Dartmouth Castle is often hailed as one of the most beautifully located fortresses. It isn’t hard to see why the castle holds this honour. With stunning views out to sea, across the river mouth to the tree-laden hills and back down the river towards the picturesque town with stone buildings nestled in every nook and cranny on the hillside, this castle can boast its title. For over 600 years Dartmouth Castle has guarded the entrance to Dart Estuary.
There be two Towers at the Haven Mouth and a Chaine to draw over
– John Leland describing the mouth of the river Dart, c. 1542
A wee bit o’ history
Dartmouth Castle, while resembling a castle, was never intended to house Lords and Lady’s. Instead, it was built with the purpose of a fort to be used in times of danger. The earliest parts of Dartmouth Castle can be dated back to 1388 in response to a French attack during the Hundred Years War. A century later, the fortress was strengthened with a purpose-built gun tower, one of the first in Britain, equipped with cannons and a chain stretching across the river to stop warships entering the harbour.
The fort continued to serve during wars up until the Second World War. It now lies quietly in the care of the English Heritage where tourists flock to view the historical fortress for themselves.
The gun tower and the roof
The gun tower is a higgledy-piggledy tower as a result of numerous alterations throughout its history. It is the oldest known gun tower in England and stands at four storeys high. The gun tower has a small turret (finally, I got to see a proper turret in person. Boom!). The gun tower is positioned at the narrowest point of the river in order to provide maximum devastation to enemy ships passing by from it’s guns. The chain stretching across the river prevented or slowed down the ships so they were easy targets for the tower’s guns.
The roof served as the fighting platform for soldiers with handguns and longbows. This allowed for clear views across the river to the Kingswear Castle and Dogmerock (see the photo above) where the chain was anchored as well as out to sea.
North and south gun platforms
Now, these were cool. On each side of the gun tower sit a couple of open-topped platforms. Their purpose was to hold the heavy guns that provided additional gun power. These guns were larger and more manoeuvrable than the ones in the gun tower. The guns on the north platform would have been in perfect aim for enemy ships that made it past the chains.
There are guns on display which date from the 17th to the 19th centuries. They are an impressive sight to see. It was easy to imagine the noises, smells and hustle of the platforms when they were in use. The cannons smoking, the cacophony of voices, guns, ships cracking under siege and commands being yelled. Nowadays the platform is desolate and calm. A contrast to its heyday.
Dartmouth Castle and the wars
Dartmouth Castle played battle in many of the wars throughout history. The ‘fortalice by the sea’ was the first castle built in Dartmouth in the 1380’s as a response to the French Invasion. Since then it has played its part in many wars, threats, invasions and scares including the Civil War, the Napoleonic Wars and both World Wars.
The first floor, ground floor and basement of Dartmouth Castle
The basement is now exposed with the ground floor missing. You can easily see where the bedrock is cut back to make the foundations of the castle. The bottom two openings in the river wall were made in the 15th century for wrought-iron breech-loading guns. These could be shut by wooden shutters to protect the guns from the salt water spray of the sea.
The ground floor would have been used for wind up or down the harbour chains, large cannons and handguns. This floor is no longer in existence. Instead, you get a clear view of the basement below. You can still see where the ground floor sat from the doorway hovering in the middle of the wall. The door is now rather surplus to needs but would have been useful when there was a floor there.
The first floor would have been living accommodations. I can’t imagine they would have been very peaceful living quarters. Handguns could be fired from the windows. Also, rather inconvenient whilst one is trying to sleep. You can still see where the fireplace would have been, and the large windows sat to sit and ponder as the world went by.
Three vaulted rooms make up the casemates. Their thick stone walls and earth bombproofing overhead protected the gun crews from incoming fire. However, the smoke from the guns, heat, fumes and gunpowder made for a rather sensory experience. Combine that with the deafening sounds of the guns and you got yourself some poor working conditions.
In each of the casemates, one heavy gun overlooked the sea at the ready. There are display guns sitting in the casemates, so you can see how big and heavy they were. Now the rooms are light and airy but when the rooms were in use it would have been a different story. The crisp white walls would have been dulled with dust, smoke and gunpowder. A hive of activity would have surrounded the serene gun sitting on display. Men hurriedly reloading and yelling instructions. A chaos in contrast with the peace and calm of today.
The Church of St Petrox
The Church of St Petrox is named after a 6th century Welsh prince turned missionary monk, St Petroc. (That was an odd sentence to type). The Church is hugely contrasting to Dartmouth Castle. A white authoritative building standing over the grey crumbling walls of the castle. The earliest record of the church is 1198 but how long it stood before then no one really knows. By 1600 the churchyard had been built for burials. The headstones still sit with their backs against the sea, bracing against the salty air.
The church would have been a peaceful haven amongst the chaos of war.
Our walk around
When my tour guide and adopted Uncle Nigel suggested we go out for the day to have a look at Dartmouth Castle, I immediately said yes. As you can probably guess by now, I quite like castles. All of the Castles I visited in England were vastly different from each other. Totnes Castle, looking over the small town with nothing much more to show for its impressive history other than a circular stone wall. Berry Pomeroy Castle, the romantic ruins of lost dreams and ghost stories and now Dartmouth Castle, the fortress steeped in artillery history.
I knew nothing about Dartmouth Castle before our visit. Again, I was expecting the towering turrets, massive ballrooms and moats. Disney has a lot to answer to.
In saying that, I wasn’t at all disappointed. Dartmouth Castle is fascinating, beautiful and so interesting. Military history has never really captured me but I couldn’t help being caught up in the excitement of how it must have felt to be standing on those platforms, rooms and roofs in the height of the various wars that the castle took part in.
The views were simply stunning. Looking out down the river towards Dartmouth and seeing all the houses sitting on the hills really is a credit to how well Dartmouth Castle and the men did their jobs protecting their patch of land.
I love castles, the history, the whimsy, the beauty of times gone by. Dartmouth Castle is the perfect example of preserved history. When we went it was fairly deserted, we had the whole place nearly to ourselves to explore. We were able to take our time looking through all the maze of rooms, bask in the sunshine reading the headstones and gaze out to sea with the fresh air on our bare arms without interruption. The serenity of the location makes it hard to imagine the frenzy of the battles that would have occurred. The display cannons brought us back to the reality of why Dartmouth Castle sits on the rocks, guarding the river Dart and its residents.
Even if you aren’t interested in military history, I would recommend a walk around Dartmouth Castle. It is a fortress with many nooks and crannies to explore, beautiful views to awe over and has a certain charm that is hard to explain.
For more information, visit the English Heritage website
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