Dear fellow travellers
We wandered through Devon byways, passing Kingdom's Corner to reach the River Dart at Worthy Bridge. From there it was an easy stroll down the valley towards Bickleigh. This is not the much photographed River Dart that famously tumbles off the eastern edge of Dartmoor, and slips down past Totnes to the sea. And it's not the Bickleigh north of Plymouth. Many good things in Devon come in twos. There really are two River Darts, perhaps more for all we know, and there are two villages called Bickleigh.
Our Dart, the one that features in this tale, bubbles inconspicuously to life on the southern flank of Stoodleigh Beacon, a few miles away to the north. It barely has a chance to establish its credentials as a river before it decants its waters into the River Exe at Bickleigh. The muddy Dart is swallowed in a gulp by the larger river.
"It may seem like a mere stream just now," said John Lean as we stood with him on the bank of the Dart earlier this month. "But wait till it rains. With a storm up the hills, the Dart can rise in minutes to become a mighty torrent." With a gesture over the narrow flood plain, John pointed out how in winters past the waters have lapped up against buildings on the bank of the stream.
John farms a handsome herd of White Park cattle. He has 150 head of cattle on the steep slopes of the Dart. They are magnificent animals, serene and docile with gently curved horns and dark melancholic eyes. The animals have picked up something of a Devon hue, their white flanks tinged slightly red from the Devon soil.
Soft autumn colours drape the valley as we leave John and walk down to Bickleigh. "A pretty spot, though more or less spoilt by the railway," wrote the topographer John Page in his 1893 book on Devon's rivers.
Page wasn't keen on railways. Another celebrated Devon writer, WG Hoskins, was kinder to Bickleigh, commenting on scenes of "perfect pastoral beauty" in his celebrated book just entitled Devon (1954). Hoskins goes further with a remark that the bridge over the River Exe at Bickleigh is "a noted beauty spot, but unspoilt."
The railway through Bickleigh is long gone - John Page would be pleased by that. And although the village has acquired a sprinkle of tourist clutter, Hoskins - ever a great campaigner for the Devon countryside until his death in 1992 - would still be satisfied by the view.
"Ah, so you've seen the White Parks," said a man we met in Bickleigh. "Those eyes, those horns, quite something, eh?" We nodded in assent. We then sat quietly and listened to an improbable tale of the local brigand, one Bampfylde Moore Carew. It was a story we already knew, but a tale well told is always good for a second or even third outing. Carew's roguish antics created a little havoc in the Dart and Exe Valleys (and more widely across the region). Devon was eventually too small a stage for Carew's grand scams and he travelled far and wide, even to the Americas, eventually returning to Bickleigh to live out a comfortable retirement. Carew's biography became a best seller, running into many editions in the closing decades of the eighteenth century.
Whether there was a grain of truth in Carew's Life and Adventures is a matter for debate. That was grist to our discussions on our walk back upstream beside the River Dart, the unsung Devon river that slips under Worthy Bridge and down past the White Parks before generously spilling its waters into the Exe at Bickleigh.
Nicky Gardner and Susanne Kries
(editors, hidden europe magazine)