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  • Writer's pictureOne Girl and a Van

1 Day, 1 River, 15 Wild Swims...

Updated: Jun 27, 2022

Attempting to swim every pool on the River Dart between Hembury Woods and Dartmeet: June 2022

The other evening George and I were looking at the map of Dartmoor discussing where we fancied swimming the coming weekend. We'd mooched up to Sharrah Pool the previous weekend with Kerry and had a few epic swims on the way, including Bellpool, Sharrah and Spitchwick; and we started to ponder 'how many swim spots are there on this stretch of the River Dart?'; and then, 'could we swim them all in one day?'.


So a plan was formed, routes drawn up and a car borrowed. It was time for another crazy Emma and George adventure...


The River Dart stretches around 47 miles from two sources on Dartmoor, creating a West Dart and East Dart, until they merge at Dartmeet where it continues as the River Dart on its journey to Totnes, becoming the Dart Estuary, and eventually joining the sea at Dartmouth. The Dart hosts some of the best wild swimming spots on Dartmoor, and arguably even within the South West. There are small plunge pools, waterfalls, epic gorges, places for a paddle, places to jump off cliffs and swing from a rope, or spots to just sit and watch the fish jump and the birds flit up and down the river. The history, from old mine works to gravity defying clapper bridges, and the wide array of wildlife is spectacular, and you won't ever visit the River Dart and leave disappointed.


The weather was forecast to be hot, it was mid June and Britain was enjoying something of a heatwave. I mean it is technically Summer so not too surprising, but we had become used to rain showers and un-forecasted thunder storms of late. Undeterred, we grabbed our packs, loaded them with food, swim stuff, a warm coat, and a camping stove for hot drinks, and away we went.

Swim 1

Location: Hembury Woods

Grid Reference: 731 685


We drove to Hembury Woods through narrow pretty lanes, no one really around bar a few early bird dog walkers and a keen cyclist or two. The carpark isn't huge and has a height barrier, and it's a bit snug in places - a small car or van would be fine but anything larger may struggle, but if you get there early, you can also park just outside the barrier in an off road pull in, big enough for around 4-5 cars. The walk itself down to the river is well sign posted and around 1/2 mile in distance. The paths are very accessible and there appear to be route options with both steps and slopes, so ideal for bikes, buggies etc too. We took the first path down to the river which had a no cycling sign, and at the bottom there is a notice stating the path is closed. This is due to subsidence, so although you can get through, it's a bit precarious, so I'd just carry on along the top path and head down the second turning marked 'river'.


Now, neither George or I had been here before; crazy when it's right on our doorstep, but it was certainly a spot we will be returning to. The woods themselves are definitely worth a visit even if you're not after a cold swim. The ancient oak trees dominate the landscape, the early morning sunlight penetrating their leafy canopies, creating shafts of mystical light bouncing off the thick and lush woodland carpet. Lichens create shaggy green coats for the trees and wispy webs hang from their branches catching the shimmering light. Bird song, wild flowers and damp moss overwhelm your senses, and as you near the River Dart, the sound of the water cascading and tumbling along its path towards the sea is added to the woodland chorus. You are now truly immersed in nature and the ambience sends you to a time gone by, where you can sense the life of those who worked and wandered these woods since the Iron Age. Around you there are remnants of old mine works and if you climb the hill out of the woodland canopy, you'll discover the site of the old Iron Age hillfort and Norman castle.


We clamber to a good entry point on the river and watch the grey wagtails flit from rock to rock searching out their breakfast. The water, like most water on Dartmoor, is the colour of rust, and yet surprisingly clear. We disrobed and slid in to the cool, deep pool; the initial shock of the cold water easing fast and the pleasure from swimming in a natural pool soon taking over as we glided through the still water, the sounds of the woodland continuing to whisper in our ears.

The pool at Hembury sits just upstream from a small island that splits the river, and there's an easy access point just before the small footbridge that crosses over a narrow ditch on the path. The pool itself is around 300m long and 4m deep in places; making it one of the largest pools on Dartmoor and, in my opinion, one of the most beautiful. The setting is just breath taking and as we swam up and down the pool with the sun on our faces, we nearly abandoned our entire challenge to spend the day just lounging and swimming here.


But we were already way behind our schedule as we hadn't planned on enjoying the early morning swim so much, or accounted for the time it takes to get boots on and off! So, with a heavy heart, we headed back to the car and onwards to swim spot number 2.


Swim 2

Location: Holne Bridge

Grid Reference: 730 705


Sitting around 1.5miles upstream from Hembury is the stunning Grade II listed medieval Holne Bridge. In winter, you'll find kayakers in their hundreds paddling down the epic white water between New Bridge and Holne, but in early summer it's a peaceful and serene spot which doesn't attract many swimmers due to parking and access restrictions. There are two parking spots both a short walk in either direction from the bridge, and you can then access the water from the Ashburton side through a small gate to the downstream side of the bridge. The banks are extremely rocky but you can jump straight in to the deep narrow channel (check for rocks and debris first) that flows between each bank and drift under the bridge to a lovely pool. This is a beautiful swim spot but don't be surprised if passing cars slow down to gawp at the strange swimmers bobbing in the cold river below!


We accessed the water from just above the bridge, George checking the depth and any obstructions before I dived in. The current is strong here even when the river is low and although it's a lovely spot, it's probably not the best for a long swim, unless you decide to swim straight down the river to Holne Weir. We enjoyed swimming up and down the channel under the bridge whilst wondering if you could swim down to the weir (you can by the way), before we clambered out, flung on our Dryrobes and headed down the bank to swim spot 3.

Swim 3

Location: Holne Weir

Grid Reference: 732 706


After hiking a couple hundred metres down the bank, clambering over roots and slippery ferns, we realised we could have just walked down the road. But that's the point of an adventure... to take the road less travelled! We arrived at a clearing which appeared to be the main entry point to the pool, deduced by the pair of pants left behind and the rope swing. No they weren't my pants!

The drop from the bank to the water was pretty high and it was instantly deep, with no rock ledges or roots. There was no way to enter the pool in a gentile and ladylike fashion, so I adopted my Hobbit dive approach, resulting in a spectacular belly flop! George on the other hand, was adamant she was going to use the rope swing... I was nervous I must admit; my experiences of rope swings normally ending in disaster, but she flew through the air with the greatest of ease and plunged in to the deep water without issue, grinning from ear to ear.

Again neither of us had swum here before and we were delighted to find a long deep pool to swim up and down with great spots for a picnic, or to lounge and read a book. We discovered that we could have swum directly here from the bridge, but if we had done so then we probably wouldn't have stayed as long or played on the swing.


I grabbed the GoPro and swam down towards the weir, the gentle pull of the current helping me float along one handed as I tried to film the wonderful river banks as I passed by. George was investigating how to get back out of the river as we couldn't climb up the way we had entered, so she was climbing over rocks towards a faint 'path' as I happily drifted downstream. I exited the river just above the weir, where a large sandy bank offered an easy way in and out of the water. From here you can just hop over the bank to the road and the small pull in by the kayakers gateway. However, our stuff was back at the rope swing, so I followed a small track upstream to where George was but we couldn't get through to the swing due to a barbed wire fence. So we hopped back in the water and swam upstream until we found a friendly root or two to climb up with.

By now it was gone 0930 and we had only managed three swims... we were definitely enjoying the swims far too much! So back to the car we mooched and drove upstream to New Bridge where we aimed to claim another two swim locations.


There are other spots between New Bridge and Holne Bridge that we know of, Lover's Leap being the most famous, but they fall on private land; hopefully another time we can gain permission to explore this missed section of the river. Or perhaps we just float right down the River Dart next time!!


Swim 4

Location: Lower New Bridge

Grid Reference: 712 710


Just after you pass under New Bridge, on the footpath to Deeper Marsh and Spitchwick, you'll find a lovely little pool bathed in the morning sun between two large rock slabs. This swim spot doesn't have an official name but it's definitely a swimmable pool and even has a rope swing. The pool is quite shallow in places and sharp slate like rock threatens to cut open an exposed toe or knee, but in the centre of the far pool it is deep enough to swing and leap in to. I hadn't been here before, but George had swum in it on many occasions so knew it was safe.

We were both getting hungry by now, so we jumped in for a quick swim (no rope swinging this time!) and then set up the stove for coffee, porridge and bacon butties.

Bellies full, we spent a few minutes enjoying the gorgeous scene in front of us looking down the river towards Spitchwick and watching the birds flying low over the water grabbing the gnats that were flitting around in the glorious sunshine that had broken free of the early morning mist.


Although this spot is really close to a busy footpath, it feels very tranquil and private. A lovely place to relax and unwind not far from the car park at New Bridge, yet less busy than the pools on the green further along. It's not a huge swimming pool but certainly one for a dip after lunch or to bask on the sun warmed rocks.


Swim 5

Location: Lower Spitchwick

Grid Reference: 714 715


Just down stream from its famous big brother is a glorious pool aptly named Lower Spitchwick. It sits just at the end of the common before you re-join the road to Buckland in the Moor, below a small cascade. It's right on the bend in the river, has a lovely bank to the left and woodland to the right. The view downstream looks dark and moody, you can't quite see where the river goes next and it has an edge of mystery about it. The pool is deep and there are rocks submerged in places that make great diving boards. Swimming up to the cascade and floating down is fabulous and a little rubber ring would be fun here as the main pool is very still and safe. There is quite a current near the cascades, of course, and getting back in you need to drift or swim around the the eddy on the bend where you can easily enter and exit. It was swarming with gnats when we were there, hence why we entered from the trickier rocks, which caused some exiting issues.

The grassy common is big enough for a picnic and, although deep, the pool itself is pretty safe if you use the eddy to enter and exit. It remains quieter down this end, as most people set up for the day on the main common at Deeper Marsh (Spitchwick), so head here early to secure your spot and enjoy a little escapism from the crowds.


Swim 6

Location: Middle Spitchwick

Grid Reference: 714 714


Ok, we made the name up! Sitting just above the tumbling water to Lower Spitchwick and below the three little islands, is a lovely swimming spot. Again it boosts a wonderful grassy bank to relax, read, eat and unwind, plus the swimming is great. The pool is deep after the initial rocky entry and you can happily do lengths here away from the kids/brave adults leaping off the rocks and hordes of rubber rings.


We hadn't thought of this spot when planning and studying the map etc but it really is a great pool and it seemed rude not to jump in and enjoy a quick swim, before heading to the main swim spot in this section of the river.

Swim 7

Location: Spitchwick

Grid Reference: 715 712


Spitchwick is one of those wild swimming spots that everyone has to tick off; unfortunately it gets extremely busy and therefore less 'wild' and more outdoor swimming! Let's not get in to terminology and what is 'wild swimming' in this blog!


The pool is in a stunning setting, with the high rocky cliff towering over the river, and trees teetering from the top of the rocks. The gorge like pool feels safe, yet, with the deep dark water below your feet, it also feels foreboding and slightly risky. As it is, it's a pretty safe swim spot as long as there hasn't been torrential rain, when the river bursts its bank and floods the common and most of the nearby road.


As it's such an accessible spot from the carpark at New Bridge (around a 800m walk) it's a great place for families or those who can't walk the more undulated paths to the pools further upstream. The common is large and as soon as the sun is out you will find the grass covered with groups, picnics and ball games. It can get extremely busy and unfortunately with the crowds often comes disrespect for the moors with BBQ burnt grass, rubbish and waste. However, it is lovely for a family day out, and the swimming is fantastic.


It's easy to enter the pool as there are natural rock steps down to the water and it's very shallow on entry for a good metre or two. Then it suddenly drops away to unknown depths and provides a channel where you can swim a few hundred metres upstream before you meet a rocky shallower section. Often you'll see the brave climb up the cliff opposite and leap or swing from the top, plunging in to the water below. They never touch the bottom, but I still get nervous when anyone jumps - I'm becoming an old worrier - 10 years ago I would have jumped!

We didn't spend long at Spitchwick but did chat to some other swimmers and suggested other spots they may like to try. There are always swimmers here, especially earlier in the morning and everyone is very friendly. We hopped out to get dry and ready to head back to the car, just as some lads leapt from the ledge, cheered on by their mates. 'Good on them' I say as I rush away before I get coerced to jump!


Swim 8

Location: New Bridge

Grid Reference: 711 708


Another spot we hadn't thought to count as a pool but it's actually pretty deep under this early 15th Century granite bridge. We were still in our swim stuff, so off with the Dryrobes and in we plunged, sliding down the little cascade to the pool beyond the bridge. It's not huge but it's a fun dip and a great way to see this beautifully built bridge from a different angle. Due to its location, it's not the sort of spot you'd want to spend your day, but if you were passing and wanted to cool off, it's perfect.

Swim 9

Location: Upper New Bridge (Newbridge Marsh)

Grid Reference: 711 707


We were just about to head to the car to get changed, when George remembered another pool just up from the carpark. So we mooched a few metres upstream to a little natural clearing where you can access another lovely swim spot.


It's just above the white water that flows to the bridge and is a good sized pool that is deep enough to swim comfortably in. The light bouncing off of the water and the reflections of the trees on the water was mesmerizing and again I was quite happy to while away some time here, but we were starting to get chilly and time was pressing on.


It's very easy to access from the car park, literally 25m if that. You'll see a small grassy verge and there's an obvious gap through the trees and some flat rocks you can climb down to reach the pool. The river bed is very rocky, so I would advise water shoes to clamber in and out, but it really is a peaceful spot for a swim. Watch out for low hanging branches, because although really pretty, they can be dangerous if you get caught on them. Possibly not the best spot for kids but great for an easy to get to swim.

After swim nine we were getting a bit cold and desperately needed food and a change of clothing. It was just after 12 so we walked back to the car, got changed in to dry kit, abandoned the Dryrobes grabbed our backpacks, had a quick snack and headed off up the main footpath towards Sharrah Pool.

This is a beautiful walk that follows the river through ancient woodland, with some stunning scenery, lots of flora and fauna and even a waterfall or two. There are some superb swimming spots on the way, many you will see from the track as you head upstream (look out for Wellsfoot Island with its sandy beach and epic pool). But with the day rushing by, we had decided to crack on so we could clamber our way to some less accessible spots north of Sharrah Pool and then bag the ones we had missed on the way back downstream.


Swim 10

Location: Sharrah Pool

Grid Reference: 696 716


The mecca of wild swimming; Sharrah Pool is what you would paint if someone said 'paint a picture of your perfect wild swim spot'; well apart from it's cold water and not a balmy lagoon!

It's a 2mile (ish!) walk to Sharrah, following a relatively easy path and takes around an hour at a leisurely pace. It took us around an hour and a half as we were stopping too often to discuss swim spots, admire the views, pet cute dogs, talk to passers by, and make a plan of attack for the remaining pools! The path splits on a few occasions and you can stay close to the river for the majority of the walk if you wish; it's a little denser with ferns and shrubs but it is also really pretty and quieter. On the path just opposite Long Island there's a pretty waterfall cascading off of the moors, and a refreshing spot on a hot day to splash your face and for dogs to drink from. Just FYI you can NOT climb up the waterfall to get to Venford above; trust me I've done this once from above and thought I was going to die trapped in brambles and cavernous gullies!! To get to Sharrah from Venford, follow the path around Bench Tor until you come to a wall and head down it; this will safely (ish) bring you out at the stile just before Sharrah Pool.

Anyway, we rolled in to Sharrah pretty exhausted and hungry; it was now nearly 2pm and a long time since breakfast with a lot of exercise in between. We boiled some water for a brew, ate our packed lunch, indulged in some very tasty nom noms from Higgidy (now obsessed with their Cheese and Spinach Muffins) and discussed the remaining day some more.


After dropping my phone in the river and getting a wet boot to retrieve it, I wasn't feeling the love much; so we got changed and jumped in for a swim...


I love Sharrah; it's beautiful and that word does get used a lot but I haven't really another to describe it as well. It offers something for everyone; the large granite slabs a place to picnic or sunbathe, natural diving platforms dotted around each bank if you know where to leap, fast flowing falls that act as a jacuzzi, a long deep pool, so clear, that when the sun shines it reflects off the silvery river bed, and all framed by vast woodlands that create a feeling of seclusion; a place away from the ‘real world’. It’s where Fairies play in the forest glades and Naiads lounge and watch over the swimmers in the glistening pool.


Images from children's literature, the Water-Babies, Greek mythology and Dartmoor folklore come to life here, and when alone in the water you feel as if just you and the creatures from these bygone tales exist within this enchanted place.

We set off from Sharrah to head further upstream to another four pools that we were aware of, and which we knew would be challenging to get to, but time was against us and we were both getting tired. It seemed ill placed to try and reach them today, and so we headed back downstream, retracing our steps from New Bridge, with the aim to swim in those pools we had passed hours before.


Swim 11

Location: Witch's Pool

Grid Reference: 710 702

Just above Horseshoe Falls sits two large pools known locally as Witch’s Pool and Black Rock. Witch’s Pool is the furthest upstream and the dark waters run quite fast compared to other spots on the Dart. It’s a wonderful swimming location sitting under a green canopy provided by the trees that line each bank and beautiful views down the river towards the little gurgling cascades.


You can access it by leaving the main track around 500m from New Bridge where you will see a wide opening in the trees and a large granite slab. From here follow the small woodland path for around 50m where you’ll find a little sandy bank next to the river. Just set back from the water there are large fallen logs, creating natural seating perfect for a group picnic or even a little bivvi spot, and often you may find a little camp set up in the woods but no one ever seems to actually be living there.


We entered the pool via the small pebbly beach and once over the initial rocks you are quickly submerged in the luscious water. You can swim lengths in the deep pool or drift down towards the first set of falls where there are tiny plunge pools surrounded by sloped rocks just perfect for a little bath. The sounds of the river filled our ears; the gentle trickle from upstream where the water gently meanders over the stones, to the louder tumbling of the falls below. The late afternoon sun beamed down on us as we floated to the top of a small waterfall and climbed down the rocks to re-enter the water. Here we plunged into the flow of the falls to the next pool.

Swim 12

Location: Black Rock

Grid Reference: 710 703


On OS maps, this whole section of the river from Witch’s Pool to Salter’s Pool is widely known as Horseshoe Falls, and due to the cascades here you may think that this is Horseshoe Falls pool; however, it's actually called Black Rock due to the large black slab that dominates the right hand bank of the river. After heavy rain this spot really comes to life, and the river roars as it crashes over the huge granite slab creating a stunning spectacle to sit and watch but definitely not to swim in!


After a semi leap in to the cascades and floating past some big submerged boulders, we swam around briefly in this small but extremely deep pool just enjoying the water and amazing light. George climbed out of the pool and climbed on to the slab known as 'The Ledge' which you can safely jump or dive from. It's around 5ft in height but the water is deep and rock free below and so much fun to leap from.


She leapt off in classic George style, and submerged deep in to the peaty water. Bubbles exploded all around her as she resurfaced shaking the water from her hair and face like an otter that had just dived for its dinner. Giggling we decided to try and swim/Hobbit crawl through the shallows to the next pool, but after one too many knocks to the knees we aborted the mission and climbed out and walked back up the woodland path to retrieve our kit.

Swim 13

Location: Horseshoe Falls

Grid Reference: 710 704


Dressed in swim suits, towels and wet shoes, we re-joined the main path before climbing down a rather steep, slippery, narrow, and somewhat 'iffy', animal track to get to the third pool in this section of river.


Once you've scrambled down, a flat rock provides a perfect spot to get changed and a small deep pool flows around the edges. As you swim in this shaded pool, you can feel the pull of the river and if not careful you will float over Horseshoe Falls.


Only a very small waterfall in size, it is named after the perfect horseshoe shape of the rocks that create the cascade. In fact, it's quite a powerful little fall and if you climb down in to it you'll be surprised of the strength of the water's pull. However, it does provide the perfect natural jacuzzi, and millions of tiny bubbles tickle your skin as you perch yourself against the rocks to let the water massage your shoulders.


After enjoying the icy cool massage we climbed out and donned our towel/cossie walking combo again to plod to the final two falls of the day... Although a challenging vertical bank needed to be ascended first. Thankfully, due to some strong protruding roots, we were able to pull ourselves up the embankment, and as we fell on to the path, passers by gave us very odd looks as they hurried on past the two clearly crazy and semi naked women!

Swim 14

Location: Upper Salter's Pool

Grid Reference: 710 706


Literally just 300m from New Bridge lies Salter's Pool, which is accessed by a small track that splits from the main path. You can't miss it and you'll find a large tree right on the water's edge with a little bank that gives you easy access to the upper pool. If you walk a few meters up the river bank, you will come across a lovely rock to perch and watch the world go by with a series of small falls that make a lot of noise considering their size. You can get in at the rock, but as a family were picnicking there we chose to get in at the tree.


We threw off our now rather damp towels and just as we were about to enter the water, we heard a duck quacking and a teeny tiny duckling following quickly in its mothers wake. It was soooo cute and fluffy; and just as I was commenting on how unusual it was to see just one duckling, we heard a squeak from the nearby undergrowth and a flash of brown and yellow caught our eye. The little guy was stuck and desperate to get to his mum but a large branch blocked his route out in to the river. I was just about to set off on duckling rescue (not as glamorous or sexy as Baywatch but just as important), when it managed to find a small gap, squeeze its fluffy body through, and whizz, running on water, to be reunited with his mum and sibling... phew.


We were high on adrenaline from the potential rescue and so jumped in to the pool to follow in the path of the duckling's little webbed feet. We swam up the pool towards the rock and falls, but the current was too strong and the bed too rocky to successfully make it all the way up for another jacuzzi. Again the views down river were stunning and as the light started to fade the shadows from the trees began to grow, turning the pools darker and more forbidding.


We didn't stay in long, the coolness from the day, and being in and out of so much water, was starting to creep in to our core and we needed to get warm quickly. We climbed out at the rock and quickly jogged down the river bank to the final pool of the day.

Swim 15

Location: Lower Salter's Pool

Grid Reference: 710 706

Similar to its big sister, this is another easily accessible deep pool bordered by large rocks and wonderful lush trees that overhang the pool and give an eerie quality to the water at dusk. The whole of Salter's Pool really does provide a lovely spot to while away the day and despite being such a short walk from the carpark doesn't get overly busy, bar a regular group of wild swimmers enjoying the peace and solitude that only comes from being immersed in cold water. However, on this occasion a group were enjoying a BBQ (a proper tall one well off the ground - very sensible and considerate) and a few cold beverages to celebrate the glorious weather we had enjoyed and see in the evening in a pretty special location; so we just said 'evening', explained our crazy adventure and hopped in for a short swim before it was time to throw on all our warm clothes and walk at pace back to the car.


It was a shame to rush the last pools but aftershock is no laughing matter, and after more than 3.5hours in the water, and over 9miles of walking and scrambling to pools, we had been exposed to some unusual and challenging conditions in the space of 11hours.


We arrived back at the car exhausted but exhilarated and desperate to come back soon to head up the other side of the river to bag the many pools we had missed today. We had swum in three pools on the other side previously; Long Pool (a regular haunt - its name we've no idea but that's what we call it!), Wellsfoot Island, well known for it's own beach, and the epic but tricky to access, Bell Pool; and we knew there were others that would require a little scrambling and a few prickles to get to, plus there were still at least three pools above Sharrah to explore. We weren't done with the River Dart quite yet...


For me, the river is a place that soothes your soul and makes you feel safe and part of nature; yet with a blink of an eye it can change as the steady waters run wild and fierce.


Legend has it that once a year the spirit of the Dart lets out a booming cry as it seeks out a heart. The call of the river luring someone to their death.


River Dart, Oh River Dart!

Every year thou claimest a heart.

Anonymous


But don’t let this stop you from enjoying one of the most stunning and majestic rivers. One that offers such diverse landscapes, ancient woodlands, open moorland, fast flowing gorges, deep pools, waterfalls; plus vast geology, history, wildlife, and beautiful views everywhere you look.


I believe that the River Dart should be enjoyed by all; whether by foot, bike, horse or car. Take time to visit, to explore, to plunge in to its cool rusty waters, to walk over the clapper bridges, to eat an ice cream surrounded by Dartmoor ponies, and most importantly to just sit and emerge yourself in its serenity, beauty and legends.

 

Please always treat the moors with respect; don’t light fires, leave rubbish or feed the animals. Just enjoy it and leave no trace…

 

Thank you as always for joining me on my adventures. I hope you found this story enjoyable and informative, and I really hope you can experience the beauty of the Dart for yourselves.


For the video that accompanies our challenge, please click below:















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