After an uncertain year, the Dart 10k is set to return this September after finding a “very elegant solution to an unsolvable problem.” We spoke to Mark Fox and Ian Thwaites from Level Water about how it feels to be staging this iconic marathon swim in 2023. *Pssst… Charity tickets go on sale 10am, Sat 13 May*
It’s been a rollercoaster year for Level Water, the charity that teaches children with disabilities to swim, who are now custodians of the iconic Dart 10k. In 2022, this marathon swimming event in Devon – which starts at Totnes and ends near Dittisham 10km (6.2 miles) downriver – hoped to welcome 1,600 swimmers back the water but organisers ended up making a difficult decision to cancel the event due to a “severe weather forecast”.
Not long after, there was further dismay when the event lost access to a key field in Dittisham, and organisers had to find a new way to make the Dart 10k work. CEO Ian Thwaites, Head of Community and Events Mark Fox and their team have been working tirelessly for the past six months to find a solution, meeting local residents and landowners and seeing dozens of fields.
Then last Friday, a solution finally fell into place thanks to The National Trust at Greenway, Agatha Christie’s summer bolt hole on the shores of the River Dart. The National Trust is lending its support to the Dart 10k so the event can keep its original route and finish the swim on the opposite side of the river. In return, Dart 10k will be helping to develop the biodiversity of the Greenway site, providing funds to plant a wildflower meadow and up to 200 trees. On the eve of their charity ticket launch, we caught up with Mark and Ian to find out more about their journey over the past six months…
Please can you tell us more about this solution you’ve found.
The last couple of days have obviously been very exciting. But it’s fantastic – the Dart 10k is back on! This is the first time we’re talking about it publicly and we’re very excited.
So after we lost use of the field [where the swim ends], we started contacting a lot of other landowners to try to find a way that we could get the parking sorted so we could finish the swim. After speaking to the National Trust, who own Greenway, we found this nice field and courtyard, with a parking field and a creek where we could finish the swim. The National Trust has always loved the event, and they couldn’t have done more for us to make it work. We are really excited that we found a solution. And I think the National Trust is as excited as we are.
In return, we’re going to help to develop the biodiversity of the Greenway site. We charge for the parking field, so we will donate all the money to the National Trust so they can plant a wildflower meadow and up to 200 trees. The beauty of this is that as the Dart 10k grows, so will the environment, and people who go back year after year will be able to see the impact that the event is having on the local area. It’s just a wonderful connection, and really nice to know that we’re investing in the local biodiversity rather than simply landing on a field somewhere.
How does it feel to be finally announcing that the Dart 10k is back?
Over the past six months, we’ve realised just how many people have been trying to help us save it. And then for the National Trust to come forward and be so supportive and really understand what our goals are – and the difference the event makes not just to the people who swim in the Dart, but how the money raised goes towards swimming lessons for thousands of children with disabilities – and then to be helping the local environment as well, I mean it’s just fantastic.
We’ve put so much effort into making this happen. We believe in this event, and it’s something that simply has to be in the calendar. And so to get the go ahead on Friday from Greenway, it was a huge relief. There’s so much excitement around what it means for the future as well.
What has the past six months taught you about the Dart 10k and those who swim it?
Over time, we’ve come to see ourselves as custodians of the Dart 10k. It feels like we’re just looking after it, and making sure that people are able to go and just experience the beauty of the river. Through all of this, we’ve felt a responsibility to solve this not just for the swimmers and the charity, but for the event itself.
Like I say, this is the first time we’ve spoken publicly about it, but the feedback we’ve had about the National Trust solution, when talking to friends and supporters, has been mind blowing. I think people just get it; it’s the perfect partnership. It’s hard not to over emphasise just how emotionally challenging the last six months have been. We’ve hit so many barriers. To come across the right solution at just the right time – well, it feels like a very elegant solution to an unsolvable problem.
Why do you think the Dart 10k inspires the outdoor swimming community?
I think it’s because this is a part of the River Dart that you can only experience by being in the water. When you are in the water, there are no footpaths or roads to the shoreline; it’s just you and the river, and you’re surrounded by trees.
The landmarks you see along the way – ‘the Cormorant Tree’, the white rock, Sharpham boathouse and Bow Cree – become part of the narrative of the event. These landmarks give you a sense of the geography, and how far you’ve come. But it’s also a way to encourage people to slow down, take their goggles off and have a look around.
We always say it’s a journey, not a race. And the key thing about journeys is that everyone creates their own. From the moment they sign up to the moment they finish; it’s their own journey. For you, it might not be the boathouse you notice, it might be a family of crabs on the shore, or a seal in the water. Everyone experiences it in their own way; we’re just here to guide people down it.
It’s also a bucket list long-distance swimming event, which many people see in a similar way to the London Marathon. It was difficult last year when we had to cancel the event [due to an extreme weather warning]. We were so disappointed for everybody because they had been building up to it for so long. Now we’re just so excited to bring that back.
And now that Level Water is a custodian of the Dart 10k, we’ve added another aspect to the story – that all the profits and fundraising goes towards teaching children with disabilities to swim, all while you are swimming somewhere beautiful and helping to support the environment. It’s just a full circle of joy for those swimmers taking part.
The Dart 10K takes place at 9am on Sat 2 and Sun 3 September 2023, starting at Totnes, Devon and finishing at Greenway, National Trust. Tickets will be released: 10 May (swimmers and volunteers who signed up in 2022); 10am, 13 May (charity places, £80); 10am, Tue 16 May (general entry, £120, and volunteers). Find out more.
Photos: Jess Rose, JoJo Harper, Outdoor Swimming Society