The River Torridge rises at Baxworthy Cross on the Woolley Moors in north-west Devon and flows for 48 miles, first east through farmland between Dartmoor and Exmoor, then north towards the Bristol Channel at Bideford. The most famous otter in literature, Henry Williamson’s Tarka, was born in a holt on the Torridge. The river is also a recurring presence in Ted Hughes’s collection "River" (1983), whose evocations had made me long to step into that mysterious green republic ruled by salmon and damselflies.
There’s no official path along the Torridge, but I spent the best part of a weekend in early June walking where I could, leaving the car near bridges, asking permission before climbing gates and fences. With one eye out for otters, I tracked the river through water meadows, ploughed fields and broadleaf woods footlit with bluebells and ramsons, the smell of garlic arriving in drifts on the breeze. Near Meeth and Sheepwash, ladders positioned at intervals along the steep banks marked angling stations: prized spots for salmon and trout between March and September. I scrambled into and out of drainage ditches, and sat by the river, willing otters into view, the names of recommended fishing flies jumbled in my head: Butchers, Medicines, Silver Stoats, Alexandras, March Browns, Ally Shrimps, Coachmen. A buzzard mewed invisibly. The yellow dust thickening on my bootlaces was buttercup pollen. Below the hanging woods at Halsdon, overarching oak and ash trees made long brown-green caverns through which the slow Torridge moved like a cortège.
A river is a line of sound: noisy at weirs and shallows, entering a thick silence at bends where the water deepens and stills. I was almost always alone by the river. Land Rovers passed with fishing rods poking from windows like wayward aerials, Keep Calm and Carry On Hunting stickers in the back windows. On Sunday afternoon, teenagers made for swimming holes with rolled-up towels under their arms, L-plates on the Peugeot they’d left in the lay-by. Light rippled on the undersides of stone bridge arches. A fisherman in chest-waders stood mid-river at evening, long spools of white line unfurling in the half-light.
Some of the poems in "River" despair at environmental degradation, Hughes railing at "the grand slam" of pesticides and herbicides flushed into the river by rain. His angler friend Charlie finds a putrid mussel: "God! The river’s dead! Oh God!/Even the mussels are finished!" But in the Duke of York in Iddesleigh, a local farmer, Peter, was more upbeat. Freshwater-pearl mussels were appearing in the river again, he told me. He’d found a shell himself. "Only two or three hundred in the country. A sign of how clean the river is, that they’re coming back." The pearl mussel, he explained, spends its larval stage attached to the gills of salmon and trout, dropping off to settle in riverbed gravel; it only survives in clean water.
Otters are coming back too, having been close to extinct in England in the 1980s. But I still hadn’t seen one. So on Monday, first thing, I walked down to the river again. Calves and heifers—caramel Limousins—stood in fields, dazed with morning. A medieval stone cross wore a coat of lichens among ash trees beside the lane. Chaffinches and wrens sang in woods on the far side of the water. Trout rose in the pools. Weed streamed in the current like wind-socks. I was mesmerised by the Torridge now. I didn’t even mind about the otters. A kingfisher shot past, a blue line hurtling into Exmoor. "The river goes on," Hughes wrote, "Sliding through its place, undergoing itself/In its wheel."