The Upper Dart
According to legend the River Dart played a major role in the history of Britain. It’s claimed that after the Trojan War between Greece and Troy in the 12th century BC, the defeated Trojans set out to find a new home. Led by a young prince called Brutus, the great grandson of Aeneas of Troy, they reached the island of Britain and sailed up the Dart. Near the town of Totnes, Brutus came ashore and proclaimed: ‘Here I stand and here I rest’. Later, Brutus founded ‘New Troy’ on the banks of the River Thames. ‘New Troy’ would become the great city known today as London. It was Brutus who gave his name to the island and caused it to be called Britain. He decreed that the people would henceforth be called Britons and the language British.
The River Dart has two sources both located on Dartmoor. The East Dart begins its journey roughy between the Black Hill and the Hangingstone Hill, from where it winds its way through an ancient landscape, past Bronze Age stone hut circles, ancient enclosures and funeral cairns. The West Dart starts its life just a mile west of the East Dart, near Flat Tor. After meandering through Two Bridges and the West Dart joins the East Dart at Dartmeet to form the River Dart proper. It is interesting to note that the source of the East Dart is located within 500m of the source of the River Taw, which flows north towards Barnstaple.
Steeped in legend, there are many ‘other wordly’ places on Dartmoor. One of these is Wistman’s Wood which is nestled on the eastern slopes of the West Dart. Once you walk into the tangled web of dwarfed oak trees you are transported into a mystical world of moss carpeted boulders, lichens and finger like oak branches. Wistman’s wood is one of only three ancient woods on Dartmoor and is likely to be a left-over from the ancient forest that covered much of Dartmoor c. 7000 BC, before Mesolithic hunter/gatherers cleared it around 5000 BC. Nowadays, he oldest oaks appear to be 400–500 years old.
Starting at the car park in Dartmeet (SX 67145 73174) and keeping the river to your right, you can walk through Dart Gorge (the Dart Valley Nature Reserve) and onward to the car park at New Bridge (SX 71120 70891). The walk is a bit rough in places as the unmarked path comes and goes, you need to clamber of moss-encrusted rocks and lichen-covered tress involved and there are some steep climbs and sudden drops. Nevertheless the hike is definitely worthwhile. The river with its rapids, boulders and cascades is the main attraction but the woodland which is carpeted in mosses, ferns and lichens comes a very close second.
Another, easier option to explore the Dart and one of its tributaries is to start at the Venford Reservoir car park (SX 68568 71218) and then follow the Venford Brook downwards until you reach the Dart. On its way down from the Reservoir, the Venford Brook weaves its way through rockpools and tumbles over several waterfalls and cascades. It is definitely very photogenic. Once you reach the Dart, the path veers to the right but eventually peters out forcing you to come back the way you came (unless you fancy a good scramble in which case you will end up the the New Bridge car park mentioned above.).