Caught by the River

Nick’s Pics

Nick Small | 15th December 2018

Nick Small captures the early morning magic of the River Dart.

The vagaries of our weather can make filming the British landscape joyous and frustrating in equal measure. Waiting for mountain summit clag to reveal the glorious view that you’re tasked with capturing, or turning up to film a sparkling cascade on a drab, rainy day is standard fare. So it was with some concern that I approached the making of a film celebrating the beguiling charm of the River Dart, given that the shoot was scheduled for late autumn. The fact that the opening scenes were to be filmed at Fox Tor Mire on Dartmoor, a place accustomed to 300 days a year of Atlantic rain, did nothing to ameliorate my anxiety.

Obsession with the weather and an intimate understanding of what impact it will have upon the appearance of the landscape is intrinsic to the job. But, in truth, you need fortune on your side. So when a blocking high hung around long enough to keep the skies clear the night before filming, I thanked those lucky stars, still twinkling against the dark heavens, as we set off at 6am towards Princetown.

We arrived at Whiteworks, overlooking Fox Tor Mire, as the eastern sky threw light upwards and washed away the black of night. The mire, sitting in a vast natural bowl, was dusted with a thick hoar frost, which soon took on the pinkish hue of dawn light. Heavy air pinned ghostly whisps of mist low across the bog. We set up camera and drone, blown away by the surreal beauty that the atmospheric conditions had gifted us. I knew then that we’d have a sensational opening to the film. My only worry was that, like the journey from this Dart headwater to the sea, it was all going to be downhill from there.

My grandparents lived in Dawlish on a stretch of the South Devon coastline which styles itself as “The English Riviera”. Two decades ago they dropped me and my young family at Totnes so that we could take the steamer down the river Dart to Dartmouth, where they would meet us, before taking us to eat in a waterside pub at the ridiculously picturesque Stoke Gabriel. I always vowed to return and explore more of the river upstream, but had never made it. So this journey from source to sea filming for the BBC’s River Walks programme really was one of discovery for me.

I was particularly taken with the West Dart around Huccaby Bridge and Dartmeet. Here a pristine river burbles between granite boulders. The views framed by ancient stone bridges and birch trees dripping with fronds of moss and lichen, a visual confirmation that the air too is clear. Polar explorer Pen Hadow told us that the Dart here connected him with the Arctic not just because it’s where he practised swimming in an immersion suit in near freezing water, but also because he has watched arctic salmon making their way up towards the gravel beds of the mire upstream.

The Dart doesn’t get any less pretty as it makes its way towards the sea, but it certainly takes on a certain majesty in its tidal reaches around Sharpham. As we waited for a woodsman’s chainsaw to run out of gas so that we could film a piece to camera, an otter swam by and egret looked on, both ignored by hungry oystercatchers drilling the glistening mud for sustenance.

In all, I spent four days filming along the River Dart. I fell hopelessly in love with it.  You can soak up some of this love for yourself. River Walks: The Dart is available on BBC iPlayer now.