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Sunday, September 8, 2013

Dartmouth: Pilgrims, Castles, and War

Dartmouth, right on the dot!

A wonderful, sleepy harbor.

Let’s take a trip to Dartmouth.  I don’t mean the Ivy League, Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire.  I mean the city:  Dartmouth, England.  But, there’s a connection.  The 2nd Earl of Dartmouth gave the college its name.

You can get tangled in connections between the United States and England. American school kids are like only, like, mostly, like familiar with, like, you know, three:  Pilgrims, Colonies, Revolutionary War.  A diet of thin gruel and pond water, with a hefty shot of 220 Volts for wrong answers might buck those little heathens up.

But, back to the peaceful city in southern England:  Dartmouth.  Strange name.   Dart is the name of the river flowing through the town.  Why dart?  Oh, you clever beast, trying to catch me.  Dart is an old Celtic word meaning river lined with oak trees.  One small word can’t cover all that?  Try sauté, meaning ‘lightly fry in a pan with a little bit of butter.’  By the way, the banks of the Dart are still lined with native oak.  Since the town was built at the mouth of the River Dart…Voilá!  Dartmouth.

There’s even a direct connection to the Pilgrims, who put into Dartmouth for repairs to the Speedwell, the sister ship to the Mayflower.

See, compared to your beer swilling buddies, you’re now on a par with Nobel Prize winners.  But, wait, there’s more.

The Royal Castle Hotel sits in the midst of the port, a regal building, with a regal history.  Opened in 1639, Sir Francis Drake, Queen Victoria, and a host of other dignitaries have had stays, among them Cary Grant, and Dame Agatha Christe, who used the setting in a couple of her mysteries.

 A ghost carriage regularly pulls up in front of the hotel, to the clatter of horses’ hooves.  The heavy wooden beams inside came from ships in the Spanish Armada.  Have a drink in the Galleon Bar, also made from the wreck of a Spanish Man-o-War. 

Inside the Royal

The Galleon Bar

Across the street is the Dartmouth Museum, a nautical treasure trove that encourages you to open drawers and piddle with things. King Charles II was entertained here in a room still known as The King’s Room.  The entry stairs twist around a ship’s mast.

Outside the Dartmouth Museum

At the mouth of the harbor, Dartmouth Castle has guarded the port since the late 14th Century.  Took part in the English Revolution and served as a fortification in both World Wars. 

But, there’s far more to Dartmouth than a few architectural relics, although after several pints of fine English ale, I found them absolutely fascinating, right up until I was asked to leave.

Dartmouth Castle

More recent history also stalks Dartmouth.  Devon was the center of preparations for D-Day.  Ever hear of Slapton Sands, Exercise Tiger and the full-scale D-Day rehearsal?  May 1944.  As Exercise Tiger was in full swing, landing craft were spotted by German E-boats, fast, wooden hulled attack boats.  946 American troops lost their lives.  Because of the secrecy surrounding D-Day, little was reported.

A German E-Boat

Enough painful memories.  In Dartmouth, what can you do for fun?  Take a ride down the Dart on a 1920’s steam driven paddleboat.  See the oaks along the banks, watch oystermen ply their ancient trade.  Catch a glimpse of the Britannia Royal Naval College.  The college is the last and only Naval College left in England, as sadly the British Navy, protector of the realm for a thousand years, has been allowed to wither.  The college is active and only open to visitors on certain days.

Nearby is Greenway, the holiday home of Agatha Christie, owned by the National Trust and open to tourists.

Now to the real business of a day, food and drink.  Plenty of pubs.  Head back to The Royal Castle Hotel’s Galleon Bar, or tread the dainty cobblestone streets for shopping and sipping.  Plenty of seafood, including some of the most fabulous fish and chips in all of England.

Ah, the beer!  But, I’ve written so extensively about the glories of hand-pulled pints that you may believe all I think about is beer.  Not so.  But, my wife won’t let me write about English women.

A local brew in the Galleon Bar
And anyway, this is about Dartmouth.  Spend a day or a week, or come for the summer and finish that novel.  The real glory of Dartmouth is what I would label a fascinating tranquility.  And now that you know what the hell Dart means, you’re practically a native.

Oystermen check their beds

Scones with Jam and Devon clotted cream

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