Discovering the artists and chapters which shaped Dartmouth
Su Carroll talks to the author of a new book on a popular Devon town.
Villages, towns and cities are inevitably shaped by the moments in their past and the people who inhabit them.
Plymouth sent men to sea – on warships, fishing boats and yachts; St Ives has its painters and sculptors, many inspired by the unique quality of the Cornish light and Dartmouth – as author Joslin Fiennes has discovered – has drawn poets, writers and other creative people to the heart of its seaside community.
Her new book, Dartmouth: An Enchanted Place, is aptly titled as she explores the river Dart, the quaint historic streets and the characters that inhabit the South Devon harbourside town that has been her home for ten years.
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It's a beautiful book – entertainingly written, full of interesting facts and lavishly illustrated. It has been, she admits, a labour of love, as she researched the area that is now her home.
"I've lived here for ten years having lived in Washington for 30 years," she says. "But we left America and came back to Devon.
"Although I was an economist, I've always been interested in art and using that to describe a place. Art says something writing can't.
"I discovered an enormous amount while I was doing the book. I felt it was important to look at different aspects of Dartmouth."
There's certainly plenty of rich material to choose from. The port itself has a rich history. Sailors set out from here to explore the Atlantic and set up trading routes to North America and help establish the mighty port trade with Portugal.
Dartmouth was the point of departure for ships for the Second and Third Crusades; the Pilgrim Fathers in The Mayflower and Speedwell and part of the D-Day invasion fleet – war-time exercises had been held in nearby waters.
Its has a long association with the Royal Navy and the Britannia Royal Naval College dominates the land above the town.
It has trained many a naval officer (some of them royal) and is an Edwardian gem. Architect Sir Aston Webb was asked to project the image of British sea power at a time when this was unsurpassed.
It opened in 1905 – the centenary year of the Battle of Trafalgar and the death of Nelson. One of the fascinating facts in Joslin's book is that, at 4.15pm on October 21 – the time when Nelson is dying but victory is clear – the sun shines through the small top west window of the chapel and casts a shaft of bright light on the raised right hand of Christ in the reredos.
Joslin celebrates the architecture of the town, as well as its inhabitants, acknowledging the part artists have played in its life.
Agatha Christie, Daniel Defoe, Robert Graves, John Masefield, Christopher Milne and Flora Thompson all wrote about the area, some of them making it their home for many years. In fact Christopher (Robin) Milne owned the Harbour Bookshop for many years. It's now a community run project and they are delighted to have sold half of their copies of Joslin's book already – the largest order they've ever placed.
The landscape also attracted visiting artists such as JMW Turner and Lucien Pissarro.
"Many artists came here through word of mouth – some through the connection with Dartington at Totnes," says Joslin.
"They came here because it was a lovely place and it was cheap to live outside London.
"It was a beautiful place with good connections and lots of things to do. They wanted to get out of London and make their living as artists.
"Turner and Pissarro came but it didn't really attract artists until fairly recently – in the 1980s. They came at a time when the town was declining – it had lost its fishing to Brixham. People came and bought the paintings and the money coming in rebooted Dartmouth to what it is today."
Today, there is a thriving artistic community which includes an artist with an international reputation – Bridget McCrum – and the "Dartmouth Five": John Donaldson, Simon Drew, John Gillo, Andras Kaldor and Paul Riley.
Poets also find themselves inspired by their surroundings here and Joslin was keen to feature some of their work in the book.
They include Alice Oswald, whose poem Dart follows the river from the moorland swamps and ledges, past the junction of the east and west Darts at Dartmeet, on beyond Totnes to the estuary at Dartmouth and the sea.
Liverpool poet Brian Patten now has a home in Dittisham and writes his poetry in his garden "under lichened ancient trees overlooking the Dart as the tides sweep it past," writes Joslin.
Then there's local poet Kevin Pyne who has worked on the ferries and boats here for 40 years – he's actually the ferryman in Alice Oswald's Dart.
There are other creative forces at work here. Dartmouth has also won itself a reputation as a foodie destination.
"Joyce Molyneux who opened The Carved Angel acted as a magnet," explains Joslin. There are now plenty of great places to eat, including one of the jewels of the Mitch Tonks empire – The Seahorse.
Dartmouth is the star of the book in all its guises, but Joslin says that the community is what keeps it together. Where else would you find a book shop and an arts centre (The Flavel) run, in the main, by volunteers?
The book has been a labour of love – she worked from 8am to 8pm for about 18 months – but she is delighted with the results.
"The publishers have done a wonderful job and I am very lucky that lots of families were immensely generous with private papers and pictures.
"I was an economist for 30 years, but I used to be a journalist so I've come back to writing and it fits well with retirement."
At the book's launch this month in Dartmouth Guildhall, some of the book's subjects came to offer support including Bridget McCrum and Brian Patten.
And finally the question many people will ask... is she related to actors Ralph and Joseph or explorer Ranulph?
"Well, we are a small family. I'm one of five children of Gerry Fiennes and Ranulph is a second cousin or something, and the actors are in there too," she says.
Dartmouth: An Enchanted Place by Joslin Fiennes is published by Antique Collectors' Club at £35.