Caught by the River

Walking the River Dart: Part 2

Katherine Venn | 5th November 2019

Wet socks, bivvy bags and going off-piste: inspired by Alice Oswald, Katherine Venn continues her solo journey following the River Dart from source to sea.

I wake a lot during the night, perhaps every couple of hours, but I think it’s just my body being awake to the fact that I’m somewhere very different. It’s a comfort to know that my body knows, is looking out; but I’m not anxious or kept awake by unfamiliar noises, as I was half expecting to be. When I wake at perhaps two the moon is low and gorgeously close to full, so that I’m casting a shadow against the peaty wall at my side. Somehow I’m always surprised that the moon can create such sharp shadows. Even with its brightness it’s surrounded by stars. They seem to hang together, as if suspended from a theatre backdrop, and really I feel I should lie and look at them a while, to make the most of sleeping out without canvas, and no light pollution. But as soon as I have this thought my eyes are closing, and I’m just about awake enough to realise I’m not quite warm enough to be comfortable, so I allow myself to fall back to sleep. 

When I wake properly I’m amazed to discover that it’s 8.30: I’ve slept almost eleven hours, even with all those brief moments of wakefulness. The sun is fully up over the bank behind my head, and the skylarks are one continuous twittering song. I’m the closest I’ll get – this time, at least – to the source of the West Dart, so I read the first few pages of what’s brought me here: Alice Oswald’s book-length poem Dart. 29thAugust, 2002: the date I wrote on the half-title page; underneath is Oswald’s signature, with the imperative ‘Keep writing!’ – something a friend accomplished for me, though I can’t recall how many years it was after I’d first read the book. It was Dart that woke me up to contemporary poetry, and within a couple of years got me writing myself. Oswald remains one of my favourite poets, a touchstone, as is Dart, for its inventiveness and seriousness and minute attention to the details of landscape and people. I like walking, and I particularly like walking along rivers, and even best is swimming in them, so I don’t know why it’s taken me so long to put everything together and make this pilgrimage. 

                  and I find you in the reeds, a trickle coming out of a bank, a foal of a river

                  one step-width water
                  of linked stones
                  trills in the stones
                  glides in the trills
                  eels in the glides
                  in each eel a fingerwidth of sea

If I thought that following the river til it ran out would be simple, surely retracing my steps back down to Two Bridges will be even easier; but somehow the going is much harder this morning. Very quickly I go wrong, ending up on island tussocks with channels of water all round me and no clear way forward. How has this happened? The place I slept is behind me, the firing range poles are on my right, but everywhere is a uniform of thigh-high reeds and there’s no clear path. How did I do this last night? The river’s tricksy, leading me into a plunge, over-ankle-deep, into peat water, the wool sock on my right foot soaked.  As I wring it out I’m persecuted by horseflies. They weren’t around last night either. 

By midday I’m still making slow progress. Double tricksy the Dart: I’ve now plunged the other foot through the moss on what I thought was solid ground but was in fact mire, so now both feet are wet through. I get back to the cows who have wandered upstream and are now fanned out on both sides of the river, so I take an even longer detour to avoid their stares, right up alongside the MOD’s poles. Funny how the river looks so different today, in different light and the other way round; I could almost not recognise it. I sit on a ladder stile, sun-warmed old grey wood, and watch it, insistent that it has somewhere to go. The air gets hot with the kind of dull, heavy heat that rises up from the grass and somehow takes me back to the feeling of being bored as a child. Walking back past Wistman’s Wood I peer enviously into the cool mossy damp. 

                  (meanwhile the West Dart pours through
                  Crow Tor Fox Holes
                  Longaford Beardown and Wystman’s Wood
                  and under Crockern Tor, singing… )

With Two Bridges finally behind me I’m close to the river again – wider, shallow, flat in the sunshine – hugging its left bank. The path is flat and easy. My legs are a horror show: stung by horseflies, irritated by all the green – reeds, bracken – I’ve brushed against. The water’s a tease in my ear and I wonder if I’ll get the chance to swim this afternoon. A great tit is calling from a nearby copse. 

When I left the pub at Two Bridges I asked the lady behind the bar if I could carry on next to the river from their land, which extends some way downstream: she assured me I could, that it’s all public access. But it quickly turns out not to be, which I’d have known if I’d looked a bit more carefully at my map. I’m hoping that I’ll connect up with a bridleway that I know begins from the main road on my left, but which in the heat I want to avoid – and why wouldn’t I want to walk next to the river? A faded sign on a dry stone wall I cross – no helpful ladder stile – seems to imply that I shouldn’t walk along the top of it. By the time I get to another field and have to very gingerly cross some barbed wire I realise I’ve definitely gone wrong, but I’ve walked too far to turn back now, and I keep hoping I’ll pick up this bridleway. I don’t. I’m slightly anxious, but the river’s there. I walk through a field of horses, then see sheep on the far bank, a speckled black and white one drinking from the river which I stop to make a line drawing of. 

Finally I’m walking through wooded shade that takes me to what is clearly private land around a hotel. But no one’s around so I carry on and finally pick up the bridleway at what my map tells me is the Dartmoor Training Centre, and where I see a bright version of the sign I’d misread before. Of course it hadn’t been telling me not to walk on the walls; it was telling me this was not public access land. Oh well. I’m leaving the river here: this morning’s experience having taught me not to just fight my way next to it. I’m hoping to follow two bridleways to Sherberton and then drop down, catching up with the river, to Hexworthy.

But despite now following what should be marked bridleways, the sign-posting stops and there’s no exit from a field that I was definitely pointed into. I walk up and down its boundary a few times, trying to figure it out and find the way onwards, then take a chance, which just gets me lost, and soon I’m scrambling from one field to another, definitely on private land, with no idea how to pick the route back up. My head’s throbbing in the sun and the horseflies are keeping me company: whenever I stop to consult the map they descend en masse, and I’m soon a sweating, swearing mess, my legs ever more ribboned, stung, covered in welts. Even though I’m no longer close to the Dart the ground continues to be treacherously boggy, so that I’m never walking the shortest way to the next field that I also shouldn’t be in, but having to take wide berths round miry patches that would have me up to my ankles. 

Finally I give up trying to use the map and pull out my phone, hoping to just fight my way to the closest road, then follow it to Hexworthy. I can just about see what I think is a ribbon of tarmac, so I make my way towards it – but it’s on the other side of the River Swincombe. Having fought my way this far there’s nothing for it but to jump, feeling perilously unbalanced with my rucksack on my back. I just about manage it, only to realise that I’m now on a little island in the river’s middle, rather than its far bank. The second leap is more of a risk, but again I just about make it and scramble up to the track I’d glimpsed from the field below. 

I finally get to the Forest Inn at Hexworthy, where I eat the most English idea of a pizza I’ve ever encountered: cubed roasted carrots on a brittle white base, covered in grated cheddar. But I can’t remember the last time I felt so relieved to find food and a pint. And talking about the state of my legs with the barman, the chef brings me out a quartered lemon for me to rub over them. He assures me it’ll sting – it does – but will clean everything up and soothe the horsefly bites in particular. I don’t know that there’s any benefit beyond the stinging, but I’m touched, feel taken care of. 

I don’t really want to get going again after the afternoon’s struggles, but I need to reach Dartmeet and finally Yar Tor, where I’m sleeping tonight, and I’m assured by the barman it won’t take me long to get there. I walk up a quiet country lane from Hexworthy, glad not to be walking through rushes or gorse, into the tiny hamlet of Huccaby, where I stop in St Raphael’s chapel, originally built as a combined chapel and schoolroom; the back half has some of the old desks, including the teacher’s. It has that very quiet, musty coolness that country churches do, and I think of Philip Larkin’s ‘Church Going’:

A serious house on serious earth it is,
In whose blent air all our compulsions meet,
Are recognised, and robed as destinies.

The chapel proudly proclaims that it’s the only one in the country dedicated to Raphael, who is after all an angel rather than one of the saints who give most churches their names. It’s only back in London that I remember that his name means ‘God’s healing’ – which I very much need for my shredded legs – and also realise that he’s the patron saint of travellers. 

Happily this last little stretch is along well-marked footpaths to Dartmeet, even if I have to walk through a sloped field of cows – bullocks this time? Either way, far too languorous after the day’s heat to even really look at me – to the river, where the East and West tributaries of the Dart join. Everything’s quiet and cool, huge oaks leaning out over the river, all the trees wearing their deepest high-summer green. Instinctively I cross the river over the big stepping stones, before getting out the map and realising I needed to stay on the other side of the river. I cross again then re-cross what is actually the East Dart over a little road bridge, then follow it a little way upstream before splitting off onto Yar Tor. 

                  Dartmeet – a mob of waters
                  where East Dart smashes into West Dart

                  two wills gnarling and recoiling
                  and finally knuckling into balance

                  in that brawl of mudwaves
                  the East Dart speaks Whiteslad and Babeny

                  the West Dart speaks a wonderful dark fall
                  from Cut Hill through Wystman’s Wood

                  put your ear to it, you can hear water
                  cooped up in moss and moving

                  slowly uphill through lean-to trees
                  where every day the sun gets twisted and shut

                  with the weak sound of the wind
                  rubbing one indolent twig upon another

                  and the West Dart speaks roots in a pinch of clitters
                  the East Dart speaks coppice and standards

I’d thought I’d find somewhere right at the top of the tor to sleep, but it’s a long climb and I’m so exhausted, and hot, that when I spot a little circular clearing in the acres of bracken off the ride I’m walking up I decide it’ll be my bedroom for the night. I think I’m in sight of the stones at the top. It’s much more exposed than last night, but with one night in the bag I reckon I’ll be fine. And I’m tired. 

The usual routine: mat, bivvy bag and sleeping bag, everything else neatly tucked away. Chocolate. Bourbon. I’m sure that, when I lie down, I won’t be visible from even twenty feet away, given that I’m in a little circle right in a sea of bracken, in a khaki bag. I’ve seen no one – just sheep – though I can hear the hiss of occasional cars on the road that cuts across Yartor Down. Perhaps I should have found somewhere a little further from the road, but I’m all settled now. 

I’m less wakeful tonight, despite the road, despite lying completely exposed on the side of a hill. But somewhere around two I’m suddenly awake and in a panic – something’s woken me, something nearby, something that I feel perhaps shook the ground. I sit up and look around, and see a pony, perhaps twelve feet away from me, cropping the grass; the moon is bright, nearing full. It spots me too and for a few long seconds we stare at each other, then it goes back to the grass and I lie down, back to sleep.