The river's name is presumed to be Brythonic Celtic meaning 'river where oak trees grow' due to the banks of the lower Dart being covered in ancient woods of native oak Bray notes in 1832 that the name was occasionally spelled 'Darant'.
The river begins as two separate branches (the East Dart and West Dart), which join at Dartmeet. The paths along these rivers offer very attractive walking, and there are several small waterfalls. The rivers are crossed by a number of clapper bridges, notably at the hamlet of Postbridge.
After leaving the moor, the Dart flows southwards past Buckfast Abbey and through the towns of Buckfastleigh, Dartington and Totnes. At Totnes, where there is a seventeenth-century weir (rebuilt in the 1960s), it becomes tidal, and there are no bridges below the town.
A passenger ferry operates across the river from the village of Dittisham to a point adjacent to the Greenway Estate. Formerly the home of the late crime writer Agatha Christie, this has stunning views across the river, and the house and gardens are now owned by the National Trust and are open to the public.
The Dart estuary is a large ria and is popular for sailing. The village of Kingswear and town of Dartmouth are on the east and west sides of the estuary, and are linked by two vehicle ferries and a passenger ferry. The deep water port of Dartmouth is a sheltered haven.
The entrance to the river from the sea is a rocky entrance with cliffs either side. On the East side Kingswear Castle sits very close to the water's edge, and on the west side Dartmouth Castle is built on a rocky promontory at sea level. The castles once operated a defensive chain across the estuary, which was raised at dusk to destroy enemy ships attempting to attack the harbour. The remains of the operating mechanisms for the chain are still visible in Dartmouth castle.
The flooded ria that forms the lower reaches of the Dart, with its deep water and steeply sloping valley sides, is a considerable barrier to crossing traffic. There are no bridges below Totnes.
At the mouth of the river, it separates the communities of Dartmouth and Kingswear. There have been proposals to bridge the river here, but these have come to nothing. Instead the two places are linked by, in order going upstream, the Lower Ferry, Passenger Ferry and Higher Ferry. The Lower and Higher ferries both carry vehicles, the Higher one linking the A379 road.
A further five miles upstream is Totnes, where the river is spanned by two road bridges, a railway bridge and a footbridge over. Totnes Bridge is the nearest bridge to the sea and is a road bridge built in 1826-28 by Charles Fowler. Some 1,000 ft upstream is Brutus Bridge, constructed in 1982 as part of a road traffic-relief scheme and carrying the concurrent A385 and A381 roads. A further ½ mile upstream, the railway bridge carries the Exeter to Plymouth line over the river. Immediately upstream of the railway bridge is a footbridge, built in 1993 to provide access to the Totnes (Littlehempston) terminus of the South Devon Railway.
The lower section of the River Dart forms Dartmouth Harbour, a deep water natural harbour with a long history of maritime usage. In modern times, the port's commercial activity has declined, but it is still a busy port for local fishing vessels and a wide variety of yachts and other private boats. Several local companies specialise in shipbuilding and repairs to small tonnage craft.
Dartmouth is also the home of the Britannia Royal Naval College and as a result is routinely visited by sizeable naval ships. Smaller naval tenders are often seen carrying out training exercises in the harbour and river. Large cruise ships are occasional visitors, with the largest visitor to date being the MV Royal Princess (30,277 GRT).
Upstream, the Dart is navigable to seagoing vessels as far as the weir in Totnes. The river almost dries out for two miles below Totnes at spring tide low water, but vessels drawing up to three foot can proceed to Totnes from one and a half hours after low water. Above the weir, the river is navigable only to small craft such as kayaks and canoes.
Several companies operate trips on the river. These include cruises from Dartmouth to Totnes, which can be combined with journeys on the Paignton and Dartmouth Steam Railway and an open top bus between Totnes and Paignton to create a circular trip.
The harbour and port are popular leisure boating locations, and several marinas and boat yards are located on the river. The Port of Dartmouth Royal Regatta takes place annually over three days at the end of August.
Canoeing and kayaking
The upper reaches of Dartmoor, especially those on the Dart, are a focal point for whitewater kayakers and canoeists. The best known sections of the river are:
- Upper Dart from Dartmeet to Newbridge (Grade 3/4 (higher in high water), advanced run).
- The Loop from Newbridge to Holne Bridge (Grade 2/3, beginner/intermediate run).
- The Lower from Holne Bridge to Buckfastleigh (Grade 2, beginner section).
Sections of the East and West Dart above Dartmeet, as well as the Webburn are also paddled when conditions permit. This is somewhat controversial, as riparian landowners and those responsible for local fisheries maintain that the East and West Dart should not be paddled.
The lower reaches of the Dart, including the estuary are suitable for flat water touring.
Angling is very popular in the Dart Valley. The West Dart is notable ground for salmon spawning redds.
Literature and folklore
The River Dart is the source of much folklore on Dartmoor, where it is traditionally respected and feared - the waters have a tendency to rise without notice following heavy rainfall on the moors above, adding to the dangers of its rapids and powerful currents. This gave rise to the couplet:
- "River of Dart, Oh River of Dart!
- Every year thou claimest a heart."
The 1951 non-fiction book The River Dart by Ruth Manning-Sanders centres on the river and its history.
The poet Alice Oswald wrote the 48-page poem Dart (2002), which was awarded the T. S. Eliot Prize for 2002. The poem's voice is that of the River Dart, which Oswald adapted from three years of recorded conversations and research with people who inhabit the communities along the river.
- ISBN 0-19-852758-6 Oxford Dictionary of British Place Names
- http://www.dartmoor-npa.gov.uk/aurawprdeco6 Dartmoor National Park Authority press release on restoring ancient woodland in Dartmoor's valleys Template:Wayback
- A Description of the Part of Devonshire Bordering on the Tamar and the Tavy ... - Mrs. Bray (Anna Eliza) - Google Books. Books.google.co.uk. http://books.google.co.uk/books?id=PpmOIoehptUC&pg=PA16#v=onepage&q&f=false. Retrieved 2013-05-29.
- "Dittisham Departures". Greenway Ferry Service. Archived from the original on May 15, 2008. https://web.archive.org/20080515072801/http://www.greenwayferry.co.uk/dittishamdepartures.htm. Retrieved 2008-09-24.
- Bridget Cherry & Nikolaus Pevsner (1989). The Buildings of England — Devon. Harmondsworth: Penguin. pp. 866–875. ISBN 0-14-071050-7.
- Hawkins, Michael (1988). Devon Roads: An illustrated survey of the development and management of Devon's highway network. Exeter: Devon Books. p. 52. ISBN 0-86114-817-7.
- Taylor, Alan; Treglown, Peter (May 1999). South Devon Railway - A Visitors Guide. South Devon Railway Trust. pp. 23–28.
- "Commercial Vessels Guide". Dart Harbour & Navigation Authority. http://www.dartharbour.org/commercial-vessels-guide/. Retrieved 2008-09-25.
- "Visiting Ships". Dart Harbour & Navigation Authority. http://www.dartharbour.org/visiting-ships/. Retrieved 2008-09-25.
- "Sailing Directions". Dart Harbour & Navigation Authority. http://www.dartharbour.org/harbour-river-guide/sailing-directions/. Retrieved 2008-09-25.
- "River Trips". Dart Harbour & Navigation Authority. http://www.dartharbour.org/harbour-river-guide/river-trips/. Retrieved 2008-09-25.
- "Time Table 2008" (PDF). Dart Pleasure Craft Limited. http://www.riverlink.co.uk/PDF/TimeTable2008.pdf. Retrieved 2008-09-18.
- UK Rivers Guidebook, River Dart, Upper
- UK Rivers Guidebook, River Dart, Loop
- UK Rivers Guidebook, River Dart, Lower
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