“Dart, Dart, cruel Dart, every year thou claim’st a heart.”
The above famous saying dates way back into the realms of Dartmoor’s folklore and refers to the fact that over the centuries the River Dart has claimed many lives. There can be no question that at times the river can vent the full force of its swollen waters down through the Dart valley. It is at times like this which coincides with a north westerly wind that the river makes a strange booming noise and it is this that is said to be the rivers ‘cry‘. It is said it is this ‘cry‘ that belongs to the spirit of the river who is claiming its annual life. Probably the most famous story of the river Dart taking a life is that of Jan Coo, a farm boy who was lured to a watery death by the ‘Cry of the Dart‘. However, the river Dart still tries to claim its annual tribute in recent times, in 1941 the river claimed a ‘heart’ when a local Totnes man drowned in its waters at Newbridge whilst swimming, despite desperate efforts to save him he was sadly washed away. In 2009 a kayaker died in the swollen river. In 2014 a canoeist had to be rescued when he became stranded on a island in the middle of the swollen Dart at Hembury Woods. In 2015 another kayaker was luckily rescued when his canoe capsized and he hit his head on the bottom of the river.
All fact and fantasy one may say but there is an interesting account given by the famous Dartmoor authoress – Beatrice Chase which does make one think. Back in the September of 1933 there was a couple who lived in Widecombe in the Moor who were expecting their first baby but there was some concern as to the woman’s pregnancy. She went into labour at around 2.00 a.m. and did not give birth until much later that same evening. As you can imagine the length of time the delivery took gave concern to the doctor who was in attendance along with Beatrice Chase. However at around 9.00 p.m. a healthy baby daughter was delivered to the couple much to everyone’s joy and relief. On returning home Beatrice heard the unmistakable ‘Cry of the Dart‘ which had not been witness for several years previously. Although not a superstitious woman there was something that made her feel very uncomfortable especially as, to her knowledge, the ‘Cry of the Dart‘ had never been heard at the exact moment a baby was born. Two days later Beatrice happened to meet the district nurse and enquired as to the health of the baby girl. She was told that both mother and daughter were in fine health and that she had no concerns whatsoever. However three days later the tragic news was received that at 8.00 a.m. that very morning the little baby girl had been found dead in her cot. Was it just a coincidence that the ‘Cry of the Dart‘ had not been heard for several years and that at the time of the baby’s birth it suddenly appeared. Not only that but the river continued its ‘cry‘ for the three days following and stopped on the day of the little girl’s death? Additionally during that period the weather conditions were fine which certainly would have not been such as to cause the phenomenon of the ‘Cry of the Dart‘? Was it just a coincidence that the Dart was ‘crying‘ when the little baby girl died?
Oddly enough about three weeks prior to this sad event there was a violent thunderstorm which was accompanied by torrential rainfall, at the time there was a visitor at Dartmeet who had clambered over the rocks and was stood in the middle of the river taking photographs. Without warning and unbeknown to him a huge wall of water, 4ft higher than the stream surface slowly and silently roll down the river. Bystanders saw what was happening and yelled to the man to get out of the way but their warning cries fell on deaf ears and the man became trapped midstream. Fortunately he managed to cling to some rocks and luckily an Automobile Association man grabbed a rope and managed to throw the life-line to the unfortunate man who managed to struggle to safety. Such was the steady speed of this wave that people were able to race it down to the next sequence of bridges; Newbridge, Holne Bridge and Dart Bridge. It was 11.45 a.m. when the wave rolled past Dartmeet and 4.00 p.m. when it reached Dart Bridge, a distance of about 17 kilometres (10.7 miles). On its journey the wave also managed to wash away a Scout camp but luckily the happy campers were warned of the wave’s impending approach. Although the river was not actually ‘crying‘ was this the river’s unsuccessful attempt at claiming its annual ‘heart’ which it compensated for later with the baby’s death or just a freak of nature? In 1941 the river claimed another ‘heart’ when a local Totnes man drowned in its waters at Newbridge whilst swimming, despite desperate efforts to save him he was sadly washed away.
A few miles outside of the Dartmoor National Park’s boundary the river Dart flows through Staverton and in the churchyard there is a grave with the following epitaph; “He brought down my strength in my journey, and shortened my days – Psalms.” This grave is said to belong to a waggoner who was killed when crossing the Dart a great wall of water washed him, his cart and horse away. Again was this poor soul the river Dart’s tribute for that year?
Another interest happening was reported in a local newspaper in 1863 read; “A remarkable event has occurred at Totnes, the town’s porter’s donkey, apparently disgusted with its hard fate of toiling from Monday morning to Saturday night walked deliberately into the river Dart, and drowned itself.” Now there are two sayings with donkeys, ‘you never see a dead one’ and ‘donkey’s years’ referring to their longevity of life. So why would a donkey deliberately drown itself? Was it too summonsed by the river?
The big question people have asked for centuries is what makes the ‘Cry of the Dart’? One theory that was proffered by some musicians was that a mass of falling water produces the chord of C sharp and below that comes the non-accordant F. This F note always sounds much deeper and far-resounding than the falling water, and this being stronger can be heard ringing around the rocks and thick woods to a greater distance and height than the other sounds of the waterfalls. Therefore during certain times of water flow the notes can be more audible than usual thus creating the river’s ‘cry’ echoing down the Dart valley.