Besides all-in brawling amongst the alphabet, letterboxing is also one of the two techniques by which cinema is brought to the small screen. The entire picture is reduced in size so as to fit horizontally across the television screen resulting in black areas above and below.

This is the preferred method for artsy-fartsy movies because none of the cinematic grandeur is lost.
The black bits make the perfect spot for subtitles too.

Opposite of pan-and-scan.

geocaching without electronics


First devised by James Perrott in 1854, letterboxing is an activity generally combining walking and treasure hunting, although it's possible to have some success by cycle or car. The activity began on England's Dartmoor, which is still the most dense area for boxes, and the one we will concentrate on here. Other places around the world, both rural and urban, have similar schemes.


James Perrott was an experienced guide on Dartmoor for many years. He reached one of the most inaccessible places on the moor - Cranmere Pool - and left a glass jar there. Anyone reaching the spot could leave a self-addressed postcard in the jar to prove they had got there. If there were cards in the jar, the adventurer would remove them, and post them to their owners on returning home.

The letterbox at Cranmere Pool - now no longer actually a pool, having been drained - is notable enough that it appears on maps of the area. It is located at N50°39'09" W3°58'29" (WGS84).

Letterboxing now

Modern letterboxing is slightly different. Scattered around the 300 square miles of the moor are over 3000 boxes. They are usually found under a sod of earth or a rock. They may also appear in bushes or, for the lazy, in one of the many pubs and inns in the area. It is common courtesy to have at least have one drink in the pub if you're asking for their box.

A letterbox is a small container, anything from the size of an ice-cream tub to a film canister. It generally contains a rubber stamp, a log book, and a phone number. On finding one, you stamp their log book with your stamp, and stamp your log book with their stamp. You also write the date and time in both books.

The owner of the box leaves their phone number in the box in case there's a problem - a leak for instance. If you find a problem, it is good practise to phone the owner when you can to alert them.

Traditionally, metal ammunition boxes were used, but since Dartmoor has 3 military ranges and the amount of stray hardware is high, the practise of using metal is dying out. This also gives the added safety net that a novice letterboxer should not touch metal items - and only ever approach plastic boxes.

Finding boxes

The real problem for the beginner is to find their first boxes. Cranmere Pool is extremely difficult to reach, requiring several hours' hike across inhospitable land. The problem for the seasoned boxers is that they don't want thoughtless people turning up and vandalising boxes.

The solution to the problem is that clues are relatively hard to come by - and usually moderately vague or requiring a good knowledge of navigation. Once you have proven your interest by collecting your first 100 boxes, you can join the letterboxing club, and clues are more forthcoming.

Without any clues, it is necessary to either just search for boxes, or ask around other people on the moor - usually letterboxers are very friendly. There will never be a box where it will interfere with the animal life or archeological remains. Also there will never be a box in a hazardous place to reach. However, there may be many very close to notable features. The rocks around Vixen Tor are particularly dense in boxes.


Before setting out, you should ensure you have suitable equipment. Dartmoor can be a challenging place, especially in the more remote areas - the weather is very changeable, and fog can blow in from the nearby coast in seconds. The area is also commonly used for live ammo practise by the army - red flags and lanterns mark danger areas during practise. There is information on firing times on the local radio, as well as in the information center in Postbridge.

Your kit, in addition to any outdoor equipment you would normally take, should include:

The ideal type of log book is a small field sketch pad from an art supplier. It should be of small dimensions, yet have strong, acid-free paper.

Having just returned from a letterboxing holiday, we found that it is best to keep the stamp, ink pad, log book and pen in an easily accesible place. Boxes can come thick and fast, and it's quite a pain to have to rummage in your bag for the necessary equipment each time.


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