Of all Devon’s rivers, the Dart has to be my favourite: From source to sea, it’s the most beguiling of rivers, and for this post I’m going to describe its charms between the lowest bridging point at Totnes to the mouth of the river at Dartmouth.
At Totnes the river is still tidal, and until the area around Totnes Bridge was drained, it was wet, marshy ground; and I suppose it must have been around here where Brutus, the first king of Britain landed – that’s if you believe the story of course – but I’ll be covering more about the history of Totnes in a separate post.
Totnes Bridge was built between 1826-28 and is the latest in a long line of bridges that has spanned the river here over many centuries. Today a modern road bridge just upstream, called Brutus Bridge, has taken the brunt of the traffic, not just away from this bridge, but from the town centre as well.
I don’t suppose too many people think of Totnes as a port, but the export of tin, slate and wool cloth made it one of Devon’s wealthiest towns during medieval times, but these days the former warehouses have been converted into living accommodation and businesses.
The river at Totnes Bridge is bisected by Vire Island which is a pleasant place to sit and feed the ducks for half an hour or so, but if it’s a boat trip you want, you’ll need to cross over the bridge into Bridgetown, where at Steamer Quay, boats will transfer you down to Dartmouth when the tide is right.
If, like me, you’re a sucker for boat trips, you’ll love this one, but you won’t see everything from the river. That said, I highly recommend that you find time for one of the boat trips on offer, but you need to be aware of the tide times if you want to start or finish at Totnes. My advice, if you have the time to do it, is take a full day to do the Round Robin, which includes the Steam train from Paignton to Kingswear, ferry across the river to Dartmouth, boat trip up to Totnes, and an open top bus back to Paignton. You can of course do it the other way round and start at any point on the journey. This way, you should have enough time to see a bit of Dartmouth and Totnes as well. You can find all the relevant info here: –
The first place of note downriver is Sharpham. You can see the estate from the river including the rather attractive looking Bathing House. Its main claim to fame is the production of fine English wine and cheese, and even if this isn’t your thing, it’s worth making your way down through the lanes from Totnes even if only to take a self-guided tour around the estate.
For just £2.50 (as of Nov 2020) you can follow one of the trails through the vineyard and down alongside the river, but there are other options as well which include samples of their wine and cheese. For example, you can select 4 wines for £7 and a slice of cheese fresh from the dairy for £3: Ok, you’re not going to be flat on your back after drinking these samples, but for a tenner I can’t think of a better way of spending a couple of hours or so in the South Devon countryside.
If you managed to make it to Sharpham, you would have driven into the small village of Ashprington where St David’s Church has memorials to the Bastard (pronounced B’stard) family. They were a well-respected family around these parts, and one of them, Robin, opened up an antiques business in Plymouth under his own name – I kid you not (you might need to read that again).
Back on the river, after passing the Sharpham Estate, the Harbourne River joins the Dart at Ashprington Point. Known as Bow Creek, the river runs past the Maltsters Arms at Tuckenhay, whose most famous owner was Keith Floyd, the celebrity chef who was more often found at the bar instead of the kitchen. He certainly knew how to brighten up a pub and a cookery programme, but he wasn’t so good at making money or keeping wives, and in the end, the pub – and him – went bust. Hardly surprising when you see how he used to run the place.
If it’s just a nice quiet drink sat by the river is what you prefer, then at the head of the creek at Bow Bridge, is a smashing little place called the Waterman’s Arms.
This is another pub that I’ve come back to time and again and never tire of it. In the summer, the riverside benches make it a lovely spot to spend an hour or two on a sunny afternoon, and in the winter a log fire is usually burning to keep the warmth in and the cold out. Wonderful!
So far, we’ve been looking at the western side of the Dart, but between Ashprington Point and Bow Creek on the opposite bank of the river is a tiny place called Duncannon. Officially, it’s a village and not a hamlet because someone made a typo in the Domesday Book. Instead of 10 people living here they inadvertently added an extra zero.
The lane from Duncannon leads up to the larger settlement of Stoke Gabriel, which as the boat sails, is around the other side of Stoke and Mill Points and up into Mill Pool.
Mill Pool was created by damming the tidal inlet forming a weir called the Foss. Swans and ducks have made their home here, who encourage people to feed them, but it’s the crabs that seem to get the most to eat.
This is a crabbing hotspot and nets, lines, buckets and baits are all available in the adjacent River Shack café, but while the kids are occupied catching buckets full of small crabs, the adults are happy to sit at one of the benches with a glass of Devon cider or something.
Stoke Gabriel still has a number of cider apple orchards – and of course, a couple of good pubs too, and is about 4 miles from the centre of Paignton by road.
Below are pictures of 1) the inlet from the mouth of the Dart, 2) The Foss, 3) The view downstream from the Millpool, 4) Crabbing at the Foss, 5) View from the Rivershack.
If you’re wondering what the big white house is just a bit further downstream on the Dart from Stoke Gabriel, it’s Sandridge Barton, a house built by John Nash in 1809. Today it offers 5* holiday accommodation called Sandridge Park, but before Nash went to work on it, the Barton was the birthplace of Captain John Davis.
This navigator and explorer set sail from here in 1585 and made it his mission to chart the world’s trade routes. He was responsible for the invention of the Quadrant, attempting to find the North-West Passage between the Atlantic and Pacific (the Davis Strait is named after him), he fought against the Spanish Armada and discovered the Falkland Islands. 56 years after he was born, he was murdered by a pirate near Singapore. He certainly crammed in a bit during those 56 years.
I haven’t got any pictures of the house, but the one below shows the landscape around it from the river.
I have got some pictures of the village on the opposite bank though. Dittisham is referred to by locals as ‘Ditsum’, but don’t worry too much about it because most of the locals these days aren’t ‘local’ anyway.
The village lies on a bend in the River Dart and is an ideal place for mooring a boat- and consequently has become an expensive place to live. Even the tiny cottages cost a small fortune, and if you want a mooring here, you’ll have to wait 10 years for the privilege.
There’s not really an awful lot to do here if you haven’t got a boat, but the charm of the place is just admiring the activity on the water – and the best place to do it from is the Ferry Boat Inn. This pub is reassuringly down to earth and not in the least pretentious. Naturally, it can get quite busy in the summer, but it has very limited parking and so it doesn‘t get too congested. If you do attempt to drive down here then be aware of the tides. You wouldn’t be the first person to find your car under water if you don’t.
I said that there wasn’t much to do here, but that’s not strictly true because if you ring the bell, the ferryman will come across from Greenway Quay and deposit you back over to the other side from where you can climb the hill to Greenway House, the holiday home of Agatha Christie. I won’t talk about it here because I shall be writing a separate post about it in due course.
As we approach Dartmouth you may notice an increasing number of oak trees that stretch right down to the water’s edge, and this is where the river gets its name from, as Dart is an old Celtic name for ‘oak’.
We end this journey at Dartmouth, where if you want to know a bit more about the town you can find it here. I hope you can now see why the River Dart is my favourite river in Devon – and I haven’t described the stretch above Totnes to its source on Dartmoor yet.