Spring in Plymouth - Devon's Maritime City

An insider's guide to Plymouth, Devon. Words and pictures by Ian Wilkinson

An insider’s guide to Plymouth.Words and pictures by Ian Wilkinson

On my first trip to Plymouth more than 20 years ago I remember the owner of the hotel near the station where I was staying had an accent that you could cut with a knife – and an attitude to match. I asked him what was worth seeing in the city: “Well, the Hoe’s okay I suppose,” he muttered grudgingly, “but there’s not much else. In fact Plymouth’s a bit like Belfast on a wet Sunday!”

When the next day dawned fine and clear, I set out to explore. I was quite unprepared for the sheer beauty of the Hoe and reasoned that if this warranted an ‘it’s okay’ from my host, then the rest of the city had to be worth seeing. Since then, Plymouth has been transformed into a modern, vibrant city – not just architecturally but in areas of culture, entertainment and sheer quality of life. Here is my pick of the best when it comes to things to do on a spring day in Plymouth.

 The finest view in England

Walk up towards the Hoe, and all you can see ahead is grass, the gently rising path and, of course, the Naval War Memorial. Then, suddenly, you reach a tipping point where the magnificent panorama that is Plymouth Sound opens up before your eyes. It is one of the grandest natural harbours in the world. And the war memorial with the names of the 16,000 sailors of Devonport-based ships who gave their lives in two World Wars seem to roll on forever.


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The waterfront has now been opened up to the public for the first time in 150 years giving superb views across the Tamar to Mount Edgcumbe

A waterfront walk with a peppering of public art

Plymouth’s Waterfront Walkway not only plugs a gap in the South West Coastal Path, but does so in style. Along the route you will spot public art works linked to particular locations or to Plymouth’s maritime history. Here are a few of my favourites:

On Millbay road was a huge spanner (sadly this has now temporarily disappeared). It was used to open the lock gates to Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s dry dock. Just beyond, etched into nearby railings are the words: ‘Serve God daily, Love one another, Preserve your victuals, Beware of fire and Keep good company’.

Next, on to the Barbican, where, close to the giant prawn you will find two sculptures set into the wall. The first is a carved golden scallop shell (centre left), the emblem of St James, which commemorates the thousands of pilgrims who, centuries ago, set sail from here destined for Santiago de Compostela. Close by is a shrine to Stella Maris (see above left), the Virgin, Star of the Sea and patron saint to all sailors. Just a short ferry trip away is Mount Batten where a giant bronze propeller is testament to the squadron of Sunderland flying boats that was based here. From Sutton Harbour the walkway winds through the industrial areas of Coxside and Cattedown via Breakwater Hill, a quiet traffic-free lane with unrivalled views of the city and the Cattewater. Here you will see an enormous medallion dedicated to St Christopher.

Tea in Stonehouse

Along with the Barbican and Sutton Harbour, Stonehouse is an area that has seen huge changes over the past few years. It has seen a remarkable renaissance with the development of smart waterfront housing, much environmental improvement work and above all the opening up, restoration and development of Royal William Yard. The old buildings have been beautifully restored and still retain the original signs for the brewhouse, the cooperage, the ropeworks, the slaughterhouse, the flourmill and the bakery. Many of the buildings have been converted to luxury apartments or offices and the Brewhouse has a caf�-cum-restaurant and gallery. The waterfront has now been opened up to the public for the first time in 150 years giving superb views across the Tamar to Mount Edgcumbe.

No visit to Stonehouse would be complete without calling in to Elvira’s for a cup of tea. This busy little caf�, situated on Admirals Hard, is something of a Plymouth institution. Famous for its fried breakfasts, it also serves good tea and delicious home-made cakes.

Plymouth painters

There are lots of galleries to visit in the city: The Barbican Gallery has a good selection of work by Plymouth artists Beryl Cook and Brian Pollard, whilst the Armada Gallery has a number of limited edition Lenkiewicz prints. The Artmill Gallery is one of the South West’s most innovative galleries and is well worth a visit. They have regular exhibitions featuring local artists, including Michael Hill, a Plymouth-based artist whose work has attracted significant interest in recent years.


Mount Edgcumbe – a short ferry trip from Stonehouse – holds the National Camellia Collection

Day trips

Mount Edgcumbe Country Park is just a short ferry trip away from Stonehouse on the opposite bank of the Tamar. The extensive formal gardens, coastal walks and deer park are open all year round and access is free. The house itself is also worth a visit. The park is home to the National Camellia Collection and the blooms will be at their best this month. A camellia trail is marked out and guided tours are also available. The camellia season starts in mid-February and lasts until late April when some of the early varieties start to die off.

Sharks to seahorses

Situated just a stone’s throw from the Barbican is, arguably, the finest aquarium in the country. With more than 50 live exhibits and three massive tanks housing over 4,000 marine creatures displayed in realistic habitats... the thought of those sharks still makes me shudder!

On the water

Take a boat trip on the traditional ‘Dockyard and Warships’ tour from Phoenix Wharf. The trips take you past the Hoe, into the Hamoaze and up the Tamar to the dockyard. It is worth the modest fare just to listen to the colourful commentary – the fascinating sights are a bonus.

The Plymouth-Cawsand ferry, which runs from Mayflower Steps (Easter to September), is a fabulous trip across Plymouth Sound. You land on the beach in Cawsand and you can either walk back through Mount Edgcumbe Country Park to the Cremyll ferry or wait for the boat, which is commonly known as the Red Pig to return. If your trip coincides with a stiff south-westerly wind blowing across the Sound, you will understand why!

Wild Plymouth

Plymouth’s nature reserves radiate out from the centre in valleys that are too steep for even the most speculative developers. They are natural havens for wildlife.

Some enlightened thinking by the city fathers in the late 1980s, and the unflagging energy of Plymouth’s Nature Officer, Dr Andy Stevens, led to the opening, by Sir David Attenborough, of the first one, over 20 years ago. More followed and although Andy sadly passed away some five years ago, his legacy is firmly established. There are now 12 reserves and the latest one, Cann Woods, is named after him.

My favourite is Efford Marsh. Just ten minutes drive from the city centre and a stones throw from Marsh Mills, it is an oasis of green where the sound of the wind, the gurgling of the river and the call of birds blots out the frenetic sounds of the city. Its flora and fauna including roe deer, rabbits and other small mammals, butterflies, dragonflies and many varieties of birds. Access to all of the reserves is free and un-restricted and details of their location can be found at www.plymouth.gov.uk.

Watering holes

An old matlow once told me that before the war there were 72 pubs between the dockyard gate and the town end of Union Street. Today I doubt whether there are 72 pubs in the whole of Plymouth, but I know you will be impressed with at least one of these fine inns:

The Dolphin: a proper pub with a warm fire and good local ale, The Dophin is something of an institution. Occasionally lively, always entertaining.

The Boringdon Arms:"Turnchapel is still a village and this is everything a village pub should be. A wide selection of real ales consistently well kept, good food and a great atmosphere.

The Penthouse Bar at the Holiday Inn:"once you’ve got over the corporate hotel d�cor, you will find a comfortable bar with friendly service and the most stunning view of any bar in Plymouth.

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