A Weekend in Plymouth
Plymouth's ancient quays and narrow cobbled streets contrast strikingly with its bold modern architecture. In the same way, its modern facilities, such as Plymouth Pavilions, the Theatre Royal and the National Marine Aquarium, are set alongside hi...
A superb deep-water anchorage, Plymouth is the largest naval base in Western Europe and has been England's premier western naval bastion since Drake sailed out to harry the Spanish Armada in 1588. Drake's statue stands defiantly on Plymouth Hoe, looking out over Smeaton's Tower and the Sound, one of the finest views in Devon. Behind stands Dartmoor.
A former mayor, Drake would be proud of modern Plymouth. Boosted by a range of developments over the past two generations, from the Tamar road bridge, the continental ferry port and Parkway, to Plymouth University, the Peninsula Medical School, the TR2 centre and the new Drake Circus developments, the city is bustling. New money has brought yachts and marinas, whilst the handsome Royal William Yard has been converted into luxury apartments.
Wartime scars (still prominent in 1960s' Plymouth when I grew up) have long gone, but the skeleton of Charles Church remains a memorial to the 1941 Blitz. German bombs devastated large areas, especially in the city centre and Devonport, but thankfully some of the best of old Plymouth survived, including the Citadel and much of the Barbican.
Stop for a bite to eat
Plymouth offers an eclectic choice of dining. When they opened Tanners Restaurant (tel 01752 252001) in 1999, brothers Chris and James Tanner realised their childhood dream of an affordable, exciting restaurant where they could develop their own culinary style. Now famous for their TV appearances, they've launched a second venture, the Barbican Kitchen (tel 01752 604448), a brasserie within Plymouth Gin offering fresh contemporary-style food.
Les Jardins de Bagatelle in Old Town Street (tel 01752 257786) proposes a little bit of France on an outdoor terrace - plus plenty of indoor seating to cope with the British climate. Continental bread and patisseries are a speciality.
Chloe's Restaurant (tel 01752 201523) describes itself as 'defiantly French', with a menu combining modern French dishes with Gallic classics. It's open all day from croissant time via lunch to evening meals, which are accompanied by a grand piano.
Aficionados of Oriental cuisine have a good choice in Plymouth, including the New China Garden (tel 01752 664472), where beef, duck, egg, pork, sweet and sour, Peking and noodle dishes feature on a wide-ranging menu. The Eastern Eye (tel 01752 262948), the city's oldest Indian restaurant, offers contemporary cuisine direct from Bangladesh.
If you're down on the Barbican and feeling peckish, try Cap'n Jaspers' Half a Yard of Hot Dog for some spectacular fast food.
Hit the downtown
Royal Parade is the centrepiece of Plymouth's post-war reconstruction and houses several of the largest stores, plus the prestigious Theatre Royal (tel 01752 668282) and the Victorian Guildhall. Rebuilt after the Luftwaffe's visits, the Guildhall has 14 modern stained-glass windows depicting major events from Plymouth's history, including the Civil War siege and the Blitz.
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Enjoy the stroll up to the Hoe. Protected by the Breakwater and its lighthouse, plus cliffs on both the Devon and Cornish shores, Plymouth Sound gives the ever-changing interest of vessels coming and going: battle-grey warships, massive Brittany ferries and myriad yachts. The best view is from Smeaton's Tower (open all year Tuesday-Saturday), which was the Eddystone Rocks' lighthouse from 1759-1882.
Puritan Plymouth held out bravely for Parliament throughout the Civil War. Thus Charles II built the Citadel in 1666 to both defend and intimidate the city and had his Coat of Arms fixed to the portal. One of England's finest 17th-century fortifications, it remains in military use. Managed by English Heritage, it's open for guided tours only between May and September.
The Barbican is the historic core of Plymouth. Many historic buildings survive in the medley of narrow streets. The timber-framed Elizabethan House in New Street has period furniture and a pole staircase. Mayflower Steps on the quay commemorates the 1620 sailing of the Pilgrim Fathers to America. Nearby Island House has a plaque bearing many of their names.
The Old Fishmarket has found a new lease of life as the Barbican Glassworks.
Allow plenty of time if adding the Aquarium or the Distillery to your itinerary (see below). The walk back to Royal Parade offers two historic buildings of note: the Tudor timber-framed Merchant's House (open Easter to September) in St Andrew's Street and 15th-century Yogge's House in Finewell Street.
Next to Yogge's is St Andrew's, Plymouth's medieval parish church. Badly damaged in the Blitz, it was restored. Part of the building - what was once the city's Treasury - is now occupied by a cocktail bar and restaurant, appropriately named The Treasury.
Three things to take home
Plymouth city centre has more than 520 shops, the brand new Drake Circus shopping mall and lots of quirky places down at The Barbican, so there are plenty of retail opportunities.
For something distinctly Plymothian, try original paintings by some of the city's famous artists. Barbican Galleries have Beryl Cook's fat ladies, Somerville Gallery in Mayflower Street sells original Robert Lenkiewicz, while Hyde Park Gallery in Mutley can provide you with one of Brian Pollard's distinctive works.
Barbican Glassworks (tel 01752 224777) has a large and enticing choice of glassware, including its own products, Devon-made Dartington Crystal, Stuart and Waterford Crystal and Wedgwood China.
Plymouth Gin complements Barbican Glass. Gins (original or the formidable Navy strength) plus sloe gin, fruit cup and damson gin are made to an old and secret recipe and sold at the Black Friars Distillery (tel 01752 665292).
What to do in and around the city
Black Friars Distillery is housed in a late-medieval building on the Barbican. Said to have been part of a Dominican monastery, it has been the home of Plymouth Gin since 1793. Guided tours offer a fascinating insight into distilling, which still follows the traditional process. Visitors conclude by sampling the product.
After the Distillery, try facing a monster of the deep at Plymouth's National Marine Aquarium. Situated on Coxside opposite the Barbican, it's the largest and deepest in Europe and a 'must' for any visit (tel 01752 220084, open all year). The ExploreOcean exhibit is highly interactive, showcasing underwater technologies such as Remotely Operated Vehicles, which visitors can race around an underwater assault course.
Plymouth Pavilions (tel 01752 229922) offers exhibitions and live entertainment from world-famous musicians and cabaret stars. It also houses the very latest in wave pools with water flumes and an excellent ice rink. There are two large cinemas and an abundance of restaurants and nightspots.
Try taking a trip on the Cremyll Ferry to Mount Edgcumbe Country Park. There are around 800 acres of woodland and formal gardens to explore, and 55 ancient structures to discover, like Milton's Temple or Picklecombe Seat.
Another small watery paradise is upriver on the River Tavy at Lopwell Dam, while Hooe Lake is a tidal lake across the River Plym near Turnchapel, where there are woods, walks and wildlife. If you like non-strenuous cycling, the Plym Valley Trail follows the track of an old railway through woods north of the city.
Saltram House, owned by the National Trust (tel 01752 333500), and open until 28 October (the garden is open all year) is 3.5 miles east of Plymouth and is a good starting point for the Plym Valley Trail. This elegant mansion has many fine landscape paintings and portraits, including some by Sir Joshua Reynolds, born in nearby Plympton. The gardens are noted for their specimen trees, shrubberies and orangery. There is also an art gallery, a garden temple and a summerhouse to explore.
Another National Trust property, Sir Francis Drake's former home of Buckland Abbey (tel 01822 853607), is 11 miles north of the city. Converted into a splendid private house after the Dissolution, Buckland Abbey gained several elegant Tudor features, especially the Great Hall, with its magnificent plaster ceiling. Be sure to see Drake's Drum, the Tudor portraits, Elizabethan garden and craft workshops.
Where can we stay?
Plymouth offers a good range of accommodation, from luxury hotels to bed and breakfasts and guesthouses.
The Duke of Cornwall (tel 01752 275850) is a fully refurbished Victorian hotel in the grand style and Grade II Listed. Its restaurant has earned two RAC Blue Ribbons and an AA Rosette.
Another handsome Listed Victorian hotel is the New Continental (tel 01752 220782). Noted for its Mediterranean cuisine, it boasts an indoor leisure complex with swimming pool, gym and sauna.
The Holiday Inn (tel 0870 400 9092) offers superb views. Very modern, it has 211 air-conditioned rooms, plus an indoor pool and sauna, free to residents.
One of several small and reasonably priced establishments in central Plymouth is the Dudley Hotel (tel 01752 668322) with four AA stars. Every room has digital TV and unlimited broadband access.
Another, The Moorings Guest House (tel 01752 250128), has three stars from the English Tourism Council. It provides well-appointed rooms and a hearty breakfast.
Again, there is plenty of self-catering accommodation. Try Haddington House (tel 07966 256984) - five apartments with modern facilities have earned it four stars from the English Tourism Council.
13, 27 October: Farmers' markets include 25 stalls selling a wide variety of local produce, including fruit, meats and cheeses.
27-28 October: Plymouth celebrates its multi-ethnic cultural life with the annual Respect Festival. Enjoy diverse music and dance, children's activities, stalls and world food giveaways.
5 November: Remember Bonfire Night on the Hoe. A free event, it offers spectacular fireworks and a communal bonfire.
And don't forget the dazzling Christmas Lights Switch-on, 15 November.
Tourist Information: (Tel 01752 306330, www.visitplymouth.co.uk
Trains: National Rail Enquiries, (tel 08457 484950
Buses: Plymouth has a comprehensive service. Plymouth City Bus, (tel 01752 662271
Parking: Plymouth has 55 car parks, 18 in the city centre, plus 3 park-and-rides at Coypool, Milehouse and George Junction. (Tel 01752 305581