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Wild swimming on Dartmoor: jump into the world of The Water-babies

The idea of swimming in a river in the UK isn't normally that appealing. After all, many stretches of river don't look very enticing at all. The good news is that beautiful rivers to swim in are surprisingly plentiful, you just have to know where to look.

The phrase 'wild swimming' is starting to sound like a slightly annoying buzzword now, so I encourage those who are tiring of it to look beyond it, rather than dismissing it as 'just another fad'. Personally, I prefer to just call them 'river swims' or 'sea swims'. Whatever you choose to call them, they always beat the chlorinated waters of your local swimming pool.

So today I thought I would share one of my favourite ever river swims - the river Dart in Dartmoor national park. From the high, open moorland where Dartmoor ponies graze amongst the rocky outcrops, you would never know that hundreds of feet below is a dark and mysterious wooded valley, encasing a crystal clear river, perfect for jumping in and swimming. It's this exact stretch of river that the well-known Water-babies fairy tale comes from; a story so famous it was later made into a Walt Disney film.

Dartmoor ponies grazing the open moorland by Saddle Tor - a world apart from the perfect forested waters of valley below. Many years ago the ponies were used to transport things like food, wool and tin across the moor, or they worked in the mines.

Several hundred feet below: The fresh, fast-flowing waters of the river Dart. If you're lucky you might even spot an Otter!


The fairy tale

In The Water-Babies, a chimney sweep named Tom is wrongly accused of stealing. He flees what's coming to him and escapes across the moor. Down in the valley a group of fairies coax him into the river where he enters a whole new underwater world. Here's a short passage from the Victorian tale:

"Tom... was so hot and thirsty, and longed so to be clean for once, that he tumbled himself as quick as he could into the clear cool stream. And he had not been in at two minutes before he fell asleep, into the quietist, sunniest, cosiest sleep that he had in his life…" extract from The Water-Babies, 1863.

In this new watery world he meets all sorts of funny characters from otters to salmon, both of which can still be found in the river today. I won't spoil the rest of the story but there's actually a surprising amount of depth to it. The website describe it as "an odd book which is at once a children’s classic, a moral fable, a response to the theory of evolution, and a satire on Victorian attitudes to child labour and religion."

It's this exact stretch of river that the well-known Waterbabies fairy tale comes from; a story so famous it was later made into a Walt Disney film.

Anyway, if you would rather just pretend you're in an old English fairytale, then this stretch of the river is where you can jump in and do just that.

Plunging into the cold fast flowing waters of the river Dart.


What's so great about swimming here?

The appeal lies in the fact that it really does feel like you're in a fairytale. Standing in the dappled sunlight on the forest floor, you often can't see or hear any signs civilization. It doesn't just feel like you're swimming in Victorian England, it feels like you could be swimming at any point it the last 10,000 years. Whilst they'll often be a few other people around, there are also times when there is no-one and then it feels like a true wilderness; something that's rare on this densely populated little island in the north Atlantic.

it feels like you could be swimming at any point it the last 10,000 years

The forest surrounding the river is a mix of trees but is largely dominated by mighty, magnificent oaks. In fact the origin of the name 'Dart' comes from the ancient word for 'place where the oak trees grow'. On a warm sunny day this gives rise to some of the most striking and atmospheric lighting effects you can imagine. Huge sun-warmed granite rocks above the water make the perfect suntrap to lie in, whilst the clear depths of the river are illuminated right down to the bottom. Just a few feet away, the woodland canopy can block out almost all the light, rendering the water black, eery and mysterious as it snakes it way down the valley. It's all just so characterful - who cares about 'infinity pools' when you can come here for free.

Taking in the sites of Dartmoor from up high, before descending hundreds of feet to swim in the wooded valley below.


The Area

A huge area to explore

Another reason for coming here is just to explore Dartmoor itself - after all it's the largest area of open countryside in the South of England. . I often find the most enjoyable time to do a river swim is at the end of a long walk (or run) and there's so many opportunities for great hikes in the 368 square miles that makes up the national park.

the origin of the name 'Dart' comes from the ancient word for 'place where the oak trees grow'

Today, it's a varied landscape but it wasn't always that way. It was once almost entirely wooded. A thin layer of charcoal preserved in the peat bogs is the evidence that shows how Stone Age man began to cut and burn areas of the forest some 7000 years ago, in order to make it easier to hunt animals. This process accelerated in the Bronze age, 3500 years ago, which brought wide scale clearance as agriculture began to replace hunter gathering. Now the forest is largely found by the river down in the valley, whilst the high altitudes are largely open moorland.

Putting yourself on edge.... (in a good way!)

In case I hadn't laboured the point enough, it's a very atmospheric part of the country! I quite like spooky feeling places and the landscape here is both strikingly beautiful but also sometimes quite eery. It's perhaps no surprise then that Dartmoor is known for its myths and legends. Aside from The Water-Babies the area also inspired The Hound of the Baskervilles due to fabled sightings of both a huge black dog, as well as a growling pack of 'spectral hounds'. Throw in both a headless horseman and a pair of hairy hands (that are said to attack motorists on the B3212) and you'll have enough adrenaline flowing through your system to make any trip to Dartmoor pretty exciting.

If you don't like to entertain that suspicious stuff you can always get your adrenaline rush from the river. Not only - as I've described here - is it a place for a relaxing swim but it's also a place for running the rapids on kayaks, or even 'hydrosurfing' on big inflatable rubber rings.


The How-to

In summary, whatever you do on Dartmoor, you will likely have a great time. As for the swimming spots mentioned here, the 'how-to' is pretty straightforward. There are lots of good stretches to swim so my advice would be to head to the village of Holne, walk down to the river and just start exploring. You could swim right there, like we did, or walk upstream and find another spot...there's hardly a shortage.

You might be wondering how I found this place. The answer is simple. I've had the 'wild swimming' guide books by Daniel Start for over 10 years now and they've been invaluable; I just wouldn't have places like this without them. If you're wanting to do more swimming in the outdoors then I would really recommend getting them.

So thanks for reading. It's goodbye from me for this post and also a good by from this fella (below) - one of the Dartmoor Highland Cattle!

Hi - I'm a highland cow, living on Dartmoor. See you next time!

Lawrence D'Silva


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