Since I have pretty much just gotten back from Britain’s Ocean City that goes by the name of Plymouth and I know some of you enjoy my random babbling about such things, here’s what you might fancy to do if you should ever go there with a bit of city history on top.
If you ask a Plymothian, or Janner as they are also referred to more informally, what they think about their town, they will probably reply with something along the lines of ‘It’s a bit shite.’… but that ain’t quite right. It’s actually a quite lovely town, especially for the young folks since it is a University city and there is always something going on. The city centre is full with large and smaller shops, it used to be more, but hey it’s still enough for an excessive day of shopping, there are nice places to hang out and at night, there are plenty of pubs and clubs to go to. My connection to Plymouth is a abidance of several months a few years ago, during which I worked in a charity shop as a sort of exchange student. I do love charity shops. You can get the most awesome things there, some even brand new, for little money. As struggling writer this is obviously heaven. Since then I payed a visit to Plymouth and my friends there like twice a year and I have seen most of the tourist attractions. The city is located at the south coast of Devon and very close to Cornwall. You actually just have to cross the river to go to Cornwall.
Plymouth is a quite old city dating back to the 11th century and is probably best known for Sir Francis Drake. He was major of the town and now got his own shopping centre. Oui, the large shopping arcade in town is named after him. He also got his own island in Plymouth Sound and according to legend sold his soul to the Devil at a spot called Devil’s Point in order to conjure the storm that blew the Spanish Armada away. Another Spanish Armada related story says that Sir Francis wasn’t too bothered by their approaching and insisted to finish his game of bowls before engaging with them, which brings us to the first two places to see in Plymouth.
Number one being the Plymouth Hoe. Oui, you read that right. I just wrote Hoe. But Hoe in this case refers more to a high place than a lady. I still giggle anyway whenever I read it. The Hoe is a large south-facing open public space with lots of grass to lay on and a lovely view of the sea. On it stands Smeaton’s Tower, a lovely Lighthouse, which used to be located around 22 km away from Plymouth, but was taken apart and put back together on Plymouth Hoe. You can go all the way to the top of it and enjoy the view for a small entry-fee. I think it was two pounds last time I did it. The Hoe also features several terraces built in Victorian times as well as the Victorian Belvedere and a seawater pool, war memorials, and a statue of good ol’ Sir Francis looking out for Spanish ships amongst other things.
Number two is the Royal Citadel, standing on the spot where Sir Francis finished his game of bowls. It was built in the late 1660s under the rule of Charles II and is designed a bit like one of Vauban’s fortresses. Interestingly, the Citadels canons point both ways. At the seafront and enemy ships and also at Plymouth. Why? Because Plymouth supported the Parliamentarians in the Civil War. The Citadel is still a military location, which makes visiting it a little difficult since regiments of the Royal Artillery occupy it, but there are guided tours available on Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays, from April to the end of September 2017. Tickets can only be bought from the guide, but you can reserve them in advance by phone call. A tour takes about 2 hours and takes you over the old ramparts and past canons. More info about the tours here.
I took part in one around two years ago and can recommend it already because awesome view. Our guide was a very lovely lady and although it rained a lot that day, we all had a grand time. The Citadel does not look like much from the outside, basically like a giant and impressive wall of old stones, but you will be surprised what is behind those walls.
From the Royal Citadel, you can also behold the area that is call the Barbican which is the number one tourist spot. There you will find much ado about the second thing Plymouth is famous for, the Mayflower. In 1620 the Pilgrim Fathers set sail for the New World from Plymouth, establishing Plymouth Colony, the second English colony in what is now the United States of America. The Mayflower Steps, from where the Pilgrims boarded their vessel, are rather prominent and hard to miss… but the spot that is titled so now, is pretty much only a tourist thing. The actual Mayflower Steps are across the street in the women’s loo of a pub. Oui. Plymouth will celebrate their Mayflower heritage in 2020 with plenty of Mayflower related activities. There is also a Mayflower museum in the Barbican as well as a tourist information. The people there are rather friendly and offer leaflets in various languages about the history of the place along with plenty of little gifts to bring home. The city also got a bit of a connection to the Titanic, some of the crew members which survived the sinking set foot on English soil again in Plymouth.
If you are interested in underwater life, over the bridge from the Mayflower steps you will find the National Marine Aquarium. The entry is a bit dear, but those fish need to be fed and watered. They also have diving shows, but if you are over the age of six, which I presume, you might not find those too thrilling. They are more aimed at kids and rather loud since said kids are urged to join in by chanting various things that will make your adult ears long for ear-plugs. The fish are nice however… and they got Nemo. And Dory. Oui. Squee.
Talking of fish, the Barbican is the perfect place to devour those in form of Fish & Chips. There are plenty of take-aways and restaurants which offer this delicacy. I usually nom at Platters. Beware the seagulls. They are cheeky and fond of stealing. Keep your eyes open and don’t be too distracted by the lovely old buildings all around you.
One of those buildings is in New Street, now the oldest street of Plymouth, and usually called the Elizabethan House. During Elizabethan times, Plymouth prospered quite a bit due to exploits of sea captains, merchants, fishermen and privateers. The first occupant of said house was a certain William Hele, who bought the property from a merchant called Richard Brendan in 1631 for £150. The house still retains many of its original features and is rather lovely furnished. The kitchen is amazing and you will think you stepped back into the times of Liz I when entering. It is currently closed for maintenance work, but definitely worth a visit when open and the entry fee is just a few pounds.
The Merchant’s House is worth a visit as well. The first recorded owner of the Merchant’s House was William Parker, an Elizabethan privateer and merchant, who was Major of Plymouth from 1601 to 1602. The house is divided into seven rooms, each one with its own central theme and the displays examine aspects of Plymouth’s past history, from transport and trade to the effects of the Second World War.
A bit of an insider, because you won’t find it unless you know where to look for it, are the Elizabethan Gardens in the Barbican. It’s free to the public most of the day and you hardly ever will find another person there. It’s a lovely little garden with birds singing and cute little hedges hidden in the courtyard of surrounding buildings.
Other things to do in the Barbican, are roaming through various little shops in various old buildings, there are a lot of pubs and clubs too, watching the ships go in and out of Sutton Harbour, perhaps paying a visit to the Antique Market… gosh, they have awesome things there. You can also jump on board of a tourist boat that will take you around Plymouth Sound and all the way up to the Devonport Dockyard. They got warships and submarines there.
During my last Barbican visit, I came across a rather strange sight that captivated me at once. Three magically dressed ladies lead a group of spectators along a rope through the Barbican. What on earth is this, I thought and had a bit of a listen to the story they told. It turned out to be a thing called Rope Walks and described as follows: Let your imagination set sail, for adventure awaits, on a pioneering theatrical walking tour of Plymouth’s historic Barbican. Step over the cobbles and go back in time, as you are guided through a journey of discovery – encountering some salty characters along the way! Follow in the footsteps of the people who have helped connect Plymouth to the rest of the world. From Drake’s voyages to the creation of Plymouth Gin; the Bread Riots to Jacka Bakery, this story takes you through hundreds of years of history. Inspired by true events, Ropewalks brings history to life. Come and quench your thirst for the dramatic history of the Barbican.
I must see this, I thought, as a kind gentleman offered me a leaflet. Back in my trusted place of accommodation, I at once said down and inquired what google had to say about it. This was on a Saturday and I read that for Sunday two more performances are being held… but they were both sold out. Through Twitter, the lovely folks of the Barbican Theater, who hosts the whole thing, said they might be able to squeeze me in although sold out. Hurray… I was a bit excited and planned to be there in time… but Plymouth City Bus was as reliable as usual on a weekend and arrived a good 45 minutes late at my trusted accommodation… thus no Rope Walks for me. If you want to enjoy it, you can do so until August for an amazing 3 pounds. Let me know how it was. So I can be jealous.
Not exactly in Plymouth, but across the river in Cornwall is Mount Edgcumbe House with its vast garden. Sir Richard Edgcumbe built the house between 1547 and 1553. It was gutted during World War II by German bombs in 1941, with the restoration process beginning in 1958. Its interiors have been restored to 18th century styles. The park is open to the public all year and free to enter, the house itself has a bit of an entry fee. Last time I was there, visitors could dress up in various outfits from Tudor times to a Marie Antoinette style robe à la française. From the gardens, which feature English, Italian and French styles, you can behold the glorious Plymouth Hoe on the other side of the river. There is a a Bronze Age burial mound, a circular Ionian temple, a cafe turned Orangery, a small fort built on the shoreline during Henry VIII’s reign and many other things to enjoy. P.S. They have a painting of Catherine of Braganza.
Not exactly in Plymouth either, but not too far away, is Saltram House. A George II era mansion-house that was deemed “the most impressive country house in Devon”. A house full of treasures, stories & intrigue. A secret garden to lose yourself in, plus a park that cyclists, walkers, & our four-legged friends love, it says on their website. I have not been there yet, so I can not tell you what magic there is, but I shall go there in the future to explore and venture.
Those are some of the sights to see, but the list goes on with the historic City Hall, various old churches, the City Museum and Art Gallery, Ford Park Cemetery, Mount Batten, the Plymouth Gin Distillery, the Royal William Yard Harbour among others. Last but not least, do you know who has been in Plymouth? Marie-Thérèse Charlotte de France aka Madame Royal aka the only surviving child of Marie Antoinette. She landed there with her ship as she was forced to flee the mainland… and Napoleon. He was held captive on a ship in Plymouth Sound.
If you are all curious now and want to know more about Plymouth history, I recommend you to read Laura Quigley’s work titled Bloody British History Plymouth. Plymouth has one of the darkest and most dreadful histories on record. Beginning with the discovery of the bones of cave men and rushing through French attacks, outbreaks of leprosy and the plague, civil war sieges and deadly Spanish ships, disasters, demolitions, and the enormous death tolls of the Plymouth blitz. Worth a read if you intent to visit the city.