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South West Dartmouth Castle and St Petrox Church

In a prominent position at the mouth of the estuary, Dartmouth Castle along with Kingswear Castle on the opposite bank, controlled entry to the river and harbour. A heavy chain between the two provided extra defence. It was built specifically for heavy artillery which were capable of sinking a ship.In a prominent position at the mouth of the estuary, Dartmouth Castle along with Kingswear Castle on the opposite bank, controlled entry to the river and harbour. A heavy chain between the two provided extra defence. It was built specifically for heavy artillery which were capable of sinking a ship.


By the C12th century, Dartmouth was an important trading and fishing port, able to hold up to 600 vessels. During the Hundred Years War it was a key target for the French, and the English Crown repeatedly advised the town to improve its defences.

John Hawley, a wealthy merchant and landowner, as well as Mayor of Dartmouth, was responsible for the construction of a fortalice (fortified enclosure) at the mouth of the Dart, supplied by a small harbour. The walls enclosed the small church of St Petrox.

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The fortalice was intended to engage enemy ships with catapults and early cannons and is the first examples of gunpowder artillery being used within a castle. It was only used in times of danger, so had few permanent buildings. Only a section of wall and part of a round tower survive from this fort.

The remains of the archway of the gate from the harbour forms part of the churchyard wall and can be seen from the steps for the Castle Ferry.


A walled passageway and steps lead up into the fortalice enclosure into what is now the North Gun Platform.


During the C15th, heavier cannon appeared which had a major impact on warfare. A new stone gun tower was added to the castle. It is the oldest known purpose-built coastal artillery fort in Britain. The first floor was used for accommodation of the master gunner, his two assistants and their families.


As the range of these early cannons was inadequate to provide effective fire across the entire width of the river mouth, a new fortification, Kingswear Castle, was built on the opposite bank in 1491.


A heavy iron chain was fitted across the river which could be raised using a capstan in the gun tower. Not only did this restrict access to the harbour. ships were also brought to a stop, leaving them easy targets for the guns.

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A further fortification was built at Bayard’s Cove as a last line of defence against any ships that had escaped damage from Dartmouth and Kingswear castles and broken through the chain defence.


Further gun batteries were added on either side of the gun tower in the 1540s, after relations between Henry VIII and the French broke down again, following his divorce from Catherine of Aragon.

The castle saw service during the English Civil War, when the Dartmouth merchants supported Parliament. The town’s defences had always been based on attack from the sea, and fell quickly when subjected to Royalist bombardment from the land. They were later recaptured by the Parliamentarians.

In 1748, a new gun position called the Grand Battery was added to the castle, equipped with twelve guns. This was later rebuilt in 1861 with enclosed gun casemates for heavier cannon with lighter guns on the roof.



In 1909, the castle defences were declared surplus to military requirement and were given to the Office of Works for display as a historic monument. The enterprising widow of a former gunner ran a tea room.

During WW1, the castle was brought back into military use to protect both the harbour and the Britannia Royal Naval College built above the town. Two quick fire guns were installed to prevent enemy gunboats and torpedo boats from entering the harbour.

The castle was again used during WW2 when the harbour was used by merchant convoys and boats and small ships were built in Dartmouth. As well as housing soldiers, searchlights were installed and two guns which were abler to engage enemy ships up to 3 miles out to sea. These were protected from air attack by concrete gun houses. One survives as the ticket office. The Royal Navy laid a boom across the river, with steel mesh nets hanging to the river bed, intended to prevent enemy ships and submarines entering the harbour. A gate allowed Allied shipping to pass through.

The harbour was used for ships and landing craft needed in the D-Day landings.

After the war, The Ministry of Works took responsibility for the castle. It is now in the care of English Heritage. The small tea room by the castle is privately run.


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Dartmouth Castle cont...

The castle is reached either by ferry from Dartmouth, or a pleasant walk along the shore past Bayard’s Cove Fort and Warfleet Cove. It is an attractive setting with views up and down the river and across to Kingswear Castle.

The remains of John Hawleys’ fortalice above the car park, look down over the later castle.


The stone tower behind the Castle Tea Room was built in the mid C19th as a lighthouse. In the Middle Ages, the tower of St Petrox church may have had a light on it to guide ships entering the river at night. In the mid C19th the master gunner was paid £20 a year to maintain a light. A stone tower was built to hold the light . It was however short lived as it was the wrong side of the river to be seen by ships approaching from the south west. By 1864, it was replaced by a lighthouse below Kingswear.

The Ticket office is in the castellated WW2 gun house designed to blend in with the rest of the castle buildings and disguise the fact it contained a gun.

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It contains a small shop and gives access to the Victorian Battery.

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This is the first part of the Castle to be visited after leaving the ticket office and the Victorian battery is the last of several batteries that have stood here. Originally there would have been two guns mounted here, although only one is now displayed.

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On the roof is a replica of one of the original Victorian guns. The shop now covers the site of the second gun emplacement.

A ramp leads down to the guard room, still with its original murder holes in the floor. It had accommodation for up to six soldiers if the battery needed to be manned full time.


A spiral staircase leads down to the gun casemates on the lower floor and the ammunition stores.

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Immediately on the right is the Lighting Passage. This was added in 1868 to improve safety measures for gunpowder magazines. There were four small glazed openings into the magazine stores and candles could be placed here to light the rooms safely without the need of open lights.


Next to it is a small doorway that shuts off access to the passage leading to the magazines which stored gunpowder barrels, cartridges and shells. Wooden floors and copper door fittings reduce the chance of sparks and accidental explosions. The store room was used by soldiers to change uniforms and boots before specials non friction uniforms and slippers that would not trap grains of gunpowder. Measured amounts of gunpowder were transferred to the empty cartridges and shells.





Beyond is the door leading to the gun casemates.


There are three vaulted casemates, each separated by a wooden door.

Massive walls and earth covering above protected the gun crews from outside attack. Although they were safer than the open guns above, working conditions were much worse with the noise of gun fire in a confined space, smoke, heat and fumes.



Each casement contained a single gun which was worked by a crew of ten men. Hooks, brackets and shelves on the walls were used to store side arms and the tools used for loading and firing the guns.


Apart from the master gunner and his two full time assistants who had accommodation in the gun tower, the rest of the men were volunteers from the town. The Devon Artillery Volunteers were unpaid and trained in their spare time . They would have worked in shifts, sleeping from hammocks slung between ceiling hooks.

A doorway leads to a walled passageway past St Petrox Church to the Gun Tower and gun platforms.




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Dartmouth Castle cont...


With the arrival of heavier artillery, a fortified gun tower was built next to St Petrox Church in the mid C15th. It is the oldest known purpose-built coastal artillery fort in Britain. Later gun batteries were added on either side of the tower.

Dartmouth Castle Plan 3.JPG



The gun tower stands four storeys tall with an open roof with a small turret. It contained the capstan for lowering the heavy chain across the River Dart.

It is entered by a small doorway protected by overhead machiolations, through which missiles could be dropped onto an enemy.


The Basement was cut out of the bedrock. Gun openings round the walls could be closed by wooden shutters to protect the guns from corrosive salt spray.


Part of this has now been floored and holds a floor mounted gun



The ground floor would have housed the chain mechanism as well as more guns. The first floor was primarily used as living accommodation. It was provided with fireplaces and later larger windows were added to give more light.

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This has information and examples of weapons used.





A spiral staircase gives access to the roof area.


This open space was used as a fighting platform for soldiers armed with handguns or long bows as well as larger guns.


The small turret was probably used as a lookout and signal point.


Allow plenty of time to visit the castle as there is a lot to see and information to read. The guide books contains a lot of information and pictures and is worth buying.
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St Petrox Church


St Petrox church is in the grounds of Dartmouth Castle, near teh mouth of the River Dart. It is a lovely setting.It can be reached by walking along the water front or by using the small Dartmouth Castle Ferry. This approach gives one of the best views of the castle and church.


It is the oldest of the three parish churches in Dartmouth and dedicated to Petroc, a C6th Welsh prince, who came to West County to preach Christianity. (Petrox is a medieval corruption of his name.)

Although there has been a building here since before the Norman Conquest, little is known of its early history, apart from a record in 1192, when it is referred to as the Monastery of St Peter.

It was endowed as a Chapel in the early C14th to serve residents of South Town, the area along the harbour from Baynard’s Cove. It is thought it also provided a light at the harbour entrance. The chapel was later incorporated inside the wall of the first fortalice, built in the late C14th to defend the estuary.

The church was enlarged and restored in the early C17th when the west tower with as spire was added along with a north aisle and gallery. During the English Civil War, it was used as a provision store for the Parliamentarians based in the Castle.

The church spire was removed in 1856 as it blocked the view of the town for the lookout stationed at the castle who was responsible for communicating names and details of ships entering the river.

Until the late 1990s, the church only had electricity to the organ and a light in the entrance to the bell tower. It now extends to the altar area and electric heaters. The torchiers in the nave hold oil filled candles.

Entry is though a small door into the north aisle.


Inside it is a large church with plastered walls and arcades separating nave from the large side aisles.


The west window was blocked for many years and re-opened in 1924 as a memorial to the men of the parish who fell in the First World War.


Their names, along this local servicemen and civilians who died in the Second World War, are recorded round the walls. The last recorded name is a civilian killed in Malaya in 1950. The panelled board on the south wall was part of the woodwork from the old gallery.


That on the west wall is a reproduction. The Book of Remembrance is kept in a cabinet open at the current month.


In front of the tower is the C12th font with a decoration of palms. Little is known of its history. It was found in the churchyard and has been used since 1845


Octagonal pulpit dates from 1641.


The Royal Coat Arms of Charles II hangs on the wall.


There are two Funeral hatchments to members Holdsworth Family, who were one of the most important and wealthiest families in Dartmouth. These are canvas stretched over a diamond wooden frame and painted with the family coat of arms. They were carried by the funeral procession and hung on the gates of the deceased house for several months before being hung in the church.



On the north wall are two large late C17th charity boards listing gifts to the church. The last record is from Reverend John Charter in 1821.



The chancel is small with a simple wooden table altar. At the end of the south aisle are three early C17th memorial brasses to right of altar. There are further memorials on the walls.


The east window is C19th and dedicated to St Peter, St George, St Pretroc and St Paul.


The rest of the windows are Victorian pastel coloured glass. Several have coats of arms.




The church is surrounded by its graveyard. The path to the ferry passes past a small Garden of Remembrance. This is quiet and away from the crowds and a lovely spot to sit.




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Dartmouth Castle Ferry

It is a pleasant 20-30 minute walk from Dartmouth to Dartmouth Castle. For those not wanting to walk there is the option of a ferry ride. Not only is there the fun of a ten minute ferry ride, some of the best views of Dartmouth are from the river. The trip takes about ten minutes so even the worst sailors don’t have time to feel sick.

Boats run a regular service from Dartmouth South Embankment to Stumpy Steps, a few minutes walk from Dartmouth Castle. It is a steep climb up from the cove to the road and then along to the castle. The first boat leaves Dartmouth South embankment at 10 am with the last service leaving Dartmouth Castle at 5pm. There is no set timetable with boats running on demand. There is a white board at Stumpy Steps to turn to call the ferry.







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Baynard's Cove Fort

Bayard’s Cove Fort is best seen from the sea. It is on the southern edge of the town standing at the end of a C16th stone quay.



The Tudor fort was built between 1522 and 1536 at the narrowest point of the River Dart. Armed with heavy guns, it controlled entrance to the harbour further upstream. It was the last line of defence against enemy ships that had eluded Dartmouth and Kingswear castles and the iron chain stretched across the Dart estuary between them.

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The fort was built on a terrace cut out from the rocky river bank and had a high, thick wall enclosing a rectangular area with rounded corners.

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The original entrance was on the north side and still survives as a much damaged pointed archway. There was access to a narrow wall-walk via a stone stairway over the entrance arch.

The fort wall was originally topped by a parapet, now mostly missing, from which soldiers armed with longbows and handguns could fire. Wooden enemy ships were at most 200m away and would have been an easy target. Around the base were eleven gunports near the water’s edge, each angled to cover a particular area of water . Wrought iron guns fixed to heavy wooden base-plates could easily hole the ship at the waterline.


Gunpowder was probably stored in buildings against the rock face and there may also have been accommodation for gunners here.

Bayard’s Cove Fort was never tested in a naval assault and became obsolete as new and more powerful weaponry was developed. The fort was again used in WW2 as a machine gun post.

The fort is now in the care of English Heritage and is reached either by walking along Bayard’s Cove Road or down a steep flight of stone steps from Southtown. It is open any reasonable time during daylight hours.


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