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Atlas Quest

History of Cranmere Day

Cranmere Pool letterbox
The Cranmere Pool letterbox, as it stands today

I found this interesting story about Cranmere Day in Cranmere Pool: The First Dartmoor Letterbox by Chips Barber. Definitely worth the read if you can get your hands on it, but it can be a hard to find book in the United States. Anyhow, I liked the idea of Cranmere Day so much, so I’m re-posting the story below:

The end of a long Dartmoor winter was marked by another memorable occasion in the annals of Cranmere Pool’s history. On Saturday 8 May 1937, “Cranmere Day”, a gathering of invited celebrities, members of the press and general public, met at Cranmere to ‘open’ a new box. The idea was the brainchild of Rev. J. P. Baker, Archdeacon of Warrington, who had held previous livings at both Torquay and Plymouth and who had used his time off to explore Dartmoor.

The time the Western Morning News were firmly behind the setting up of a more permanent fixture at the Pool. The paper’s editor, J. L. Palmer, supported the Archdeacon’s idea and “through the columns of his newspaper” appealed to the populace for funds. These were soon forthcoming and ex-Dartmoor tin miner, Aubrey Tucker, then a sprightly 71-year-old and resident of Sticklepath, was commissioned to build it. He used granite taken from Belstone Tors and used oak for its door. Five men including Aubrey Tucker installed it, the others being Mr J. Newcombe Snr., Mr J. Newcombe Jnr, W. Bennett and A. Crocker.

But it was the other celebrities who were in the limelight that day even though it was, at times, a foggy one. Beatrice Chase, who lived at the hamlet of Venton, a suburb of Widecombe, was among the crowd. In 1925 Jon Oxenham had written a book and in it dubbed her “My Lady of the Moor,” the book’s title. She helped to perpetuate this fictional title by appearing at moorland events. There could not, even in the unusual history of Cranmere, have been many who would have visited the pool wearing a golden wig, with a purple felt hat perched atop it! Although she had promised to maintain a low profile at this event, she had written to many to announce her intended appearance at the ceremony. True to her word she stood at the back of the assembly and cannot be spied in the photographs taken to record the event. Having examined the Visitors’ Book, it appears that she didn’t sign but quite a few well-known local people did that day.

There were also some notable absentees. The Dartmoor Preservation Association were invited to participate in the event, and that great Dartmoor writer, Richard Handford Worth, wrote courteously to say that he could take no part. He added, The Visitors’ Book at Cranmere is certainly regarded by most Dartmoor lovers, as opposed to trippers, as being a nuisance. It certainly is wholly inappropriate, and I should love to think there was some way of getting rid of it. Guess he wouldn’t have bought this book!

But what of the ceremony that was so beautifully stage-managed by Ruth E. St Leger-Gordon who officially opened the box. Many there were not aware of the sleight of hand that was perpetrated in the sending of the first postcard...

This is what Mrs St Leger-Gordon wrote in the Western Morning News, on the 25th anniversary of that event, a safe enough span of time having elapsed since her masterful act of deception at the Pool.

Mr Palmer publicized the event by organizing a little inauguration ceremony... the opening to be performed by myself.

The arrangement was that after lunching with us in Sticklepath Mr Palmer should drive us up to Splinterproof 15, the usual starting place for the short walk from there to Cranmere. Publicity had brought a spate of letters to the Western Morning News and ourselves enclosing postcards with the request that each may have the distinction of being first to be posted in the new box.

Meanwhile, Mr Palmer had suggested that a pleasant gesture would be for me to post the first card to Mr Clive Burn, then Ducky Secretary, making some suitable comment as I did so. Accordingly we wrote the card, placing it on top of the ‘first requests’ pile waiting to be picked up from the hall table.

Unfortunately Mr Palmer was unavoidably late in arriving and consequently luncheon and subsequent departures were very hurried.

As we neared Splinterproof 15 we discovered that all the correspondence for postage had been left behind. There was no time to return. Enthusiasts, rain-coated against a typical damp mist, were already trekking Cranmere-wards across the heather.

Resort to subterfuge was the only solution. Turning out his pockets Mr Palmer unearthed a battered postcard which he handed to me to make the best of as a substitute....

The assembly finally gathered round the little hollow. Mr Palmer made a few introductory remarks, Aubrey Tucker (whose 72nd birthday it happened to be) whisked off the flag shrouding his handiwork.

I ‘opened’ the piller-box, ending my ‘speech’ mendaciously with the words: "I now have pleasure in posting my first card conveying the good wishes of all present to Mr Clive Burn, the Duchy Secretary."

So saying, with furtive sleight of hand, I dropped the fake card (addressed side down) into the letter slit. (Actually I believe Mr Burn was standing unsuspectingly only a few feet away from me.)

The problem now was how to abstract the card and replace it with the genuine article, plus all the other would-be ‘firsts’ before anyone discovered the deception. Cutting short sociabilities, we made an abrupt departure, rattling back to Sticklepath at top speed. The correspondence was snatched from the table, and Mr Palmer and my husband hurtled moorwards again.

The former unfortunately was also en route to another engagement in Plymouth and only had time to drop my husband once more at Splinterproof 15, leaving him to effect the substitution, deal with ‘any matters arising,’ and walk home from there. All of which to our great relief was satisfactorily accomplished somehow without—as far as we know—anyone being the wiser.

You see, you never know what goes on behind the scenes, do you?

The photos of the event show Mrs St Leger Gordon sporting a pair of shoes that were chosen with ‘style’ rather ‘practicality’ in mind.

‘Cranmere Day’ may have been an insignificant event in the history of the world, but it was one that captured the imagination of many and helped to further the reputation of this boggy hollow.