Plymouth’s Royal Citadel welcomes you to take a look around
PUBLISHED: 12:33 06 February 2015 | UPDATED: 12:33 06 February 2015
Despite its forbidding appearance CHRISSY HARRIS discovers Plymouth’s Royal Citadel is welcoming visitors
It was built nearly 350 years ago to keep an eye on the rebellious rabble in the town below.
Today, the Royal Citadel is a slightly more welcoming place for the people of Plymouth – if only they would take the time have a look around.
This 17th century building is a fascinating part of Plymouth’s heritage and occupies around 19 acres of the city’s famous Hoe.
And yet, many passers-by (including me) do just that – we pass by and hardly notice the astonishing fortress looming overhead.
The Citadel’s current occupiers are 29 Commando Regiment Royal Artillery, who have been enjoying some of the best views in Plymouth since 1958.
Their Commanding Officer, Lt Col Jon Cresswell says he feels hugely privileged to be the latest ‘king of the castle’ and wants locals and visitors (no dirty rascals, of course) to explore the history of this building.
“I love this place,” he says. “I just love it. It’s absolutely unique and it’s something I’m very keen to share with Plymouth and Devon.
“This is a fortress in the middle of a city – there aren’t many like this around. In the sunshine, this place is just incredible.”
English Heritage runs regular tours of the Citadel in the summer to allow visitors to explore behind the walls.
Many local army cadets and other youth groups are given the chance to visit and make use of the facilities, including the climbing wall, gym and electronic firing range.
Foreign and local dignitaries also regularly pass through the gates to be greeted with gun salutes and other ceremonial displays.
These visits are something Lt Col Cresswell and his colleagues are keen to encourage - within the realms of possibility, of course.
This is, after all, still a working fortress, with helicopters landing at regular intervals and a group of men and women on stand-by, ready to be deployed at a moment’s notice.
Lt Col Cresswell is realistic about how much of his workplace he can share with the community (“we’re not running Disneyland here”) but he wants people to discover more about the history on their doorstep.
“Our primary role is our operational role,” he says. “But there are little things we can do.
“We’ve got a story to tell here,” he says, with an animated enthusiasm that must work well in front of his troops. “We’ve got this truly fantastic structure that people can’t see into and yet we want them to see in. It might be that it’s through tours or through the pages of Devon Life.
“We want to tell people that this is part of Plymouth’s quite extraordinary heritage.”
Lt Col Cresswell and his troops make regular trips into the city centre to meet and greet the public and fundraise for army charities.
He says the visits often make it clear that many locals are guilty of ignoring the landmarks on their doorstep.
“I’m the same, in a way. When you live and work somewhere, you don’t do it, do you?” says the married father-of-two, who lives in Plymouth.
“We go down into town in uniform and people tell us: ‘It’s good to see you boys out’ and ‘Where are you based, then?’.
“We tell them we’re in the Citadel and it’s: ‘Where’s that, then?’.
“We’ve got this magnificent building here and I’m keen for people to understand its history.”
Throughout our conversation, Lt Col Cresswell drops in many pearls from the Citadel’s rich past – this is a man who has clearly done his homework since arriving as Commanding Officer in May.
It was built on the orders of King Charles II as a defence against Dutch invasion but also to keep watch on a recently rebellious town, which had staunchly supported Cromwell and the Parliamentarian cause during the Civil War.
Famous visitors have included Lord Nelson and His Grace, the Duke of Wellington.
The Citadel cost a fortune to build at great cost to the public purse and didn’t really need to be the size it was.
But it kept the town in order and the dockyard protected from enemy attack.
Whatever his motivations, King Charles II certainly chose a top spot.
The Citadel commands some of the most stunning views in Plymouth, overlooking the breakwater and beyond. You’d have certainly seen the bad guys coming.
Today, however, you’re more likely to spot the Brittany ferry arriving and people paddleboarding by.
“It’s a great place to be,” says Lt Col Cresswell. “I find looking at the sea hugely therapeutic, hugely interesting.
“It reminds you that there’s stuff out there that is much bigger than you. It means you don’t take yourself too seriously.”
To find out more about tours of the Citadel, see english-heritage.org.uk
The Royal Citadel – a short history:
The Citadel was built on the orders of King Charles II as a defence against a threatened Dutch invasion.
Keen to safeguard his own interests, Charles II knew his fortress would also serve to intimidate rebellious locals who had supported the Parliamentarian cause during the Civil War.
Some of its guns pointed at the town rather than out to sea.
Work began in 1665 but it was not until 18 July, 1666 that the foundation stone was laid by John Granville, 1st Earl of Bath. This stone, inscribed ‘Jo Earle of Bathe 1666’, is still in the wall facing the Hoe.
The building was built to the design of Dutch military engineer Sir Bernard De Gomme.
The Citadel encompasses the site of the earlier fort that had been built in the time of Sir Francis Drake.
Most of the stone used to build the Citadel was taken from a quarry at the opposite end of The Hoe - an area now known as West Hoe Park.
Some of the 113 guns positioned in the building have a range of about two miles – the distance to Plymouth’s Breakwater.
Who are 29 Commando Regiment Royal Artillery?
They are a specialist Army unit that operates in support of Plymouth-based Royal Marine commandos.
The Regiment forms part of 3 Commando Brigade, a light amphibious infantry brigade that specialises in mountain and cold weather warfare.
It is equally at home in the extreme temperatures of the desert or jungle.
29 Commando Regiment Royal Artillery currently boasts a total of 467 soldiers – spread across sites in Plymouth, Poole, and Scotland.
On operations, these soldiers are in charge of the firepower (guns, attack helicopters, fast jets, mortars) and are highly trained.
Lt Col Cresswell says: “We fight our battles with maps and radios. When stuff goes wrong, it could be identified by the youngest 18-year-old who has just come out of training.
“I need him to have the confidence to immediately press the radio channel and shout: Stop! Stop! Stop! He’s not stopping a couple of riflemen in a bush over there – he’s about to stop the fireplan for the entire brigade.”
To find out more, see army.mod.uk