Plymouth is the largest city in the Westcountry, though small by international standards (1998 population 258,000) it sits at the extreme south west of the county of Devon. It's people (officially called Plymothians, unofficially called Janners) claim that it is the rightful capital of the Westcountry. The official governmental capital of the 'South West Region of England' (Whitehall speak) is however in the city of Exeter, which is also the county capital.
Plymouth is a newish city by British standards, it being under a thousand years old. Plymouth really got going in the 15th century, it was the first city to be officially recognised by both Royal Charter and an Act of Parliament. Plymouth is also the oldest city in Britain to possess an official coat of arms (put simply a white shield with a green diagonal cross and four black towers, one on each of the white triangles) and flag (as above but on a red background).
In the Renaissance Plymouth was the main British port from which exploration of the world took place. It was from here that the Mayflower set off (you can visit the 'Mayflower Steps' on the 'Barbican', the twin of America's Plymouth Rock) and it was in Plymouth that Sir Francis Drake was based, becoming the Mayor of Plymouth in his latter days. Drake was the one who finished his game of bowls in Plymouth before setting off from Plymouth to defeat the Spanish Armada in 1588. During the English Civil War Plymouth was the only western town to side with the parliamentarians and had to build city walls sharpish. The royalists laid siege to it which wasn't very clever because Plymouth is a port so was simply supplied via the sea
During WWII Plymouth was utterly obliterated by the blitz. As it was, and still is, the biggest military port in Europe it was a prime target. The result was that Plymouth city centre is nearly all what the 1950s architects thought was 'modern'.
Advice for visitors:
The following is honest information for those who may be visiting Plymouth on holiday. I have no connection with any of the establishments mentioned
Firstly a friendly piece of advice; if you are visiting Plymouth from outside Britain do not confuse it with Portsmouth it is easily done if you are not familiar with Britain and lots of visitors do make that mistake and end up getting very confused and lost.
If you want to see the historical Plymouth then the area you really want to see is the old Tudor town that survived the bombing. This is called "The Barbican" and is well signposted throughout the city centre. In the barbican you can see the Mayflower steps, the Citadel (built just after the last English Civil War, still in use by the military) and the National Marine Aquarium, it is also only a short walk from there to the Warner Village if you want something more modern and American.
There are many places to rest and soak up the local culture in the Barbican. My recomendation is the 'Art Garden Cafe', situated on the quayside opposite the old Customs house (just north of the Glassworks) this little cafe run by a lovely lady offers traditional cream teas and English Breakfasts with tables both outside on the cobbles and inside. What makes the Art Garden really special is the fact that it doubles as an art gallery for local artists and a veritable community centre with locals wandering in and starting spontanious sing-alongs or storytellings of traditional myths and legends- all totally unplanned. A strong recomendation if you are in the area.
If you are interested in city Pubs then a must see is 'The Minerva' a genuine 16th century tudor pub. Situated on Looe Street, just off the Barbican and near the main bus station this pub is the alleged drinking spot of Sir Francis Drake - it's certainly old enough and the central post of the stairwell is a mast from a Spanish vessel. The Minerva has managed to utterly escape the modernisation and commercialisation of recent years, adamantly staying a friendly traditonal English pub. Pop in and chances are you'll eaither find the welcoming locals chatting around the blazing log fire, or maybe having a sing along with a local folk act. If you want to see a real English pub- this is where to go. On the other hand the main night scene is Union Street, but only go there if you really want loud music and very expensive watered down (did I say that?) drinks.
The traditional attractions of Plymouth are The Hoe,Smeaton's Tower and Plymouth Gin. The Hoe is the name of the main seafront, which does provide spectacular views of the bay. In good weather this is the ideal place to buy an ice cream and stroll along the promenade. Smeaton's tower is a lighthouse that has been transported from out at sea to The Hoe. Visitors are able to climb the tower seeing how the lighthouse keepers lived in the 19th century. The top of the tower provides spectacular views of the city. Americans often find it a moving experience as it lets them see the whole bay that was the last port of call for their forefathers.
What many people also find moving is the sheer ammount of gin that is produced in the city. Plymouth Gin is only produced at the Blackfriars Distillery in Plymouth, from which it is shipped all around the world to be slurpped down by grateful patrons in distant lands. The distillery is open to the public and daily tours reveal hints of the mystic arts employed to produce the perfect spirit.
If your tastes are more to the rural then you may be interested in the following sites in and around the city. Any visitor to the region should visit Dartmoor (weather permitting) as the vast stark beauty of it lies free and open to all just beyond the Northern bounds of the city. In a softer, more sedate vien, Saltram House (site of the film version of 'Sense and Sensibility') lies just over the river Plym and contains extensive gardens and woods around the beautiful 18th century country house. From the Barbican area of the city it is possible to catch a boat to the two peninsulas that form the Plymouth Sound bay. Each of these contain wonderful and historic countryside walks. The eastern peninsula contains Mount Batten and Jennycliff from which it is possible to get a broad view of the bay and the city while walking through fields and viewing the 16th century, Napoleonic and WWII defences. The western peninsula (called the Rame) can be reached by the Cremyll ferry. The Rame Peninsula in lies within the bounds of Cornwall and is perhaps one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever had the privilege to visit. It includes stunning country walks, archaeology from the Neolithic to modern times and the breathtaking gardens of the Mount Edgecombe estate.
If visiting from abroad you must try the local food. As well as the aforementioned 'Art Garden Cafe' one of the best take-aways is the now legendary Cap'n Jaspers on the Barbican, just behind the Glassworks, you can't miss it if you walk north along the docks from the Mayflower Steps. The real local delicacy is the Pasty, the best pasties (imho) that you can get in Plymouth are sold at "The Gorge" on Royal Parade, the main high street. If you ask for the large ones at the Gorge you'll be offered one about a yard in length, I'd go for the medium sized one myself. If you really want a good one then pop accross to the Cornish side of the river Tamar and get one from a village shop. Do not eat Ginsters Pasties, they are poor imitations of the real thing.
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