From the Mayflower Museum to the bustling Sutton Harbour, the historic naval city of Plymouth on the Devon coast has plenty to capture the imagination. Simon Whaley explores
Many of the world’s greatest journeys began from Plymouth Sound. Sir Francis Drake set sail from here in 1577 to circumnavigate the world. In 1620, the Mayflower departed with the Pilgrim Fathers on board, in search of a new life in America. And in 1831, Charles Darwin began his five-year voyage on the Beagle from these very waters.
Today, it’s still a bustling port thanks to its three water entrances: the English Channel to the south offering ferry services to Brittany and Spain, the River Plym to the north-east serving the fishing district of Sutton Harbour, and the River Tamar to the north-west – the dividing line between Devon and Cornwall.
However, the immediate vicinity around Plymouth Sound makes the perfect weekend destination in its own right. The historic Barbican area has the highest concentration of cobbled streets in England, and is also home to England’s oldest working gin distillery, keen to quench the thirsty naval officers of nearby Devonport, Western Europe’s largest naval base. Throughout the year, Cornwall’s Mount Edgcumbe Country Park offers peaceful coastal countryside walks, and Europe’s largest collection of Grade I-listed naval buildings at Royal William Yard are thriving with restaurants, shops and luxury accommodation.
6PM ROYAL ARRIVAL
What can be better than a waterside view? My weekend apartment is perfectly located in the historic Grade I-listed naval buildings of Royal William Yard. Its westward-facing waterfront location overlooks Cornwall and the River Tamar, where I’m captivated by the sunset for half an hour. These grand historic Sir John Rennie-designed buildings were once the Royal Navy’s victualling yard, or supply centre, for its vessels. The buildings, still labelled with their services (including Cooperage, Brewhouse, Bakery), now house tempting restaurants and bars, such as Wagamama, Prezzo and Wildwood. It’s city chic, but on a relaxing waterfront (01752 665512, royalwilliamyardapartments.com).
9PM HISTORIC BARBICAN
After breakfast at the Seco Lounge, the regular water ferry quickly transports me across the Sound to Plymouth’s historic Sutton Harbour, where I’m greeted by the Plymouth Sea Monster statue, affectionately known as the Plymouth Prawn. The quaint, cobbled streets are a treasure trove of shops and hidden gems, including New Street’s Elizabethan Gardens – a secluded oasis of box hedges and fountains.
The highlight of my morning is the extremely informative Plymouth Gin Distillery tour, where I learn that Navy Strength means the alcoholic content doesn’t affect the flammability of gunpowder should any be spilled. As if! Don’t leave without your free sample (01752 665292, plymouthdistillery.com).
12PM HARBOUR TOUR
The Boathouse Café serves some of the tastiest seafood in Plymouth (sandwiches and jackets from £5.95, mains from £8.95, 01752 600560, theboathousecafe.co.uk). The fresh crab salad is scrumptious. It’s local, too – more than 15,000 tonnes of fish and seafood are landed at the adjacent Sutton Harbour, more than any other port in England. From this harbourside café, it’s a short stroll down the jetty to the Plymouth Venturer, waiting to take me on an hour-long tour around the harbour. The best way to see Plymouth Sound is by boat, and the humorous on-board commentary bombards me with a flotilla of facts about Drake’s Island, the River Tamar and the Royal Navy dockyards at Devonport. Boat trips from £8.50 adults, children aged 5-15, £5 (01752 253153, plymouthboattrips.co.uk)
3PM TOWER CLIMB
Back on dry land and I head for Smeaton’s Tower, the iconic red-and-white striped tower crowning The Hoe. Shaped like the trunk of an oak tree for strength, this was the third Eddystone Lighthouse, which operated between 1759 and 1877. Erosion of the rocks on which it stood led to it being dismantled and rebuilt on The Hoe. Climb the 93 steps (some steep ladders involved) to the top for spectacular panoramic views across Plymouth and the Sound. On clear days look out for the Eddystone Reef, where this building once stood, some 14 miles out to sea. Adults £4, children £2 (plymhearts.org/smeatons-tower/)
6PM FRENCH DINING
The excellent ferry service whisks me back to Royal William Yard, where a table awaits me in Bistrot Pierre. A wonderful fish cake, sautéed spinach and poached egg with a hollandaise sauce soon replenishes me
from my tower-climbing exercise. Starters from £4.75, mains from 12.95, desserts from £5.50 (01752 262318, bistrotpierre.co.uk/locations/plymouth). I walk the long way back to my apartment, circumnavigating the peninsula, using the South West Coast Path, through Devil’s Point Park, where families once congregated to wave farewell to loved ones departing on naval ships. Look out for the tantalising tunnel to Firestone Bay, once used to load ships, and the innovative, award-winning cantilevered staircase, linking the park with the Yard apartments.
10AM CORNWALL BOUND
A short walk to Stonehouse to catch the historic foot ferry across the Tamar to Cremyll, in Cornwall. This 8-minute crossing (adults £1.50, children 75p), takes passengers to Mount Edgcumbe on Rame Head, Cornwall’s earliest landscaped country park. Across its 865 acres, there are exquisite follies, tunnels, towers and even formal gardens. There’s colour to be found even in January, when the National Collection of Camellias bloom. Between April and September, art lovers flock to Mount Edgcumbe House to view its fine furniture, tapestries and Reynolds artwork. Those preferring more modern pursuits can tackle the Segway Skills assault course. Free entry to park. House: adults £7.20, children £3.75 (01752 822236, mountedgcumbe.gov.uk)
1PM FISH AND CHIPS
Another boat from Cremyll takes me right across the Sound back to the Barbican, and Southside Street, home to Harbourside Fish & Chips, one of the UK’s Top 20 Fish & Chip shops of 2018. This award-winning takeaway (it collects awards by the net-load, it seems) also has an upstairs restaurant offering a range of seafood dishes, including options for gluten-free diners like me. It has even won a healthy eating award, through its healthy options menu, which includes frying the fish at higher temperatures so that the thinner batter, made to a secret recipe, absorbs less oil (barbicanfishandchips.co.uk).
3PM MAYFLOWER MUSEUM
No visit to the Barbican would be complete without visiting the Mayflower Museum. The viewing platform on the 3rd floor offers fantastic views of the marina and Sutton Harbour, and of the Mayflower Steps, near to the ship’s actual departure point. This fascinating museum mixes history with fun facts for all the family. Did you know 16 million Americans can trace their ancestry back to the Pilgrim Fathers, or that the phrase ‘a square meal’ comes from the square plates used by sailors? Model boat enthusiasts will marvel at the scale replica of the Mayflower, which is so big the masts poke through the ceiling! Surely a fitting end to a great weekend in this maritime city. Adults £3, children £1.50 (plymouth.gov.uk/visitorsandtourism/attractions/mayflowermuseum).
NEED TO KNOW
coast stayed at 39 BREWHOUSE, a one-bed property in the Royal William Yard Apartments, looking out on the River Tamar. From £297 for a three-night weekend in April. (01752 665512, royalwilliamyardapartments.com). NEW CONTINENTAL HOTEL, Plymouth’s largest independent hotel, minutes from the seafront. From £90 per night for a double, including breakfast. (01752 220782, newcontinental.co.uk)
HOW TO GET THERE
By car: head towards Bristol, then take the M5 to Exeter, and the A38 to Plymouth.
By rail: direct rail connections to London (3 hours), Bristol (2 hours), Birmingham (3½ hours), Derby (4¼ hours), Sheffield (5 hours) and Leeds (5½ hours).
• For more information on the area, go to visitplymouth.co.uk