Swimming the River Dart from Moor to Sea
The Dart has 2 principal sources both of which rise on the high moor, and both a 5 mile trek from the nearest road. However, from the perspective of someone who has been there and swum every open stretch of water, pool and in some cases puddle down to the sea the river on the high moor offers little for swimmers with one exception.
It’s a 3 mile walk up from Postbridge on the path alongside the river past the East Dart Falls, but it is mostly pleasant going. At Sandy Hole Pass there are several large pools sunk into a southern facing bowl in the moor the whole area is a calm oasis from the ever present moorland breeze. The one furthest upstream is quite shallow and really only for wallowing rather than swimming but it is the best spot to spread out a picnic on the granite stones. The middle pool is elongated with at the upstream end a shallow sandy bed which suddenly deepens around about the middle of the pool. Further downstream the dark orange peat stained river water twists and turns through a channel that is deep enough to float down and empties into a large round pool of unknown depth. Late on a summer afternoon with a view of nothing but moor and blue sky this is wild swimming at its best.
Downstream of Two Bridges or Postbridge on the respective tributaries there is little easily accessible river in which to swim beyond a ‘been there, swum that’ box ticking exercise. What opportunities there are being either constricted, shallow, or in morose surroundings, the one exception being the pool on the West Dart at Huccaby. However, as both banks are private land it is accessible only by guerrilla swimming or camping at the farm (which is highly recommended).
There is a riverside path of sorts along the east bank of the river from Dartmeet car park to the Salmon Leaps almost two miles downstream. The Salmon Leaps are a series of broad shallow steps in the river separated by modest swimming pools. It gives one of the best views of the river gorge and catches the full sunshine at mid-day. Mel Tor Pool is another 15 minutes walk down the path. Here the river is forced through a channel and drops into a deep round pool overhung by ancient oak trees. One bank is a jumble of rounded boulders, the other a slab of treacherously slippery rock that ends just below the surface of the water in a sheer 2m drop. This is perhaps the quintessential River Dart Wild Swim, but will deter all but the more persistent swimmer.
Whilst this has been widely publicised as one of the defining wild swims in the UK that has been its undoing. Over the past 5 years it has become a Mecca which has brought with it litter, damage to trees, fire pits and the paraphernalia associated with ‘wild camping’ which is actually not permitted here. The pool represents a deep channel in the granite riverbed which shallows into patterned slabs about 50m downstream of the top cascade. There is a sandy beach under the trees on one bank and a large rock that (so long as you check for debris after floods) is a perfect natural diving board. Be aware however that elsewhere the water is not as deep as it may look and there are a lot of hidden rocks. Slip carefully into the rushing water at the top cascade and let the flow swoosh you down to the main pool.
This is a small, hidden pool about a mile from New Bridge, or ½ way between the car parks at New Bridge and Sharrah Pool. Formed where the river deflects around a resistant outcrop of sandstone there is a modestly big pool of fast running water. It is however only accessible from the eastern bank down an iron ladder leads down to a rock platform above the water. Almost entirely shaded by trees it gets sunshine for only about ½ an hour on a late summer afternoon and otherwise has the faerie quality given by soft light filtering through translucent beech leaves. Tempting as it may look, don’t jump in unless you want to get broken.
Only ¼ mile upstream of New Bridge is a short stretch of river with 3 varied pools. The downstream end is marked by the natural Jacuzzi aptly named Horseshoe Falls and upstream of that, separated by a shallow pool and rapids is Black Rock or ‘The Ledge’. As the name suggests this is a slab of black rock that is angled with the flow so that the downstream edge offers a 5 foot high ledge off which to jump into a modestly deep pool. Upstream again and separated from Black Rock by a small cascade is a large pool, deep in places, known variously as Holne or Witch’s Pool. There is a small beach here that catches the late afternoon sun where a tradition of building stacks of pebbles is re-enacted each summer until there are as many as 100 stacks waiting for the first autumn flood.
Holne Bridge & Weir
This is one of the largest pools on the Dart, one of the most attractive and for all that it is right beside a road it retains a natural feeling with the banks a carpet of daffodils, or bluebells in season and frequent sightings of kingfishers, trout and salmon and evidence of otters. Above the weir the pool is wide with a deep centre between open banks for 100m to a slight turn in the river where there is a deep ‘jumping’ pool. Above that a deep channel winds as far as the bridge between steep rock walls with trees crowding in overhead, in all about 250m from the weir. The river channel beneath the bridge is, with care, quite deep enough to dive in to from either bank. The river channel extends a further 50m above the bridge to end at a set or rapids and there is some enormous satisfaction to be garnered when cars stop on the bridge to gawp at the view and the mad swimmer drifting under the bridge in the gentle flow.
From the car park at the top of the hillside pathways fan out but all lead down to the river. Here there is a 300m long pool with a similar layout to Holne Bridge. From a shallow cascade at the top of the pool a deep channel winds down the pool to a wider, deeper pond, all in all a bit like the ‘.’ at the bottom of a ‘!’. Winter floods keep the riverbed free of weeds or obstructions and towards the end of summer numerous large sea trout assemble here. In recent years the land owners have carried out managed felling of some of the trees along one bank which allows more afternoon sunshine on to the water and has brought back to life the spring flowers along the bank.
Parking is in Staverton Village or near the nearby railway station from which it is a 10 to 15 minute walk down to the pool. There is open access from both banks except on Sunday when the Staverton side is closed by the owners. The river flows beneath tall trees into a long pool that deepens at sharp dog leg turn, where an oak tree leans over the pool with wooden slats nailed into the trunk from which the brave or foolhardy plummet into the dark water. For the more reserved the rocky outcrop doubles as a perfect diving board. The opposite bank is more open with a sandy beach and crude wood benches, whilst at the foot of the pool there is a large pebble bank thrown across half the width of the river. Again there is a semi resident kingfisher often to be seen snatching minnows from the shallows.
The grounds are open to the public and a crude path follows the riverbank through water meadows, woods and fields for nearly 2 miles. There are numerous places to swim and though there are a few shallows it is possible to swim down to Totnes weir and from there 1½ miles back upstream. In early summer the river is a favourite dipping spot for students at the college but by mid-summer it can often be deserted of all but ducks and swans.
The river below Totnes Weir is tidal and at anything other than high tide dries out almost entirely in its upper reaches near the town and elsewhere the receding water leaves wide shores of oozing mud. If that alone is insufficient deterrent then it is worth noting that swimming against the tide in either direction is a fool’s errand. Consequently without careful timing or someone willing to meet you if you swim downstream the options are limited.
Down towards Dartmouth the swimming improves but the prolific boat traffic creates a set of different hazards until right down at the estuary mouth itself.
Downstream of the Lower Ferry jetty and the Royal Yacht Club houses cling to the riverside, but there is a single access place down a precipitous set of steps. The steps end at a small platform discrete enough to change and leave a bag hooked out of sight on the railings and then it is down an almost spiral stair to the sea. The tide is quite lazy and there is plenty of easy swimming along the lines of moored yachts between the shore and the main river channel, it is a different way to see this millionaire’s paradise. It is about a mile downstream to what probably constitutes the open sea of which ¾ is beneath tree clad slopes of oak and pine along a shore of rocks and sand with a few hidden inlets and the occasional cave. Across the water is Dartmouth Castle and a similar swim can be had there. Here, as with the estuaries of the other rivers down the coast to Plymouth, the water always seems to have a aquamarine glow as if lit from below. However, unless you are prepared for a long walk back from Mill Bay Cove bear in mind that you have to swim back to the steps again.