Looking out the window at the West Dart River these past weeks reveals a river gone mad. During the recent storms, it was consistently a fast moving, boiling, roaring, torrent of water. On more than one occasion it breached its banks, taking part of our stonewall with it and I worried about the big trees on the opposite bank, which became temporary islands of wood as the river swelled with the rains. These trees already have awkward leans to them, making it seem as if it is just a matter of time before they slide into a resting position on the hillside as I would onto the sofa.
And yet this same river on a warm day offers a place for wading or taking a cooling dip. The waters gently babble past providing a refreshing tonic. One summer day, we stood in the river drinking beers with our friend Hilary. The cool river water gently washed past our legs as we shared stories and contemplated dinner. Meanwhile, her sons Thomas and Charlie splashed about in the deeper water. It was a wonderful afternoon and we have since claimed this patch of river our local watering hole, dubbing it Down By The River.
Water is something we have in abundance on Dartmoor. The high ground of Dartmoor forms a catchment area for many of Devon’s rivers. The approximate total length of the 25 rivers on Dartmoor is over 130 miles and this does not include all the miles of leats and streams. Some of these main rivers are steep and fast flowing and respond almost instantaneously to rainfall, growing faster, wider and wilder as ground saturation increases. Just look out of our windows! In the last week of 2013 and into the first week of 2014, we have had a lot of rain. In one 12-hour period of time, up to 40 millimeters of rainfall was reported over Dartmoor. Our river had more than doubled in size.
Fortunately, a brief break in the rain allows the rivers to recede back to normal. The elasticity of these flowing bodies of water is nothing less than spectacular. In addition to my concern for the trees and our stonewall, we recently had to rescue three sheep who had become trapped between the swelling river and the stonewall. They were nervously standing on a morsel of high ground, which was rapidly diminishing as the water rose. Roger and I had no interest in spooking the sheep, nor did we have any intention of getting on the same side of the wall with them. Imagine how easily we could have lost our footing and been taken under by the river. As we plotted what to do, one of the sheep was starting to negotiate her cautious move along the stonewall. The ground here is filled with reeds, holes, rocks and no end of ankle turning challenges. But as she started to make her way north, the other two slowly followed. Just before the river broke its banks, washing away the sheep’s high ground, the three made it to a wider patch of land. They were safe and oblivious to the danger around them so resumed eating grass. We went back inside.
Not everyone is so lucky. We have heard numerous stories about people crossing these swollen and rapid moving rivers, only to be dragged under and drown. And yet, that doesn’t stop the brave and adventurous souls who pitch up with their river kayaks and make their way from Two Bridges to Dartmeet where the West and East Dart Rivers meet to become The River Dart.
I love these rivers, not just their rapid rise and fall of water level, but that they provide a special habitat for some of Dartmoor’s wildlife. Most of the plants along the banks are grasses, mosses and ferns, but in the summer watching dragonflies flit about is a delight. Anglers routinely wade up the river in hopes of a catch of brown trout. I admire their optimism and confidence, as the only trout we’ve spotted are around 6 inches long!
We have yet to spy dipper or kingfishers along our stretch of river, but we have seen many a heron wading along in search of those 6-inch brown trout! What I long to see is the elusive Otter. These endangered wildlife are reported to be making a comeback along Dartmoor Rivers (book recommendation: Otter Country by Miriam Darlington). Since Otters are nocturnal and secretive, seeing one would be magical.
The rivers of Dartmoor helped shape this landscape and once provided a source of power for industries such as tin mining and quarrying. Today, they continue to provide for household uses, drinking water, and leisure activities. And for the past 200 years, one of the uses of Dartmoor water has been in the distillation process of Plymouth Gin.
So Take Me To The River, drop me in the water and sign me up for a tour. And that is just what we’ve done. Next week, we are heading to the Plymouth distillery for a Gin Connoisseur’s tour. I. Can’t. Wait. For. This. Tour!