Trees

The change is obvious as soon as I step from the tunnel of trees that enclose the footpath to the weir.  The oak tree that hung from the bank at the end of the weir has been chopped down.  The space is strewn with leaves and twigs, a few branches lie in the water, but the bulk of it is stacked in neat rounds back from the water.

There are a lot of trees in the world but for me at least some of them have a special place.  This was one such.  True it had been much undermined by recent floods and I suspect it was necessary to cut it down before it fell down and did damage to the recently restored weir, but it is a loss.

In summer the leaves patterned the concrete with their shadows.  On early mornings in autumn beads of dew would glitter and sparkle on spiders’ webs festooned amongst the twigs.  Later in the year there would be the plop, plop of acorns hitting the pool as I sat changing and the roots made very handy seats.  And earlier this year the largest raven imaginable sat casually out of reach in the branches and watched with nonchalance as I wriggled into my wetsuit.

There are indeed more trees and trees come and trees go with or without the help of a chainsaw.  Nevertheless, after those that cloaked the opposite bank were clear felled 2 years ago it seems that this once wild oasis enclosed by roads and cars and people is suddenly in a glaring spotlight.

Wild Swimming Map: Devon & Cornwall

The Return of the Infinity Pool

Though there has not been a great deal of rain and much must have soaked into the parched moorland the river Dart is nevertheless a foot deeper today than last Tuesday.  Horseshoe Falls is a swirling cauldron and much of the beach at Wellsfoot has been swept smooth, whilst the river at Sharrah Pool crashes down the cascade and spits foam and bubbles from the swoosh.  It was definitely a good move to get here in the early morning as the cascade is lit by bright sunshine and the beach is bathed in warm sunshine as I change.

I am swimming back up the pool, quite hard work against the flow until I get in the lee of the big rock, to run the swoosh a second time.  Looking up I see there is a heron stood at the top of the cascade in the dappled light under the oak trees.  We stare each other down, it’s not often you can get this close, but he ‘blinks’ first and flaps in the untidy way of herons everywhere into the air heading away from me.  He evidently didn’t go far as a moment later he sweeps by just above treetop height, still struggling for lift and then he’s gone down the river.

I shoot the swoosh again and then follow the heron downstream, a second dip already planned, I am interested to see what the river level is at Holne Weir.

A month ago the water level covered the concrete of the weir from bank to bank, a few inches deep at the bank and 6 inches or so in the middle.  The effect whilst floating in the water is that of an infinity pool.  However, when I stopped by last week the water was flowing entirely within the central spillway having dropped steadily day by day which rather spoilt the effect.

The water has risen sufficiently after the rain and once again covers the weir from bank to bank.  Unlike further upstream however the water of the pool is completely calm, like water on glass reflecting back the blue sky, clouds and freshly greened trees.  The only give away that the water in the pool is flowing at all is the little eddy around the fallen tree, until of course it comes crashing over the weir.  The best view however is from the pool itself.

Diving in below the bridge the strong current in the narrow channel whooshes me downstream and it takes a brisk bit of swimming to regain the step in the rocks to do it again.  Then it is simply a case of letting the current take me down under the fresh green leafed trees that were all bare sticks just a month ago.  The mandarin duck pair hesitate, they are becoming more familiar with me but in the end they skitter down the water, not really getting airborne and then dropping back in.  There were 2 females for a while, maybe one has eggs or chicks.

Nearing the weir the infinity effect takes over, the river looks as though it runs straight up into the trees and the line across the top of the weir is smooth, even and unbroken, it is only close up that the dimple where the sluice is shows up.  The real give away is the spray rising in billows from beyond the watery horizon catching the sunshine and sparkling though not quite enough to produce a rainbow.

More rain is forecast, maybe the infinity pool is here to stay for a few more days yet.

 

Wild Swimming Map: Devon & Cornwall

The Rise and Fall of the River Dart

The surface of the river at the pool above the weir at Holne Bridge is glass smooth and a perfect mirror to the relentless grey clouds above.  However, refocussing my eyes from the superficial reflection down through the clear water I can see fine sand at my feet grading into pebbles and on to larger boulders out into the middle of the river until the river bed is lost in a aqua-green haze.  The water is very clear, possibly as clear as I have ever seen it.

A gust or air ruffles the surface breaking the mirror which is a good thing as I don’t need seven years of bad luck.  I press my toes into the softly yielding soil of the bank, lift my heels and spring into a dive.  I like to do neat dives which is not always so easy from an uneven vantage point but I feel this one is neat, the water cuts around me rather than there being any sensation of impact.  The water is bitterly cold and stings my eyes as I sweep over the river bed boulders into deeper water before getting forced up by the cold crushing my head.

‘Whoo hoo!’  I shake my head in a futile attempt to dislodge the stars that are spinning around inside. ‘F_, that’s cold.’  But not as cold as Wednesday.

Only last week I was quite contentedly dropping into the river above the bridge in only my swimwear and taking a leisurely 10 minute drift down to the weir without any sense of chill.  The water at a guess was 12degC or more, the temperature buoyed up by day after day of spring sunshine.  The sunshine has been a little less in evidence the last week or so and there was snow over the moor on Monday.  I anticipated the change in water temperature on Wednesday but even so and wearing a wetsuit when I got to the weir I had the shivers, the temperature was 5 or 6C at most.  Today the river is on the upward cycle again but still just sub-double figures at a guess.

Wild Swimming
Wild Swimming

The water level however is on the downward cycle, in free fall almost.  A month ago the whole of the weir was covered and the water swirled several inches deep over the lip  amongst the roots of the oak tree where my bag now rests high and dry.  Today that lip stands at least 10 inches high and dry.  That makes changing much easier as I can stand on the concrete and rinse the sand from between my toes.  By late summer the water will be confined to just the sluice and spillway but if the forecast is right that will have to wait a while as there is rain on the way.  It is unlikely to be as much as a few years ago when in the 2 weeks over Christmas 2013 the weather produced three of the highest river levels ever recorded on the Dart.

Wild Swimming Map: Devon & Cornwall

 

After the Crowds

When I am used to being on the river bank by myself even a couple of extra people constitutes a crowd.  Generally that’s not a problem, I don’t have the monopoly on solitude or peace and quiet for that matter and what’s not to like about the sound of people enjoying themselves.  Up to a point.

There are 6 or so late ‘teens’ or early ‘twentysomethings’ on the river bank and a couple of the lads are hurling fist sized stones into the water.  I have inhabited that particular glass house so I’m not saying anything, but on this otherwise perfectly still evening in the warm golden rays of the setting sun it is a major assault on the senses.

From where I stop further up the river bank to change I can here them calling and yelling out of sight through the trees but there is still the occasional sploosh of a falling stone out in the middle of the pool.  There is a ceasefire in their barrage as I swim down and back but behind me again I here another sploosh, that hollow sucking sound of a stone falling into shallow water.

Their intrusion fades as I get changed, the sun has gone behind the trees and so have they, silence falls and the surface of the pool settles back to its natural calm state.

I’m sitting on the bank absently contemplating the ripples on the water.  In a fast flowing current it always surprises me that ripples pushed ahead of me as I swim upstream aren’t carried downstream by the flow of water.  Afterall, like leaves or twigs that is what you would expect isn’t it?  Instead however I have often noted how the ripples move against the flow of water as if the water were in fact completely still.  But more than that, ripples in still water spread out leaving a still centre, whereas ripples in moving water seem to propagate almost indefinitely raising static waves in the flow.  I have been watching these ripples for as long as it has taken me to dry and dress and they are still there trapped in the flow of the water, their undulations marked by flickers of reflection.  They will fade eventually, that must be the case because they were not there when I dove in earlier.

Perpetual motion is a myth, it is contrary to all the laws of thermodynamics including the first law of thermodynamics club which is, don’t talk about thermodynamics.  So the ripples must be drawing energy from somewhere and that can really only be from the flow of the river.  That being the case I speculate on whether there is a relationship between the frequency and/or amplitude of the ripples and the rate of flow of the water.  This must  be the case because the ripples I made swimming and getting out must have been many and chaotic, yet they have now settled into a very uniform pattern.

I’m yanked back to the ‘real world’ when a pale brown autumn leaf tumbles over my towel just within arm’s reach.  Except that there is no breeze and for a leaf to be moving that fast there would have to be a hurricane blowing.  Gently tilting my head down I can peer beneath the overhang of the bank and there not 3 feet away a pair of beady black eyes flank an urgently twitching nose which waggles its whiskers at me.  The mouse and I hold eye contact for a moment and then it flicks away like a randomly bouncing ball ricocheting off stones and tree roots.  It’s not just me that likes it when it’s more solitudinous.

Walking back past the scene of the youthful gathering I pause and collect up the cans and other litter.  Now that really pisses me off and I bet more ended up in the river.

Wild Swimming Map: Devon & Cornwall

Bedfellows

Running is, to my mind at least, a natural bedfellow to swimming.  After all, how better to get from here to there and more importantly get warm afterwards?

In the summer it couldn’t be simpler, just swim in the running kit and then run back, no towel required.

The winter requires a rethink of routes, the choice being either run with a small backpack containing towel and swimwear (not so good for running but there is the post swim warm-up factor), or, run and swim back at the start (no need to carry anything but chilly afterwards).  Decisions, decisions.

Wild Swimming
Wild Swimming

I am almost tempted to run up to Sharrah Pool but I have left it a little bit late and the traffic through Totnes was moving with glacial slowness as distinct from the usual snail’s pace.  It is nearly 6pm when I get to New Bridge so Sharrah is not on the menu.

Instead I make a little circuit up and down the river bank past Wellsfoot to the end of the track by the ruined bridge at the foot of Long Island.  The air is still under the trees, the sun is warm and the light dapples the ground.  One solitary daffodil stands tall facing the sunshine and up here the ground is wrong for the wood anemones that are in profusion further downstream, but the bluebells are coming.

I hop back in the van and bundle down to Holne Bridge which is a default ‘go to’ place, partly because it is perhaps the best swim on the river, partly because it is extremely beautiful – always, and partly because it is easy to get to.

I change on the river bank and walk the sandy path to the tumble down gap in the wall.  The traffic has dropped to nothing which is as well because any motorist coming along would find a wetsuit clad head case with swimming goggles perched on their forehead doing a ‘La La Land’ up the middle of the road, dancing as it were, from one white line to the next (because the paint takes the sharpness out of the road grit, mad, but not stupid).

After running the water seems especially bitter but that will pass and has done so almost by the time I have been shot under the bridge.  The sun is a little too low to give the best silhouette effect but it highlights the roiling water where it twists like ropes thrown up by unseen boulders on the river bed.

As I round the corner by the rope swing the Mandarin Ducks splash away noisily.  I suspect they have a nest.  They have been here for two years at least but generally there are more and more of this introduced species year after year.  Very pretty, but they don’t belong.  A few years ago some mergansers had a nest on the bank in amongst a thicket of willow and hatched a gaggle of chicks, but now with the bank cleared they have been forced out.

From here to the weir the pool is in sunshine.  The water has cleared since Sunday and the golden sand can be seen spread out across the river bed infilling around the boulders.  There are no salmon yet but I hope to see them soon, it is the right time of year.  I shall report back.

Wild Swimming
Wild Swimming

 

Butterflies and Kingfisher

Just last weekend the river bank at Holne Bridge was dotted with yellow daffodils.  They have all finished now leaving only a carpet of smiling wood anemones and the first bluebell I have seen out so far this year.  Spring it seems is in full flow.

The daffodils may have gone but there is a veritable blizzard of bright yellow butterflies all up along the river at New Bridge.  Apparently they hatch with the yellow colour and then turn to white but I never seem to see the white ones only these canary yellow hatchlings.

Stopping to watch the butterflies dance over a pond I am startled by the kingfisher that whirls away from a nearby branch.  Whilst I have on occasion been able to drift to within 10 feet or so of one I am surprised this one had not long gone with my noisy arrival. I lose track but I think it is the first I have seen this year and for a moment I watch it whirl away.  I am always left with the impression that they don’t so much flap their wings as row through the air, which seems appropriate somehow.

The river is in full flow too, not high, but 10 to 12 inches up where it flows under Holne Bridge and dark, dark and mysterious waters.  Drawn in and swept downstream the bridge is soon lost back in the trees.

Under the rope swing and out into the big pool where the sun clears the trees but does little to penetrate the dark water.  My toes are dragging over the sand and rounded stones but they are out of sight in the darkness.

If this were the summer I would sweep on and wash up on the weir, but today the current is too strong and I’d be over the top and self evidently that would not be a good end to the day.

Wild Swimming
Wild Swimming

What is a good end to the day is that as I walk back to the van there’s a fifty pence piece lying in the dirt at the roadside.  Finding a penny always brings good luck but have I had my good luck today or is it still to come?

Top Places to Swim on the River Dart

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.

Sandy Hole Pass
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.
Wild Swimming
Wild Swimming

 

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).

Once the tributaries join together at Dartmeet, the river, often now referred to esoterically as the ‘Double Dart’, finds its way into a gorge of impressive and deceptive depth and steepness.  There are numerous pools, waterslides and paddles along this stretch but working downstream the best truly wild swims are potentially as follows.  Be aware however that this stretch of the river is best avoided after heavy rains and tragedy has struck at the unwary and unprepared.  ‘River Dart, River Dart, every year you claim a heart’ as the local saying goes.
The Salmon Leaps and Mel Tor Pool
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.

Sharrah Pool
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.

     What few people appreciate is that 100m downstream of Sharrah Pool is the place where the Dartmoor granite gives way to the sandstone and mudstone of the surrounding rocks.  This subtly changes the swimming places, leaving behind the patterned rounded granite boulders and banks and replacing them with darker rocks, thinning bedded and with a tendency to shatter into sharp edges.
Bel 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.
Wild Swimming
Wild Swimming

Black Rock
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.

 

 

Hembury Woods
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.

 

Still Pool
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.

 

Dartington Hall
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.

Wild Swimming
Wild Swimming

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.

Kingswear.
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.