The South West of England: Pt 31 – Plymouth, Devon

Our next stop was the city of Plymouth, one of the last cities in the South West we hadn’t visited, and one I was very much looking forward to seeing…


Status: Plymouth Unitary Authority, Devon, City, England

Date: 14/08/2014

Travel: Car

Eating & Sleeping: N/A

Attractions: Plymouth Hoe, Plymouth Cathedral, Civic Centre, Plymouth Guildhall, Charles Church, Baptist Church, St Andrews Church, St Andrews Abbey Hall, Unitarian Church, National Armada Memorial, Royal Air Force Memorial, Sir Francis Drake Statue, Smeatons Tower, Tamar Bridges, Plymouth Fish Trail etc

Plym 1

From what I knew of Plymouth’s history, particularly during the 1940’s, I knew that I would have a connection with the city, considering what had happened in my own area around the same time, in Liverpool/Bootle. During the Blitz in 1941, Plymouth was heavily bombed by the Germans, and a hard hitting reminder of the devastation caused afforded us our first view of the city centre, as the form of Charles Church loomed ahead of us.

Sadly all that remains today are the exterior walls, as the interior and fine internal decor was gutted by fire. The empty shell of this old Church has been kept as a reminder of that terrible year, and it reminds me of a similar Church in Liverpool, called St Luke’s. It sits in a similar state, and these 2 brave cities, which lie almost 300 miles apart, showed courage and solidarity, and this is still shown today.

Charles Church was completed in 1657, minus the spire, added later in 1708. This is the 2nd oldest Church in Plymouth, and came about after a petition was sent to King Charles I (1600 – 1649) for permission to split the parish that covered the whole city into 2, requiring a new Church to be built, hence the Church’s name. Permission would eventually be granted, and the new Church opened for business. The spire of 1708, originally constructed out of wood, was replaced in 1767 when a stone version was added, sitting atop the new clock of 1719.

It was the evening of March 20th 1941 (through to the following morning) that the Church was destroyed by the Luftwaffe, and restoration work in the 1950’s stabilised the structure which now has an enduring legacy at the heart of this amazing city. Behind the Church lies the grand golden form of the Drakes Circus Shopping Centre, completed in 2006. You can find out more about St Lukes in Liverpool in my post about the view from the Radio City Tower in Liverpool, here.

Plym 2

We parked up in one of the pedestrianised shopping streets in the area around Drakes Circus, which leads towards a large square called Portland Square which incorporates the cities Civic Centre and Guildhall.

After the destruction of World War II, most of the civic buildings in the city lay in ruins. Portland Square was also heavily damaged, and the city council had a new building for use as their headquarters here erected in the 1960’s, the towering Civic Centre, similar in design to other civic centres we have seen in the city of Carlisle, and the town of Oldham. Attached to the Civic Centre is the Council House, and at the moment the City Council still uses both. The main portion of the Civic Centre is reportedly going to be turned into a 4 star hotel sometime in the near future, with the Council presumably staying in the Council House. The Lord Mayor of Plymouth does often hold meetings in the Guildhall on the other side of the square, so this could also make a great new headquarters for the council. Other council buildings are located in the area, including the Magistrates Court just down the street.

Like many areas in England, Plymouth has a long and interesting history of local government. The city itself was formed from a number of local boroughs, the original Plymouth area, borough of Devonport and East Stonehouse. The combined area was granted city status in 1928, and was one large county borough, independent of Devon County Council, based in Exeter. The county boroughs were abolished in the 1970’s, and the city fell under control of the County Council, until 1998 when the equivalent of the old county borough, the Unitary Authority, was created. Plymouth is now once again fully independent of Devon County Council, and has the equivalent of county status.

On the far side of the square, facing directly onto the Civic Centre, is the Guildhall, a stunning building from the 1870’s that happily survived the Blitz, albeit with major damaged inflicted upon it. The section in the 2nd picture, which makes up most of the legendary Great Hall, survived the war as a shell, whilst the rest of the building was heavily bombed. The Guildhall made up a trio of buildings, the old Council Building, the Guildhall and St Andrews Church behind it. In the 1950’s, after the war was over, the Church and Guildhall were rebuilt, resulting in the remodelled tower at the West end, whilst the Council Building was completely destroyed and replaced.

Behind the East end of the Guildhall lies the aforementioned St Andrew’s Church, rebuilt from an empty shell after the war. It has an interesting history, starting in the 12th century when it was 1st built. Following expansion in the 15th century it became the Parish Church of Plymouth, which at that time was called Sutton. The tower had been added by 1460, and stands an impressive 136 ft tall, however it’s slightly dwarfed now by the Guildhall Tower and the Civic Centre. There have been a number of restorations of the building through the centuries leading up to World War II, most notably by Sir George Gilbert Scott in 1875 (1811 – 1878, Famous English Architect).

The same day as the Guildhall was reduced to a smoking shell, the same happened to the Church, but of course it was rebuilt by an architect called Frederick Etchells (1886 – 1973). It is perhaps fitting that the Church was re-consecrated on St Andrews Day in 1957, in recognition of the Saint the Church was named after. It has continued to prosper, and in 2009 the Church became Plymouth Minster, showing its importance to the city.

Just to the right of St Andrews is the St Andrews Abbey Hall, completed in 1895. It’s a small Gothic building which is part of St Andrews Church, and has been used as an assembly room. It would appear to have escaped the blitz, however some sections look like they have been restored.

Plym 8

This area of the city is well known for its many churches, and is located to the right of the Abbey Hall. It is known officially as “Catherine Street Baptist Church”, which is the name of this road, and it is a much more modern complex, built towards the end of the 1950’s. A copper spire was added in 1959, round at the front of the building. Just over the road from the Baptist Church, with a very similar looking spire, is the Plymouth Unitarian Church, built around the same time.

Interestingly, both of these Churches were designed by Richard Fraser (1918 – 1995, Scottish Architect) of Louis de Soissons, Peacock, Hodges, Robertson & Fraser.

Moving around to the back of the Civic Centre, there are 2 buildings in particular that interested me. These 2 structures are the only 2 that survived the Plymouth Blitz intact in this area of the city, and stood as a beacon of hope to the citizens under siege in the city.

1st is the Clock Tower, built in 1862. This area was once full of beautiful historic buildings, and was known as Derry’s Cross. Constructed out of Limestone, the tower was very much in keeping with the original architecture surrounding it, and gives an insight into what this area of the city must have once looked like.

Next to the Tower sits a public house called the “Bank”, built in 1889 for Lloyds Bank, who were the original occupants. Its a fine building, and again shows how this area once looked. Its incredible that they both survived the war, and provided hope to the city, that it could be rebuilt and rise again.

When we were exploring the area we had no idea they were here, they are tucked away between the Civic Centre and the Theatre Royal, a modern building from 1982.

Plym 9

We moved away from the city centre, and started walking through some of the historic harbourside areas towards Plymouths famous sea front, which is about 10 minutes away by foot. On the way, we passed a number of interesting buildings, and the first of these was the Plymouth Gin Distillery, shown above.

There isn’t any single company that just makes Plymouth Gin, which is designated as any Gin created in the city of Plymouth, however there is only 1 company left who actually make the drink, called “Coates & Co”, which distills it here at the Black Friars Distillery. The building is stunning, and parts of it even date back to the 15th century when it was part of the Dominican Monastery here, also known as the Black Friars. It lasted until the Dissolution in the 1530’s and had a variety of uses, evening becoming the place that the Pilgrim Fathers spent their last night in England in 1620, but more on them later…

The oldest section of the building is from 1431, in the form of the old Medieval Hall, which survived the Blitz and is now one of Plymouths oldest buildings. Mr Coates joined a distilling company called Fox & Williamson in 1793 and their brand of Plymouth Gin was born. The Royal Navy were one of their best customers, due to their permanent presence here in Plymouth, and by the 1850’s over 1000 barrels a year went to the Navy. They in turn took it round the world as they policed the vast British Empire, and it became a hit wherever it went. Today it is still as popular as ever, and tours of the Distillery are available.

Interestingly, this is also the oldest working Gin Distillery in the world, due to the fact that Fox & Williamson began distilling in 1697, a century before Mr Coates joined them. You can find out more about the distillery on their official website here, and you can also book a tour of the distillery here.

Plym 10

We kept moving, and this area is all part of the historic dock area, with cobbled streets leading off in all directions, surrounding by fine timber buildings, including one in particular that stood out, the 2nd building along on the right of this picture.

This is Number 54, Southside Street, built in the 17th century as the house of a local Merchant with a mammoth 4 storeys. It’s a beautiful building, and has many fine internal furnishings such as the fireplace of 1680 and a staircase from the 18th century, as listed by the British Listed Buildings society.

Ships and boats lined the harbour, and Plymouth is famous as one of the great port cities of England. Its position on the edge of the English Channel makes it important for trade, and of course strategically.

In the distance we could see the tower of the Guildhall, and the Civic Centre opposite it. Slightly closer, behind the restaurant umbrellas, the stunning form of the Custom House from 1820 came into view. It’s a magnificent building, and above the entrance the British Coat of Arms with the Lion and the Unicorn sit proudly. Designed by David Laing (1774 – 1856, British Architect) its function was to collect tax duties from traders as they brought goods into, and took them out of, the UK.

One of the strangest features we saw was the “Barbican Prawn”. This area is known as the Barbican, and the Prawn, sat atop its giant pole, has been keeping an eye on the locals since 1996, when a man from Derbyshire called Brian Fell created it. The Prawn marks the entrance to the National Marine Aquarium, located on the far side of a small metal bridge which runs over the entrance to the marina.

Our next stop was the Mayflower Steps. I mentioned the Pilgrim Fathers earlier, who spent their last night in England, in 1620, in the Black Friars Distillery building. The next morning, they made the short walk down to the harbour, where they boarded a ship called the Mayflower. This of course set sail for the “New World” AKA the colonies that would become the United States. She sailed past Cornwall, possibly making one final stop in the Cornish town of Newlyn, before crossing the Atlantic and arriving in America in November, at Cape Cod, which is modern day Provincetown in the state of Massachusetts.

The spot is marked by a stone arch with the British/American flags on either side. The steps they used to board the ship are visible behind it, and for many this would have been the last time they stood on land in England before leaving their old lives behind to form their new settlement in America. In 1621 the ship returned to England from “New Plymouth” but it was to be her last voyage, and she was broken up a few years later. Her Captain had been Christopher Jones (1570 – 1622), who sadly died on the return trip after helping the settlers create their new home.

Plym 16

Standing by the prawn you get a stunning view around the marina and round towards the area that constitutes the Plymouth Hoe, where we headed next. Directly behind the carousel stands the tall form of the CHC building (Catter Harbour Commissioners) and next to that on the right is the Tourist Information office.

Plym 17

We parked up on Plymouth Hoe, which afforded stunning views out to sea, and back the way we had come. The first thing we saw was the incredible “Royal Citadel” shown above, its stone walls making it an impregnable fortress. It was designed by Bernard de Gomme (1620 – 1685), and built in the 17th century to protect the area from the Dutch, as decreed by King Charles II (1630 – 1685) during the Dutch Wars which were fought intermittently between 1652 and 1784. The overall outcome saw the Dutch become masters of the sea for the 17th Century, until the British took control for the next 300 years.

The walls stand a staggering 70ft tall, and the building has always been occupied, with the military still using it as a base for the 29 Commando Regiment (formed in 1947), although tours for the public are available. You can find out more about visiting times and prices here on the official English Heritage page for the Citadel.

The Hoe is one of the most famous landmarks in Plymouth, which contains a number of the cities most impressive memorials. The Hoe itself is a large open space, which the public are free to use, and the main section is located on a small hill overlooking the main road, looking out to sea.

The Royal Citadel is officially part of the Hoe, which stretches to the edge of the famous star shape of the Citadel. The Citadel replaced an earlier fort here built in Tudor Times, which lasted until sometime in the 1660’s. Like many places in England particularly, a grand Pier once stretched out into the bay from the Hoe, however it was another casualty of the Luftwaffe bombings in 1941, and no trace of it survives today.  My favourite story about the history of the Hoe is from 1588, when Sir Francis Drake (1540 – 1596, English Captain) played a game of Bowls here, and famously announced that he would stay to finish his game before heading out to defeat the Spanish Armada, which he of course succeeded in doing.

One of the most notable landmarks on the Hoe, and most easily visible, is Smeatons Tower, the 70 ft tall Red/White striped Lighthouse. Created by John Smeaton (1724 – 1792, English Engineer) in  1759 out on the Eddystone Reef off shore out to sea, it was moved onto the Hoe in the 1880’s after the sea started to erode its rocky perch. The 70 ft height of the tower today is only two thirds of its original height, after it was moved stone by stone. It was replaced by a new Lighthouse on the spot in 1882, which still stands today. Smeatons tower was in fact the 3rd Lighthouse to occupy the spot, making the current one the 4th.

Shown above are the 4 main monuments that occupy the Hoe. From left to right they are:

1) Sir Francis Drake Statue

The most famous monument is the statue of Sir Francis Drake, looking out towards the Plymouth Sound (the bay) past Smeatons Tower. He is is shown with his hand on a large globe, sword at his side. The statue is actually a replica of the one that stands in the Devon town of Tavistock, Drakes birthplace.

2) Plymouth Naval Memorial

This memorial was unveiled to the public in 1924, and stood in memory of all the soldiers from the British Navy who had been lost at sea during World War I, and therefore had no burial sites. It was one of a trio on the South Coast, with the others in the town of Chatham, and the Hampshire city of Portsmouth. They were all designed by Sir Robert Lorimer (1864 – 1929, Scottish Architect) and were later expanded after World War II to buy homage to the next generation of Naval officers who lost their lives.

3) National Armada Memorial

The 3rd Memorial was unveiled on October 21st 1890, which was also the anniversary of the Battle of Trafalgar (1805). It commemorates the defeat of the Spanish Armada by Sir Francis Drake in 1588, just over 300 years prior. The whole monument stands 40 ft tall, topped with a statue of Britannia, and she was the last part of the Memorial to be put in place.

Around the base sit a number of bronze plaques, showing the coats of arms of different cities who came to the aid of the nation when the Spanish attacked.

4) Royal Air Force Memorial

The final Memorial is dedicated to the soldiers from the Royal Air Force, the Commonwealth and the Allied Air Forces of various countries from the Netherlands, to Norway, to Poland, who helped fight the Nazi menace. A small plaque at the Memorials base pays tribute to soldiers who have died since World War II ended, in other conflicts.

Plym 24

Looking back from the main road you get a great view over the Hoe, from Smeatons Tower to the various Memorials. In the far distance we also spotted both the Civic Centre and the Guildhall Tower.

Plym 25

The views out to sea are incredible from the top of the Hoe, as shown in this panoramic I got near Smeatons Tower. In the distance, the vast body of the English Channel is in full view, with the breakwater just visible in the distance between the two main sections of land.

The area to the left at the back of the picture is called Heybrook Bay, whilst Rame sits to the right. Also looking to the right, you can see the flat outline of Drakes Island, which covers just 6.5 acres of land. There are a few landmarks located on the island, including the battery that protects it. Until 1963 the War Office owned and used the island, although it hadn’t been used since World War II when a number of large guns were positioned on the island. It is now owned by a businessman from Cheshire, and there are various plans for how to develop the island, but none have so far been successful.

Plym 26

Our final stop in the city was the beautiful Roman Catholic Cathedral, completed in 1858, to serve as the headquarters of the new Diocese of Plymouth, created in 1850. Designed by Joseph Aloysius Hansom (1803 – 1882) and his brother Charles Francis Hansom (1817 – 1888), the spire reaches 200 ft into the air, towering over this area of the city. The new Cathedral replaced the Church of Saint Mary which had been used as the pro-cathedral since 1850, basically in use until the new Cathedral was ready.

It was open to visit and we walked freely inside. The interior is lovingly decorated, with fine stained glass windows everywhere you look. The wooden beamed ceiling is also covered in an intricate pattern, and the whole place is very peaceful to visit.

After looking round the Cathedral we made our way into Cornwall for the 2nd time, crossing the Tamar Bridges, which connect the city with the Cornish town of Saltash on the far side of the River Tamar. You can read all about them in my Saltash Post.

Plymouth is a great city, and despite the devastation caused in World War II it bounced back and continued in its place as one of the most important ports in English, for both commercial and military activity. Ferries from Plymouth regularly leave for Santander in Spain, as well as Roscoff & St Malo in France. The city is well connected on the rail network, with direct trains out to Penzance, Truro & Liskeard in Cornwall, as well as Exeter in Devon, and further afield to Somerset, Bristol and London. Cross Country provide long distance services that run all the way up to the central belt of Scotland to Edinburgh via Bristol, Birmingham & The West Midlands, Yorkshire (Sheffield, Leeds etc) up through Newcastle & The North East to the Scottish Border. Local buses also run throughout the area, and Exeter International Airport is located only an hour away up the A38.

Plymouth is a great city and we thoroughly enjoyed exploring its old cobbled streets, fabulous Guildhall and breath taking sea views. Sadly it was time to press on, as we made our way to the coastal town of Looe over in Cornwall, however on our way around Plymouth we had also seen an interesting trail of an aquatic nature, but more on that in my next post…


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