Plymouth’s original city centre was almost completely destroyed in the last war. It has been totally restored, its modern grid pattern of wide, mainly pedestrian streets, making shopping a pleasure. The whole shopping area has been attractively landscaped, the trees and flowing streams cooling the hottest summer day. Plymouth has a wealth of fascinating shops, both large and small, including all the big names. There are a wide variety of pubs, clubs and restaurants within the centre too. You can still see some places of historical interest amidst the modern buildings. St. Andrew’s Church was rebuilt after the Blitz, but still retains much of its ancient history, as do the nearby Prysten House and Merchant’s House. There are outstanding centres for drama and music here including the Theatre Royal, and the Athenaeum.
The Hoe is undoubtedly Plymouth’s most well known place, with its wonderful view of Plymouth Sound and the bevy of ships and boats that pass through. Here, five hundred years ago, Sir Francis Drake played his famous game of bowls. Today it’s where Plymothians gather to celebrate everything from Bonfire Night to pop concerts to Pentecost, its broad expanse of green holding tens of thousands of people in convivial comfort. Many of the hotels and guest houses are situated here, some with outstanding views. The most obvious landmark is Smeaton’s Tower, a large lighthouse, re-erected on land. Close by is Plymouth Dome, Britain’s most up-to-date visitor’s centre and also the Royal Citadel, a huge 17th century stone fort, still in military use today.
Follow the road down past the Citadel and you’ll take a step into history as you come to the Barbican, a group of parallel streets linked by narrow lanes and bursting with historic buildings, which survived the bombing. It’s now a vibrant shopping and dining district, offering art galleries, exotic shops, ethnic food experiences, craft and antique stores. Sutton Harbour and the new National Marine Aquarium are unmissable, as is a visit to the Mayflower Steps, the Elizabethan House and a score more, all within a few moments walk. There is probably more to see and do in this tiny area than in any district of Plymouth.
Mutley and Peverell
Just north of the city centre you’ll find the heart of community life, in the busy area around Mutley Plain. Here are many small shops, banks and services, catering for the more basic needs of the city’s residents and the large student population, whose bedsits abound. A few minutes walk takes you to Mannamead, an area of higher income housing. Peverell is mainly a middle class residential district, with the huge Central Park on its edge. Apart from acres of greenery and beautiful trees, you’ll find the Mayflower Leisure Centre, Plymouth Argyle Football Ground and Central Park Leisure Pool here.
Stonehouse, Devonport and Stoke
Stonehouse and Devonport are two of the original ‘Three Towns’ of Old Plymouth. Stonehouse’s most interesting landmark is now the Royal William Victualling Yard, a 14 acre site currently undergoing large scale development, but soon to be open to visitors. The large Royal Marines Barracks at Stonehouse is an unexpected sight, amidst rows of expensive Georgian houses. Devonport was famous as the city’s naval centre. Devonport Dockyard, which once played a very prominent part in the life of Plymouth, still remains the main place in Britain for the refitting of naval vessels and can be visited by the public on Navy Days. Stoke is chiefly a residential area, but Stoke Damerel Parish Church is worth a visit, as it has been a centre for worship for nearly a thousand years.
The suburbs of Plymouth stretch out in military precision along the hills and valleys of the estuary of the River Plym, offering residents low cost housing. In complete contrast is the Georgian splendour of Saltram House with its vast gardens, a popular venue for walking in all seasons. Historical Cattewater is still used as an industrial port, particularly by oil tankers. Queen Anne’s Battery is a purpose built marina, home to the Royal Western Yacht Club and also the main water sports centre, Mount Batten. Plympton, an eastern suburb, is mostly new housing estates, but glimpses of the medieval past of its two original settlements can still be seen.
The main industrial areas lie to the north of the city, with centres in manufacturing and high technology. Here you’ll find the factories making Sensodyne toothpaste and Wrigleys chewing gum, as well as Toshiba, British Aerospace and many more. Plymouth Albion, our rugby team has its home here too. Low cost housing covers the many hills, although the main route north towards Dartmoor is a high price residential area. Here you will find Derriford District General Hospital and the small Plymouth City Airport.
North of the city
This is a pleasant area of countryside, bounded on the east by Cornwall and on the west by Dartmoor. It has a few small towns and many interesting places to visit. Tavistock has been a centre for marketing, industry, trade and culture for many centuries. It’s an attractive, prosperous town, where you can visit the Wharf Arts Centre for creative entertainment, Meadowlands for exciting watersports and Tavistock Pannier Market for shopping. Buckland Monachorum, just north of the city, has two interesting attractions, 13th century Buckland Abbey and the 8 acre Garden House. Fishing and other water sports can be enjoyed at Roadford Reservoir.
East of the city
Wonderful riverside spots can be found here, such as Plymbridge Woods, and Shaugh Bridge, where the rivers Plym and Meavy meet. Apart from the natural beauty, there are several fine attractions in this area. Animal lovers should look for the Dartmoor Wildlife Park at Sparkwell, the Donkey Sanctuary and Prickly Ball Hedgehog Hospital, while the Shire Horse Centre has a lot more than horses to offer.
This last great wilderness in southern England has many moods; misty and mysterious, bleak and foreboding, natural and unspoilt. Three hundred million years of history are on display, from the naturally eroded tors and the Bronze Age settlements like Grimspound to 20th century imitation Castle Drogo. There are many sites to visit here, depending on your personal preferences and, of course, the weather. There are museums, such as the Museum of Dartmoor Life; historic buildings like Buckfast Abbey; fishing and walks around Burrator Reservoir; animal sanctuaries such as the Butterfly Farm and Dartmoor Otter Sanctuary; visitor centres like the High Moorland Centre, beauty spots like Dartmeet, hosts of fascinating small towns and the famous Dartmoor Prison.
This district stretches from South Dartmoor to the South Devon coast and covers many miles of Devon’s traditional rolling countryside, historic old towns, quaint little villages, clean beaches and no less than five river estuaries. There are many tourist attractions in this area, from the watercoasters and death slides of Woodlands Leisure Park to popular stately homes like Overbecks. A wealth of historic and beautiful small towns abound, including Totnes, Dartmouth, Kingsbridge and Salcombe, each with its own highly individual attractions. This is a wonderful place to explore by car, steam train, ferry, bike or even on foot.
Before the Cornish rise up and declare war, let me assure you that Cornwall is not an actual district of Plymouth! But we have only the River Tamar, with its magnificent Tamar Bridge, between us, so the land of our nearest neighbours is a constant source of pleasurable days out from Plymouth. The beautiful countryside, rugged coastline and fascinating towns offer many delights. Sample traditional cuisine at the Jubilee Inn and explore history at Antony House and Mount Edgcumbe House and Country Park. Enjoy sporting venues such as St. Mellion Golf and Country Club and modern visitor centres like Flambards. With astounding natural beauty everywhere you look, Cornwall is worth many visits.
History of Plymouth
A major seaport in a major seafaring nation, Plymouth’s history revolves around the sea, and she came into her own in the Elizabethan era when her privateer-sea captains set England on course to become the ruler of the known world.
During the Bronze age, about 2000BC, Plymouth became connected to the rest of the country by a ridge road that is followed by the present day road out of Plymouth to Tavistock. The major settlement was probably on
Mount Batten (which today plays host to the yearly National Fireworks Competition), a late Bronze Age/Iron Age settlement which traded with the Roman Empire and was continuously occupied for some 1500 years.
As the Bronze age became the Iron Age round 450BC, the people of this area became the Dumnonni, the Celts. They watched the Romans come and go without making too big an impression on the area, although the name ‘Stonehouse’ given by the Saxons surely must refer to a Roman villa of some size in that area.
After the Romans left in 410AD, we know very little of the next 300 years of Dumnonni rule except legends. Later the Saxons invaded, and ultimately drove the Dumnonni into Cornwall and Brittany, but they left their name to Devon (Demn).
At the time of the Norman conquest, Plymouth was farmland. It became a port in the 12th century. Named Sudtone in the Domesday Book (1086), Plymouth’s original harbour is still called Sutton Harbour.
It was tin mining that accounts for the original growth of the city, because mining silted up the Plym and made the original port of Plympton less usable, while Sutton Pool remained a deep sheltered anchorage; the first record of the name Plymouth appeared in a cargo roll of 1211 here.
A developing trade and the shipment of armies to France during the 100 Years War led to its early growth, but Plymouth really began to expand with the development of larger ships in the 15th century, when Sutton Harbour provided a perfect anchorage for warships.
The Great Sea-faring Age
It was from the shelter of Plymouth Sound that Sir Francis Drake and Sir Walter Raleigh, then the Pilgrim Fathers (1620) and later Captain Cook (1772) and Darwin sailed off to adventure and fame.
It was the home port of other famous Elizabethan seafarers like Martin Frobisher, Richard Grenville and Humphrey Gilbert, as well as Sir John Hawkins, son of the mayor of Plymouth and cousin of Drake, who was the architect of the Elizabethan navy. In the campaign against the Spanish Armada in 1588 he was knighted during the actual battle.
The seafarer most commonly associated with Plymouth is of course Sir Francis Drake, who achieved his knighthood through an epic voyage around the world. Setting out from Plymouth in 1577 in the Golden Hind, he returned three years later as the most famous man in the Kingdom.
This fame escalated when he was vice admiral and John Hawkins was rear admiral of the fleet that defeated the Armada in 1588. Losses were England nil, Spain 51. He later became mayor of Plymouth and represented the city in Parliament, ultimately dying at sea in 1596 during another campaign against the Spanish.
Drake’s fame was legendary even in his day. Founder of the British naval tradition because of the heroic quality of his exploits, he was the greatest privateer of all time, and his legend continues, particularly with Drake’s Drum (to be seen at Buckland Abbey), which is said to beat to call the nation to arms in times of peril.
Twenty-four years after Drake died, on 16 September 1620, the Mayflower set sail for America. Many Americans make the pilgrimage to the Mayflower Steps in the Barbican where a plaque listing the passengers marks the spot.
Another famous Plymouth mariner was Captain James Cook, who set out from the Barbican in 1768 in search of a southern continent. Today the Barbican, with its Tudor and Jacobean buildings, such as the Elizabethan House, gives an idea of what Plymouth must have been like before the Luftwaffe violently redesigned it.
During the Civil War, 1642-46, Plymouth declared for Parliament and was held by the roundheads while the rest of Devon and Cornwall were Royalist. Every attempt by the Royalists failed to break the protective ring around the town, but its population and commerce were devastated by battle and disease, and its growth was severely stunted for many years after the fighting ended.
In 1690 the Royal Dockyard was begun on the eastern bank of the Tamar, and the town of Plymouth Dock (renamed Devonport in 1824) was founded. A third town, Stonehouse, developed between Devonport and Plymouth, and all were amalgamated in 1914.
Because of its military and industrial importance, Plymouth was one of the most severely damaged by the Luftwaffe during WWII. The program of reconstruction has resulted some fine commercial, shopping, and civic centres. New approach roads link the city with new bridges over the Plym and Tamar.
The Westcountry’s largest city, Plymouth is a centre of industry from ship building to information technology. Plymouth also has the problems of a large city, with nearly a third of its inhabitants living below the poverty line.
The cultural capital of the area, with an important heritage, Plymouth is today still a hive of artistic activity: the Theatre Royal plays host each year to the RSC and is a major out of town venue for plays and musicals on their way to or from the West End. Important living artists such as Robert Lenkiewicz uphold the heritage of old masters such as Joshua Reynolds.
And the sea is never far from consciousness – the fine marine aquarium, the marine-biological laboratories, the upper part of Smeaton’s lighthouse brought from Eddystone, an Armada memorial, Drake’s statue on the Hoe, the Royal Marine Barracks, and the Naval Dockyard all remind us that Plymouth is now, as she has always been, first and foremost a seaport. The city is still, as it has been for centuries, an important port and naval base, brawling, boisterous, tough and energetic.