Vandals have blown up a string of postboxes attacking a "cornerstone of rural life", it was claimed last night.
Four pillar boxes on the Northumberland-Cumbrian border were targeted by thugs between 9pm and 10pm last Thursday, it emerged yesterday.
In all four incidents the metal front plates of the boxes were completely blown off in explosions which rattled the windows of nearby houses.
A police spokesman said last night that a "device" had been recovered from one of the boxes - and enquiries were continuing into all the attacks.
The explosions took place in Lanehead, where the "device" was found, Eals [corr] and Burnstones[corr], all within four miles of each other near Haltwhistle in Northumberland, and Heads Nook[corr], just over the border in Cumbria.
Villagers living near the burnt-out postboxes said yesterday that the blasts could be heard a great distance away.
Jim Hutchinson, 67, a retired electrician, who lives on the road between Lanehead and Eals, said the vandals had destroyed an essential rural amenity.
He said the attacks could have been the work of "teenagers looking for kicks", but also suggested they could have been decoys for a robbery and an attempted robbery, which took place nearby within a few hours of the postbox explosions.
The married father-of-three said: "These explosions strike at the heart of rural life.
"In the countryside we rely heavily on the postal service - more so than in urban areas - and this has left many of us feeling stranded.
"This is a vulnerable area, in no-man's land on the border of the Northumbria and Cumbria police force areas, which makes it open to attack.
"This is a form of rural terrorism," he said.
"A farmer I know who lives half a mile from the Eals postbox heard a tremendous bang when it exploded. It would take more than a firework to blow the plate off one of those boxes. It must have been some detonating device, which did the damage."
A police spokesman said last night a commercial garage in Market Place, Allendale, 10 miles to the east of Haltwhistle, was broken into between 8pm on Thursday and 8am the following day. Some property was taken and extensive damage was caused. A vehicle was also seen being driven suspiciously at 1.50am on Friday near the Railway Inn in Fourstones, 15 miles to the east of Haltwhistle. Someone from the vehicle was then seen attempting to open the door of a garage, known to contain motorbikes.
The spokesman said they were not linking these two incidents to the postbox explosions, but they could not rule out a connection.
The exact times of the attacks on the postboxes are not known, because they were not reported to police until the following morning.
A Northumbria Police spokeswoman said they were working with Royal Mail to determine the cause of the explosions.
Referring to the explosion in Lanehead, she said: "Obviously the investigations are in the very early stages at the moment, so I am unable to say what kind of device was used in the letter box.
"However, it seems as though the device was not contained within a parcel or letter, rather that it was placed inside the letter box."
No-one was injured in any of the incidents. A Royal Mail spokeswoman said: "We will be investigating these reports and will work closely with the police to determine the causes."
Villagers left shocked
Villagers yesterday spoke of their shock at the attacks on the four rural postboxes.
Andrew Knox, 22, a chef, who lives 50 metres from the postbox in Burnstones, which was targeted, said he was staggered by how loud the explosion had been. He said: "It was a big explosion. It sounded like a car had been blown up. I heard it clearly through my double-glazed windows."
One man, who did not want to be named, living close to the burnt-out Lanehead postbox, said the attack was an "outrage".
He added: "We don't have many amenities round here. We are isolated and we rely on the postbox as our link to the outside world."
A woman living close to the Eals postbox, who did not want to be named, said she had been woken up by the explosion. She added: "I could hear it clearly through my windows. I then heard a car driving off. What sort of person would do this?"
Lawrence Thompson[both corr], Labour county councillor for the Haltwhistle ward, where three of the attacks took place, said he was concerned by the explosions.
He said: "They are worrying, particularly because of their impact on a public service."