|The Dart Valley Railway plc currently trades as the "Dartmouth Steam Railway and Riverboat Company", though has used several other trading names over its period of existence including Dart Pleasure Craft Ltd and River Link and could be considered to be the true inheritors of the heritage of the former River Dart Steamboat Company. The Dart Valley Railway plc had originally been established to run the former Ashburton to Totnes branch line in the 1960s. However, the DVR transferred the focus of its rail operations to the Paignton to Kingswear railway which was bought directly from British Railways in 1973. |
Eventually Ashburton Line, truncated by road construction at Buckfastleigh, was sold to the South Devon Railway Society. In 1999 the DVR acquired Dart Pleasure Craft Ltd and expanded into the pleasure 'steamer' market expanding further in 2000 by the acquisition of the competing G.H. Riddall & Sons pleasure boat operation. This was followed by a fleet rationalisation which saw the sale of several vessels including the now popular Manx pleasure steamer KARINA which had worked for Ridall & Sons as the TOTNES PRINCESS.
Thus today the Dart Valley Railway plc is the major player in the passenger ferry and pleasure steamer market in south Devon.
At this stage I must profess to being a bit biased here as by pure chance I have been a Dart Valley Railway shareholder since the early 1970s. At the time my father thought that railway shares for my fourteenth birthday would be "different" as I had been a railway enthusiast throughout my childhood. Now it is not unusual for heritage railways to issue shares, but where the Dart Valley and other "heritage" operations part company is that the DVR plc operate on a commercial rather than a charitable basis, hence at the end of a good season there is a prospect of a modest dividend the following year.
By the 1990s my interest in railways declined a little as my interest in ships grew, however, I retained the DVR shares and by 1991 had joined the Paddle Steamer Preservation Society after and enjoyable and lively trip from Liverpool to Menai Bridge. Thus I can claim allegience to both the DVR and PSPS!
Between 1991 and around 2003 I made quite a few trips on WAVERLEY and BALMORAL but as time went on sailing opportunities appeared to decrease, partly as a result of deceased calls at Irish Sea ports, combined with fewer visits by me to south west England when services were operating on the Bristol Channel. There was also an increasing unpredictability of WAVERLEY and BALMORAL sailings making me less willing to make long journeys just for a sail. It was more convenient to book a trip with the Isle of Man Steam Packet for a day trip than trek across Britain for a trip on one of the pleasure steamers which might be cancelled for one reason or another.
However the move of the KINGSWEAR CASTLE to the River Dart on a 15 year bare boat charter to the Dart Valley Railway plc has made this ship very accessible to me. Dartmouth is within easy reach of the Two Bridges Hotel where I stay a couple of times each year located alongside the upper reaches of the West Dart River one of the two tributaries of the River Dart. What is more KINGSWEAR CASTLE is to have a considerably extended season operating from Easter through to the end of October. This means her sailings correspond to my annual spring and autumn breaks taken in the area.
KINGSWEAR CASTLE made her first public cruise for DVR plc on March 29. I decided to wait until the busy Easter weekend was over and head to Dartmouth on Tuesday April 02. The weather though very cold, was also very sunny and ideal for photography. I arrived at Dartmouth in good time and managed to secure a space in an already fairly full Mayor's Avenue car park.
For those planning to visit Dartmouth please be aware there is a maximum 4 hour stay at the main car park and much less in the on street parking bays. A Park and Ride service is operated by First Group Buses from a large car park outside the town on the Totnes road. The shuttle buses call at the Dartmouth Landing Stage referred to as "The Pontoon", There are no time limits on parking at the Park & Ride Car Park and this is recommended for anyone who wishes to spend a full day in Dartmouth.
The original landing stage or pontoon was established by the Great Western Railway who once operated the Dartmouth to Kingswear passenger ferry service. Adjacent to the pontoon was Dartmouth Station, a traditional GWR station building which stands beside the pontoon access bridge. The original pontoon was a steel and wood structure not unlike the design of the original River Mersey landing stages. It was replaced in the 1980s by the modern concrete structure. The station building remains and survives as "The Station Restaurant". Dartmouth Station was the only station on the GWR network never to see a train.
Tickets for the KINGSWEAR CASTLE can be purchased from the ticket kiosks operated by the Dart Valley Railway plc on the river front at Dartmouth. PSPS members receive a 20% discount on KINGSWEAR CASTLE fares on production of a membership card.
On April 02 the first sailing of the day was scheduled for 12:00. KINGSWEAR CASTLE was berthed at the southern end of the pontoon. I was the first passenger to board at around 11:35. KINGSWEAR CASTLE is in pristine condition her wood varnished to a high standard, brass work highly polished and paintwork spotless she created a very favourable first impression.
I had a few minutes to look around before any other passengers appeared. KINGSWEAR CASTLE has three compartments below the main deck. At the forward is the forward saloon and bar. Amid ships is the boiler and engine room which can be viewed by doors either side of the wheelhouse structure or via a hatch forward of the wheel house. Aft is another saloon, which has a small unused bar area with toilets. There is no through way between the forward and aft saloons as the boiler and engine room occupies the full width of the vessel.
The main open deck area itself is covered from the paddle-boxes aft with a removable canvas awning and side screens with window panels to provide weather protection. Near the stern is a small raised platform area and descending some steps takes one to the covered stern area itself which provides for a semi-open shelter area from which the aft saloon can be accessed. Forward of the paddle-boxes there is plenty of open deck space with a companionway giving access to the forward saloon and bar area. At the bow one descends some steps into the foc'sle area where there are a few seats located near the a small winch.
As KINGSWEAR CASTLE waited for departure further passengers joined and other curious "gongoozlers" came to look at this new attraction on the Dart, though their curiosity didn't appear to stretch far enough to buying a ticket.
Meanwhile other vessels called at Dartmouth Pontoon including the Greenway Ferry Company's CHRISTIE BELLE and the Dart Valley Railway plc's Kingswear Ferry operated by DARTMOUTH PRINCESS.
Departure was a few minutes after 12:00 presumably to see if any further last minute passengers were likely to turn up. KINGSWEAR CASTLE set off with around 30 passengers on board, heading off down river towards the estuary.
As we departed DARTMOUTH CASTLE approached the pontoon operating her morning sailing from Totnes. During June, July and August KINGSWEAR CASTLE will operate sailings up river to Totnes, though for the shoulder periods of the main season her activities will be the operation of harbour cruises. This will certainly enhance her profile as she will be seen, and heard, by larger numbers of people. Whilst she might run very quietly liberal use appeared to be made of her whistle which certainly makes her stand out from the other passenger vessels on the river. KINGSWEAR CASTLE appears to be operated by a crew of four. Captain, Engineer, AB and steward in the bar. The crew wear distinctive jackets carrying the KINGSWEAR CASTLE marketing logo as shown on the Dart Valley Railway web site which is based on the ornamental design of the paddle-box.
Shortly after departing the pontoon we passed the Lower Car Ferry slipway. This was surrounded by a temporary coffer dam with the unusual sight of an excavator working away below the river level. The Lower Car Ferry, operated by South Hams District Council has been suspended for sometime whilst reconstruction work on the ferry slips was undertaken. The work had been due for completion by Easter but is taking longer due to problems with the slipway foundations being discovered during refurbishment work.
After passing the Lower Ferry slipway the quayside of Bayard's Cove was passed. Its period buildings being familiar to viewers of the earlier series of the classic BBC TV maritime drama "The Onedin Line". Interestingly the KINGSWEAR CASTLE sister ship COMPTON CASTLE appeared in in the "The Onedin Line". At the time COMPTON CASTLE was being maintained in working order as a cafe in nearby Kingsbridge and her engine room was used for filming engine room scenes. Sadly COMPTON CASTLE is now but a shadow of her former self having traded as a cafe and shop in Truro at an isolated berth stripped of engines and paddles being nothing more than a floating hull.
KINGSWEAR CASTLE continued towards the estuary, however, with a bit of a chop being present we turned early before the ship could reach her namesake castle.
As we swung around I nipped down into the forward saloon where the ship's bar is located. Despite the glorious sunshine the strong easterly wind made it icy cold thus the mug of coffee laced with rum for just £2.00 was welcome! How much does an ordinary coffee on a Mersey Ferry cost these days?!
Paddling back up stream we passed the Dartmouth Pontoon on past the DVR's DITTISHAM PRINCESS and WESTERN LADY VII of Western Lady Ferries both at rest on a mid river pontoon.
the HIGHER FERRY. The predecessor of the current HIGHER FERRY had been the last paddle vessel to operate on the river, though her propulsion had been diesel electric she had been built in the same ship yard, Philip & Son, as KINGSWEAR CASTLE. The current HIGHER FERRY was mainly constructed in the Netherlands and completed in the UK entering service in 2009.
High on the hill above the harbour on the port side is the Britannia Royal Naval College, just below at Sand Quay is the small RN Base. Two Archer P2000 class vessels were on the berth HMS BLAZER (P279) and HMS RANGER (P293). Permanently moored at Sand Quay is the former Sandown mine counter measures vessel HMS HINDOSTAN ex HMS CROMER now used as a static training ship.
Continuing up river a naval training boat was passed to port with several cadets on board, meanwhile some grey seals could be seen sunning themselves on a pontoon off the west bank of the river. This was followed by the Greenway Ferry Company's CHRISTIE BELLE heading back from Greenway Quay to Dartmouth.
On the east bank of he river we passed the Philip & Son Ship Yard which now operates as a marina pending its eventual redevelopment. This has been planned for some time but has still not materialised, it will of course lead to the eventual demolition of the historic shipyard buildings.
The captain of KINGSWEAR CASTLE provided a good potted history of the site where KINGSWEAR CASTLE and many other ships and boats have been constructed including the Mersey Ferries, ROYAL IRIS and SNOWDROP.
Just north of the Philip Yard could be seen, partly obscured by a pontoon, THE FAIRMILE, Greenway ferry company's historic former WWII Fairmile.. It appears that during the 2013 season there will be a lot of aggressive competition between the Greenway Ferry Company and the Dart Valley Railway plc, with Greenway operating a Dartmouth to Totnes service at low fares. There are also some rather "interesting" comments on the Greenway Ferry Company's web site which refers to the "PLC". See www.greenwayferry.co.uk
As KINGSWEAR CASTLE approached Greenway Quay on the starboard side up on the valley side could be seen Greenway House, former home of Dame Agatha Christie famous for her various detective novels.
Greenway Quay on the east bank of the River Dart lies opposite the village of Dittisham, which the captain pointed out was the home or holiday home to several well known business and media personalities including the Dimbleby brothers and James Dyson of vacuum cleaner fame. A small passenger ferry crosses the river between Dittisham and Greenway Quay.
KINGSWEAR CASTLE continued up stream beyond Dittisham to Flat Owers buoy around which with a fair amount of whistling she turned and pointed her bow down river towards Dartmouth.
Just below Greenway House KINGSWEAR CASTLE passed DARTMOUTH CASTLE heading up river back towards Totnes and DART EXPLORER on a harbour cruise.
During the cruise the captain provided an informative live commentary, so much better than the recorded offering provided by Mersey Ferries. As we sailed back towards Dartmouth Pontoon the captain provided some information on the history of the KINGSWEAR CASTLE and her engines.
On River Dart sailings it has always been customary to place the captain's hat by the gangway and this always explained to the passengers before berthing! The captain explained that a proportion of the tips received from KINGSWEAR CASTLE sailings would be shared with the Paddle Steamer Preservation Society.
All too soon we were back at Dartmouth Station Pontoon at 13:15. As we approached DITTISHAM PRINCESS was setting off on a very lightly loaded harbour cruise whilst DARTMOUTH PRINCESS was arriving on the ferry service from Kingswear.
I had waited many years to take a trip on PS KINGSWEAR CASTLE and the initial experience did not disappoint. The ship is extremely well presented and hopefully her operation on the River Dart will be a great success. Unlike the her previous location in the south east she is now positioned in what must the UK's premier holiday destination. Dartmouth is a very popular location for holidaymakers and day trippers the relocation of KINGSWEAR CASTLE to this area can only be good for both the Paddle Steamer Preservation Society and the Dart Valley Railway plc. In 2013 the availability of the KINGSWEAR CASTLE in the south west of England has also helped to soften the blow of the withdrawal of BALMORAL as she is now located within easy driving reach of the Bristol Channel piers which provided many of the BALMORAL passengers.
If you have not yet sampled KINGSWEAR CASTLE get yourself off to Dartmouth this season and support the ship. Dartmouth is a great location suitable for all the family even those who are not ship enthusiasts. As well as KINGSWEAR CASTLE there are many other sailing opportunities available from Dartmouth. If you thought the days of the British "Railway Steamer" ended with the sale of "Sealink" - they live on - on the river dart thanks to the Dart Valley Railway plc.
Visit the Dart Valley Railway web site for more details of both KINGSWEAR CASTLE sailings and other sailings as well as their railway and bus services.