The Land Beneath The Sea
A few hundred years ago just about everything that is currently on flat ground in Dartmouth would have been under water?
Up until some 800 years ago the hamlets of Clifton (to the South) and Hardness - which included today’s Ridge Hill - were separated by water all the way up what is now Victoria Road to the Ford. During the 13th Century a Foss or barrier was built - and that is of course today’s Foss Street. This structure served several purposes, firstly acting as a narrow roadway to join the two parts of the town which was beginning to call itself Dartmouth (or perhaps Dertemouth in those days). It also became a quay for mooring the ships plying a coastal or cross-Channel trade and at the Northern end it had a tidal mill, perhaps putting Dartmouth at the cutting edge of the technology of its day.
Trade multiplied and the importance of Dartmouth as a port increased and more wharfage was needed. Last year (2008) we celebrated the 600th centenary of the death of John Hawley (merchant, mayor & privateer) - he certainly raised the profile of Dartmouth as a port even if some of his methods might have been a touch dubious by today’s standards. By the mid 1600s there were some wealthy merchants in the area and the first major reclamation of land took place which produced a spur into the river which was called the ‘New Ground’ and is now Royal Avenue Gardens together with an enlargement of the Foss area as well as a string of boat building and repair sites around the line of what is now Mayor’s Avenue. Some of the buildings still exist and remain in use behind Travis Perkins shop. At this time some of the merchants lived in what at the time would have been new, luxurious accommodation in the overhanging houses of the Butterwalk. It also explains the uneven flooring of the museum and other of those buildings being due to the reclaimed ground some 350 years ago. An early visitor after the ravages of the Civil War was King Charles ll who, in 1671 arrived in Dartmouth having been stormbound in the Channel in his yacht ‘Cleveland’. Now, if you were the Mayor of Dartmouth and your King suddenly arrived what might you do? Give him dinner of course and that took place in ‘The King’s Room’ of Dartmouth Museum.
Remembering that the Mill Pool above Foss Street was still flooded, one must assume that it would have started gradually silting up with the changes to the river frontage, so by the late 18th and early 19th Centuries this process would have been well advanced. During the first quarter of the 19th Century an effort was put into completing the job and creating the ‘New Road’ - now Victoria Road - which, when extended round the various bends allowed wheeled traffic to take goods into and out of Dartmouth. By the 1860s with the railway extended to Kingswear and via the ferry to Dartmouth, a major reclamation project was underway to fill in what is now the main car park and out to the current line of the river with one of Dartmouth’s own sons, Samuel Lake designing and overseeing the first true Embankment. A huge amount of infill must have been needed for the task and it must have come by sea - perhaps Dartmouth was partly responsible for the catastrophe of Hallsands and not Plymouth Breakwater as is usually quoted.
The final major straightening of the banks of our special waterway took place during the 1930s with the filling in of Coombe Mud (the name says it all!) which became Coronation Park to celebrate the Coronation of King George Vl and Queen Elizabeth (the late Queen Mother). There is a WW l Royal Navy submarine and half a German destroyer of the same vintage included to help the reclamation and they are still under the turf today.
Various improvements to the Embankment to strengthen, raise and stabilise it have taken place in more recent years, but a look at the drawings and photographs show the enormous changes to the Dartmouth shoreline that have taken place over the past 8 centuries.
Larger copies of the drawings greet you as you reach the Reception area of Dartmouth Museum and there are many outstanding ship models in the first two rooms which show the steady progress of the design of the ships that would have visited the port over the years. The Museum is a registered Charity and an important educational and fun resource, but it can always do better! A major project is currently underway to improve the two larger rooms and better tell Dartmouth’s story. So far, with generous donations from Devon County Council - organised by Cllr Jonathan Hawkins - and from the local Henley Collection Trustees together with an allocation from the museum’s own funds, about 2/3 of the necessary sum has been raised but a further £20,000 is still needed. It seems a lot, but in fact say 100 donations of £200 or perhaps 400 of £50 would do the trick. Sums like that from new donors might bring various periods of free Museum membership and think of the Gift Aid that the Museum might receive from a grateful Government! Can you help? Please think about it and then act! ......Please.
First Published July 2009 By The Dart