With its relaxed pace of life, gentle scenery and friendly people, it’s hard to imagine that South Devon’s residents once had to worry about pirates, privateers, fully-fledged invasions, and all manner of existential threats that lurked beyond the horizon. But visit any of our major settlements and you’ll see the evidence everywhere: castles, forts, gun batteries and cannons give silent testimony to the region’s sometimes turbulent history.
Here are three castles in South Devon you can visit for a flavour of life in our region during the years gone by. All are managed by English Heritage and open to the public.
1. Dartmouth Castle
- Gift shop
Dartmouth was a thriving commercial port by the middle of the 12th century, enriched by growing local and continental trade as well as fishing. Its sheltered, deep-water harbour offered safety from the elements to seagoing vessels. But when the Hundred Years broke out in 1336 it became clear that the River Dart needed another form of defence – principally against the threat of a French invasion.
Work on the castle began in 1388, under the instruction of the Mayor of Dartmouth, John Hawley, himself acting on the orders of King Richard II. In the intervening centuries, Dartmouth Castle grew to include a new Gun Tower and bulwark. Kingswear Castle, built on the opposite bank, had been finished by 1502.
Like all three of our featured castles in South Devon, this fortress sits at a stunning spot, looking out to sea from the edge of the Dart Estuary. It’s a fascinating place for history buffs, while kids will love exploring the depths of the fortress and letting their imaginations run wild.
2. Totnes Castle
- Gift shop
- Picnic area
This classic motte and bailey castle towers over Totnes from its man-made mound at the top of the town’s historic Fore Street.
Originally constructed in the 13th century as a combination of earthwork and timber, it was later finished with the stonework ‘keep’ that survives to this day. It doesn’t take long to explore the castle itself, but it’s worth climbing to the top of the keep in order to look out over Totnes from this commanding position. There are few more impressive panoramas in South Devon, a view that includes the meandering River Dart in the distance as well as the medieval town below.
The bailey, moat and surrounding lawn and woodland are nice to stroll around, perhaps bringing a picnic with you.
Find out more about Totnes Castle here: http://www.english-heritage.org.uk/visit/places/totnes-castle/
3. Berry Pomeroy Castle
- Gift shop
- Picnic area
- Audio tour
The once-prominent Pomeroy family began building this castle in the latter part of the 15th century. Historians believe the Pomeroys’ construction of fortified residence was inspired by the area’s lawlessness at the time – in other words, this was a castle built for serious defence rather than simply as a display of wealth or importance.
In 1560, after the property was purchased by the Seymour family, an ambitious plan was hatched to build a palatial home inside the old defences, on a scale unmatched in Devon.
This grand project ultimately proved to be over-ambitious and came unstuck due to a lack of funds. Subsequent generations made little or no effort to continue the construction, and by 1700 the house and castle had been abandoned entirely.
Just a few miles from Totnes, Berry Pomeroy Castle makes for an interesting morning or afternoon out, exploring the buildings and grounds, which include some pleasant woodland for a shaded stroll.
Find out more about Berry Pomeroy Castle from English Heritage at: http://www.english-heritage.org.uk/visit/places/berry-pomeroy-castle/
Other historic buildings in South Devon
As well as these must-visit castles in South Devon, there are three National Trust properties that we recommend visiting:
Once owned by Dame Agatha Christie, Greenway House is nestled amongst spectacular scenery on the bank of the River Dart, opposite the pretty village of Dittisham. Explore the house, with its 1940s interior and fascinating collections, and wander around the picturesque gardens. Make a day of it by incorporating a boat trip, arriving at Greenway Quay from Dittisham, or visit by steam train from Kingswear.
In an elevated spot above Kingswear, Coleton Fishacre is a 1920s retreat with an Art Deco interior and an authentic soundtrack that will take you back to the jazz age. Try on clothing and hats from the period to really take yourself back in time, and don’t forget to explore the picturesque gardens.
Overbeck’s House looks out over North Sands and a stunning section of the Kingsbridge Estuary. Once the home of the scientist and inventor, Otto Overbeck, this National Trust property is a treasure trove of quirky collections of art and natural history. The garden is also home to an assortment of rare plants from all over the world.
Stay in South Devon on your next break, discovering its rich history, culture and stunning natural scenery.
With almost 400 luxury self-catering holiday homes, Coast & Country Cottages offers you the perfect base from which to get to know our Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.