Dartmouth is a vibrant town set on a steep wooded hill overlooking the River Dart in Devon. Situated about a mile from the majestic Devonshire coast, it has a proud maritime past with many historic naval expeditions having sailed from its shores. Today, Dartmouth serves primarily as a popular holiday resort and fishing port.
The river banks and hills around Dartmouth were originally settled thousands of years ago during Saxon times. However, the first recorded settlement can be found in the Doomsday Book of 1086 which mentioned a village called Dunestal or Townstal.
Norman Seafaring Centre
Dartmouth’s reputation as a maritime centre is thought to have begun soon after the Norman Conquest when it was used as a harbour for ships travelling to and from France. By the 12th century, its value as a deep-water port compelled the Royal Navy to use it as an assembly point during the Crusades, with huge fleets setting sail from local waters.
However, the development of modern Dartmouth was aided by the merging of two fishing villages known as Clifton and Hardness. These tiny coastal hamlets were originally separated by a tidal inlet, but were eventually connected by a dam in the mid-13th century. This is now known as Foss Street.
On each side of the man-made dam stood a pair of mills that were powered by the incoming and outgoing tides. However, these have long since disappeared.
Dartmouth was also granted a Royal Charter in 1341 which further aided its development and allowed for the election of a mayor. In return, the fledging port town was required to provide two ships to the Crown for forty days per year.
Dartmouth’s Wine Trade
The town grew considerably over the course of the next one hundred years or so, thanks in part to a lucrative wine trade. Because wine wasn’t subject to import duties, men with seaworthy vessels capable of navigating their ships across the volatile Bay of Biscay, were able to make handsome profits.
The Shipman of Dartmouth
It was during this period that Geoffrey Chaucer visited the area. His ‘Shipman of Dartmouth’ character, who was one of the pilgrims in the famed ‘Canterbury Tales’, is thought to have been partly based on the town’s colourful mayor, John Hawley.
Construction of Dartmouth Castle
Due to the ongoing conflicts with France as part of the Hundred Year’s War, Dartmouth Castle was constructed to guard against invasion.
Completed in 1400, it was equipped with a movable chain that was connected to another fort in Kingswear on the opposite river bank.
This was intended to block vessels from travelling up the River Dart to attack Dartmouth. The castle was the first in Britain to accommodate artillery.
As with Goodrich Castle and other UK fortresses, Dartmouth Castle was at the centre of confrontations between Royalist and Parliamentarian forces during the English Civil War. After besieging the town, Royalists captured the castle and occupied it for three years.
Despite erecting stern defences around the keep, they eventually surrendered their position once Parliamentarians, under the command of Sir Thomas Fairfax, had retaken the town.
Battle of Blackpool Sands
In 1404, an army of around 2000 men led by French commander, William du Chastel, landed at nearby Slapton with the aim of capturing Dartmouth. In response, the town’s mayor John Hawley organised a 6000-strong local militia which confronted and defeated the well-armed invaders at Blackpool Sands.
In 1588 England was threatened by invasion once more, this time from Catholic Spain. To meet the looming threat of the Spanish Armada, Devon’s pain ports were ordered to support Sur Francis Drake’s Western Squadron based at Plymouth.
Although Dartmouth was only required to furnish Drake with two ships, it sent eleven. During the famous encounter, a Spanish first-rate ship named the Nuestra Señora del Rosario was captured and brought back to Dartmouth where it lay at anchor on the River Dart for over a year.
The Mayflower Puts In
On August 20 1620, the Mayflower carrying the Pilgrim Fathers, briefly put in to Dartmouth so that its crew and passengers could rest before embarking on the arduous journey to the New World.
Over three hundred years later, thousands of the Mayflower’s descendants would assemble at Dartmouth as part of D-Day’s massive assault fleet. The soldiers and sailors based out of Dartmouth faced the daunting task of taking Utah Beach.
Dartmouth’s Fishing Industry
After Bordeaux fell to French forces in 1453, Dartmouth’s wine trade ceased. However, the town was sustained by cod fishing. Then in the 16th century, Devonshire fisherman started journeying to the rich fishing waters off Newfoundland.
Triangular Trade Route
A lucrative trade route was eventually established with tiny boats transporting local goods to the colonies in return for salted cod which was then sold to Portugal and Spain. The wealth generated from this triangular trade arrangement is evidenced by the numerous historic buildings found on the Butterwalk and New Quay.
Dartmouth’s continued expansion was such that during the 18th century, living space became a premium. So to provide much needed room, the town’s mill pool was filled in and new buildings constructed along with a new market square.
Downturn and Recovery
While the Industrial Revolution transformed Britain, Dartmouth initially struggled. New machinery meant that the local hand-weaving industry suffered. The difficult terrain that surrounded the town also hampered efforts to build railways. Further hardships followed when the Newfoundland fishing trade collapsed in the mid 19th century.
Nevertheless, the local economy eventually recovered towards the turn of the century, helped considerably by the construction of a new railway line in 1864 and the establishment of the Royal Navy College in 1905.
Dartmouth as a Holiday Destination
In the early part of the 20th century, the tourism industry began to flourish in Dartmouth as the railways brought with them visitors keen to sample the coastal air and beautiful coastal vistas.
Dartmouth Visitor Attractions
Today, tourism remains Dartmouth’s prime source of income, thanks largely to the town’s wonderful setting and collection of top visitor attractions and historical places of interest. Here are some of the highlights.
Dartmouth Castle is one of the region’s most important historical attractions and is open throughout the week. Guarding the narrow entrance to the Dart Estuary, this 600 year old keep remains largely intact, with its battlements and imposing gun tower affording some wonderful views of the river and beyond.
Dartmouth Museum, which is appropriately located on the Butterwalk, offers a fascinating glimpse into the town’s past. Housed in an old merchant’s building, it exhibits an extensive range of artefacts including photographs, paintings and fossils. Also on display are 19th century period costumes, medieval stocks as well as WWII items such as medals and equipment used in the preparations for D-Day.
Dartmouth Visitor Centre
The award-winning Dartmouth Visitor Centre can be found on Mayor’s avenue and houses the Thomas Newcomen Memorial Engine – a 18th century atmospheric steam engine originally used by the Coventry Canal Company for pumping water.
A large collection of pictures are also on display showcasing the town’s eventful past. There’s also a wide selection of free guidebooks, maps and leaflets about top Dartmouth visitor attractions, activities and places of interest.
Dartmouth Steam Railway
What better way to explore this beautiful region than by steam engine? The award-winning Dartmouth Steam Railway offers a variety of tours that take visitors on a seven-mile excursion through an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty that comprises the stunning South Devon coast and the idyllic Dart Valley.
Stopping at picturesque towns such as Totnes, Torquay, Paignton and of course Dartmouth, the carriages are pulled by a collection of classic steam locomotives such as a Great Western Railway 4200 Class No. 4277 and a 5239 Goliath.
Paddle Steamer River Cruise
River cruises are also available aboard the UK’s last coal-fired paddle steamer, the Kingswear Castle. Built in 1924, this historic vessel was originally used as a passenger service, ferrying people between Totnes and Dartmouth.
These days she carries holiday-makers on tours of the River Dart taking in a variety of local attractions along the way including Greenway Estate, Dartmouth Castle, Kingswear and the Britannia Royal Naval College. Trips begin and end at Dartmouth. Tickets can be booked for both rail and boat tours via the link below.
The Butterwalk and Foss Street
The Butterwalk is one of Dartmouth’s most historic streets, comprising a row of 17th century houses that sit on granite pillars with carved overhanging storeys – Charles II once took shelter here during a fierce storm.
Although damaged in 1943, the houses were painstakingly restored in 1954. Other notable buildings in this part of the town are Agincourt House which dates from 1671 and the Customs House, built in 1739. The delightfully narrow Foss Street is also a must-visit with its eclectic assortment of boutiques, art galleries and cafes.
Woodlands Family Theme Park
Located about five miles from Dartmouth, this is the biggest theme park in Devon and promises an exciting day out for the whole family. Featuring a collection of water-slides as well as indoor and outdoor rides, there’s plenty here to see and do regardless of age group.
Among the most popular rides and activities are the Rapids Water Coaster, the ever-popular Vertigo, the Sea Dragon Swing Ship and Marines Commando Course. The park also has a large zoo farm that’s home to a variety of animals including meerkats, pigs, mountain goats and raccoons.
Britannia Royal Naval College
Dartmouth’s Britannia Royal Naval College offers intriguing insights into the town’s rich seafaring heritage and has trained British navy cadets since 1863. Guided public tours are available throughout the year taking visitors deep into this famed maritime institution.
Historical highlights include the college Chapel, the parade ground and the Britannia Heritage Museum – an imposing Edwardian building which sits on Mount Boone overlooking Dartmouth.
Bayards Cove Fort
Bayards Cove Fort offers further reminders of Dartmouth’s tumultuous past. This Tudor fortification was built in the early 16th century and was equipped with heavy guns to guard the town.
It was intended as the last line of defence against any enemy ships that had somehow managed to elude the Dartmouth and Kingswear castles – no mean feat when you consider the iron chain that once spanned the Estuary. Today, the fort can only be accessed on foot although car parking is available nearby.
Kingswear is a small, colourful character village that lies on the bank opposite Dartmouth. Its home to the Royal Dart Yacht Club and features an array of tourist-related shops and public houses as well as the 15th century artillery tower which sadly, is privately owned.
Located about three miles north of Dartmouth is the Greenway Estate. Built in the late 17th century, it was home to famous crime author, Agatha Christie until her death in 1978. Now owned by the National Trust, the estate is open to the general public.
As well as the beautiful Georgian house, visitors have access to the idyllic walled gardens that consist of vinery, peach house and a recently restored fernery. Guided walks are also operated during the summer months which offer superb views of the River Dart in all its tranquil splendour.
Coleton Fishacre is another popular visitor attraction consisting of a 25-acre garden and 1920s house built in the Arts and Crafts style. The elegant Art-Deco interior harks back to the Jazz Age, while outside, the spacious Grade II-listed gardens run down a narrow valley to the sea.
A variety of rare and exotic plants can be found within the grounds, some of which have been able to thrive thanks to the region’s tropical climate.
Dartmouth Events and Festivals
Dartmouth boasts a wide variety of top events which underline why the town is such a special, popular holiday destination. Here are five of the best.
Dartmouth Royal Regatta
The Dartmouth Royal Regatta is the town’s biggest annual event, attracting an enormous number of visitors each year. Held on the last Friday in August, the regatta features a wide range of sporting activities on water and land such as rowing, swimming, running and sailing.
In the week leading up to the actual regatta, Dartmouth plays host to an extensive program of support events including rock concerts, fireworks, and air displays.
Dartmouth Food Festival
Culinary enthusiasts and anyone looking for a good day out will enjoy the Dartmouth Food Festival. It’s held in late October and features more than 120 exhibitors offering snacks and samples of their delicious produce. There are numerous events to enjoy including chef demonstrations, workshops, tasting sessions and celebrity guest appearances. The festival attracts more than 20,000 each year.
Dart Music Festival
The Dart Music Festival has been in operation since 1998 and is considered one of the best small music festivals in the UK. Running over three days in May, more than 100 concerts and gigs are held throughout Dartmouth spanning a multitude of genres such as jazz, opera, folk, rock, blues and orchestral music.
The venues are equally diverse with performances taking place at the town bandstand, in its two churches, outside Dartmouth castle and in the numerous local pubs and watering holes.
Dartmouth Shakespeare Week
In the summer, a spectacular open-air production takes place at Dartmouth Castle of one of the Bard’s famous plays. Put on each year by the Inn Theatre Company, the 14th century fortress provides the perfect setting for a Shakespeare performance. For its eighteenth anniversary, the company will be presenting Macbeth.
Candlelit Dartmouth is another popular local event that’s held during November to mark the beginning of the festive period. It begins with a colourful lantern procession through town and culminates with the switching on of Dartmouth’s Christmas lights.
As well as a crafter’s market there’s also live music, a Father Christmas boat-float and a variety of festive stalls selling all manner of locally-made gifts. Many shops also stay open late including a variety of quirky independent outlets on Foss and George Street.
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