Dartmouth we first explore on a cold, wet November night, none of which can hide this Devon town's quirky magnificence. This magnificence does not exist on the grand Georgian scale of our island's cities, for Dartmouth it is the layout of a town, established as a deep water port on the River Dart, which has been built ad hoc over many centuries and which retains something of each period. The oldest building dates from 1380 whilst, at the other end of the scale, the Flavel Arts Centre is surprisingly unobtrusive in its surroundings for such a modern structure. So as we wander around the narrow streets and alleys we never know what gem from the past we will encounter around the next corner or, as Dartmouth is built into the side of a very steep hill, at the end of one of the many flights of old stone steps which connect the various levels of the town.
Having read virtually nil about Dartmouth's history before we came here (we prefer to explore places 'cold', rather than have a list of 'things to see and do'-it's much more fun!) it was with big grins on our faces when we suddenly found ourselves walking into Bayard's Castle. One minute we are walking along a stretch of quay which is a film makers dream (i.e. The Onedin Line) and the next we are stood in one of Henry the VIIIs coastal defence forts with the gun ports open to the sea lapping just below. The atmosphere within buzzes whilst the smell and the sounds of the cannons still hang in the air - at least, it does in the Mudhoppers' somewhat fertile imaginations on a wet night in Devon.
After playing at being soldiers for a while we head off up a nearby flight of the aforementioned steps, from the top of which we look over the roofs of the houses below and across the wide River Dart to Kingswear on the opposite bank. It was from there that we had caught the ferry to get into Dartmouth, a scarily exciting experience for the one of us who is not used to waterborne travel - being, as it is, a small floating bridge which is manoeuvred by a tugboat tied along one side of it. Even the one of us who is used to waterborne travel felt his sphincter twitching a bit at first. But this is enough of climbing upwards for one night, we make our way back down through the streets, diverting off to the left or the right as the fancy takes us, until we reach the railway station.
Ah yes, Dartmouth Railway Station. Dartmouth has a lot to recommend it to all sorts of people - except trainspotters. This is because, having built a railway station in the 1860s, a decision was then made that this is as far as Dartmouth was willing to go in respect of this mode of transport and no railway lines were ever laid into the town. This is ironic considering that Thomas Newcomen, a native of Dartmouth, was the first person to build a steam engine - which gave rise eventually to the development of steam locomotives. Back in the 1860s this fact was of no concern to the boatmen and the merchants of Dartmouth who saw the railways as a threat to their nautical way of life and who successfully resisted the incursion of the new-fangled technology into the town. It is a very nice railway station though.
Dartmouth in the dark is all very fine and dandy, but it gives us the itch to see it in the daylight too - though for this we have to be patient. Having arrived here on a Saturday evening our day on the Sunday is taken up with an indoor event so our next proper sight of the town is not until the evening again. This is not without its compensations as our first bit of exploration then was to hunt down some food, which can always be a hit-and-miss venture in a strange town. But we were in luck (unashamed plug coming up here) with the first place we walked into: The Windjammer Inn on Victoria Road is a family run truly independent free house, good food, good beer and no bloody television spoiling the friendly atmosphere within. We recommend it.
Monday morning gives us our first chance to wander the town in daylight and, bonus, a change of weather has chased the rainclouds away. The morning is spent revisiting places that we had only seen at night and discovering all the bits that had been hidden in the darkness - it really is a fascinating town where its 1000 years of history blends in with all the modern trappings of a holiday resort. Having explored awhile around the river and backstreets us Mudhoppers then decide (some would say foolishly) to go for the birds eye view. As noted above, Dartmouth is built onto the side of a hill-a very big, steep, hill-which we make our way up determined to reach the top. It's a hard climb, though made easier at first by the flights of steps, but rewarding as the fantastic views increase with the height. Away to the right are the two castles, one each side of the rivers entrance, built in 1481 to guard the port. To the left more and more of the river becomes visible as it snakes inland while below and in front are the towns of Dartmouth and Kingswear and the hills of Devon beyond. It is breathtaking (and not only 'cos of the hill-climbing involved to see it all!) Our climb starts with the much used steps, then goes into the little used and overgrown steps before finally leading us up a muddy country lane to the intriguingly named 'Jawbones Hill' (as yet we have not been able to discover the origin of the name, any clues?) Any ill effects that we may be feeling through having to spend the previous day indoors are blown away as we stand at the top of this hill-it is a beautiful part of the country.
This is probably none of our business, as we are not residents of the town, but there was one rather worrying sign that we noticed in Dartmouth-several signs in fact. These are the little notices in the windows of the small local shops protesting about a proposed rise in the, already high, business rates. One trader is quoted as saying that his bill is set to rise from £5,400pa to £18,000pa in one leap. It would be a shame to see Dartmouth's atmosphere changed (as in too many other places) by the loss of local shops-driven out by overblown rate demands-to be replaced by endless rows of Starbucks, Subways and others of their ilk. At the moment one of Dartmouth's strengths is its uniqueness.