Back in the seventeenth century, England’s south west coast became notorious for some of the most famous pirates in European history. Indeed, Hollywood movies immortalised the local accent as the authentic voice of these sea-faring bandits. The area was ideal for illicit smuggling, with its many coves and inlets, and remote location a long way from London…
A deepwater port able to accommodate large ships with all kinds of exotic cargos, Dartmouth is steeped in pirate tradition. As far back as the twelfth century, vast fleets of battleships assembled here, and later pirate ships ready to plunder the high seas. Geoffrey Chaucer visited in 1373 and made one of the pilgrims in his Canterbury Tales – a licensed pirate and town mayor – a local man. In 1620, the Pilgrim Fathers stopped in Dartmouth on their voyage to discover America.
Nowadays though, it’s an altogether more sedentary place, whose stunning beauty draws visitors from all around the world. Located at the estuary of the River Dart, the town is sheltered by the Devon hills which provide a dramatic backdrop. It’s one of the most beautiful parts of the West Country, full of ancient buildings with their own stories to tell, which continue to live and breathe to this day. Around it are Dartmouth Castle and Kingswear Castle.
It contains three beautiful churches – St Petrox (built in the 12th century), St Clement’s (13th century) and St Saviour’s (built in the 14th century). The local Royal Naval College is open during the tourist season, and the Dartmouth Steam Railway is fun. The picturesque Baynard’s Cove was the location for famous BBC television drama, The Onedin Line – and there are many boat cruises you can take, including the PS Kingswear Castle Paddlesteamer. The end of August is a good time to visit, because it’s when the Port of Dartmouth Royal Regatta takes place; there are boat races, fun fairs and air displays.
Curiously, the town has a railway station, but no railway. Although a railway line to neighbouring Kingswear was built in 1864, local seamen and merchant traders saw it as a threat and demanded that it should not link direct to the already-built station. Instead, to reach the town by rail, you need to go to ‘Kingswear for Dartmouth’ station, then take the Dartmouth Higher Ferry to the town centre. Driving to Dartmouth from London takes around four hours, and also ends with an enjoyable ferry trip across the river. Nowadays, that never-used railway station is a restaurant.
With its restaurants serving superb fresh sea food, there are plenty of fine places to eat, and the interesting boutique shops make for excellent shopping. The town is also very proud of local man Thomas Newcomen, who invented the precursor to the steam engine – a working eighteenth-century example of his ‘atmospheric engine’ is on display here. Indeed, Dartmouth is full of surprises and is an exotic way to spend time on a tour of England’s west country.