Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared in the Anglotopia Print Magazine last year. It is now the year of Mayflower 400.
Known as Britain’s Ocean City, Plymouth has a stunning waterfront position. It’s an enviable location with clean air, easy access to coast and country, and a vibrant cultural scene.
LOCATION & TRAVEL
Plymouth is a proud naval city in southwest England. It’s one of the largest cities on the south coast and the fifteenth largest city in the UK. Plymouth is in Devon and is connected to Cornwall via the Tamar Bridge.
The nearest airport is in Exeter, or you can catch a ferry directly here from Roscoff in France or Santander in Spain. From London, it’s about a 3-hour train journey. This would be my recommended mode of transport as the train goes along the coast sidetrack in Dawlish that is literally right next to the sea!
The city neighborhoods break down from east to west as Royal William Yard, Millbay and West Hoe, The Hoe, Barbican and Sutton Harbour. The city center area is to the north of The Hoe.
Plymouth’s docks and naval base made it a major target in WWII. There were 59 bombing raids in Plymouth in 1940 and 1941. The shell of Charles Cross Church has been kept as a reminder.
Because of this devastation, Plymouth has the highest number of post-war listed buildings outside London. I was told that Plymouth would have looked more like Edinburgh before the need for fast rebuilding in the 1950s and ‘60s.
But it’s not all new as there are over 750 listed buildings in Plymouth and over 100 can be found around Plymouth’s Barbican where you’ll find the highest concentration of cobbled streets in England.
More than 30 million US citizens can trace their ancestry to the 102 passengers, plus the crew, who sailed on the Mayflower for a fresh start in the New World. 2020 will commemorate the 400th anniversary of the Mayflower’s pioneering voyage.
The Head of Heritage, Art, and Film at Plymouth City Council said, “2020 gives us the opportunity to re-examine our past and to genuinely reflect on the English colonization of America and its consequences.”
When King Henry VIII broke away from the Catholic Church to divorce Catherine of Aragon, this brought the start of the English Reformation in 1533. Unhappy with the English church, a group of religious separatists planned to escape to Holland. Following failed attempts and time in prison, the group eventually made it to Leiden, Holland in 1608 and lived there for 12 years.
In August 1620, an agreement was made with the Virginia Company to travel to the New World and create a new community. The Leiden separatists set sail on the Speedwell for England to meet the Mayflower – a vessel previously used for shipping wine, tar, herring, and timber.
Those separatists who had remained in England boarded the Mayflower in London, including Captain Christopher Jones and his crew plus non-pilgrim ‘strangers’ who were going to America to work.
The Speedwell soon because unfit for purpose, so everyone had to travel on the Mayflower. Of the 102 passengers, 41 were from the original Leiden community, and there were 61 migrants from England, plus 20–30 crew. Amongst the passengers, there were three pregnant women onboard.
The Mayflower left Plymouth on 16 September 1620 for what was to become one of the most influential journeys in global history and a defining moment in the shared history of Britain, the US and the Netherlands.
During a storm, John Howland fell overboard and was almost lost at sea but managed to grab the topsail halyards, giving the crew enough time to rescue him with a boat hook. His descendants include Franklin D Roosevelt, George H W Bush, George W Bush, the poet Ralph Waldo Emerson and Humphrey Bogart.
By mid-November 1620 they had arrived in Cape Cod, but it took until 26 December 1620 for the Mayflower finally to arrive in what is today Plymouth, Massachusetts.
To ensure the survivors of the arduous journey worked together, they drew up the Mayflower Compact – an agreement for how their lives would be governed. This pioneering document that would go on to inspire the Constitution of the United States of America.
The Mayflower passengers did not, of course, land in a place devoid of people or culture. During the 1600s, the native Wampanoag population encountered European seafarers. In 1614, an English captain captured 20 Wampanoag men, sailed them to Spain and sold them as slaves. Between 1616 and 1619, three epidemics of European diseases decimated the Wampanoag population. When the passengers of the Mayflower arrived in the winter of 1620, they saw the impact of the loss. Settling in the abandoned village of Patuxet, the colonists brought new challenges to the Wampanoag people. Over 400 years, there has been co-operation, co-existence, and conflict.
The relationship with the native Wampanoag people would be key to the Mayflower passengers’ survival, as they would learn to hunt and grow crops. A bountiful harvest in the autumn of 1621 would be celebrated in prayer and become known as the first Thanksgiving.
MAYFLOWER 400 COMMEMORATIONS
Starting from Thanksgiving 2019, there are twelve months of commemorations taking place at landmark locations in the UK, Netherlands and the US.
Even though the Mayflower passengers were only in Plymouth for a few days, as it was their departure point from Britain, there are lots of festivities planned including:
The Mayflower Ocean Festival is on 4–10 May 2020, and Mayflower Week is 14–20 September 2020. The Mayflower Ceremony – a four-national civic ceremony commemorating the Mayflower’s journey – will be on the 400th anniversary of the sailing date, 16 September 2020.
The Illuminate Light Festival will formally open and close the commemorations in Plymouth in November 2019 and 2020 with buildings across the waterfront featuring a myriad of digital lighting effects.
If you can’t time your visit for one of these events, there are three trails being written to help you explore the Mayflower heritage in the area.
Elizabeth I’s privateer Sir Francis Drake (1563–1596) was the first Englishman to circumnavigate the globe. He was one of the most celebrated and respected seamen of his time and became Mayor of Plymouth in September 1581. He then went on to become a member of parliament in 1581, 1584 and 1593.
It’s said Drake played bowls at The Hoe as he received news of the Spanish Armada’s arrival on 20 July 1588. He concluded his game which appeared to be an act of heroism, but he probably knew full well that the wind and tide conditions at that particular moment precluded the English Fleet from putting to sea immediately from Plymouth. When he eventually went out to sea, he defeated the Spanish Armada.
Plymouth has been a gateway for centuries. Pocahontas arrived in Plymouth on 3 June 1616 with her husband John Rolfe, their 1-year-old son Thomas, governor Sir Thomas Dale and an entourage to emphasize her importance as the daughter of the chief of the Pamunkey tribe.
Captain James Cook (1728–1779) set sail on the first voyage of discovery on The Endeavour from Plymouth in 1768. It was the first ship to reach Australia, and he set foot at Botany Bay in 1770.
Plymouth-born portrait artist Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723–1792) was the founding President of the Royal Academy and Painter to the King.
When French Emperor Napoléon Bonaparte (1769–1821) was held captive on HMS Bellerophon in Plymouth Sound in 1815, thousands of people wanted to catch sight of him. On the day it was reported that some 8,000 people took to the water in small boats to get a better view.
Plymouth-born Royal Navy officer Captain Robert Falcon Scott (1868–1912), best known as Scott of Antarctica, became world-famous after a successful first exploration of Antarctica on the Discovery Expedition (1901–1904).
The Beatles visited Plymouth to take a famous photo in 1967 during the filming of the ‘Magical Mystery Tour’ movie. You can see the backside copper casts known as the ‘Beatles bums’ on The Hoe, marking the site where John, Paul, George and Ringo sat to enjoy the view.
Lady Nancy Astor (1879–1964), the first female MP in 1919, lived on Elliot Terrace. There’s a campaign to get a statue of her erected at The Hoe.
And, bringing us right up to date, the British diving champion Tom Daley (1994–) is also from Plymouth.
The Hoe & Smeaton’s Tower
The Hoe is a green-lawned public space in the heart of Plymouth overlooking Plymouth Sound – a bay on the English Channel creating a natural harbor. The park has war memorials and statues, including one of Sir Francis Drake. And at the eastern end, you’ll find the seventeenth-century fortress, The Royal Citadel, still in use today. Look down from the park to see the Grade II listed Art Deco Tinside Lido, open to the public for bathing during the summer months.
Smeaton’s Tower is the iconic red and white striped lighthouse landmark you see on all of the Plymouth postcards. Named after civil engineer John Smeaton, this was in use on the Eddystone Reef from 1759 to 1877 until the rocks it was built upon eroded too far, and it was deemed unsafe. The original plinth can still be seen next to the new lighthouse, and the rest was dismantled and rebuilt on Plymouth Hoe.
At 72 foot high, Smeaton’s Tower offers fantastic views. Visitors can climb the 93 steps to the lantern room by fixed central ladders to reach each level.
Opposite the Mayflower Steps, the family-friendly Mayflower Museum in the Barbican explores the story of the Mayflower and the pilgrims’ journey to the New World. Set over three floors, a visit starts at the top stepping out onto a balcony to see the panoramic views.
The Mayflower Pilgrims Remembered Gallery explains the story of the passengers who made the courageous journey in 1620. And the final gallery features a model of the Mayflower Ship. It’s only a few pounds to visit, and you won’t need long, but if you’re interested in the story, it does help to bring it to life.
Royal William Yard
Designed by Sir John Rennie (1794–1874) for the Royal Navy, Royal William Yard was constructed between 1826 and 1835. It is on a peninsula at Devil’s Point on the east of the city. Royal William Yard is considered to be one of the most important groups of historic military buildings in Britain and the largest collection of Grade I listed military buildings in Europe.
The original purpose of the Yard was to supply victuals – food, drink, and provisions – for the Royal Navy. In 1992 the Navy gave up ownership of the land and buildings, and it now houses restaurants, bars, galleries, shops as well as luxury accommodation. The names of the buildings – Mills Bakery, Brewhouse, Slaughterhouse – reflect their historic uses.
It’s well worth spending a day here as you reach Royal William Yard via Durnsford Street so stop to admire the stunning Georgian townhouses. Then enter the Yard under the twice lifesize statue of William IV and stroll around the cobbled streets.
Go wine tasting at Le Vignoble or have dinner at Bistrot Pierre. Have a coffee at The Hutong Cafe by the Yard entrance, or relax at Column Bakehouse and try learning something new at Ocean Studios. Their shop is also a must-see as the handmade goods (perfect for buying unique gifts) are so well-priced. Walk the South West Coastal Path through the Yard as it’s connected by the ‘Stairway to Devon’ or catch a ferry to the Barbican area or over to Cornwall (it only takes minutes). And you don’t have to leave as the gorgeous Rooms by Bistrot Pierre mean you can stay in the old naval officers’ building.
National Marine Aquarium
The award-winning National Marine Aquarium has the largest and deepest tank in the UK. There are four zones with over 4,000 marine animals, including sharks, jellyfish and Friday, the Green Turtle. There are hosts (staff) in each zone, and they are very knowledgeable, so do have a chat. Because of them, I got to see a shark that was only one week old and a shark embryo that still had many months to grow inside a ‘mermaid’s purse.’ There are lots of regular talks and feeding times, and it is very family-friendly. Tickets are valid for a year, and I’d definitely recommend adding on a VIP Behind the Scenes tour as it was fascinating.
Opening in April 2020, The Box is a new flagship cultural attraction including the city museum, art gallery, and archives. It’s a symbol for Plymouth’s current regeneration and will have gallery displays, art exhibitions from high profile artists as well as events and performances that take visitors on a journey from pre-history to the present and beyond.
When it opens, ‘Mayflower 400: Legend and Legacy’ will be the national commemorative exhibition for the 400th anniversary of the Mayflower journey.
The historic Barbican harbor is one of the largest areas of cobbled streets in the UK with more than 200 listed buildings, many of them Tudor and Jacobean. The main street is Southside Street, but it’s also worth exploring the narrow lanes too.
You’ll want to go to the Plymouth Gin Distillery where you can take a tour and even create your own gin. The building dates from the early 1400s and was a former monastery. But don’t spend all day there (even though the Refectory Bar and Barbican Kitchen restaurant are both brilliant) as Southside Street has some lovely boutique shops, art galleries, and eateries.
Opposite Plymouth Gin is The House That Jack Built – a collection of independent traders. My favorite was ‘Rockpool Trading’ at the front that promotes and sells handmade items from designers based in Devon and Cornwall, making it a perfect place to buy gifts and souvenirs.
There are lots of places to eat, including the award-winning Harbourside Fish and Chips where I can recommend the pea fritters. Jacka Bakery is Britain’s oldest commercially working bakery dating back to 1597, and it’s claimed they supplied biscuits to the Mayflower voyage to the New World. Pilgrims Ice Cream is also in a historic building although I don’t think the separatists bought a mint choc chip cone for the journey. But you can see the Mayflower Steps from where the passengers set sail.
Plymouth Gin Distillery Tour
There are three tours on offer here, and now I’ve tried the 40-minute distillery tour I plan to return to try another. Some of the Mayflower passengers are said to have spent their last night in England at Plymouth’s Black Friars building on the Barbican where Plymouth Gin is located today. Plymouth Gin has been around since 1793 and is still produced in the same distillery using a blend of seven botanicals and Dartmouth spring water. Take a tour of England’s oldest working gin distillery, and you’ll get to try Winston Church’s favorite tipple in the bar afterwards. If drinking in the morning is a bit hardcore for you, do visit the gift shop as that’s the oldest part of the building.
Elizabethan Gardens and Elizabethan House
This lovely garden is a peaceful spot with low box hedges containing beds of colorful flowers and fragrant herbs in an Elizabethan style although it was actually built in 1970. It’s four gardens linked together looking as they might have done around 400 years ago.
Also on New Street, the Elizabethan House is a rare surviving example of its time and still retains many of its original features. There are seven rooms across three floors with white lime-washed plaster walls, bare wooden floors and oak beams which may have been salvaged from a ship and a central newel post which was once a ship’s mast.
Plymouth Boat Trips
Plymouth Boat Trips offer harbor cruises as well as Fish ‘n’ Trips. You can then ‘cook your catch’ at The Boathouse Café. The Cremyll Ferry links Devon and Cornwall, and they run the ferry service from Royal William Yard to Barbican too.
Try paddleboarding to get closer to the water, or dive right in at the Tinside Lido.
EAT AND DRINK
When in Devon, you’ve got to have a cream tea (it’s cream before jam on scones here). The hotels have afternoon tea so try the Duke of Cornwall in Millbay, the Crown Plaza in the Hoe or Boringdon Hall for that country manor style. The Flower Café on Southside Street has a unicorn afternoon tea that seems perfect for children, and The Tudor Rose Tearooms on New Street look particularly lovely.
I wish I’d been able to try Plymouth Tea as they’ve recently opened their own tea plantation – the first in Devon and only the second in England.
Who can resist chips at the seaside? Harbourside Fish & Chips has a restaurant and two takeaway shops in the Barbican. There’s also the excellent Rockfish seafood restaurant next to the aquarium in Sutton Harbour.
There’s a Marco Pierre White restaurant on the top floor of the Crowne Plaza hotel that gives great views over The Hoe. And The Greedy Goose has a contemporary seasonal menu in Plymouth’s oldest building, dating back to 1487.
The best pizza in town is from Knead Pizza in Plymouth Market. It’s sourdough bases with vegan options, and it’s all delicious. Eat-in or delivery is available.
If you’re catching a ferry, The Dock restaurant comes recommended. But if you prefer watching yachts, you need to go to Honky Tony Wine Library. It’s a deli and wine shop that also serves delicious platters to share while looking out at Sutton Harbour.
When it’s gin time you could go to the Refectory Bar at Plymouth Gin distillery, but the gin flight at Barbican Botanicals Gin Room is also recommended. And the best tip for a ‘secret’ bar is Tigermilk at the Duke – an underground 1920s speakeasy-inspired cocktail bar below the Duke of Cornwall Hotel. It’s got board games so come with friends as it’s open late.
Drake Circus is a modern mall in the city center with over 70 well-known shops and restaurants. There are more shops and banks in the pedestrianized shopping area on the way to Plymouth Market. This covered market is open six days a week and has been here since 1959. It’s a great place for a bargain or to stop for coffee, and there are lovely craft stalls around the edge.
My best tips for more unusual gift shopping would be Column Bakehouse at Royal William Yard and the independent shops along Southside Street in the Barbican (both mentioned above).
Theatre Royal Plymouth is the best attended and largest regional producing theatre in the UK and launches many major productions bound for London’s West End. For a more intimate experience, the Barbican Theatre has comedy nights plus jazz and soul music in the bar.
For big-name music acts, Plymouth Pavilions has performances throughout the year. It’s also home to the Plymouth Raiders basketball team, and there’s an ice rink here too.
I was fortunate enough to stay in three very different hotels to give you a better insight into the accommodation in Plymouth.
At Royal William Yard, I stayed at Residence One – Rooms by Bistrot Pierre, which is a collection of 14 stylish rooms that were once naval officers’ homes. The Georgian building has large rooms full of periodic architectural charm including cast iron fireplaces and radiators plus wooden window shutters that fold away into the wall. The Reception is across the green in the Bistrot Pierre restaurant, so it doesn’t necessarily feel like you’re staying in a hotel. It’s a really quiet location and a perfect base to explore the South West Coastal Path.
At the Crowne Plaza in the Hoe, I had a room overlooking Hoe Park and the sea beyond, and I could see Smeaton’s Tower from my window. It’s a really nice modern four-star hotel with everything you would expect in the room plus fantastic facilities such as a swimming pool and the Marco Pierre White restaurant. It’s a short walk away from the Barbican and a fantastic central base.
Created as the city’s first luxury hotel in 1863, Sir John Betjeman described the Duke of Cornwall Hotel as “one the finest examples of Victorian gothic architecture he had ever seen.” This is the kind of place where everyone remembers your name and staff do all they can to ensure your stay is enjoyable. I had the Shackleton room, named after the celebrated explorer Ernest Shackleton as he stayed at the Duke before setting out on his infamous Antarctic expedition on the Endurance. This is an excellent central location next to Plymouth Pavilions.
Plymouth also has lots of B&Bs, and there’s a Premier Inn near the aquarium. (Great for families as kids stay free and get a free breakfast.) There are also some impressive apartments to rent across the city. And for when only luxury will do, Boringdon Hall is the impressive country house hotel and spa a few miles outside of the city.
Plymouth is a year-round destination, but there are some really good annual events to be aware of. Pirates Weekend is in May, and it’s not just the kids who dress up. The fun takes place around the Barbican, Sutton Harbican, and West Hoe Park. Also in May, the Lord Mayor’s Festival welcomes in the new Lord Mayor with lots of celebrations.
The British Fireworks Championships are on The Hoe in August. And the town lights up again in November for Illuminate – the south west’s largest free light show. For 2019 and 2020 it will also mark the beginning and end of 12 months of Mayflower commemorations.
Renting a car will make further explorations easier although there is a ‘Devon Day’ bus ticket available that covers all the local buses across the county for under £10.
Dartmoor National Park is just a few miles from Plymouth city center. It’s the same size as London but with more sheep than people. You’ll be rewarded with views from heather-covered moorland and will hopefully see the Dartmoor ponies. You could also stop at Dartmoor Prison Museum that tells the story of French prisoners from the Napoleonic Wars, Americans from the War of 1812 and convicts from 1850.
There are plenty of National Trust locations close to Plymouth and across Devon. Saltram is a magnificent mansion on the banks of the River Plym. This Georgian villa featured in the 1995 adaptation of ‘Sense and Sensibility’ as Norland Park, the home of the Dashwoods. And over in Cornwall, Antony House was the garden setting for Tim Burton’s 2010 ‘Alice in Wonderland.’
You can find quieter beaches in neighboring villages Kingsand and Cawsand which both are historical fishing and smuggling villages, and both have stunning views across Plymouth Sound.
WOULD I GO BACK?
I really enjoyed my visit to Plymouth. It was an easy journey from London, and I was impressed by how much there is do in the city. Royal William Yard is simply stunning, and I was soon thinking about the many reasons to return such as a trip to Mount Edgcumbe on the Cremyll Ferry, as well as to go gift shopping at Column Bakehouse or to learn a new skill at Ocean Studios.
The Box is also going to be a great reason to return to Plymouth as it should be outstanding. And to see the Elizabethan House and Elizabethan Gardens goes on the list too. I reckon a whole weekend could be planned around doing a Master Distiller’s Tour at Plymouth Gin as you get to create your own gin blend. I’d also spend every weekend lunchtime at the Honky Tonk Wine Library if I could as it was such a relaxed and welcoming environment with great food and drink.
The behind-the-scenes tour at the National Marine Aquarium was brilliant, and if I lived nearer, I would definitely sign up my 12-year-old daughter for Ocean Squad. All in all, I was in no rush to leave Plymouth and now have some understanding of how much Britain’s Ocean City has to offer. And, of course, there’s all the fun coming for Mayflower 400 throughout 2020 so, yes, I’m looking forward to returning soon.