‘All voices should be read as the river’s mutterings’
The Inspiration for this walk: ‘Dart’
We have holidayed in Salcombe in South Devon pretty much every year for the last twenty. And bit by bit, as the boys have got older and stronger (and before I get older and weaker), we have walked further and further afield; once all the way to Plymouth (hugely lengthened by all the estuaries) and once up the Dart Estuary from Dartmouth to Totnes.
We became so enamoured by the Dart that we were determined to discover its source this year, way up on Dartmoor. And whilst researching its exact location, I came across this gem of a book, Alice Oswald’s ‘Dart’, which takes us down the river in a far more visceral way than any tourist fodder possibly could.
ALICE OSWALD (1966-)
Alice Oswald is a nature poet who has been described as writing in a style ‘between Hughesian deep myth and Larkinesque social realism’. She is more a ‘pastoral realist’ than a ‘pastoral idealist’, perhaps because of her own experiences as a gardener (John Clare was also a gardener for part of his life). She is a widely acclaimed poet and the first woman to serve as the Oxford Professor of Poetry in the position’s 300-year history.
Her second collection, ‘Dart’ (2002), combined verse and prose, and tells the story of the River Dart from a variety of perspectives. Jeanette Winterson called it a ‘… moving, changing poem, as fast-flowing as the river and as deep … a celebration of difference …’.
At the start of the book, Alice notes that the poem ‘is made from the language of people who live and work on the Dart. Over the past two years I’ve been recording conversations with people who know the river. I’ve used these records as life-models from which to sketch a series of characters — linking their voice into a sound-map of the river, a songline from the source to the sea. There are indications in the margins where one voice changes into another. These do not refer to real people or even fixed fictions. All voices should be read as the river’s mutterings.’
The River Dart tells its own story through the voices of the people, whether salmon poacher, naturalist, boat builder, but also industrial workers at a sewage plant and a dairy; a chambermaid, river pilot, ferryman and botanist. Swimmers, town boys, a drowned canoeist, and boats; dead tin miners speak, as well as otters and mythic figures. The cumulative effect brings together human and natural history into a synthesis containing workaday lives, the metaphysical, nature, language, and dreams., all to the sounds of the river.
The River Dart’s name is derived from an ancient word for ‘oak’, and in Stage 2 particularly we pass through many oak woods.
Stage 1: The East Dart: Source to Dartmeet
- Distance & Time: 19.5 km (12.2 miles), 5hr 54 mins
- Map: https://explore.osmaps.com/route/12008529/postbridge-to-the-source-of-the-dart–back?lat=50.627088&lon=-3.974897&zoom=12.3829&overlays=&style=Leisure&type=2d
- Terrain: Difficult going, only to be attempted in good weather; wear gaiters and good walking boots, can be very boggy underfoot.
- Overnight: stay in Warren House Inn, Postbridge, PL20 6TA (north day one, south day two)
The East Dart Valley is one of the most inaccessible parts of Dartmoor and in many ways is the inner heart of the moor. The source, East Dart Head consists of a large bowl that drains a substantial part of high Dartmoor. There are three tributaries that join up and merge at the southern edge of the bowl to form the river.
On this circular walk, we set out from Postbridge along an ancient track called Drift Lane that was once used by the tinners and peat cutters who frequented these parts. Throughout our trip, there is also evidence of pre-historic settlements, including a Bronze Age settlement just to our right as we climb the first hill, marked as Roundy Park settlement on the map.
We try and follow the higher ground as we head north to circumvent the many bogs around the various tributaries; to some extent, you will have to work out your route as you travel across the ground, but eventually, you will come to the Cranmere Pool letterbox.
Apparently this was Dartmoor’s first letterbox. James Perrott, a well-known Dartmoor guide, built a cairn in the pool and placed a bottle there for visitors’ cards in 1854.
We walk a short way southeast from here to reach East Dart Head. I love the way the poem opens with Alice Oswald describing ‘one of us’ making just such a journey:
‘Who’s this moving alive over the moor?
An old man seeking and finding a difficulty.
Has he remembered his compass his spare socks
does he fully intend going in over his knees off the
military track from Okehampton?
keeping his course through the swamp spaces
and pulling the distance around his shoulders
and if it rains, if it thunders suddenly
and all that lies to hand is his own bones?
Tussocks, minute flies,
wind, wings, roots
He consults his map. A huge rain-coloured wilderness.
This must be the stones, the sudden movement,
the sound of frogs singing in the new year.
Who’s this issuing from the earth?
The Dart, lying low in darkness calls out Who is it?
trying to summon itself by speaking …’
The walker replies:
An old man, fifty years a mountaineer, until my heart gave out,
so now I’ve taken to the moors. I’ve done all the walks, the Two
Moors Way, the Tors, this long winding line the Dart
this secret buried in reeds at the beginning of sound I
won’t let go man, under
his soakaway ears and his eye ledges working
into the drift of his thinking, wanting his heart
I keep you folded in my mack pocket and I’ve marked in red
where the peat passes are the the good sheep tracks
cow-bones, tin-stones, turf-cuts.
listen to the horrible keep-time of a man walking,
rustling and jingling his keys
at the centre of his own noise,
clomping the silence in pieces and I
I don’t know, all I know is walking. Get dropped off the military
track from Okehampton and head down into Cranmere pool.
It’s dawn, it a huge sphagnum kind of wilderness, and an hour
in the morning is worth three in the evening. You can hear
plovers whistling, your feet sink right in, it’s like walking on the
bottom of a lake.
What I love is one foot in front of another. South-south-west and
down the contours. I go slipping between Black Ridge and White
Horse Hill into a bowl of moor where echoes can’t get out
Cranmere Pool (SX604858), the source of the East Dart, is nowadays just a depression in the peat – it was probably drained in the early nineteenth century. Alice Oswald describes this moment of discovery very evocatively:
‘and I find you in the reeds, a trickle coming out of a bank, a foal of a river
one step-width water
of linked stones
trills in the stones
glides in the trills
eels in the glides
in each eel a fingerwidth of sea’
A couple of kilometres south of here three tributaries join up to create a much more definable flow, and the day we walk here the exact spot is marked by a Dartmoor pony placidly grazing. In all the time it takes us to reach where it is standing it doesn’t move an inch.
Soon after the tributaries, we reach Sandy Hole, an immensely popular place for wild swimming. We immediately comment that the narrow, well-defined channel looks almost man-made and it turns out we are right. This is where ‘tinners’ practised their trade hundreds of years ago, channelling the river to increase its flow to ‘stream’ water over the tin deposits to separate them from other materials.
There are several examples of tinners’ huts and spoil heaps in the area and on the route back we stopped to admire a ‘Beehive Hut’, built to store their tools and as a shelter.
After a dip and exploration at Sandy Hole, the next stop is the East Dart Waterfall, a veritable beauty spot with an unusual curtain of water falling diagonally down a seven-foot drop, and then rushing over a series of large ledges to a pool below.
The right angle of the river we see on our way downstream just after the island is yet further evidence as to how much the direction and nature of the flow were mucked about with by the tinners in pursuit of their precious metal.
Stage 2: The Upper Dart: Postbridge to Buckfastleigh
- Distance & Time: 22 kms (13.6 miles), 6 hrs 26mns
- Map: https://explore.osmaps.com/route/11255691/upper-dart-postbridge-to-south-devon-railway-buckfastleigh?lat=50.542790&lon=-3.884684&zoom=11.5259&overlays=&style=Standard&type=2d
- Difficult going, no defined path from Postbridge to the new Bridge, but a very rewarding route
This next part of the walk starts at the Clapper Bridge, one of the best-preserved clapper bridges in the country, thought to have been built in the thirteenth century to enable pack horses carrying tin to cross. The word ‘clapper’ derives from an Anglo-Saxon word, cleaca, meaning ‘bridging the stepping stones’.
The path is relatively well-defined for this next stretch and goes through classic Dartmoor countryside, on the edge between moorland and field for much of the way,
We reach Dartmeet, where the East and West Dart rivers join up on their way to the sea to become an altogether bigger and broader river.
‘Dartmeet – a mob of waters
where East Dart smashes into West Dart
two wills gnarling and recoiling
and finally knuckling into balance
in that brawl of mudwaves
the East Dart speaks Whiteslad and Babeny
the West Dart speaks a wonderful dark fall
from Cut Hill through Wystman’s Wood
put your ear to it, you can hear water
cooped up in moss and moving
slowly uphill through lean-to trees
where every day the sun gets twisted and shut
with the weak sound of the wind
rubbing one indolent twig upon another
and the West Dart speaks roots in a pinch of clitters
the East Dart speaks coppice and standards.’
This next phase of the walk is truly remarkable and, although the path is sometimes hard to find and full of boulders and tree roots, providing you are careful with your footing everything will be fine as all you need to do is keep the river on your right. I carried a walking pole, which helped enormously.
We feel we are intruding upon the Alice Oswald’s canoeist’s experience:
‘But what I love is midweek between Dartmeet and Newbridge; kayaking down some inaccessible section between rocks and oaks in a valley gorge which walkers can’t get at. You’re utterly alone.’
And now the river is talking once again:
‘the way I talk in my many-headed turbulencer
among these modulations, this nimbus of words kept in motion
sing-calling something definitely human,
will somebody sing this riffle perfectly as the invisible river
Luckey Tor is a truly huge granite tor that suddenly looms out of the undergrowth. Dartmoor expert Eric Hemery described it as ‘this lofty riverside bastion with a bold, light-coloured facade was a natural watch-tower for the confederates of those who were poaching, smuggling or sheep-rustling under the concealment of the heavily wooded sides of the gorge’.
Once we get to New Bridge we cut back up the slope on the far side of the river towards Holne. There is a very friendly community stores and tea rooms here. Re-invigorated, we find the route to Buckfastleigh straightforward and charming, especially the bit alongside Holy Brook, and we arrive in good time to catch the steam train.
Stage 3: The Middle Dart: Buckfastleigh to Totness by steam train
Taking the South Devon steam train is the best option here (check running times at https://www.southdevonrailway.co.uk/ ), one doesn’t even have to fake a walking injury as the train hugs the river in a way a walker never can as there are no paths or even improvisations along this stretch.
Just after Riverford Bridge there is a weir with three channels of water, and I think this is what Alice Oswald is describing here;
‘whenever currents of water meet the confluence is
always the place
where rhythmical and spiralling movements may arise,
spiralling surfaces which glide past one another in
manifold winding and curving forms
new water keeps flowing through each single strand of
whole surfaces interweaving spatially and flowing past
in surface tension, through which water strives to attain
a spherical drop-form’
And peering out of the window of our train we spot Still Copse Pool, where the swimmer recounts:
‘We jump from a tree into a pool, we change ourselves
into the fish dimension. Everybody swims here
under Still Pool Copse, on a Saturday,
slapping the water with bare hands, it’s fine once you’re in’
We arrive in Totness and indulge ourselves with dinner and a night in the Bull Inn, owned now by the founders of Riverford organics and offering very delicious food.
Stage 3: The Lower Dart: Totness to Dartmouth along the Dart Valley Way
- Distance & Time: 20 km (12.5 miles), 5 hours
- Terrain: Well-marked route, easy going
- Ferry at Dittisham, if you want to take in Agatha Christie’s Greenway House too.
The river becomes tidal at this point (‘the river meets the Sea at the foot of Totnes Weir’) and its character changes – rolling downs, much longer vistas, a sense that the sea cannot be far away.
‘why is this flickering water
with its blinks and side-long looks
with its language of oaks
and clicking of its slatey brooks
why is this river not ever
able to leave until it’s over?’
As we reach the estuary, the ferryman speaks:
‘Dartmouth and Kingsweir –
two worlds, like two foxes in a wood,
and each one can hear the wind-fractured
closeness of the other.’
We have arrived, presumably long after the water, we saw arise in Cranmere Pool, but somehow wiser about life than when we began.
TED HUGHES AND DARTMOOR
Ted Hughes moved to the small village of North Tawton a few miles north of Dartmoor in 1961 and lived there for the rest of his life. It has many landscape characteristics in common with his native Yorkshire, including the transitions from farmland to moorland, the powerful streams coming off the moor and their exploitation for power in the early industrial revolution. Although, as Alice Oswald observed, in Devon he wrote ‘clay-based poems, whereas previously they’ve been written on millstone grit.’
His house was close to the River Taw, whose source is less than half a mile from the source of the Dart, but heading in exactly the opposite direction. He loved to walk the moor, and these two rivers gave him the inspiration for a collection of poems called ‘The River’ (1983). ‘River’ celebrates fluvial landscapes, their creatures and their regenerative powers, and was inspired by Hughes’s love of fishing.
When Ted Hughes died in 1998, his ashes were scattered at a private ceremony near to Taw Head. He had also expressed a wish that a simple granite stone be engraved with his name and sited near the rising of the Taw. Its exact location is SX 609 865. On it is this simple inscription, from a poem from the collection, the ‘West Dart’:
It spills from the Milky Way, pronged with light,
It fuses the flash-gripped earth –
The spicy torrent, that seems to be water
Which is spirit and blood
A recently published book called The Catch: Fishing for Ted Hughes (2022) by Mark Wormald examines in minute detail the importance of fishing in Ted Hughes’ life. And these two rivers, but especially the Dart, were incredibly important rivers to him in his fishing life. The owner of the fishing rights between Dartmeet and New Bridge (often referred to as the Dart Gorge) gave Ted Hughes rights in perpetuity to fish there and it was one of his very favourite spots. He described this stretch of river as ‘the prettiest and wildest fishing in the West’.
According to Wormald, the powerful poem ‘In the Dark Violin of the valley’ is set here:
All night a music
Like a needle sewing body
And soul together, and sewing soul
And sky together and sky and earth
Together and sewing the river to the sea.
In the dark skull of the valley
A lancing, fathoming music
Searching the bones, engraving
On the draughty limits of ghost
In an entanglement of stars.
In the dark belly of the valley
A coming and going music
Cutting the bed-rock deeper
To earth-nerve, a scalpel of music
The valley dark rapt
Hunched over its river, the night attentive
Bowed over its valley, the river
Crying a violin in a grave
All the dead singing in the river
The river throbbing, the river the aorta
And the hills unconscious with listening.
Ted Hughes was a huge influence on Alice Oswald, as we see from a 2005 lecture that she gave:
‘The first Ted Hughes poem I ever read was “The Horses”. I picked it up one evening after work and I was instantly drawn in. I could feel the poem’s effect physically, as if my braincells had been shaken and woken. When I finished reading (and ever since) the world felt different.
‘So then I read all the Hughes poems I could lay my hands on and what they all had in common was that imaginative grasp of the present – that ability to speak strictly within one moment and not through a misted screen of remembered moments.’
She would certainly have been familiar with his intimacy with The Dart when she came to write her poem. She also compiled ‘A Ted Hughes Bestiary’ (2016), a compilation of his writing about animals real and invented.
- Read: this brilliant blog by Katherine Venn – https://www.caughtbytheriver.net/explore/tags/walking-the-river-dart-column
- Read: ‘The River Dart’ (1951) by Ruth Manning-Sanders that centres on the river and its history
- Read: ‘Walking the Dartmoor Waterways: A Guide to Retracing the Leats and Canals of Dartmoor Country’ (1986),
by Eric Hemery
- Buy: the children’s book by the Two Blondes called ‘Dart the River (2015), which recounts the story of the River Dart from its source to the sea.