Farewells, welcome homes and new beginnings
Plymouth more than lives up to its moniker of ‘Britain’s Ocean City’, with estuaries, sea views, steep hills, naval defences and dockyards creating a walk of immense variety and interest.
- Distance: 12.5Kms (7.8 miles)
- Height Gain: 70 metres
- Typical time: 3 hours (but allow more time for exploring)
- OS Map: Explorer 108 – Lower Tamar Valley & Plymouth
- Start & Finish: Plymouth Station (PL4 6AB)
- Terrain: Mostly on hard surfaces, but a couple of short, steep climbs
|Parks, gardens, squares, cemeteries||Devonport Park|
|Natural landscapes||Devil’s Point|
|Stunning cityscape||Top of Smeeton’s Lighthouse, Blockhouse Park|
|Ancient Buildings & Structures (pre-1714)||The Royal Citadel|
|Georgian (1714-1836)||Royal William Yard|
|Victorian & Edwardian (1837-1918)||Elliot Terrace, Plymouth Hoe|
|Industrial Heritage||Wall of Industrial Memories, West Hoe|
|Modern (post-1918)||Roland Levinsky Building (University of Plymouth)|
|Great ‘Pit Stops’||Quay 33, Rock Salt Café, Column Bakehouse (Guildhall & King William Yard)|
|Quirky Shopping||The Plymouth City Market, The Barbican|
|Places to visit||The Barbican, The Lido, The National Marine Aquarium|
|Popular annual festivals & events||British Firework Championships (August), Plymouth Seafood Festival (September)|
City population: 264,200 (2016)
Ranking: 30th largest city in UK
Date of origin: Bronze Age
‘Type’ of city: Maritime City
City status: Achieved in 1928 through merging with Devenport & East Stonehouse
Some famous inhabitants: Sir Francis Drake (navigator), Sir Joshua Reynolds (painter), Beryl Cook (painter), Michael Foot (politician), Sharron Davies (swimmer), Tom Daley (diver), Angela Rippon (journalist)
Notable city architects/planners: Sir John Rennie the Younger (1794-1874) – Royal William Yard, Sir Patrick Abercrombie (1879-1957) & Paton Watson (the 1944 Plan for Plymouth) HJW Stirling, city architect 1953-9
Number of Listed Buildings: Plymouth, 786, of which 24 are Grade I and 95 are Grade II*.
Films/TV series shot here: Tomorrow Never Dies (1997: Devenport Naval Base), Hornblower TV movies (various locations)
Plymouth is defined by its ocean setting, situated between the Rivers Plym and Tamar in a beautiful natural harbour. The port and quaysides have always been at the centre of its livelihood, but for varying uses over the centuries; first, in the Middle Ages, as a port for wool and Dartmoor tin; then, in the 18th century onwards, as a centre of the British navy during the period of the Empire; and in the last generation, as the dockyards have diminished, as a place to live and visit, with regenerated dockyards offering stylish apartment living, the café life and locally-sourced food, as epitomised by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s The River Cottage Canteen & Deli, which opened in the brilliantly restored Royal William Yard in 2011.
On closer inspection, the City of Plymouth is really three towns brought together in 1914 – Plymouth, Devonport and Stonehouse – with an eye at the time to achieving city status, which had been refused in 1911 on the grounds of there being an insufficient population in Plymouth alone – the requirement being for at least 300,000. This criterion was met through the merger of the three towns and city status was duly awarded in 1928. The walk goes through all three towns, and you will notice how distinctive they are.
Plymouth was profoundly altered by bombing in The Second World War, which destroyed the town centre and displaced many inhabitants. But out of the rubble emerged Britain’s first ‘planned’ town centre in an existing historic core, which English Heritage has described as one of the finest examples of post-war architecture in the UK (you may or may not agree!)
My first thought in coming out from the station was ‘Are we in the wrong city?’ For almost immediately the path is funnelled into an underpass beneath a roundabout and we could be – well anywhere – but most of all it is reminding me of a New Town (not that I have anything against new towns, it just wasn’t what I was expecting).
And this is the paradox of Plymouth: although it is full of history, forts and ancient monuments, the centre has been entirely re-built, courtesy of the Luftwaffe, who struck in a series of 59 raids in 1941 known as the ‘Plymouth Blitz’, halving the resident population as many fled to the fringes of Dartmoor to escape the bombing.
One positive that came out of all this destruction is that today Plymouth has the most post-war listed buildings of any British city outside London (incredible, but true). That’s why it holds a peculiar fascination for many architects who regard Plymouth as the finest example of post-war planning and architecture. Kevin McCloud of Grand Designs fame has described the city centre as “being really high quality and beautiful, it is carved stone, it is proper work. Its post-war buildings are very much of their time, representing a new wave of architecture around what was in the 1950s a brand new medium.” He has campaigned, alongside English Heritage, to have the modernist core of the city formally protected.
Hitler’s onslaught provided a blank canvas for Sir Patrick Abercrombie, the most eminent town planner of his day (and best known for his London ‘Abercrombie’ plan), and city engineer Paton Watson to build a brand new city out of a bombsite.
The two men devised ‘A Plan for Plymouth’ in 1943, analysing all aspects of the city and the surrounding area (extending well beyond the city’s administrative boundary), exploring everything from history to geography, demographics to agriculture, before presenting a radical and all-encompassing vision of how a modern city should look and function. Based on the Beaux Arts ‘City Beautiful’ style and influenced by both Lutyens’ plan for New Delhi and the formation of Welwyn Garden City (compare the great avenue there, Parkway, with Armada Way here), the Plan proposed the almost complete removal of the old city centre with the formation of a grand north to south axis, connecting the railway station to the Hoe (the exact route we are taking). Crossing this axis, a grid of streets formed the main commercial, business and civic areas of the city. A grand east to west road (Royal Parade) separated the civic and commercial areas, with the whole area surrounded by a traffic-diverting ring road. Abercrombie declared the space “a vista for public enjoyment to be enriched by the landscape architect’s and gardener’s art.”
Abercrombie was driven by a vision of a city with which it is hard to disagree: “The city should be the focal point for the diffused rays of the many separate beams of life; it should be the centre of learning, of entertainment and of the market.” He felt that the Industrial Revolution had turned cities into “something more like a labour pool for the large industrial works – soulless and meaningless.” I leave it to you to judge how successful he was in Plymouth – for me there is a great sense of space, but almost a surfeit of space that creates a somewhat soulless feel about this modern area, lacking the buzz that a city centre thrives on.
Armada Way, which has been spruced up again in more recent years, is a pleasant rather than outstanding walk towards the Hoe, with a water feature flowing down the hill towards the sundial, bordered by grassy areas with shrubs, flower beds and a generous sprinkling of benches. The Piazza, half way down, was the scene of great celebrations when local lad Tom Daley, then just 15, returned to Plymouth as world diving champion in 2009. Everything in Plymouth seems to have a connection with water.
The most interesting stretch of the Way is the Civic Centre and The Great Square alongside it, which is on the National Register of Parks and Gardens. It was registered Grade II in 1999 and is one of the few 20th-century gardens listed. The aim of the Great Square was to evoke ‘dignity and frivolity’ in equal measure and to be ‘a civic amenity to be enjoyed by townspeople at all times’.
The Civic Centre, in the words of English Heritage “embodies, as no other building, the hopes and aspirations of a newly confident City Council and serves as a striking testimony to the spirit which guided the reconstruction.” Inevitably it garners mixed reviews, but it is very much of its time and, in my view at least, is a minor gem. But its days as a civic centre are over. It was bought by Urban Splash in 2015 and awaits development. Urban Splash’s Chairman said of the site: “The Civic Centre has been unloved and is in need of tender loving care. It is in need of a big idea. We want to put it back at the heart of Plymouth with a mix of interesting uses. Watch this space.” We watch with interest!
Plymouth Hoe is the beating heart of Plymouth, with its stunning views of one of the most perfect natural harbours in the world. It’s a place where people have always gathered, from the music of the Edwardian era to the morale-boosting dances that Nancy Astor organised here during the dark days of the Second World War, to the city’s live band nights today.
One of the most famous gatherings was in 1967 when Sir Francis Chichester returned to Plymouth after completing the first single-handed Clipper Route circumnavigation of the world and was greeted by an estimated crowd of a million spectators on the Hoe, and every vantage point from Rame Head to Wembury. (Plymouth does outdoor spaces and welcoming people back very well!)
Not surprisingly, when the annual British Firework Championships was inaugurated at the end of the 90s, Plymouth Sound became the favoured location as it provided a natural amphitheatre where large-scale pyrotechnics could be used safely and watched from a variety of points around the harbour and Sound.
A charming feature of the Hoe is that there is a lighthouse plonked in the middle of it, called Smeaton’s Tower. It was originally built in 1759 on the Eddystone Reef, a treacherous group of rocks that lie some 14 miles south-west of Plymouth but was taken down in the early 1880s when it was discovered that the sea was undermining the rock it was built on. Approximately two-thirds of the structure was moved stone by stone to its current position on the Hoe.
Smeaton was originally recommended to the task of building the lighthouse by the Royal Society. He modelled the shape of his lighthouse on that of an oak tree, using granite blocks; pioneering the use of hydraulic lime, a form of concrete that will set under water, and developing a technique of securing the granite blocks together using dovetail joints and marble dowels. Smeaton’s robust tower set the pattern for a new era of lighthouse construction that led to similar structures up and down the coast of Britain. Maybe that’s why it looks so familiar. The lighthouse was depicted on the British Penny for many years.
Everyone likes to get out on the water whenever they can…
Moving on around West Hoe, there is an interesting collection of replica naval vessels on the seawall along Grand Parade, called the Royal Navy Millennium Wall. Walking up the West Hoe Rd we enjoyed studying the ‘Wall of Industrial Memories’, a display of reclaimed signs illustrating the rich industrial heritage of the Millbay Docks area, including the Singer sign from a sail making machine, The Carruthers sign from a dock crane and an Armstrong sign on the former rail bridge at the docks’ mouth.
As we came into the Stonehouse area and Durnford St, we started to spot plaques set in the pavement commemorating the work of Sherlock Holmes: “Now Watson, the fair sex is your department,” and such-like. In 1882, Arthur Conan Doyle worked as a newly qualified physician here and lived at No. 1 Durnford St (towards the north end of the street, best seen on your way out).
At the southern end of Durnford St the road takes a wiggle and suddenly we are looking out to sea from Devil’s Point. It is a truly spectacular view, in many ways the ‘magic moment’ of the walk. This is the point where for centuries family and friends have waved goodbye to or welcomed home their loved ones.
Devil’s Point is a notable nature site, boasting unusual plant species on the low limestone cliffs and coastal grassland. It is also a European marine site of international conservation importance due to its wealth of marine and coastal wildlife.
A stairway linking Royal William Yard and Devil’s Point was officially opened to the public in 2013. The connection filled a gap in the South West Coast Path, bringing walkers around the Stonehouse peninsula for the first time. A grant was received towards the project from Natural England, who at the official opening of the steps described Plymouth as “one of our best-connected cities in terms of town and environment”. Couldn’t agree more.
Designed by Sir John Rennie and built between 1825 and 1831, the Royal William Yard is steeped in history. It was originally a Victualling Yard for the Royal Navy – and as we explored, we discovered an old bakery, a slaughterhouse, a spirits store, a brewhouse, a food store, clothing stores and much else besides. Today it is considered to be one of the most important groups of historic military buildings in Britain; it is also the largest collection of Grade 1 listed military buildings in Europe.
The Yard was de-commissioned in 1992 and subsequently passed into private hands. It was converted to an up-market mixed development by ‘Urban Splash’, who the Times newspaper described as ‘being in a class of its own when it comes to rescuing the great industrial landmarks of the past’.
Urban Splash’s own website tells you much about their impact on the urban scene, and you will come across their work in several of our walks:
“Way back when, in the 1980s, when post punk pop topped the charts, when New Romantics taught us to tuck our jumpers in our pants, when Thatcher and Scargill went to war over coal not dole, we were busy forgetting how great British cities had been and had no idea how great they might be again.
“In the beginning there was no big plan, no strategy, no idea of what we were to become, just a wholehearted belief in cities, in design, in architecture and a desire to make things better. To make things the way we wanted them to be – different than they were before.
“In the early days we worked with existing buildings that we fell in love with, buildings that had fallen apart and that we made better. When we ran out of buildings to convert we started to make our own. We made homes, we made offices and we made special spaces in between for people to be and do things that people do – in shops, bars restaurants, parks and even hotels.
“We started in Manchester and Liverpool but soon we were being encouraged to do things in other areas: Leeds (Saxton), Bradford, Plymouth, Bristol, Sheffield (Park Hill), Birmingham (The Rotunda and Fort Dunlop), Salford, all great cities that were thirsting for change.”
Devonport Park (13 hectares, 33 acres) is a Victorian splendour, brought back to life in recent years by a Heritage Lottery Fund Grant. It is the oldest formal public park in Plymouth, opened in 1858. The first thing you notice as you go through the gates is the quaint Lower Lodge on your right, designed in the style of a Swiss lodge – symbolic of the new Park being intended as a place for healthy recreation and taking the air.
Apparently, this lodge had been boarded up until a few years ago but is now once again home to the park keeper. Living evidence of the renaissance of city parks, in this case, as in many, thanks to a £5.3 million grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund (co-funded with Plymouth City Council and Devonport Regeneration Community Partnership).
From around 1757 the land on which the park now is served as the ‘glacis’ – a part of the Devonport ‘Dock Line’ defences. These were open fields, kept free of development and providing no cover for an enemy. By the 1850s the ‘Dock Lines’ had little military value and Devonport was keen to respond to the national public park movement. Devonport Park was open by 1858 “for the purpose of healthful recreation by the public”.
To begin with, the planting and landscaping were restricted, but by the 1870s the Park, with its wonderful views, was “a source of daily pleasure to some hundreds of people”. There were improved walks, more trees & shrubs, with arbours and seats; plus the occasional rugby or cricket match. In 1894-5 more land was acquired and the larger and remodelled Park was re-launched as the ‘People’s Park’.
The park had a big role to play in WWII: underground air raid shelters were constructed to accommodate up to 600 people. Above ground, and in the event of a gas attack, a Cleansing and Decontamination Station was built; the nursery glasshouses were used to grow tomatoes; and areas of grassland were used for sheep pasture and haymaking; it was also a Barrage Balloon base; and in advance of the ‘D’-Day landings, parts of the Park were given over to American forces.
Blockhouse Park is one of the highest points in the city (70m) offering spectacular views of Dartmoor, Plymouth Sound and over the River Tamar to Bodmin Moor. The Mount Pleasant Redoubt sits at the highest point of the park and was originally built in the Napoleonic era. In the Second World War, it housed anti-aircraft guns to defend Devonport Dockyard which it looks down upon.
From here we also got a great view north of the neighbourhood areas outlined in the ‘Plan for Plymouth’. The Plan had proposed 13 neighbourhood units, built upon green fields and all named after local farms. It outlined a vision for each ‘Neighbourhood Unit’ to have access to the full range of facilities and services provided within 10 to 15 minutes walking distance from any part of it, each with suitable school provision and surrounded by a ‘Green Belt’. An impressive piece of planning.
The two neighbourhoods that we could see most clearly from here are Ham and Pennycross, and they have remained largely unaltered since they were built, testament to the fact that they have provided pleasant, positive living environments. Note the ‘triangular’ green in Ham, the centre of this community.
Central Park was created in 1931 for the outdoor recreation, health and well-being of the population. It was mainly formed from farmland, but its grand plan, formulated by one of the country’s leading landscape architect, Thomas Mawson, was only partially completed due to the economic constraints of the time. When war broke out in 1939, the character of the park changed considerably as it was hastily transformed into allotments to grow food, and space was set aside for air-raid shelters and a prisoner of war camp. In the post-war years, there was little capacity for restoring the park since re-building the devastated city centre and providing new housing took priority. It is only more recently that piecemeal improvements have taken place and what you find today is a useful, if slightly uninspiring, green space.
We finish off the walk by coming back in under the railway line and reaching the front of the station once again. Wow, what a walk!
- Leaving the station, turn left (SE) up Saltash Rd, and then take the underpass to Armada Way. Continue walking S until you reach Plymouth Hoe and the Smeaton Tower Lighthouse
- From the lighthouse, head W along the Hoe, then take the steps down to West Hoe Pier; follow the path around West Hoe hugging the coastline (you will see miniature boats on the sea wall). Follow the road north – first Great Western Rd, then West Hoe Rd, until you reach Mill Bay roundabout
- At the roundabout, head W along Millbay Rd, which becomes Caroline Place and then Barrack Place, until you reach Durnford St
- Turn left (S) into Durnford St and follow it all the way to its end, where it wiggles and becomes Admiralty Rd. Pass a car park on your right and take the metalled footpath around Devil’s Point; once round the head, take the path that heads up slightly, until it leads to a hole in the dockyard wall
- Descend the steep steps down to Royal William Yard and head along the quay, past The River Cottage Canteen & Deli, round the dock and out under the impressive arch and gates; then N up Cremyll St, swinging right back into Durnford St; continue heading N until you reach the roundabout; head W across Stonehouse Bridge, then cross the next roundabout
- Immediately after this roundabout, take a half right along a track that rises slightly across a green space (Brickfields Triangle), which then comes back to meet the King’s Rd; follow alongside the left of this road until you come to the entrance to Devonport Park
- Head N through the park, and when you reach the bandstand head towards the NE exit. Head N up Victoria Place, across the railway line, turn right onto Alcester St, then along Pellew Place to reach Blockhouse Park, from where you get wonderful all-round views of the city
- From the high point, descend to Packington St, cross the Molesworth Rd and then take the first right into Ann’s Place. Turn left at Somerset Place and head for the Stoke Damerel Community College
- Take the path (cycleway) that runs E alongside the left of the college, and it eventually reaches the major Alma Rd; cross carefully, enter Central Park and head E until you reach the main N/S avenue
- Head S along this avenue and, as you reach the southern end of the park, head down the terrace furthest to the right (Wake St) until you reach the road. Turn right, and then left under the railway bridge and you are back at the start.
The Barbican area – just to the east of the walk, near the start, is full of cafés and restaurants and a great outlook on the marina. Quay 33 (33 Southside Street, PL1 2LE, Tel: 01752 229345) is especially popular for its good grub and great view.
Rock Salt Café Brasserie (31 Stonehouse St, PL1 3PE, Tel: 01752 225522, just N of Millbay Rd) is well described as a “pint-sized corner site run with bustling good cheer” that can offer either a quick sandwich or something more substantial.
Column Bakehouse The Factory Cooperage, Royal William Yard, Plymouth PL1 3QQ. Plymouth’s first and only social enterprise bakery.
The Plymouth City Market (Cornwall St, PL1 1PS), W of Armada Way, is a Grade II listed building packed with a colourful array of stalls selling everything from pasties and picture frames to fresh flowers, fancy dress costumes and of course fresh fish off the boats.
The Barbican area is full of gift and art galleries. Several local artists have won global reputations, including the late Beryl Cook, and Robert Lenckiewicz.
PLACES TO VISIT
The Barbican: The Mayflower Steps, the spot close to the site on the Barbican from where it is believed the Pilgrim Fathers set sail for North America in 1620; and the Mayflower Museum, which explores Plymouth’s maritime history.
The Lido, just below the Hoe, is an art deco 1930s splendour recently restored and, if you’re feeling hardy, a chance for a dip. Open Jun-Sept. The view and setting are truly breathtaking.
The National Marine Aquarium (Rope Walk, PL4 0DX, 0844 893 7938) on the far side of the marina, the SW coast path runs by it) is the UK’s largest aquarium and has a fabulous location and views.
MORE TO DISCOVER
Read: Plymouth, Vision of a modern city, English heritage (Historic England)