THE RIVER GHOST
She heard a voice, in the air, which said, "The time is right, but the man is wrong." From a Dart folktale.
In September 1993, along the coasts of England and Wales, there occurred the highest tidal rise of the whole 20th Century. At Dartmouth in South Devon, where an average spring tide produces some 5.2 metres of rise, this monster tide was predicted to give 5.9. It might not sound much but absolutely uncountable millions of tons of extra sea would inundate the coasts, the estuaries and the flood defences. It was caused by the time of Earth's closest-approach to the sun coinciding with the new-moon's closest-approach to the Earth. The gigantic peak of the resultant tidal surge would roll majestically along the entire south coast.
All along the coast preparations were in hand. Everyone hoped for fair weather. If the surge came with gales behind it, the potential for damage and loss of life would be terrible.
My partner Flip and myself Phil, lived not far from the River Dart on high ground at Harberton village, southwest of Totnes, the ancient castled town at the head of the tidal Dart, set among the rolling valleys and long round hills of the South Hams.
We owned a big heavy, battle-scarred canoe to go out on the water in, named Dinosaur, and we agreed we couldn't let the biggest tide of the incredible 20th Century go by and not canoe it. So in the crystal clear weather on the evening of the predicted giant rise, we took Dinosaur to the Totnes Plains slipway and made ready to launch.
People were walking quietly to the river to see this once-in-a-lifetime megatide, they leaned and looked over the stone parapets of the old Town Bridge and gazed at the dark swelling water, the river already as full as at major springs with most of an hour yet to go until highwater. The Dart is always dark due to peat washed down from Dartmoor, and silt washed up from the mudflats exposed at low water. Dark, deep and deceptive, sometimes it lies so still it will look as if it could be stood on.
When the current started to flow downriver we pushed off and floated along with it.
"It's lots colder," said Flip resting her paddle.
"Put the lifejackets on, that'll help keep warm," I said. Then, swearing, "I forgot the torch !"
We slipped past the end of the Baltic Wharf in no time, making a quarter mile downriver from Totnes in the minute it took to put-on buoyancy aids.
"We've passed the no-return," I said. "We couldn't paddle back against this flow if we wanted ! Look at our speed, it's a fast walking pace without paddling !" I was enjoying it.
Flip said nothing. She was really cross about the torch.
The stars were coming out, the silhouette of trees along the field close on starboard would guide the way. It felt comfortable gliding on the tide two boatlengths off the riverbank.
"I can steer by the skyline," I said, forgetting it would get dark.
"Do you want me to paddle ?" Flip in the bow.
"Give us steerage, I'm swinging the boat so I can see past you."
The riverbank did a right-angle and we were sliding over a wide flat field of smooth water that suddenly spread where moments before trees and hillfield had been. There were tops of trees, branches and leaves in a clear line but now disturbingly out in the middle of the increasingly darker river. Ahead was complete murk, and not enough time to dare look aloft at the starring sky. September's twilight had certainly shortened.
"Trees've gone!" I said cheerfully, floating along on cold unlit unbroken water. The silhouetted topmast of a small boat lay in toward the land. We were slipped in space, black water below, dark night above.
Flip shrieked, "There's a tree ! There's a tree right in front!"
My paddle shaft flexed as it backwatered. The canoe slewed stopped and drifted beside the delicate tops of an oak.
"There's another!" she yelled.
"I see it. We'll catch hold of it and rest."
"I'm not tired, Phil ! That tree gave me such a fright!"
The hull trembled.
We caught bits of treetop to hold onto, the current tugged lightly. We heard ship's engines.
Instant fear, a ship was coming it would run us down unseen and unheard.
Red light for port, white masthead and green for starboard, a passenger steamer slid into sight a half mile away in the black, it rumbled steadily in our direction.
I said, "It won't put up much wash, we can easily ride over it where we are, and it'll show which way the river bends "
"But they can't see us !" Flip snapped. She was very nervy. "We don't know which side of us it'll go !"
It would run aground before it got anywhere near our tree, but I said, "Flip, there's a boat moored over to the right, duck your head down low so you can see its mast against the last of the light. We'll paddle over to it and tie-up. We're bound to be OK there because the skipper of the steamer knows its there. He'll have seen it in daytime, so at night he'll go around it, won't he ?!"
Flip made a grumbly noise but we paddled over and tied up to the Jessie, a sweet old wooden sailing boat somewhere on the upper Dart estuary in pitchblack night on the back of the biggest sea-tide for a hundred years. The passenger steamer proceeded clear upriver, rocking us politely with her wash. By the time she came down again we had the kettle boiling on the Trangia in the bottom of the canoe making hot tea to go with juicy flapjacks. The night overhead came thick with stars. As the tide fell, strange grass grew from the water, resolving slowly into the twigs of more treetops. Brewing-up lent time to reassess the venture. It was dangerous, but safe enough so long as we kept upright.
"We'd better get ready to paddle before these treetops get too tall to go between," I said. "And we've to remember we're in a boat and not on dry land ! If we fell-in we'd be hypothermic before we got near shore !" It was too cold to sit still.
"We'll be OK if we keep sensible heads, yes," agreed Flip feeling better for snack and brew. "But I think you should keep a torch in the canoe kit !" Dinosaur trembled.
"I will." And I did and still do.
Flip said nothing.
We pushed off for the main river to follow where the returning passenger steamer had passed and in no time were sliding quickly between the high dark banks of South Devon hills keeping Dinosaur out in the middle to avoid crashing into the edges, which couldn't be seen.
Some house lights appeared high on the righthand hill. They winked out and on as trees passed between, then disappeared. Silent looming heights surrounded, giving no indication of exit except where the current would lead. It was a gigantic changing amphitheatre. Curlew whistled and called hauntingly, then ahead glimmered the steady white riding-light of a small yacht at anchor and a nearby house-light close to the water spread its friendly glow. These comforts slid quickly astern and again we faced total silently moving amphitheatre black.
It was unnerving to look up at the sky, it felt like the canoe would tip over. I summoned courage to carefully lean back and look, and felt glad to see Plough and Polestar show us headed south. The thickly forested hills either side cut high-up ragged outlines against fiercely glittering stars. It got colder. Curlew calls, sandpipers and paddle splashes were all the sounds, then screech owls in the woods. At waterlevel it was as dark as can be and still we swept along barely needing to push. The night was so dark and the surrounding hills so high, it felt as if I could reach out and catch hold of night like a solid thing.
Fear. A riverwide wall of white mist about a man and a half high, glowing softly by starlight lay all ahead, across our path. Deep fear, because mist or fog at night on the water are more dangerous than anything. It would hide the dark hills and the sky and all reference and the current would neither slow nor stop.
"If we lose visibility," I said, "We keep the boat upright and wait until we bump ashore. We can always walk out if we have to. If we bang into anything, lean towards it, pay no attention to damage, simply keep the boat upright"
Flip was silent, we were both thinking of unlit channel markers known to be ahead, now completely hidden in the unexpected mist.
It was on the glimmering bank of starlit mist ahead that the haunting began. First a bubble of mist grew like an igloo on the top of the bank of it across the river. When I looked back again from the stars the bubble had swelled and extended into a column of twisting mist rearing up, silent, the thickness and height of a lighthouse, rearing and curving like a towering snake, impossible to look away. Then to unbelief, a misty head the size of a doubledeck bus formed on top of the column, trailing misty tassles. The skin and hair crawled seething up and down the backs of arms and legs and neck in absolute bone-primitive ghost fear. It saw us, it knew we were there. The impulse to panic, backwater, turn the boat and flee was incredible. The starlit monster's head turned nodding, tracking our approach and no help for it but to sit and steady the boat and be swept directly underneath. It was alive, part of the river, out and about in its natural habitat, us the intruders. Sure it was a wraith, hungry, out hunting for fresh human anguish to feed on, anguish produced in fear, panic and lethal lingering accident. As Dinosaur neared it I waited for something unimaginable to happen, a hole in the water, a wet muddy giant hand reaching up from below for us, the shock and icy vice of deep cold water. No one would know, and we'd be dead.
We swept underneath , it vanished, gone, and the quarter-ton channel buoy No.6 Ham gurgled from the dark, murmuring past a boatwidth off at near three knots speed. Had we backwatered to escape we'd have struck sideways.
. A shore light appeared ahead to port. Soon we recognised the dark shapes of the great oaks by the water's edge at Ashprington Point. Bow Creek entrance lay beyond, and the mile up to Tuckenhay and the friendly warm Maltsters Arms where we could pull ashore. We worked steadily. Got ashore, I walked to the phonebox to call home all-safe, legs like frozen jellies. Everyone in the pub had gone to bed.
The car heater brought new warmth, and a bar of chocolate to share from the door pocket.
It was difficult to speak about. Seeing that haunting as water-vapour saturation, air temperature and convection was inadequate. It felt like it lived there. I wondered if anyone had seen it before us, and had they lived to tell.
"Amen," I thought.
Warming-up driving home Flip said thoughtfully, "I didn't tell you on the river, but there's a saying about the Dart," she paused before reciting, " 'Dark Dart, dark Dart, every year you take a heart.' "
"You know," I said in a minute , "If we'd panicked into doing anything except what we did do, we'd have hit the buoy sideways and tipped-in."
"I thought that too," said Flip, she smiled, "I'm glad we didn't !"
But there was more to follow.
After work, next evening at home beside the fire, the local TV news reported a visiting yachtsman missing from Dartmouth. An experienced sailor, he had rowed his dinghy out to his yacht on the seaward moorings off Warfleet Creek late on the night of the giant tide. It was feared the great ebb current running had caused him to misjudge his step as he went to board the yacht.
Indeed, and sadly, the empty dinghy was discovered washed ashore along the coast, and the yachtsman's body recovered several days later.
It was some while before we realised the time of his loss coincided all too well with encountering the misty towering apparition.
Since then, whenever I paddle Ham Reach, as its called where we saw it, the place always holds a special atmosphere of its own, as if it might be a dwelling with someone at home, perhaps sitting by their window. The chart shows a deep natural hole in the riverbed there, eight and a half metres deep at the lowest of low water springs. It sometimes has eddies when there's no current.
Upriver, miles above Totnes on the freshwater Dart where canoeists go to paddle and play on superb whitewater in Winter, there are places where the river pools and runs slow, mysterious, deep and dark. Ideal places to practice capsize-recoveries and the like, but no one ever falls-in there, me neither. There's something live and watchful in the river for which its somehow, I don't mean superstitously, somehow important to have live respect.
As to the incredible starlit misty convection-anomaly we saw, I've seen it again since. Uphill, a mile to the north of Harberton village near Totnes is Blakemore Level, a high ridge overlooking Dart Valley northeastward with Haytor Rocks and all of lofty Dartmoor rising beyond.
One bright spring sunrise up there, layers of mist lay in the hollow ground stretching away to the moors. Below me the quiet valley of the freshwater Dart undulated under blankets of mist from which not one but three tall pillars of mist had reared, over near Staverton beside the freshwater river, each sinuous sunlit misty pillar the height of three churchtowers, each cloaked and bearded by flimsy whiskers and delicate tassles of shining mist. They stood tall, white and watchful in the early sunlight, unconcerned and companionable, and all three gazing intently south downriver towards the sea.
C Phil Sheardown