The largest city on the South West Coast Path, Plymouth provides an excellent arrival and departure port for those walking the path. Forget the snooty put downs of the city from those commentators who have never left their travel lodge and could not be bothered to explore it. Sure, much of the commercial centre of the town was destroyed in the blitz and the rebuilt main shopping centre is a featureless concrete drag....but to head for this is not to explore and discover historic Plymouth.
For those on the coast path, your route takes you past the urban seascape, through Plymouth Hoe, around Plymouth Sound and through the ancient Barbican area where you will find a fascinating city alive with maritime history and atmosphere, as well a place well stocked with lively bars, restaurants, theatre and art perfect for rest and relaxation before or after your walk.
Plymouth’s size and history offers a great contrast to the tiny harbour towns you will have walked through in South Cornwall or compared to those to come in the remote South Hams Devon Coast and for this alone it should not be missed or rushed through.
Originally the fishing village of Sutton, Plymouth's importance reflects its position as one of Europe’s largest deep water harbours at the confluence of the Plym, Tavy and mighty Tamar estuaries. Maritime history is awash - Sir Francis Drake defeated the Armada from here, the Pilgrim fathers set sail here and “discovered” America, Charles Darwin set off on his voyage of evolution aboard the Beagle and this was the base for Captain Cook’s adventures in the pacific aboard the Discovery. Don’t forget the legions of less famous passengers however, the port has also been the embarkation point from the UK for thousands of convicts and colonists sent to Australia. Not many places have had such an effect on the modern world’s colonial history and can still reveal it as Plymouth does.
Right on the Coast path and the overnight stop for most walkers Plymouth Hoe is a fine coastal open area with stunning panoramas over the Plymouth Sound Estuary dominated by Smeaton's Tower, an iconic Red and White lighthouse which was removed from the treacherous rocks of Eddystone, transported here and rebuilt brick by brick - check out the views from the Lantern room. It was here on these grassy banks Sir Francis Drake concluded his famous game of bowls before heading off to defeat the Spanish Armada.
The Old Part of the Barbican Centre is a walk back in time, unspoilt with a labyrinth of medieval cobbled streets where timber framed houses and Elizabethan warehouses vie with little jetties and boats, art galleries, craft shops, bistros and continental bars. For more exploration visit The Royal Citadel, Plymouths massive fortress built in 1666 with more great views out to sea from imposing ramparts and well worth a guided tour.
Legendry amongst the Royal Navy officer classes, build in end of walk recuperation at the Black Friars Plymouth Gin Distillery for some sampling of the world’s best respected Gin in the restored medieval , and after all this you still have the excellent City Museum and Art Gallery and the UK’s best aquatic life with Plymouth home to the sharks and turtles of the National Marine Aquarium.
For those wanting to see a working side the fishing fleet still operates along with the fish market from Sutton Harbour , the Devonport area has plenty to see having been home to the Royal Navy past and present. If you like a dip you won’t forget a swim in the Art Deco open air Tinside Pool where you can bob around with world class vistas over Plymouth Sound right on the shoreline.
All this and much more is accessed easily on foot by the award winning Plymouth Waterfront Walkway developed by the Council which now forms the first part of the coast path into South Hams. Ten miles packed with sculpture, poetry and historical points of interest along with spectacular viewpoints in, around and across Plymouth Sound - without doubt one of the finest city seascapes in the world.
On a practical note, Plymouth provides mainline travel connections for quick departures to and from London, Bristol and Penzance and for those that want a break from the coast path the chance for modern restaurants, theatre and nightlife. Of course, for those who do want mundane repetitive high street shopping you could always join the uninformed in the inland commercial centre of Plymouth - but on foot you have a choice so make sure you make the right one and encounter the historical gem that is Plymouth - the place the more lazy commentators just never find!