Start your next adventure from Devon’s ocean city
Find your bearings
First, get yourself orientated at the newly refurbished Mayflower Museum on the Barbican. Hands-on displays tell the story of one of the most famous and courageous voyages to start from Plymouth.
Arm yourself with some sailor’s courage on the Plymouth Gin Distillery tour, then it’s quick march down past the imposing Royal Citadel to the Hoe – the central waterfront area – to pay tribute to Plymouth’s most notorious explorer. Sir Francis Drake is rumoured to have dallied on the Hoe for an extensive game of bowls, waiting for the tide to turn before setting sail to fight the Spanish Armada.
Bowls or no, you too can dawdle – with a dip in the 1930s Tinside Lido (Summer only), a climb of historic Smeaton’s Tower for sweeping views of the city and harbour, or follow in the footsteps of sailors of old by refuelling at Royal William Yard, a Grade I-listed former naval victualing yard that now offers cafes, restaurants and bars.
As pyrotechnics go it’s not quite singeing the King of Spain’s beard, but every August the Hoe becomes a lively viewing point for the British Firework Championships. Fun fairs, food and live music give you plenty to feast on when not gazing skywards. The 2016 championships are planned for 16–17 August.
It’s no wonder sailing and watersports are the star attraction here, given Plymouth’s impressive pedigree: it was the starting point for Drake’s circumnavigation of the globe in the Golden Hinde, and is the finishing post for the Fastnet Race. In May 2016 the start of The Transat returns to the city, when yachtsmen and -women will be steeling themselves for the world’s oldest singlehanded transatlantic race.
Inspired newbies needn’t worry – the waters of Plymouth Sound are a great place to start, with activities to suit every taste, skill and budget. At Mount Batten Centre, you can try everything from coasteering to gorge walking, powerboating to kayaking.
Under the sea
Below the waterline, SCUBA fans find an unrivalled range of dive sites, ranging from a Lancaster bomber to a torpedoed American supply ship. The HMS Scylla, a former warship deliberately sunk to create an artificial reef in 2004, makes a popular and exciting dive, but entering the deteriorating structure is now strongly discouraged.
‘One of the best things for divers is the variety of depth options Plymouth provides,’ says Sean Marshall, Second Coxswain at Plymouth Lifeboat Station. ‘Just opposite the lifeboat station you’ve got Firestone Bay – you can swim straight off the beach and dive to 45m. There are loads of friendly dive shops and schools who offer advice too.’
If you’d rather see all that sea life from a drier vantage point, the National Marine Aquarium takes you through the world’s oceans from the shores of Plymouth to the coral reefs of the tropics. There you’ll meet creatures including veteran loggerhead turtle, Snorkel, rescued from Sennen Cove in the 1990s. And if you make firm friends, your day ticket buys you return visits for 12 months.
Take me to the rivers
Away from the busy Sound are three hidden gems: the Lynher, Tamar and Yealm rivers. Thriving woodland crowds the banks as Amazon-esque trees cool their heels in the tranquil waters. Whether you row, SUP, kayak or sail upriver, you’ll feel like a real explorer.
Up the Lynher at St Germans, you’ll find the Port Eliot estate, which hosts a family festival of music, fashion, food and literature every August, with guided wild swimming in the river at high water.
‘One of the nicest day trips by boat is up the River Yealm,’ adds Alex Grassick, Third Mechanic at Plymouth Lifeboat Station.’ Just watch the bar at the entrance and stick to the channel – a good pub is your reward!’ The Yealm is a peaceful haven for sailors, where the welcome of the waterfront Ship Inn beckons from nearby Noss Mayo. The Yealm ferry or water taxi take foot passengers across to the village from Wembury during the Summer.
For walkers, National Trust trails wend through the riverside Wembury Woods, whilst the main path up the valley marks the kick-off for Devon’s coast-to-coast footpath to Lynmouth (comprising the Erme-Plym Trail and Two Moors Way over Dartmoor and Exmoor). This hiker can confirm the pre-moor segment is well waymarked, lushly green and dotted with fields of abundantly friendly livestock.
The wilds of Dartmoor make an ideal day-trip from Plymouth, with its border towns well served by buses from the city, or the train to Ivybridge. Outdoor pursuers are drawn to the moor for its wild camping, tor climbing, mountain biking and river kayaking. (Or a nice pint of Jail Ale and a sit down.)
If you like your great outdoors more tamed, the area has several historic properties with rolling landscaped grounds, perfect to reflect and recuperate after a day on the water. Just across the Tamar in Cornwall, Antony House has grounds so enchanting they were used in Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland. And for high-octane sightseeing, you can explore Mount Edgcumbe’s country park and coast paths on a Segway safari. That I – chronically challenged by bicycle balance – managed to stay upright confirms you should give it a go.
Saltram House, on the banks of the River Plym, is also your starting point for the national coast-to-coast cycle route 27 to Ilfracombe. Here the combined Plym Valley and Drake’s Trails climb gently along an old woodland railway route, coming up for air over some spectacular viaducts, before reaching the fringes of Dartmoor between Yelverton and Tavistock.
Plymouth is sometimes outshone by the glittering sands of its South Hams neighbour, but nip over the border into Cornwall, round the Rame Peninsular and the quieter beaches are worth the trip.
During the summer RNLI lifeguards patrol four sandy beaches across Whitsand Bay between Tregantle and Tregonhawke.
Back in Devon, Wembury beach is popular with local windsurfers, surfers and SUPers. Warm up afterwards in the Old Mill Cafe, and – as you’re so close to the Cornish border – consider some vital research into the ongoing jam-/cream-first scone debate.
The RNLI in Plymouth
‘Plymouth is an extremely busy naval, mercantile and fishing port,’ explains Dave Milford, Coxswain at Plymouth Lifeboat Station. As a result, the volunteer crew get called to a wide range of shouts, from people cut off by the tide to engine breakdowns when boats first go out after a winter layup.
‘Check tide times before your trip,’ advises Dave. ‘If you’re going afloat, check your engine regularly and make sure your comms equipment is working and your flares are in date. Watch out for shipping too. Small craft are hard to spot from the bridge of a warship, which probably has less room to manoeuvre than you.’
Dave advises anyone transiting the naval port to inform the Coastguard, and check www.royalnavy.mod.uk/qhm/plymouth before setting out. As Plymouth’s imposing military architecture – old and new – suggests, it’s best to keep on the friendly side of the Royal Navy.
Due to their location in Millbay Docks, you can only visit the lifeboat station on open days, or by special appointment. Keep an eye on @PlymouthRNLI on Twitter or PlymouthLifeboat on Facebook for updates.
Somewhere you can visit every day of the week is the RNLI shop at South Side Street on the Barbican. Starting in the 1960s with a modest trestle table, RNLI souvenir sales are alive and well thanks to shop volunteers from the local fundraising branch.
One other close tie to the city is the RNLI’s ongoing work with researchers at Plymouth University. We’ve helped them carry out a 3-year-long study into rip currents that is saving lives today, thanks to the new insights it gives both lifeguards and beachgoers. A reassuring final thought, as you start to discover all this ocean city has to offer.