Dartmouth Castle has quite a spectacular location on a rocky headland at the mouth of the estuary of the River Dart, its austere, grey walls rising seamlessly from the similarly coloured slate bedrock. The fortification has developed in several stages; the first structure here, completed around 1380, was an enclosed bailey protected by corner towers, while the last addition, in the 19th century, was a thick-walled battery building, equipped with 12 cannon.
The place saw near-continuous use all the way to the end of the 19th century, since when the buildings have been preserved as a tourist attraction. The majority are intact, undamaged and still furnished, the only incomplete part being a section of wall and the remains of a round tower, from the late 14th century enclosure, so the place is not as atmospheric as some of the ruined castles of the southwest, and instead its main appeal is the dramatic location.
The castle was only ever used as an artillery fort, the first such example in the country, so its components are rather different to most castles which are designed to repel land-based attacks. Apart from the ruined curtain wall from the early fort, inland on the southwest side, all buildings are to the east, right on the coastline: a 15th century gun tower, two adjacent gun platforms, the 19th century battery and a lighthouse. The site also includes the 12th century St Petrox Church, incorporated within the walls of the early fort and still in regular use today.
The castle, one of the most popular attractions in Dartmouth, is managed by English Heritage. Approach is along a narrow, wooded road alongside the estuary, forking off the B3205. The road ends at a small, metered parking area within the castle grounds, on the site of the original bailey, while other, free spaces are available beside the road a short distance back. All of the exterior of the fort can be viewed from various angles without having to pay the relatively high entrance fee, via paths at either side, and also from below, along another path that descends to sea level at Castle Cove, a cliff-lined inlet. It is also possible to walk from here, across the rocks directly below the battery, to a viewpoint of the gun tower. The fee allows entry to these two buildings, however, both of which contain many exhibits, and have several different rooms and floors to explore.
The 14th century fort (originally referred to as a fortalice, a small defensive structure) contained catapults and cannon, and probably one end of an iron chain across the river, all aimed at protecting the harbour at Dartmouth, which was a major trade centre. The defences were improved around a hundred years later by construction of the gun tower, paid for by Henry VIII. The tower is entered at ground level, from where one flight of steps leads down to a basement, its floor mostly made up of the sloping bedrock, while another climbs to the upper two floors, above which is a flat, battlemented roof with an 18 foot turret to one side. All areas are accessible to the public. The tower itself is formed of two joined components, one square in cross-section, the other round. The roof affords particularly good views of the estuary - north to the city, south to the open sea and across to the less accessible west side of the river, site of the smaller Kingswear Castle (now restored as a guest house). This too is an artillery fort, built around the same time as the gun tower, and was used for defensive purposes until the early 18th century. Some of the best views of Dartmouth Castle are from this side of the estuary.
The two gun platforms either side of the gun tower gate from the 1540s, and a third (Lamberd's Bulwarke) was positioned at the southeast corner of the complex. The whole site became temporarily abandoned at the start of the 18th century, but a renewed threat of (French) hostilities led to its repair, and replacement of the bulwarke by a two-floor building, the grand battery, itself rebuilt a century later and subsequently known as the Dartmouth Point battery, containing three large artillery pieces and three smaller guns, plus munitions storage rooms and soldiers' accommodation. Again all areas can be toured, and as expected for such a relatively recent structure, all is in perfect condition, including the three main cannons.