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The River Dart – its Moorland Stretch

PUBLISHED: 11:13 18 March 2008 | UPDATED: 15:05 20 February 2013

The tranquil river in Hembury Woods

The tranquil river in Hembury Woods

If you want contrasts, then explore the River Dart above Buckfastleigh. This area must rank as one of Devon's very special places

The East and West Dart Rivers drain the remote blanket bogs of northern Dartmoor and combine at Dartmeet to form the glorious Dart. From here to Buckfastleigh the river has carved a deep gorge which is as wild as anywhere on the moor. Dramatic tors, ancient woods, thundering falls and deep pools make up a landscape which, to my mind, is one of the most beautiful and spectacular in England. You can stoke up the adrenalin white-water kayaking and you can find challenging walks. But equally there are idyllic picnic sites, gentle strolls, ancient bridges, prehistoric remains and interesting wildlife. It is a landscape which offers something for everyone.

Gentle in summer

In summer the river is gentle, and a source of endless fascination. Whisky-coloured water tumbles over granite boulders, chuckles down rapids and spills into enticing pools. Coarse golden sand gathers in quiet eddies and wonderful patterns of light dance across the bottom as surface ripples and currents distort the rays of the sun.

Gaze into a fall and be hypnotised by the endless but ever-changing patterns of flow. Dangle your feet in a pool, or swim in clear, soft water. Fishermen cast for salmon, and you might just spot this wonderful fish, but even if you don't you will see some entertaining wildlife. Grey wagtails, with their brilliant yellow breasts, flit from rock to rock; black and white dippers bob on boulders and happily plop into the water hunting for food on the river bed. Herons stand motionless in the shallows and dragonflies demonstrate their amazing agility over the water.

Great for kayakers

Winter is a different story. In flood the river rages, undermining banks, toppling trees and hurtling them downstream as battering rams. I have seen the water almost up to the top of the arches at New Bridge, with the ancient medieval masonry trembling under the pressure of the flow. It is a powerful and dangerous force. In extreme conditions it trundles huge boulders along its bed, producing the legendary 'Song of the Dart'. I have never experienced it, but I have heard tales of thunderous sound filling the valley. Kayakers love this river. It has some of the best white water in the country - for experts only from Dartmeet to New Bridge, and still pretty challenging downstream from there. It's good to watch even if you don't fancy getting wet!

You can walk beside the river pretty well all the way from Dartmeet to New Bridge along either bank, but I would not recommend it unless you are well-shod and used to rough terrain. It is a bit of a struggle in places and damp, slippery rocks can make it lethal. There are, however, gentle and beautiful walks from New Bridge - upstream on either bank, or downstream under the flood arch of the bridge along a dramatic, but easy, path down to Deeper Marsh with its popular picnic spots and deep swimming pools.

A walk in the woods

In Hembury Woods you will find another idyllic walk by the river beneath spreading beech trees, and if you want to be energetic climb up to the impressive earthworks of the Iron Age fort which crowns the hill above. If you still have time on your hands and want some culture, visit Buckfast Abbey, just down the road. It is a wonderful building, and you will marvel at the almost unbelievable story of how it was rebuilt over a period of 30 years by just six monks, only one of whom had any experience of masonry work!

If you want to get away from the riverside and experience the dramatic landscape of the gorge as a whole, use your OS Outdoor Leisure Map to seek out easy paths on the higher slopes. Dr Blackall's Drive contours from Mel Tor to the top of New Bridge Hill and offers fantastic views. The Holne Moor leat can be followed from below Combestone Tor to Venford, with a return route lower down the slope following the 'Pipeline Track' across moorland and through ancient oak woodland growing on incredibly steep and mossy boulder slopes. It is shown on the map as a faint dotted line which joins the bridleway to Combestone Farm. From here you can return uphill to the tor, with its views across the valley to the Bronze Age field systems on Yartor Down.

Explore the tors

All of the tors which crown the steep slopes rising from the river are easily accessible, and offer fabulous views. To the east of Venford, Bench Tor is a spectacular spot. Take the path from the reservoir car park on the east side of the dam to the end of the long rocky ridge and find yourself perched hundreds of feet above the rushing waters below, with long views up and down the gorge and across to Sharp Tor, which lives up to its name in splendid fashion. South-east from Sharp Tor is Mel Tor - a perfect picnic spot if you are walking Dr Blackall's Drive. And at the other end of the Drive you will find Leigh Tor, which is part of a vein of fine-grained igneous rock, forced into the solidified granite by later volcanic activity. It gives great views of a slightly softer landscape.

But for the best and widest panorama of all, drive round to park just south of Coldeast Cross and take the short walk out to Buckland Beacon. Stand by the rock on which the Ten Commandments are carved and gaze out over the huge wooded dome of Holne Chase, down past Hembury Woods and beyond into the South Hams; or look upstream into the wilds of Dartmoor. It's a good place for a sunset stroll, and if you are lucky enough to choose one of those evenings when a magical golden glow lights up the woods and hillsides below, you will agree with me that the Dart Gorge is one of Devon's, and indeed England's, very special places.



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