Plymouth is a city in Devon, and the largest city on England’s south coast, with a population of 0ver 260,000. It is located approximately 310 km south-west of London, where the River Plym and the River Tamar (pronounced “TAY-mar”) flow into the large bay of Plymouth Sound, creating a perfect natural harbour. The sea has been at the heart of Plymouth since it was founded in the middle-ages as a trading post and the source of its prosperity. Plymouth was the point from which the Pilgrim Fathers left England in 1620 for Massachusetts – commemorated today in the Mayflower Steps. It was also the port from which Lieut. James Cook and HMS Endeavour sailed on 26th August 1768 on Cook’s first voyage of discovery into the South Pacific, during which the coast of New Zealand and eastern Australia were explored and first charted.
Plymouth is one of England’s classic ocean cities, and for centuries has been a centre for shipping; first for trade and commercial shipping, and today as a base for the Royal Navy. Indeed, the city’s Devonport Dockyard is the most extensive naval base in western Europe. The water, with its leisure activities, brings many tourists to Plymouth, as well as its various museums and other tourist attractions. In addition its location close to Dartmoor and other sights of south Devon to the east and Cornwall to the west make it an excellent base for a trip to the south-west of England.
The city was heavily bombed in World War II and much of the city-centre was destroyed. After the war, a comprehensive reconstruction plan at first produced the carefully-planned urban spaces and elegant buildings of the shopping streets in the city centre, constructed in the 1950s. However, due to budget restrictions many of the buildings erected in the 1960s and 70s were of poor architectural quality, and these are now being torn down and replaced across the city by modern ones (with exceptions of some quality, such as the listed tower of the Civic Centre on the Royal Parade). As a result, there are many modern buildings with others under construction.
Plymouth is a friendly city with an egalitarian feel and a sense of openness among its people, and there is less evidence of a sharp divide between rich and poor that is found in much of the southern half of England. Wonderful Devon and Cornwall scenery surrounds the city and famous city locations, such as the Hoe, the Barbican, and Plymouth Sound draw thousands every year yet Plymouth doesn’t have the “tourist trap” feel that hangs over many other English cities. For those who love the sea, or the coast, or the brooding landscapes of Dartmoor, or just want a break in a welcoming and interesting city, Plymouth is an enticing and friendly destination.
The city is located at the south-west corner of Devon, with Cornwall beginning immediately to the west of the city. It lies between two river mouths – the estuary of the River Tamar (“TAY-mar”) to the west (the estuary is called the Hamoaze) and the estuary of the River Plym to the east (called the Cattewater)at the head of is Plymouth Sound.
Plymouth’s railway station is just to the north of the city-centre, a few minutes’ walk away. If you are coming to or from the East, you will probably travel on the stretch of line between Newton Abbot and Exeter. This is one of the most scenic in the UK, as the train travels along the sea wall between Teignmouth (pronounced “Tin-muth”), Dawlish, and Starcross, and incredible sea cliffs and rolling hills line the entire route.
Inter-City services are provided by First Great Western (mostly using InterCity 125 trains) and CrossCountry. Direct trains arrive and depart for London (3-4 hours), Bristol (2 hours), the Midlands (Birmingham 3hr 40min), stations in the North of England (several hours), and Scotland (e.g. Edinburgh in just over 9 hours, Aberdeen in 12 hours). You can also take inter-city services west to Cornwall to destinations like Penzance, Truro, etc. By direct train, or by making a change, you can get to almost anywhere in England, Scotland, or Wales.
Sleeper services to London are provided by First Great Western. The ‘Night Riviera’ leaves London at around midnight every weeknight and Sunday, arrives in Plymouth at 5:30AM and departs at 6:30AM; the train continues to Penzance in Cornwall.
Plymouth By Road
Plymouth’s principal access route from the East and the West is the A38 dual carriageway which runs through the city (the Devon Expressway). It connects to the M5 at Exeter for onward journeys, and into the heart of Cornwall to the west. The A386 connects Plymouth to Tavistock, Okehampton, the A30, and North Devon.
Plan and Book:
Plymouth: See and Do
A grassy area called Plymouth Hoe (always just called “the Hoe”), whose names comes from a Saxon word for “grassy slope”, is the first piece of land sighted when Plymouth is approached by sea. Conversely, it is the last land seen by ships as they leave Plymouth harbour. From here, planned as part of the grand reconstruction of the 1950s, runs the “spine” of the city – north from Smeaton’s Tower (the lighthouse) on the Hoe, to the railway station north of the city-centre. This “spine” is Armada Way, a wide street, mostly pedestrianised, with council offices at its southern end, and shops and banks and cafes as you head north. Running east-west across Armada Way are other important city-centre streets with their elegant yet now-faded buildings; Royal Parade, New George Street, Cornwall Street, and Mayflower Street. These city-centre streets are bounded by busy main roads. To the east of the Hoe is the Barbican area with its historic streets and large harbour/marina, and the University of Plymouth’s large and impressive campus is just across the main road at the north-east of the city-centre. Other major streets can be found off these.
The Tourist Information Centre is in the Barbican area, at the quayside just opposite the Mayflower Steps, at 3-5 The Barbican. It is open 9AM-5PM on weekdays and 10AM-4PM on Saturdays, all year. You can get a map from the Tourist Information Centre at the Barbican. Alternatively, you can print one from an online mapping service such as Open Street Map, or use a smartphone’s maps app, as the city is covered in detail.
Popular sites around the city include Smeaton’s Tower (a lighthouse rebuilt on the Hoe from its original location at Eddystone Rock when it was replaced with a new one), the Mount Batten Peninsula, the National Marine Aquarium, and Buckland Abbey, which was Sir Francis Drake’s former home. As well as all the attractions of a modern city, Plymouth is a popular launch pad to other notable areas including the beaches and footpaths of the Devon and Cornwall coastline and the brooding landscape of nearby Dartmoor.
The National Marine Aquarium at plymouth is Britain’s largest aquarium and the deepest in Europe. You’ll find it located near the historical Barbican area, which includes Britain’s oldest bakery (Jacka’s), and the Mayflower Steps from where the Pilgrim Fathers left for the New World in 1621. It’s great for families too. You can reach it from the Mayflower Steps/Barbican by crossing the bridge across the lock that gives access to the marina. The bridge swings to let boats past, which is fun to watch. Admission charge applies. The aquarium also has an excellent fish restaurant outside, where you can eat in or take away. Ph +44 844 893 7938. Location: National Marine Aquarium, Rope Walk, Coxside
According to legend, Plymouth Hoe was the scene of Sir Francis Drake’s apocryphal game of bowls prior to his taking on the Spanish Armada in 1588. Today, you get a great view of the Sound from the Hoe, including Royal Navy ships which are usually present daily – stand on the Hoe and look out to sea, to see what you can see! Plymothians and visitors come here to take in the sea, soak up the sun in summer, play football, walk their dogs, just take a walk, and generally enjoy themselves. The lighthouse Seaton’s Tower provides wonderful views of the city, the Sound, and the sea, while there are many other monuments dotted around the Hoe, including monuments to the dead of the Royal Navy in all conflicts to date, a statue of Sir Francis Drake, and various others
The Mayflower Steps are a 20th century commemorative feature built close to the site where the Pilgrim Fathers left aboard the repaired Mayflower, before crossing the Atlantic Ocean to settle in North America. Today boat trips leave from there for tours of Plymouth Sound, although the original site is believed to be where the Admiral McBride public house now stands. (Although the Mayflower Steps still are where tourists stand and look). On shore, opposite the steps, is a building which houses an exhibition about the Pilgrim Fathers and the Mayflower, and the city’s Tourist Information Centre. Admission free to Mayflower Steps; Mayflower Centre has entry fees.
The Barbican is the oldest part of Plymouth. The main street is called New Street but used to be called Rag Street. This is the historic heart of Plymouth with lots of art galleries, restaurants, shops and holiday homes. There are also great pubs and bars and just to walk around it you can feel a great atmosphere, even more so if you are drinking outside on a summer evening. Some more of Sense and Sensibility was filmed here. If you are a fan of art, the Barbican has several specialty shops, craft work shops and art galleries.
The Post-War City Centre, focused on Royal Parade and Armada Way, has been much maligned over the years, however, it is worth stopping to have a look around you when you’re in town. As the most complete example of a post-war reconstruction in the UK, this is a historically and architecturally significant district. It was planned by none other than Patrick Abercrombie, who also redesigned Hong Kong, and some of the buildings boast Thomas Tait as their architect. With a modern, almost American look, it features what at the time was deemed the architecture of the future – clean, bright, democratic and, most of all, optimistic.’ Some of the best examples of the 1950s style are found along the main axis of Royal Parade and Armada Way, including the Royal Bank of Scotland building, the Pearl Assurance House and the former Co-Op Building at Derry’s Cross.
The Royal William Yard was once the place from which the British Navy was provisioned. The naval presence in Plymouth has long been and still is immense: the city is home to the largest naval base in western Europe, which is open to the public on Naval Days. It’s located in Stonehouse, an area of Plymouth west of the Hoe. In Summer, you can get a boat there from the Barbican, or walk or get a bus. Now a bustling public space with up-market numerous cafes, bakeries and galleries, as well as private apartments. Also known as a filming location for ITV’s ‘Hornblower’. Located right next to the Devil’s Point park, with views over to Cornwall. Admission free.
The Royal Citadel was built following the English Civil War to keep guard over Plymouth Sound and harbour. It was England’s principal fortress featuring outstanding examples of 17th-century baroque architecture and outstanding views over Plymouth Sound. The citadel is up on the Hoe, with massive walls which you will no doubt see as you walk along the seafront road. The Citadel is still used as a military base, for the army’s 29 Commando Regiment, Royal Artillery. Although it is a Ministry of Defence site, the fort is open for guided tours at 2.30 pm on Tuesdays (and in summer, also on Thursdays at same time). Meet outside the entrance on Lambhay Hill, where the military sentry is. Entry fees apply. Ph +44 1752 306330. Location: The Hoe.
Crownhill Fort is one of the largest and best-preserved of Lord Palmerston’s so-called ‘Ring of Fire’, Crownhill Fort is notable for its cannon and gun collection, including one of only two working Moncieff ‘Disappearing Guns’. It also hosts Victorian and World War II barracks and a warren of underground tunnels. It is open to the public on the last Friday of each month, in addition to selected weekends where it hosts ‘Living History’ weekends. For groups wishing to visit on other dates, it is possible to book a tour in advance. Ph +44 1752 793754. Location: Crownhill Fort Rd, Plymouth.
Plymouth Gin Distillery is the only remaining gin distillery in Plymouth, in what was once a Dominican Order monastery built in 1431. The current distillery has been in operation since 1793 (the brand/distillery is owned by multinational drinks giant Pernod Ricard). The distillery is open to visitors every day for tours, and is thought to be the last place where the Pilgrim Fathers stayed before leaving for America. It is known for having good displays – it can also be enjoyed by people who don’t drink alcohol; though you of course get to taste the gin produced there too! Surprisingly popular with families. Tour fees apply. Ph +44 1752 665292. Location: Plymouth Gin Distillery, 60 Southside St, The Barbican.
Out And About
You can get fantastic views of the marina, the Sound, and out to sea if you walk along the seafront from the Barbican. The walk will take you along Madeira Road (constructed in the 1930s to provide work for the unemployed during the Great Depression), round the bottom of the Royal Citadel’s walls. The road leads past the Hoe, and you can follow it along to the Millbay Docks. Fantastic views are available the whole way – including of Royal Navy ships in the Sound, the type of which you can often identify by the silhouette. You’ll likely also see yachts, sailing ships, fishing boats, and other watercraft in the Sound. You might notice the breakwater at the southern edge of the sound, with its Napoleonic fort.
Plymouth boasts one of the best natural harbours in Europe and maybe even the world, taking to the water can give you a new view on the city. Most tour boats leave from the Barbican, often from a jetty next to the Mayflower Steps. Various boat trips are available, lasting between 1-3 hours, taking in the Navy dockyard, Brunel’s Bridge and the Hoe foreshore but various different destinations are available. There are also shorter ferry services designed to get you from place to place across the water. You can get more details at the Tourist Information Office which is just opposite the entrance down to the jetty. Sound Cruising is one company operating trips.
Plym Valley Cycle Path, Plympton, is accessible from Plympton in the North East of the city. This path follows the Plym valley firstly alongside an old railway line and then on it through beautiful countryside all the way to Tavistock; there is very little infrastructure or facilities along the path, so any food or drink should be picked up before leaving Plymouth. There is a large Sainsbury’s located at Marsh Mills, just before you reach the beginning of the cycle path. There is a viewpoint on the first large viaduct out of Plymouth overlooking a disused quarry where peregrine falcons nest in the spring. Kingfishers, dippers, mandarin duck and many other species are found along the river Plym which flows through the woods here. Also of interest are the Cann Wood railway cottages, an abandoned Victorian railway village whose ruined houses are free to explore. The path can be followed all the way up to Dartmoor; it is possible to follow a route right up to Princetown. Can get quite crowded on the initial stretch with families on bicycles at weekends.
The National Trust’s Plymbridge Woods and Plym Valley, Devon, is a wooded valley opening up to the moors of Dartmoor. Springtime sees the woodland floor covered with wild flowers including wood anemone, wild garlic, primroses and bluebells; in autumn, the valley is awash with a blaze of gold and orange. The old Cann and Bickleigh Vale quarries with interesting industrial archaeological remains now support an abundance of ferns, mosses and lichens. The site is home to many animals, including a herd of fallow deer, and a wide range of birds. The woods are on the The Plym Valley Trail, a gentle route for both cyclists and walkers heading out from Plymouth towards Dartmoor.
The Cann Viaduct was part of the South Devon and Tavistock Railway that linked Plymouth with Tavistock in Devon; it opened in 1859. The viaduct is one of six on the Tavistock section of the line which involved traversing difficult terrain. The line was extended by the Launceston and South Devon Railway to Launceston, in Cornwall in 1865. The line closed to passengers in 1962. A short section has since been reopened as a preserved line by the Plym Valley Railway.