Sunday, 30 April 2017

Challenge 3: ✔️ Achieved


This month, I have been rekindling an old relationship with 'the book' - the Catalogue of Dartmoor Letterboxes.  In fact I have only been looking for the registered letterboxes found within it's pages.  Yes - I did a charity walk, which is also registered, but I was keen to avoid all the Word of Mouth boxes, that would usually form my routes.

Why?  Well, I believe this is a great way to take the temperature of our hobby.  Newbies will spend their money on this book, and use it to further their experience of Letterboxing.  They need not have already found 100 boxes to purchase a copy - that rule no longer applies - so this book could be their ticket to join the 100 club, and spark future generation's interest in the pastime.

So where did the book take me this month?  

I went on two trips.  Two vastly different areas.  One to deep Northern moor, remote, wild and rugged.  Vergyland Combe, Brim Brook and Dinger Tor, to be precise, via East Mill.  The other area more tame and familiar: Chinkwell and Honeybag Tors.  So it was up North first, and a dozen-or-so boxes on my list, besides the MacMillan Cancer Support charity walk.  The weather was great - warm, dry, calm and sunny.  The car park at Row Tor wasn't overfull, and a dry few months meant that the going underfoot was reasonable.  Everything was in my favour.  I had almost total success with the charity walk, missing just one, but my success rate with my other clues wasn't so high.  I located 5 catalogue boxes between West Mill and East Mill, but nothing further South of here.  As enjoyable a-walk it was South of the Ring Road, it was a fruitless Letterbox walk.

Of the boxes that I failed to find up North, I cannot be truly certain that any are missing.  I failed to find any ex-site, or any hint that I was searching where others had previously.  The whole experience could be summarised by "Follow that dog", registered box number 36994.  Sited in 2005, this box has distant bearings, none of which now seem to coincide.  As I have previously said, 12 years will see a lot of natural bearing changes.  There are no close up bearings, no indication of what the box is hidden under.  It is my belief, that the only hope this box has, is to be found by chance.

My second catalogue-based-walk around the stunning ridge high above Widecombe was made up of 12 boxes - some long established, others comparatively new.  I found 3 of them.  I had 5 chance finds, which is to be expected anywhere near Bonehill Rocks.  One of the 3 I did find, was registered box number 94.  An original.  Sited by Godfrey Swinscow, and now adopted by the Plymouth Get Together.

Perhaps though, this route's success could be summarised by box "Cook Family on Honeybag", registered number 49204, so less than a year old.  This box has no bearings, and a vague clue.  I paced 150 large paces from the wall up the hill, but was faced with countless rowan trees along the ridge.  Suffice to say, I did not find this box.  Perhaps the Cook family were inspired by Godfrey's 'original' clue, which is equally vague, but sadly far more obvious.

I respect the catalogue's values.  I support the removal of 10 figure GPS from Letterbox clues - anything that helps to defeat the thief is good, plus I don't tend to use or rely on a GPS.  Having a published code of conduct is vital, and 'other' boxes (travellers, boxes in other places) being provided a clear home is useful.

Perhaps the 5-year re-registration system of the 2000s was a wiser idea than we give it credit for.  The concept of having to re-register a Letterbox after 5 years encourages ownership and responsible Letterboxing.  I believe an original intention was to cap the number of 'live' boxes in the catalogue.  A Letterbox requiring checking, clue updating, and regular attention is sure to receive more visits, and benefit the hobby as a whole.  When the system ceased in 2012, the system again became 'self-governing', with deletions and new boxes balancing each other.  It does however, leave us with a book of increasingly elderly boxes, which as my walk around Dinger Tor proved, has it's faults.

I want to conclude my challenge using the wise words of the foreword to the Letterbox Catalogue of Autumn 1986: 

"The reputation for accuracy which the Catalogue has justly earned depends, in the first instance, on the accuracy of the information recorded"

This was part of a wider plea to support Godfrey Swinscow physically visit and personally check every clue and Letterbox before it's registration and publication in the catalogue.  An arduous and exhausting job!

The catalogue was founded on professionalism, accuracy and reliability of the content.  Anything that can be done to return to days when this is the norm, must be encouraged at all costs.

Friday, 21 April 2017

Past, present & future: The book.

Lets face it: the overwhelming majority of the Letterboxes I find are word-of-mouth boxes.  These are clues that I have received from fellow Letterboxers, and generally via email.  I purchase a copy of the Catalogue of Dartmoor Letterboxes (the 'book), but its not the most thumbed document in the house.

Some stats which maybe summarise my relationship over time with the Catalogue...

Of the first 1000 boxes we located, fewer than 90 were NOT registered with the 100 Club.

Yet, up to last week, of the most recent 1000 boxes I have found, only 60 WERE registered, and 40 of those were Charity Walk boxes.

So what has changed?
- As a Letterboxer, I (we) developed.  Siting boxes, exchanging clues, engaging with the establishment Letterboxers and forming a network of trusted contacts - a 'clique'.  I wouldn't say I'm snobbish about my clue-sourcing habits: I've just become more selective.
- Dartmoor Letterboxing has undergone massive changes: Social (aging participants, austerity, pressures on free time), and technological (GPS, email, Geocaching), plus changes caused by internal factors (the book's '5 year rule') as well as external factors (the thief, access point closures).  

Everybody needs to start somewhere.  So we begin, (began) 26 years ago on this day, on April 21st 1991, with no book at all, but a charity walk: 'British Mammals', sited on Barn Hill and Pew Tor.  We found some of the set, after all, our compass skills weren't great (our compass wasn't great either).  Within a month, we'd hit our 100 boxes, joined the 100 club, and purchased our copy of the catalogue.  I remember a real sense of pride that came with receiving my 100 club card - being 11 years old and all!

Looking back, catalogues from this time look weathered and worn.  Beside joining us for every walk, they were highlighted and scribbled in.  Clues were colour coded:

Green = box found.  
Yellow = Box reported missing.  
Blue = Box in need of attention.  
Pink = Box deleted.  
The annual process of updating each catalogue with the highlighter was a time consuming 2-person operation.

This book was our bible.  The clues within conjured up thoughts of exciting days into distant mid-Moor spots.  With the exception of the bi-annual injection of charity walks, this was our sole source of clues.  The book was bulging with new clues.  Success rates of finding boxes was high, and we were very, very happy.

Fast forward to today.  The number of clues in the catalogue has decreased again from its 90's peak.  I treat my catalogue as you would treat a faded rock idol.  You fondly remember all the hits and best work.  You somehow ignore or blank out all the pain, disappointment and frustration it caused.  Which perhaps, eventually, led to it's demise.  When the failure rate exceeded the success rate.  When the excitement and happiness was tied to the new cluesheet emailed to us personally from a Letterboxer we knew.  When the challenge of solving a cryptic clue and beating fellow Letterboxers to be first-in-book replaced the challenge of highlighting every clue in the book green.

This feeling clearly wasn't unique to us.  Catalogue clues have aged badly.  Flick through the pages and see part-series and 'lost boxes', with clues so obscure, they could never be confirmed off-site if unfound.  One of our own fits this category.  Sited in 1993, Super Snack Sites No.10 is registered in the book.  I never registered it, it just appeared in an update and found its way into the book.  I've never been able to re-find it, and deleted it.  Only to see it, re-established, with it's original 1993 bearings back in the book.  I own it, I still Letterbox, and I can't delete it.  There must be many 'lost boxes' unmaintained by absent owners, languishing in the book.

Bearings.  There's an issue.  The world has turned over the years.  It keeps turning.  True North and Grid North have converged and have started to disconnect in opposite directions.  Not a speedy process, but a box sited 24 years ago, will see bearings be at least 6 degrees wrong by now, if they were correct to begin with.  What I'm saying is, the clues in the book lack the credibility that they once did.

Consider the future.  Imagine if you will 26 years from now.  April 21st 2043.  I'll be in my early 60s. What will the future hold for the catalogue.  You can read my fortune telling piece in a blog post from February 2011 on the future of the hobby, so I won't repeat myself, but accountability and accuracy will be key to the survival of the book.  I hope that it does survive, and offer countless Letterboxers - both new and old - the same excitement and happiness it once offered us.