River Dart

Napper’s Halt

26th May 2017


The 1449 from Buckfastleigh staggers and pants into Staverton Station, disturbing the steady drone of bees and the ripples of heat arising from the baked platform.  There is a steady wheeze of steam and, in this moment, I am sat beside the lines of an Edward Thomas poem…

Yes. I remember Adlestrop—
The name, because one afternoon
Of heat the express-train drew up there
Unwontedly. It was late June.

The steam hissed. Someone cleared his throat.
No one left and no one came
On the bare platform. What I saw
Was Adlestrop—only the name

And willows, willow-herb, and grass,
And meadowsweet, and haycocks dry,
No whit less still and lonely fair
Than the high cloudlets in the sky.

And for that minute a blackbird sang
Close by, and round him, mistier,
Farther and farther, all the birds
Of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire.

I visited Adlestrop once, but found the station gone, victim to Beeching and all trace erased. But its spirit lives on in places like Staverton. Here, entrenched amidst the undulating fields of rural Devon, it could still be 1914. This a timeless scene, painted in steam, and framed long before the mighty metallic hand of war swept away the old order of life in the country.


I cross the track, pass a sleepy signalman and head towards the River Dart.

May is one of the finest times in a hedgerow. Adorned in patriotic bunting for Whitsuntide, the red, white and blue of campion, cow parsley and the last blush of bluebells bob in the warm, but welcome breeze.

The leaves and grass are still tender as I follow a track into the woods, all heady and suffused with the scent of wild garlic.


Crossing via a sluice, I tread carefully along a narrowing, dusty and root-tangled track – eyes peeled for the ‘Still Pool.’


Peering ahead , I overlook the rabbit hole at my feet, stumble and swear. As I pick myself up, wipe the dust from a grazed knee and glance up, my destination unravels before me.

Just as described in ‘Wild Swimming Walks’ – (my guide for the afternoon) – this is “a swimming hole straight out of a Mark Twain story.” I scramble down the bank to a small sandy beach. Here a myriad branches have been dashed to matchwood by the wild spates of winter, but they provide a soft spongy descent into the Dart – welcome relief from the usual slip, sliding stones that guard this river.


Along the warm and rippling edge, the water has the hue of an Islay malt – and all its peatiness too. Deeper, the river turns dark and pulls with a cold embrace – welcome under these cloudless sun-seared skies. A sheen of insects hurry about the shimmering surface, scooped up from time to time by a swooping swallow.


Oak, my spaniel, sets off ahead of me. Stick in mouth, ears streaming behind, he cuts through the current with ease. I drop my clothes and chase him – and soon we are swimming side by side – gliding through a kaleidoscope of colours and temperatures as we head for the far shore.

DSCF5650Here, steps have been fashioned into the bank by generations of children and a swimming rope hangs from an gnarled oak tree.


A rocky outcrop marks a rite of passage for local youths. I hesitate, then leap into the water – black and cold as newly dug coal.  My feet just touch the river bed before I am torpedoed back upwards – expelled by the dark mysteries of the depths. Spat out. My eyes are open as I watch the dawning light of the approaching surface, before breaking back into the air in an explosion of breaths and bubbles.


We swim upstream and glide lazily down – me on my back and Oak circling – endearing but abrasive, his claws frequently scouring my flesh. There is birdsong and blue skies. Nothing else touches our world as we drift.


Rolling over, I see that a young woman has arrived at the beach. She lays her towel down, undresses to her underwater and lies in the gaze of the heavens. Her eight year old daughter tucks her dress into her pants and paddles in the shallows – discovering a plethora of wonders and delights. There is a beautiful innocence and simplicity in this scene and I am loathe to disturb them. But after a further thirty minutes I shudder and know I must return to the sand. We smile, a little awkwardly, before she discretely paddles in to collect pebbles – saving embarrassment as I change on the shore.


Downstream, a group of teenagers are celebrating the start of half term – and a respite from examinations. A splash then a cheer; their May revelries ring out – as they always have. Thomas would have known such scenes a century ago. River joys….

Apple finished, guide open and back to the dappled path, long grass and humming orchard that lead to nearby Napper’s Halt. Distant whistle in the valley and a ring along the tracks. I have just enough time to tie Oak to a post for fear that he will startle. And then the engine is upon us, driver grinning down as gleaming wheels glide by, inches away.


We exchange greetings and he is gone. All is countryside again, save for the waning whine of the rails – a soft, slow slip into silence.

Climbing the lane, past church and courthouse, I arrive at the Sea Trout – a 15th Century inn where a cool beer provides an antidote to the late afternoon heat.

IMG_9929 (1)

The breeze ruffles my pages as I begin my quest for the next swimming adventure.


From the steeple, five sonorous chimes.

A blackbird replies.

There is no place I would rather be….





Edward Thomas was killed at the Battle of Arras in April 1917.

His memory is carried on the birdsong of the Cotswolds 





The Spitchwick Sardines

Spitchwick, River Dart

May 21, 2014

‘What a difference a day makes’ – or so sang Dinah Washington.

Now multiply that by seven.

Seven sun-soaked, blossom-laden days.


A week that has transformed Spitchwick from a place of quiet beauty into a post-apocalyptic landscape of litter and contempt. Where the pristine grass has been seared into a chess board of barbecue burns. Coals and foil tossed aside. Cast-off cartons and cans creaking in the heat.

But the blossom and bluebells have survived the weekenders and on this Wednesday noon the turf is warm and the air pristine. ‘Spitch’ is still a site of sunshine and solace – albeit shared with two couples who lay pressed close together; roasting flesh on an undersized rug.

I lay my own blanket far away; on a small sandy beach, set in a dense dappling of leaves beneath the bank.


The Dart chatters and sparkles all about me as I settle down to Roger Deakin, a sandwich and luke-warm pasty.

Roger’s words are deep and clear and charged with the energy of experience. The pages turn themselves, rushing by with the impatience of a river in spate – surging and pressing from his pen.


An hour passes. The sun sears through the lens of her sky and I hear footsteps: A woman and child. They pass, smile and head towards the river.

But they make a mistake. They break the cardinal canine rule:


Thirty minutes later they pass again. The smiles are forced this time…

By now lunch has settled and I hear the call of the Dart – a needy cry that demands only one answer.

So moments later I am tip-toeing past the sleepers. The dreamers. Not a murmur. Their dream goes on.

And my clothes come off.


At the water’s edge; a cool clear embrace – ankles, calves, knees, thighs.

I slip. The kiss of the river and I am swimming. Weightless. Carried in her current. Yesterday and tomorrow are left behind. All is now – condensed into this moment.

And still no movement from the sleepers.

I slide off my shorts – tuck them into the bank.

Securely wrapped in the blackness of the deep, I drift with Mother Dart, probing the bank. What mysteries lie within her burrows – these dark places? The water sings. My ears strain. Can I know her secrets?


Buoyed by our embrace, I spin lazily …. and meet the gaze of eight eyes!

Dreaming no more and watching my every stroke. A shout, a giggle.

I groan and head for the far bank where I languish until interest is lost and all four fall supine again.

But now I have been joined by an unwelcome spirit – the pulsing beat of their boom boom boom box.

It bores, erodes, pummels my skull, skull, skull.

I am trapped in the rhythm. An irresistible pressure. Words squeezed from me. A tortuous sinew stutters and cries out. An involuntary rap – conjured from somewhere I hope not to visit again:

It is May and the mercury’s high / Dandelion seeds are drifting by / but the Dart is wet / Yes the river is cool / And I am needy for her midday pools / Crossing the common, with silent tread / Past the heads of the sleepers – four to a bed / Snug as a bug on their rug in the sun/ In shorts and bikinis that will never know the fun of a plunge / In this place. Dark eyes to the sky / Grilling and searing, close together they lie / As I pass by, to their side I glide / Then into the green and ochre I slide, striking out / For the depths, for the shade I aim / Lazy and slow ’til the sound of a name / Of a laugh and a shout – and my secret is out! / For I am unclothed, alone and laid bare / And the couples on the bank they sit and stare / Eating their lunch while the water I tread / Until they lose interest and sink back to their bed…

Somehow, somewhere in the strains of the rhyme I find an exorcism, a freedom. Released and at large, I drift on down until the shallows claim me and my knees grind on their arresting stones. All is silent again.


My towel scatters sand on the remnants of lunch as teeth chatter and cold skin claws.

Roger smiles – this was once his bread and butter too.

The hawthorn blossom has burst through and my path back is a marriage of confetti and birdsong.


But within this idyll is scattered man’s detritus: Bottles in the bluebells. Coke cans crush the campion.

The Council has turned away. Fifty bags of rubbish in one day was simply too heavy a burden.

At the laneside, a newly carved sign commands ‘No Open Fires’

The original is long gone.

Broken up.

Burned on a barbecue…

The Dart Triple Decker

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)


Spitchwick and the Heart of Stone


May 14th 2014


There are two things that wild water enthusiasts know about Spitchwick:

1. It’s a good place to swim.

2. It’s a bad place to swim.

You see, it’s all a matter of timing. On an August bank holiday it’s a sprawl of bodies, boom boxes and barbecues – (more on this another day) – and if not hell, then it’s certainly getting pretty toasty!

Which is why we chose a Wednesday morning in the middle of May for a dip in the Dart.

Wherever I lay my hat...

Wherever I lay my hat…

Spitchwick, or Deeper Marsh as it appears on the OS map, has been a popular bathing place for countless generations. Situated on a bend in the River Dart, the large flat grassy expanse of common faces up the wooded hills of Holne Chase with its iron age hill fort. The pretty nearby village of Holne was, appropriately enough, birthplace to Charles Kingsley, author of ‘The Water Babies.’

The moorland 'lawn' at Spitchwick

The moorland ‘lawn’ at Spitchwick

And the water here flows fresh from the moor – pure, peaty, cold and clear at this time of year. The river bed is liberally strewn with boulders, hewn from the granite tors over millenia and then coated with a slippery green sheen. My first taste of the Dart came ealier than planned thanks to this – despite wearing swimming shoes, my grip was lost and so was my dignity!

The peaty Dart

The ochre waters of the Dart

Luckily we were the only folk around, so there was no need to pretend that my sudden descent into the depths was no accident and had been perfectly planned!

I swam across to the far side of the river, partially shadowed by cliffs where tomb-stoners line up to leap into the menacingly dark waters.

A water baby - not!

A water baby

Here I swam against the current for some time before my toes numbed – (the left fourth toe is always the first to go and has become my early warning system.) Drifting downstream and into the shallows, I half stood, half stumbled, emerging awkwardly from the water like some freak of evolution before sploshing my way onto the picnic rug so carefully laid out by my partner. A hefty kick of sand added to her disapproval so I sat in the corner, in the shade and in disgrace.

But less so than Marley Bone.

Like Sal, he had spotted the misleadingly named grey wagtail that had perched tantalisingly close to us on a large broken and bleached bough that had floated downstream in a wintry spate. It’s yellow underbelly almost glowed and the long tail dipped repeatedly, lightning fast.

As was our spaniel… For somehow, in the split second between Sal’s finger pressing the button and the camera shutter releasing, MB managed to spring towards the startled bird. Not just once – many times. We now have a fine collection of photographs displaying the blurred tail of a bird and the nose of a dog!

MB - villain of the peace!

MB – villain of the peace!

Close by, a solitary white tulip meandered downstream and into the shallows where, in a moment so poignant that it could not have been engineered, the lone flower draped itself over a heart shaped rock.

Simple and beautiful.

No words were spoken.

Beautiful and beyond words ...

Beyond words …

No doubt, further up the river at someone’s once favourite spot, their ashes had been scattered and flowers recently laid.

It reminded me of a time when we lived in a cosy rented cottage that nestled in a woodland clearing alongside the River Meavy. This too was a moorland river, smaller than the Dart, but no less beautiful. We knew every inch of its banks, every bend, every boulder. We knew every rocky fall where there was a noisy and  joyous union of white watery effervescence and mossy greenness.

Here too it was not uncommon to find ashes and wreaths – and I was reminded of some words that I once penned after making such a discovery on a cold February afternoon.

Wet Lemon Clouds
(For Alice)

Wet lemon clouds of watercolour wash
Angry river – wild and raw, claws
The shore where summer sticks were tossed
And pebbles thrown, drone
Of ferment, flood and flow o’er
Rocks and rolling stones, sugar brown
The bank’s deposit, settle and shift
Swift the current’s pulse, live
And charging …
Cerulean flash!
The fisher’s king sparks bright
In flight both low and true
And through the spume’s pale veil
Where death has left his wreath
And ash, beneath the oak’s
Soaked roots and shoots of daffodils.

But these were warmer times and, walking barefoot across closely cropped grass, dotted with daisies, we paused frequently to gaze at the patriotic red, white and blue of campion, may blossom and bluebell.

Salute to the red, white and blue

Salute to the red, white and blue

But the warmer times had not yet reached my extremities. I may as well have been walking across hot coals in some Fijian ritual, for my feet had become bundles of cotton wool, numbed and senseless.

Feeling the cold...

Feeling the cold…

It was almost a full hour before they rejoined me!