Ramble along the River Dart
There is no better way to see the British countryside than on two legs, so James Fair put on his walking boots with the intention of following the entire length of the River Dart.
In Bruce Chatwin’s excellent travelogue In Patagonia, the writer is asked by a student from the improbably named Bahai Institute of Trevelin what his religion is. “I haven’t got any special religion this morning,” Chatwin says. “My God is the God of Walkers. If you walk hard enough, you probably don’t need any other God.”
When I first read the book more than 10 years ago, I adopted it as a kind of creed that gave me an excuse to go walking (if I ever needed one). Like many people, I’d always preferred mountains – the Lake District or Snowdonia, for example – but a chance comment made to me by a Tasmanian wildlife officer altered my perspective.
National parks, he said, tended to be upland areas because they were the parts of a country that humans didn’t want for their own purposes. Historically, however, greater biodiversity was to be found in lower-lying river valleys, but these also tended to be more intensively farmed.
It got me thinking. Instead of walking up hill and down dale, why not follow the course of a river from its source to its mouth? I bit off more than I could chew on my first attempt, when I took on the River Severn and failed to cover even half of its 350km.
Second time round, I wanted something that was manageable, and of course it had to have great wildlife and beautiful scenery. One final proviso was that I had to be able to use public transport at either end.
And so, 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.
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. 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.
A quick pit-stop
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.