The Dart Estuary is a sinuous flooded valley, lined with ancient oak woodlands that run down to, and hang over, the water. The influence of the Atlantic creates a damp, dark understorey of holly, birch and butcher’s broom with a ground flora rich in ferns and mosses. Between Dartmouth and Totnes, there are a handful of villages and houses that have found a way to occupy the water’s edge by clinging to hillsides. To the north, the slopes adjacent to long, sandy beaches are lost beneath the tourist conurbation that is Paignton and Torquay.
Greenway, the summer home of Agatha Christie is a square facade of white stone and sash windows that sits within tall trees and looks across the estuary to the village of Dittisham. Down the road, hidden in a coastal valley, Coleton Fishacre near Kingswear, was the 1920s new build of the D’Oyly Cartes. The ancient woodlands below the house of dark stone and slate were cleared and gardens planted with tree ferns, bamboos and palms in a bid to create a semi-tropical paradise. Tall conifers and eucalypus trees add to the non-native concoction. Flowering daffodils and camelias brighten the gardens here as they do in many villages hereabouts. There is no winter in South Devon in late December; autumn now slips seamlessly to spring.
Lines of shiny yachts sit on the sheltered waters of the Dart and outnumber the birds. At low tide, gulls bathe in the stream that snakes out to the estuary and groups constantly drop in high from the south and then out with a flutter and shake to the north. A solitary greenshank calls loudly from a narrow creek, a common sandpiper slips silently downstream, wings flicking the water; redshanks, shelducks and oystercatchers feed on the exposed muds. A kingfisher rushes through briefly. A pair of ravens swing over the valley with a deep shout and an elegant twist; these will soon be incubating eggs laid in a large stick nest lined with sheep’s wool somewhere high in an oak tree.
The undulating land is a mix of arable crops and pastures filled with sheep, cattle and pigs with thick hedges of thorn and gorse. This intimate patchwork is now rare in most parts of lowland Britain and creates a rich habitat for farmland birds. Bullfinches are common in the hedgerows as are house sparrows around the farmsteads. This is also the last outpost of the cirl bunting in Britain. An easily overlooked species; a yellowhammer without much yellow and a repetitive prattle of a song without any ‘cheese’.
Down the coast between Dartmouth and Start Point, Slapton Ley is a large freshwater lake behind a narrow bar of shingle and sand. Tufted ducks and coots form separate, dense rafts in the middle of the choppy water; a solitary female goosander lands close by with a splash. The sun shines from dawn to dusk on New Year’s Day and the brisk north westerly is no bother at all. The waterlogged path around the north-west edge of the lake runs beneath a bank of butcher’s broom and hart’s tongue ferns sheltered beneath great oaks. There are views into the bright sun of wet woodlands and reedbeds and deep blue water. An abandoned, ivy-clad farmhouse is a reminder that this coast was requisitioned in December 1943 to enable the training of troops for the D-Day landings in June 1944.