Southeast Dartmoor – Devon
In a deep, wooded gorge, far from the noise of traffic, there are pools for refreshing dips and sandy bays for picnics. Overlooked by towering tors, the ancient oak forest is alive with birdsong. Cool water gurgles over rocks, sending up a light spray that creates rainbows in the clear air.
Writer Charles Kingsley was born in the village of Holne, just south of the river, and its wild beauty must have inspired his well-loved story about a young chimney-sweep who falls into the water and is transformed into a water baby. The Dart is the iconic moorland river and one of the best for wild swimming in the whole of the UK.
A ten-minute walk from Holne, down through the fields, brings you to Horseshoe Falls, the perfect place for a picnic, but continue upstream to enter the wild woods and discover a long stretch of river with many more pools and cascades. Downstream at Wellsfoot Island, a secluded spot sheltered by Holne cliff, there is a red sandy beach and a fabulous deep pool by a birch coppice. Back at Holne, there is a fine, local pub for refreshment.
Adventurous swimmers might be tempted by the five-mile stretch from Dartmeet to New Bridge, or the shorter run down to Holne via Lover’s Leap. Wear a wetsuit and take an inner tube – a great way to ride the rapids that also offers protection from rocks. A more conventional means of transport would be a canoe : the Dart is open for canoeing from October to March. You can hire canoes and kayaks and even take part in organised canoe foraging or night paddles. The stretch of river from Staverton to Totnes is perfect for trying out your flat-water canoe skills and, if you feel confident, continue on to the tidal stretches below, as far as Dittisham. There are several beaches here for discreet overnight wild camping.
This area of Dartmoor has a rich historical heritage, from the spectacular medieval fortifications of Berry Pomeroy castle to the forested hill fort in Hembury Woods, set above an enchanting stretch of river. For a taste of prehistory, visit the amazing caverns in High Kiln Quarries outside Buckfastleigh. Bone Cave was gouged out of the rock by the waters of the Dart at least 100,000 years ago and contains the ancient remains of wild beasts including bison and straight-tusked elephants.