Monday, November 20, 2006

Un boxing in London

I've been waiting to send you a note about letterboxing in London until I actually found a box. But it hasn't happened.

Another "box" always gets there first.

Letterboxing and geocaching are for all intents and purposes dead in London. The problem started with terrorist bombers who liked to hide small plastic packages in discreet places. But the ax fell with the mass installation of crime-fighting CCTV.

London is blanketed with closed circuit television cameras. They are on street corners, buildings, in parks and in hallways. A recent newspaper story said that the average person is captured on CCTV in London once every five minutes daily. You can read more about the phenomenon at, a site where my student papers are housed.

To be fair, not all of the cameras have someone on the other end watching. Most just record the scene and are checked when an incident is reported. But many can be remotely turned and zoomed and are equipped with a loudspeaker from which police constable's voice booms warnings. No one can prove they actually prevent crime, but they know they help catch those who are trying to get away. Including letterboxers.

We even tried one box we thought would never have a CCTV camera. It was located on the grounds of St. Augustine's Anglo-Catholic Church. I'm not sure whether he had a camera or a tip from a higher source, but within minutes of our entering the churchyard a vicar was at our side.

We've made some great excursions, though. We found an empty container near an East London bridge that was supposed to be a site. And poked around under a fence next to a pub nearly 500 years old. No stamps in the book, however.

Our only success was in Prague, where we found one box high on a hilltop across from the castle. I doubt it will survive, however. The only residence on that hilltop is the president's house and we were greeted on the trail out by a friendly soldier -- carrying a machine gun.

British letterboxing thrives only in the rough and wild moors. Dartmoor is famous, but the Yorkshire moors are coming on strong. But you have to plan a day-long train trip from London and then another day of trekking through the heath.

Moors make great holiday excursions, but forget about urban letterboxing.

To be sure, I have changed my mind about hiding boxes in the city. I think special care must be taken to assure people that a letterbox is not a precursor to violence. All it will take is one nut who plants a bomb disguised as a letterbox and the sport will be over.

And look around. CCTV cameras are looking at you all over Columbia now.

So what do you think? Should letterboxes be restricted to the great outdoors?


Lnd-Crzr said...

Your site has gone interbational C2B2! Glad to hear all is...well(?).

Kind of a bummer that terrorism has such far reaching affects as to influence our little hobby. I wonder how the small towns are fairing? Once you get out of metropolitan areas, are there still boxes to be found?

It's an interesting question you pose about limiting LBs to the outdoors. Very interesting, and not certain of my view, though I'd lean towards saying no.

Looking forward to your return. I'm still planning a gatheirng to celebrate it. We should proably talk about dates through e-mail. Be great to have you back!


ahistory said...

You raise an interesting question, but I feel it is a matter of ethics. I believe boxes can be hid responsibly in public places [epsecially when placed in locations in which the owners have given permission.

I must admit, this new philosophical view on urban letterboxing is a little ironic considering all of the urban letterbixing the contest you initiated before you left has initiated. Perhaps once you get back and see some of the local examples your sentiment may swing back. I think they can be placed responsibly in manners that do not suggest illicit behavior. There are some really good contest entries out there.
Of course, my experience is limited to just around here and St. Louis and K.C. Hard to generalize these to larger cities like London and New York. But that's my 2 cents.
I look forward to meeting you.

Jenny J said...

Thanks for the report from London, C2B2 - great to hear from you!

It is a sticky issue you raise. Like the others, I have mixed feelings. It seems that urban boxes will always have an element of risk, no matter how correctly they are hidden. Even with permission granted (and perhaps because of it) there could be some lunatic who would use a "sanctioned" box for terrorist purposes. That's really a dreadful thought, isn't it? I like to think that it will never ever happen, but given the human track record, I guess it's possible.

However, I personally hate limiting my horizons by thinking about "what if..." If we consider every unpleasant (or downright horrid) possibility in life, we would never step out of the house.... So, I guess I would say to choose urban spots carefully, mindful of the sort of world we live in, and as in everything, hope for the best.

Thanks for planting this seed for thought!

Clyde Bentley said...

The issue in London and other cities is not permission. It is of perceived danger to people around you. After the 7/7 bombings here, people are truly nervous about the real threat of violence.

That fear was easily capitalized upon by security companies who sell CCTV cameras and provide big guard dogs. Between their promotion and the fact bombs keep going off in other cities, the public is very supportive of harsh measures against "thoughtless" people who leave behind material that could contain explosives. For them, planting a letterbox would be like pulling out a replica pistol in a grocery store and pointing at people.

So I'm stumped. There should be a compromise, but I'm not sure what it was. We enjoyed the hunts even without the box. Is a good "virtual" box the urban option?


Jenny J said...

That's a very important point, Clyde. The "perceived danger" may not be a big deal in Columbia, but the idea of creating alarm/fear in folks in such vulnerable cities as London just for the sake of a hobby, etc. immediately shifted the balance for me. Even a gentle pasttime such as LB does not justify the risk of causing genuine fear.

So what about virtual LBs? I like the idea of folks following a set of clues, getting to visit sites they've never seen, learning something new. It's a part of letterboxing that has always appealed to me. I've never tried one of the virtuals? How is the hunt concluded - exchange of stamps via email or post office?

The stair can be treach. said...

I hid the St. Augustine "Saturday" box. In hindsight I do seem to remember many CCTV cameras around London. I felt safe when doing nothing that could be perceived as wrong, but letterboxing felt a little sketchy sometimes, especially in Limehouse.

I could not find any of the boxes there, which is interesting. You might expect more fear surrounding box in the heart of the city, but it was in Limehouse where the boxes had all been removed. One was replaced with needles and cans, but the rest were a bit more public and were most likely removed with purpose.

I absolutely disagree with restricting LB-ing to the hills. Though, the current view on city boxing is rather skeptical. It was a great way of learning the history of London, and of getting around the place. Perhaps if standards were introduced? Haha, government sanctioned letterboxing, I can't wait.

rozebud said...

Have you checked this "urban letterboxing" website?

You may have to create a login to see this page. Sounds like folks are being quite ingenious in their plants!

Clyde Bentley said...

Rozebud: It was the Urbanletterboxers placements that were all missing.
BTW, today London Transport posted notices in the Underground stations with a picture of a set of handbags and knapsacks in a police lineup. The caption:
"Don't let your bag become a suspect. Keep your bags and parcels with you. If you see an unattended bag or box, call the police."