The Kingswear Castle paddle steamer returns to the River Dart

PUBLISHED: 12:00 04 May 2015

Paddle steamer Kingswear Castle on the River Dart

Paddle steamer Kingswear Castle on the River Dart

© Christopher Nicholson (01278) 722613 5 Broderip, Cossington, Bridgwater, Somerset, TA7 8LB Strictl

Christopher Nicholson takes a trip on a paddle steamer which made a triumphant return to the Devon river she left nearly 50 years ago

Kingswear Castle made a trumphant return to the River Dart in 2013Kingswear Castle made a trumphant return to the River Dart in 2013

Residents of Dartmouth or Kingswear with long memories will have been delighted to see the return in 2013 of an old friend to the River Dart. From March to October the paddle steamer Kingswear Castle can be seen cruising the harbour and making the round trip to Totnes, full of happy passengers.

The ship’s return was the culmination of lengthy negotiations with the Paddle Steamer Preservation Society - her owner - to return her to her rightful home in Devon from Chatham in Kent after an absence of 47 years. She is the only remaining coal-fired paddle steamer in operation in Britain today, and she will be based on the River Dart for the foreseeable future.

Built in 1924 at Philip & Son of Dartmouth using the engines from a 1904 vessel of the same name, she plied tourists between Totnes and Dartmouth for over 40 years. In her heyday the Kingswear Castle was part of the lifeblood of the river and could carry almost 500 passengers on each trip until she was withdrawn in 1965, replaced by ‘modern’ propeller driven ferries.

The fact she has survived to return to the river is due entirely to the Paddle Steamer Preservation Society which saved her from the scrapyard, spent 15 years restoring her to her former glory, and operated her on the River Medway for over 25 years. Her eventual return to the River Dart was due to delicate negotiations by the Dartmouth Steam Railway and Riverboat Company.

Kingswear Castle made a trumphant return to the River Dart in 2013Kingswear Castle made a trumphant return to the River Dart in 2013

Andrew Pooley, their general manager says: “It took nearly three years’ negotiations to persuade the trustees that we have the marine expertise and steam engineering skills to look after this historic vessel in perpetuity. We wanted to bring Kingswear Castle back to her home port so that she can once again carry passengers up and down the waters that she was built for.”

My trip to see this fine example of maritime history was on a sparkling summer’s day. Kingswear Castle looked magnificent as she approached the pontoon at Dartmouth with her attractive paintwork and varnished wood glinting in the afternoon sun. We cruised the lower reaches of the River Dart from its mouth to above the quay at Greenway, and our enjoyment was enhanced by a wonderfully informative and humorous commentary from the deck manager Stuart Irvine. Very appropriately, our course took us past the castle from which she takes her name.

Captain Richard Swinglehurst kindly invited me onto the bridge to join him for part of our trip. It’s surprisingly compact, and would be cramped if there were more than about three people on it.

The inside walls are of varnished wood and in the centre is the magnificent ship’s wheel - a huge eight-spoked monster inlaid with decorative brass motifs. It is noticeable that modern navigation and safety regulations require the fitting of a range of electronic equipment that would have been conspicuous by their absence only a few years ago.

A vertical metal ladder took me below decks into the confined spaces of the engine room, where engineer Nigel Thomas shovelled coal into the ship’s boiler at appropriate intervals.

All too soon we were berthing at the Dartmouth pontoon and it was time to say goodbye to the friendly crew. They’re in charge of a magnificent vessel, dwarfed by most of the current fleet of Dart River ferries, but with a charm and history than none of these can match. I recommend it highly for a nostalgic experience.

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