River Dart near Holne
September 6th 2014
Dartmoor gives birth to her river in quiet solitude, labouring amid the peat, granite and heather of the high tors. Twin daughters, later to conjoin, her waters babble and stutter before finding their feet and learning to run. A careless childhoood is spent skipping down gulleys and dancing through vistas of coarse grassland, close-cropped by generations of grazing animals. By the time she reaches the village of Holne, the Dart is a fast and flashy teenager, twisting and turning, jiving through dense woodland.
Here, her mood can change on a whim; one moment bubbling and effervescent, the next, deep and dark and difficult to predict. Emerging from the torments of adolescence at Ashburton, her adult years are lived serenely, gliding through the buccolic beauty of the South Hams before reaching her dotage at Dartmouth. Here the ocean steals her soul and she is borne up into the heavens where her samsaric cycle begins anew.
Life, death and rebirth.
This journey has been repeated many times in the 700 years since the ancient yew in the churchyard at Holne first saw the light of a Devon sky. Villagers have come and villagers have gone.
Onesuch was Charles Kingsley, born into this tiny community in 1819. Kingsley was priest, professor, poet and a friend of Charles Darwin, but he is best known as author of ‘The Water Babies.’
This moral fable, once a must on every child’s bookshelf, tells the story of Tom, a young chimney sweep who tumbles into a river, drowns and is reborn as a water baby, in which form he embarks on a succession of adventures.
And there are certainly adventures to be had in rivers…
For some time I had been looking forward to swimming at three sites along this stretch of the Dart. All are well known among the wild swimming community and have recently gained a wider audience through written guides and web sites. So, seeking solace, I waited for a weekday after the schoolchildren had returned to their lessons before trekking up through ancient oak woodland towards the first of my triple decker destinations – Sharrah Pool.
For almost two miles I kicked and shuffled through a leafy carpet, where ripening hawthorn berries hung thick and blackberries dripped the goodness of a long summer. Streams busied past in heady dives down the valley sides, reaching for the river far below.
The path was peppered with black beetles, stranded on their backs in an urgency of flailing legs and failing strength. The day was hot and having checked my position on the OS map, I was glad to emerge from the trees to be welcomed by a long, tranquil expanse of still water.
Sharrah was all I had hoped for – beautiful, cool, deserted. Within seconds I was stripped and heading upstream to falls where I jumped in and was spat out by the force of the current. A wet n’ wild fairground ride – helter skelter – around the rocks and back into 100 metres of limpid loveliness, rich with reflections.
This was a playful pool, filled with the thrill of being spilled and spewed, nudged and nuzzled. And then caught – as if in the net of a trapeze – to be cradled and carried to safety.
A picnic lunch was followed by a second, unscheduled swim – too delicious a dessert to forego. Dipping and diving, bathing and basking, I was oblivious to the presence of a passing hiker, but I was immersed in a personal world, where the only thing that mattered was the wonder of the water.
Wellsfoot Island is particularly acclaimed as a skinny dipper’s delight and so dressed, but still dripping, I retraced the winding path down through the woods towards this second tier of my triple decker.
This heavily wooded island, encircled by a divide in the Dart, is best approached from the far bank, where a precarious bridge spans the water.
But for me, the approach was through the water, as I slipped and slid across smooth algae-laden boulders, until the river was deep enough to swim. I came ashore on a sandy beach, abundant with flowers. A place so perfect that I half expected to discover the footsteps of Man Friday; this was an island paradise and I was a happy castaway.
Soft sands nestled into a clearing where ebony embers lay scattered in testament to a midnight swim. Tracks led away from the beach, fingering through verdant vegetation and topped by a tall canopy of trees. This really was a special place, a place to sit with friends, into the dusk and beyond. A place to be warm beside a sparking fire, to talk, to laugh and to swim – to commune and connect.
But on this sultry afternoon, it was simply a place to just be. To float in the warmth of the September sun and, after a few lazy strokes, to drift into the deeper waters where the Dart has relentlessly chiseled her mark into the the cliffs that tower above an elbow in the river.
Here all was stillness; a haven, where the waters pause before tripping and tumbling off downstream, hustling and hurrying through a succession of rocky rapids and peaceful pools.
And soon I was following on, stumbling over the roots that straddled the narrow woodland path and pausing only to enjoy the company of fellow evening travellers through Cleave Wood.
Then onwards to the final tier of the Dart Triple Decker – crafted like a horse shoe – a natural jacuzzi. Deep and delicious, I had spied this place on a previous visit and was determined to sample the spa treatment it promised.
Here I hoped to savour the ultimate watery massage, amid the foam and first-fallen leaves of Autumn.
But it was not easy to gain entry into this private pool – the force of the current repelled every attempt to swim up and into the narrow channel that funnels into the fall itself.
The only faesible approach was to drop in from above. Nine hours of Devon sunshine had warmed the smooth rock from which this plunge pool was hewn, its comfortable heat giving little clue as to the cold shock that awaited me as I slid over the edge and into the maelstrom.
But wow! What a feeling. It was impossible not to whoop and shout in exhilaration as my shoulders were pummelled and pressed by the crystal waters. An umbrella of spray rose above me, splashing down to wash away the view and flood into my eyes, nose and mouth. And how sweet that water tasted.
A couple were swimming a little way upstream, so in deference I had donned my swimmers. But Mother Dart, she had other ideas and soon I felt the strength of her flow tugging and pulling and, in an instant, the shorts were around my thighs, knees and then gone.
It was as if she were saying there is only one pure and beautiful way to enjoy my gift to you – like a baby, naked, drenched and vulnerable within the slate of my womb …
‘In fact, the fairies had turned him into a water baby. A water baby? You never heard of a water baby? Perhaps not. That is the very reason why this story was written.” (Charles Kingsley)