Plymouth’s Barbican is a heady mix of history, hedonism and hordes of holidaymakers.
It’s a unique place and you’d have to be hard of heart to resist its countless charms. If you can find the strength to fight your way through the masses chomping on their takeaway fish and chips, the bare bellied proudly flaunting their pallid beer guts and the drunken weekend revellers then you’ll find a quite magical world which Disney himself would be hard-pushed to recreate.
Mercifully, the Barbican escaped Hitler’s bombs (which were targeted at the naval base on the other side of the city) and survives to this day to tell a tantalising tale straight out of the history books.
It’s a tale chock full of some of history’s most colourful characters – Sir Francis Drake, Walter Raleigh, Captain Cook and Charles Darwin to name but a few.
Drake, who was born in Tavistock, and his second cousin Sir John Hawkins (bold pioneers or pernicious pirates depending on your historical perspective) left their footprints here before setting sail on their voyages of discovery.
Raleigh, whose family owned an estate on the edge of Dartmoor, also walked these cobbled streets before obeying his queen’s command to go forth in search of “remote, heathen and barbarous lands and territories not possessed by any Christian princes.”
"Discovering" America and Australia!
In 1768 James Cook sailed out into Plymouth Sound on a voyage which led to the “discovery” of Australia. Many reluctant men and women followed in his wake as convicts aboard the transport ships bound for the new colony.
Charles Darwin’s five-year voyage aboard HMS Beagle started in nearby Devonport but he undoubtedly strolled the streets of the Barbican during the two months he lived in the city while waiting to sail.
Many historic events are recorded on the plaques at the Mayflower Steps which mark the incredible journey made by the Pilgrim Fathers in 1620. The original steps no longer exist but a memorial stone and archway serve as a reminder of that momentous adventure undertaken by a 102-strong band of men, women and children.
They crossed the Atlantic in 66 days, facing unimaginable hardship and peril in their mission to start a new life – and a new Plymouth – in those “vast and unpeopled countries of America…where there are only savages and brutish men, just like wild beasts.”
Having your photo taken at the Mayflower Steps is an absolute must for first time visitors (even though historical research suggests the site of the actual steps was somewhere beneath the Admiral MacBride pub just over the road!).
Look out to sea and imagine yourself in the shoes of that brave band of Puritans - if you’ve got any soul, you’re bound to get a shiver down your spine.
Inspiring world renowned artists
Back in the 21st century, the Barbican is a bustling tourist honeypot awash with eateries of all kinds, bars aplenty, ice cream parlours and tea rooms.
Southside Street (the main street into the Barbican down to the quayside) and the narrow, cobbled side streets leading off it are awash with art galleries, craft and gifts shops. Some are heavenly, others are decidedly tacky.
This is the place to pick up a Beryl Cook or Lenkiewicz painting – two great artists who have left their very different marks all over the Barbican.
Both took inspiration from the drunken antics of revellers who spill out onto the Barbican’s ancient streets on Friday and Saturday nights (Lenkiewicz dubbed the tiny street alongside his studio “piss and puke alley”).
Southside Street is home to the Plymouth Gin Distillery – a fascinating building where the Pilgrim Fathers reputedly spent their last night before setting sail. Parts of it date back to the early 15th century and it’s now the oldest working gin distillery in England. You can take a guided tour, sample some smooth tasting Plymouth gin in the Refectory Bar or enjoy a meal in the excellent Barbican Kitchen (run by the truly talented Tanner brothers).
Fish-tastic! From seafood restaurants to the national aquarium
There’s a huge choice of restaurants on the Barbican – from chip shops and Chinese through to stylish brasseries and of course plenty of good seafood restaurants serving the fresh catch of the day.
We used to love the “good old days” when you could order cheap fish and chips in Platters on the quayside knowing the fish had come straight off the boat that morning at the old Victorian fish market right outside the restaurant.
Platters is still one of our favourite haunts but the fish market has now moved across the water and made way for the Barbican Glassworks - great for gift hunting but we still pine for the old fish market!
The fish market was relocated in 1993, the same year that the lock was built so ending the years of flooding which plagued the Barbican’s quayside businesses. You can’t miss the lock gate because it’s marked by a 33-feet high sculpture, dubbed the “Plymouth Prawn” by detractors. It’s meant to be a mythical sea monster representing the Barbican’s rich maritime history and the wide variety of fish landed here – well, that’s what the artist had in mind anyway! You can love it or hate it, but you certainly can’t ignore it.
Use the lock gate to cross the water and visit the Barbican Leisure Centre at Coxside – it’s a 10 minute walk and light years away from the Barbican’s historic heart. This is a purpose-built modern entertainment complex unashamedly devoted to the god of pleasure seekers – you’ll find Tenpin bowling, the 15-screen Vue cinema, a games centre, the Nuffield Health and Fitness Club, Oceana night club and all the usual popular franchised restaurants (Nando’s, Pizza Hut, Frankie and Benny’s etc).
Sleep with the sharks
You also use the lock gate to visit the National Marine Aquarium where you can take a tour of the world’s oceans from Plymouth Sound to the coral reefs of the tropics. It’s the biggest aquarium in the UK with more than 70 sharks and a Great Barrier Reef exhibit with more than 700 species of fish. The aquarium’s “sleeping with the sharks” events make a perfect birthday treat for the kids.
While you’re on this side of the water, you might want to take a stroll round to the China House – a popular pub and restaurant with great views over Sutton Harbour from the outdoor decking. It’s a Grade II listed building dating back to the mid-17th century. Lapped by water on three sides, it was used as a naval warehouse before William Cookworthy, who pioneered the manufacture of porcelain in England, used it to process the clay brought in from the pits in Cornwall.
You can get a decent meal at the China House and many other good eateries which pepper the waterfront all around Sutton Harbour.
If you’re a biker you’ll want to make a beeline for the best-known burger joint in town – Cap’n Jasper’s on Whitehouse Pier. It started life as a tiny DIY plywood hut in the late ‘70s and is now one of Plymouth’s most popular takeaways, attracting tourists (especially the leather-clad variety) from far and wide.
You’re spoilt for choice when it comes to Barbican watering holes but if you’re on the hunt for a touch of authenticity then head to the Dolphin – an unpretentious “spit and sawdust” kind of old-fashioned pub where you’re most likely to find a few of the locals. They don’t serve food…but neither do they mind you bringing in your own fish and chips!
The Tolpuddle Martyrs, deported to Australia in 1834 for their trade union protests, spent a few nights here after they received a full pardon.
Visit an Elizabethan sea captain's Tudor home
For a fascinating insight into what life must have been like in Drake’s day, take a peek inside the 16th century Elizabethan House in New Street. Plymouth flourished during Elizabethan times and as you take a tour through the panelled hallways, up spiralled staircases and along creaking oak floors you’ll get a real feel for what it was it to live as a wealthy Elizabethan merchant or sea captain. Bizarrely, you'll find a curry house in the Tudor building next door!
Pick up guide books, a free map and a stack of visitor information at the Tourist Information Centre, across the street from the Mayflower Steps.
Right beside the visitor centre you’ll find an inviting flight of narrow stone steps which take you up to one of Plymouth’s hidden gems – the B-Bar and Barbican Theatre which play host to the annual Barbican Jazz and Blues Festival (definitely a highlight of the city’s social calendar).