It took the death of a ninety-nine year old prince to buck a trend here. For Dartmouth is one of those places that features in guidebooks but rarely in the national press, as picturesque and quaint as it is sleepy and remote. The wild beauty of the surrounding Devonshire countryside makes Dartmouth both alluring and tricky to access: the town clings to steep banks near the mouth of the River Dart, tucked within the folds of rolling green hills that plunge abruptly into the ocean in a clash of jagged rock and white water. Boats were long the most practical means of access and trade; still today myriad masts nod lazily while motors hum gently, etching white trails on the cobalt blue of the estuary.
It is well worth any effort involved in getting there – in my case nine hours and six changes of transport to cover a mere 163 miles as the crow flies. Some visitors enthuse about kayaking upstream, each bend of the river revealing a verdant new vista and the promise of wildlife from dolphins to herons, or sailing beyond the medieval castle that guards the river mouth into challenging open seas; others about relaxing on nearby sandy beaches or indulging in a Devonshire cream tea or ales in a stonewalled pub. My favourite activity is hiking the vertiginous trails that hug the rugged coastline, passing through ancient woods and above hidden coves and rocky islets, scenes dappled with the golds, blues and pinks of wildflowers in spring. A regular visitor over the years, I never tire of the area’s natural beauty; perhaps that is also why I never thought to delve deeper, until now. Prince Philip’s love story has inspired me to dart back in time as well as to dart along the River Dart.
While visitors like me enjoy an escape far from the cares of city life, seemingly little transpires of import to the outside world. Seemingly. Recent media coverage of how Prince Philip met the future Queen Elizabeth in 1939 in Dartmouth, where he was a cadet at the Royal Naval College, is but the town’s latest furtive incursion onto the national stage. Back in the fourteenth century, Geoffrey Chaucer, widely considered the greatest English poet of the Middle Ages, snuck the “Shipman of Dartmouth”, into his Canterbury Tales as one of its pilgrims. The Shipman, a skilled sailor but also a pirate, was probably based on John Hawley – a leading merchant, local mayor and privateer in the Hundred Years War. Here was an archetypal multi-tasking medieval strongman using his local power base to influence national life, affording greater prominence to his town in the process. In addition, his early endeavours at privateering – essentially state-sanctioned piracy against the ships of an enemy nation – helped blaze a trail for the more famous privateers of the Elizabethan age, the likes of Sir Francis Drake and Sir Walter Raleigh.
Dartmouth played a significant yet understated role in some major events without much fanfare in the historical annals. The town was used as an assembly point for fleets of ships heading for the Second and Third Crusades in 1147 and 1190. It also contributed eleven ships to the English fleet that defeated the Spanish Armada in 1588 and the Spanish flagship was anchored in the River Dart after its capture. In 1620 the Pilgrim Fathers stopped off in Dartmouth for repairs on their way to America, and trade with the new colonies soon followed. During the English Civil War, the Royalists besieged and captured Dartmouth castle in 1643. A Dartmouth resident, Thomas Newcomen, helped power the industrial revolution through his invention of the first practical steam engine in 1712, later improved famously by James Watt. During the Second World War, American troops used the Naval College as a base for planning D-Day rehearsals on nearby beaches while the town was to contribute 480 landing ships to D-Day itself.
I take all this as a timely reminder not to dismiss the aesthetically pleasing as necessarily superficial, just as a work of art may engage the intellect through hidden meaning as well as thrill the eyes through the mastery of its brushstrokes and the vibrancy of its colours, and that places like people often merit further investigation to uncover their hidden riches, even – or perhaps especially – when we believe we know them well already.