The South West of England: Pt 13 – Dartmouth, Devon

Our Static Caravan for the week was located just outside the town of Dartmouth, a pleasant fishing port that it was time to explore…


Status: South Hams District, Devon, Town, England

Date: 09-16/08/2014

Travel: Car, Lower Ferry (Dartmouth – Kingswear), Passenger Ferry (Dartmouth – Kingswear), Higher Ferry (Dartmouth – Kingswear)

Eating & Sleeping: Station Restaurant, Rockfish Chip Shop

Attractions: River Dart, Dart Ferries, Dartmouth Castle, Dartmouth Boat Float, Butterwalk, Crab Fishing, York House, Lloyds Bank, Royal Castle Hotel, Station Restaurant, Bayards Cove, Bayards Cove Fort, Market etc

Dartmouth 1

Dartmouth is quite a close knit town, with most things of interest clustered together, with the Boat Float (above) at it’s centre. The Float is tidal, so as the water level of the River Dart rises and falls throughout the day, the boats do the same. If you visit in the morning the tide it as its highest, around 10am so the Float is full allowing boats to exit into the river, whereas in the middle of the afternoon the level has gone back down and they are stranded on a bank of mud until the water returns. Already we were treated to some beautiful views around the town, and there is a lot of history contained within its buildings, and two of my favourite are located to the left of the picture:

1) The Tudoresque Building from 1893 was built by EH Back, and it turns out instead of it being one large building it is actually split into 3 parts, 3 separate Listed Buildings:

  • The left hand side facing the River is called York House, and has two shops on the ground floor, with a large red door between them marking the entrance to York Place itself which consists of the houses above the shops.
  • Further down the river front (out of shot) adjoining York House is Number 2, South Embankment, which was built as a shop but there is now a restaurant on the ground floor, with houses above.
  • The right hand side of the building down the side of the Boat Float is called Number 1, the Quay. The only main difference to the other parts is that instead of houses at the top there are in fact offices, along with the usual shops on the ground floor.

The design of three sections together is just incredible, and from the outside you would have no idea that they are distinct from each other, as the building is seamless. All three sections have shops along with a front door leading to the residential space above.

Whilst it was my favourite building in Dartmouth after our visit, can I still say that now I know its 3 different ones? Sure I can, so together they form my favourite building in the town!

2) The stunning Edwardian Lloyds Bank Building, furnished in sections of Red Brick separated by Portland Stone, across the 3 storeys. Completed in 1911 it is a lovely contrast to some of the older buildings in the town, and whilst it fits in perfectly and doesn’t spoil the aesthetic charm of the town centre it add another of many many layers of architectural heritage to Dartmouth.


The Boat Float has a history going back centuries. This area of Dartmouth was once part of the river, and has been gradually reclaimed over the last 500 years. Outlined in Pink on the Map is the general shape of the inlet which ran from the River and up between North/South Ford Roads to the West. A dam was put across where Foss Street is now (in Blue) and the area west of it became a Tidal Pool which could run two water wheels on the Dam. The area East of the dam was open river at this point.

After this, further reclamation reached out to the South West corner of the Float which was then called the New Quay and ran along the front. Next was Duke Street, highlighted in Yellow, along with the area surrounding it near the start of the 1600’s, followed by the “New Ground” Quays in 1684. The “New Ground” was at the time an island connected to the mainland and Duke Street by a bridge, and was located approximately where the Red Shape is, now occupied by the Royal Avenue Gardens.

As the town expanded, the Mill Pool was eventually filled in by 1825, and a new Market was built over it, along with a new main road called Victoria Road which runs out of the town. The final part of the towns advance into the river was the building of the North/South Embankments in 1885, which, along with the filling in of the rest of the Pool, created the shoreline of today, smoothing it out to make it more or less straight. The old New Ground was now part of the Quays, and the New Quay, which became the Boat Float was enclosed on all sides and the South Embankment was built across it to the East, with a short tunnel underneath to allow access to the river. A few further feet of land was then created in the 1980’s (the area East of the road) along the front and contains jetties and mooring points.. You can find out more about the towns expansion in greater detail on the discover Dartmouth website here.

The River Dart is the town’s main water feature, and its origins can be found up on Dartmoor, where two rivers, called the West Dart and the East Dart flow for around 12 miles, to eventually meet at a point called Dartmeet. Together they then flow the last 20 odd miles down through Dartmoor towards Dartmouth and out into the English Channel.

Dartmouth 2

There are a number of historic buildings in the centre of Dartmouth, and one of the most famous is the “Royal Castle Hotel” which overlooks the West side of the Boat Float on a road called the Quay, and is visible in the 1st picture on this post. The building looks reasonably new, however it dates all the way back to 1639 when it was two separate 2 Storey Merchant’s Houses, to the left (built for Joseph Cubbitt) and right (built for William Barnes). The right one was bought by John Summers, and became an Inn by 1736. In 1782 John Browne bought the other house and the two became known as the Castle Hotel and at some point by the end of the 18th century the two were unified, possibly after John Browne bought the other house. The 2nd & 3rd floors were later added around 1840, and you can see the architectural gap between the 1st and 2nd/3rd floors.

Its incredible how this grand building originated and it has come a long way over the last 400 years. Today the Hotel is one of the most sought after in Dartmouth, with 25 rooms over 4 floors, along with a Bar and a Restaurant which is open to the general public. Visitors who get rooms at the front are treated to views out over the Boat Float to the River Dart and out over neighbouring Kingswear.

Dartmouth 4

One of the new buildings built in the town during the land reclamation was called “The Butterwalk”, a row of Merchant Houses dating back to between 1635 and 1640, which can be found on Duke Street coming off The Quay not far from the Castle Hotel. Along the bottom are a number of shops, as well as the Museum of Dartmouth, which contains fascinating facts and history about the town. It is billed as one of the most popular attractions in Dartmouth, and if you’re interested in visiting you can visit their official website here to explore the various collections on show. The whole structure had to be refurbished in the 1950’s as they were damaged by bombs during World War II, but today you’d be hard pressed to tell.

The designer for the Butterwalk was called David Nye & Partners (Firm of Architects from Westminster) and their grand ideas were then built by PW Wilkins & Sons (Builders from nearby Torquay). The pillars that support the upper 2 storeys are made out of Granite, and a mighty 11 of them are located down the length of the row.

The Butterwalk has to be one of the most incredible collection of buildings in Dartmouth and I always say you can tell that a building like this is really old as it has started to bulge, and I’d say that applies here too! There are many gems like these all over Dartmouth, down side streets and indeed on the many town centre streets, and they are always a joy to discover.

Dartmouth 5

Walking past the Butterwalk, away from the River you will reach the Market, built over the old Mill-Pool which was filled in in 1828. The Market is made up of a central courtyard, in which sits the old 2 storey Market Court House, built out of Sandstone when the rest of the Market was put up. Today it is occupied by offices, which may date from the 1970’s renovation. The Courtyard is surrounded on all sides by walls like the one above, which contain shops/stalls. Aside from a regular market held during the week, a Farmers Market is also held here, every 2nd Saturday of the month.

Moving back towards the Boat Float you will reach the Royal Avenue Gardens, which, as I said earlier, sit on the site of the “New Ground” from the land reclamation and now makes up the Northern boundary of the Boat Float.

Named in honour of the Diamond Jubilee of her Majesty Queen Victoria in 1887, the gardens stretch from The Quay all the way to the South Embankment, and contains a number of sites of interest. A fountain sits in the interest, and behind that to the left, out of shot, is the Band Stand, a popular meeting point in the town. Around the rest of the Gardens you will find various War Memorials, a Rockery, a Rose Garden and a small Pond. We even saw a stunning floral display designed like a ship, in keeping with the maritime history of the area.

At the North end of the Park is the Tourist Information Office, which contains a famous invention from the town…

In 1712, a man named Thomas Newcomen (1664 – 1729, English Inventor) made history by inventing the Atmospheric Steam Engine, a large pumping machine which operated using steam to pump out water from the mines. It was a valuable addition to the Industrial Revolution and a life size working version can be found in the Tourist Information office. The Staff will even set it going if you ask them, to show how it operates (using electricity rather than steam however). A smaller model can also be found in the same room and shows how it would fit into a working environment, and gives some more detailed information as to how exactly it operates. It is popularly known as the Newcomen Engine and is a proud part of Dartmouths heritage.

Dartmouth 6

Down along the Waterfront, at the East side of the Boat Float, stands the Station Restaurant. At first glance it just looks like an ordinary restaurant, in a building that resembles an old Station. Some further investigation reveals that it IS an old Station, despite no trains ever calling at Dartmouth…

In 1864 the new Dartmouth & Torbay Railway (part of the South Devon Railway) opened to the public, running from Torbay on the Great Western Railway through to Kingswear. The original plan was to take the railway then on into Dartmouth but due to building difficulties associated with crossing the Dart, the line eventually terminated in Kingswear. This presented a problem, as one of the main reasons that passengers were using the line to Kingswear was to reach Dartmouth and the Naval College so a landing stage was built in Dartmouth. It included the above Station, with its own Ticket Office and Goods Handling unit, and a passenger ferry ran between Kingswear Station and the new Dartmouth one. You could buy your train tickets here, hop on the ferry and get the train from Kingswear. This makes Dartmouth rather unique, for having a genuine train station which has never had any platforms, tracks or trains.

Over the next few decades more stations on the route opened, in places such as Paignton and Brooksands, but they didn’t last. The line eventually closed to passengers in 1966 and it was nearly destroyed completely but it was sold to the Dart Valley Railway Company who turned it into a heritage railway which still runs today, although only as far as Paignton, half way to Torbay.

Today the old Station is called the Station Restaurant and we visited a number of times to enjoy fish and chips down by the riverside.

Dartmouth 7

This is a panoramic shot I took from the Quayside, looking over towards the village of Kingswear on the far bank. Like Dartmouth, the village is layered up on the hill, and has a marina. Often when you look over you can spot the steam train leaving Kingswear Station to head towards Paignton, either the small tank engine or the larger engine that has a tender. This has to be one of Devon’s best views, and just between the hills on the right as the river curves round, the English Channel awaits intrepid voyagers.

The Station Restaurant is shown on the far right, and the boats to hire are located just in front of it. The Passenger Ferry for foot passengers only which crosses the river is similarly located, on the far side of the restaurant.

Dartmouth 8

On the picture of the Boat Float earlier in this post, a square Tower rises up behind the buildings to the immediate left of the Royal Castle Hotel. The Tower belongs to the Church of Saint Saviour which is a short climb up some steps behind the main town centre buildings, on Anzac Street.

This beautiful building is older than most of the town centre, as it was effectively commissioned in 1286 when permission to build the Church was given by the highest authority in the land, King Edward I himself. Completed in 1372, it opened as the Church of the Holy Trinity, consecrated by Bishop Brantingham from nearby Exeter. It wouldn’t be until 1430 that it was renamed St Saviours, which it remains to this day. It’s a stunning construction, and its a shame that so much of the building is hidden behind the rest of the town centre and its not until you go exploring through the towns streets that you can look upon the building in all its glory.

Remember the Tudoresque building down by the Boat Float at the start of this post? That is just one of many similar looking buildings, and two of my favourites are shown above, starting with “The Cherub Free House” on the left. It is claimed to be the only surviving medieval building left in the town, due to its construction in the 14th century, around 1380. An information board outside the Cherub lists some of its interesting features, such as the “2-Light Windows on the 1st Floor of the North Wall” which are a rare feature. The building itself is listed by the Department of Environment due to its age and unique character.

It is a fully functioning pub, but if you’re going to visit it bear in mind that the ceiling is quite low, as they were all those centuries ago. Inside it has kept its medieval charm and its like stepping back in time, although I think we have more choice in alcohol now! The Cherub can be found on Higher Street, just a few streets down from St Saviours.

The second building I saw that really caught my eye can be found on Fairfax Place. A set of steep steps runs up from Fairfax to Higher Street so the Cherub is only a few minutes walk away from my 2nd choice, a series of 3 buildings from 1880 that together form one large Mural. Shown in the picture are the left section, Number 3 Fairfax Place, and the central section, Number 2 Fairfax Place. Both of these have been painted in Black, and the final part, Number 1 Fairfax Place off to the right is actually brown, which is unusual although its possible that now the three buildings are owned by different people who has different colour tastes!

The buildings were built for RC Cranford and consist of up to 4 storeys, with shops across the bottom and living space across the top. Despite being relatively new it is their fantastic design that allows them to fit in so well with the town, and the intricate mural on the front adds centuries to the design.

Dartmouth 9

I’ve talked a lot about land reclamation to create a lot of the new riverfront in Dartmouth, but there is one section that predates all of the new reclamation work by centuries. This area is called Bayards Cove and is located South of the South Embankment, and at one point was the only wharf in the town.

The Cove was the site of a historic visit around 1620, when the Mayflower and the Speedwell, which had journeyed from London, to Southampton and on to Plymouth on its famous voyage from England to the new colony that became part of the United States, Virginia. They arrived in Dartmouth after the Speedwell developed a leak and needed repairing before they could set out into the Atlantic. Just after the two ships had passed Cornwall and journeyed far into the Atlantic the Speedwell developed another leak and had to be abandoned, eventually being sold. The Mayflower continued on her way and the Pilgrims reached North America at the end of the year, although slightly further North of their planned landing site.

Dartmouth 10

Bayards Cove’s defining feature is the 16th Century Tudor Fort, originally built in 1534 for the same reason as Dartmouth Castle, to protect the town from invaders coming up the river from the Channel. As there was only one wharf at the time, where Bayards Cove is, it was ideally located. It is free to enter and you can go inside the structure to look round.

The Cove is a beautiful little area, marked by cannons which are a regular feature of seaside towns and cities. It is another prime example of historic Dartmouth,

On one of our last days in Dartmouth we decided to hire a boat for a 3 hour trip along the River Dart, where in turn we could each take the helm and go on a little expedition. The boat we got is shown above, and there is space for around 4 people in the back, and another 4 inside the cabin. Space wasn’t really an issue as there were only 4 of us overall, so we set off upstream.

You can hire boats for as long as you like, and you are provided with a free lifejacket and maps to show you were on the River you are allowed to go, as there are some areas where larger boats pass through, or there is shallow water as the tide starts to drop. Marker Buoys on the river help to indicate safe areas of the water. On our journey not only did we pass up and down the river, but we also got a great view of some local landmarks, starting with the Britannia Royal Naval College which sits proudly on a hill overlooking the town.

Naval Training has always been prevalent in the surrounding counties, from Portsmouth to Dorset, and it eventually came to Dartmouth when the HMS Britannia (built in 1820) was refitted as a Training Ship in 1859 and was eventually brought to Dartmouth in 1863. The Britannia lived on despite its demise when it was sold for scrap in 1869, as its successor, the HMS Prince of Wales (built in 1860) was renamed Britannia to take it’s place. Training here continued until the start of the 20th Century, when the stunning Edwardian Building that now houses the Cadets was started, by no less than King Edward VII (1841 – 1910) who laid the very first stone in 1902. Designed by Sir Aston Webb (1849 – 1930, English Architect), the building took 3 years to build, and in 1905 opened as the Royal Naval College, Dartmouth. It was later renamed the Britannia Royal Naval College and is also officially known as HMS Dartmouth after the name Britannia was given to a new Yacht called the HMY Britannia in 1953. Bombing raids during the War targeted the College, so functions were moved up to Cheshire in the North of England for the duration of the War. Today it is the only Naval College left in the UK, as the 2nd to last one, located in Greenwich, London, closed in 1998.

Next, we passed Dartmouth Castle, at the other end of Dartmouth close to where the Dart exits into the English Channel, hence the name Dartmouth, mouth of the River Dart. The Castle sits opposite the smaller Kingswear Castle, but more on that in my Kingswear Post. There are two parts to the complex, the Castle, and St Petroc’s Church behind it. Starting with the Castle, this dates back to 1388 when an old Fort was built here, before being replaced by a new tower around the 1480’s. This was further enhanced in the 16th and 17th centuries as new guns were invented, as it is located at a strategic position. The Civil War hit Dartmouth in 1646 and it was captured first by the Royalists and then by the Parliamentarians. Today the best preserved section is the 19th Century Gun Battery, along with ruins of the old Towers which were a guard for the estuary during both World Wars during which it was an important outpost.

St Petrocs is dedicated to… St Petroc (Died 564), and may have been founded before 1192 as a Monastery. Over the next few hundred years it remained in use until a new church, called St Barnabas was built in an easier to access position, so St Petrocs fell out of use until a new route towards it was built in 1864 and it has grown in popularity since, and is still in use today. Together the Castle and the Church make an imposing figure and their position on a rocky outcrop makes it a sight to behold, and the best way to see it is certainly from the River itself.

If your interested in hiring a boat on the river you can get more information on their website here.

Dartmouth 13

As we had a full week in the area, unusually for one of our trips we had time to engage in some leisure activities, and one of the most popular in Dartmouth, and indeed around Devon as a whole by the coast, has to be Crab Fishing. Don’t worry about the Crabs, they get free food and gently tipped back into the water when you have finished, none the wiser for what has just happened. Heres how it works:

1) Equipment

You get all the equipment you need, which consists of a Bucket, some food (either Bacon or Squid etc) , a line with a Hook on the end and of course a Quayside. For anyone interested you can find a pack with all of these items in at the Station Restaurant on the riverside.

2) Water

Fill the bucket with Water and find a good place to sit on the Quayside.

3) Setting Up

Simply put the food, which you can get in a small netted bag, onto the hook and lower it into the water.

4) A Catch

Wait until you feel a tugging or just check it at regular intervals and slowly pull up the line.

5) Reeling It In

If there is a Crab on the end pull it up gently but quickly and dangle it over your bucket at the top until it falls in.

6) Happy Crabs

Put a bit of food into the bucket to keep the Crab happy, and repeat steps 3 – 6 until you think you have enough!

7) Finishing Up

Get as close to the water as you can and gently tip your Crabs back into the river.

Happily we managed a rather impressive 25 crabs when we had a go, ranging in size and colour. They were reasonably small, but it does take a little while to get the hang of, the Crabs like jumping off just as your about to get it to the top!

Dartmouth 14

Our time in Dartmouth was very enjoyable, and on the last day we spent there we paused for a moment close to Sunset on the way back to the Caravan for our final night, and gazed out across the town and the River Dart from a hill above the town, to get one last look… Of course we had many adventures in between the various activities we did in Dartmouth, from Lands End in Cornwall to the City of Plymouth, and I shall be posting about them all in the coming weeks.

Despite its position as a major tourist attraction in the area, there are no train stations and as I mentioned earlier you could cross to Kingswear to get a train from there to Paignton or travel to Totnes and get a train on from there. The nearest Motorway is the M5 which terminates around an hour away near the city of Exeter, and Exeter International Airport is also around that area. Dartmouth is a beautiful town, and is to me THE typical Ye-Olde English Port, and Captain Jack Sparrow himself wouldn’t look out of place amongst it’s preserved buildings and cobbled river front.

You might have noticed at the start of this post in the “Travel” section I mentioned three ferries between Dartmouth and Kingswear. Find out more in my next post, as we crossed the river to reach Kingswear…


2 thoughts on “The South West of England: Pt 13 – Dartmouth, Devon

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