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Plymouth Barbican
Where is this detail of the Barbican's historic past?

When you stand on Plymouth Hoe you can’t fail to be impressed by the scale of the open space, by the unspoilt grandeur of the vista and by the sense of history that comes from the realisation that what you’re looking out on looked much the same to Sir Francis Drake, the Pilgrim Fathers, Oliver Cromwell, Captain Cook, Charles Darwin, Robert Falcon Scott, Sir Ernest Shackleton, Winston Churchill and the many millions of others who have been here over the centuries.

In its current layout most of the familiar Hoe landmarks, paths and buildings have been in place for well over a century. The 1880s witnessed a great period of prettification, the area was tidied up, formal gardens were created, walkways made, the area between the sea and the Citadel wall was handed over to the people of Plymouth and statues and monuments were erected and unveiled.

Smeaton’s Tower, the first lighthouse not to fail on the Eddystone Reef was rebuilt here after its replacement had been completed (there were fears not for Smeaton’s structure but for the very rock it was standing on). The Duke of Edinburgh laid the new foundation stone here in 1882 some 136 years after the great engineer, John Smeaton, had originally started work on his masterpiece fourteen miles out to sea. Two years later Drake’s statue (a replica of the original on view in his native Tavistock) was brought here and four years after that, to commemorate the tercentenary of the defeat of the Spanish Armada, another impressive memorial was unveiled.


In the meantime the Hoe had been blessed with its own version of the popular nineteenth century tourist magnet – the Pier. Built, due to financial complications, in two phases, Plymouth Pier was one of the first public structures in the area to be “lighted with electricity” and was a major draw to the foreshore for the next two or three generations. However its allure was already starting to fade when the Lufftwaffe reduced it to a burnt-out, twisted metal skeleton during the heavy bombing raids of 1941 and it was never rebuilt.

However, the attractive, multi-layered, colonnaded Belvedere, created in 1890 above the entrance to the Pier, still remains. It stands on the site of the old Hoe Bullring (where all bulls were required to be baited before being sold by local butchers). Other elements in the subtle refashioning of the Hoe in the preceding decade included a fine drinking fountain, topped by an almost life-size carved figure of Rebecca of the Well, given in 1881 by a former Mayor, Charles Norrington, in memory of his wife Marianne and the Hoe Lodge (now an attractive tea room) with formal gardens.

There is also the imposing Marine Biological Association building. Opened in 1888, the year that Madeira Road was cut around the front of the Citadel, this was the first major marine biological laboratory to be established anywhere in this country, if not the world. There was a smaller establishment created three years earlier in Liverpool and one in Scotland, but this singled Plymouth out as the pioneering base in the field of marine biology and it is ultimately the reason that, over a century later, Plymouth became the home of the splendid National Marine Aquarium.

Immediately prior to this great decade of activity had come a thirty year period of private development which had witnessed the construction of the Esplanade, Elliot Terrace, the Grand Hotel and all the housing behind them.  Happily, to date, nothing has been allowed to be built in front of these properties which line the Promenade and remarkably this prominent front line survived the enemy bombing of the early 1940s without much material damage – much to the relief of the occupants


Among the occupants were tthe wartime Lord Mayor of the City, Waldorf Astor and his wife Nancy. Nancy would later bequeath their Plymouth home, No.3 Elliot Terrace, to the people of the City and it is still used to today for a variety of civic purposes.

At the very beginning of the nineteenth century there was very little development of the Hoe west of the Citadel and the Hoe Fields, as they were known, were still used by cows and sheep, while further across, towards Millbay, there was a fair bit of quarrying (hence man-made cliff under the Mayflower Hotel), and some industrial activity on the sandy shores of Millbay itself. The celebrated railway engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel, was partly responsible for the development of Millbay Docks in the mid-late 1840s and the first great terrace of houses – Grand Parade – was built at West Hoe just a few years later.

However, not only has most of that area left clear beyond the Hoe Park been little altered since the 1880s there has been a massive post-war initiative to better integrate the Hoe into the City Centre. A core aspect of the famous Paton-Watson, Abercrombie Plan for Plymouth, drawn up in 1943 before the end of the war, Armada Way is a truly spectacular open boulevard running from just above the Plymouth Railway Station at North Road right up to the crown of the stunning public open space that is the Hoe. How many other towns and cities can you think of that have such extensive development-free areas in the commercial heart of an area where the land values are so high?

Plymouth is truly blessed in this respect and the only major features that were created here during the entire course of the twentieth century were those designed for public entertainment or enlightenment. The wonderful and recently-restored Hoe Lido, a marvellous example of a 1930s outdoor swimming facility, was the culmination of a number of lesser improvements to bathing facilities over the previous three decades.

Over and above these overtly populist places there has also been the placement of further reflective memorials. Across from the Citadel’s north-western corner we find the decoratively-mounted obelisk that is Plymouth’s Boer War memorial, just below the Hoe Bowling Club there is the First World War memorial for the 2,000 local men _ and one lady – who gave their lives in that gruelling conflict, while unwittingly providing the axis point for Armada Way is the First World War naval war memorial which, like its counterpart in Portsmouth, was later extended to embrace those sailors who lost their lives in the Second World War. Meanwhile, alongside the Marine Biological Association premises, there is a Royal Marine war memorial and, more recently, joining Drake and the Armada memorial on the edge of the Promenade, is a memorial to those from the ranks of the RAF who gave their lives in Second World War.

With a naval tradition dating back to Tudor times when Henry VIII first created a Royal Navy, an Army record that goes back beyond Medieval times, a Royal Marine presence that goes back to foundation of that body some 250 years ago and even an RAF base that was active from the earliest days of flying, it is no great surprise to find so many memorials here. Plymouth has played a prominent part in the defence of the realm for over a thousand years and in the Royal Citadel on the Hoe it has the finest seventeenth-century fortification in continuous military occupation in the whole of Europe. Commissioned by King Charles II soon after the Restoration – the foundation stone on the south-western corner is dated 1666 – this massive structure superseded, and was many times larger, than the previous fort that now forms part of the south-eastern section and was built in Drake’s time. Before that even, overlooking Sutton Harbour, was a rather more modest four-towered castle that gave Plymouth the basis of its civic badge. Little, if anything, survives of that earlier structure today, but the Citadel still stands in all its glory.

Open to the public on a limited basis only, for the most part during the summer months, the Citadel was built by the king in response to the problems he had with the town during the Civil War. Plymouth was under siege from the Royalist forces for much of that conflict (for almost three years) and was the only town of any great size to successfully resist the Cavalier pressure and consequently Cromwell was given a hero’s reception when he came here in March 1644. Thus it was that, once the Monarchy had been restored, Charles wanted to ensure that Plymouth would not pose a problem again and so he appropriated a great deal of the Hoe and, with guns pointing out to sea and out across the town, he had this fine fortress built. The round tower on the top of the Mount Batten headland was constructed at the same time. Mount Batten was a major flying boat base before, and during, the Second World War and undoubtedly the most famous serviceman to have been stationed there for any length of time was the man who wished simply to be known as Aircraftsman Shaw but who was better known around the world generally as TE Lawrence - Lawrence of Arabia – the English leader of the Arab revolt against the Turks during the First World War. While here, the celebrated author of the Seven Pillars of Wisdom became a great friend of Nancy Astor, the Plymouth MP who was, incidentally, the first female MP ever to take her seat in the House of Commons.

Standing on the Hoe today the outward vista is very little changed from the days that Nancy Astor danced with servicemen on the Hoe, in deliberate defiance of the enemy bombers who brought such havoc to the City. There is however one structure which has made a big impact here since the Pilgrim Fathers left for the New World -Rennie’s remarkable Breakwater. Deceptively simple, both structurally and visually, the massive undertaking is a mile long and what you see above the water line represents but a fraction of the millions of tons of stonework that were deposited in the Sound between 1811 and 1841. Not only does the Breakwater represent the biggest change to the sea view from the Hoe, it has also contributed hugely to the state of the sea itself inside the Sound.

Prior to the construction of the Breakwater many ships were lost in storms around the bay, dashed against rocks often with a great loss of life. The mouth of the Plym, across from Mount Batten was long known as Deadman’s Bay and just off the rocks below the Citadel a ship called the Dutton was lost and would have claimed many lives had it not been for the personal heroics of a local naval Captain, Edward Pellew, later elevated as Lord Exmouth. Dutton’s café on the corner, above Fisher’s Nose, commemorates the event.

Clearly the breakwater constructed later off Mount Batten itself helped calm the waters within Sutton Harbour and the Cattewater yet more and the construction of the Queen Anne Battery Marina would have been unthinkable had it not been for these developments.

Indeed a large part of the recent success of the Sutton Harbour has been the systematic taming of the tides. The process was begun with the construction of east and west pier at the end of the eighteenth century thanks to a bill secured by local MP at the time Admiral MacBride (there is a pub there here that still bears his name). Two hundred years later, in 1995, the east pier was redeveloped; the Barbican fish market was relocated on reclaimed land on one side of it and the National Marine Aquarium was constructed on the widened remnant.

Long before the sea had become a major route for any kind of sailing ship, Mount Batten had been the main area for settlement. With just a narrow isthmus to defend and a high hill offering good all-round visibility and refuge, it was a natural fortress and the most ancient traces (Bronze Age) of mankind locally have all been found here. Once foreign invaders took to the water, however, Mount Batten clearly became one of the more vulnerable locations around and so the settlers moved up the river or around the fringes of Sutton Harbour hidden behind the Hoe (a word that evolved from Hawe meaning a high ridge).

From the very earliest days fishing was a key element in the local economy and even now, although on a much smaller scale comparatively, it still plays a reasonably large part. Ship-building and victualling were other major activities in this area, the former flourishing on the back of the fishing industry, which in turn created experienced seamen so valuable to Drake, Hawkins, Raleigh and their contemporaries, either as fighting seafarers or trusty crew. Drake it was who brought fresh water into the town from Dartmoor to help build up supplies for the navy, Cromwell, it was, who started the process here of victualling the navy more generally. Starting from with an old hulk in the harbour, over time a great network of buildings sprang up along the water’s edge, buildings that became biscuit factories and a large emigration depot when the victualling operations were moved around to Stonehouse in the 1830s. Mostly demolished in the 1930s when the road from the Barbican was joined with the road around the front of the Hoe, the resulting flat spaces are now used by flotillas of small yachts and their owners.

Long before the emigration depot came here this was, of course, an important departure point for many journeys; the Pilgrim Fathers famously put into to port for a few days in September 1620 and the Mayflower Memorial marks a point close to which they last walked on English soil before crossing the Atlantic. The neighbouring Mayflower Visitor Centre tells more of the story.

Drake and Cook both knew the harbour well, Drake being a Devon man and Cook setting out on all three of his Pacific journeys from here. Then there were the many other groups of settlers bound for different parts of the New World – America, Canada, New Zealand and Australia. Many convicts too bade farewell to Blighty from here, among them the Tolpuddle Martyrs in 1834 who, having been fully pardoned, were back sooner than they had anticipated and who spent several nights in March 1838 in the Dolphin Hotel here before returning to Dorset.

Historically this area has always been well-provided for in terms of public houses and even today that number continues to grow. There is also a high concentration of restaurants and food outlets, among them Britain’s oldest bakery (it was operating in the sixteenth-century) - Jacka’s - and further around the Harbour, the old town’s oldest remaining inns – the King’s Head, at Bretonside and the Minerva in Looe Street. This building, like the contemporary Elizabethan House museum in New Street, is a timber frame structure with its staircase constructed around the mast of an old ship. Both were built as dwelling houses and the conversion of the former to a pub is by no means a rarity around the Barbican, indeed several of the oldest premises around the Barbican, have, in the last ten to twenty years, been converted to pubs or restaurants. The China House is where Cookworthy is thought to have undertaken his pioneering work on the production of porcelain in the 1750s, one hundred years after this warehouse had been built. It remains one of the few waterside warehouses in the country still to have water lapping three of its walls.




Tanners Restaurant in the Prysten House, alongside St Andrew’s Church, is located in what is probably the oldest domestic structure in the heart of old Plymouth, the Refectory Cocktail bar in the Distillery complex is thought to have been the home of the earliest-known (medieval) Plymouth guild hall.

In the adjacent rooms Plymouth Gin has been produced since 1793. Exported to dozens of countries around the world all the Plymouth Gin you see is produced here, and guided tours of the distillery are available throughout the year.

There is indeed plenty to interest the tourist around the wider Barbican area and in addition to the other attractions mentioned above, there are also the delightful Elizabethan Gardens in New Street, the Merchant’s House Museum in St Andrew Street, on the other side of the Magistrates Court to the Prysten House and St Andrew’s Church. Bombed during the war, the walls and tower survived and the refurbished mother church of the city was re-opened in 1958. Plymouth’s second parish church, Charles, was left in a similar condition after the Blitz, however in this instance the decision was taken not to rebuild, but rather to leave the structure as it was, as a graphic memorial to the destruction and to the 1200 local civilians who lost their lives during the war.

One city centre church that, remarkably enough, did survive the war unscathed was the Jewish Synagogue in Catherine Street. The oldest Ashkenazi Synagogue in the English-speaking world in continuous use, it was opened here in 1762 and almost all of its internal fittings and decorative work date from that time. One of the oldest buildings in the city centre, there are few other structures of any great antiquity north or west of St Andrews. This is largely because, prior to the end of the eighteenth century, Plymouth barely extended north or west of St Andrew’s.

Most of what was destroyed here during the war, in the heart of the modern city, dated from 1800 or later. The true heart of old Plymouth, around the Barbican and Sutton Harbour, substantially survived – indeed more Elizabethan and Jacobean buildings were pulled down after the war than were destroyed during it.
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Plymouth Barbican is the home of the Mayflower Steps, from where America's Pilgrim Fathers set sail on the Mayflower in 1620

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