Heart of the Dart: Welcome to Devon on earth

It's only 28 miles long but its lovely views and rare wildlife make it one of England's most attractive rivers. The poet Brian Patten takes a ride along the Dart

For the third day running the seal had hauled itself up into the little boat and lounged there on its side like the world's ugliest mermaid. It seemed quite oblivious to the handful of people sitting on the quay outside the Ferry Boat Inn in the riverside village of Dittisham in Devon's South Hams. It was a grey seal - Halichoerus grypus - and it had probably come upriver from the Mew Stone. This is a rocky outcrop a little way beyond the mouth of the Dart Estuary, one of the easternmost hauling-out places on the south coast for seals. The Mew Stone is the seal's approximation to a spa: a place to dry off, and relax.

The seal had been after fish and had either eaten or given up looking. Atlantic salmon still come upriver to spawn in the shallow moorland headwaters of the Dart, but according to men born and raised alongside the river, their decline has been drastic. Ken Fletcher, one of the last old-timers to own a net-fishing licence on the river, blames the seals; others blame over-fishing out at sea and illegal night-netting in the estuary itself. Nowadays our seal would be more likely to find brown trout than salmon. Not that the seal would be fussy. Why on earth, though, would it haul itself out into a rowing boat with people so close? I guessed the poor old thing was having a senior moment.

The Dart is considered, quite rightly, one of England's most beautiful rivers. It rises on Dartmoor and just 28 miles later is lost to the sea at Dartmouth. It is basically two rivers: above Totnes, the Dart is fresh water, below it is tidal.

The upper reaches of the Dart are now sparsely populated, though in the past tin mining and quarrying swelled its population. Dartmoor has long been designated an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, and the part of the moor the river flows through is home to some of Europe's rarest flora and fauna. In the past, stories about the remains of exotic creatures being found on Dartmoor were often considered travellers' tales, but a recent report by the Devon Wildlife Trust mentions how among skeletal remains dating back to the last Ice Age have been found - the bones not only of spotted hyenas, but of elephants and lions, and even hippopotamuses. Now it is wild ponies, deer and otter that predominate, or at least are most in evidence.

The river proper begins at Dartmeet where, appropriately enough, the East Dart and the West Dart meet. These upper reaches are excellent walking territory, and within striking distance of some of the moor's most celebrated tors and medieval settlements. In his book, Waterlog, the late, great film-maker and writer Roger Deakin - who died last August - describes how, wearing flippers, a snorkel and a wetsuit, he swam a fast-flowing section of the upper Dart. It was a typically mad thing to do, given the river's strength. His description of what he saw through his mask is quite wonderful: "You see churned-up gravel glittering like tinsel, old bricks with their makers' name nearly smoothed out, bright green pebbles, dark, rusty haematite... water shrimps, bands of bright, shining quartz, passing shadows of translucent waterweed... the shadow of a trout..."

From the moor the Dart flows southwards past Buckfast Abbey and Dartington until, at Totnes, it comes under the influence of the tide. Totnes is a delight: a wonderfully varied town full of intriguing shops, pubs, narrow streets and secret nooks and crannies. It is the second oldest borough in England, after Malmesbury in Wiltshire, and wears its history on its sleeve. Norman, medieval, Tudor and Victorian buildings are crammed together. In Fore Street, which rises into the town centre from Totnes Quay, you can find some of the best historic buildings in Devon.

In the same street, you can also find the best sausage rolls in the world, at Hall's Butchers. Mind you, there are other shops in Totnes that would never let a sausage roll across the threshold. These shops worship the seed. Somewhat oddly for an agricultural market-centre in the heart of dairy-farming countryside, Totnes is mostly famous in the 21st century for its "new age" culture. The town has a higher than average proportion of vegetarians and vegans, and indeed there was a time when it was in danger of sinking under an avalanche of crystals and hippie candles.

Nowadays, the balance feels right, and the town works well. But what is strange is that, although it is here that the river becomes tidal, you get no sense of Totnes being connected with the English Channel. There's hardly a hint of a maritime community. That's saved for Dartmouth.

In winter the Dart can be a dark and violent river, at its worst in the tidal reaches when wind is at odds with the tide. Then it can feel as stormy and as treacherous as a winter sea. There's a rhyme that can be traced back to at least the 16th century, one version of which runs, "River Dart, River Dart, each year it steals a human heart". Sadly, already this year the rhyme has proved prophetic. But from spring through to late autumn the river presents an altogether different, kinder face.

The river takes its name from a Celtic word meaning "many oaks" - a reference to the ancient oak woods that have always covered the banks of the lower Dart. Along its more isolated reaches, little has changed since Saxon times. Oak trees still dominate the river-valley's steep slopes, though they have been joined by a much wider range of trees over the last few centuries. These steep, wooded banks enclose whole stretches of the Dart, and at high tide when the water is momentarily still, the leaves and their reflections envelop the river in a greenish light. Herons pick their way along the tide line, and the sleek black cormorants sit on buoys drying themselves in the sun, their wings opened wide like Chinese fans.

There's no better way to see these tidal reaches than by boat. When the water is high, the river is accessible from the estuary at Dartmouth up to the weir at Totnes. Ferries make regular sightseeing trips between the two towns. But while seeing the river from a ferry boat is fine if you've limited time or have an ancient grandparent in tow, there are more imaginative ways to enjoy it.

If you're feeling rich or are celebrating a special occasion, it is possible to hire your very own floating restaurant. M Y Romaris is a gentleman's motor yacht built in Wisbech, Cambridge, in 1967. It is owned by blues musician, cook and captain Simon Phelps. You can book the yacht for a four-hour cruise and a gourmet lunch for up to eight people. He and his partner, Lyn, buy local: not just hams, cheeses and free-range chickens, but wines from Sharpham vineyard, just upriver. There is also plenty of fish. An alternative way to explore the Dart is to hire your own small boat from Jasmine Harvey and Will Froude. They run Dittisham Boat Hire and the fine little Anchorstone Café, by the pontoon in Dittisham village. Rick Stein couldn't do better crab and fish: the freshness is assured by Jasmine's brother, Buddy, a fisherman who harvests Start Bay and the coastal waters.

You may find you dwell longest at Dittisham as it is the only riverside village with direct ferry services to Dartmouth and Greenway House, Agatha Christie's former residence on the far side of the Dart. The house stands in beautiful* *gardens high above the river and is now in the hands of the National Trust, which is expecting plenty of visitors this year - the centenary of the crime writer's birth. Christie mentions the Ferry Boat Inn - venue for the performing seal - in several of her books, and it is probably little changed since her time. Ring the old bell fixed to the wall opposite the pub, and you can still summon the ferryman to take you across river to the manor house. You can imagine her Belgian detective, Hercule Poirot, sitting in the ferry, fussily gathering up his coat tails to avoid getting splashed while quietly noting the ferryman's bloodstained boat hook...

If you are inclined to hire a boat, allow yourself plenty of time - a couple of days is best - because the tide rules the river. A place you might not get to one day you can explore the next. Chugging upstream with the tide early in the morning, watching the swans drifting in and out of the mist, or returning in the evening when the sun sets the river aglow with blood-red light, is therapy for the soul.

One good Swallows and Amazons adventure (not difficult when cheating in a boat with an engine) is to go upriver from Dittisham to discover the Maltsters Arms. The Maltsters, at the head of Bow Creek, has one of Britain's best riverside locations. Once owned by the flamboyant chef Keith Floyd, who changed the Inn's name to "Floyd's Inn (Sometimes)", it has reverted to its maiden name and regained its popularity. The pub has excellent views from a wide quay where you'll often find bands playing, and owners Denise and Quentin Thwaites barbecuing their hearts out. The pub got a name-check in the most recent edition of Michelin's Guide to Good Food Pubs and it is a great location to stay. After The Maltsters, you could continue on upriver to Sharpham vineyard and moor up at the little quay below the estate. Then take the path up the hill to a pleasant café, next to which is the estate's shop, selling wine, cheese, and River Dart Oysters. Alternatively, you can find a place on the river bank for your own picnic before heading back downstream to Dartmouth.

Two castles flank this deep-water port. Facing upriver, to the right (east) is Kingswear Castle, while on the left (west) is Dartmouth's own predominantly 17th-century castle, part of which contains one of the earliest fortifications in Britain built specifically to be armed with guns. Together the castles once operated a simple but effective defence system - a chain was strung across the estuary between them, capable of decapitating the masts of enemy ships.

With buildings surviving from the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries, Dartmouth is marinaded in history; its oldest building, The Cherub, dates back to 1380 and is still in use. Yet somehow the town still manages to remain a little prim, with an abundance of gift shops and little art galleries specialising in maritime pictures. Two galleries different from most are Simon Drew's for his highly original oddball images and ceramics, and Coombe Galleries with its own stable of West Country artists, both of which can be found in Foss Street.

From spring to autumn, pleasure boats operate sightseeing trips from Dartmouth's South Embankment, which also provides a sedate promenade - and is where you will find the Railway Café. The café was built in anticipation of a railway, but the railway never arrived, let alone a train. However, by crossing the river to neighbouring Kingswear on one of Dartmouth's two passenger ferries, train buffs can take a journey by steam train along one of England's most scenic railway lines. The Paignton and Dartmouth Steam Railway runs seven miles from Kingswear, through the wooded slopes of the Dart and along the Torbay coast.

It is tricky to choose the better of the two towns which bookend the tidal flow of the Dart. Both have their fans. The same can be said of the two different sections of the river. Dartmouth, where the municipal gardens sparkle and the hanging baskets are manicured to within an inch of their petals, looks out at the estuary and towards the sea. Totnes, with its organic greengrocers and antiquarian bookshops and its thousand-and-one practitioners of a thousand-and-one alternative therapies, looks up towards the moor and the river's fresher, colder waters. Both towns look in absolutely the best direction.

TRAVELLER'S GUIDE

GETTING THERE

The easiest rail access to the Dart via the stations at Totnes and Paignton (National Rail enquiries: 08457 48 49 50; www.nationalrail.co.uk).

GETTING AROUND

Boat Hire from Dittisham is via the Anchorstone Café (01803 722 365) and costs from £15 per hour. Boats can also be hired from Dartmouth Boat Hire Centre (01803 834 600); prices from £30 per hour.

Greenway Quay Ferry (01803 844 010; www.greenwayferry.co.uk) operates cruises and ferries on the Dart.

The Dartmouth-Dittisham ferry (07818 001 108) operates daily from 1 March until 31 October; return £6.

Paignton & Dartmouth Steam Railway (01803 555 872; www.paignton-steamrailway.co.uk).

M Y Romaris can be chartered from Romaris Yacht Charters (07773 786 470; www.romaris charters.co.uk).

VISITING THERE

National Trust, Devon and Cornwall Region (01392 881 691; www.nationaltrust.org.uk) can advise on opening times for Greenway House, currently 10.30am-5pm Wednesday-Saturday.

Sharpham Vineyard (01803 732 203; www.sharpham.com). The Vineyard shop is open from Monday-Friday 10am-5pm. Tours are available between 1 March and 24 December, Monday-Saturday 10am-5pm, closed Sunday; £35; bookings only.

STAYING THERE

The White House, Dittisham (01803 722 355). B&B from £80.

The Red Lion Inn (01803 722 235; www.redliondittisham.co.uk). B&B from £60.

Fingals, near East Cornworthy (01803 722 398; www.fingals.co.uk). B&B from £110.

Browns Hotel, Dartmouth (01803 832 572; www.brownshoteldartmouth.co.uk). B&B from £85.

EATING & DRINKING THERE

Ferry Boat Inn, Dittisham (01803 722 368).

The Waterman's Arms, Bow Bridge, Ashprington (01803 732 214).

The Steam Packet Inn, Totnes (01803 863 880).

MORE INFORMATION

South Hams Tourism: 01803 834 224; www.somewhere-special.co.uk

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