Caught by the River

Walking the River Dart: Part 3

Katherine Venn | 7th December 2019

Katherine Venn continues her Alice Oswald-inspired walk following the River Dart from source to sea, this time encountering lost paths, shoe disaster, and scratched legs.

Despite the pony and the road and the fact that I’m lying on the side of a tor, I sleep well and wake to the sun lighting the wooded hill on the other side of the Dart, the bracken below me electric green. Sitting up in my bags I feel unbelievably smug. I did it. I did it, and on my own, and I haven’t even needed my whistle. 

I pack up and walk to the top of the Tor, which I have to myself, along with the birds and the butterflies and the sheep, of course. I had thought maybe there’d be a walker or two, but there’s no one. It’s gusty and although I’m giddy at the view I’m glad I didn’t power to the top last night: it would have been freezing. I sit on one of the flat rocks and gaze at the sun on the acres of bracken and then read a bit, before taking a photo to send to my friend Beth; this morning Yar Tor feels familiar and I’m pretty certain I was here with her a few years back when she took us on a wild-swimming campervan trip through Devon and Cornwall. 

Breakfast this morning is a cut above yesterday’s cereal bars and water: at a tearoom back down on the East Dart. The place is almost empty and the service is friendly and relaxed, with (I’m assuming) the owner/managers working on their laptops, reminding me of my student days working in the village pub. I get out the map and confirm what I was beginning to suspect last night: that on today’s route I haven’t accounted for a whole curve of the river from Newbridge to Buckfast, though I don’t know if this is an intentional shortcut from when I first started thinking about and planning the walk a few years ago, or an oversight. Well, it is what it is. I’ll just have to come back to do that bit another time, for completion’s sake. I leave the tearoom with a massive slab of flapjack to keep me going this afternoon and set off downstream to where the two tributaries join. The day’s walk ahead of me is going to be beautiful, along a length of the river that makes up the Dart Valley Nature Reserve.

I’ve been walking barely five minutes when disaster strikes. My walking boots, which I was feeling so smug about just yesterday – I’ve had them since I was a teenager – have suddenly decided enough is enough. The whole sole of the left boot is peeling off, clinging on just at the toe. I test it out a few steps. Even if by some miracle it lasts until I get to Buckfast this evening, I know today’s stretch is going to be a bit of a scramble – impossible with half a sole flapping about. On further inspection it looks like the right sole isn’t far behind. That’ll teach me to be smug. What to do? I ask a couple of serious-looking walkers coming up behind me if they’re local, if they know if there’s an outdoor shop anywhere near by; the closest, they reckon, is Ashburton, which is hardly close. There’s no phone reception. The only thing I can think to do is walk back to the tearoom and see if they might have some glue to repair my boots: they had a few animals on their grounds so they might. 

Back at the tearoom half a tube of dried-up glue is offered me, but Emma, who I’m assuming is one of the manager-owners, goes more than one better: she asks me my shoe size and then emerges with two pairs of shoes, either of which she’s happy for me to just walk away in. She swears by the trainers: so comfy she’s worn them out and has just replaced them with an identical pair. They fit perfectly. The grip on the soles has completely gone and the fabric’s ripped – will they last ten miles? It’s the only option I have at this point. It occurs to me that a pair of trail running shoes that weren’t delivered in time – and which I’d decided against in favour of boots anyway – will be in the office back in London, so their final kindness is the use of their phone (I still don’t have any reception) to leave a couple of voicemails for colleagues. I’ll have a new pair of shoes delivered to the pub I’m staying at tonight by nine tomorrow morning. And then I’m on my way again, still processing the catastrophe of my broken boots, left behind at the tearoom, let alone my apparent rescue. 

I’ve walked some of today’s route before, though I can’t remember which side of the Dart or from which direction: Beth and I swam in the Sharrah Pool on our wild-swimming holiday and I remember the perhaps forty-minute walk along the rough path from where we left the campervan. It’s gorgeous: so much green, piercingly bright; the river a completely different beast from yesterday, wide and full. 

I spend the whole afternoon counting serendipities on my fingers: that if they were going to, my boots broke when they did – only five minutes from the tearoom. That my rescuing angel has the same size feet as me. That she had two pairs of shoes she was willing to give to a stranger. That my trail running shoes didn’t arrive in time, so are in the office rather than at home. That tonight’s my first night staying at a pub, so they can be delivered there. But I can’t quite believe that the trainers I’m wearing won’t tear themselves apart on the way; how long can my luck hold, where luck specifically means these ripped and fraying shoes? Only an hour in do I realise I should have rescued the much sturdier laces from my old dead boots.  

It’s hard to stay present with the river and the rocks and the oaks and the birches and the ferns, with my mind racing ahead to Holne – will I make it? And then to Buckfast? I calm myself by narrating the day’s events into a little story to share, but it feels like tempting fate, and it’s not what I want either: I want to be in this moment now, the way the river is, among the rocks, persistent in my ear. 

woodman working on your own                                                                                       
knocking the long shadows down
and all day the river’s eyes
peep and pry among the trees


when the lithe water turns                                                                                                    
and its tongue flatters the ferns                                                                                          
do you speak this kind of sound:
whirlpool whisking round?

(‘Dart is old Devonian for oak’)

It’s hard to keep to the path, too: it’s not marked, and there are numerous ways to go wrong without realising it. The path I thought I was following peters out and I have to scramble higher or lower to try to pick up some semblance of a way among the slippery rocks. The brambles keep catching me out, plucking at my falling-down shorts (too big for me since losing a bit of weight, I thought they’d be good for walking in but I thought wrong: I have to fold them under my rucksack’s belt to keep them up), my unwashed hair, my hands, my legs already red with welts from yesterday’s reeds and gorse and horseflies. Why am I wearing shorts, anyway? They look diseased, these pony legs of mine, thighs powering up mossy boulders each time I lose the path. The holly catches me out too, not just as I brush past it but in the leaf litter as well, keeping me from grabbing the earth as I slide up or down to find my way back to the path. Spiteful even in death. The soles of my borrowed trainers are treacherously slippy but still my luck holds.

I reach the Sharrah Pool at some time around three and it’s just as enchanting as in my memory: the river squared into a swimming pool by high straight slabs of rock, with a few little falls at the top end, widening out at the bottom. Given it’s a Monday and not yet the school holidays I’m surprised by how many people are here, though it’s probably fewer than fifteen. A few couples, a family, a dog or two. People are friendly in their warning that there’s a dead sheep towards the bottom of the pool so not to swim downstream of it, and I pass the warning on to another couple who arrive after me. I think about my scratched legs and ‘I don’t fancy getting liver fluke, no thanks,’ says one of the blokes. He sounds like he knows what he’s talking about. There’s a holiday feel and I stay in as long as I’m warm enough, though I don’t venture up to where a couple of women are sitting with their backs to the little falls, their shoulders pounded by the rushing water. 

I stop at 4 at what I think is Deadman’s Corner – what happened here I wonder – a sort-of island that would be ideal to camp out on. The shadow of a bracken frond is as perfect as a fossil and the river sounds uncannily like a voice, or Radio 4 turned up too loud in a car in the distance, coming in and out of hearing; so much so that for a few moments I look around to see if there’s anyone nearby who might have a radio. But it’s just the Dart talking to herself. 

the way I talk in my many-headed turbulence
among these modulations, this nimbus of words kept in motion
sing-calling something definitely human,

will somebody sing this riffle perfectly as the invisible river
sings it…

There’s the see see see of a bird I used to know by its call. I wish I could see or draw well enough to catch in words or lines the uncatchable beauty of this almost-island. Instead I draw a terrible self-portrait in one single line from the reflection in my phone’s screen. 

Though I’m reluctant to leave the Dart along this particularly beautiful stretch I’m relieved to get to the pub at Holne, where I park myself on a bench on a little triangle of green out the front with a half and some crisps. From here it’s footpaths cutting across to Buckfast and it doesn’t seem too much like tempting fate to imagine I’ll make it, even in my perilously slippered feet. I get talking to Ken and Helen, two cyclists, telling them what I’m doing, each of us sharing thoughts on routes, love of poetry (Alice Oswald gets a mention of course), walking, cycling. Is this kind of thing your hobby? asks Ken, and it’s a good question though I’m not sure I’ve ever thought of it like that. Is flinging yourself to the side of a river, inspired by a book, a hobby exactly? Do I do it enough for it to count? Does my walking-boot disaster discount me? And who’s counting? Certainly not Ken.

I wasn’t expecting this last part of the day to be so beautiful, especially as I’ve left the river and am on a combination of footpaths, country lanes and unfinished tracks: but it’s gorgeous in the early-evening sunshine, quieter even than in the reserve, where I’d crossed paths with other walkers and swimmers and then emerged through a busy car park; from Holne all the way to Buckfast I don’t see another person. Foxgloves are mesmerising in this light. I’m elated, even though – pushing through an overgrown path bordered by long grasses, bracken, brambles and now nettles too – my battered legs throb when brushed by anything even as light as grass, let alone when I wincingly catch them on my rucksack as I swing it to my back.

I walk along Holy Brook and then the edge of Burchetts Wood and then I’m on the edges of Buckfast, where there’s an abbey; on the opposite bank of the river are the remains of two others, so my map tells me: one Benedictine, one Cistercian. I can cut through the grounds of the new abbey, slightly eerie in the fading light, lavender aglow, and then it’s a short stretch down a busy main road to the edge of Buckfastleigh where I’m staying at the Abbey Inn. Though I’m still glowing from my two nights sleeping out, when I open the door to my room I’m suddenly bodily overwhelmed with relief. It feels unbelievably plush after my peat then bracken beds, with a window that looks out directly onto the Dart just below. I’ve done it. These shoes have done it. I sit outside on the terrace downstairs watching the birds on the water, eating pizza, drinking wine, and chatting to my mum on the phone. I wish I could fall asleep listening to the river but the couple in the room next door have their TV up so loud I have to put earplugs in. I don’t care. The river’s outside, and I made it.