The grey cloud stretches from horizon to horizon, a uniform blanket that gives little or no hint that it is sweeping by on the stiff breeze, but sweeping it must be as once in a while there is a brighter patch and the uniform moorland below glows momentarily before fading to dull green again.
I am 5 miles and 2 hours from the roadside at Postbridge and the East Dart River that I have followed to its source has dwindled from a rushing stream of clear, though richly peat stained water to a trickle heard but not seen through the fields of reeds. Following the river upstream it has been as if every bog and marsh encountered has sucked some of the life from the river and not only that but the water has lost its clarity and is now dull and dirty.
The ground I am standing on is sucking at my feet, clearly I am not going to be able to reach the sound of water this way and it is time to back out before this swamp swallows me whole. Away from the relative stability of the reeds where the water at least drains I find myself on a patch of almost lemon yellow moss. This is not good at all. I take another step forward and my foot sinks several inches, the surface bowing down beneath the pressure and a slow wave moves out across the bog. The overall effect is somewhat like being on a bouncy castle. Forwards or backwards? Forwards is not my first choice, but on the basis that this is not my first time in a Dartmoor bog and that I recognise the patches that are likely to be firmer by their colour and texture and I’ve not gone through into the wet underneath yet, I will go forward.
You know you are properly out on Dartmoor when even the sheep don’t go there. Looking around me there are no sheep. It’s a worrying thought that at this moment the sheep are smarter than I am. Maybe they really are a lot smarter, as I am also well within the boundary of the army’s Merrivale firing range.
The actual source of the river will thus remain a mystery, suffice to say somewhere out there in that morass of reeds and moss is a point where water oozing out of the moor coalesces into a drop, that drop runs together with others and a river begins. A crystal spring it is not.
Within a few hundred meters downstream the river has become quite distinct and beside a massive grey granite boulder there is a pool. Not much of a pool it’s true, I have been in baths that were bigger, but this is officially the furthest place up the East Dart River that you can take a ‘wild swim’. Drying afterwards I find myself musing on the notion that it is possible for something as dull and featureless as a granite boulder to in fact be an item of significant interest, but only of course when everything else around it is even duller than it is.
The river grows as each marsh and bog now adds back the water it sucked out earlier, but it is more than a mile to the next dip where, beside another identical granite boulder, there is a puddle, this time more than waist deep and where I can actually swim albeit briefly against the flow. The sky lightens and just for an instant the water glitters with dancing sunlight.
It is little more than 10 minutes to Sandy Hole Pass but the change is profound and instead of being surrounded by an unlimited view of grass, reeds, bog cotton and moss I have reached the outward and downward slope of the moor and South Devon to the sea is in front of me mottled with patches of sunshine.
The river runs through a deep cutting, drops over a series of shallow steps and into a small, quite shallow pool. I’ve been in that one before and will skip it today. The river then winds through a deep bowl in the moor and almost immediately there is a decent pool. The top end is fairly shallow but half way down it suddenly deepens, I quite literally fell of the underwater edge the first time I swam here, little has changed and one moment my toes trail on the pebbles and the next I can only just touch them at full stretch. Sadly the pool quickly shallows again. But there’s more.
The river turns sharply and for the next 30m there are deep bits and shallow bits along a narrow channel between high grass and reed capped banks where clusters of foxgloves nod their pink flowers. A few discarded flowers spin boatlike down the stream. On the bank a sheep is chewing some of the leaves. Sheep are pretty stupid after all, those plants are poisonous you daft creature. And then the channel opens out into a round pool the product of peat cutting in the dim and distant past. The pool is about 30 feet in diameter and where I can no longer touch the stream bed with my toes it is anyone’s guess as to its depth.
I laze in the water, at 18C it is not as warm as it should be in mid-July but it is still perfectly pleasant. The flow carries me over to the outlet and almost at once I run aground on soft, slimy peat. It’s time to walk back to my clothes where I wipe the sand and peat from between my toes, there is no more swimming between here and Postbridge, a splash at the East Dart Waterfall if you like and a few more bathtubs but I’d best be getting back I am already starting to seize up and I won’t be needing the towel again today.