Home to quarter of a million people, Plymouth brands itself as Britain's Ocean City. It's also doable as a day trip from London, despite being 200 miles distant, so long as you can withstand a three hour train journey down to Devon... and back. I took advantage of a rare GWR ticket sale to get there on the cheap and enjoyed a day of sun, sea and very heavy showers.[26 photos]
n.b. This is a big year for Plymouth, being 400 years since the Pilgrim Fathers set off aboard the Mayflower. A major series of commemorative events has been scheduled leading up to the quatercentenary in September, and many of the city's attractions are being spruced up. This'll be great if you turn up in the summer but is less good if you arrive in March, indeed almost all the tourist attractions I might normally have visited were shut.
1) Stand on Plymouth Hoe
The best known location in Plymouth is the Hoe, a raised sweep of grass facing the mouth of the Tamar Estuary. Francis Drake famously finished a game of bowls up here before the Armada arrived, and a public bowling green still exists at the rear of the Hoe today.
The clifftop expanse is a great place for a promenade, a large public gathering or simply looking out to sea and watching maritime comings and goings. The view is fabulous, across seafront rooftops and open water towards Drake's Island, thickly wooded slopes and a distant breakwater.
A tiny castellated cafe on the cliff edge, formerly a naval lookout, offers basic snacks. Set further back is a line of statues and memorials, mostly for naval heroes or campaigns, the tallest remembering the fallen of two world wars. Unfortunately... I arrived as a menacing set of clouds blew in from the west, the sky darkening until a vicious storm enveloped the Hoe and a gusty wind whipped the palm trees. I hid myself in a leaky shelter until the torrent eased.
2) Climb Smeaton's Tower
This red and white striped tower used to be the top two-thirds of the Eddystone Lighthouse, decommissioned in 1877 and rebuilt on Plymouth Hoe. It's iconic enough that it appears on welcome signs at entrances to the city, and is open to visitors capable of climbing 93 steps to the lantern room at the top. Unfortunately... The lighthouse is currently closed for repainting and entirely enveloped in scaffolding, and should re-open later this spring.
3) Explore the Barbican
Between the Hoe and Sutton Harbour are some seriously quaint cobblestone lanes, a narrow maze left over from fishing days, these days known as the Barbican. Nowhere else in Britain is cobblier. Along New Street, now inappropriately named, is a timber-framed museum called the Elizabethan House. One larger street leading down to the quayside has become a tourist trap lined by gift shops, galleries and gelateria, and is also home to the 18th century Plymouth Gin Distillery (tours £12.50). I decided against taking time out for a tutored tasting. I also skipped the Edinburgh Woollen Mill squeezed onto the quayside in a glass box, and all the numerous pubs and eateries behind. Unfortunately... The Elizabethan House is currently closed due to essential conservation work.
4) See the Mayflower Steps
The one place every tourist heads for, especially every American tourist, is the Mayflower Steps. A commemorative portico opens out to a tiny semi-circular platform overhanging the harbour, with a brushed steel rail and a few plaques offering heritage input. A pair of stone staircases lead down to either side, but neither is original, and access has been blocked off by concrete infill in the harbour wall. It's a bit of a letdown really, and not worth crossing the Atlantic for. For the full story head across the quayside to the Mayflower Museum, deftly hidden across three storeys above the Tourist Information Centre. Unfortunately... The location of the Steps is incorrect. Historians believe the Pilgrim Fathers' actual embarkation point is beneath the adjacent Admiral MacBride pub, specifically underneath the ladies toilets.
5) Enter The National Marine Aquarium
Britain's largestaquarium opened in 1998 across the harbour from the Mayflower Steps. It has four zones - Plymouth Sound, British Coasts, Atlantic Ocean and Blue Planet - where you can peer at sharks, rays, turtles and jellyfish. Unfortunately... I didn't fancy stumping up £17.95 because I've already been, back in 1999 (and spent the entire visit trying to persuade the Ex not to book us onto a scuba diving holiday).
6) Ride the Mount Batten ferry
Plymouth Sound has many inlets, so a number of ferries exist to get foot passengers across the water. One of these crosses the mouth of the Plym from the Barbican to Mount Batten, a rocky headland outcrop. It's yellow and runs every half hour in the winter for £2 per crossing, should you fancy a coastal walk down to Jennycliff and back. Unfortunately... The other ferry from the Barbican, to Royal William Yard, doesn't restart until 28th March, and it's quite a hike to get there on foot.
7) Walk the Waterfront
The wiggly promenade beneath the Hoe makes for a splendid mile-long walk. Along the way I found several cannons, a plaque in the path commemorating 1999's total eclipse and a wall topped with models of sunken warships. The sea is still a long way down, so I passed numerous steep staircases down to viewing platforms, belvederes, bars, a Chinese restaurant and what passes for a scrap of a beach. The Plymouth Dome, opened as a visitor attraction in 1989 and refitted as a Gary Rhodes restaurant in 2013, lies empty with a fairly desperate 'To Let' sign outside. Unfortunately... TinsideLido, a premier Thirties Art Deco pool, doesn't reopen until the end of May (assuming anything reopens this spring, obviously)
8) Discover the Box
Plymouth City Museum and Art Gallery, a chunky Baroque building with a worthy collection, opened in 1910. You'd expect nothing less in a city of this size. Lottery cash and Arts Council funding allowed it to close in 2016 to metamorphose into The Box, an extended arts hub, reopening this year with a special Mayflower 400 exhibition. Unfortunately... it doesn't reopen until 16th May, so I saw nothing except workmen tarting up the street round the back so it can better host street food gatherings.
9) Go shopping
According to the Visit Plymouth Visitor Guide 2020, after ticking off The Box the ideal 'long weekend itinerary' continues with "retail therapy with big name brands and high street favourites". I wouldn't waste your valuable time. Unfortunately... on my first visit to Plymouth I wasted valuable time buying a Wedgwood china coffee service in Dingles, and (as it turned out) wasted all my money.
10) Admire the city centre
Plymouth suffered greatly from bombing during the Second World War and its city centre required almost total redevelopment. Town planner Patrick Abercrombie stepped in with a radical plan based on a central north-south avenue, Armada Way, sweeping down to the Hoe from a roundabout by the station. This would be crossed by several parallel boulevards, and all the civic buildings required in a city centre slotted inbetween. The rebuild wasn't completed until 1959, and retains a distinctive 50s architectural vibe to this day. Some would say Plymouth is the quintessential postwar city.
Armada Way is lined by long commercial blocks faced in white Portland stone. Some are entirely retail, like Dingles department store. Others like Pearl Assurance House were once administrative HQs, more recently transformed into student accommodation. Coats of arms and sculptural flourishes add interest. In the 1980s Armada Way was pedestrianised and an obstructive strip of ornamental gardens added at the top end, with a giant sundial lower down. The perpendicular streets aren't quite so impressive, with the exception of Royal Parade which terminates at a monumental Royal Bank of Scotland.
Abercrombie bequeathed Plymouth a very open shopping centre, although there is a covered market, and recent development has squeezed in a large indoor mall on the edge of the ring road. The council have long been keen to make further changes and in 2003 brought in a Spanish architect to envisage a New Vision For Plymouth, but lack of funding continues to restrict transformation to mere tinkering. The yellow roof on top of the new cinema looks very out of place, but maybe not for too much longer. Fortunately... if you like this kind of architecture, they haven't wrecked it yet.