I often get asked how to become a Dartmoor Letterboxer, especially how to go about actually putting a box of your own out on the moor. This page explains how to do this from inception to completion using the example of an actual letterbox of mine that is due to be sited on the moor.
Firstly you need to decide whether you are going to cut your stamp yourself or have it commercially made. Personally, I have never been able to master the skill of rubber cutting and so have always had my stamps made. If you do want to have a go at cutting your stamp then have a look at the online tutorial which can be found – HERE.
A STAMP IS CONCEIVED.
Having made that decision it is time to come up with a concept for your stamp, as mentioned on a previous page this should be Dartmoor related. By that I mean the theme of the stamp should be about some topic that can actually be found on Dartmoor, ‘Donald Duck goes Wild’ is nothing to do with Dartmoor neither are the ‘Telly Tubbies Moorland Adventure’. Once you have come across your theme you now need to decide whether you want a single stamp on the idea or if you would like to put out a number of stamps in what can be described as a theme. If it’s the latter a series usually comprises of around 10 or 12 different letterboxes, the actual design does not necessarily have to be different but the name of the subjects will be. For example, if you were doing the mires of Dartmoor you have the option of either coming up with 10 different drawings, one for each mire or 1 drawing which will be used for all the mires. Next come the research stage, having decided on your subject you need to find out how many place-names or instances of your theme are on Dartmoor. This can be done by reading through the relevant Dartmoor books, for a suggestion of these see the page on a Dartmoor Library. The OS map will also show many place-names and features which could be used for your chosen subject, so we need 10 stamps related to the mires of Dartmoor. Research has brought up such a number; Aune Head Mire, Batworthy Mire, Bow Combe Mire, Coal Mires, Fishlake Mire, Foxtor Mire, Gallaven Mire, Left Lake Mire, Ryder’s Mire and Withy Bed Mires. So the concept is now complete, the theme is the mires of Dartmoor and the subjects are the ten named examples, we now know roughly in which areas the letterboxes will be sited. One point to bear in mind, you will have certainly spent a lot of time coming up with these stamps and possibly a lot of money in getting them made so it would be nice to get a series that other boxers will enjoy collecting. I and many other boxers will not even bother collecting stamps that, a) do not include a Dartmoor place-name and b) are totally unconnected with Dartmoor.
Ok, so in my case I have deliberated for ages and have come up with the idea that I want to do a series of stamps which relate to the bounds of the old Vag Hill rabbit warren. Next comes the research, in Dave Brewer’s book – Dartmoor Boundary Markers, (2002, p. 268) he notes how a document in Exeter library of 1613 lists the actual line of the boundary. This information gives me the place-names relevant to my intended subject; Heartor, Cornetor, Logator, Holne Cleyves, Comson hedge, Whortaparke etc. Right, at this point I will confess that I have a sadistic streak and therefore never make things easy for people as I like to know they have had to work at things and that goes for my letterbox clues. In this instance the list above contains the place-names that were used in the 1600s along with their spellings, today each of those names has either mutated to a modern form, has gone out of use or been forgotten. Ergo, if anyone wants to know where these places are they will have to read Dave Brewer’s book for the answer. The only problem will be working out which book to read and that will be down to knowledge of Dartmoor or the perseverance to trawl through the various books to find it. For years many people have made their subjects and places hard to find and over those years boxers have had to do the research in order to solve the clues, it is a marvellous way of growing ones knowledge of Dartmoor! As there are only nine place-names and I want ten stamps then I will include one stamp showing a warrener that I can place anywhere within the warren bounds, Brewer tells us that in 1613 it was Richard Reynell.
THE DRAWING BOARD
The concept, theme and subjects have now been decided, I am doing a series of stamps on the bounds of Vag Hill Warren, it will contain six stamps that will relate to Heartor, Cornetor, Logator, Holne Cleyves, Comson hedge and Whortaparke. I now need to design the actual stamps. When sighting a series I need to decide three things, firstly do I want six different pictures or shall I use one picture for all of the stamps? Secondly, do I want to include the place-name in the picture or do I want two stamps for each site, one with the design and another for the place-name? Thirdly, do I want to make one ‘master stamp’ that will put put in the first box and then six stamps with just the place-name on it. Which means that visitors have to make six copies of the stamp at the first box and then take them to the rest where they can complete the stamp by getting the place-name? In this case I am going to have one design that will serve for all six boxes and put each relevant place-name in the design. Whilst the third option above is a much cheaper way of producing the stamps as you only need one large stamp and six little ones as opposed to six large stamps, it is a complete pain in the arse for other letterboxers – don’t do it!
Time for the pen and paper, my series will be on Vag Hill Warren and so I need something that will depict a rabbit warren of the 17th century. Maybe a rabbit would work and for the extra one a picture of a 17th century warrener? Now we come (depending on your artistic abilities) to the hard part, actually drawing the design. When I first started designing stamps it was a case of drawing the artwork and then using those rub-on stencil letters to get the wording. Today most of this is done on the computer with the aid of a fileful of various fonts. If your drawing skills are slightly lacking there is no need to worry as there are ways around this. Old books are brilliant resources for black and white line drawings, especially children’s books and it’s well worth scanning through these. On-line clip art is another way of getting the illustrations for your stamps as are web sites. If you take the illustration from a book then you have two options, you can either trace or photocopy it and then apply it to a piece of paper or if you have a scanner take it straight into a graphics editor. It is worth remembering at this point that you don’t want too big a stamp as preferably it has to fit into a small container or in other words the bigger the stamp the bigger the container and the harder it is to hide.
So, I now have my drawings of a rabbit and warrener which I now scan into my graphic programme which is Microsoft Draw – see illustration 1. Having done this I need to incorporate the writing of the place-name with the design, this is where a choice of fonts and font effects comes in useful – see illustration 2. With my stamps I always like to put the place-name in a scroll or ribbon, this I find enhances the design as can be seen from the illustrations opposite. If you don’t have the use of a computer then the principle is the same except you either use a lettraset or your own handwriting for the wording. Ensure that your finished artwork is ONLY in black and white, it is sharp and clear with no close lined shading or large black shadowing. The wording should also be crisp and legible and please check your spelling, the times I haven’t done this and ended up with a mis-spelt word. When you have finished your design/s ask yourself or someone else one question, if you found this letterbox stamp would you be happy to add it to your collection? If the answer is no then the design is crap so go back and start again. Once again, many letterboxers (including myself) will not even bother taking a copy of a crappy stamp, it’s a waste of time and ink. I am sorry if this sounds elitist but surely most people want to feel proud of their efforts so quality control is imperative and certainly if you don’t exercise it somebody else will – the box simply disappears off the moor.
The hard part is now done, you have ended up with some eye-catching designs which are now your pride and joy. If you have cut your own stamp/s then this stage won’t involve you so jump on to the next step, if you haven’t then your designs need to be turned into actual stamps. It is here that a third-party will become involved and actually breath life into your new baby. Most stamp manufacturers either produce A4 or A5 sheets of stamps which is by far the most economic way of getting them made (A4 being the cheapest). So depending on the number of stamps you need either take an A4 or A5 sheet of paper and arrange your stamps onto it. When doing so ensure that there is a blank margin of about 2cm around the edges of the paper because in the manufacturing process the size of the sheet will shrink. Therefore is your stamps are arranged around the very edges a lot of the artwork will be lost. If you have the use of a computer then all the designs can be arranged in a graphics programme and simply printed off, the computer will automatically allow for the 2cm margins. Should you not have the use of a computer then it’s simply a matter of cutting out your designs and pasting them onto a blank sheet of paper. As there are only ten stamps in this series they will not economically fill an A4 sheet so I have taken the opportunity to get some one off stamps made – see illustration 3. These can be odd boxes that you want to site or even address stamps, simply come up with a design which includes your home address and phone number which are ideal for stamped addressing envelopes or including on Christmas cards. My wife is a primary school teacher and often wants stamps that she can use for praising good work, hence a few of them have made up the space. Having filled you sheet with artwork all that remains to be done is to send them off to the stamp manufacturers. Some of these will offer to provide a mount for your stamp/s which is a very expensive service so when sending off you sheet clearly specify that you want it to be unmounted. Put the sheet in a large envelope with a support board, if the envelope gets bent or crumples in the post the designs will be useless if creased. Which manufacturer you use is purely down to personal choice, however just remember that cheapest isn’t always best.
THE BABY IS BORN
After several anxious days you sheet of new stamps will be delivered, smelling to high heavens of rubber and totally unrecognisable as being your handy work, you will also notice that there is some backing paper on them, this is because the back of the stamp is self adhesive – fear not. The first job is to carefully cut out each stamp leaving a small a margin as possible around it, don’t cut too close or some of the design will be lost. Having done that you will be faced with a pile of floppy stamps which are as much use as an ashtray on a motor bike. These stamps now need to be backed or mounted with something hard which will allow the necessary pressure to be applied in order to make a good impression of the stamp. It is at this point those those fortunate enough to have cut their own stamps rejoin the process as these too need backing. Most boxers use Perspex for this as it is cheap, easy to trim, water resistant and lightweight, I normally by a whole sheet of it from the DIY centre, its the same as used in greenhouses etc. Next you will need a jig saw and a work bench, simply lay the Perspex flat, peel of the backing from the stamp and stick the stamps onto it. Then with the jig saw cut around the stamps as closely as you dare without touching them but remembering that there needs to be enough of an edge for people to pick them up from a stamp pad. At one time many stamps has handles which enabled them to be handled and pressed without smudging or getting ones hands covered in ink, those days have gone so it’s important to leave an adequate edge around the stamp. I suppose in this day of health and safety that in order to avoid any compensation claim I should say that you must wear protective eye cover and that if using an electric saw the Perspex will melt as you cut and as it does the off-cuts are as hot as magma. Once the stamp and its backing have become one you will find that the edges of the Perspex are rough, in some cases lethally rough and again in light of compensation claims it’s best to smooth the edges. This I do with a rotary electric sanding pad, once more the Perspex becomes very hot and can easily burn your fingers – oh dear that really hurts – not. Having successfully mounted your stamps it’s now time to see of they work so get a stamp pad and take some copies. Hopefully you will be looking at a very collectable letterbox design which now you can’t wait to put out on the moor. At this stage it is always best to take several copies of your stamp/s as once they are on the moor it’s too late unless you want a pointless walk. Why? well for two reasons, it’s always nice to include your own letterbox stamps in your collection and secondly there is a very good chance that your precious stamp will be stolen. If this happens then it is useful to have some spare copies for people who were collecting your boxes but found the stamp stolen before they could get to it. Whilst on this subject you will often find that if a stamp of yours does go missing you will get certain boxers asking when you will be replacing it. Bollocks, why should you? Having gone to the trouble and expense of putting the thing out in the first place why should you have to repeat that by replacing a stolen box? I know it’s not the fault of other boxers as such but somebody (inadvertently or not) passes the clues on to those who steal the boxes and the chances are it’s the very people who bleat about replacing boxes. So no, tell them to sod off. Ok, I have had my sheet back and have dissected, glued, amputated and smoothed my stamps, an example of the finished article can be seen in – illustration 4.
BUILDING THE NEST.
Your baby/ies now need a cradle to sleep in or in other words you need to make your ‘letterbox’. Your letterbox should consist of one or two waterproof containers, two sealable plastic bags, a visitor’s book and a stamped-addressed postcard to your house.
Over the years that I have been boxing I have seen letterbox containers made from army surplus ammo cans, ice cream cartons, water containers, tin cans, Tupperware containers, plastic carrier bags and more recently pill pots. Please note it is now ‘illegal’ to use ammo cans as they could be mistaken for unexploded military ordinance??? Pill pots are the large bulk containers that tablets come into the chemists in and in effect are simply thrown away when empty – see illustration 5. In these days of re-cycling they are becoming harder to get but it’s always worth popping into your local pharmacy to see if they will save them for you, usually they do this for nothing. This was what I used to do but have since found a sturdy container that has a lid lock and costs about £1 from Tescos – see illustration 6. The size of the container will obviously depend on the size of the stamp which is why it’s best not to make the stamps too big, also bear in mind that the visitor’s book has to fit in here as well. Whatever container you decide to use must be as water-proof as possible, remember it’s going out on Dartmoor where it will be exposed to all that the weather can throw at it. Usually the letterbox will be at ground level or deeper and therefore at times will be in standing water, snow or ice as well as being a possible meal for small rodents (yes they will actually chew away the plastic, normally around the lid).
The purpose of the visitor’s book is to enable other boxers to record the fact that they have found you letterbox, since the disappearance of ammo cans the visitor book have grown a lot smaller and currently comprise of a small exercise book. I generally get an A5 children’s notebook and cut it in half, this makes an ideal size for small containers whilst giving plenty of space for visitors to stamp in. Your book should include contact details in case there is a problem with the box, either put a phone number or e mail address. One point worth remembering is that if you put a phone number people will actually call you for other clues etc, usually on a Saturday or Sunday night after they have returned from the moor. So unless you don’t might your weekend nights ruined simply put your e mail address. The other thing that is useful to include in the visitor’s book is the date on which the box was sited, this lets people know how long the box has been out.It is always nice to include a blank, stamped and self addressed postcard with your book. This serves three purposes, firstly – over the years they make a nice collection, secondly – when you get the card back it means someone has found your box and thirdly – it will confirm that your clue and bearings were correct, if they weren’t then that will possibly be noted on the card. The other point with a card is that it was the original method of early letterboxing so in a way it’s keeping the tradition going. Some people put their books in a small pill pot which will sit inside a larger one with the stamp or alternatively you can put the book in a sealable polythene bag. I tend to do the latter but God knows why I bother as many boxers can’t be arsed to put the book back in the bag anyway but both methods do keep the books dry.
You have your container/s, stamp, and visitor’s book and now all you need to do is assemble the entire letterbox – see illustration 7, this being done it’s now ready to be sited – wow, nearly there.
SELECTING THE NEST SITE.
This may seem daft but your letterbox must be sited somewhere from which your subject or place-name can be seen by the human eye. You would be amazed at how many boxes are sited miles away from what the stamp refers to – crazy. Always adhere to the letterboxing code when siting a box, for instance never hide it in a feature of antiquity or on private land, the full letterboxing code can be found – HERE. Having complied with the letterboxing code there are a few other things to bear in mind. Try to find a site where the box will remain dry, it might be a glorious day when you site the box but in winter that site may be prone to flooding. I once placed a box in the side of a small gully and when I went to check it a few moths later the whole depression was filled with water. Ensure that from the actual site you can see enough landmarks to take the bearings for your clue. On numerous occasions I have found a cracking site, hidden the box but then when I came to get some bearings there wasn’t a single feature to be seen. What sort of site do you look for? The normal hiding place for a letterbox is under a rock, there are others but I’m not going into them here. On Dartmoor you won’t be short of rocks under which you can hide your box, just make sure the ‘cave’ or hole is big enough to hold your container. Then having found a nice, dry site simply put your letterbox as far back into the hole as possible, you don’t want it to be visible as then it will definately get stolen. Try to keep everything looking as natural as possible and don’t try blocking the hole up with small stones or rocks, experienced boxers can spot these from 200 yards. You find as you walk the moor you get a feel for its natural surroundings and its amazing how soon you can spot something that doesn’t look ‘right’ and the chances are there is usually a letterbox involved with this. A few suggestions, don’t site the box near a path or track neither put it under an obvious rock or near to a lone feature such as a tree. There are numerous ploys that have been used to make finding the box that bit harder such as putting the genuine box way back in a hole then hiding this with a rock and placing an empty pill pot at the front of the hole. People think they have found an empty letterbox and assume the stamp and book have been stolen and stop their search. I know of very small letterboxes there were hidden in range poles and others that were placed in rusty tins, there was one box that was put in a hole where an ad…, no better not go there. But wherever you put you box don’t put it anywhere that might put someone in danger such as up a rock face or down an old mine. So, for an example, illustration 8 shows the site I chose for one of the Vag Hill boxes before putting the box in it and illustration 9 shows the site after siting the box.
FLYING THE NEST
Having sited the box it’s now time to take some compass bearings in order that people can find the box. This can be done in two ways, the authentic way is to take several bearings with a sighting compass or the modern alternative seems to be taking a grid reference with a GPS. As far as I am concerned the latter is not in the true letterboxing style and therefore a non starter. So, from your box you need to see three or four landscape features which are preferably in each of the cardinal directions, namely; north, south, east and west. Then simply read off the bearings and carefully make a note of each one, having satisfied yourself with the features just re-check the bearings to ensure they are correct. When actually taking the bearings make sure there is no metal such as glasses, lanyard clips or the like near the compass and in the same light never stand on or near metal objects such a drain covers, the metal will effect the compass needle. Basically what you are doing is to take several points which will triangulate the box’s position as shown in illustration 10. This means that anyone walking on one of the bearings will eventually come to an intersection where another one crosses over it and usually then it’s not far until a third bearing line will triangulate the site. Having got the bearings then note down some extra information like what size rock the box is under, the number of obvious paces of any nearby feature such as a tree, wall, fence post etc. You can if you want take a photo of the box site, all these extras are to help you find the box again or make you clue a bit easier. It may sound silly to say, “help you find the box again”, but a good hundred boxes and a few years down the line you will soon forget where it is. I find that the easiest way of keeping track of your boxes is to stamp and impression in a hard-backed sketch pad and put the clue under it, that way you have all your clues in one place. And this now is the moment of truth, you will have to leave your baby to fend for itself out on the bleak moor, in all weathers and laying itself prey to the stamp thieves. There is no point in worrying, apart from sitting beside it for the rest of eternity the poor thing must fend for itself. But as mentioned sooner or later you will have a box stolen, I have lost dozens for varying reasons. Don’t take it personally and don’t let it put you off siting boxes just look at them as disposable things, if they stay on site all well and good, if they don’t well it’s not the end of the world.
Once you have got home with the bearings for your box you now need to ‘compose’ the clue, here you have numerous options; you can simply list the bearings, you can list both the bearings and the extra information or you can make a cryptic clue which means using an anagram or a cross word type clue. It might be as well as to look at some of the letterboxing shorthand that is used in clues. Over the years it has become custom to shorten the clue as much as possible by using initials for certain phrases, here is a list of the more common ones:
RH = Right Hand as in right hand edge of trees.
LH = Left Hand as in left hand edge of trees.
RP = Range Pole as in the poles which mark the firing ranges
FP = Flag Pole as in the warning flags on the firing ranges.
HP = Highest Point as in highest point of tor.
P = Paces as in box 10 paces from lone tree.
TVM = T. V. Mast as in North Hessary mast.
GR = Grid Reference as in grid reference SX 666 666.
VCR = Vegetation Covered Rock as in box under a vegetation covered rock.
BS = Bound Stone as in box 15 paces from boundstone.
N,S,E,W = North, South, East and West as in bloody obvious.
So now you have composed your clue the next decision is how are you going to circulate it amongst other boxers, you can either send it to the 100 Club for inclusion in their updates and catalogues or you can send it to your letterboxing friends or use it to swap for other clues. If your clue goes to the 100 club then virtually anybody can get to see it which means you will have a lot of visitors. The clues that are circulated to a limited number of people are known as, “word of mouth” clues, these tend to attract fewer visitors and it means you will have to distribute them yourself. You will certainly get more clues given to you in return and in many cases the stamps are more collectable. Personally I prefer the word of mouth route for reasons I will not go into. If you are new to boxing then the chances are that you won’t know many other letterboxers and will be unable to give them you clues so the 100 Club is the only option until you get acquainted with the boxing fraternity. How do you submit your clue to the 100 Club? Good question and one which isn’t answered on the official website but simply send it to : Tony Moore, 25 Sanderspool Cross, South Brent, Devon. TQ10 9LR. This address and contact is due to change in 2007 if it hasn’t already done so, maybe its worth contacting the club to make sure.
The other way of passing your clues around is to attend one of the two bi-annual meets where people will be only to glad to take them off your hands.
So there it is the whole concept of producing your own letterbox, how often you visit it is entirely up to you but the letterboxing code does ask that you do it regularly to make sure its in good order and the site is not too worn.