Dartmouth is a small seaside town in the English county of Devon. In the 1991 census the town had a population of 5,650. Its primary industries are fishing , tourism and agriculture. Dartmouth lies on the Westcountry coast about 25 miles east of Plymouth, 34 miles south west of Exeter, on the edge of Dartmoor. For a location map please see the end of the writeup.

Dartmouth for Visitors

Dartmouth is situated at the mouth of the River Dart from which it takes its name. The town's harbour is constantly busy with fishing boats, ferries, yachts, and the occasional cruise ship or submarine visiting the Britannia Royal Naval College. Dartmouth is blessed by its surroundings, beautiful countryside, high rounded hills and steep valleys, lush with vegetation. The coastline offers superb cliff top walks while the town itself offers a great combination of an eventful history, beautiful architecture and excellent food.

The town centre is full of narrow streets with the long steep steps and overhanging medieval houses. At the heart of the modern town lies Foss Street. Foss Street today is a pedestrian area containing art galleries, restaurants, a pleasant place to spend an afternoon. This isn’t the way it used to be, Foss Street was originally a dam retaining a large pond, built in the 13th century to drive two mill wheels. As with everything in this town there are long tales of intrigue behind even this quiet street, in this case two rival families vying for influence and changing the landscape in the process.

Of particular interest to visitors are the fortifications. Dartmouth castle can still be visited. It is particularly nice to travel there by a short boat ride from the quay across the harbour. The imposing castle is essentially a large round tower, built to defend against French invasions. Today the tower offers a stunning view of the town, the harbour and the beautiful Westcountry landscape.

Dartmouth also has a long tradition as an artistic centre. The more discerning tourist may wish to browse one of the many galleries that line the central town. The D’art Gallery (despite the terrible pun) on Lower Street has a particularly impressive range, while the Combe Gallery, just outside the town in Dittisham, has got to be one of the best kept artistic secrets of the country.

A Short History of Dartmouth

The town of Dartmouth grew out of several small villages that had suffered at the hands of Viking raiders, most of the local inhabitants moving to the more defensible inland settlement of Dunstal, now called Townstal. Ironicaly it was the decendands of Vikings, the Normans who allowed Dartmouth to truly flourish. The security and stability gained after the Norman conquest of 1066 allowed settlement along the coastline and ensured that Dartmouth harbour was safe from raiders. It was at this point that the good people of decided to do a bit of raiding for themselves, becoming one of the biggest pirate…er…privateering bases around.

During the Crusades the harbour was used as the staging point for the great crusade fleets in 1147 and in 1190, this being the last patch of their land the noble Kings of England (who incidently being Norman, only spoke French) would have seen before sailing off to slaughter innocents in the holy land. To this day Warfleet Creek bears witness in it’s name to the impact that over a hundred warships had on the local consciousness.

Despite its obvious strategic significance it was not until 1341 that King Edward III officially recognised Dartmouth in charter as a settlement. Shortly thereafter Dartmouth gained literary fame after a visit by the bestselling author Chaucer in 1373, later naming one of his characters as a “Shipman from Dartmouth”, further evidence of the growing fame of the small seaport.

It may seem strange to modern eyes but despite Dartmouth’s respectability and connections with royalty, Dartmouth continued to be a major centre of piracy. This is embodied in the now legendary John Hawley was a hugely successful pirate, a friend of the King, and Mayor 14 times of Dartmouth. Before his death in 1408 Hawley built up the towns defences including fortifying the harbour mouth and slinging a vast chain across the river to stop enemy ships from entering. In revenge for the endless raids a Breton fleet launched a major attract against the town in 1404. Seeking to bypass the towns defences landed just down the coast at Slapton Sands while the townsmen were at sea. Hawley gathered together a force of women and children who marched to meet the invaders. Using little more than sticks and stones, the women defeated the well-armed French at the “Battle of Blackpool Sands”. Quite how they achieved this with so little resources or training is a matter for debate, but many harried husbands and partners may have some idea.

In 1620 the “Pilgrim Fathers” who are often regarded as the founders of America stopped off at Dartmouth for renovations to their ships before heading to America. It has been suggested that the locals, who at this time relied strongly on trade with Catholic nations, didn’t think much of them as the ships were to put into Plymouth for repairs shortly after leaving Dartmouth. The ships were leaking so badly that one had to be abandoned and the Mayflower sailed on alone.

Much of the modern town as it is to be viewed today owes little to the days of its charismatic pirate leader and more to competition between rival families in the 18th and 19th centuries, a time when the region relied less on plunder and more on cod stocks. The Seale and Holdsworth families spent this period trying to outdo one another with public works, each seeking to become ‘the family’ of Dartmouth. The people of Dartmouth benefited greatly from the rebuilding, landscaping and road building that resulted from this rivalry, creating a golden age of prosperity, which came to a sad and inglorious end when the cod trade collapsed at the close of the 19th century.

Dartmouth continued despite this setback and, nearly a thousand years after being the staging point for the King’s Warfleets the Royal Navy became the main focus of the town. The positioning of the Naval Cadet college at Dartmouth in 1863 had guaranteed a boost to the city’s welfare that lasts until the present day, but it was during the Second World War that Dartmouth truly returned to its origins. Once again raiders and smugglers slipped out of the docks, yet now they were not seeking to plunder the French, but seeking to liberate them. During the war Dartmouth became a prime centre for support for the liberation movement within France, innumerable missions slipped silently across the channel on missions of daring and immense danger, and with little hope of reward. Darmouth suffered during the war, air raids destroyed much of the city, and the training college, yet the people continued their work. In the closing days of the war Dartmouth again saw a great fleet gathering in it’s waters, yet this was not headed for the holy lands, this was the D-Day fleet which launched from Dartmouth to liberate Normany and bring about the end of the war.

Location of Dartmouth within South West England, UK

       
                                                                       *   Gloucestershire #       
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                                                                *              #  Wiltshire  #   
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                            ** @ ##        Devon                 #        Dorset       #          
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                         **       #                    @   *******  ****                 *           
                       ***    @    ##                    **             ***  ***       ***     
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                ***   Cornwall     ### @            X------Dartmouth                                           
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           ***   @  *    *                *****    *                                                  
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* = Coast
# = County border (land)
@ = Town / City (hardlinked)

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