Dartmouth is well worth a second night and day off the main coast path to fully explore this fascinating natural harbour and town, which seems to trickle down the wooded slopes into the glistening waters of the tranquil River Dart.
From your arrival, Dartmouth enchants, and descending the woods from the harsh coastline you pass breathtaking views over the water from the Castle, before entering a maze of tiny narrow streets and alleys that reveal a network of Elizabethan half timber shops.
18th century waterfront houses surround old, cobbled quays and medieval stairwells. It is unspoilt and has been used for a host of films and dramas, from the ‘Onedin Line’ to the ‘French Lieutenants Women.’
Wander through the cobbled quay at the cove and the timber framed shops, boutiques and galleries at the Butterwalk furnished by ornate woodcarvings and granite columns that hang over the street. Or visit St Saviour’s church, rebuilt in 1630, and still furnished with medieval ironwork and trophy timbers rescued from the flagship of the doomed Armada.
One of the largest towns in the South Hams, the historical importance of this harbour cannot be understated. This was the assembly and departure point for the second and third crusades. 16th century Bayards Cove is another timeless quay and, significantly, the spot the Pilgrim Fathers set sail from to “discover” America (they only put into Plymouth en-route when the Mayflower suffered an early leak!).
Dartmouth provided the inspiration for Chaucer’s Shipman of Dartmouth in his ‘Canterbury Tales’ and the town’s principal trade in medieval times was in fact in wine from Bordeaux – the modern yacht owners arriving today still continue the tradition all be it on a smaller scale!
All this and much more is covered in the Dartmouth Museum, an Aladdin’s Cave of seafaring history and curios, including a model man of war fashioned here from bone by French Prisoners. High above the town the Britannia Royal Navy College sits proud, the officer training centre with an impressive array of buildings and the spot that the Queen Elizabeth II first met Prince Phillip.
For facilities with a population of 6,000 swelled by summer visitors you are well catered for and it’s a time to indulge. If you have had your fill of pub meals test the Michelin star at celebrity Chef John Burton Race’s restaurant and Cookery School or choose from a plethora of upmarket restaurants for those who feel they have earned the right to luxury feeding having made it here from Plymouth.
Rest Day Possibilities...
If you have time (and energy) to head out on a rest day, there are excellent options heading inland to the interior along the genteel and leafy River Dart to Totnes, one of the oldest towns in this area of Devon and a great contrast to the coastal harbours. You can walk part way and take a ferry boat for the remainder.
For those wanting a faster mode of transport you can catch the Heritage Steam Railway from Kingswear on a track that affords excellent views of the coastline on a run towards Torbay, and again this can be combined with a river trip leaving from Dartmouth Station – a unique place as its never actually seen a train... all the passengers having had to arrive there by ferry from the other side of the river at Kingswear!
A day on the battlements at Dartmouth Castle affords the classic views of the River and in the summer you can catch medieval re-enactment battles or open air theatre in a location to beat all others. If you prefer, just stick to the river and choose options from guided boat trips and sailing tuition to self-hire motor boats and canoes, and head away from the coast and into the leafy and tranquil waters of the Dart. For a swim, head for Castle Cove below the castle and just paddle your way around the breathtaking views over the River Dart to Kingswear which has its own opposing castle.
Two final options, both well worth considering if you have a day out here, are the historic houses at Greenway and Coleton Fishacre. Greenway was the holiday retreat of Agatha Christie, the house nestled in the woods enclosing fabulous hidden gardens now open to the public. Visit the boathouse, scene of a murder in the book ‘Dead Mans Folly’. You can reach this by boat or on a gentle wander along The Dart Valley Trail.
Coleton Fishacre, also a National Trust site, can be accessed from the coast path on the walk to Brixham, but if time allows go for a proper exploration on a day off. A luxuriant garden by the sea, the Arts and Crafts style house, featuring Art Deco influenced interiors, has sloping subtropical gardens and jungles lead from the coast path into a bizarre world of the most kitsch decor throughout.
Whatever else, Dartmouth will delight providing a welcome rest and change of pace from the twisted rock towers, cliffs and coves along the South West Coast Path.