The British coast is arguably at its finest in the spring. Nesting birds flutter back and forth, twigs in their beaks. Trees are finally blossoming, turning to leaf. And the secluded coves and inlets are flooded with light as the days lengthen. Nowhere is this more so than at South Hams, the heart of the southern Devon coastline's waterways, hills and woods. Outstanding views, ever-changing and breathtaking, are a real feature of this walk between Dittisham and Dartmouth.
The ideal way to begin is to take one of the red-and-white ferry boats upriver from Dartmouth, which resume this month. This is a journey of around 20 minutes (it can also be made part of a circular trip involving a steam-engine ride from Paignton to Kingswear). Woods thick with magnificent ash, wind-pummelled into harmonious, sweeping symmetry, line the banks, the occasional Monterey pine, poking above the canopy. High to the right is Greenway, the recently renovated former home of Agatha Christie, now a National Trust property.
This may be a shortish walk, but it packs in a lot of hills. The first begins from the jetty, ascending past thatched properties with names such as the Bake House and the Pound House. At the top of the village, the path to Dartmouth heads left and south, but a circular loop of two miles westwards really added charm. First, the path dropped down to St George's church, where an open door proved irresistible. I entered the churchyard through a wooden revolving gate; inside, the riches beneath a "wagon" roof include a Norman font and a 15th-century screen with faded coloured paintings.
The path followed the River Dart upstream, past little delights such as an age-old sign marking the start of Dittisham, and dropping down through country lanes to a creek where a little egret was feasting on fish in the shallows. I passed creaking houses, sometimes seemingly propped up by ivy that was stained the colour of port wine by the local red sandstone, before heading uphill in front of a giant monkey puzzle tree.
Climbing a stile into a field on the left, another short, sharp climb led back to Dittisham, on the way taking in some of the best views of all across the River Dart. Dartmoor, the source of the river, framed the horizon to the far north, while below, the twists and turns of the River Dart looked like an illustration from a geography book.
South of Dittisham, the path followed the contours of fields and gave views across Torbay to Torquay, and, just, to Portland Bill in the east. I was now following the Dart Valley Trail, soon entering land held by the Raleigh Estate, granted to the old seafarer who learnt to sail, I read, in the surrounding waters. Look out for the signal brazier, restored in 1988 on the 400th anniversary of the Armada.
The path dropped steeply downhill, with more views of the river, the substantial shipyard of Philip & Son and of Britannia Royal Naval College. Suddenly, a radical change of scenery: the path entered Balcombe Pits Copse, ancient woodland now bursting into life. At low tide around Rough Hole Point, look out for a dramatically decaying abandoned ship, the wood almost perceptibly decomposing. The woodland seamlessly switches from oak and beech to conifers, with the smell of pine needles rising from the floor. At its far end, the sleepy western nooks and crannies of Old Mill Creek are a winter harbour for many yachts, by now busy with owners giving their vessels a spring clean.
After crossing the stone bridge by the water mill that gives the creek its name, the easy walking came to an abrupt halt with a vigorous, sweeping hairpin climb up the north side of the hill on which Dartmouth sits. Gaps between houses gave final views down to the creek, suddenly far below. After a brief encounter with the modernised suburbs of the town, it was time to tumble down to the creaking charm of the harbour front once again.
Distance: Seven miles.
Time: Three hours.
Map: OL 20 South Devon.
From Dittisham pier, walk up the steep hill to The Levels. Turn right through the village, following signs to Cornworthy. After a mile, go left uphill in front of Brambletorre House. Just before the lane junction, climb the stile to the left and keep half-left across the field, down a hollow and along a field edge, following waymarkers to a gate and along the lane back to Dittisham. Where the road forks downhill to the ferry, keep ahead along Higher Street. Just before the Old Rectory turn right, following the blue waymarkers for the Dart Valley Trail. Follow these waymarkers through fields to a lane. Turn left and 400 yards later turn left again, following the waymarkers for two miles down and through Old Mill Creek. Where the path forks before Balcombe Pits Copse, take the left-hand, lower path into the woods. Cross the bridge and take the sweeping hairpin right uphill. After the 20mph sign, take the no-entry road to the right, climb steps and cross into Townstal Crescent. Dog leg across to Church Road and keep ahead, dropping downhill into Dartmouth.
How to get there
First Great Western (firstgreat western.co.uk) runs regular services from Exeter to Paignton. Mark Rowe stayed at Meadowside Lodge courtesy of Beverley Holidays (01803 843887; beverleyholidays.co.uk), which offers two-night breaks from £280.
For details on circular routes that include the steam train from Paignton to Kingswear and ferry services, contact Dartmouth Steam Railway and Riverboat Company (dartmouthrail river.co.uk).