The River Dart

Darting In To Devon

3rd August 2018

Deborah Mulhearn makes a gentle, leisurely exploration of Devon’s River Dart – its inlets and creeks with their waterside villages, thatched inns and grand houses; its river and country walks; its estuary and market towns…

We all remember rainy days in the summer holidays, cooped up, bored and bickering. But if your holiday home was a Georgian mansion in Devon, and your mum was one of the world’s most famous detective writers, it might be a lot more fun. You wouldn’t be playing Cluedo, you’d be in it!

Greenway, on the River Dart, was the home of Agatha Christie, where she read out her stories to her family to check if the plots were watertight and whether they guessed the identity of the murderer too easily. Christie and her husband, archaeologist Sir Max Mallowan, were collectors and hoarders, and Greenway is one of the National Trust’s most ‘lived-in’ properties, with rooms that are a hotchpotch of silverware, ceramics and boxes: japanned boxes, snuff boxes, inlaid Tunbridgeware boxes, and of course books, books, books.

Greenway is best approached by the water, via a tiny passenger ferry from the village of Dittisham on the opposite side of the Dart. My friend Jill and I have driven here from Totnes, where she lives, along narrow high-banked lanes past the creekside inns and thatched cottages at Bow Creek and the hamlet of Tuckenhay. The banks – not hedgerows, Jill corrects me – are spilling over with red valerian, pink-tinged daisy-like erigeron, campion and cow parsley. At Dittisham we stop for coffee at The Anchorstone Café, renowned for its fish and seafood, and enjoy the views across the Dart before we cross.

Today it’s not raining, it’s not the school holidays, and we’re definitely not bored. It’s a glorious summer day, and after visiting the house, we are keen to catch the last of Greenway’s famous camellias and ramble through the estate’s sloping wooded paths and rolling lawns down to the river. The plan is for Jill to cross back on the ferry to reclaim the car, while I take a boat trip to Dartmouth, where we will meet.

The Christie Belle takes passengers on a gentle half hour boat ride from Greenway Quay, past the inlets, eddies and creeks of the lower section of the Dart to the historic naval town of Dartmouth, home of the Royal Naval College and the Jack Russell terrier. It’s a workaday vessel, but a glorious way to travel, and I delight in being surrounded by water and fifty shades of green, as far from city concrete as it’s possible to be.

High above the river the thickly wooded hills are topped with smooth, round green fields like monks’ pates. A steam train appears, chugging sedately across an aqueduct. Down at the river’s edge, egrets, swans and kingfishers dive for their dinner. The odd seal has been known to find its way this far up the estuary, too, but I don’t see anything resembling a doggy head in the Dart today.

The harbour at Dartmouth is full of yachts and motorboats, and through the bobbing masts the coloured facades of tall houses – powder blues and pinks, apricot, lemon and terracotta – teeter on the steep streets as if elbowing each other out the way for a river view.

We walk along the waterfront promenade and through the arcaded Butterwalk, a row of merchants’ houses dating from the early Stuart period. Dartmouth is soaked in British seafaring history, from the Crusaders to Walter Raleigh and more recent history with its involvement in the D-Day landings, when the town sent hundreds of vessels across to the beaches of France.

After a late lunch we cross the Dart again – via the Dartmouth Higher Ferry, which takes cars – to the village of Kingswear and look back to the top-heavy houses of the Butterwalk and the cobbled quayside of Bayard’s Cove.

On the drive back to Totnes we stop at the serene riverside village of Stoke Gabriel, and poke around the churchyard of St Mary and St Gabriel, trying to decipher the ancient gravestones. Here is an ancient spreading yew, which folklore states that if you walk backwards seven times around it without stumbling and make a wish, your wish will come true. I manage to do this, and make a desultory wish, which I soon forget, not being the superstitious type.

When Jill escaped from the London rat race to Totnes thirty years ago, the town was a haven for people seeking alternative lifestyles, but it’s changed a lot, she says, with many of the old-style, eclectic shops replaced with artisan bakeries, organic greengrocers’ and microbreweries.

Maybe it’s just me, but the unpedestrianised high street seems to engender friendliness and smiles as you negotiate shoppers, buskers and prams. And so far the town has managed to resist chain coffee shops, though Jill tells me a Costa Express has crept in at the petrol station on the edge of town – such sacrilege!

The next day is market day and we walk into the town via the windy, hilly streets of the Narrows, the part of town that still has a feel of the old unreconstructed Totnes. It’s full of cafés and colourful, alluring shops with fascinating facades, all different, selling vintage clothes, musical instruments, hand-made shoes, jewellery and paper goods.

We take the high level Ramparts Walk past The Guildhall: the oldest building in Totnes and full of history. We peep into nearby St Mary’s church, which dates from the 15th century. Its imposing stone rood screen spans the width of the interior, and I’m taken by an unusual 17th century stone shrine to one Christopher Blackhall and his four wives. They are all kneeling, Christopher above, the four wives below, one behind the other, each with a slightly later style of collar, the stiff Elizabethan ruff giving way to softer, plainer lace. Their faces are young and unlined, and I’d like to know what they died of.

Totnes is essentially a Tudor and Elizabethan town, with architecturally eclectic buildings squeezed into its narrow streets, some tiled, some timbered, some slate, some resting on stone stilts or pillars that create covered walkways. One of these, on Fore Street, is a quirky museum, the home of a Tudor merchant, but with a room dedicated to Charles Babbage, early computer pioneer and Totnes inhabitant. Its rooms and objects reflect the area’s layers of history: prehistoric tools, Saxon coins, Tudor bedroom, Elizabethan kitchen and Victorian nursery.

Totnes may have an olde-English air, but it is a progressive place too. As the original ‘transition’ town, it drives an alternative economy that aims to reduce dependency on fossil fuels, and has its own currency, to which nearly 200 businesses in the town and environs subscribe. Collectives, co-operatives and community interest companies thrive here and have done so for decades.

We drive up to Dartington Hall, once a famous progressive school, set up in 1925 on a neglected medieval estate by Dorothy Payne Whitney (a wealthy American social activist) and her husband Leonard Knight Elmhirst. The school closed in the 1980s but the educational programme persisted, and it is now an arts and environmental charity that promotes sustainability and social justice. The spacious and relaxed Green Table café has an impressive counter made from one of the estate’s Monterey pines, fallen in a storm, plus original college furniture – here nothing is wasted, everything is recycled.

Tenant farmers still work the land, but now they’re cultivating Chinese Szechuan peppers, and goats whose milk is used for ice cream. The experimental ethos has a long tradition: the first artificial insemination trials were performed here on cattle and chickens, and the first pasteurised apple juice was made here in 1935.

Jill is a weaver and we stop by the Devon Weavers’ Workshop where she has her loom and which runs classes and workshops. Nearby is the Sharpham Estate, a last stop before returning to Totnes for the train home. Sharpham has a family link with Dartington, as the Elmhirsts’ daughter Ruth and her environmentalist husband Maurice Ash bought the estate and started sustainable farming practices here in the 1970s. It’s now a vineyard and cheese shop.

Sharpham House, a Palladian-style stone mansion, nowadays offers secular and Buddhist retreats. It’s rumoured to be a calendar house, that is, one with the number of architectural elements such as windows, bays and doors corresponding to the number of days in the year, months and so on. This may be fanciful or architecturally sound – either way, it’s popular for wine tasting and weddings and when we are there a very restrained hen party arrives at the outdoor café.

But this is an ancient place, and from the estate we follow a wooded walk down to the river through ferny paths overrun with pungent wild garlic, ragged robin and Herb Robert to an old stone jetty. Surrounded by a multitude of greens, and stepping gingerly around low-hanging branches thick with moss that dip lazily into the muddy creeks, it feels like a place where something magical or mystical has happened, or may yet happen. Suddenly, I remember my yew tree wish…

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