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.
It would be easy to think that the Embankment has always been here, but of course it hasn’t. In the Middle Ages, present day Dartmouth consisted of two settlements – Clifton, and Hardness – which were separated by a creek known as the Mill Pool. A Foss (dam) was eventually built across this stretch of water and after further reclamation the two settlements became one.
The Boat Float, or Inner Harbour, is where the North Embankment and South Embankment meet and can be regarded as the town’s main focal point. The South Embankment especially, took an enormous amount of will and effort to construct and wasn’t finished until 1885.
We’ll be ending our walk back at the Boat Float, so for now I want to continue walking along the Embankment in an upstream direction to show you something that many people might not be aware of.
On the opposite side of the road to the river are the Royal Avenue Gardens where there is a memorial to the Sea Cadets (2). Not to be confused with the Royal Navy Officer Cadets at the Britannia Royal Naval College up the hill, the Sea Cadets are a group of young people between the ages of 10 and 18 who hope to enlist, after training, into the Royal Navy.
The first Sea Cadets in Dartmouth were formed in the early 1940s with around thirty boys, and the plaque next to the memorial explains how 5 of these cadets aged just 15 and 16 at the time, helped the war effort in 1943 by volunteering their services for the cable laying ship HMTS Alert, which was involved in Operation Pluto.
Operation Pluto involved laying fuel lines under the English Channel to support the D-day landings. These young lads in their Sea Cadets uniform were subject to navy discipline, but on Feb 25th 1945, just a few months before the end of the war, HMTS Alert hit a mine whilst repairing one of the cables and all 59 men on board were killed, including these five young lads.
Royal Avenue Gardens were created from reclaimed land back in the 17th century, and whether the flora here needs less watering or not I couldn’t say, but the micro climate certainly seems to promote some healthy specimens in this sheltered spot (3).
I’m not suggesting any set route through the gardens, but try not to miss the Veale/Savill Garden dedicated to Theodore Veale, another Dartmouth war hero, who earned the highest military honour of the Victoria Cross during the Battle of The Somme in 1916.
I think it’s worth elaborating on the consequences of Private Theodore Veale’s actions. If you can read the inscription on the photo below, you’ll notice that this brave man rescued a wounded officer just yards from the German trenches. Five times he went through No-Man’s Land under heavy fire to save Lt Eric Saville. With three volunteers (one of whom got killed), they rescued the officer who, thankfully after all their efforts, survived.
Lt Eric Saville went on to become Deputy Ranger of Windsor Great Park where he was responsible for creating the national collection of magnolias, and for his efforts he was knighted in 1955. One of the gardens that he created donated four magnolias to the Royal Avenue Gardens.
Before leaving the gardens make sure that you check out the Dartmouth Visitor Centre: Not only is it a wealth of information, it also houses the world’s oldest working model of an atmospheric steam engine (4).
You’re probably wondering why this contraption is in Dartmouth and not an industrial museum somewhere, and the simple explanation is that the inventor was a Dartmouth man by the name of Thomas Newcomen.
Many names have been put forward as to who invented the steam engine, and so I’ve checked out where Thomas Newcomen fits into the equation. The idea of using steam as a means of propulsion goes back 2,000 years, but it wasn’t put to any real practical use until the 17th century when a Spaniard by the name of Jeronimo de Ayanz invented a machine using steam power that was able to remove water from flooded silver mines in Seville. Thomas Savery, an Englishman, patented an improved machine using a cylinder and piston that pumped water out of mines more effectively, but it only worked at shallow depths, and most mines went much deeper. Enter Thomas Newcomen.
Thomas Newcomen was born in Dartmouth in 1664 and developed his Atmospheric Engine in Lower Street (now Newcomen Road) in 1712. His invention was mainly used for pumping out mines, but was also used for draining wetlands and supplying water to towns.
His Atmospheric Engine went unchallenged until 1765, when the Scottish inventor James Watt improved Newcomen’s design to develop a steam engine that, with the help of Matthew Boulton, could be used for many other practical purposes – and led to the acceleration of the Industrial Revolution.
The engine on display in the Visitor Centre was built in 1725 and used by the Coventry Canal Company to pump water into the canal. It was brought back to Dartmouth in 1963, and if you ask a member of staff nicely, they will set the engine running for you. It’s not steam driven of course because that would be impractical but at least you can see how the whole thing worked.
To continue the trail, we need to turn left and cross the road until we come to Duke Street. As we turn into Duke Street you won’t be able to miss the Butterwalk and the Dartmouth Museum on the right-hand side (5)
The first thing you’ll notice about the Butterwalk is that it all seems to be sloping, which it is – and the reason is quite simple – everything around here was built on the re-claimed land I was talking about. I know of two other Butterwalks that have survived in South Devon – one in Plympton and the other in Totnes – but undoubtedly the finest is the one here in Dartmouth.
Granite pillars support the overhanging buildings that provided a covered market underneath (mainly for dairy produce presumably). One of these granite pillars clearly shows the date of 1640, but records show that construction could have started in 1628. It might appear to be one building, but in fact there are a total of four timber-framed houses, the upper floors of which have some fine intricate carvings. It must be remembered however that there was some quite serious damage done to The Butterwalk during the Second World War, but you’d hardly notice thanks to some excellent restoration work.
The interiors are just as ornate, which is why it’s worth paying the small entrance fee to visit the museum, and although it’s not very big, it will at least show you what the inside of a 17th century building looked like.
The King’s Room is the most interesting and is where King Charles II took shelter during a storm. There’s a crest of the Stuart Royal Coat of Arms above the mantelpiece and an ornate ceiling just as the King himself would have seen it back in 1671. The room also has a splendid display of model ships associated with Dartmouth.
A bit further on up Duke Street we’re going to take the next turning right, into Fosse Street. There’s something about this street that I think you’ll like. It’s not just that there are some interesting individual shops, but it also has a nice feel to, it and devoid of traffic (6).
At the end of Fosse Street, turn left into Broadstone and then left again into Market Street, where surprise surprise, you’ll find the Old Market (7). I’ll leave you to decide how much time you want to spend here, but at the end of the street we’re going to turn left, cross the road and then turn right up Anzac Street (8).
At the top of the street is St. Saviour’s Church (9), which from the outside, doesn’t look much different to a thousand other churches, and in a strange sort of way it looks as though I could be right.
In 2005 a census counted 37,501 churches in England, and to help put them into some sort of context, Simon Jenkins produced a book entitled England’s Thousand Best Churches, and there are no prizes for guessing that St. Saviour’s made it into his book.
As somebody who is only really interested in the architecture and history of churches, I couldn’t initially understand why St. Saviour’s made the list, but on closer inspection I could see that some of the internal features were worthy of further investigation.
The church was consecrated in 1372, the main benefactor being John Hawley, Dartmouth’s flamboyant mayor, MP and Privateer. He was buried here in 1408 and, if you feel so inclined, you could ask someone to show you his brass which is hidden under a carpet in the chancel.
One of the main features to look out for is the painted Rood Screen which is beautifully carved and dated to 1496. It’s a typical feature of Devon churches from the period, with saints on the lower panels and a flamboyant upper section with foliage and grapes representing the Bordeaux wine trade.
In front of the screen is another 15th century richly painted feature – the wineglass pulpit. You have to look closely to see that it’s carved out of stone, but perhaps the most amazing feature of all is the South Door. It has some ornate ironwork depicting the Tree of Life with the lions of Edward I. The date 1631 is shown on the door, but this is the date when renovation work was carried out and experts all agree that it is genuinely medieval and quite possibly the original door.
If it’s a sunny day and you’re like me, you won’t want to spend too much time indoors, and so we’ll head up Collaford Steps where there’s an interesting sign (10) and then into Smith Street.
I know I said that I don’t like spending too much time indoors when it’s a sunny day, but that statement doesn’t extend to pubs, and I daresay you could do with a drink yourself by now. Turning left down Smith Street brings us to the Seven Stars which claims to be Dartmouth’s oldest hostelry, but a favourite of mine is the Cherub around the corner in Higher Street (11).
I’m not sure how old the Seven Stars is, but the Cherub was built around 1380 and is completely medieval. It overhangs Horn Hill Steps and has the original pole staircase as well as many other ship’s timbers. There’s a separate restaurant upstairs which is just as well because the downstairs bar isn’t very big. That said, having a chat around the open fire on a cold winter’s night with just a few people is one of life’s simple, but priceless pleasures.
If you can drag yourself away, walk down Horn Hill Steps to Lower Street and turn right. Keep walking along Lower Street past the Lower Ferry until you reach the end of the street at Bayards Cove (12). I’ve covered the cove in my previous post Privateers, Castles, Sea Dogs and Pilgrims and so I don’t want to go over old ground here, but at the same time I didn’t want to leave it out on our walk around Dartmouth as it’s my favourite part of the town.
We’re now going to head back along the Embankment towards the Boat Float and the end of our walk. To get there, walk back towards the ferry and turn right down Cole’s Court to the South Embankment.
Look out for the Russian cannon in the corner that was captured in the Crimean war, before continuing alongside the river towards the Boat Float.
Our final port of call, you might be glad to hear, is the Royal Castle Hotel overlooking the Boat Float (13).
The Royal Castle has welcomed royalty, film stars, seafarers and mere plebs like me for some 200 years or more, but unfortunately, I’ve recently found out that Nigel Way, the larger-than-life proprietor who has owned and run it for many years, has sold it (and the Seven Stars Hotel in Totnes) to St. Austell Brewery. The brewery, on the whole, does run a good ship, but Nigel Way was a great captain and I can’t see it being quite the same somehow.
Even so, it still has to be the best place to finish our walk, and I hope that I haven’t waffled on too long. It’s always a problem to know how much information to put in and how much to leave out on a post like this, but hopefully I’ve got the balance about right between those of you who might want to follow the trail and also those of you who just want to sit in your armchair and find out why I like this small Devon town so much. Thanks for following.