Adventures by train – swimming in the River Dart

A River Dart swim by train

Station: Totnes

Travel time from London: 2.5 hours

Travel time from Bristol: 1.5 hours

Authors adventure tip: Outdoor swimming is never without risk so read up on basic safety advice from the experts at the Outdoor Swimming Society before you go.

Five apps that can help you stay safe outside.

Practicalities: Even on a hot day the River Dart can be cold so get in carefully, and take some warm clothes for afterwards. If you’re not used to changing on a public footpath, take a big towel, there isn’t really an option here. Toilets are available at Totnes Station and on the Dartington Estate.

Three different types of cold water swimmer.

Your train adventure

If you love trains, you’re in for a treat when you arrive at Totnes Station. Just a short walk across the river will take you to the South Devon Railway where a steam train may well be waiting to chuff you up to Buckfastleigh. You won’t be travelling quite as far upstream if you choose to swim but a dip in the Dart is a wonderful experience. I swam in June.

Your river swim

It might all feel a bit urban when you hop off the train at Totnes but don’t worry. Turn left then follow the path down to the river.

If you can’t find it, ask a local, they’re very friendly.

The River Dart is a river of contrasts. Marshy, bubbly, meandering, brackish, sweeping, it’s definitely worth exploring from source to sea. Below the weir here at Totnes, it’s tidal. At the pontoon you’re about to find though is a sweet, deep pool.

Although on a high tide, the seals do sometimes sneak in.

Whether you practice your diving, explore the pool,  or venture further upstream, you won’t be disappointed. The lush greens and tannin-loaded water will float your troubles away.

And you’ll go home with an adventure in your soul.

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Your wild swimming walking route

I’ve described a sample river walk on the Dartington Estate below but I would definitely recommend diverting to explore the gardens and wider estate (there’s a great cafe too).

Your walking route on OS Maps: River Dart wild swimming

This 2 km (1.2 miles) linear walk takes you along the banks of the River Dart. You’ll be walking on permissive paths through the Dartington Estate so please be respectful of any signs and gates.

And of course, leave absolutely no trace.

There’s plenty more to explore at Dartington but you might find the river is calling you. If you have a suitable tow float, one suggestion would be to walk upriver, stuff your clothes, then swim (and possibly wade) back downstream to the weir.

This isn’t a difficult walk to navigate. Just keep the river on your right as you walk up, then on your left on your return.

  1. Find the River Dart

Leave Totnes Station by the main entrance then turn left across the car park. Follow the shared foot and cycle path to the river. Turn left to head under the railway bridge.

2. Get your gear off

Just above the weir and right next to the path you’ll find a wooden pontoon. This is your swim entry and exit point. The water is deep here but there are sometimes hidden underwater obstacles so have a swim around before you do any diving or jumping.

3. Follow the river

Whether you choose to swim or walk upriver, you’re about to enter the Dartington Estate. There’s plenty of interest so take your time. If you’re swimming in the summer, you might have to wade some sections.

4. Explore

The gardens and cafe at Dartington are lovely but it’s the atmosphere of this place that I love. Explore at will but allow plenty of time for that sneaky second dip before you hop back on the train.

Plan your own walking route with OS Maps 2022

A little bit about river access

The Dartington Estate is privately owned but have a welcoming policy for river swimmers. This isn’t the case across much of England and Wales.

River access rights are complicated but I’ve tried to summarise the situation for Wales and England below. Here’s some more information about swimming access and law.

  • Navigable rivers and tidal stretches have a right of navigation including swimming (but aren’t always safe)
  • Riparian owners may own riverbanks and river beds but they don’t own the water itself
  • Anglers often pay a lot of money for fishing rights, and sometimes object to swimmers who don’t
  • If you can’t get to a river on a public right of way or don’t have permission from the land owner, your only way in may be in the water, and then you have to find a way out again

I’m not going to get into trespass issues here but my approach has always been to stick to the rules wherever possible, avoid swimming directly under ‘no-swim’ notices, and try very hard not to spoil someone else’s enjoyment.

And I always have a lovely time.

Author’s adventure

Time to anticipate

This wasn’t by any means my first river swim at Totnes but it was the first time I had arrived by train. If you’ve ever driven between Torbay and Totnes in the summer holidays, you’ll know how desperate the traffic queues can make you feel. The train just made me happy.

To swim or not to swim

Once I’d wriggled out of my clothes, and sat down on the pontoon, it took me a while to pluck up the courage to slip into the water. It was inviting though. If I had to name the colour, I would call it Wind in the Willows Green. When I did eventually commit myself, the feeling as the water slipped over my head was joyous.

Upstream

There are some things I dislike when I’m in the water. The underside of pontoons is an example,  so I swam a few strokes away to get my bearings. The water was deep but there was one not-so-sunken tree, presumably washed down by floods. Upstream seemed like the most attractive option.

So I swam.

And then I swam back again.

I don’t know how far I went. But I do know my arms failed to lift my body elegantly out onto the pontoon.

Instead I slunk out via the slippery rocks at the side.

Three nights, four types of sleep. There’s accommodation on Dartmoor to suit everyone.