The Hoe is without doubt Plymouth’s crowning glory and it casts its spell over all who visit it.
Its devotees range from small children who delight in being able to run wild in such a huge and magnificent “playground” to octogenarians who happily perch on park benches for hours on end, drinking in the extraordinary views.
It’s a place where marching bands parade, pop bands perform, trainee commandos work out and thousands gather to enjoy spectacular free events including the National Fireworks Championships.
Informal football matches are played here, it’s where students spend lazy summer days with their disposable barbecues and hundreds gather on Remembrance Day for a heart breaking ceremony which reduces the hardest looking men to tears.
The Hoe (which takes its name from the ancient Anglo-Saxon word for a high ridge) boasts a view and history which no other seafront city in the world can match.
It’s a large tarmac strip bordered on each side by extensive lawns and grassy banks dotted with walkways and pretty gardens. There’s a photo of the Beatles sitting here on the grass looking out to sea, taken in 1967 during their Magical Mystery Tour – an image which countless followers of the Fab Four have tried to emulate.
The tarmac is a car free zone except for disabled parking or when there are special occasions such as the Classic Car rally (as seen in the above photo).
Imagine the galleons of the Spanish Armada
The dominant features are Smeaton’s Tower, with its distinctive red and white barber shop livery, and the towering memorial which honours thousands of naval men and women who died in the two world wars.
Look out across Plymouth Sound, one of the deepest natural harbours in the world, and imagine the moment in 1588 when Sir Francis Drake saw the galleons of the Spanish Armada appearing on the horizon.The famous story goes that Devon-born Drake insisted on finishing his game of bowls on The Hoe before doing his bit to defeat King Philip of Spain’s bid to invade Elizabethan England.
You’ll find the old sea dog himself, a former mayor of Plymouth, immortalised in bronze on The Hoe. The statue is just a stone’s throw away from the bowling green where today’s players indulge their passion for the centuries old game in regulation whites - a scene as quintessentially English as Morris dancing.
You can still see a mighty ship heading into Plymouth Sound from Spain – but this one’s the Brittany Ferries flagship, the Pont-Aven, making its weekly 20-hour journey from Santander.
Ferries vast and small mingle in The Sound with ocean liners, luxury yachts, warships, power boats, paddle boards... and even the occasional nuclear submarine.
It’s a mesmerising sight at any time of year. And that’s without taking into account the many major spectacles which take place in this vast natural amphitheatre of seawater where the The Hoe makes a perfect public gallery for hordes of spectators.
The Sound plays host to some of the world’s most prestigious sporting events – from the British Powerboat Grand Prix and the end of the Fastnet race to, more recently, the America’s Cup.
The Transat yachts setting off from The Sound bound for the USA in one of the toughest solo racing challenges of all is a truly magnificent sight (even for those who’d be hard pushed to tell you the difference between their stern and their starboard side.).
Surviving the Plymouth Blitz...and dancing in defiance of Hitler
On warm sunny days or when a big sporting or public event is taking place (either on land or at sea) The Hoe is a hive activity. There’s often a funfair on the tarmac area, youngsters swim off the rocks below and locals and tourists stroll along the foreshore, seemingly with no particular aim or destination in mind. This is what it must have been like before Plymouth’s pier was destroyed in the Blitz - though we’re quite sure there was far less exposed, reddened and tattooed flesh in those days.
The attractive three-tiered colonnaded Belvedere, built in 1891 above the pier, mercifully survived the bombing and was spruced up just in time for the America’s Cup which focused the attention of the yachting world on Plymouth’s waterfront.
Nearby Tinside Lido, a glorious sea water swimming pool extending in a semi-circle into Plymouth Sound, also emerged unscathed from the Luftwaffe’s onslaught and was given a multi-million makeover before re-opening to the public in 2003.
A winter walk along The Hoe when the wind is howling and the sea is lashing the limestone rocks beneath is just as glorious as a summer stroll. On the wildest days you might find yourself completely alone up there, struggling to stay upright in the kind of onshore gale which whips your breath away. At times you won’t even have the comforting sight of Tinside for company as the pool disappears beneath the waves when the sea is in its most violent of moods.History buffs and students of architecture find themselves equally enthralled by The Hoe’s man-made treasures which include the impressive Esplanade of grand Victorian homes (most of which have now been converted into apartments).
Number 3 Elliot Terrace is the former home of Lord Waldorf and his spirited, witty American wife Nancy Astor – the first female MP to sit in the House of Commons.
Lady Astor, a glamorous socialite famed for her acerbic exchanges with Winston Churchill, was among those who danced with sailors on The Hoe during the many wartime parties held there in defiance of Hitler’s bombs. When Elliot Terrace was hit in The Blitz, she fought the fires herself and is still fondly remembered for the kindness she showed to local people whose lives were torn apart during those dark days of war.
She gifted the family home and her Cartier jewels to the city which now uses No. 3 as the Lord Mayor's official residence. Civic functions are held there and guided tours can be arranged through the Lord Mayor's parlour at the City Council.
The towering obelisk on The Hoe, bearing the names of more than 23,000 sailors who died in the first and second world wars but who have no graves, is a sobering reminder of the losses incurred by a city which has been playing a crucial role in the defence of the realm for more than 1,000 years.
The imposing 17th century Citadel, at the eastern end of The Hoe, was built in part to repel a seaborne attack from the Dutch but was also designed in such a way that its guns could be used to fire on the town itself. King Charles II was determined to keep the people of Plymouth in their place after their support for the parliamentarians during the Civil War.
The fortress is still used as a military base by 29 Commando and guided tours are available in the summer months.
Where there's moor to sea!
For the best views in Plymouth, climb to the top of Smeaton’s Tower from where you can see right across the city with its magnificent natural boundaries – Dartmoor to the north, Plymouth Sound to the south, Cornwall to the west and the rolling hills of the South Hams to the east. Now you understand why our Go Plymouth slogan is “where there’s moor to sea!”
The lighthouse was erected on the Eddystone Reef in 1759 and was painstakingly moved, stone by stone, to The Hoe in 1877 when it was discovered that the rock beneath was unstable. It’s a tough old climb up the 93 steps to the lantern room (up some steep ladders through narrow openings) but it’s well worth the effort. You can even get married up there – as long as you don’t want to invite too many guests!
Visit the City Council’s web site for details of opening times and of the various public events which take place on Plymouth Hoe throughout the year.
Of all the sights you’ll see from The Hoe, one of the most spectacular has to be when the Red Arrows give one of their dazzling aerobatic displays. Appearing to come out of nowhere, the jets suddenly roar in across Plymouth Sound and seem almost certain to plough straight into the thousands of spectators eagerly awaiting them on the seafront.
At the last second, just as you’re sure your end is nigh, they veer up and fan out above Smeaton’s Tower with their red, white and blue vapour trails streaming behind them.
Moments like that…well, you just can’t buy them!
Take a look at our 'Where there's Moor to Sea" video to see what Plymouth looks like from the top of Smeaton's Tower.