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  • Writer's pictureOne Girl and a Van

Wild Swimming the River Dart

Exploring the wild swimming pools on the River Dart between Dartmeet and New Bridge: Summer 2022

The Dart stretches around 47 miles from two sources on Dartmoor, creating a West Dart and East Dart, until they merge at Dartmeet. From here it continues as the River Dart on its journey to Totnes, becoming the Dart Estuary, and eventually joining the sea at Dartmouth.


This river hosts some of the best wild swimming spots on Dartmoor, and arguably even within the Southwest. 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.


I have swum in over twenty-seven pools on the Dart, between source and the edge of the National Park, and I’m still exploring this beautiful section of the moors in search of those elusive pools to plunge in. The larger pools are well known amongst wild swimmers and the River Dart includes two pools considered meccas for the swimmer to tick off their list, but look closer and you’ll find some gems that provide a haven, a world away from the crowds, a place where only the birds and fish are found. It’s these locations that allow you to fully submerge yourself in the joys of cold-water swimming, to feel wild and free, and to lose yourself in the natural world that surrounds you as you float in the tea-stained water shadowed by the drooping ancient oak canopies and the sound of the water tumbling and gurgling as it pours over great granite boulders. This is wild swimming at its best…


For me, the River Dart 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.


Last summer, after George and I completed our 15 Swims in One Day Challenge, we returned to complete the remaining pools on the main stretch of the Dart between Dartmeet and Spitchwick Common.


It was early on a Sunday morning and we were dropped off at Badger's Holt carpark ready to explore at least another 6 pools on the north side of the river down to New Bridge, taking in the infamous Mel Pool and the spooky Bell Pool enroute. Excitement levels were high as we set off on another river swimming adventure, and a slight uncertainty hung in the air as to what we may find and whether this side of the river would be fully accessible on foot...


Dartmeet & Combestone Woods

The sun was hot already and thankfully just over 600 meters downstream from Dartmeet we discovered a long pool that flows between two small cascades, with a grassy bank for changing, picnicking and relaxing. This pool sits just above Combestone Wood, a beautiful setting easily accessible for all the family and it proved to be a popular spot for day trippers. Towering rock stacks leaned precariously on banks, great granite boulders and seemingly floating on the water, where locals and visitors had competed to outdo each other with these fun creations, each a little piece of art amongst the natural backdrop.

There is limited shade here, bar a few trees that beg to have a tarp and hammock hung from, so in the summer be aware of it being exposed to the sun for the majority of the day. The pool is shallow on the nearside but there is a deep channel that runs down the centre of the river between two boulders, the larger one providing a platform for small shallow jumps back into the water. On the far bank, young trees line the water’s edge separating the river from private land beyond. You can swim leisurely up and down this section of the river, skimming over submerged rocks, with the fish swimming quickly past under your belly, and in the summer, the sun warming your back as you float along.


I enjoyed dipping here; it held a sense of wilderness, despite being so close to a good ice cream and carpark! It’s the sort of spot that is perfect for the first-time wild swimmer and a great place to grab a few friends and experience the pleasure of cold-water swimming in a relatively safe spot all year round.


After drying off and popping our clothes back on, we left this spot as more families started to arrive and we hiked on through a rougher section of track and through thick bracken a mile downstream to Lucky Tor; a very picturesque outcrop that is often frequented by climbers enjoying the wonderful pitches and good selection of routes suitable for all standards of climber. I'm certain there's an easier path to here but we obviously missed it! We stood and watched the climbers tackling the rock before we followed a little brook back to the river in search of Blackpool.

Blackpool

You may miss this spot if you’re not careful, so keep an eye out for a narrow deep channel where the water is forced through a mini gorge and flows in to a wide but short pool beyond. If you are a strong swimmer, lower yourself in to the gorge’s waters and float in to the pool, before exploring the little wooded islands that spread out on the other side.

The setting is beautiful, and the sun catches the tumbling white water, making it sparkle and glimmer as it falls into the gorge. It’s very peaceful here and most people continue downstream for a swim, but this spot shouldn’t be overlooked for an exhilarating and mesmerizing dip, where you feel part of nature with the trees dipping their heavy branches to sip from the river and the soft rocks with their pink hue nudging you gently as you pass by.


Salmon Leaps

We floated and played here for a while before carrying on along the trail to a bend in the river where you will see a series of falls stepping down the river creating small pools; this is Salmon Leaps. It's a popular spot for those who can be bothered to hike a bit from Dartmeet or down from Combestone Tor, and it's well worth the effort as it's absolutely stunning and a real sun trap too.


The first pool is large enough and deep enough to swim in and offers spots on both sides of the river to relax and enter the water from. Leap sidewards into the swoosh from the cascades above, where you’ll be carried through the bubbly water to be deposited in the calm deep pool. A large bolder sits in the centre of the pool, beyond which it becomes too shallow to swim, but you can scoot along on your belly towards the infinity edge to enjoy views over the watery steps to watch the River Dart drift to more pools below.


I could have played all day here as it was such a fun spot to swim in and the whooshing cascades made for a natural waterslide! Alas time was pressing on and we had barely covered 1.5miles and noon was approaching...


Simon's Lake

A few minutes further downstream you'll come to Simon's Lake; again a popular spot for swimming and picnicking, and it can be reached from Venford as well as the route we had taken. The path we had taken had narrowed and become more challenging after Combestone Woods but it was easy to follow. At times we were right beside the river clambering over rocks and following the well-trodden tracks and at other points we found ourselves climbing up amongst the trees and ferns; a bird’s eye view over the river below.



You’ll know you are at Simon’s Lake as you’ll cross a large flat rock that looks manmade, where the brook known as Simon’s Lake pours from the moors and over the rock creating a miniature mossy waterfall. A few meters further on you will find large slabs of rocks where you can embrace your inner lizard and simmer under the sun or sit on a log under the shady canopy and take a nap. We clambered over the rocks and submerged ourselves into the cool waters. The pool below the small falls isn’t huge but it offers a mesmerising location, with easy access, deep sections to dive in to and also a lovely lazy river feel if you let yourself drift in the current from the cascades. There is a fabulous flat rock slightly submerged under the water, which glows amber in the light; we just lay here with the water lapping against us and watched the fish swim by, before lunch on the log under the trees.


Mel Pool

People often talk about Mel Pool as a swimming spot you must visit, but in my opinion, there are nicer spots to explore on the River Dart, and far easier ones to get to as well! From Simon’s Lake it is a very precarious walk of around 600 meters, the track requiring a degree of confidence and a head for heights. You may need to get on your bum in places and there is scrambling required too. We had a bit of a heart hammering experience clambering over an open void in the path, where the trail was worn away by a landslide and the earth very dusty and slippery underfoot...


However, after a few scrambles, you’ll find a small pool below a rock slab that plunges into the water creating a deep spot to wallow. At Simon’s Lake you can wade across the water, where there is a shallow ford, and approach Mel Pool and then head on to Sharrah from the other side following a slightly less challenging path. I've not done this myself but I hear it's far easier!


This part of the river is beautiful to explore and if you are after a good hike, a fun route of scrambling and bum sliding, plus wonderful views of the river and its flora and fauna, then do check it out. But be cautious as it’s not for everyone and you will need a good level of fitness, dexterity, and decent footwear to explore between Simon’s Lake and Sharrah Pools on either side of the river.


Mel Pool sits below a series of pretty falls, and it really is a sun trap, so the perfect place to sunbathe in peace. In fact, as it’s so hard to get to, you may find you have the place all to yourself. You enter the pool from below the falls where you can see the large sloping slab of rock penetrating the water’s surface. It’s easy to get in and the pool is a few feet deep straight away. Below the slab it deepens quickly to around 8 feet, but I wouldn’t risk jumping in as they are many boulders scattered around of varying depths.

The walk is probably more fun than the swimming, as the route takes in a few hairy scrambles along loose cliff edges, some clever tree engineering to create steps and handholds up and over rock ledges, and spectacular views over the river. I’d only come here to dip if heading past on my way to Simon’s Lake or Sharrah, but if you are passing, do stop and enjoy the sunny rocks, gushing cascades, and cooling water of Mel Pool.


Sharrah Pools

After Mel Pool we were getting a bit tired and possibly wetter from the heat of the day than the swimming itself, but we persevered on towards the glorious Sharrah Pools and plunged into the peaceful long pool that sits not far above the main pool. I rarely see anyone at this spot but it's worth exploring and is very accessible from either side of the river beyond Sharrah Pool.

It’s not as large as the main pool, but it is quiet and full of wildlife, with tree lined banks, a small waterfall and deep clear water to swim in. To get there just follow the riverbank upstream for around 60m, you need to stay as close to the water as possible and not start to climb up out of the valley. You’ll come to a break in the trees and a small cliff next to the bank; scramble through to the flat rock that drops in to the river and from here you’ll see a perch or two from where you can climb into the water. The pool has a deep channel leading from the cascades and provides a great location to swim under the clear water to view the fish below or to be pummelled in the bubbly falls.


You can cross here if you want to return via the other shore, it’s a little tricky underfoot and around knee deep overall but a bit of a giggle to cross if you’re not afraid of getting a bit damp! We stayed on the same side to walk past the main pool at Sharrah (no time for a swim here today as we'd swum in it it during the 15 pools in one day exped), then from here it's a bit of a scramble up a well worn track which descends back to the river after a few minutes, where you'll find a stunning dark oasis of a pool. The cliff on the other bank towers high above the river, a lower wall of granite hugging the water, and providing a spot to leap into the depths; ferns hug the cliff face, a powerful cascade crashes through the gully into the pool, and a cave hides amongst the curving rockface, ivy hanging over it like a curtain shielding a secret.

This pool stays cool all day as the sun doesn’t quite penetrate through the tree canopy or the rocky gorge. It’s quiet; just the sound of the water flowing over the falls and the birds singing in the trees that surround you. You’re unlikely to see another swimmer here, most favouring the easier walk to the main pool on the other side of the river; and those hiking through on this path, are busy heading back to New Bridge or the sunny rock ledges of the pools further upstream.


But do take time to visit this place, even if just to appreciate the other worldly quality, with the landscape feeling so vastly different from the river’s other pools. Here it feels as if the cheeky Dartmoor Pixies abound rather than the ethereal sprites that frequent the bright pools and delicate forest glades of the valley.


Time was passing and the light starting to fade under the canopy of the old forests, so we abandoned the adventure for the day and hurried on home for dinner and medals before returning the next afternoon to finish the final three pools.


Bel Pool

I only discovered this amazing swim spot a few weeks previous, when George, Kerry and I were on a mission to discover the rickety iron ladder and deep plunge pool that sits below the granite ledge. We had heard about it, like local folklore, but had never found it; until one day we were clambering along the narrow woodland ‘path’ towards Sharrah on the northern riverbank and saw a split in the path heading down towards the river, so decided to follow it. Sometimes the most amazing experiences are at the end of a precarious animal track!

After climbing down a narrow slippery path, using the branches and roots as handholds, you come to a cliff edge which overlooks a natural gorge with swirling water from the cascades above, a sandy beach on an island sits across the river and a deep black pool calls to you from below the granite cliffs. You descend via a rope, used as a handrail, to an old metal ladder that hugs the rockface. It’s not high but it feels it as you cautiously swing your leg from the edge of the cliff on to the ladder below. The rope swings out as you make your move and a gasp escapes your mouth and your heart leaps, but as your foot makes contact with the ladder you know you’ll be ok. Once you have descended the ladder there is a large flat boulder perfect to sit, read, watch the world go by or to get changed for what promises to be a real wild swimming experience. You’ve worked hard to get here and now it’s time for the best reward possibly, and that’s to climb into the inky water and to be wrapped in its silky coat.


Bell Pool sits in the gorge between Bellpool Island and the valley below Aish Tor, where the river kinks and the water is forced through a deep ravine before it tumbles quite sedately towards Wellsfoot Island. It’s not the easiest of pools to enter for a swim; you can either lower yourself with your arms outstretched into the water, climb down backwards, or jump! I generally opt for jumping or diving but check first for boulders and debris, and only jump from the far lefthand side of the ledge. If this route isn’t for you, then before the climb down to the ledge, you’ll find a narrow track that continues past the pool down to the river’s edge and a rocky beach with fallen trees. You can clamber over the rocky shallows and enter the pool from here as well.


The pool is perfect for a swim, it’s not huge but it’s deep, and you can happily swim short lengths between the cascades and beyond the boulders before you reach a shallow rocky edge. With your eyes at the level of the water it feels like an infinity pool as you look downstream towards the light breaking through the thick cover of trees. The pool is nearly always dark and cold, the light is minimal and as such it feels extremely wild and remote. You can climb on to the sandy island shore where you’ll find seating areas amongst the woods where previous adventurers have set up camp. After exploring the island, launch yourself into the cascades, lay back and enjoy the lazy river, as the force of the water carries you towards the gorge’s eddy and swirling water.

It's not a place for weak swimmers, the current is strong and, if entering from the ledge, you are getting straight into the cold water without chance to acclimatise before you are fully submerged. But if you are looking for a beautifully secluded pool, offering the feel of a wild and remote swim, with an adventurous walk in, then I can’t recommend Bell Pool enough... Just don’t tell anyone else, as it's a secret!


Wellsfoot Island & Long Pool

From New Bridge, Wellsfoot Island is just under a mile walk along a well-trodden and wide forestry path that runs through the woods a short distance from the river. You’ll come to a junction in the path and if you take the left-hand track, it will bring you to a wall which you follow to the river. Here there’s a more narrow, rocky and rooty path that runs alongside the river. As you near the far end of the island you’ll see the remnants of an old footbridge; whip off your shoes and pick your way across the moss-covered stones to the island. Follow the path under trees, through fern and over little obstacles for a short distance and you’ll be rewarded with a sandy beach and the perfect hammock spot.

From the beach you can enter the gorgeous Wellsfoot Island pool, which seems to always be bathed in light, and enjoy a swim in the deep clear water before relaxing on the beach or in a hammock for the day with a good book for company. The far bank towers high above, where you catch glimpses of the walkers heading to Sharrah, peak their heads over the edge to look at the peaty, red water below and admire the sandy beach. I casually wave as they go by or chat to the dogs who have clambered down to the water for a refreshment before the steep climb ahead. Despite being overlooked it still feels wild and private, sometimes even like you are on a private island re-enacting a scene from Swallows and Amazons.

If you float on your belly in the shallows, you can watch fish swim around you, the water so clear despite the rich tone. It really is a special spot for a swim.


It can get busy here in the summer but arrive early or in the week outside of holiday season and you’ll have this little haven all to yourself; but remember that walkers can see you from the path on the other side of the river, so not a spot for a skinny dip as you may hear a cheery ‘hello’ or be joined by an over eager dog leaping in to your peaceful pool!


Cross back over to the path and turn left and you’ll find another pool, which I call Long Pool, due to the long narrow channel near the bank that provides the perfect swimming pool for doing lengths, close to the carpark but far enough away that it’s never busy. As you exit the tree lined path from the island, you’ll find a rounded boulder and an easy entry point into the river. It deepens quickly so no need for wet shoes if you don’t wish to wear them, and you can easily swim for 25m upstream in a gentle current. This is the spot I like to visit after a long mountain bike ride, having enjoyed the epic descent down Dr Blackall’s Drive from Mel Tor, it is the perfect place to cool off.

In the spring the entry is swarming with little black tadpoles and by summer they have been replaced by tiny trout recently hatched. This section of river is always teaming with wildlife and as it’s not overly visited it remains a place to spot birds, dragon flies, butterflies, and the creatures that live in the water themselves. The water remains cool here all year, and can significantly change in depth with the seasons, but it’s always somewhere that I find to be quiet and safe to actually swim, surrounded by nature but easily accessed from the nearby nature reserve and open moorlands.


So after nearly three days of adventuring we had managed to swim all the accessible pools between Dartmeet and Hembury Woods, that we could find during these trips; I'm sure there are many more for us still to find!


The Dart really does offer something for everyone to enjoy all year round, and every time I venture into it's dark waters I feel blessed to be able to enjoy these natural swim spots and the wildlife and nature that surrounds it.


Please do enjoy this Dartmoor gem and treat it with the respect it deserves; take only memories and leave only footprints, and perhaps the occasional wet bum mark on the rocks!!

Thank you for reading and I hope you found this blog useful to plan your own wild swimming adventures... Let me know your favourite spot on the River Dart


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