CHRISTMAS OFFER Subscribe to Devon Life today CLICK HERE

A Venetian Sandolo ...on the River Dart in Devon

PUBLISHED: 11:54 05 January 2011 | UPDATED: 16:16 20 February 2013

A Venetian Sandolo   ...on the Dart

A Venetian Sandolo ...on the Dart

When the weather is fine and the tide is right, Jerome Fletcher heads to Blackness Marine where he stores his Venetian rowing boat, Sior Checo.

A bright Sunday morning on the Dart, and four rowers are setting off from the slipway at Blackness Marine heading upriver. It's a large rowing boat; 32ft long, wide-bodied and with sleek lines. However, what draws attention is that the four rowers are standing up and facing forward, leaning on their oars, not pulling. This is not an English boat and the first question most people ask is where is it from? For those with an extensive knowledge of Venetian dialect the name of the boat, Sior Checo, is a give-away. It's a contraction of 'Signor Francesco' (in Venice, boats are male rather than female) and this is a sandolo - not as ornate as a gondola, but no less beautiful. In Venice the sandolo is a family boat, traditionally used for picnics and fishing trips.

What strikes you immediately about rowing a sandolo is the ease with which 500kg of glossy varnished mahogany and marine ply moves through the water. It has a flat bottom and a shallow draft, which makes it very manoeuverable, perfect for negotiating the narrow streets of Venice and the muddy shallows of the Dart. Still, with that weight to shift through the water, it makes sense to take advantage of the tides on the river. Blackness Marine, where the boat is stored, is ideally placed just upriver from East Dittisham. Depending on the tide, we can choose to row downstream to Dartmouth or, as on this occasion, upstream towards Totnes.

With the four of us rowing in unison worthy of the Berlin Philharmonic (well, sort of), Sior Checo glides serenely away from Blackness. The boat remains remarkably stable even in choppy conditions - just as well when you're standing up. The river is wide at this point, almost like a small lake. To our right, buried in an inlet, is the village of Stoke Gabriel. To our left is East Cornworthy, where architect Pedro Sutton keeps another Italian import, a water taxi from Lake Como. The fields are filled with ripening crops, or dotted with sheep like white ticks on the back of a green cow, or in places the deep red of bare South Devon soil shows through.

Rowing la Veneziana means that the wind is a factor. Standing up, we act as a sail and if the wind is in the north, especially where it funnels down the river from Bow Creek, rowing can become quite hard work. Today, a gentle breeze is at our back and it bears us along. This is vital. Whereas English rowing is about sweat and hard work, Venetian rowing is all about making it look elegant and effortless.

As we approach the confluence of the Bow and the Dart, the river narrows and we swing right towards Duncannon. This used to be a small salmon fishing community and, given the activity in the water on summer evenings, you can understand why. There are times when the river seems to boil with fish.

I was introduced to Venetian rowing while I was co-writing a book on food and decadence with a friend of mine, Alex Martin. He was living in Venice and during a stay I went out on the lagoon with him to get a classic view of La Serenissima. Later, back in Oxford, we discovered a rowing club that owned a Venetian boat. Finally we decided to buy a boat of our own, which Alex towed back from Venice on a trailer, nearly burning out the brakes on his car while descending the Alps.

By now we have settled into a gentle rhythm as we row past Point Field at the edge of the Sharpham estate. Often campers here will come to the river's edge to watch this strange craft slide past. This is where we usually have to run the gauntlet of some wit belting out Just one Cornetto'. We smile indulgently as if it's the first time we've heard it.

The river turns left and narrows between the steep wooded hills of the Sharpham estate, which run down to the water's edge, and the meadows on the opposite bank. Here the egrets and herons tread delicately. The cormorants hang their wings out to dry and occasionally the slick black head of a seal will pop up to see what this strange object is. The quiet of the sandolo means that we can often get close to the river creatures without disturbing them. At the same time, one of the most engaging things about this boat is the variety of noises it makes. They range from a rippling gurgle of wavelets running under the flat-bottomed hull to the hearty slap of larger waves, and the rush of the current emerging from the stern to the creaking of the oars in the forcole (the Venetian term for the oar-holders). From time to time, we stop rowing and drift in silence.

Ahead of us appears the white boathouse at Sharpham, where the Italianate house sits above a double bend in the river. The vineyard tumbles down to water meadows populated by geese. We row the final stretch to our destination - the Vineyard Caf.

Mooring at Sharpham's north quay, we follow a path up the hill to the caf. It's wonderfully unpretentious - a motley collection of open-air tables, marquees, sheds and what looks like a burger van. And the food that emerges from the van is superb. The dishes are inventive and the ingredients couldn't be fresher - cheese and vegetables come from the Sharpham estate itself. Where supermarkets deal in food miles, here they deal in yards.

At the end of a leisurely lunch, we return to the quay and steer the sandolo back into the flow of the river. We have it all to do again, but with the tide falling and the wind dropping it will be almost effortless. You can't help feeling, with all due respect to Sir Steve and Sir Matthew, when it comes to rowing the Italians have got it right.


More from Out & About

Yesterday, 10:32

October is the perfect time to discover the joys of Exmoor. Jennette Baxter of Visit Exmoor suggests five great ways to enjoy autumn on the moor

Read more
Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Wild camping can be one of the best ways to escape the crowds for a night or two and lose yourself in the landscape - SOPHIE PAVELLE chooses her five favourite places to ‘wild-life’ camp in Devon

Read more
Tuesday, October 9, 2018

From sandy beaches and lighthouse-topped cliffs to views of the Jurassic Coast, the Devon coastline offers many perfect locations for a seaside walk. We pick 10 of the prettiest routes to take

Read more
Tuesday, October 2, 2018

Take our quiz to find out how well you really know Devon

Read more
Tuesday, October 2, 2018

As the weather starts to warm up and the Devon countryside beckons, LIZZIE JANE of the National Trust in the South West offers plenty of walk ideas for you to try. Whether you want a relaxed Sunday stroll or a more strenuous hike, here are 10 walks across Devon (and beyond) to help you escape the crowds and head off the beaten track

Read more
Tuesday, September 25, 2018

The South West Coast Path is celebrating 40 years by calling on people to help raise £40,000. To show their support, teams from Devon’s top tourist attractions are preparing to take to the trail. CHRISSY HARRIS finds out more

Read more
Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Away from the hustle of places like Woolacombe and Ilfracombe, North Devon is peppered with tiny coves, empty beaches and wooded walks leading to secluded bays that feel a million miles away from the tourist trail. BECKY DICKINSON reveals her pick of the best kept secrets on the North Devon coast

Read more
Friday, September 14, 2018

As part of her regular series where she visits Devon’s best places for 24 hours, Lydia Tewkesbury has this time been to Sidmouth

Read more
Thursday, September 13, 2018

Ranging from rocky and windy walkways along the South West Coast Path to the sandy beaches on the picturesque coastline, the district of North Devon is one of the prettiest coastal areas in the South West of England. In no particular order, here are 10 of the prettiest villages in the district of North Devon

Read more
Tuesday, September 11, 2018

In Devon’s towns and cities there’s an awful lot you can do in just 24 hours. For her regular feature, Lydia Tewkesbury travels to see what you can do in a day in Kingsbridge

Read more
Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Villages in Devon are some of the prettiest in the South West. From beautiful little hamlets on the outskirts of the moors to seaside communities, we pick 10 villages in Devon you need to visit

Read more
Tuesday, September 4, 2018

Dust off your walking shoes and head to South Devon – here are 6 reasons why the area is so good for a stroll writes Victoria Rogers

Read more
Tuesday, August 28, 2018

There is something quite life-enriching about being by the water and in Devon there are plenty of ways to enjoy it, writes Fran McElhone. Including surfing, wild swimming, water skiing and more, here are 10 great ways to enjoy Devon’s water

Read more
Tuesday, August 28, 2018

Encompassing large swathes of Dartmoor and plenty of the county’s most distinctive sections of coastline, it’s no wonder that the South Hams district is home to some of Devon’s prettiest places. We pick out 10 of the best towns and villages the area has to offer

Read more

Newsletter Sign Up

Sign up to the following newsletters:

Sign up to receive our regular email newsletter

Our Privacy Policy

Topics of Interest

Food and Drink Directory

Subscribe or buy a mag today

subscription ad

Local Business Directory

Property Search