The Britannia Royal Naval College
If you’ve come to Dartmouth and wondered what the imposing red-brick building overlooking the river is – then wonder no more. The Britannia Royal Naval College is the training establishment for officers of the Royal Navy, and if you’re as inquisitive as me as to know what goes on inside, you’ll be pleased to learn that there are guided tours available for the general public.
Before this building was constructed, officers were trained in a number of different locations. Traditionally, sea-based apprenticeships meant that officers were thrown straight in at the deep end as it were, but in 1733 a Royal Naval Academy was established at Portsmouth. In 1806 its name was changed to the Royal Naval College, but not everyone thought that studying in a classroom was the best way to train sailors, and in 1837 it was closed down.
It must have been recognised that academic knowledge also had a part to play in the training of officers because in 1859 it was decided to convert the ailing hospital ship HMS Britannia into one for training cadets. In 1862 she was moved from her home at Portsmouth to Portland, but a year later was transferred to calmer waters at Dartmouth.
By 1869 the former hospital ship was in intensive care herself and ended up in the breakers yard. She was replaced by HMS Prince of Wales, which changed its name to HMS Britannia, and even though HMS Hindostan had been added in 1865 to help out, overcrowding on the two hulks meant that a shore-based building was becoming a necessity, and in 1898 work started on building the Britannia Royal Naval College.
Wandering Around Dartmouth
Continuing my tour of the South Hams, an area of South Devon where I lived before coming to Torbay, I would like to show you around Dartmouth – my favourite South Devon town – and you can follow the trail on the map opposite. How long it takes will obviously depend on how much time you spend in museums, pubs or on benches, but although it’s not a long walk by any means, I think you should allow at least half a day to really do it justice.
I covered some of Dartmouth’s history in Privateers, Castles, Sea Dogs and Pilgrims and a good place to start this walk is on the Embankment next to the Train Station with No Railway (No1 on the map).
Dartmouth’s Embankment is the riverside equivalent of a seaside promenade, where it’s possible to lose track of time just by watching the comings and goings along the river.
Privateers, Castles, Sea Dogs and Pilgrims
Dartmouth, without doubt, is one of my favourite Devon towns: A picturesque setting, old buildings, and a fascinating maritime history combine together to make this one of the gems of South Devon.
Lying along the western bank of the River Dart just before it reaches the sea, Dartmouth owes its very existence to the river. Primitive settlements were set up along the muddy banks as far back as Celtic times, but land reclamation over the centuries have seen the town develop into how it looks today.
During that time the deep natural harbour has seen many comings and goings: The 12th cent saw ships leave here for the Crusades, and Henry II’s marriage to Eleanor of Aquitaine saw a lucrative wine trade flourish with Bordeaux, but the most influential person in Dartmouth’s history was a local man by the name of John Hawley.
A Train Station with No Railway
Slap bang on Dartmouth’s riverside embankment is a former railway station which has since been converted to a restaurant. Nothing unusual about that you might think, but the station never had a railway in the first place – no tracks, nothing – so why was there a station here?
The simple answer is that it was used as a booking office to buy train tickets, but I suppose you’re now wondering why you would want to buy a train ticket at a booking office where there were no trains. Well, the answer to this is also quite simple, or at least up to a point.
Basically, Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s railway line to Torbay stopped at Torre, and the Dartmouth and Torbay Railway Company was formed to extend it to Dartmouth via Torquay, Paignton, Brixham Road (now Churston) and Kingswear, but the proposed bridge across the River Dart was beset by problems and so the railway line terminated at Kingswear.