have been!  The Letterbox has visitors from all round the UK and the globe (I noticed 'America' recorded more than once).  Perrott's legacy was well known.

The last visitor in this book dated it in September 1906 (which for the record, pre-dates the first aeroplane flight in Europe).  A hand-drawn table concludes the book, showing that during it's 18 month stint on the Moor, 7470 people checked in.  Averaged out, that is 14 every day.  Far busier than I'd have expected!

Stuck inside the front cover of this 1905 book is an intriguing pair of undated newspaper cuttings concerning Cranmere Pool Letterbox.  They actually come from the Western Morning News some 16 years later, in May 1921.  It was that year's visitor book that I requested to view - the only incomplete book in the Record Office collection.  It was in this month, that the heir to the throne, Edward, Prince of Wales, along with hosts, guides and press entourage, visited Cranmere Pool.

The first WMN cutting refers to the original 1921 visitor book being unexpectedly removed (perhaps predictably?) from the Moor.  The Prince had made the "long and tiring tramp" to the Box and had requested the book remain on the Moor, whilst Admiral Sir Lionel Halsey (the Prince's comptroller and Treasurer) who accompanied the royal visitor, requested that "no one would remove the page which the Prince had autographed and dated", and repeats this request in the visitor's book itself.

The second cutting informs the readership that the visitors book had not been stolen, and was in safe hands.  Mr Heath, a Plymouth solicitor, is named as the man responsible for Cranmere Pool.  It's upkeep supported by supscription.  Heath makes it clear that it wasn't him who removed the book (which I learnt from the visitor's books final entry, was done by a gentleman from Okehampton) requesting it to be forwarded to Plymouth Library, where "all the visitors books, as they are filled in are sent to for inspection".  I suddenly learnt the origin of my misguided belief regarding the museum.

The visitor's book containing Edward's (later Edward VIII before then abdicating) autograph is in remarkable condition.  The page in question is well thumbed but intact.  Sir Lionel signs the same page in May 19th 1921, along with Duchy Keeper of the Records: James (Jim) Endacott, Sir Walter Peacock and Raleigh Phillpotts (of peat pass fame), whilst on the subsequent page, hacks from the Press Association, Daily Telegraph, TImes of London and two from Western Morning News sign in, one of whom seems brimming with pride to write:

"The only man to photograph his Highness at Cranmere on 19/05/21"

It must have been an exciting day to be at the head of the West Okement.  Perhaps as much as seeing this history with my own eyes!

Fast forward now, to the very beginnings of popular and mainstream Letterboxing.  The birth of the 100 Club; The dawn of personal stamps.  I opened the visitors book from 1983.  It is rare - if not impossible to see such pristine "old" visitor books, and perhaps what struck me most was how familiar they are.  Over 30 years have passed, and the ways in which we use (perhaps abuse) visitor books is unchanged.  I read again the introductory paragraph from Cranmere c.1905, repeated above.  A far more elegant and genteel pastime, lost forever it seems.

This book is packed with the scribbles, stamps and signatures of various Cranmere pilgrims.  Many still familiar stamps appear: The Hand Of Man, Brixham Grasshopper, Dartmoor Bounders, Diptford Letterbox Hound (Godfrey Swinscow), Steelman amongst many others make several appearances, suggesting this wasn't an annual trip.  Countless North Dartmoor Passport Holders make their mark!  Including No.1 - which I don't recall seeing anywhere else.

It was a hugely rewarding day in the centre of Plymouth - which didn't end there.  I was thrilled to see all the books, and piece together a classic bit of the Dartmoor Letterboxing story.


Log on and search for "Cranmere Pool", "Ducks Pool, "Fur Tor" or "Crow Tor".

You must arrange to visit in advance.  Email the Records office ( with the archive numbers of items you wish to view.  Don't worry - you can request to see more when you get there!  Be sensible: there are hundreds of books stored here!  Note their opening hours.

Take £5 in cash if you wish to photograph any item, as a charge applies for unlimited photgraphy, and cards are not accepted.

Saturday, 10 June 2017

The other half of the day

Beyond Middle Tor, and the restoration of the box there, I had an entire walk to do.  My ultimate goal was Watern Tor, for I really do love that place.  The solitude, the geology, the views, are quite special.  Along the way, there would be two crossings of the unique Manga Rails, a visit to the obscure ruin of Will May's House and a fly-by of the iconic Kes Tor.

On a hot, still day like this, I'd expect crowds but beyond Shovel Down's antiquities, I was almost alone in the hills.  Among the gorse above the North Teign River, not to far from the Rails, a green tent was pitched - entirely legitimately.  The drum-taut guy lines indicated to me that it was not abandoned.  It was an eerie outpost of civilisation, and one that made me consider how long a tent would (could) remain pitched and unsearched out here.  I, for one, would feel deeply uncomfortable unzipping a tent door just out of curiosity.

Will May was an 18th century peat cutter from Chagford.  His tiny "house" was actually only a shelter, but a very well preserved one at that, on the slopes overlooking the the Mire to the East of Watern Tor.  A number of boxes are sited for this ruin, although none are located too close to it.

Watern Combe featured on my walk, and this small valley was a suntrap today.  Often overlooked by Letterboxers, this was a successful diversion for me.  One box in this combe was last found two years previously, and averaged fewer than 1 visit per year over the last decade.  Far from the madding crowds indeed!

I paused and considered my return route from the Thirlestone outcrop on Watern.  By following the back to Frenchbeer, I was sure of a worn path, but a more hilly, more zig-zag route.

By contouring around hills, and flanking Kes Tor, I'd be on a smoother, potentially faster path.  So it was this route I chose.  It still took 90 minutes to return to the car though.

11 Letterboxes found.

Saturday, 27 May 2017

Challenge 4: ✔️ Achieved


Finally, an opportunity to add a clue to the Dartmoor Letterbox catalogue, and take a burden off my my mind brought about by a vow I made in 2014.
"...It was at Middle Tor that I carried out my good deed of the day.  Middle Tor Letterbox celebrates its 30th birthday this year and was registered in the catalogue as box number 1259.  Not one of the originals, but an early one nevertheless.  The box was in it's cave on the East side of the tor - box broken, and full of water, stamp in pieces, book turned to pulp.  I dried it out the best I could, confirmed it's identity and brought it home.  I intend to renovate it and re-establish it later this year..."
- whoisthechallenger blog; "Good Friday", 18th April 2014 

At number 1259, no, it isn't one of the originals, but at now 33-years-old, it is an old-timer that deserves to be back on the Moor, and not in a cupboard in my house.  I had a new stamp made, which harked back to the original design.  I provided it with a new clip-lock box, and (whisper it) a new ammunition can, complete with 'Dartmoor Letterbox' painted on it - to avoid confusion or concern.

An inkpad, pen and nice hard-backed visitors book rounded off the replacement unit.  

A trip to Middle Tor was next on my agenda, on a hot and still May day.  A short walk back to the cave under the boulder on Middle Tor's flank.  Imagine my surprise to find another Letterbox had appeared to have moved in, albeit on the rock shelf above.

Middle Tor is often overlooked, and perhaps this is how the original box survived for 30 years in a relatively obvious site.  Finally, and only succumbing, to the ravages of the elements and time.  I'm sure I'll become a regular visitor to this Eastern peak, in my role as custodian of this box.  If you have a copy of a pre-2010 Letterbox Catalogue, you'll know the clue to find it.  If you purchase next year's, with any luck, it'll be back, in all it's glory.

Sunday, 7 May 2017

Speaking of books...

Since we're on the subject of books, perhaps this would be a good time for a book review.

It seems a long time I read and reviewed John Kemp's "The Secret Letterbox": A book giving Dartmoor Letterboxing a leading role. When I learnt of novel in which a Cornish guy named Barber goes Dartmoor Letterboxing, I thought my autobiography was out, and I rushed to get a copy!

So, I've just read Mystery At Potter's Lodge: The 23rd Murray Barber PI Case. this intriguing read from St Austell writer Julie Burns-Sweeney, is set in Devon and Cornwall, following the exploits of a private investigator with the unusual ability to communicate with the dead!

The lead character is faced with a murky and mysterious mix of retribution and murder. When it's not quite clear who is guilty, and who's the victim.

I really enjoyed this read. The writer has captured the spirit of the Moor perfectly, has plot twists, humour, original storyline plus a thread of Letterboxing weaved throughout. Highly recommend. Out as an Ebook or paperback available here.