The castle at Dartmouth is situated at the mouth of the River Dart, a short walk out of the town centre. It’s a great place to put a castle, looking out across the river to Kingswear, and out to sea – and the people who lived here clearly thought so too because there’s a medieval castle, an artillery fort, fortifications from the Napoleonic wars and World War Two, an additional fortlet on the other side of the river, and the site of a further fort on a side-creek. It’s quite a list, and was necessary because of Dartmouth’s importance as a port and ship-building centre in the past.
The site is now owned by English Heritage and much of the ruins are open to the public for a small fee. We last visited twenty years ago; since then more of the buildings have been opened up and give a wonderful view of not just the military architecture but also the way of life of the soldiers and servants stationed there. There are lots of heavy cannon pointing out of windows; passages running alongside the armouries and gunpowder stores (candles were only allowed on the other side of small windows, to avoid sparks setting the powder off); water-gates; spiral staircases; and even an old lighthouse. Perhaps most interesting of all is the old winch that worked the heavy chain which ran across the channel of the dart to the small fort opposite, which could be raised to stop enemy shipping entering the Dart. And then there’s the ruinous original medieval castle, the partly-fortified church of St Petroc, and a jolly nice tea room to explore.
All in all it’s a great day out and we spent a really enjoyable couple of hours prowling around. Even the walk to the castle is fascinating, passing the site of the rather wonderfully-named Paradise fort, several old lime kilns, and the former Dartmouth pottery complex at Warfleet. And on the way back we wimped out and hailed the tiny ferry back to Dartmouth harbour, passing this mermaid with a seagull on her head.