It’s a cloudless, clear, blue sky winter day and Charlie my 14-year old son and I are at the highest point of Dartmoor triumphantly cheering and doing our Rocky Bilboa dance as we hold a mysterious box aloft. Oscar the dog is barking, looking terribly pleased with himself as if it’s his determined sniffing that found the treasure (for the record, it wasn’t). After a long, cold walk, we feel like we’ve found the Holy Grail. We’re actually found a Tupperware box.
It’s more exciting than it sounds. We’re the latest converts to ‘letterboxing’ – a 160 odd year hobby, a bit similar to orienteering, where you have to find objects ('letterboxes') which are hidden away within the boundaries of the Dartmoor National Park. This may seem an impossible task as the Dartmoor National Park covers some 365 square miles but we were lucky enough to be in Dartmoor for 76th Biannual Letterbox Meet at Lee Moor Village Hall so we were given instructions from the best – the Dartmoor Letterboxing 100 Club (those members who had found not one, but 100 letterboxes!)
Started in 1854, James Perrott, a Dartmoor guide left a bottle at Cranmeer Pool, protected by a pile of stones, and invited visitors to leave a calling card or postcard, to be collected by the next visitor. A visitor’s book was introduced in 1905, with 179 visits recorded that August, and a further 538 by the August of the following year. Further sites were established around remote Dartmoor locations, and by 1979 there were 100 letterbox sites on the moor, each with a visitor’s book and rubber stamp identifying the area.
This led to the Letterbox 100 club being formed for those who managed to collect all the stamps, along with those from the numerous other boxes being hidden around Dartmoor.
The hobby has since attracted thousands of participants, spreading as far as the US. I met Lynda Quick, author of Dartmoor Inns, who had been letterboxing for over 40 years: Why do it? 'It’s like having an on-going love affair with Dartmoor,’ she said. ‘The solitude, the beauty, the challenge. It gives a purpose to have walk you take. Once you find one letterbox, you’re hooked.’
She may be right. Re-learning how to read a map with my son, trying to read a compass (eek!) and scrambling up a steep incline to find yourself on top of the world with breathtaking views, we felt the most ridiculous amount of joy to find our first letterbox. We signed our names and left our stamp and inspired by my favourite author Cheryl Strayed wrote a quotation: 'A journey of a thousand miles beings with a single step.' Laozi.
But in retrospect, we actually had found the Holy Grail of a weekend away. Anyone in need of some R&R time but with grumpy teenagers and neurotic dogs in tow will be delighted to discover there is the wonderful dog-friendly family-owned Ilsington Country House Hotel and spa high in the Dartmoor–National Park, which has a swimming pool for teenager and spa for me and open arms for Oscar the dog. The food is incredible with head Chef Mike O'Donnell using locally sources food, foraging for ingredients around the hotel grounds or collecting eggs from the hotel's hens, he rustles up feasts that my son and I still talk about six months later.
With ten acres, home to a flock of friendly chickens, you can brunch at the two AA rosette restaurant, go Letterboxing in the afternoon, then back to pool, sauna and spa for the evening with a hydrotherapy pool soon to eases away any aches and pains and facials to make sure you’re ready for the beginning of your love affair with Dartmoor.
The Ilsington Country House Hotel, Dartmoor
Set in 11 acres, surrounded by heather-clad rolling countryside on Dartmoor sits the Ilsington Country House Hotel.
The property oozes traditional character and style and its informal bistro-style Blue Tiger offers a creative menu using high quality, fresh local produce and the property’s skilled chefs even smoke their own fish and range of meats.
There is also a boutique spa featuring a hydrotherapy pool boasting two submerged air beds, two water canons and back and leg jet plus, pool side sauna and steam room all bathed in mood lighting, with relaxing music and aromas plus an extensive menu of treatments to choose from.
A night’s stay for two adults and two children in a family suite costs from £185 per night with breakfast. Visit www.ilsington.co.uk