Looping the Loop: the Lower Dart, Pondorously
Today we’re swimming the wider, lower, Wind in the Willows parts of the Dart between Staverton Bridge and Totnes. This is Sophie’s idea,and although I’ve driven along here many times, I’ve never swum it. At three miles it is shorter that the other swim I had contemplated, and also populated with some nice dawdlers and a good downhill current which will suit my level of post-injury unfitness perfectly – or so I think.
Of course it takes some time to corral everyone near the finish, a feat that includes catching Kari as she drives past without seeing us, organising people into carloads, and engaging in diplomacy with a local who is rather perturbed at our presence. We drive up to Staverton Bridge for the start, where I become trapped on the wrong side of the railway line after parking TrannyVan some way down the lane. Eventually the train driver stops chatting to his mates and sets off (he’d make a great wild swimmer) and so we are all able to walk down the track to the river.
The water is gorgeous and really rather warm and I’ve already dispensed with the wetsuit, which made it into TrannyVan but which I haven’t worn since December. We swim and scramble down through a languorous landscape where even the rapids are wide. From time to time I find myself spinning and being swept sideways across the rocky bottom. We slide down the weir – head first in Esther’s case – then continue chatting and floating and fish-watching. There are some bright turquoise stones on the riverbed, which turn out to be coloured on their tops only with a kind of verdigris (algae, perhaps?) Should anyone be able to explain this, please do tell!
The water by the banks is sieved through the roots of oaks and willows. Parts of the swim are eerily quiet as the river flows lazy and tinkle-less around wide bends. We float on our backs to watch as we hear the steam train passing with a wonderful hiss and chug and a nostalgic scent of Victorian England. Sophie is almost asleep at one point, and I have to prod her as she swoops, eyes closed and head-first towards the bank at about five knots. I miss the gnome garden, but catch a glimpse as we look back.
Eventually, Sophie, Lucien and I reach almost the end and, being shattered, decide to climb out and walk the last couple of hundred meters. The lower reaches of the loop were not as fast-flowing as we’d expected, and so we have done a fair amount of proper swimming. My jaw is juddering with cold as we walk up to find the others.
We decamp to the White Hart Bar at Dartington, and order an expensive dinner of tiny food. There is mackerel (around an eighth of a fish) with some foam and some beetroot, some venison with what appears to be goat’s milk aerosol cream (this being Dartington), a teapot of tomato soup that’s poured in a crazy gastronomic mixed metaphor into espresso cups, and sweet potato chips. Being completely ravenous after a three hour swim, we’re forced to have cheesecake for pudding, mainly because we’ve seen some going out to a neighbouring table and it was visible to the naked eye. Dogs are not allowed. This bar is now officially off the list!
Thanks to Stephanie Simon and Allan Macfadyen for the pics.