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  • Writer's pictureGethin Thomas

Crossing The Dart

Originally published on Blogspot by Gethin Thomas January 10th 2022

Dartmouth is very much in essence a river port. Without the river it would never have existed. Roads were of secondary importance for most of it's history. Most visitors or traders would have arrived by boat, either from the sea or from higher up the river, as far as Totnes.

It's sister town Kingswear lies on the opposite bank and they have an intertwined history laced together by the constant traversing of ferries back and forth. The famous views from Dartmouth are of Kingswear clinging to the steep hillside opposite, just as the more famous view from Kingswear is of Dartmouth doing exactly the same thing.

This is the Lower Ferry which travels between the two beating hearts of Dartmouth and Kingswear. The Lower Ferry is the one that tourists stop to watch in fascination, as it is unlike most ferries anywhere else in the world.

The ferry itself is not powered, but is guided, like a blind man taken by the arm in crossing a busy road, in this case by a tug boat, cleverly linked to the barge by two hefty ropes.

This view of the town from the ferry is your first proper view of Dartmouth, which because of it's geography is invisible to itself. To see Dartmouth you can't be in it but have to be outside it. In Dartmouth you only see the one narrow street you are standing in and the tall buildings either side leading the eye up to the sky.

Unless of course you are on the quayside in which case you are looking at Kingswear.

This is Bayard's Cove and had you been here almost exactly 400 years ago you would have seen, tied up at this quayside, The Mayflower, on it's way to the New World. The Mayflower fleet weighed anchor here to make repairs before stopping once more at Plymouth before their famous voyage.

The barge or car deck of the ferry is called the Tom Casey.

People have been living along the banks of the river for thousands of years, but a formal crossing became necessary as both towns developed during the 14th Century – and the first recorded regular crossing was in 1365. Leaving from Kittery Point – the nearest place to Dartmouth – to Bayards Cove. This rowed service must have carried hundreds of thousands of visitors, residents and returning sailors home at all points of the day or night over its near–600 year history. At some point it developed into a service that could carry a horse and cart – although the float on which the carts would travel was still pulled by a rowing boat! Two oarsmen took on the arduous task and it became known as the ‘Horse Ferry’ and then later the ‘Lower Ferry’. (

Between 1867 and 1925 two families in succession operated the ferry. First the Avis family and then the Casey family. The two floats as they are called are named after the two men thought to have given most to the service, Tom Avis and Tom Casey.

Latterly after a lot of chaotic changes the ferries ultimately landed in the lap of the local council who now manage their operation.

The first steam tugs were introduced in the 1900's including one called Hauley after a local family. The tradition since has been to name each replacement Hauley and so today there are Hauley V and Hauley VI still plying the route.

John Hawley (or Hauley) (c. 1340–30 December 1408) of Dartmouth in Devon, was a wealthy ship owner who served fourteen times as Mayor of Dartmouth and was elected four times as a Member of Parliament for Dartmouth.

Hawley was both a merchant and licensed privateer though he was often accused of piracy. He conducted a number of naval operations in the English Channel and briefly held the post of deputy to the Admiral of England under King Henry IV (1399-1413). He organised the defence of Dartmouth in 1404 against an attack by a Breton fleet, which culminated in the Battle of Blackpool Sands.

In April or May 1404, William du Chastel assembled a fleet of 300 ships at St. Malo in Brittany. He embarked 2000 knights and men-at-arms, plus light infantry and crossbowmen. He had two vice-admirals, the Lords of Chateaubriand and de Jaille. Discipline, however, was poor and, on the first day after sailing, part of the fleet attacked some allied Spanish wineships. Although order was restored, parts of the fleet broke away, leaving du Chastel to sail on towards his target of Dartmouth with reduced forces. On arriving off Blackpool Sands, a wide beach approximately 3 miles southwest of Dartmouth near the village of Stoke Fleming, he dropped anchor and waited for six days to allow his fleet to reassemble.

The period of waiting forced on the French fleet allowed John Hawley, to organise the defence of the town. Local men were joined by troops from inland as well as a number of local women, mustering a force alleged by French sources to number 6000 in total. They prepared a fortified position at Blackpool Sands consisting of a water-filled ditch crossed by a narrow causeway and awaited the French assault. John Hawley does not seem to have taken part in the battle itself. The commander of the English is unknown.

Once the ferry sets out, the view of Dartmouth opens up and the imposing Royal Naval College, Britannia comes in to view, the college is not visible from the town itself.

Britannia Royal Naval College (BRNC), commonly known as Dartmouth, is the naval academy of the United Kingdom and the initial officer training establishment of the Royal Navy. It is located on a hill overlooking the port of Dartmouth, Devon, England. Royal Naval officer training has taken place in Dartmouth since 1863. The buildings of the current campus were completed in 1905. Earlier students lived in two wooden hulks moored in the River Dart. Since 1998, BRNC has been the sole centre for Royal Naval officer training. (Wikipedia)

Here you can see the scale of the Lower Ferry arrived at Kingswear.

Kingswear is notable for it's brightly coloured buildings.

Spot how many Octopi you can see at Octopus Cottage.

An octopus is a soft-bodied, eight-limbed mollusc of the order Octopoda. The order consists of some 300 species and is grouped within the class Cephalopoda with squids, cuttlefish, and nautiloids. Like other cephalopods, an octopus is bilaterally symmetric with two eyes and a beaked mouth at the centre point of the eight limbs.

They are best cooked slowly on a low heat simmered for about an hour as far as I can tell. You know chefs, they all have the best recipe and the only proper way to do these things, so take your pick. Then they can be grilled or barbecued. Cook them too fast and they can no longer be described as "soft bodied" and turn to something resembling silicone rubber.

Octopuses have three hearts, two legs and six arms. Remember that for your next quiz. You see Anne, I was paying attention.

Up in Hoodown Woods above the Dart on the Kingswear side we spotted a family of herons nesting in a large tree. This was a lucky shot as they were some way off and at first I couldn't even see them with the naked eye. If you follow the path through Hoodown Woods you get some good views of the Dart and Dartmouth and you come out by the Higher Ferry.

The Dartmouth Higher Ferry, also known as the Dartmouth–Kingswear Floating Bridge, is a vehicular cable ferry. Unlike the Lower Ferry, which operates from slips in the centres of both Dartmouth and Kingswear, the Higher Ferry crosses to the north. In doing so, it allows the A379 road between Kingsbridge and Torbay to bypass the narrow streets in the centre of Kingswear and Dartmouth. The ferry is owned and operated by the Dartmouth–Kingswear Floating Bridge Company, and a toll is charged. Early in 2008, the Dartmouth–Kingswear Floating Bridge Company signed a contract for the construction of a replacement ferry. This ferry, which can carry up to 36 cars, came into service in late June 2009. The new ferry is a conventional cable ferry, using the cables for propulsion as well as guidance. However, it is also provided with four thrusters, one positioned at each corner, in order to provide additional manoeuvrability when operating in strong winds and tidal conditions. The tidal range here is about two metres or six feet. On 13 February 2005 the weather and other conditions caused the guide cables on No.7 to come loose, and the ferry, loaded with 15 cars and 34 passengers, to drift towards the sea. The crew managed to moor it to a buoy before it could collide with other vessels or run aground.

Above the Higher Ferry are the operations of the Royal Naval College. When school is in, there is a lot of activity, with many different types of training boats travelling up and down the river. The largest ship seen here was decommissioned in 2001 before being refitted for use as a training ship at the Britannia Royal Naval College at Dartmouth.

In keeping with tradition, for this role, the ship has been renamed Hindostan. As she is not a commissioned ship she is not prefixed "HMS". Formerly the Hindostan was HMS Cromer a Sandown-class minehunter commissioned by the Royal Navy in 1992. These small (53 m, 174 ft) fibreglass vessels are single role mine hunters (SRMH) rather than minesweepers.


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