Caught by the River

Walking the River Dart: Part 5

Katherine Venn | 2nd May 2020

Katherine Venn continues her Alice Oswald-inspired walk along the River Dart, crossing paths with lichen, hollyhock, and a nineteenth-century folly.

The next morning I’m pleased to be able to lighten my pack: I’m not sleeping out again, and I’ll be back here tomorrow, so I can jettison my camping mat and sleeping bag. After coffee with my cousin and her husband I’m off out: from Totnes I can walk the rest of the way to the sea on the Dart Valley trail, and there’s a part of me that’s relieved I no longer have to make decisions or find my way; I can just follow the waymarks, with the help of the map. And I don’t have far to go today, a modest eight miles to get to Dittisham. Still, there’s confusion early on, with closed footpaths and diversions, and by 11 I’m pretty sure I’m on the higher John Musgrave Way rather than the Dart Valley trail, which I’d rather be on not just because I’m a pedant but because it’s closer to the river. Still. From up here the Dart is mouthwatering: wide and flat and silver-grey, looping away into the trees in the distance. 

Hot July heat rises and with it a vague sense of irritation seems to spring out of the grass, then dissipates with the crickets this meadow’s alive with – red clover, white clover, bacon and eggs. But no matter how I squint to see one of these hundreds of insects with their rasping legs I can’t. I carry on.

At midday I’m not present and not happy but oddly irritated again, and taking that irritation out in arguments that exist only inside my head; small gritty disappointments that I unthinkingly stir up inside myself and then linger over. 

I’m close to the vineyard at Sharpham – suddenly regretful that I haven’t given myself time to visit it – and sit on a wooden bench placed to mark the Silver Jubilee, the year my brother was born. I imagine him sitting here with me, surrounded by the starbursts of something approaching cow parsley but not quite, on this grey, lichened wood with its green plaque and rusted screws, a lick of bright green lichen growing below the plaque, perhaps where water runs off in the rain. 

When I get to Ashprington I nose around the church then unwrap my soggy overpriced sandwich and eat it leaning against the churchyard wall, in the sun, then make an impatient sketch that resolves into nothing satisfying, and think about how patient I can be in building up a catalogue of grievances. My bad mood has bumped up against these ancient stones and I sit and think about how impatient I can be with others, how grudging, entitled, quick to point out others’ flaws. It’s as though the stones against my back are chafing my conscience. Perhaps it is this chafing that will begin to slough off some of what it is I want to leave behind. But it unnerves me how sometimes the rhythm of walking, instead of soothing me, does the opposite. 

Out from Ashprington, where I’ve fully lost sight of the Dart, I drop down to cross Bow Creek at a beautiful chain of stepping stones, then walk along the creek. The river’s tidal here – it is from Totnes – and now I’m back on the river it again feels like a completely different animal. The banks are muddy, with gulls poking about for whatever’s down there, then rising high up above me. Oaks press together thickly, reminding me why the Dart is called the Dart – it’s old Devonian for oak, according to one of the poem’s glosses. It’s overcast now and there are crows calling, carried on the breeze; a chainsaw is worrying away two fields down. My calves feel tight and my new shoes aren’t perhaps quite the right fit: my toes are cramped. The earth is red beneath them. My sour mood has turned mournful as I think sadly about school friends who are no longer friends, and how hard it is to stay in one another’s lives after decades of drift. I wrest my focus back to what’s more immediately to hand: the field behind me is growing a crop of green plastic tubes that will turn into trees, and a little way off the honk of a bird sounds at first like a man calling his dog to ‘come on’.

I get to St Peter’s church in Cornworthy by mid afternoon; it feels like the kind of church that the Borrowers would have bedded down in. What I think is a piece of farm machinery thunking in the distance is of course the church clock’s mechanism; and then on top of it I can hear a pheasant rubber-banding it outside. Half an hour later I’m at Poor Bridge, crossing what I think is the Dittisham Mill Creek, thinking about the relentless clock mechanisms we’re in thrall to and how hard it is to slow down, to make my hand attempt to realise to even some small degree what the eye skims over – in this case a pink campion leaf growing out of the moss on the bridge; how the eye, the hand, wants to photograph what it sees and move on. The painful discipline of slowing, looking, waiting, really trying to see. Coming up against your own inadequacy in doing so, against the multivariousness of even just one small leaf and all its light and shade. Perhaps it is the slowing that is churning up today’s crop of difficult thoughts, bringing them to light. 

They’ve drifted off in the breeze by the time, late afternoon, I get to the pub in Dittisham where I’m staying, my room ridiculously extravagant compared to my first two nights out on Dartmoor: taken together with its bathroom and small patio it’s almost as big as my flat in London. From the patio I have a full-face view of one side of the church tower; from the other window I look straight out onto the Dart, wider again now, full of bobbing yachts. From downstairs on the empty pub patio I look out across it and down at the map. Tomorrow’s my last day of walking and in fact I’ll only be walking till lunchtime; it’s still early, will be light for a long while yet, and I decide that for the sake of completion I’ll walk the west route of the Dart Valley Trail, and do the east tomorrow. I’m off and out again by six and down the lane to pick up the footpath, stopping to draw the hugely tall hollyhocks – eight foot? ten? – growing from behind a stone wall. Shh shh says the wind, as I sketch quickly. Can I hear with the corner of my ear the sucking sound of the Dart? And two drops of rain, even though it wasn’t meant to. I did wonder if it might. ‘Look at his lady…’ says a woman to a child as they walk up the lane towards me.

An hour later I can see the sea, for the first time: a cold metal gate at my back, and sore feet; behind me a field of barley and skylarks, in front of me a field of swifts scything the air, and the sea. I make my way down to Great Copse and along the edge of Old Mill Creek, another channel biting its way into the land: or is it that the creek is biting its way to get to the river, and the sea? I don’t see anyone all evening: I love walking along unshowy footpaths that are simply ways to get from one place to another, though this is of course a destination trail, a marked way, with a name. From the wood, which is a conifer plantation, I can see on the other side of the Creek what the map says is Hermitage Castle, a beautiful low, round tower, definitely the site of childhood princesses: it’s much too grand to have ever been the home of a hermit. I can’t find out much about it but it is of course a nineteenth-century folly.

I haven’t allowed myself enough time to linger before it gets dark so I have to turn tail and scamper back up the lane to Dittisham, past Fire Beacon Hill again on the way back to the pub, where the owners were a bit concerned that I’d disappeared without having had dinner. I’m happy to have been missed, even by people whose names I don’t know, and happy to eat surrounded by other people’s buoyant conversations. I’m tired now, so I shamble up the stairs, have a hot bath and then regretfully spread-eagle myself across the bed, knowing that when I wake up in the morning it’ll be the last day’s walking.