Ramble along the River Dart

There is no better way to see the British countryside than on two legs, so James Fair put on his walking boots with the intention of following the entire length of the River Dart.

Adventure along the River Dart article spread

Ten minutes later, walking along a forest ride, I found myself following a fox blissfully (for me) unaware of my presence. Every now and again, it would stop and sniff the air or something on the ground. For 10 wonderful minutes, it felt like I was taking a small red dog for a walk, but then it vanished as silently as it had appeared and I was alone again.

Bell heather was in full flower and brightened the darkness of a plantation consisting mostly of conifers. I emerged from the wood and now had little option but to walk along roads to Buckfastleigh.

The river calms

I pushed on, with Totnes my goal for the night. For a while, I was able to walk along the west side of the river, and by now it had become a much smoother-flowing water course compared to the rapid-riding torrent that I had been following the day before.

At a campsite at Colston, I was forced to take to the roads once more, and, skirting round the other side of the 100-metre ‘peak’ of Hood Ball, I cut across farmland and a small copse where a buzzard was feeding on the corpse of what looked like a wood pigeon.

I could have cut off another corner and headed into Dartington, but I was here to see the River Dart and it struck me that possibly the best way of doing this would be to take the steam train that runs between Buckfastleigh and Totnes. So I descended the hill into Staverton and waited for the next train.

Walking the estuary

By the time you reach Totnes Station, the Dart has become tidal. A river taxi will take you into town, but only if the tide is right (I was lucky). My ferryman said otters were seen in this part of the river now and again. It’s nice to know they are around.

I’d booked a bed and breakfast, and the next morning we – my partner had joined me the previous night – took a footpath out to the vineyard at Sharpham. Here we enjoyed lunch with a couple of glasses of white wine.

The route via Ashprington, Bow Creek and Cornworthy took us down to the river, where we saw herons and little egrets – the latter are now so common that they are pretty much part of the scenery these days.

Our route then took us above the valley, giving wonderful views over the estuary. By the time we wandered into Dittisham, where we were staying the night, three days of walking had taken its toll. While Sanjida wandered down to the river to explore, I put my feet up in our room and wondered if the best of the walk was over.

Back to reality

It was. From Dittisham, the route took us along country roads and footpaths to Old Mill Creek, from where we entered the outskirts of Dartmouth. A busy road into the town gave way to an even busier waterfront, a shock after nearly four days of solitude and quiet.

We walked out to Dartmouth Castle, which is pretty much at the mouth proper, but couldn’t summon the energy to make it out to the cliffs at Blackstone Point. Instead, we jumped on the ferry to Totnes, which was a great way to review the part of the river we had spent a day and a half walking down.

It’s said seals are regularly seen in this area, and we kept our eyes peeled but – again – saw more little egrets than anything else. It’s true that I would have seen more wildlife if I had spent a day or two in the Dart Valley Nature Reserve or mooching around the estuary further down.

A man on a mission

But this had been more about the journey, to walk a transect of Devon from the uplands to the sea, travelling roughly 70km and dropping 350 metres in the process, to watch as the landscape changed from moorland to river valley to estuary and to get a feel for the character of the Dart.

I enjoyed the woodland of the upper-middle section from Dartmeet to Buckfastleigh the most because it felt so quintessentially English, and it was the Englishness of the Dart that had attracted me to walk it. It felt untouched, too, wilder even than Dartmoor, a place to lose yourself amid lengthening shadows on a warm summer’s evening and where the splash of an otter is only just out of earshot.



  • Wistman’s Wood National Nature Reserve 
    Located in the Devonport Leat valley, through which the West Dart flows, Wistman’s Wood is a small woodland of dwarf sessile oak trees, remarkable for its abundance of lichens and mosses. 
  • Dart Valley Nature Reserve 
    The largest of Devon Wildlife Trust’s reserves, Dart Valley is 290 hectares of upland moor and wooded valley. Wildlife worth looking out for includes dippers and goosanders, otters and the rare blue ground beetle, which only occurs in woodlands of this type on the edge of Dartmoor. Access either from Two Bridges or Dartmeet.


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