Plymouth City Life

PUBLISHED: 11:39 24 January 2008 | UPDATED: 15:00 20 February 2013

Smeaton's Tower

Smeaton's Tower

Plymouth has kept its spirit and its sense of history, but it is now prospering in a much wider sense. Fantastic new residential developments, an invigorated shopping area, new restaurants and places of entertainment means that the city is becomin...

'Every boy in England should be taken at least once to Plymouth; he should, if small, be torn away from his mother and sent out for a night with the fishing fleet; he should go out in the tenders to meet the Atlantic liners; he should be shown battleships building at Devonport; he should be taken to the Barbican and told the story of the Mayflower and the birth of New England; and most important of all his imagination should be kindled by tales of Hawkins and Drake on high, green Plymouth Hoe, the finest promenade in Europe.'

HV Morton, In Search of England.

When Henry Vollam Morton wrote these words in 1927 he touched on the very essence of Plymouth. Fortunately we stopped tearing small boys from their mothers some time ago, but whatever else may have changed, the sense of history and the spirit of this great seaport has survived. Indeed, it has prospered.

The shopping area has been rejuvenated with some big names coming to the city for the first time, particularly in the new Drake Circus shopping mall. More restaurants, bars and places of entertainment have been established in the retail area and these factors, together with a massive increase in homes in the nearby waterfront areas, has created a new, vibrant and relaxed atmosphere in the city centre.

When I first moved from London to Plymouth in 1986, it was to a new waterfront apartment, Harbourside Court in Sutton Harbour. This converted warehouse sat rather uncomfortably in a poorly lit, run-down docks area surrounded by vacant commercial properties, disused railway lines and general dereliction. Twenty years on it is surrounded by some of the finest luxury apartments in the South-west.

Verity Hooper is residential sales manager for King Sturge Estate Agents. "There's only one small plot of land left to develop now in Sutton Harbour, but there's a wide choice of property available. Discovery Wharf has a gym, sauna and swimming pool. It caters for the city executive type but also to the 'empty nesters'. Nearby Eau 1 and Eau 2 have no leisure facilities, but the spacious apartments have clean lines and sensible layouts. Many have balconies and parking on site."

Another waterfront area very much in the news is Millbay, forecast by Verity to be 'the place to be' in a couple of years' time. This is a mixed waterfront development containing shops, hotels, offices, bars, restaurants and a new marina as well as residential accommodation. The first block, Cargo, is due for completion soon and take-up has been phenomenal.

Not far from Millbay, another new block called Azure has sprung up on Plymouth Hoe next to the Grand Hotel, but perhaps the pick of the bunch is the former naval victualling yard, Royal William. The Grade I Listed buildings are being transformed into a mixed development of shops, offices, restaurants, a hotel and around 300 apartments.

As for Plymouth's original waterfront area, the Barbican, Verity is optimistic. "It's really buzzing and vibrant with all the bars and restaurants, and naturally it's more popular with the younger generation."

What's new on the culinary front?

Plymouth's reputation in terms of eating out is also changing and the city now has an almost limitless variety of restaurants. Here are just a few that might appeal.

Tanners Restaurant in the Prysten House has an enviable reputation for fine dining, as does the Artillery Tower in Stonehouse. Also in Stonehouse is an Italian seafood restaurant, Trattoria Pescatore. Yukisan on Notte Street is Plymouth's only Japanese restaurant. Chinese are more plentiful and Royal Garden at St Andrew's Cross is worth a visit. For Indian food there is a trio of restaurants on the corner of Bretonside and Vauxhall Street on the Barbican. Sutton Harbour is good for seafood restaurants. Try Cuisine Spontanee on North Quay, or Joined up Whiting on North East Quay.

Still on Sutton Harbour, Zucca! Italian Brasserie has a growing reputation as has nearby Bistro Bacchanalia on Vauxhall Quay. The Barbican is, of course, the traditional restaurant quarter. Piermasters, specialising in seafood, is probably the best known but Platters is also worth a visit.

Plymouth's cultural life is also becoming more upmarket. Today the city boasts four theatres, three cinemas, a flourishing Arts Centre, a major concert venue and the new Faculty of Arts at the University.

Just as a taster, in the next few weeks you can watch Starlight Express, The Birmingham Royal Ballet, or Dad's Army at the Theatre Royal, enjoy the Contemporary Music Festival in the magnificent Roland Levinsky building, or visit the Arts Centre in Looe Street for a series of exhibitions and the best in independent movies.

Village Life

Like many large cities, Plymouth grew from a number of quite separate villages and their unique sense of community has survived to the present day.

Stonehouse is a case in point. There was a settlement here in Roman times and the passing centuries saw the small community grow from a fishing village along the banks of the creek into a small town. The growth of Stonehouse owed much to the establishment of three military establishments - the Royal Naval Hospital, the Royal Marine Barracks and the Royal William Victualling Yard - and the sense of history is tangible. Only the Marines are left now, the other two establishments having been converted into smart residences. Stonehouse has everything needed to support its own community, including a couple of decent pubs, nearby food stores, two excellent restaurants and Elvira's café of Beryl Cook fame. Stonehouse Creek is home both to Princess Yachts and to a variety of local craft.

Turnchapel in the east of the city is a former fishing village where time has stood still. Until the 1950s there was a direct rail link with Plymouth and a ferry service operated by the Oreston and Turnchapel Steamboat Co. With the loss of these vital transport links the village fell into a deep slumber only to re-awaken during the 1980s property boom. Nowadays it is a quietly affluent little place a world away from the hustle and bustle of city life. It has limited local facilities but two excellent pubs. The Boringdon Arms is something of a village institution with a good selection of real ales and home-cooked food, whilst just down the road the Clovelly Bay Inn has good accommodation and a growing reputation for food. A 15-minute walk along the waterfront will take you to Mount Batten.

Stoke is a fairly large residential area in the north of the city. It is predominantly Victorian, with a housing stock ranging from rather grand villas to the humble slate-hung terrace. It's a pleasant residential area with a couple of extensive parks and it's only a ten-minute bus ride to the city centre. The hub is Devonport Road where there are some interesting shops as well as a smattering of pubs and restaurants. Consider Molesworth Road if you are looking for something for the home with all aspects of interior design catered for in a range of independent shops.

So far as I know, the only Italian deli in Plymouth is here (Il Pezzettino) and one of the best Indian restaurants in the city - Café Indiya. The Lounge pub in Stopford Place is a true 'local' in which even newcomers seem to feel instantly at home.

Plympton to the east of the city is a pleasant residential area that has somewhat outgrown its village status. Having said that, the Ridgeway, a fairly large district shopping centre, manages to cling to its village feel. Apart from some big name multiples there are some interesting little shops including an old-fashioned butchers, a good pet shop and a Langage Farm deli. The 18th-century George pub has recently undergone a sensitive refurbishment and is excellent.

There can be no doubt about the village status of nearby Plympton St Maurice. The collection of listed buildings includes a castle, a church, a beautiful old school and a guildhall, not to mention some very desirable houses. Totally unspoilt, if you could imagine it without the inevitable traffic it would transport you back several centuries.

If you would prefer a more rural location for village life, look no further than Tamerton Foliot. On the northern edge of the city boundary, the village is situated in a valley at the head of an estuarine creek. Tamerton can trace its history back a thousand years when, it is said, the Celtic Saint Indract built a church on the site of what is now St Mary's. The village has a church, a good shop, a Chinese takeaway and no less than three pubs, which for a village of 2,500 souls isn't bad going. All are good but my favourite is the Seven Stars, with its low ceilings, ancient exposed walls and intimate little bars. You won't have far to walk to visit the other two!

Another attraction definitely not to be missed is the Warleigh Woods Nature Reserve, managed by Devon Wildlife Trust. You can follow the creek through ancient woodland right down to the confluence of the Tavy and Tamar.

Where can I take my visitors?

If you've got visitors to stay, then there are plenty of places to keep them entertained. Try these not-to-be-missed locations:

The waterfront at Mount Batten:

Subject of a recent regeneration scheme, this is an attractive waterfront area with a marina, watersports centre, pub and hotel, a restaurant and some rather nice housing. Sunderland flying boats used to fly from here and their giant hangars can still be seen, as can a commemorative bronze propeller. Mount Batten is easily accessed from the Barbican by regular water taxi. A walk along the breakwater is well worth the effort.

Plymouth Hoe

It doesn't matter how long you have lived in Plymouth, you never tire of the Hoe, and I haven't taken a visitor yet who wasn't hugely impressed. For even better 360° views that encompass both city and Sound, climb to the top of Smeaton's Tower.

The war memorial is a place for quiet reflection, commemorating the 15,614 sailors of Devonport ships who gave their lives in two World Wars. Occasionally, the City Fathers allow funfairs and pop concerts to be held on the Hoe, a fact that many, including myself, have mixed feelings about. But perhaps that is what the sailors whose names appear on the obelisk would have wanted.

Plymouth's mother church

St Andrew's, the mother church of Plymouth, was destroyed in the Blitz and restored brick by brick. A simple wooden plaque above the north door has the Latin inscription 'Resurgam' - I will arise. Inside there is some fine modern stained glass and some striking Christian artefacts on and around the high altar. On the south side of the nave is a much older art form, 16th-century graffiti!

Mayflower Steps and the Mayflower Centre

It's still impressive to learn at first hand the part our nation played in the founding of the New World. And not everyone leaving the Barbican did so of their own free will. Thousands of convicts were transported from here to outposts of the Empire. All of the great sea journeys are commemorated on plaques surrounding the recently restored steps.

Take a waterfront walk

Plymouth's Waterfront Walk is part of the South West Coastal Path. To walk the whole route will take you the best part of a day, but you can split it up into more manageable sections. The route starts at Mount Batten in the east and finishes in Stonehouse at the Cremyll Ferry. It is well signed and there is lots of interesting public artwork along the way. The overland section between the Barbican and Turnchapel is dull in parts so you might want to cut this out by catching the water taxi from Mayflower Steps to Mount Batten.

A touch of country in and around the city

Few visitors to Plymouth realise that the city has been at the forefront of the development of urban nature reserves and it probably has more than any other city in the UK. Many of these havens for birds and wildlife are formed in the steep valleys, mercifully too steep to build on. They are well maintained and many have information boards showing what you can see and when. The last to be designated, Cann Woods has been dedicated to Dr Andy Stevens who pioneered the work for many years and who sadly passed away in 2005. Maps and leaflets can be obtained from the City Council or the Tourist Information Centre. North of the city Plym Bridge woods is a delightful place to walk or cycle.

Dockyards and warships

There's no better way to see Plymouth than to hop aboard one of the tripper boats that leave from the Barbican. The trips, which last about an hour, take you across the Sound, one of the world's great natural harbours, and up the River Tamar as far as the naval base (or sometimes to Brunel's famous rail bridge at Saltash). There's lots to see - impressive warships, forbidding-looking submarines, the dockyard, Drakes Island and some spectacular architecture, both new and old.


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