Sunday 1st September 2013
Today we took the bus over to Plymouth. It was a wonderful, warm and sunny day and could not afford to be wasted. Plymouth, with its population of around 250,000 is double the size of Exeter. It is a city closely linked with the sea. It has both The Royal Marines and the Royal Navy garrisoned there. It is the port for the cross-channel ferries to Brittany and once had a thriving ship yard. It is also well known for its famous distillery. Plymouth gin is renowned world-wide.
As a child my mother lived at Plymouth as my grandfather served in the Royal Navy and was stationed there. The family lived in a terraced cottage next to the Royal Naval Victualling Yard right on the edge of Plymouth Sound with its constant traffic of battle ships entering and leaving the naval dockyard. In winter the winds could sweep in from the sea with such force they were known to pin children to the sea wall, unable to pull themselves free! It was at Plymouth that my mother became a strong swimmer, braving the sea even on Christmas Day. At the age of fourteen she was apprenticed to a milliner in the city. At the time my grandparents thought this would offer good prospects for a young woman starting her working life. How things have changed! Who wears hats nowadays? Devil’s Point, where they lived, is on the mouth of the Tamar River. My granddad used to tell me it was so named because when the Devil arrived at the river he pointed across at the grounds of Mount Edgcumbe on the far bank of the river and asked what lay there. He was told that was where Cornwall began. At this point the Devil shuddered and turned away vowing never to cross to Cornwall where they would use any sort of meat in their pasties and he feared even he’d be no exception!
A short distance off-shore lies Drake’s Island, named after Plymouth’s great Elizabethan privateer and explorer Sir Francis Drake. Nowadays it is uninhabited and access is restricted to certain naval personnel but in her childhood my mother would take part in a holiday camp on the island during the summer. I always envied her this. It is exactly as one might imagine Kirren Island in the Enid Blyton stories, with secret caves and underground passages. I still delight in imagining tracking smugglers to their lair when we sail so close we could almost reach out to it as the ferry passes on its way out of the Sound and across the English Channel to Brittany.
Plymouth was very badly blitzed during the war because of the dockyard and military presence in the town. It has never really recovered. For so many years it was just street after street of bombed out buildings overgrown with grass and weeds. Some quarters were risky areas to walk alone for years afterwards – indeed they still seem seedy even in daylight! The town centre has been rebuilt in grey stone in what was hoped at the time to be groundbreaking new architecture. It’s an unhappy marriage of Art Deco and Third Reich with wide open spaces of concrete flagstones between buildings where the wind roars in on winter days and the sun blazes down during the summer. It was, and is, a strong contender as the most ugly and depressing city centre to be found in Britain.
While Exeter is the county town of Devon, Plymouth is the main city of industry and employment. So much though is dead or dying. The dray horses from the Plymouth gin factory have not plodded through the cobbled streets of the Barbican for many a year and the naval presence on the streets has pretty well disappeared. The dockyard has closed and there is much unemployment. The city however, so ugly and desolate in itself, lies in the most beautiful of settings with the stunning, the unspoilt Rame Peninsula across the Tamar, the vast deserted open space of Dartmoor with its wild ponies and cattle just inland, and breathtaking coastal scenery with little sheltered bays and small villages of pretty granite cottages.
Today we wasted no time in making our way out from the centre. Walking the drab, familiar road out to Stonehouse we passed the long abandoned hotel, theatre and several other once impressive buildings where buddleia and weeds now grew from the abandoned walls and gutters, still supported by decaying wooden scaffolding following damage sustained over seventy years ago.
We turned off near the marine barracks down a street of large seaside terraced houses to the tidal estuary. Every half hour, probably even from before my mother was born 92 years ago, a little ferry boat crosses the water back and forth between Plymouth and the gates of Mount Edgcumbe with its lovely gardens. The ferry is a lifeline into the city for those living across the water in the coastal villages, carrying them in to work or the shops during the week, and carrying Plymouth’s citizens out into the countryside and parkland of the Hall at weekends.
Squashed together in the stern of the little wooden vessel we crossed the water, chugging past the walls and gates of the Royal Victualling Yard. It always reminds me of a Canaletto painting. Upriver were moored several huge military vessels, either returned from manoeuvres or for repairs. Soon we’d moored to the wooden jetty and we found ourselves stepping onto Cornish soil. Strange the way it still feels like another land with its own character.
The bus was waiting and within minutes we were driving steeply up from the river, following narrow lanes through lovely countryside, skirting the grounds of the Edgcumbe estate until we were deposited just above the villages of Kingsand and Cawsand. These two villages are inseparable except in name. We walked down between the close-packed rows of cottages to the beach where we sat drinking in the view and remembering happy summer days spent on this same beach with our children as they played in the limpid clean salt water, gathered shells and tiny crabs and got smothered in course dark damp sand. Our family treat here was ice-cream before setting off for the three miles walk back to the ferry through the Edgcumbe Estate. Why break a family tradition?
After washing the final sticky bits from our hands in the sea we followed the sea wall along to Kingsand, past the original county boundary that once separated Devon from Cornwall, and steeply up through the tiny streets of Kingsand until we reached the estate of Mount Edgcumbe.
Initially the path lead us through open grassland until passing through a gate we found ourselves brushed by ferns and brambles that overgrew the path. Here there were ripening blackberries and all kinds of wild fungi. Through the trees the sea reflected back, an iridescent blue dotted with the white sails of tiny yachts offshore. Soon we’d entered the formal woodland of the park. It was dense, cool and shady. Down beside the sea we could see, through the trees, the restored former ruin of Picklecombe Fort, now converted into luxury apartments with a tiny road leading down to it.
The original woodland drive to the house had been closed off as the steep old mossy banks tended to slip, causing mini landslides. We were diverted onto very steep narrow footpaths winding between rocks and the ruins of old follies until we emerged through a gate into the deer park above Edgcumbe House. Above the trees we now had fantastic views back across the Sound to Plymouth, so much more attractive from this distance, with the river and the sea washing around it. Drakes Island and the entrance to the Brittany Ferries terminal looked no more than a stone’s throw away.
Plunging down steeply past the folly and back into the woodland another gate brought us into the formal gardens surrounding Edgcumbe House. Here there is a small lake and lawns, a grecian folly and a bay where apparently Darwin moored up with his ship the Beagle before setting out for Botany Bay.
We were looking forward to lunch in the Orangery but on arriving were disappointed to discover Plymouth City Council, who now owns the entire estate, had closed it to the public for a wedding reception. I suppose with current cutbacks in central government funding to local councils they need to make up the shortfall where they can. Certainly some people still seem affluent and the wedding looked a very lavish affair.
We eat too much anyway so skipped lunch and went off to explore the lovely gardens. There are several, the most formal being the Italianate garden with its statues and symmetrical stone steps sweeping up from gardens around the Orangery. There is also a French Garden - a riot of choreographed colour, and an English Garden, with lawns, huge trees and a less formal approach. There is a rose garden and an Antipodean garden with cork trees and a geyser shooting a plum of water high into the air every couple of minutes. As a backdrop to all this there are the shining waters of Plymouth Sound with yachts, boats and military vessels plying their way back and forth or making their way up and down the estuary.
With nowhere open, even for a snack we took an earlier than intended ferry back to Plymouth and made our way down to the old quarter of the city around the Barbican.
Here we found a cafe for a snack and coffee almost opposite the old gin factory. Inside the cafe the end wall was dominated by a painting of the Last Supper produced by the late, prolific and gifted, but eccentric local artist, Robert Lenkiewicz. (1941-2002). He depicts himself in this painting as Christ with local personalities as the apostles. Apparently, after his death, at his own request, he was kept for several years under the counter in his studio on the Barbican!
Feeling less hungry we took a stroll around the Barbican and along to the steps where the Mayflower moored up in 1620 while carrying the Pilgrim Fathers to the New World. The Puritans felt unwelcome in England, which they considered godless, and, after first settling in Holland they set out, via Plymouth, for the New World, eventually establishing a colony called New Plymouth on the edge of Massachusetts Bay.
We dozed most of the way home along the Expressway until the bus pulled over to rescue a bus load of passengers on a stranded bus that had broken down on its way from Torquay to Exeter. We all squeezed up tight and the bus continued, over laden with relieved passengers, leaving the other poor driver still stranded with his large but now empty double-decker bus trying to make contact with the deserted depot on a Sunday evening.
53. Haarlem, Leiden and the Hague - See entry for 9th October 2008 concerning the leader of the Pilgrim Fathers, John Robinson.