I have been outdoor swimming across Dartmoor, down the River Dart and along the coast for many years, but as with all things there is a tendency to like what I know and know what I like. Consequently I have returned time and again to Hembury Woods or Holne Bridge, Sharrah Pool and Abbot’s Mede. Each is a jewel on the river and each offers some exceptional swimming in the clearest, cleanest water it is possible to imagine, amongst scenery that I am obliged to say cannot be beaten.
Yet as one season merged into the next and year followed year I began to spread out along the river and with each new pool found and explored, I was left with a greater urge to find out what was around the next bend or over the next horizon, and Dartmoor is big on horizons.
... with each new pool found and explored, I was left with a greater urge to find out what was around the next bend or over the next horizon ...
Putting aside the many tributaries the River Dart has two sources; the East and West Dart Rivers. The East Dart rises in a bleak bog where you hear the sound of trickling water everywhere but you simply can’t find it down amidst the reeds and marsh. The river finally coalesces into a clear trickle, but it is almost a mile downstream before there is a pool big enough to wallow in, though to call it a swim would be stretching the notion to breaking point.
The West Dart by contrast is exactly how you imagine a river should start, with a sparkling bubble of water that spills into a shallow moss-lined pool that in turn empties into an instant stream, and yet it is again almost a mile downstream to the first wallow. However, on a hot summer day, when you’ve already walked five miles to the source from the nearest road under an unrelenting sun, having the opportunity to slide into the shallow pool and rest back on a rock as the little cascade pummels rucksack-weary shoulders is a moment that brings instant, if chilly, relief.
... having the opportunity to slide into the shallow pool and rest back on a rock as the little cascade pummels rucksack-weary shoulders is a moment that brings instant, if chilly, relief.
From both sources to the sea it is almost 60 miles and I can now happily say I have swum every puddle and pool of the river and the estuary from Totnes Weir in a continuous line to Dartmouth Castle. Much of it has been swum repeatedly, as after all, much of the appeal is the change in the river across the seasons and the clear blue skies of mid-winter are just as inspiring as the leafy shades of a summer solstice.
Sandy Hole Pass on the East Dart upstream of Postbridge offers unlimited views of sky and moor and in early summer foxgloves spill their flowers into the rich, peat darkened water. A swim here requires a small commitment, as you must cross two miles of moorland from the road to access it. The three various pools can be yours alone except maybe for the plaintive bleat of a sheep that could at a quick glance nevertheless be nothing more than another grey granite boulder.
There is no doubt that you are far from the madding crowd and there is nothing for it but to let your feet float up and come to terms with the fact that no matter what you should be doing there is very little you can be doing about anything right now, or indeed for a couple of hours yet.
After the rivers converge at Dartmeet they are sometimes termed the Double Dart and from here the river tumbles joyfully through the steep sided oak woodlands over the rills at the Salmon Leaps, through the choke at Mel Tor Pool and down to Sharrah Pool. Sharrah has become a Mecca for open water swimmers, a place of pilgrimage for visitors, with perhaps only the Faerie Pools on the Isle of Skye engendering the same level of homage.
The river tumbles through the cascade and into the glittering bubble stream of the Sharrah Swoosh past the rock affectionately known as The Elephant. In the spring the river water turns zesty lime green heralding the unfurling of the first oak leaves which glow garish green against the bluest skies, but ducking down into the depths brings with it instant ice-cream head.
As the water warms the trout return, they hang effortlessly in the current, unconcerned by swimmers waiting only for a morsel to be carried within reach or for an unwary insect to touch the surface whereupon it vanishes with a swirl and ‘pop’. It is at Sharrah that the Dartmoor granite gives way to different rocks and the geology of ancient seabeds.
Sharrah has become a Mecca for open water swimmers, a place of pilgrimage for visitors, with perhaps only the Faerie Pools on the Isle of Skye engendering the same level of homage.
On the open moor buzzards wing overhead on a summer day in a sky that epitomises blue and skylarks chitter and twitter. Herons stalk the shallows from moor to estuary and kingfishers are numerous but are rarely seen above New Bridge. In contrast for some years a cormorant was a summer visitor nearly as far upstream as Dartmeet.
Spitchwick is a summer place drawing in the picnic hungry visitors who carpet the grass and plunge into the deep water under the cliff, but I am drawn downstream to a mystery two-mile stretch of river visited only by canoeists and swimmers. Here the high, tree mantled valley sides lean in over pool after pool including Lover’s Leap and I always feel a slight sense of illicit anticipation approaching this spot. The pool opens up where the river is turned aside around a cliff of sandstone from which dwarfed oak trees lean precariously over the water.
The water is not deep but is always dark and mysterious as the trees contrive to permanently cut out the sunshine. Riding the current from the shallows the river hurls itself at the cliff, turning aside only when a pile up seems inevitable and with a little nudge it is possible to slip out of the flow and ride an endless eddy beside the sandy shore. Returning to the flow and finally the river rejoins the rest of the world where it shoots under the semi-circular arch of Holne Bridge
Beyond Hembury Woods the river is robbed of its rapid strewn downhill rush and the banks are in many places instead wide floodplains where sheep and cattle chew as the unregarded swimmer floats by. However, Dartmoor is ever present, revealed where the river cuts away at the banks and dislodges rounded granite boulders as big as sheep or as big as cows in the biggest winter spates. Swimming is best in autumn when the river level is running low and the water seems to flow like treacle compared to its moorland exuberance, almost as if the river itself does not want to take the final drop over Totnes Weir.
In the summer months salmon and sea trout are plentiful and every once in a while they become a meal for an otter that leaves only the head and tail, but more often only footprints in the freshly smoothed sand after a flood. Only twice have I seen the real thing. Once a flitting shape amongst the willows behind Buckfast Abbey and then just recently further upstream. After swimming there is always a moment to watch the ever changing interplay of sunlight on cascading water and in that stillness an otter trotted out from the tree lined back, over a finger of rocks and then insinuated itself into the dark water without a splash.
... and in that stillness an otter trotted out from the tree lined back, over a finger of rocks and then insinuated itself into the dark water without a splash.
From the weir to the sea is as yet another ten miles, but the presence of the sea can be felt instantly. Seaweed drapes fallen tree branches just below the weir and by degrees the water becomes more salty with a pronounced shift from fresh to salt under the new bridge. A seal can often be seen as far up river as Totnes Weir and has been known to shadow swimmers for miles down past Sharpham and Dittisham leading to a certain sense of unease.
There can be few rivers that within such a relatively short run offer as wide a diversity of scenery, flora and fauna as the River Dart and I can think of no better way to be part of that landscape than to slide into water and to truly become immersed in the experience. In all it has taken me four years to cover the whole river, after all where was the sense in rushing, what might I have missed had I done that? And so finally on an April day of clear blue sunshine I have reached the sea and the water mirrors the sky; clear above the golden sand and in tints of aquamarine where it dissolves into the sea. The horizon here is bigger even than on the moor and I have already swum the whole coast for 30 miles in one direction so probably best then to turn south and carry on swimming downhill.
... I can think of no better way to be part of that landscape than to slide into water and to truly become immersed in the experience.
Chris Popham began swimming in the River Avon aged 11 and has had many outdoor swimming adventures since, including swimming along the coast from Kingswear to Teignmouth (30 miles), and more recently the length of the River Dart, from both sources to the sea.