The Land that Remembers the Sea
Dartmouth is place you love to walk around – the historic buildings, beautiful views, interesting shops and friendly people. It’s difficult to imagine the town being any different but Dartmouth was claimed and created, bit by bit.
The Dutch, that race of land reclaimers, have a saying: ‘God Made the World, but the Dutch made Holland’ - and the people of Dartmouth could make a very similar claim about their town.
Walk around Dartmouth, look around and ask yourself ‘Is where I’m standing flat?’ and if the answer is ‘yes’ then once there was water where you are.
Take that knowledge; now walk around the town and you will marvel at how much the town’s people have dragged out of our tidal river.
The work to reclaim the mud from the river and make it something you can stand on started before 1200 - when men started building out into the river mud to try and make more flat land for housing.
At that time the town of Dartmouth didn’t really exist – it was the fishing village of Hardness, on the north side of the creek which later became the Mill Pool and Clifton on the south side, which contained Crowthers Hill. Up on the hill was Townstal – written at the time as ‘Tunstal’.
Basically you can see the boundaries of the then town by walking up Ridge Hill and turning when you reach Newcomen House and looking North towards the Dart Marina. At the bottom of the hill where the Ship in Dock pub is was where the sea came at high tide. Coronation Park was mud – a tidal basin from where the fishermen would launch their boats.
On the southern side, Crowthers Hill was the main route into the town on that side.
Then in 1200, men started inching out into the harbour, building jetties and slowly working inwards along most of the coastline.
In 1250 the Foss, or dam, was built from Clifton to Hardness, to create a route between the two towns and to allow a mill to use the water rushing in and out of the ‘Mill Pool’ to run a watermill. Soon another mill was added to make the most of this valuable power source.
The town’s people continued to add, add, add to the land and it slowly reached out into the harbour.
In 1537 Bayard’s Fort was added, and by then what we now know as Fairfax Place was the main waterfront, accepting deliveries from boats and lined with the houses and shops of the town’s merchants.
The Quay, along with the Butterwalk and Duke Street were completed by 1640. The Dartmouth we know today was starting to take shape.
But more ambitious plans were still to come. The new ground was built up from an existing sandbank which appeared at low tide, huge amounts of ‘ballast’ or rocks and silt, were taken and dumped there, with the intention that buildings and warehouses could be built on it.
However, dumping rocks is not the most scientific way of reclaiming land and heavy storms nearly washed it away. It became somewhere to tie up and unload – but also somewhere to celebrate big events and hold public gatherings. The Royal Avenue Gardens continue that tradition to this day.
A lack of good foundations was also undermining the Butterwalk, and so in 1680, just ten years after the completion of the new ground, a new stone wall was added all the way from the Quay around to the headland on the edge of the Coombe Mud.
The next big project was the building of the new road in 1825.
The road, with a gentle gradient compared to the road up Ridge Hill or Crowthers Hill meant that horse-drawn carts could come in and out of the town relatively easily for the first time. This reduced the town’s dependency on ships for supplies. Some of the mill pool was reclaimed for this work, and after the road was completed a market square was built on that land - and completed in 1828.
The rest of the pool was filled in by 1860
Now the town had a heart, a centre where people could come to gather. Bit by reclaimed bit, the town was coming together for the first time.
Then, in 1871, it was suggested that an ‘Esplanade’ along the whole frontage of the town would be a good thing to have, for visiting ships, visitors and residents.
Although it seems strange now, there were many objectors to the scheme and an unlikely alliance between the town’s poor and rich was formed. The rich didn’t want it because they would lose their frontages along the river, and the poor didn’t want it because the rich people convinced them it would increase taxes (which it would) and coal charges (which it wouldn’t).
The saga of how it came about involved threats, legal challenges and at least one rigged election so that opponents would not get onto the council, then challenges to a final decision to finance the scheme after the anti group had got seats on the council.
In the end, the work began in 1882, and was completed three years later costing £30,000 - more than £2.5million today.
The embankment was a boon to the entire town, and new hotels and businesses sprang up.
The town we know today was nearly complete, with the Boatfloat enclosed and Mayor’s Avenue in place.
Then in between the two World Wars in 1926, a ‘North Embankment’ was suggested, to link up with the Sandquay Boat Yard and the ‘Floating Bridge’ which linked to the Ropewalk around the Coombe Mud.
The grand scheme was completed in 1937 – and named Coronation Park in honour of the accession of George VI.
Apart from a revamp of the embankment in 1986, which also brought improved flood defences and sewer system, the front was complete. Most of the lower town of Dartmouth had now been wrenched from the hands of the sea and completed with such aplomb that we barely notice as we stroll around the Royal Avenue Gardens, or walk the Embankment.
But stop to think every so often – this land will always remember the sea
First Published August 2011 By The Dart