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Walking the River Dart: Part One

December 10, 2010

On a summer’s dawn in 1985, I walked down from Park Wood at Spitchwick to watch otters in the Dart just downstream of Spitchwick Lawn. I spent much of that year living in a tent in the oak woods that surround the great bend in the river that encircles Holne Chase.  The first sound I would hear in the morning as I woke in my tent was the tumbling of the Dart – it soothed me to sleep at night.

There are two distinct characters to the Dart on Dartmoor, the river that flows across the bare moorland, which we will look at next time, and the woodland Dart – a much more secretive world, harder to access as considerable parts of the river’s course are barred to the public. I had always known this secret world of the Dart, but living in close proximity gave me a greater knowledge of its life and creatures.

The river plays a considerably important role in the long history of Buckfast Abbey and perhaps we should begin our journey there, or rather at Dart Bridge, the old crossing place immediately downstream. The monks would have known the Dart very well, exploited its waters in so many ways, not least for fish.  Close your eyes on the banks here and you can hear the sound of its waters as they did. Going upstream from here the Dart hides itself on private land and we next get a glimpse of the river below Hembury Woods.

The new Ordnance map shows this to be dedicated access land – rare for woodland in the south west.  Make the most of it.  It is one of the few areas of woodland Dart where you can have unlimited access to the river. It is also stunningly beautiful, particularly in autumn when the trees turn colour. High above the river is the hillfort of Hembury Castle, which probably began its existence in the Iron Age, though the Normans built a fortification there. William Crossing tells us that for a while it was occupied by Danes and relates a legend that they carried off the local women and held them here.  These Dartmoor amazons waited until their captors were drunk and unconscious and cut their throats before escaping.

Forbidden access comes at the strictly drawn northern boundary, where Hembury meets Southpark Wood. A further glimpse of the Dart a little way upstream can be obtained by paying admission to the River Dart Country Park.

Beyond, the Dart makes a great sweep to the north, almost making an island of the ancient Norman hunting ground of Holne Chase, the narrowest point between the river crossings at Holne Bridge and New Bridge being just a mile and a half across.

Holne Chase is a fascinating place. This great woodland is one of the magical areas of Devon.  Like Hembury, it has a hillfort, hidden away and sometimes difficult to find if you are not familiar with the Chase’s myriad of paths. It is barely two hundred feet above the river, and can never have been very defensive as it is so overlooked by the rising gradients of the Chase. There are old mines here too and you sometimes come unexpectedly upon hidden workings, shafts and adits. The Chase feels haunted. Years ago visitors, staying bed and breakfast at Riverside Cottage, came back from an evening stroll convinced that they had seen a Norman hunting party in the chase.

In my many days and nights spent in the Chase I have seen nothing but the occasional fishermen.

Some of the wider tracks on both sides of the river here are former Victorian carriage drives. In William Crossing’s day, these were still used on the days when the Chase was open to the public (Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays). They offer the best introduction to the Chase and this stretch of the River Dart.

It has to be said that there is no current public access on either side of the river here, nor is there access to Holne Chase itself.

Thus the public are denied views of some of the most spectacular scenery in the Dartmoor National Park. Whilst, undoubtedly, we will one day get access legislation to rivers and woodlands, it seems a pity that the National Park Authority can’t negotiate access on the river tracks now.

The track on the northerly banks of the Dart goes past the great rocky cliff of Lovers Leap, which goes dramatically into the water here. Perhaps the lovers did as well? Prince Albert, consort of Queen Victoria, stood and admired the Dart at this spot. There are other cliffs and tors; Cleft Rock, Raven Rock and – on the Holne Chase side – Eagle Rock, at the most northerly point of the great bend of the Dart

New Bridge marks the next public access point to the Dart. Quickly walking past the car park we enter the Dart Gorge. This great cleft forced open by the river offers some of the wildest and toughest walking on Dartmoor, often on a perilously narrow (and occasionally non-existent!) path that sometimes dips so low that you catch the spray of the water and at other times takes you high up on to crumbling precipices.

It is not by any means safe, but it is wonderful if you fancy ignoring the nanny state and taking your life in your hands (which you have to do, literally). I first walked it at sixteen when it seemed tamer than it does today. On balmy summer days when the waters are low, you can seek out deep pools for a swim. After winter rains, you can watch canoeists wrestle with the Dart’s whitest water. In the autumn you often see the salmon leap and on summer evenings watch the otters making their way up to the watershed.

But once in, you are in and well hemmed in. You can go either backwards or forwards but escape routes are not practicable. I did once climb out via Hockinston Tor, but honestly, I wouldn’t recommend it.

If you fancy a less hazardous route to Dartmeet and the start of the moorland Dart, then the route along Dr Blackall’s drive might be taken. The good doctor, whose spectre is sometimes seen trotting on horseback along this track, lived at Spitchwick Manor and had constructed this carriage drive with its sensational views.

But if you persevere along the Gorge, which is after all, nearer the Dart, you come eventually to Luckey Tor, from where the going to Dartmeet is less arduous. It is a pleasant spot in which to collapse into a state of nervous prostration with a cup of tea. Not far away are the Bradstones (Broadstones) that fall in the river’s course that is the cause of much of the noise of the Dart in heavy weather. To hear the “cry of the Dart” is said to be a portent of doom, yet luring too.  It was to near here that the farm boy Jan Coo of Rowbrook ran when he heard the sound, yelling out the ominous words “Dart is calling me,” never to be seen again.

He had lost his heart to the Dart, which is said to claim a life in this way each year. If you want to hear the famous cry, I often find that the Bradstones will oblige, but more often after a summer thunderstorm than prolonged winter rain.

Dartmeet has changed a great deal even in the past century. Writing in 1856, R J King described it as a grassy sward where Gypsies often camped. Despite the worst intrusions forced by the internal combustion engine, it is still beautiful in parts.

It is here that we leave the woodland Dart to continue our travels up to two moorland branches of the river that gives Dartmoor its name. More River Dart over the weekend.

The Walking and Forbidden Britain Website has now been updated. Do have a look:


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