Hidden Treasures along the River Dart - Part 1 Totnes to Dittisham
After a pint on the Steam Packet patio we boarded the River Rat. And with knowledgeable skipper Tim Burke at the helm we set off for a glorious day on the River Dart.
First we passed Baltic Wharf, named after the region from which Reeves and Co imported their timber in the early 20th century. The wharf is now home to many small businesses, including Totnes Canoes and Kayaks who operate a hire service. See www.balticwharf.co.uk and www.totnes-and-torbay-canoes.co.uk for details. On the opposite bank is the Totnes HQ of the River Link ferries at Steamer Quay and the popular spot for dog walkers and picnickers of Longmarsh, also home to the Totnes Rowing Club.
As we left Totnes, Tim pointed out the ruins of Windwhistle Farm atop a very steep, and presumably windy, hill. This spot was an important part of the town’s fortifications and used as an outpost during the Napoleonic wars.
Tim also pointed out the walls supporting the riverbank, built and maintained by inmates from nearby Dartmoor prison. Large parts of the wall are now falling into disrepair and, battered by the tidal river, a huge “Hole in the Wall” has opened up - creating a gateway to its own private ecosystem amongst huge reed beds. Tim skilfully navigated through the hole and around the narrow inlets. The water around us bubbled Jacuzzi-like from the methane gas trapped in the reeds as the huge plants dwarfed the boat. A tremendous sense of peace and stillness descended on us as we quietly drifted back out to the Dart.
Back on the main river, we passed huge flocks of Canadian geese and steely black Cormorants swooped by, diving into the water just feet from us. Tim pointed out the “Cormorant Tree” where the birds hang out to dry their wings, its leaves delightfully decayed from their acidic effluent.
North Quay is the first stop out of town. A short walk up the hill takes you to the wonderful Sharpham Estate – home of the gorgeous Sharpham wine and cheese ranges - and Rosie’s Vineyard Café which serves amazing local food in a small scale alfresco setting (weather permitting!). Visit www.sharpham.com and www.thevineyardcafe.co.uk for more details. There are lovely walks around the estate with stunning views across the river. And if you’re lucky, you might stumble across some outdoor art too such as Jacob Lane’s commissioned sculpture in the pond, now almost hidden in the undergrowth.
Back out on the river we passed the wreckage of Kingswear Castle - “the last steamboat to come up the River Dart” and used as a quarantine hospital during the last typhoid epidemic. Its spirit, and engines, lives on in the Kingswear Castle II on the River Medway in Kent - photographic evidence of which is on Dartmouth’s Bayards Cove Inn wall.
Around Sharpham, the riverbank becomes beautifully wild, with huge thickets of mature oak trees on both sides of the river. This setting has inspired many a film and TV producer and is portrayed as the Amazon Rainforest in the long running 1970s television series The Onedin Line.
Around every corner there are idyllic camping and picnic oases, many accessed only from the river and hidden by the huge oak canopy. At the site of a larger spot sits another Sharpham sculpture – this one of an eight-foot long granite fish said to be representing the “largest salmon caught in river” (I think this is a local joke!)
Whether you can find the big one or not, the salmon fishing is said to be excellent at this point of the Dart, and the River Rat runs fishing trips around here. A busy looking seal, who briefly came up to the surface, appeared to agree on the Dart’s tasty bounty.
The salmon sculpture is opposite the tiny “village” of Duncannon – a handful of waterfront properties and an old transport route into Stoke Gabriel. Duncannon was apparently mistakenly registered as a village in the Doomsday book and as such still stands as the smallest village in England.
After Sharpham we turned right into Bow Creek, navigating the narrow channel of deep water towards the The Maltsters Arms. Moored outside the pub was the classic motor yacht in which the very recent Maltsters’ owners of 13 years, Quentin and Denise, are about to sail away.
The Maltsters is on the trail of a great river pub-crawl, which Tim runs regularly with the River Rat and sister boat the River Otter. The six-hour trips take in all the river and creekside pubs from Totnes to Dartmouth and back for a very reasonable £30 per person (minimum 10 people) – cheaper than taxi fares and far more exciting.
Back out on the Dart is the approach to Stoke Gabriel. Turn in here for some of the best and safest crabbing spots in the county. You can also walk around the mill pond at low tide and visit the licensed River Shack for a glass of Yarde cider, made with apples from the village’s own ancient orchards.
A short walk will take you to the majestic St Mary and St Gabriel church and yard - home to the village’s famous 1300-year-old yew tree - and the Church House Inn and Castle pubs.
Between Stoke Gabriel and Dittisham we passed oyster beds where rich pickings can be had at low tide. Tim recalls many barbecues with oysters and mussels from the riverside beaches here.
And then we arrive at Dittisham pontoon outside the gloriously known FBI – not Donnie Brasco’s hideout, but the fantastically decorated Ferry Boat Inn.
Or try the Anchorstone Café next door, where you can get beautifully cooked seafood (scallops on a bed of Caesar salad anyone?) at their lovely alfresco terrace.
And for amazing elevated views it really is worth the short walk up the hill, or along the beach at low tide, into the village. Here you’ll be rewarded with the lovely St George’s church and a friendly welcome from The Red Lion – not just a pub but a village store, take away and post office too.
First Published July 2011 Issue By The Dart
Contact Tim on 07814 954 869 or at www.riverrat.co.uk