The River Dart (Pic:James Fair)
River Dart Ramble
By James Fair
James Fair, travel editor of BBC Wildlife Magazine, set off to walk the entire length of the River Dart.
On a wet July morning, I found myself the sole passenger on a small rural bus service driving to the tiny Dartmoor hamlet of Two Bridges.
My intention was to walk up to the source of the West Dart (the East Dart is considerably higher up on Dartmoor, so I was taking the easy option), but in that steady summer drizzle, I made it as far as Wistman’s Wood, the small copse of dwarf oak trees about 3km from Two Bridges.
And it was there that the walk really began.
From source to sea, the River Dart is about 75km long. Of course, you may not want to walk the entire length, so pick your own day or half-day walks from the highlights below.
UP ON THE MOOR
After a brief exploration of the mossy forest floor of Wistman’s Wood and – through increasingly steamed up binoculars – some sightings of wheatears, I headed south with the river on my right and quickly arrived back at Two Bridges.
The rain showed no sign of abating, so I opted for the shortest route and followed the road for 4km until a footpath branched off to the right. The path took me through wildflower meadows and then to some stepping stones across the Dart.
Wistman's Wood (Pic:James Fair)
The rain that had deluged for the past couple of days was sweeping past me at a tremendous rate, and some of the stones were submerged. I crossed with trepidation – one slip and I could have found myself swimming to Dartmouth, not walking there.
The rain stopped, the sun came out and as I neared the village of Hexworthy, I was actually starting to dry out. I enjoyed a late pub lunch without feeling like a totally wet and smelly dog.
The footpath took me almost directly to Dartmeet, which, as its name implies, is where my West Dart meets the longer East Dart. It’s a popular beauty spot, blighted a little by the large car park and run-down toilets, so I decided not to linger and carried on.
THE DART VALLEY
The next stretch of the Dart goes through the Dart Valley Nature Reserve, and though there is no footpath marked on the map, it is possible to follow the river along its left-hand bank.
This is a stunning 13km walk where the peat-stained waters of the Dart – not a moorland stream any more – rush on in a narrow, steep-sided valley.
It was not, however, straightforward – the way is unmarked and not always obvious, and there were occasional scrambles on slimy rocks. Still, I was gloriously alone and met just one other group, a young couple with three children.
Beautiful and solitary as it was, I didn’t see much wildlife, unless you count two Dartmoor ponies at the beginning. I had been hoping for dippers, but I think I was too eager to be walking, and so didn’t just sit down and see what came to me.
After less than three hours, I reached New Bridge, from where I headed south on the Two Moors Way to the village of Holne and the nearest pub and a bed for the night. My advice for this part of the walk is, if possible, to do it in the opposite direction (it’s much easier to find the way from New Bridge) and to allow a whole day.
ABOVE HOLNE CHASE
Very early the next morning, I followed the upwards curve of the Dart via a mixture of footpaths and roads to Buckland in the Moor.
Walking through pastures just after Buckland, I found myself stalking a solitary roe deer feeding peacefully in the sunshine.
I climbed as quietly as possible over a metal gate and – trying to take a photo – got to within about 50 feet of the hind before she tore herself away from the lush fodder, looked up, saw me and ran off, high kicking her back legs.
Ten minutes later, walking along a forest ride, I found myself following a fox blissfully (for me) unaware of my presence. Every now and again, it would stop and sniff the air or something on the ground.
The Dart at Totnes
For 10 wonderful minutes, it felt like I was taking a small red dog for a walk, but then it vanished as silently as it had appeared and I was alone again.
Bell heather was in full flower and brightened the darkness of a plantation consisting mostly of conifers. I emerged from the wood and now had little option but to walk along roads to Buckfastleigh.
I pushed on, with Totnes my goal for the night. For a while, I was able to walk along the west side of the river, and by now it had become a much smoother-flowing water course compared to the rapid-riding torrent that I had been following the day before.
At a campsite at Colston, I was forced to take to the roads once more, and, skirting round the other side of the 100-metre ‘peak’ of Hood Ball, I cut across farmland and a small copse where a buzzard was feeding on the corpse of what looked like
I could have cut off another corner and headed into Dartington, but I was here to see the River Dart and it struck me that possibly the best way of doing this would be to take the steam train that runs between Buckfastleigh and Totnes. So I descended the hill into Staverton and waited for the next train.
WALKING THE ESTUARY
By the time you reach Totnes Station, the Dart has become tidal. A river taxi will take you into town, but only if the tide is right (I was lucky). My ferryman said otters were seen in this part of the river now and again. It’s nice to know they are around.
I’d booked a bed and breakfast, and the next morning we – my partner had joined me the previous night – took a footpath out to the vineyard at Sharpham. Here we enjoyed lunch with a couple of glasses of white wine.
The route via Ashprington, Bow Creek and Cornworthy took us down to the river, where we saw herons and little egrets – the latter are now so common that they are pretty much part of the scenery these days.
Our route then took us above the valley, giving wonderful views over the estuary. By the time we wandered into Dittisham, where we were staying the night, three days of walking had taken its toll.
While Sanjida wandered down to the river to explore, I put my feet up in our room and wondered if the best of the walk was over. It was.
The Dart Estuary
From Dittisham, the route took us along country roads and footpaths to Old Mill Creek, from where we entered the outskirts of Dartmouth. A busy road into the town gave way to an even busier waterfront, a shock after nearly four days of solitude and quiet.
We walked out to Dartmouth Castle, which is pretty much at the mouth proper, but couldn’t summon the energy to make it out to the cliffs at Blackstone Point.
Instead, we jumped on the ferry to Totnes, which was a great way to review the part of the river we had spent a day and a half walking down.
It’s said seals are regularly seen in this area, and we kept our eyes peeled but – again – saw more little egrets than anything else.
It's true that I would have seen more wildlife if I had spent a day or two in the Dart Valley Nature Reserve or mooching around the estuary further down.
But this had been more about the journey, to walk a transect of Devon from the uplands to the sea, travelling roughly 70km and dropping 350 metres in the process, to watch as the landscape changed from moorland to river valley to estuary and to get a feel for the character of the Dart.
I enjoyed the woodland of the upper-middle section from Dartmeet to Buckfastleigh the most because it felt so quintessentially English, and it was the Englishness of the Dart that had attracted me to walk it.
It felt untouched, too, wilder even than Dartmoor, a place to lose yourself amid lengthening shadows on a warm summer’s evening and where the splash of an otter is only just out of earshot.
* James Fair is the staff writer and travel editor of BBC Wildlife Magazine.
last updated: 22/02/2008 at 10:33