Birth of the River Teign

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A week off, the last week of June, and I’d promised myself that despite the mizzly weather forecast all week, I’d have one trip up to the moor. I really didn’t want to be tied to a particular route, or any recognised circular walk. But I did have one idea – an idea I’d thought about, off and on, for the last 5 years or so.

The River Teign is my ‘local’ river (I live in Teignmouth, where it enters the sea), and I love it. On Flickr I started a set years ago where I uploaded many photos of the river – usually taken at some of the most beautiful sections along its descent from the moor. Also on Flickr is my “A380” set, containing, among other images, some photographs of the estuary at points where the busy dual carriageway from Exeter to Torquay crosses over it. (I assume these really are still on Flickr, because I haven’t used it in years!)

The idea I had several years ago was to produce a book of photographs (for me, if no-one else) tracking the course of the river from source to sea, taking in the wildest moorland as well as the towns, villages, bridges and woodland it passes through. I have some way to go. But on this day I hoped to track down the Teign’s source in the depths of the moorland, so here is my account of how it went.

Unsure how the weather would turn out that day (the whole of June had been a complete washout with the highest rainfall on record) I’d packed my full length brolly as well as my tripod. I was well aware that with Penny on her lead and a rucksack of kit, either the brolly or the tripod would be left in the boot when I arrived at Fernworthy.

The car parked, the boots on and with the weather clearer than expected, I set off up the track through the forest without the brolly, but with the tripod over my shoulder. A mile later, just as I was about to exit the last part of the forest. it started to rain. It rained with some enthusiasm and Penny and I stood under the cover of some tall pines for the next 20 minutes. I’d been walking in just a T-shirt for the previous half hour, but reluctantly had to fish the waterproof jacket from my rucksack, because the mist was right down and the rain wasn’t going away any time soon. We set out onto the open moor.

Clapper bridge, near Teignhead farm
Clapper bridge, near Teignhead farm

I first wanted to walk to the Teignhead Farm – a ruin abandoned around 1950 and later partly demolished. I’d previously seen if from a distance, but wanted to investigate it properly. I dropped down to the ancient clapper bridge over the North Teign, crossed and headed up the track to the farm, at which point the herd of cows I’d spotted from the gate to the moor decided they would enter the grounds of the farm too! There were many young calves among them and their mothers were very wary of me, so I decided to abandon the farm visit and see if I could gain access there later in the day. Back at the river side I walked north west along the forest side of it for as long as I could before the terrain became so wet and unpleasant that I could make precious little progress. I decided again to rethink my approach.

I assumed there would be a path down to the river a mile or two further North, via Sittaford Tor, so headed in the direction of the Grey Wethers Stone Circles. The rain kept pounding down as I headed across the popular, muddy track west of the river. Feeling rather pointlessly annoyed at the weather I rested my back against one of the stones in the circles and ate an early lunch. Penny shared my Chilli Doritos and an apple, then we set off uphill to Sittaford Tor.

Half way up the hill I realised that after an hour or so of walking I hadn’t yet reached for my camera, so took a couple of token images of the stone circles viewed from above. The photos look just what they were – uninspired – so they have no place here. I wondered if I’d be able to see Fur Tor from the top, and this was soon answered when I got there – the great mass of Cut Hill was blanking out anything beyond it.

The path down to the river from the top of the tor appeared fairly straightforward, just following the left side of a stone built wall. The descent to the North Teign, though, was a delight, and I made a mental note of the path of the wall going uphill on the other side of the river – I thought I might make use of that later. The rain had stopped and the day was improving.

Stone wall from Sittaford Tor to the North Teign
Stone wall from Sittaford Tor to the North Teign

The river reached, the obvious thing to do was to follow it north along its left bank. There is no obvious path, and I hadn’t expected to find one, but it began easily enough, although everywhere the land is lumpy. It’s possible to stay fairly close to the river for longish stretches, and I allowed myself many looks back toward the Fernworthy plantation and Sittaford Tor. Not the deepest of river valleys, by any means, but there was all around that familiar Dartmoor feel of having the place to myself: that there was no-one else for miles around, and that if I wanted to lose myself I easily could. How blissful to have a young river by my side, even as it travelled in the opposite direction! It had started somewhere in the land ahead of me and at this point I had no idea whether I could reach that start point or not.

An undulating path
An undulating path

A sweep of the river to my right told me the direction my footpath would take and I pursued it very happily for another mile or so; sometimes I was on the floor of the valley right alongside the river (at which point Penny would invariably jump in and swim all she could), and at other times I was 3-4 metres or so above the river, such was the undulating land.

Narrower...
Narrower, looking back…

For a long time I looked back and could still see the line of trees at Fernworthy, until at last there was another long sweep to the right, and the trees were out of sight. The river had started to slow significantly and its route was much less obvious, less direct. Ahead of me lay the reason: the water had less strength here, closer to its source, and faced with some thick grasses it had taken a rather wide clockwise loop.

Loop
Loop

A short distance beyond was a depression in the ground, a few moderately large rocks and a short path running up from inside the depression. My OS map decided this was previously a Tinner’s Hut, and who am I to argue?

Possible Tinner's Hut
Possible Tinner’s Hut

The ground all around was becoming wetter and wetter, the route of the river far less distinct. Everywhere I trod my boots were going into marshland. Was I to continue with this, or had I come far enough? I continued and felt sure that where the river forked the left fork was the stronger of the two, and so I took it. After about 50 metres the water ended abrupty. I checked my GPS and realised I was still some way away from the area I’d plotted the head to be – and the direction I needed was the one of the right fork. I backtracked and found the fork again. Crossing the marshland at this point was particularly difficult: there were pools of water everywhere around, I was in up to my knees, and Penny at one point was completely underwater – I had to pull here out by her collar! I was seriously questioning whether there was any point continuing with this, then I saw a wider stretch of water ahead and to my right, and all reason left me: I had to get to it!

There were several rather magical sections now where the water appeared, disappeared, re-emerged, and each time the stretches became smaller until eventually I could see no more water. I checked my GPS and was delighted to see that the OS and myself were in agreement: this was the point I’d squelched all this way to find! Beyond, nothing to see, just the sounds of water trickling. By the side of me just one final pool – surely the closest anyone was likely to get to the beginning of the river, and I photographed it, before realising my feet were entirely underwater. I’ll switch to colour images for the next few photographs, because contrast levels were low, and the colour makes the lines / pools of water easier to see.

Deep grass and marsh, Teign Head
Deep grass and marsh: Teign Head, with a final pool of still water at the bottom, left of centre

I was as happy as I ever get! (You have to remember I had wanted to find this spot for many years!) But I had to have more photographs and so I walked as close as I could alongside what appeared to be the route of the river. For 30 metres I saw the same thing: standing water, just collecting into increasingly larger pools, all connected in what must have been the merest little stream which I could not see because of the long grasses all around. The first larger pool still showed no signs of movement, just standing water.

Swelling, but standing
Swelling, but standing

And although I suspected as much, it was only when I actually saw it for myself that I really understood: on Dartmoor rivers form in the wettest, marshiest ground where water drains from the hills all around, collects into pools until they are saturated, and seeps gently downhill taking whichever route suits its strength at each point.

Slow movement downhill
Slow movement downhill

Another 40-50 metres ahead the water was a respectable infant river: a continuous stream, moving gently along a gentle descent. From this point it will be unstoppable in feeling its way downhill. A few miles South and East from here it will meet with the South Teign (which drains from the Fernworthy reservoir), gather pace, width, strength, and great beauty. It will carve the celebrated Teign Valley, inspire countless artists, poets and everyday visitors. And eventually it will empty itself into the sea in my home town in a sparkling half-mile-wide estuary. Small wonder Penny (bottom left in the next photograph, sneaking into shot) was so impressed with how it all begins!

A clearer view
A clearer view (with Penny)
A mist drops
A mist drops on the return
Sittaford Tor re-appears on the hill
Sittaford Tor re-appears on the hill

We took our time with the return route, following the North Teign back to the wall seen in the second photograph, then up the hill as far as we had to until there was a break in the wall. We then crossed directly over the hill to the back of the Teignhead Farm.

Teignhead farm
The ruins of Teignhead farm
Teignhead farm, sleeping calf
Teignhead farm, mother and sleeping calf

These images show just a little landscape – the raw line of a narrow river, pools of water, long grass. But what an education this little landscape is in demonstrating nature’s preferred plan for draining all that water from the hills in the most efficient and glorious way possible.

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