top of page

Cobbled streets and cockles on the beach. If there’s one thing in more abundance than history, it’s the waters. The estuaries of the Plym and the Tamar, both emptying into the Sound, help Plymouth live up to it’s oceanic sobriquet. It’s the Plymouth way, or the waterway, as Simon Walton discovers the intricate tapestry of coves and bays, docks and harbours, that make up the Plymouth’s uniquely interwoven marriage with the ocean 


East End Buoys and West End Gulls


The Moxy is rather foxy. They could use that strapline at the hippest new hotel in Plymouth. “Ahoy there, mateys,” is the standard greeting from the Morgan Hammond lookalike at the pirate-themed reception desk. Cutthroat Island this isn’t. Welcome cocktails (rum of course) and spacious rooms, decked out with nautical-themed touches. There’s no shivering of timbers nor splicing of main braces at this treasure chest of modern efficiency and comfort. Groups checked in faster than a press-ganged crew of salty devils. It’s off to sail the sights of maritime Plymouth, Britain’s self-styled ocean city.


The talk is all about pre-war Plymouth.

Pre that is, the war occasioned by that little French corporal with ideas above his station. A war even before Philip of Spain set his spyglass on Devon's shores. By the time of that armada thing, that Drake’s mates dutifully dispatched, Plymouth was already a bustling naval base and port, full of Elizabethan warships and warehouses, charming shops, and coffee shops, antiques and ale houses, all nestled within earshot of a spinnaker, tolling like a bell in the southwesterly breeze.


Bigger and better, modern Plymouth affords all the ship and shore facilities that befit a destination port.


You’ll not want, for a ferry to Roscoff or Santander, if your group sails in. Want not for a cruiser nor a chandler, you yachty types. Nor will your crew lack for shopping. A thousand boutiques and market traders fill the high streets and side streets. Bargains in Barbican, the historic heart, are always there to be found.


There’s nothing mock about the Tudor around New Street, and here’s another surprise: New Street isn’t very new. It’s actually Plymouth’s oldest thoroughfare. Home to the celebrated neighbouring gems of the Tudor and the Merchant tea and coffee houses, and the nearby Parade Antiques, the biggest emporium in Plymouth’s curios corner. Then there’s a coffee or a confection in all weathers from the South Western Tram, a stall styled after Plymouth’s long-lost shoreside transport. Once upon a time, the real trams would bring workers and wanderers to the dockside, meeting arrivals from the Americas. Back then, first-class passengers in a hurry would disembark at Plymouth from luxurious Atlantic liners. In a blast of rails, steam, and speed, dockside express trains would deliver them to London a full day in advance of those landing further up the south coast. Echoes of those impatient departures can still be found, in rusting rails, embedded in the quaysides. Spy them as you stroll between warehouses, refitted into swish dockside apartments, lined with waterfront watering holes and eateries.


A modest quayside arch makes an obligatory photo stop.


With typically British understatement, Mayflower Step is a commemoration of the most significant sailing from these nautical shores. Those Pilgrim Fathers founded America - as older readers will already know from their historical studies at the alter of the KLF (#What Time Is Love). We gave them the Pilgrim Fathers - and they gave us back the Little Mermaid. Thanks, America! A little wide of the mark for sure, but bear in mind that the actual embarkation took place in what is now the beer garden of the Admiral MacBride ale house. Ah well, you can always toast those overseas adventurers with a selection of very fine ales. Having done so, a few times, this story will make much more sense. The actual, and somewhat more factual, account of those foundling castaways is told next door, at the Mayflower Museum, in a remarkably detailed and accurate context. Top tip: head right up to the third-floor balcony for quintessential Plymouth yachts and harbour group selfie on the viewing balcony.


Wonderful walkable Plymouth.


Just on the other side of the harbour, connected by a convenient gangway come lifting footbridge, the National Maritime Aquarium awaits in all its fishy splendor.  With the biggest tanks in Britain, if not Europe, the NMA is home to the astonishing variety of marine life right on our shoreline. Get up close with some of the most sociable fish on the planet. If you’re extra well-behaved, the engaging Harriet Nemo (not her real surname) will take you backstage for an exclusive tour of the plumbing … and all the cutting-edge research that goes on behind the scenes. Wonderful, swimmable Plymouth.


Sailing, not swimming, into the sunset.


Those Pilgrim Fathers and the Mayflower story play a big part in Plymouth's heritage. The ocean is the enduring theme. Take to the waves, on an hour-long cruise of Plymouth Sound. Let Plymouth Boat Trips show you the modern navy at Devonport, the not-so-modern naval battery on Drakes Island, the promontory of Plymouth Hoe, and the beauty of Devon and Cornish coasts.


Those same Plymouth Boat Trips operate a network of handy local foot ferries. It’s a short sea-hop to the National Trust-maintained Mount Edgcumbe. This impressive stately home, set in a grade one listed estate that includes the charming village of Cremyll. It takes minutes by boat, ages by bus. It’s also on the Cornish side of the water, so it’s a bonus county when you visit.

From the Edgcumbe / Cremyll landing stage, it’s hardly a circumnavigation to somewhere Sir Francis might recognise. Behold the Georgian splendor of Royal William Yard. An impressive collection of four and five-storey former naval buildings. For “impressive”, read: imposingly huge. All grade-II listed and making the distinctly different Stonehouse neighbourhood into Plymouth’s most desirable destination. The dockyard has been tastefully repurposed into a relaxed, replenished, revitalised dock, harboring treat-yourself boutiques, commercial offices with views to make overtime a pleasure, and ocean-view apartments (shhh - lucky people live here). Oh, and there are great restaurants. Might we tempt you into Hook and Line, to name but one. Host and owner, Steven Page, welcomes guests personally, for a beguiling menu of seafood so fresh, it virtually jumps from the bay to your plate. Grouper - and group-friendly. When your jolly hearties berth themselves in the ubiquitously seafaring surroundings, they may recognise a few faces from earlier voyages. The skippers from Plymouth Boat Trips make this their dry dock of choice. Not only is it Plymouth’s self-proclaimed finest rum bar (we tend to concur) but Steven, in addition to owning two other equally appealing eateries in town, is also rear admiral of Plymouth Boat Trips. 


Seen from at sea, there’s a collage of architectural styles along the Plymouth skyline - like stepping stones through time. Plymouth has stood firm against wars and would-be invaders for centuries, but that reputation has been earned in blood and treasure. It was from here that the fleet sailed to thwart the Spanish Armada (1588 and all that). From later years, spy out all those the Napoleonic fortifications, but also, pay heed to the most recent of failed invasions, but also to the scars left by an aerial bombardment that Plymouth endured in 1940 and 1941 - a Blitz longer even than London’s. From that shattering blow, this stout city of more than a quarter of a million souls has resolutely risen.


Still, the transformation continues.


The steel and glass of the Drake Shopping Centre sits alongside the neo-classical facade of the civic library, which is now something even more erudite - the wonderful Box. 


The Box is fresh. So fresh, this civic jewel of galleries, museum, cafe, library and nautical heritage only just opened post-pandemic. Mayflower celebrations put on hold, The Box has hosted temporary treasures from the National Gallery and more. There are also permanent tasty treasures in the ground floor cafe, where “local” and “in-house” are always the flavours of the day. 


The legacy is a post-war city centre that epitomises the thinking of the modern age, as seen from the fifties and sixties, writ large in the coalition of austerity and modernity, built on a human scale. Plymouth emerged as a liveable, lovable example of how Britain imagined itself in the far future of the 70s. Surely, among all the storms of man and nature, faced by this South West redoubt, recovery and rebuilding was their finest hour. 


Getting there and getting info


230 miles and a world due west of London. You could reverse the Mayflower, and sail into Plymouth’s maritime terminal, but chances are your passengers will arrive by land cruise. The A38 Devon Expressway covers the last forty miles from the end of the M5 at Exeter, skirting Dartmoor all along the way. By train, the old Friary station in the docks is long gone, but Great Western trains still run frequently from London Paddington, and take in that striking seaside stretch on the way. CrossCountry makes direct destinations accessible, from as far away as Aberdeen. Just in case you ask, the airport has been closed for over a decade - Exeter and Newquay airports are both within fifty miles. Contacts and more at


Selected Links:

Get your head down at The Moxy:

Get fishy at:

Get all Pilgrim Fathers:

Get at sea:

Get stuffed:

Get arty and cultural:

Get everything else at


A Dawdle to Dartmoor


Train buffs will know all about the proposals to reopen the Okehampton to Bere Alston line, as a foil to the exposed coastal section at Dawlish, but here’s a trip you can take right now. The local service from Plymouth meanders up the truly spectacular Tamar Valley. Get a unique view under the spectacular Tamar Bridge along the way. Bere Alston is just twenty-five minutes away. The tracks stop abruptly, but carry on, striking out across Dartmoor. Walkers especially will love the opportunity to tick off a bucket list destination - for the price of a suburban train ticket. For less of a hike - the walk to the next station back down the line - Bere Ferres - has the added attraction of a heritage railway collection to admire and a country pub at each end, also worth admiring.

swsupatroyalwilliamyard jaystone3 jpg-30

Royal William Yard

Tamar bridge

bottom of page