OCTOBER having brought unseasonal warm weather to southern England, I made doubly sure to have packed sunscreen before catching a train back down to Plymouth. My original plan for the day involved the Cawsand ferry but, so far as I could tell, it had finished for the season and so I settled for a leisurely jaunt within the confines of Plymouth’s city limits.
The first stage of my journey involved catching the Mount Batten Ferry back over to Mount Batten but I arrived at the Barbican just in time to have missed it. I therefore procured myself an ice cream and killed twenty minutes by sitting in the Elizabethan Garden — a walled city garden planted with authentic plant varieties and tucked away in a Barbican back street so hardly anyone seems to know that it’s there.
Mount Batten Ferry
It was already pretty warm as I wandered down to the ferry pontoon and boarded the ferry for the crossing over the Cattewater.
Mount Batten Tower
In no time at all I was back in Mount Batten, standing beneath the squat, Cromwellian Mount Batten Tower, reading a sign about the mount’s naval aviation history.
RAF Mount Batten
Sea plane trials took place on the Cattewater from 1913 and an air-station was subsequently developed as RNAS Cattewater. In 1918, with the formation of the RAF it became RAF Cattewater and was enlarged and renamed RAF Mount Batten in 1928. The RAF finally left in 1986 leading to redevelopment – the Mount Batten Sailing and Watersports Centre now occupies the site of the old Sergeants’ Mess.
Early Trading Post
Mount Batten’s history predates the RNAS, and even the tower, by a long way. It is the site of the earliest known trade between Britain and Europe, dating from the late Bronze Age through to Roman times, and may be the ‘Tamaris‘ named in Ptolemy’s Geographia.
Another ‘first’ is the first wreck to be protected under the Protection of Wrecks Act 1973 — the Cattewater Wreck discovered that year during dredging — an early 16th Century 200-300 ton merchantman.
Mount Batten Breakwater
From my position on Mount Batten I could clearly see the Mount Batten Breakwater to my left (built in 1881 at a cost of £20,000) and, on the opposite shore, the Royal Citadel and the Hoe.
The Citadel was built in the late 1660s to a design by Dutch-born engineer Sir Bernard de Gomme, ironically for the purpose of defence against the Dutch in the Second Anglo-Dutch War.
Its outline is irregular, partly because it had to absorb the earlier Drake’s Fort, leading Samuel Pepys to observe that, ‘De Gomme hath built very sillily’.
Less silly and altogether more cynical, half its guns pointed inland towards Plymouth – a city that had staunchly supported Parliament and opposed Charles II and his father during the English Civil War.
From Mount Batten I turned right and made my way through Turnchapel, an area of Plymouth I’d often seen from the Barbican but not actually visited.
Turnchapel used to have busy docks and a naval coaling yard, plus a pier (1889-1956), used by steamers. It also had its own railway station, served by a branch line, from 1897 until 1951 for passengers or 1961 for freight.
These days, Turnchapel is pretty quiet and has the definite feel of a separate village that has been absorbed into Plymouth, which is exactly what it is.
Even more village-y is Hooe, which I passed through next, itself a suburb of the larger suburb of Plymstock.
Hooe sits beside Hooe Lake, a tidal harbour just off the Cattewater.
Formerly also known as Dolphin Lake, Hooe was a centre for quarrying and gunpowder manufacture as well as a favoured spot for sailors to retire.
Recently Hooe Lake has become something of a dumping ground for old boats and the derelict frame of the Tamar sailing barge Alfred moulders mournfully on the mudflat.
At the far end of Hooe Lake lies a dam on which sits a small nineteenth century folly known as Radford Castle. The dam separates the tidal Hooe Lake from the freshwater Radford Lake, part of the grounds of the once large and important Radford Estate, home to the Harris family.
I might have taken a picture of Radford Castle but, as I approached, I heard the sound of a child screaming like the banshee and saw a small family clustered by it.
Not wanting my eardrums perforated through sheer decibels, I moved quickly on but not before I heard the child’s mother snap:
‘Come on then, were going home. You’ve ruined it for everyone.’
This appeared to have a greater effect on Banshee Brat’s elder sibling, who wanted to stay and feed the swans. I left them to it, as fast as my feet could convey me.
Beyond Hooe, the path became all green and leafy, which went some way to cheer me and also to lull me into false expectations as it led me to Oreston, another old fishing village, now a suburb of Plymouth, which spent much of its history being quarried.
Oreston Business Park
The path led me through a car park into Oreston Business Park, with bits of rock and low cliffs beside the offices a reminder of the area’s quarrying past.
The business park was pretty empty on a sunny Saturday afternoon and it was almost a shock when the path led me out alongside Pomphlett Lake — actually a creek — to a busy main road and roundabout.
I was now approaching Laira, the reach of the Plym estuary between the Cattewater and Marsh Mills.
From Plymstock, I crossed the Laira on Laira Road Bridge, which enabled me to get a photograph of the long-disused Laira Railway Bridge, built in 1887 to carry the Turnchapel Branch Line. Next year it should reopen as a footbridge and cycle path.
On the Plymouth side of Laira Bridge, the path led me into Cattedown, an inner-city suburb notable for its working wharves, oil terminal and various silos, pipes and other industrial architecture that looks like the crew of the Liberator will teleport down any moment. These are overlooked by cliffs onto which climbs the winding Cattedown Road, the upper part of which is now blocked to traffic as part of the South West Coast Path.
When I moved to Plymouth as a student back in 1989, the way onwards from Cattedown to the Barbican would have involved a lengthy road walk around the edge of Sutton Harbour, the historic centre of Plymouth.
However, in 1993, lock gates were added to the harbour, freeing it from the whims of the tide, and providing a handy short cut.
At the same time the harbour gained a new fish market and the National Marine Aquarium was built on the Cattedown side.
I marched briskly past the aquarium, and across the gates to the Mayflower Steps. These are the steps from which (traditionally) the Pilgrim Fathers left Plymouth for the New World in 1620. Except that’s not quite right.
The site is marked by a portico which overlooks some steps down into the water but the pier against which they stand, and the road from which they lead down, is little more than a century old.
The actual steps, so far as anyone can be certain, were on the site of the nearby pub, the Admiral MacBride (and are popularly held in Plymouth to be those leading down to its toilets).
Amusingly, the pub is named for John MacBride, MP for Plymouth 1784-1790 who was instrumental in getting the harbour piers built in the first place; although he never saw action directly against the colonies, MacBride commanded HMS Bienfaisan during the American War of Independence and fought their French and Spanish allies.
The Barbican is a historic part of Plymouth, with its cobbled streets and around a hundred listed buildings and is home to the oldest street in Plymouth, rather marvellously named New Street.
Also in the Barbican area are not one but two splendid Custom Houses. The oldest, dating to the sixteenth century, is now a bookshop, while its replacement is a splendid example of late Georgian officialdom, dating to 1820.
There are also what seems like a million bars and restaurants, not to mention the Gin Distillery, where Plymouth Gin has been made since 1793
I made my way from the Barbican, around the edge of the Royal Citadel, past the point known as Fisher’s Nose. On this corner, occupying an old Citadel blockhouse, is a café called Duttons.
Duttons’ name commemorates a ship, the East Indiaman Dutton, which struck rocks off Mount Batten and sank in the Cattewater with 400 soldiers and a number of women and children aboard.
A naval officer, Captain Edward Pellew of HMS Indefatigable, who was on his way to dine with the vicar of Charles’ Church, took charge of the rescue (which had otherwise been abandoned) and saved them with only fifteen casualties.
Both Captain Pellew and the Indefatigable feature significantly in some of CS Forester‘s novels about his fictional naval hero, Horatio Hornblower.
Sir Francis Drake
Beside the Royal Citadel is Plymouth Hoe, the high ground best known for the story that Sir Francis Drake played bowls there in 1588 before sailing out with the English fleet to engage with the Spanish Armada. Whether it’s true or not, who can tell, but if it is, then it’s unlikely to be about coolness in the face of the enemy and rather more to do with the fact that his ships were going nowhere until the tide allowed it.
The Hoe is covered in monuments and memorials, ranging from an identical naval memorial to those in Portsmouth and Chatham, to memorials to Drake and the Spanish Armada. This summer it gained a 60 m high London-Eye style observation wheel but the Hoe’s most famous feature is still Smeaton’s Tower.
Smeaton’s Tower is the third of the Eddystone lighthouses, built to stop ships from throwing themselves at Eddystone Rock, which is just visible on the horizon from Plymouth Hoe.
Designed by the brilliant engineer John Smeaton, it was built between 1756 and 1759 and pioneered the tapering shape still used for lighthouses today.
It was moved to Plymouth Hoe in 1882, when the rock on which it stood became eroded, although even then the base and foundation were left in situ and can just about be seen on a clear day beside the fourth (current) lighthouse. Smeaton’s Tower is a Grade I listed building and an unofficial symbol of Plymouth
Drake’s Island was formerly a battery and defensive position and actually had Sir Francis Drake as its governor in 1583.
The former chairman of Plymouth Argyle FC, Dan McCauley, bought it from the Crown Estate in 1995 with plans to build a hotel on it; Plymouth City Council refused him the planning permission.
Plymouth City Centre
No doubt Mr McCauley found some dark humour in the situation when, in 2007, PCC had its own collision with red tape and officialdom — its intention to demolish the appallingly ugly and concrete-cancer-ridden Civic Centre was foiled by English Heritage making it a listed building.
Before I headed off to my hotel, which was conveniently near the Hoe, I took a detour to look at Charles Church.
The church was founded in 1641 following a petition to Charles I, although Parliamentarian Plymouth then stubbornly called it the ‘New Church’ (as opposed to the ‘Old Church’, St Andrew’s), rather than naming it after the King as he had demanded.
An impressive gothic structure, it was bombed and burnt out in 1941 during the Plymouth Blitz along with much of the city centre and, when the city was rebuilt, it was left to stand as a monument to all those who died. I find it eerie and moving.
This time: 4 miles
Total since Gravesend: 554 miles