The Heart of Dartness

“Resembling an immense snake uncoiled, with its head in the sea, its body at rest curving afar over a vast country and its tail lost in the depths of the land.” (Joseph Conrad, The Heart of Darkness.)

Rumours abound that the mouth of the river Dart is at Dartmouth and its two sources are somewhere on Dartmoor. But due to poor map reading and a fascination with the blank spaces between rivers, I ended up at Totnes rowing club one Saturday morning surrounded by people in wetsuits and red hats. Hoping to make the best of the situation I donned a wetsuit, squeezed into a red hat and entered the water.

It transpired that I had joined an event inspired by Conrad’s above-mentioned novella. Variously a tale of imperialism and discovery for a legendary ivory trader: the inspiration is obvious. Indeed, although Conrad’s description of the journey up the Congo is a clear metaphor for the Dart, it remains a much-overlooked aspect of the story.

That said, I was hard pushed to perceive the parallels as I trod water in the liquidy brown. Surrounded by fellow Brits all brimming with a sense of joy and derring-do at being metaphorically and literally out of their depth. A familiar situation, it would seem, that has become civilised and less colonial over the ages. Nowadays you get a t-shirt for it.

The hooter sounded and the splashing commenced. Hordes of red hats set out on their journey of self-disovery towards the heart of Dartmoor. But after 2.5km there was a collective decision that something was wrong. I was the first to sense it as I rounded the final buoy and saw the vastness of water that still lay before me and the twin sources of the river.

It was the realisation that there was no mystical figure living up stream. Just a man waving his arm frantically for us to pull up on shore so that he could scan our wrist timers.

An uneasy fear spread through the pack, and with my nose just in front I swam like a Belgian steamer hoping to get to Dartmouth before the end of the year. But on reaching the rowing club I lifted my head to take a breath and saw a man on the riverbank waving his hand. What’s with all this arm waving. Perhaps he wants to ask a question, reasoned my exhausted brain.

‘Well done, would you like a banana?’

‘Yes please, thank you.’

They told me I’d won. But I daren’t admit what really happened. It was all a bit embarrassing really. I had entered the river to find the source of the Dart in the hope that it would complete my transformation to a higher state of being. Failing that I had set my sights on the mouth of the Dart hoping to find my beginning in its end.

But like Marlow, Conrad’s protagonist, I was lured into something that was far greater than I could comprehend through the fog of my goggles. And I was now back where I had started after discovering neither source nor mouth. Rather, I am left in a state of bloated contemplation, content in the thought that I had made it out of the heart of dartness.

















I would like to tell you a tale of a town called Wells. Not the setting for the film Hot Fuzz but Wells-next-the-Sea, famous for beach huts and the world’s only use of an invisible preposition.

Though don’t be scared, the use of prepositions is otherwise encouraged by the everyday people of Wells. Walking along the quayside it is not uncommon to overhear a tourist asking a local: ‘excuse me, where is French’s fish and chip shop?’

‘Over there beside the arcade,’ comes the reply. Both parties breathe a sigh of relief and head over to share some deliciously battered fish and laugh about how silly they used to be.

They discuss the absence of seagulls. Are they hovering  in the shadows or do they simply have impeccable manners? Lurking in the peripherals until the chip tray is empty then striking in the hope of a stray flake of batter. ‘What admirable gulls,’ they agree.

An artist’s impression of the scene

After bonding over fish, chips and gulls these new friends are likely to want a stroll. Naturally they go to Staithe street and enter a bookstore, only to be met by the icy stare of a woman wearing her glasses in that peculiar way that suggests: “WANT TO COME IN HERE AND READ MY BOOKS DO YOU? THEY’RE MINE, I’VE READ THEM ALL AND YOU’RE HAVING NONE.” Although out loud she says, ‘hello?’

In a panic they hurry upstairs and hide in a corner. After the atmosphere has dissipated they both pick up some books and head down. These, of course, are calculated to show how truly interesting they both are. Him a novel which states in bold on the cover that it is a “tour de force of feminine sexuality.” Her, a collection of photography and a book on terrorism. This intrigues him and they decide to discuss it further at the seaside.

Artist’s impression

Only a short ride by miniature train and they arrive at the beach. The tide is low, so low you can’t see the sea. They strip off and run down to a narrow but deep channel of water that leads all the way back to town. The water is cold, several seals flap their encouragement from a nearby sand bank.

They spend several hours exploring the vast miles of exposed sand. Picking up shells, prodding jelly fish and eyeing a drowned deer. A siren blares out somewhere behind them announcing the turn of the tide. They hurry back to the channel and swim across with jumpers above their heads and seals around their ankles.

By now this giddy pair are likely to be thirsty. A wooden boat called the Albatros welcomes them just across from the train’s final stop in town. The sound of a muffled guitar emanating from a hatch on the deck. Down the steep ladder they totter, and nestle in a corner surrounded by sea charts and a stuffed puffer fish.

Artist’s impression

Suddenly realising the hour they hurry back up on deck and onto shore, stopping briefly to reminisce about how they met only a few hours ago. ‘Beside the arcade!’ she says and they both fall about in hysterics. Seeing the bright lights of a games arcade they rush inside as rain begins to fall. Armed with a cups of two penny pieces they battle to the death to win a string of worthless tickets. They are ushered out after ten minutes penny poor but experience rich.

As the day comes to an end he remarks, ‘you know, they say that a day spent in Wells-next-the-Sea can often feel like a day spent a-bloody-long-way-from-the-sea.’ Thankfully she laughs and they walk off arm in arm, next-the-sea.