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A voyage on the River Dart

An excerpt from 'A Woman of Noble Wit'.
This excerpt from “A Woman of Noble Wit” sees Katherine and her husband Otho Gilbert sail down the River Dart aboard The Trinity in the Spring of 1538

A week later, Katherine set her foot upon the well-scrubbed deck of the three-masted vessel. She felt light-headed, dizzy with delight, her legs suddenly weak as water. She really was on board the Trinity! Messengers were speeding to Uncle Gawen, to her sisters and to Johnny. What a family reunion it would be, and, oh, the thrill of it! She would see London for the first time. Perhaps they’d even see the King!

She had dressed with care, selecting a blue-green gown that was more comfortable than fashionable. At the last moment she donned a bead-trimmed headdress. It would not do for the good mistresses of Dartmouth to see her pass by looking like a serving woman. A coffer containing her London wardrobe was hauled on board and stowed in the tiny cabin she would share with Bessie, who was clutching the handrail as tight as she could.

Cousin Edward had charge of the voyage, but deferred generously to Otho, who seemed as excited as Katherine was. The ship’s master, a short man with piercing, far-seeing eyes, bowed and turned to give an order to his crew. The sailors  — only a dozen of them — nodded their heads in greeting and were soon manoeuvring the Trinity from the wharf. The carrack’s oak timbers, brown and welcoming as hearth and home, creaked and groaned as they began to move out onto the confident river. Tall trees clothed the banks and reached up towards the sky. Sunlight filtered between their leaves, shedding bright reflections onto the rippling water, reminding Katherine of the light that spilled into the vast cathedral in Exeter. The whole world seemed confined between the riverbanks; a ribbon of water snaking along under a clear blue sky, as the Dart made its timeless way toward the sea.

She turned and caught a last glimpse of her home standing proud on its promontory, the windows sparkling like so many eyes watching her go. Perhaps John and Katie were at the top window, watching the ship make its stately progress amongst the flotilla of other craft already on the water. The green wooded slopes of the Dart were soon rushing by as the tide carried them towards Dartmouth. The river had been the backdrop to Katherine’s life for years; constant, flowing steadily on, just beyond her windows. She had crossed the narrow neck that separated Dittisham from the Greenway quay and felt the flimsy ferryboat rocking beneath her feet. But never before had she felt the river’s strength like this. Able to hold the weight of the heavily laden Trinity bobbing above its depths. Able to contain the mighty tide between its banks. Her pulse calmed as she filled her lungs with the spring-scented air, with its musty hints of damp leaves and cool, cool water.

At first all was quiet save for the shifting and straining of the carrack’s wooden walls as they eased and settled, welcoming the burden of their latest cargo. They glided past inlets where shipwrights’ hammers clanged and tapped. Snatches of other sounds drifted in on the light breeze that stirred the topmost leaves: a dog yapped, urgent and demanding, until cut off in a frantic, high-pitched yelp; the monotonous, mournful lowing of a cow grown hoarse from calling for a missing calf carried plaintively across the water; a loud, insistent rat-a-tat-tat, rat-a-tat-tat echoed behind them as a woodpecker drummed out his territory or searched for insects in some unseen hollow tree. Katherine caught a whiff of woodsmoke as a thin trail drifted across their path from some homestead hidden deep in the woods.

Soon they drew near to Dartmouth where a huddle of grey slate-roofed buildings clung tenaciously to the river’s edge, while dilapidated thatched hovels climbed higher up the steep slope. Katherine wrinkled her nose as the briny, fishy smell mingled with smoke from the town’s chimneys. Fishing boats, larger three-masted carracks, and the smaller cog boats she was used to watching as they plied their trade past Greenway Court jostled for space on the crowded wharf. All was hustle and bustle as cargoes were disgorged or taken on.

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