What’s the big idea?

Anybody with even a passing interest in Britain’s historical place on the world map must visit Plymouth. As the Western gateway to the English Channel, it’s had to play the twin role of defending the country from foreign marauders while also being the departure point for explorations into the New World.
Having one of the most impressive natural harbours in the World, with stunning views from the Hoe, the historically evocative Barbican, and tales of daring and courage all around, Plymouth is one mightily impressive city and well worth a visit for explorers of all ages.

Start point for voyage and discovery

What do the British Empire, the USA, the east coast of Australia and On the Origin of Species have in common? Incredibly, it’s Plymouth, because of the voyages that set sail from here.
Sir Francis Drake sailed from Plymouth and became the first Englishman to sail into the Pacific, and later embarked on the first ever circumnavigation of the globe. And when establishing England’s first colony in Virginia, he effectively established the British Empire in the process. The Pilgrim Fathers sailed from Plymouth in 1620 and established the modern English-speaking constitution of the USA.
Captain James Cook’s three epic voyages of exploration all departed from Plymouth in the 18th century: he was the first explorer to set foot on what are now the Hawaiian Islands; he discovered the Eastern coast of Australia; and was the first man to circumnavigate New Zealand. Then in 1831, Charles Darwin left Plymouth for the Galapagos Islands where he formulated his revolutionary natural selection theories and On the Origin of Species.
And how about Scott of the Antarctic, a Plymouth lad who famously led an expedition to the South Pole, but was beaten by a single month by Roald Admunsen?
What a trailblazing history in one city!

Naval importance

You can literally feel the sheer pride of the finest naval fleet in the world here in Plymouth.  Given its position as the Western gateway to the English Channel, and having one of the largest natural harbours in the world, Plymouth Sound, it’s unsurprising that the city should be so important from a sea-faring point of view.

But more than that – ever since the 13th century when Plymouth became the main base for campaigns against the French, through the defeats of the Spanish Armada, and as one of the main staging posts for the Normandy landings – this place has been at the centre of some of England’s most momentous dates in history.

The Hoe witnessed Drake’s famous game of bowls.

Napoleon has been a visitor.

And, in Devonport, the city is now home to Europe’s largest and most hi-tech nuclear naval base. It’s opened up every year during the Plymouth Navy days for a weekend of spectacular displays, advanced gadgetry and all things naval.

The essence


How it can make you feel/ who’s it for?

It can make you feel proud, but it’s also one of those inspiring places; you can almost feel what’s taken place here, and the magnitude of those events – a fascinating city.
As such, it’s perfect for adventurers, explorers and anyone interested in history. But there’s also an increasing emphasis on the cultural offer of the city, so good for people seeking entertainment.


The history of Plymouth is dominated with stories of heroic resistance, naval exploits and voyages of discovery. Although the very early days of the area are shrouded in mystery, what’s very clear is that the location had some obvious physical advantages, namely Plymouth Sound, which provided a shelter into the River Plym, a natural beach and level ground behind it for a settlement, plus a large hill that was ideal for lookout.
Plymouth as we know it today began to emerge in Saxon times, formerly called ‘Sutton’ (‘South farm’ literally), and was a small fishing village, much smaller than, but belonging to, the manor of the upstream Plympton. (The name ‘Plym mouth’ first appeared in 1211, and, within that century, Plymouth overtook Plympton, as the latter was further inland and heavy tinning activities in Dartmouth led to the river silting up and becoming increasingly hard to access).
After the English loss of Normandy in 1204, Plymouth became the main base for campaigns against the French; and during the Hundred Years War, 1338-1453, the town’s importance increased further. Previously, Plymouth had been used to hostility from Cornwall or Scandinavia, but by now it was regularly attacked, especially by the French (in one particular instance in 1403, some 1,200 Frenchmen attacked the town, and although beaten back, not before some 600 houses were plundered; afterwards, this part of the town was renamed Briton, later Breton-side). At this time, Plymouth was a big importer and exporter of goods, especially with Spain and Portugal, and was England’s fourth largest town, behind London, Bristol and York.
In the 15thand 16thcenturies, England became very involved in overseas development, and this is when the city really came into its own, for Plymouth was ideally based as an excellent deportation point for the New World and the Pacific. This was the time of Sir Francis Drake’s circumnavigation of the globe, the dramatic defeat of the Spanish Armada, and of Drake and his brothers being the first Englishmen to see the Pacific Ocean.
A landmark year was 1620, which saw the departure of the Pilgrim Fathers to America aboard the Mayflower, landing in Cape Cod. However, not long after was more fighting in Plymouth, but this time against the English!  (the Royalists, that is, during the Civil War): over three years of siege some 800 people are reckoned to have died, but Plymouth held firm, including in the notorious Sabbath Day Fight, one of Plymouth’s finest hours.
1691 saw the start of what would become Devonport dockyards, as Parliament realised it was over-dependent on the Thames and Medway, and resources poured into the city. Eventually, the three towns of Plymouth, Stonehouse and Devonport would merge to become modern-day Plymouth.
In Victorian times, Brunel designed the Great Western Docks, and more potential invasion for England led to further strengthening. At this time, the Hoe was almost doubled in size and laid out with paths and gardens to become one of the finest promenades in the country.
By now, Plymouth was the foremost departure point to the New World, and Plymouth men went on to help found modern Australia. In the early 20thcentury, Devonport docks were hugely important in the Anglo-German arms race: the continued threat from Germany led to even more expansion, and the docks were busy, although the city itself escaped attack. World War II however would be a very different affair: the city suffered 59 raids, had 1,172 killed and 3,276 injured. Plymouth was the worst-bombed city per head in the whole of the country in terms of civilian casualties.
But as with the city of Coventry, there’s a resilience to the people of Plymouth which is special. You don’t endure its history of being attacked without building up a strength which was all too evident in the way the city recovered from the attacks (even during the worst of the attacks the headmistress of one local girls’ school nailed a wooden sign saying Resurgam (‘I shall rise again’) over the door of St Andrew’s Church – that pretty much sums it up, don’t you think?).

How to experience Plymouth

Why not start to the west of the city over in Devonport? Head down to the Mount Rise viewing platform and find the Scott Memorial, in honour of the intrepid explorer who died nearly 100 years ago. Take time to read Scott’s diary entry inscribed on the base of the platform, as well as the meaning of the statue itself (it represents Courage, supported by Devotion and crowned by Immortality, with Fear, Death and Despair trampled underfoot): if that doesn’t make you tingle with pride, I don’t know what will. Then head into Plymouth on Union Street. You’ll eventually reach Derry’s Cross, a well-known local landmark that’s supposed to represent the centre of the city (the busy Theatre Royal’s here as well, the largest regional producing theatre in the country).
At Derry’s Cross cut up Raleigh Street and you’ll find the main shopping area (Raleigh Street was where the first kerbstone was laid in 1947, marking the proper start of the reconstruction of Plymouth following the bombing of World War II). Move along onto New George Street and head along until you’re at the central pedestrianised Armada Way. If you head north, up on the right is the modern Armada Centre (opposite you’ll find Mayflower House; the plaque on the wall commemorating the infamous Breton invasion of 1403 when 600 houses were burned).
Head down from here towards Sutton Harbour and you’ll pass the Drake Circus Shopping Centre, a modernist piece of architecture that from one angle frames the burnt out Charles Church, a memorial to those civilians who lost their lives in the World War II, in a quite dramatic fashion.
Then head to the Barbican, a maze of narrow streets and Tudor houses that sits alongside the Sutton Harbour. If you travel down Exeter Street on the way you can also look out for St Andrew Street, one of the oldest in the city, and discover the lovely old 16thcentury Merchant’s House; also stop by at St Andrew’s church and admire the granite plaque inscribed above the Resurgamdoor: a symbol of a defiant people in their darkest hour. And just around the corner from there on Southside Street is the Plymouth Gin distillery, the oldest working gin distillery in the country and home to the ‘world’s smoothest gin’ (this sweeter Plymouth Gin was adopted by naval officers as their preferred brand of gin), there’s a neat-no pun intended- visitor centre there if this is your tipple of choice.
And then onto the Barbican itself, where there’s history all around this fascinating little area. In New Street, you’ve got the Elizabethan House, a wonderfully restored captain’s dwelling over 500 years old, stroll along the street from here and you’ll find the Island House, this is where the pilgrims stayed the night before their voyage on the Mayflower. There’s a plaque with the names of the brave pilgrims on the side of the house. Visit the Mayflower Exhibition for a real in-depth experience.
And nearby are the refurbished Mayflower Steps; why not stand at the top and try to imagine what it must have been like to set sail on that truly unknown journey?
And if this puts you in the mood for some water-time, remember the Barbican’s a working harbour, many boat trips depart from here to the Dockyards or around the Sound to some of the pretty coves, beaches and villages.
Look over to the other side of the harbour and, on what was the old fishing quay, is a stunning new building housing the National Maritime Aquarium. To get there, walk over the lock gate bridge and past the sculpture known as ‘The Barbican Prawn’.
Once there, the aquarium is split into six zones telling the story of different oceans and marine wildlife; with over 50 exhibits, three massive tanks and over 4,000 animals, it’s impressive, and with numbers like that you won’t be surprised to hear it’s the UK’s biggest aquarium.
Finally, head along to Plymouth Hoe, one of the finest promenades in the country, and marvel at the views over Plymouth Sound, one of the world’s largest natural harbours (even better from September 2011 when a giant 60m high Plymouth Wheel will be operating). Look out for the various memorials to those who gave their lives defending the country, Drake’s Memorial and the Armada Memorial. Find Smeaton’s Tower, over 250 years old and originally out at sea, but now offering magnificent views over the Sound and Drake’s Island, named in honour of Plymouth’s famous son.

When to visit

City pics