River Dart Way is a new pilgrimage route created by Sam Wernham, founder of River Dart Wild Church, as a sea to source ‘wander and wonder’ along the length of the River Dart. It is inspired by and follows the journey that the Dart Atlantic salmon swim, to return from the open ocean to their source pools, for spawning, on Dartmoor. The route includes ferry crossings, the option to paddle some sections by canoe and to travel by steam train. So it can be a wonderful exploration: from the wide spaces of the sea shore to the winding streams of the high moor; from lively historic towns and villages to quiet landscapes of incredible natural diversity; including tidal saltmarsh, ancient woodland, species rich wildflower meadows and more.
People have been paddling, walking and finding inspiration along the River Dart for millennia. Our particular way of inviting pilgrimage on this route is based on our experience of silently walking the route in short stages for an afternoon a month over a year at a time, with each year focussed on a particular theme and part of the Dart within its landscape. So we offer this route in four parts and yet it can also be travelled in a single journey over about a week. Ours is a form of slow pilgrimage that enables deeper connection with the nature of place through the seasons. Our Wild Church has been walking the Dart and its tributaries for almost ten years and we have a particular interest in the margins and marginalised, whether this is habitat, flora and fauna, historical details or cultural and spiritual perspectives.
River Dart Wild Church (RDWC) walks as a form of environmental sacred activism and they hope to encourage and enable pilgrims to come into deeper relationship with different ecosystems along the river, so the waypoints include invitations into nature connection, from both sacred and secular perspectives. The route also has waypoints which are holy sites that have been significant for people over many centuries, such as churches, ancient trees or wells. The focus is on ‘peregrinatio’, on savouring the journey rather than the destination and on being open to the unknown, unexpected and enchanting. So this route offers guidance and yet is not fixed. It includes choices and peregrinatio invitations to find your own way at times…
For detailed info on the 7-mile Stage 1, please scroll below the Google Map. Stages 2, 3 & 4 to be added in 2024/2025.
Part One – Salmon and Saltmarsh Pilgrimage – the River Dart Estuary from Dartmouth to Dartington
Please note that much of this is based on the Dart Valley Trail and additional information can be found through the South Devon AONB website here. This part of the route is offered as a contribution to Living Dart: The Saltmarsh Project initiated in 2023 by the Bioregional Learning Centre. For further information about saltmarsh, please see the RDWC resource page here. Our approach to this pilgrimage has also been inspired by the research carried out by film maker and artist, Tyler Freeman Smith, while completing a Masters in Engaged Ecology at Schumacher College. You can listen to his podcast on multispecies pilgrimage here.
All text and images on this page © Sam Wernham 2023 unless otherwise stated.
Stage One: Dartmouth to Dittisham – 7 miles
This stage of the Way starts at the sea, explores a little of the ancient town of Dartmouth, which has a long history of welcoming pilgrims, and then crosses the Dart Estuary by ferry to Kingswear. The route then continues on the north side of river, through the woods to a National Trust estate, Greenway (most recently the home of crime novelist Agatha Christie) before a final ferry crossing to the village of Dittisham. For a circular journey, the best way back is by boat, such as by ferry from Greenway Quay. (It is also possible to then journey back to Dartmouth on the south side of the river. Various online walk guides give details for this – here’s one).
Our Dartmouth-Kingswear-Dittisham section is about 5 miles long. As a pilgrimage we recommend allowing at least half a day, or even a full day if pausing longer at the waypoints. If you have time, Dartmouth and Kingswear alone deserve a day of exploration and a suggestion is offered below for a shorter circular walk as part of this. A second day could then be given to the walk between Kingswear and Dittisham, with time taken to also explore walks along the river (including to the Boathouse) at Greenway.
A pilgrimage begins before the beginning and you can get to Dartmouth in many ways: sail in from the sea, paddle downstream/take a river cruise from Totnes, a steam train from Paignton, the bus from various directions or arrive by car. If driving & intending to walk the route given here, one way, with companions, we suggest parking at each end: on Castle Road in Dartmouth and The Ham in Dittisham.
Refreshments – Dartmouth Castle Tea Rooms is near the start of the walk. Dartmouth particularly has many options. (Try Cafe Alf Resco for atmosphere, Rockfish for fresh, local seafood and Dartmouth Ice Cream for, you guessed it… ice cream!). Towards the end of the walk there are National Trust cafes at Greenway and the ‘FBI’ or Ferry Boat Inn is just by the final ferry destination in Dittisham.
This stage of the pilgrimage begins by the sea at:
- Sugary Cove
Steep steps from the South Devon Coast Path lead down to this beautiful small cove, with a sand & stone beach when the tide is going out. As you walk down look out for local wild plants alongside the path, including the (rather unfortunately named) ‘stinking iris’ with its lovely pale purple flowers in early summer and dramatic heads of bright orange seeds in the autumn.
Sugary Cove is a good spot from which to look out across the mouth of the Dart, watch the watercraft and wildlife, and get a sense of the sea. You might even like to swim here, keeping to the more sandy left side, as you look out to sea. This is where the Dart Atlantic salmon will ‘taste’ their home waters and set off on their upstream journey towards their source place. Why not pause here to reflect on the purpose of your own pilgrimage?
When you are ready, then walk towards Dartmouth, passing Sugary Green below and to your right. This was once a gun emplacement and was more recently saved from development & secured for community use by local residents and the Open Spaces Society. Turn right just after the green plaque commemorating this and head down the steps towards Dartmouth Castle. The Tea Rooms are just opposite & public toilets nearby. Turn left and take the lower path to:
- St Petrox Church, Dartmouth
Dedicated to a sixth century Welsh prince, who gave up his royal status to lead a religious life. He ministered to the Britons of Devon and Cornwall, then forming the ancient kingdom of Dumnonia, and also to those in other parts of the Westcountry & in Brittany. Crossing the threshold into any kind of sacred space can be engaged with as a mindful moment, so you may like to pause briefly before entering the church. There is a contemporary icon of the saint near the altar and many other sacred images in the church which can be contemplated. You may also like to pause for a time of dedication for your pilgrimage and take the opportunity to light a candle.
Written records of this ancient sacred site predate the Norman conquest and ‘the monastery of St Peter’ is referred to on a deed dated 1192. The church is built into the seawall and spring water runs into the harbour from below the platform on which it stands, so the earliest chapel may have been placed beside a holy well. (From The Story of St Petrox, 1947, by Percy Russell). So perhaps pilgrims have been drawn here since ancient times?
Dartmouth certainly has a long history of welcoming pilgrims. An article from the Devonshire Association describes the Roman road between Exeter and Dartmouth and several forms of pilgrimage that took place along it, including how ‘the vogue of a great pilgrimage to the Spanish shrine of St. Jago di Compostella lasted for several years from 1428. “The Duke of Clarence, the Earl of Warwick with their wyffes and company, roade to Dartmouth and embarqued for Calys”, doubtless an attractive and picturesque cavalcade, in 1470, and as it was spring-time it maybe that the pleasant journey made up for the longer sea passage’.
St Petrox continues to be a place of worship within the Church of England, including regular sung Evensong using the Book of Common Prayer (1662) on Sundays during the summer. It is open most of the year for visitors, pilgrims and for private prayer. Times and more details are here.
From St Petrox there is a choice of ways to journey further into Dartmouth. During the summer, Dartmouth Castle Ferry operates from just below the church and offers great views back across the water. (Take the path past the Memorial Garden & look out for ferry signs and the path down to the river). From the jetty and the boat you can look out for wildlife on or in the water. Even in this busy part of the river, you may spot fish (perhaps even an increasingly rare salmon or sea trout), seabirds (such as herring gulls, which many people do not realise are a ‘red list’ endangered species) or a seal. To walk, instead of going by water, take any of the three parallel lanes, all named Castle Road. (Peregrinatio invitation: which lane draws you?). Find your way to:
- Warfleet Creek
Named from the Saxon ‘Welflut’ referring to the stream that runs down to the creek. In the past it has been busy with industry; including rope making, a brewery, a paper mill, Dartmouth Pottery (famous for its gurgling fish jugs!) and an old lime kiln still stands beside the shore. Now it is often a fairly quiet spot to get close to the water and have a paddle. It is also a good starting point to set off from, if you want to canoe this first section of the pilgrimage. Travelling upstream by canoe offers the best views of the Dart saltmarsh, which are fragile ecosystems on the intertidal, muddy margins of the river. They are important habitats for fish, birds and unique salt tolerant plants and significantly, in these times of climate crisis, store more carbon than forests.
On the far side of Warfleet Creek, Castle Road comes to a T junction. Turn right towards the town and continue along the side of the Dart Estuary. Once again there is then a choice, to either take the higher ‘Above Town’ road, past Dyer’s Hill and with long views, or to stay closer to the water and drop down to walk through Bayard Cove Fort and along to the Lower Ferry. If you take the higher route, you can then cut down some steps (first right) to pass The Old Chapel, site of the original Baptist Chapel and where Thomas Newcomen (inventor of the steam engine) was the pastor from 1710 – 1729. Dartmouth was spiritually diverse in the eighteenth century with a few local Jewish families and a wide range of Christian denominations. Look to the right as you reach the bottom of the steps to see the Catholic Church of St John the Baptist, but turn left to walk briefly along the B3205 and then left again up Higher Street to wend your way towards:
- St Saviour’s Church, Dartmouth
A good waypoint for pilgrims all year round, as it is well heated and warm in the winter! It is also in active use, with services every Sunday – more details here. Whatever your beliefs there is much to explore and enjoy here: look up at the starry ceiling and look down at the ancient stones and medieval brasses by your feet. Here are some highlights, for those who like to look for the wild side in church:
An ancient tree – the oldest part of the church is the wood of the old south door, which was carbon dated to earlier than the 1372 consecration of the church. It may have come from one of the ancient oaks that line the river and from which the Dart gets its name, from the Brythonic dar meaning oak. The door also features some wonderful medieval ironwork of a Tree of Life (an ancient sacred symbol in many spiritual traditions) and two Plantagenet leopards.
Holy Water – water is highly significant in many faiths, including Christianity. It is through the water of baptism that people often begin a faith journey and water is used to cleanse and bless. Places where water would have been and still is sometimes present in churches include a stoop for holy water by the main door, a piscina near the altar to receive water (and channel it down to the earth) which has been used for cleansing during communion and a font for baptismal water. See which of these you can find here.
Brass moths – look out for these on the monument of John Hawley II (b. 1340) and his two wives, which is in the sanctuary as you walk towards the main Altar. Hawley is reputed to have been the inspiration for the ‘shipman’ from one of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales (a collection of stories, each told by a pilgrim on their journey to the shrine of St Thomas Becket).
Sacred women & leafy faces– are both on the Rood Screen dating back to around 1480. Women have often been marginalised in Christian contexts, and especially since the Reformation in Britain, so look out for St Anne with a book. Anne or Anna (Hannah) was the grandmother of Jesus (Joshua) and the mother of Mary (Miriam) and from the fourteenth century she was often depicted as teaching her daughter to read – an empowering example of female literacy for the Middle Ages. Journey with and into a copy of Femina by Janina Ramirez for contemporary inspiration from medieval women. Look up to find a Green Man or Jack in the Green, a familiar figure from English folklore who often appears in churches with leafy branches sprouting from and around his face.
Wild pews – look out for the various wild creatures beautifully carved into some of the pew ends, including fish and birds. According to the illustrated historical guide, which you can buy in the church, in the seventeenth century there was even a pew provided especially for dogs!
Lady Chapel – dedicated to Mary and with lots of female imagery. As St Saviour’s is our final pilgrimage waypoint before leaving Dartmouth and crossing the river to Kingswear, it may serve as another pause point for some quiet reflection. The Lady Chapel is kept for quiet prayer and is a comfortable place to sit for a while, with the option to light a candle.
On leaving St Saviour’s turn back towards the water and wend your own way through the narrow streets to find the Lower Ferry to cross the Dart to Kingswear. If you look back towards towards the town, there is a good view of:
- Bayard’s Cove and Fort.
It was close to here that seventeenth century Pilgrims moored their boats, Mayflower and Speedwell, on their way from Plymouth to America in 1620. (If you are staying longer in Dartmouth, there is a Mayflower Heritage Trail and an exhibition in the Dartmouth Museum).
The story of these mostly Puritan religious dissenters or Separatists has become a much mythologised US origin tale and the foundation of Thanksgiving Day. The historical perspective is more painful and complex, as the Pilgrims’ pursuit of religious freedom and economic opportunity came at great cost to the colonised Wampanoag people, on whose land they arrived and where these indigenous ‘people of the first light’ had lived for 12,000 years. What might it mean to engage in responsible, respectful and sustainable pilgrimage in our own times?
Soon after leaving the ferry and on arriving in Kingswear, turn right under the arch and climb up the hill following the Coast Path signs (If you have time you might like to take a wander further along the coast path before turning upstream). Turn left when the path reaches the road (Beacon Road) and then head down Church Hill to:
- St Thomas of Canterbury, Kingswear
Following the murder (in 1170) and canonisation (in 1173) of the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Becket, pilgrims began to travel to his shrine in Canterbury and chapels were built in his honour, including here at Kingswear. It is thought that the chapel was served by monks from Totnes Priory (See the guidebook in the church) and it seems likely that pilgrims travelling to and from France passed through and paused here.
The oldest remaining part of the church is the Tower, the Norman font and a stone coffin lid from the tomb of a thirteenth century monk, Brother Philip, which now lies in the Lady Chapel.The church was mostly rebuilt in the nineteenth century & plague graves were found near the old foundations during the building work. The church guide describes a ‘curious plant’ or fungus which seemed to have then grown out of these graves, destroying the wood of the seats near the south door.
For a further glimpse of the wild in St Thomas of Canterbury, you might like to trace the beautifully carved pew ends, again featuring fish, birds and the green man. The central panel of the stained glass window behind the main Altar depicts Christ as the Good Shepherd. Although the window is relatively recent (1880) this is one of the earliest symbolic ways of depicting Christ, as found in the Catacombs of Rome, from a time when Christianity was still a persecuted and marginalised faith.
A pilgrimage can have its times of challenge and is sometimes undertaken in response to suffering and a search for healing. Or it may mark a time of transition, of moving through an ending or loss and towards a new beginning. Given its dedication and history, perhaps this church St Thomas of Canterbury may serve as a holy place for times of trouble and transition. You might like to pause here for reflection, light a candle and make a wish or prayer.
Turn right as you leave the church and continue down hill. Kingswear is said to be the site of seven springs and you can see an old cistern that was fed by some of these, on the right as you near the bottom of Church Hill. Look (or even make a detour) left as you reach the B3205 and there is a
- ‘Wishing Well’ set into the wall. Our route however continues right, along the Dartmouth Steam Railway line. Turn left off the road, opposite Kingswear Village Stores, and cross the bridge over the railway line to the boatyard. The path then continues past Waterhead Creek and onwards between the railway tracks and the river, all the way to the Higher Ferry.
If you want to start the route with a shorter circular walk, this is the point at which to cross back over the river to Dartmouth. Otherwise, walk along the right side of the road and look out for a stepped path to the right, just beyond the public toilets. Climb the wooded hill and then turn left along the drive, signed Greenway Ferry, to walk above and parallel to the road, with some great views. The path ends back by the road, so then cross carefully and go a little left to continue on the other side through:
This is a lovely, long section of woodland walking and whether you are wandering under the bare branches of winter, by spring leaves and bluebells, through the welcome shade of summer or the rich hues of autumn, this part of the walk is a wonderful opportunity to breathe deeply, open all your senses and quietly deepen your connection with nature. The path crosses Bridge Road and some younger plantation areas and yet much of Longwood is ancient woodland of mainly oak, holly and hazel. Look out for indicator species such as lichens (all year round), golden saxifrage and dog’s mercury (in the growing season).
The path loops around Noss Creek (glimpsed through the trees & home to a significant saltmarsh) and crosses a small stream. A quiet pause near here is a good place to see woodland birds coming down to drink and perhaps to reflect on all the easily overlooked tributaries whose water makes up a river. Just afterwards is a T junction. Take the left path to stay closer to the river and make the long climb up through the trees. Then take the next left and continue up hill. After a steep climb turn left over a stile, follow the path and then over another stile into the field to your right and walk downhill between this and the hedge. Turn left out of the field (signed Greenway Gardens) and go through the gate and down the track past the houses until you turn left at the road. The road becomes a track and leads through a gate into a big, open field with wonderful views over the river. Walk along the top edge of this field to a gate on the right and then once over the brow of the hill walk down the edge of the field, into the car park and turn left along the drive towards:
Greenway is an ancient crossing point on the River Dart and later there was a Tudor house here long before the current Georgian building was created. Beautiful gardens, woods & views can have their own healing and holy qualities and yet what else may be here at Greenway to interest a pilgrim?
Wealthly homes (and indeed wealthy churches) can raise interesting cultural and spiritual challenges and questions. Greenway House has extensive collections, including artefacts taken from an ancient temple, often called the Eye Temple, at Tell Brak (or Nagar) in Syria. At a later stage, this was an important ancient pilgrimage place for the deity Belet Nagar, who may have been a River Goddess. It was excavated in the 1930s by the archaeologist, Max Mallowan, who was Agatha Christie’s second husband. From one perspective, it is an inspiring opportunity to see sacred offerings that are over five thousand years old and perhaps their unique form, topped with carved eyes, could encourage us to open our eyes to the wonders and needs that a pilgrimage may reveal. These carvings are on the cultural red list of Syrian cultural articles at risk. Is their being here a form of protection or colonial appropriation, or both?
From Greenway the lane continues down to the Quay and the Greenway and Dittisham Ferry. Take the ferry and make your way past the Ferry Boat Inn and follow the lane up the hill, to take the first right onto a narrow lane and then footpath. Stay to the right to reach the Ham, or fork left uphill and across a meadow. Either way the route then climbs up to the final waypoint for this stage:
10. St George’s Church, Dittisham
This is thought to have originated as a Saxon church and yet the earliest remains are Norman. It was dedicated to St George in 1333, before he became the Patron Saint of England in 1350. In a fifth century Greek text, George is said to have been born to Christian parents, to have served as a Roman soldier and been martyred for his faith in 303. He was a significant figure for early pilgrims and churches were dedicated to him from the fourth century, while the legend of him fighting a dragon developed later from the eleventh century. Look out for some familiar figures including a
Green Man – on one of the bosses on the north-east corner of the porch vault.
Holy Water – there is a holy water stoop by the south door, a red sandstone, Norman font as you enter the main body of the church and a piscina in the south wall of the chancel.
Lady Chapel –there was once a chapel dedicated to St Catherine in the space now occupied by the organ balancing the remaining Lady Chapel. This is a lovely space to light a final candle and take time to reflect on and conclude this first stage of the pilgrimage. What have you discovered on this inner and outer journey so far?