Dartmouth is a seaport on the South Devon coast and is a famous centre for yachting it has a first-class deepwater natural harbour, with its narrow streets, half timbered houses make it a haven for yachtsmen and visiting tourists alike.
HARBOUR by Richard Ellis
Dartmouth is set in a picture book location, on the picturesque River Dart, with steep wooded hillsides on either side. Dartmouth’s main Embankment runs along the length of the town, from the New Quay – built on reclaimed land towards the historic Bayard’s Cove
The history of the area can be traced to Prehistoric times and the town’s rich maritime past has been well documented for more than 800 years.
Dartmouth is an ancient borough with a history of settlement going back to prehistoric times. In early times, when marauders of all sorts ravaged the coast, towns were placed some distance inland, safe from raids, and so it was that the first occupancy was at Townstal, at the top of the hill.
As trade grew and the danger from attack lessened, towns were built at the mouths of rivers; thus in the 11th century, two fishing hamlets sprang up at the mouth of the River Dart. One called Hardness, and the other called Clifton-Dartmouth. These were the humble beginnings of the Dartmouth of today.
Since that time inlets have been dammed, ground re-claimed and wharves and warehouses built to accommodate the exotic goods imported by the town’s wealthy fleet of merchant ships from Europe and across the Atlantic.
Dartmouth became a haunt for privateers with our very own pirate Thomas Norton and a family of pirate Lords, the Hawleys who stole from the French and Spanish whilst cheerfully acting as the towns M.P.s and Mayors! Chaucer immortalised his friend John Hawley in his Canterbury Tales as the Schipman of Dertemouthe – a thief, fighter and murderer of enemy sailors but an expert in seamanship! The town itself was kept safe from marauding invaders with the building of Dartmouth Castle when chains were run across the river to Godmerock.
As early as the 14th century the town was already a busy trading port, so important it supplied Edward III with 31 vessels for the Siege of Calais during the Hundred Years War.
Sir Humphrey Gilbert and John Davis left on their perilous voyages of discovery from Dartmouth whilst Sir Walter Raleigh brought his captured Spanish treasure ships back here!
The majority of Dartmouth’s half timbered houses date from Elizabethan times. One such, now the towns’ Museum is a merchant’s house dating from 1640; it contains a comprehensive collection of material covering the town’s maritime history.
One of the oldest remaining half timbered houses is the Cherub. The Cherub dates from 1380 and still retains many of its original features, including some old ships’ timbers, and its original use is thought to have been as a Merchant’s House. It is the oldest building in Dartmouth – possibly the oldest “town house” in the South Hams – and is a Grade 2* Listed Building, a category reserved for the most interesting of smaller buildings. It is one of several delightful half-timbered buildings on Higher Street.
The Butter walk, with its timber framed arcade was built in 1635-40 with its intricate wooden carvings and a frontage supported on granite columns forming an arcade. This impressive façade was damaged by bombs during 1943, but it has now been fully restored.
Massive dividing walls and intricate wood carvings of cherubs, horses and grotesques reflect the style in use in Brittany and the extensive trade with that region at the time.
According to deeds in the Devon Records Office in Exeter, the Butterwalk is built on land reclaimed from the river in 1628. Mark Hawkins, a local fish merchant took a lease on the site in 1629 and in 1635 “built there several dwelling houses”. Hawkins took a mortgage of £2,500 to pay for this and let the houses to tenants in what was in effect a 17th Century ‘buy to let’. Hawkins’ trading activities collapsed when the English Civil War interrupted trade after 1642 and he was unable to pay the interest on the loan. The property was repossessed and the building passed to John Plumleigh in 1653. In 1657 it was sold to John Barnes, who lived there himself.
Hawkins and his tenants would have been responsible for the plasterwork and internal decoration in their own houses although the similarity of style between the plasterwork in all the houses does suggest it was completed by the same workmen at roughly the same time. There is a wonderful example of 17th Century puritan plaster ceiling in the room above our shop which can be viewed by prior arrangement with the Town Council.
Charles II held court in the Butterwalk whilst sheltering from a storm in 1671 and much of the interior survives intact along with a ghost or two!
Historic River Bank and Bayard’s Cove
For nearly 1000 years, sailors have set out all over the world from this ancient harbour. The Norman’s used Dartmouth as a trading port with their homeland across the English Channel – and the Crusaders, led by Richard the Lionheart, set sail from Dartmouth. Both the second and Third crusades assembled and departed from Dartmouth’s riverside quays.
The cobbled The Embankment provides visitors with a pleasant and relaxing promenade to stroll down – admiring the sights of the busy estuary or to select from the many boat trips that depart from the waters edge.
Bayards Cove has changed little since 1539. The Cove featured regularly in the Television series The Onedin Line. At the southern end of Bayard’s Cove is a small fortification. The artillery fort was built by Dartmouth Corporation in 1510 to provide additional protection to the harbour.
The Pilgrim Fathers put into Dartmouth’s Bayard’s Cove, en-route from Southampton to the New World. The pilgrims rested for a time and then set off on their epic journey in the ships – The Mayflower and The Speedwell, on the 20 August 1620. When they were some 300 miles west of Land’s End, they realized that The Speedwell was not seaworthy and both ships returned to Plymouth – the Mayflower then departed alone to complete the crossing to Cape Cod.
The passenger ferry disembarks from Dartmouth’s quay over to Kingswear. The lower ferry carries cars and passengers straight to the village. The higher ferry carries cars to and from Dartmouth avoiding Kingswear.
The climate is mild, being close to the southernmost point of the county. Grapes flourish in the warm climate and are commercially grown in the area
Dartmouth has an attractive, compact shopping centre. During the summer months the Park and Ride initiative (situated at Norton) provides an efficient and effective means of parking for shopping, sightseeing etc. while at the same time reducing town centre congestion.
Nowadays Dartmouth offers fine restaurants, cafes, galleries, antique shops and fine places to stay.
The town is served by two primary schools and a thriving Community College providing education for all.
Dartmouth Castle, about a mile out of town overlooking the Dart, is a fortress constructed specially for artillery and for six centuries protected the town and its wealthy merchants from marauders – gaze down from its walls and you can see why this is a superb natural harbour.
You can walk the mile to the castle from the Town Centre towards the mouth of the Dart.
Jutting out at the entrance to the Dart estuary, this well-positioned castle was one of the earliest in England specifically designed to carry guns. Construction began in the late 15th century when the local merchants felt vulnerable to possible invasion, and wanted a way to protect their warehouses and cargoes.
Dartmouth Castle consists of a round tower, built mainly of limestone rubble, and a square tower constructed of slate. The round tower was built first but, prior to its completion, work commenced on the square tower which explains possibly why slate was used for the upper parts of the round tower when the two were joined together. Gun platforms stretch out from either side of the towers. With seven gun ports in the sea facing walls of the square tower, and four slits for muskets and three lower gun ports housed in the round tower, the rather cramped basement area was dedicated to the use of defence weapons. There is an entrance to Dartmouth Castle in the square tower at ground level and, inside, the openings for handguns can still be seen. In the round tower, a timber-framed opening is located in the wall towards the river.
Originally separated into three rooms, the first floor of Dartmouth Castle served as the main accommodation quarters. The round tower contained one room, whilst the square tower held two barrack rooms, which were divided by a passage leading to the roof. Many of the openings that remain in the walls were windows, although some were likely to have been used for musketry.
Further defence mechanisms were located on the roof of Dartmouth Castle, including pivots for light guns, and the turret provided a good vantage point for sighting a possible invasion from either sea or land. On the opposite bank of the estuary, immediately facing Dartmouth Castle, sits Kingswear Castle and this also came into play when the area was under threat by extending a chain across the river. Despite an invasion in 1646, Dartmouth Castle has survived in a remarkable state of preservation. Some major alterations and additions took place during the 16th and 17th centuries to improve the castle.
The Castle maintained its technological advantage for nearly five hundred years. By the Victorian era, Dartmouth Castle was equipped with a Palmerston Gun Battery.
This impressive array of guns, could hit a target at a distance of two miles – providing total protection for the River Dart from any enemy shipping.
Today Dartmouth Castle seems almost overshadowed by the Church, the spreading greenery, and the general hubbub along this busy stretch of the river, and it’s difficult to imagine that this was once an imposing military fort. However, there are some spectacular views to be had both from the castle, and of the castle from the river.
Britannia Royal Navy College
High on a hill above the town is the Britannia Royal Naval College it has been training Royal Naval officers on this site since 1905. In fact, naval officers’ training in Dartmouth goes back to 1863, when the old wooden wall HMS BRITANNIA was first moored in the River Dart.
In the Second World War, over four hundred ships were assembled in the port in readiness for the D-Day landings in 1944.
You can take a guided tour of the magnificent building with its museum, sculptures and artefacts, by booking at the Tourist Information Centre.
More recently the town sheltered every type of naval craft during the Second World War before the invasion and 480 vessels sailed for the beaches of Normandy in 1944.
St Saviours Church
Gazing across the River Dart from Kingswear, one can see the ancient Church of Saint Saviour. St. Saviour’s, except for its tower, is almost hidden by the Victorian development of the Quay.
Permission for a church to be built on the site was given by Edward I in 1286 when he came to inspect the harbour for his use in his French campaigns. The Bishop of Exeter and the Abbot of Torre, who appointed the priests of St. Clement’s and had not been consulted, objected and their objections were great and lengthy. Eventually, in October 1372 Bishop Brantingham of Exeter consecrated the Church in honour of the Holy Trinity but in 1430 was known as St. Saviour’s.
The oldest part of the building is the illegally built ‘Mayor’s Chapel’ being the western part of the Nave. The Mayor’s Pews, the official seal for the Mayor and Councillors of the Town, were installed in the Church in 1816 and have been moved several times. The St. Nicholas Chapel and the Altar and Reredos are comparatively new, being refurbished in the 1950’s. There is a stone piscina for the washing of hands and the sacred vessels at the Eucharist.
The South Door is one of the Church’s great treasures with its medieval ironwork, and is quite possibly the original portal. In 1631 the door was the subject of a major refurbishment.
The beautiful screen is made of oak and was built in 1480. It is decorated with vine leaves, grapes and wheat, symbols of the Church and of the Eucharist. There is also a carving of the ‘Green Man’ a pagan symbol adopted by the Church 1000 years ago. The Pulpit is made of stone, not wood. This is a fine piece of workmanship.
The North West Case of the magnificent 1889 Bryeceson Organ is magnificent. This Rococo beauty was the case front of an earlier instrument, originally sited on the West Gallery.
The Altar is uniquely beautiful. It dates from James I and may have replaced an older stone Altar dedicated in May 1318 AD by Bishop Stapledon of Exeter on his only visit to Dartmouth.
In the Choir there is a very fine brass of John Hauley and his two wives.
The Lady Chapel had the Altar and Reredos installed in the early 1920’s. The Reredos has particularly beautiful panels, consisting of mosaic pictures.
The font is of Purbeck stone and dates from the 13th or possibly early 14th Century. The lid is of wood and modern.
It would appear that at one time there was undoubtedly a rood beam in the fine chancel arch. A modern carved wooden crucifix painted and gilded hangs in the chancel arch and provides some colour.
St. Saviours by Richard Ellis
St Petrox Church
The earliest written record, predating the Norman Conquest, is a reference in a title deed of Little Dartmouth Farm describing land ‘situate between Stoke Fleming and the Minster’. Then in 1192 a deed was drawn by William, son of Stephen of Tunstal, restoring to Richard the Fleming ‘all the land of Dertmeta which is above the Wyke and between the monastery of St. Peter and the land of Stoke’. The land referred to is clearly the settlement of Little Dartmouth, but the ‘monastery of St. Peter’ must surely refer to the religious settlement called St. Petrox.
Whatever the occasion of the building of the chapel, it is likely that in 1192 it was maintained to provide a light at the harbour entrance. The whole coast was fringed with chapels in medieval times, some of which were used for a few years, whilst others were in service for centuries. The lonely site at the mouth of the Dart would seem to have been abandoned at some date before 1332; when Bishop Grandison licensed two priests to celebrate in the chapel of St. Petrox, built it was said of old, in the parish of the church of Stoke Fleming, the rights of the parish church being preserved. Seventeen years later William Smale (mayor in 1346) was contemplating ‘ the endowment of a chapel at St. Petrox.’
Out of one or other of these schemes developed the chapel of St. Petrox for the use of the residents in that part of Dartmouth which lies along the harbour edge between Bayard’s Cove and the harbour mouth. This was known as South Town, and was in the parish of Stoke Fleming, which village is fully two miles away. By 1425 there is mention of the wardens of the store of the chapel of St. Petrox, and in 1438 a forty days indulgence was granted by Bishop Lacy for building, maintaining and repairing the parochial chapel with cure of St. Petrox.
The chapel is known to have been a building of only ‘one roof’ According to a writer in the ‘Dartmouth Chronicle’ (1 April 1868) this ‘one roof’ corresponded with the south aisle of the existing church. This may well be so, since Buck’s view of the castle area of 1734 shows that the south wall was supported by two buttresses and had two small dormer windows; and this tallies with a War Office plan of 1741. The three windows now existing would appear to have been traced to correspond with the two in the north aisle, erected in 1641.
It may well be said that the builders ‘builded better than they knew’ for whilst they sought to provide for the every-day needs of their parish by an adequate church and cemetery, they have bequeathed to thousands a powerful impression of the serenity and strength of the Christian Church, founded upon a rock, which neither wind nor wave shall destroy.
The mother church of Dartmouth is the church of Saint Clement Townstal; and stands some 350ft above the main town, on the narrow tract which, since ancient times, has been a right-of-way from the coast through Longcross to the River Dart crossing at Hardnesse.
Its south side, sunk below the level of the graveyard, seems to cower from the winds that must have buffeted the hill-top settlement. Tunstal or Dunestal meaning “the walled clearing, or homestead on the hill” is mentioned as a manor held by Walter de Douai in the Domesday Book. Townstal is a Saxon word.
The church building is of a beautiful and stately character and has many interesting and unusual features. The present fabric dates partly from the 13th Century with some Norman traces. The transepts are of great length, that on the North being 33ft and that on the South 31ft. The Altar is unique. It dates from James I and may have replaced an older stone Altar.
The font is of Purbeck stone and dates from the 13th or possibly early 14th Century. The modern lid is of wood. It would appear that at one time there was undoubtedly a rood beam in the fine Chancel arch. A modern carved wooden Crucifix painted and gilded hangs in the Chancel arch and provides some colour.
Views across the Dart to Kingswear by Richard Ellis