Set in an unrivalled location on the banks of the River Dart, the unspoilt village of Dittisham in South Devon is a place where the rush of modern life recedes like the tide. Words: Dave Waddell
Even today, in the age of the satellite, the Devon village of Dittisham and its historical lifeline the River Dart remains wonderfully remote. The clue as to why lies in one version of the meaning of the name of the area’s first Celtic settlers, the Dumnonii or ‘deep valley dwellers’. This translation still accurately describes the locus of its current inhabitants, whose valley-side home falls down toward the river, and is well protected by the surrounding hills and woods. Narrow lanes, tall hedgerows, deep combes – getting there is a proper adventure, sat nav or no.
Home to Celt and Saxon, departing point for the Third Crusade, location of Sir Walter Raleigh’s country estates, and militarily significant during the Second World War, the tidal Dart and its environs has made its mark on the world, and despite its apparent remoteness, Dittisham amply reflects that history. It’s got great ambience too. With two pubs, a riverside café, a manor house turned boutique hotel and restaurant, a nice range of self-catering holiday cottages, a ferry, plenty of coastal walking opportunities, and both Totnes and Dartmouth a short car or boat ride away, it’s the real deal: a warm, welcoming and deeply beautiful South Devon village.
7AM RIVERSIDE BREAKFAST
Arriving in Dittisham late on a Friday night will always present the intrepid traveller with certain challenges. Apart from negotiating a set of increasingly narrow and largely unlit lanes, we can’t be entirely sure that the part of the beach where we parked won’t be more river than bank the next morning. We awake in Berry Cottage (coastandcountry.co.uk/cottage-details/berry) and throw the curtains open – it’s a beautiful day, and the car is still there. A light mist rises off the river and the woods on the bank opposite are a patchwork of greens and reds. We tuck in to a breakfast of local eggs, bacon, tomato and sourdough toast supplied in a Riverford Organic Farmers Holiday Box (01803 227227, riverford.co.uk). The boys go crabbing off the pontoon. We are all feeling super ‘peng’ (teen speak for great and other superlatives).
11AM BOATING ON THE DART
The river beach fully explored, we drive into nearby Dartmouth and jump aboard a river cruise. Parking’s a breeze and free, this despite it being the weekend of the Dartmouth Food Festival, the town packed to the rafters with foodies, late summer tourists and Saturday shoppers. The Dart Explorer takes us down to the Dart’s mouth, across to Kingswear, upriver to just short of Dittisham, and then back to Dartmouth. The sun’s out. The river’s a deep grey green. We sit toward the back, a refreshing cup of tea in hand. As pretty, multi-coloured cottages give way to burnished woods, and we learn about the area’s nautical past, I realise that for the first time this weekend I have a feel for where we are. Note to city-hassled self: junk the sat nav; take more river cruises (01803 555872; dartmouthrailriver.co.uk).
1PM FISH LUNCH
Boating on rivers of outstanding beauty makes for famished teenagers, but luckily Dartmouth is an embarrassment of fine eateries, food festival or no. Thinking only fish, we have booked a table at Rockfish, which is over the road from where we alight. The atmosphere’s relaxed, the décor and seating fun, the staff superb. Between us, we share crisp fried halloumi, sprat, calamari, char-grilled monkfish, and a couple of battered cods, all with unlimited chips, and washed down with good red wine and exotic sodas. Teen verdict: ‘Peng!’ (01803 832800, therockfish.co.uk/restaurants/dartmouth).
6PM A WELL-EARNED PINT
Back in Dittisham, the kids safely glued to the iPad, Tash enjoying a post-Rockfish soak, the baby asleep, I nip out for a quick pint. I walk up the main street, circle the church, take in the view, and stop for a couple of minutes on the way back outside a beautiful, rundown looking cottage. A surreal and giant pair of bordello dancer’s legs sticks out of its side, and pasted to its front there’s a small sign, which I squint to read: ‘ABSOLUTELY NOT FOR SALE, DON’T ASK’. I am delighted. Dittisham isn’t just chocolate-box gorgeous. It’s a real place. I walk on down the hill to The Ferry Boat Inn, which is tiny, a single bar pub, and offers a clutch of real ales. I settle for the house bitter and sit in the window, watching the river go by. For the duration of my pint, I am Toad from The Wind in the Willows. I am the river king (01803 722368, ferryboatinndittisham.pub).
9AM KAYAK ADVENTURE
The boys and I meet Ben Brierley – Sea Kayak Devon’s inspirational owner – down by the Dartmouth High Ferry. After a quick run-through, we’re soon in the water, each in our own kayak hugging the Dartmouth riverbank, before hightailing it over to Kingswear and then up past the ferry. Being at water level, the experience of yesterday’s cruise is overlaid by a wonderful sense of becoming part of the river. As we glide past the ferry stop, a whistle and clouds of steam announce the arrival of the Dartmouth steam train. We watch it pass before we duck into a drainage tunnel and then cross a secluded inlet and pull up on a beach where light a fire. We tuck into a bag of marshmallows, which we roast in a way I am sworn not to reveal (01392 580535, seakayakdevon.co.uk).
12PM A SMART RELAXING ROAST
Two minutes from where we left our kayaks, the restaurant at the Dart Marina Hotel and Spa is the perfect location for Sunday lunch, but I wonder how this luxury-smart establishment is going to cope with our wild-eyed group of river adventurers. I need not worry. The floor’s very chilled, the service wonderful, the ham hock starters and roast beef mains good, the celeriac and apple soup exceptional. Finished, we kick back in the bar, coffee and a Cragganmore 12 the perfect end to a leisurely lunch. The ride back to Berry Cottage is unusually quiet – contemplative, even (01803 832580, dartmarina.com).
2PM VISITING GREENWAY
Keen to visit Agatha Christie’s holiday escape Greenway before leaving, we dong the ferry bell (01803 882811, greenwayferry.co.uk). Across the water, a boat engine coughs into life. Within minutes we’re over, and walk up through the estate’s woods, past a croquet lawn, and into a house that looks just as it was when Christie last stayed (01803 842382, nationaltrust.org.uk/greenway). Back at the cottage, I realise I’ve left the car keys at Greenway’s restaurant. Disaster is averted by ferry owner Ross Prowse, who has them ferried over first thing in the morning. We leave on time, a most ‘peng’ weekend had by all.
Need to Know
coast stayed at Berry Cottage, a 19th century, Grade II-listed cottage on The Quay. Full of original features, it comfortably sleeps a family of four, and dogs are welcome (01803 839499; coastandcountry.co.uk/cottage-details/berry).
The Ferry Boat Inn (01803 722368, ferryboatinndittisham.pub) or Anchorstone Café (01803 722365, anchorstonecafe.co.uk), both a stone’s throw from Berry Cottage. There is a local shop, but for a supermarket the approach to Dartmouth is your best bet.
HOW TO GET THERE
Nearby Totnes is the closest main rail link, and a taxi from the station about 35 minutes. If driving, Dittisham’s best accessed via the M5, the A38, the A385 and then the A381. For more information visit dittisham.org.uk.