At first glance you probably wouldn’t describe Plymouth’s city centre as beautiful.
But before judging the city’s heart too harshly it’s important to remember that German bombs totally wiped out the centre of Plymouth with 59 bombing raids which left more than 1,000 dead and thousands more injured. So what you see before you is the quite miraculous rebirth of a city which was one of the worst hit by The Blitz due to the importance of its naval base.
There’s some fascinating archive film of Plymothians emerging from the rubble, determined to stick two fingers up at the Luftwaffe by carrying on with daily life as best they could in the direst of circumstances. If you look at some of the old photos of the Plymouth Blitz and listen to the harrowing, often heart warming, stories of survivors…well, you’ll probably find yourself viewing the city and its people in a different light.
Some see the city centre as bland, colourless and devoid of any charm or character. Its cruellest critics call it hideous. Interestingly the city’s detractors often include Plymothians who have never lived anywhere else. But Plymouth also has its fair share of champions including the designer Kevin McCloud, presenter of Channel 4’s Grand Design programme, who describes the city centre as ‘beautiful and heroic’.
English Heritage, the Historic Buildings and Monuments Commission for England, wants the entire city centre to be declared a World Heritage City with its post war buildings protected for future generations. The organisation reckons Plymouth’s uniqueness makes it as important as York or even beautiful Bath.
Plymouth city centre may not be able to boast York’s medieval buildings or Bath’s gorgeous Georgian architecture but it’s the only city in England to have been completely rebuilt after the war and it has the most post-war listed buildings of any British city outside London.
That’s why it holds a peculiar fascination for many architects who regard Plymouth as the finest example of post-war planning and architecture. Hitler’s onslaught provided a blank canvas for Sir Patrick Abercrombie, one of the greatest town planners of his day, and city engineer Paton Watson build a brand new city out of a bombsite
The post-war Plymouth Plan
Even many buildings which survived the bombing were cleared to make way for the ‘Plymouth Plan’. Michael Foot, MP for Devonport after the war, fought tirelessly in parliament for the resources needed to put the plan into action.
The rebuilding of Plymouth started in 1947 and is still going on today though the official end of the reconstruction is seen as 1962 when the Queen opened the new Civic Centre which is the dominant feature of the city centre landscape.
The old narrow, irregular streets were replaced with a bold, pedestrianised avenue sweeping right through the city, down from the railway station in the north and up to The Hoe in the south. It was named Armada Way in honour of the city’s role in repelling the Spanish invasion of 1588 and it’s still (in our opinion) one of the city centre’s ‘best bits’. Water flows down the hill from the northern end towards the central Sun Dial. It’s bordered by grassy areas with shrubs, flower beds and a generous sprinkling of benches where weary shoppers and stressed out office workers take time out in the middle of the day.
The Sun Dial is where Armada Way is intersected by New George Street – the largely pedestrianised main shopping street which runs the length of the city centre, east to west. In this street and Cornwall Street, which runs parallel to it, you'll find big department stores and all the usual favourite high street brands interspersed with cafes and coffee shops.
The large open spaces in Armada Way either side of Royal Parade (the main road through the city centre’s southern edge) are used for all kinds of public entertainment including festivals, fairs and street dancing. There’s a giant BBC screen dominating The Piazza (between the Sun Dial and Royal Parade) which brings local people together to watch major broadcasts in a party atmosphere. The Piazza has a centre court buzz about it during Wimbledon fortnight when tennis fans gather to watch their favourite players while tucking into strawberries and cream on the fake grass surrounded by picket fencing. The screen (pictured below in front of the Civic Centre) relays everything from the Last Night of the Proms live to blockbuster movies and opera.
The Piazza was the scene of rapturous celebrations when our homegrown hero Tom Daley returned to Plymouth as world diving champion in 2009 at the tender age of 15. At Christmas the area in front of the big screen is transformed into a winter wonderland with an ice rink, Alpine chalets serving mulled wine and fairground rides.
Old fashioned market and thoroughly modern mall
The West End of the city is also known as the Independent Quarter as it’s home to more than 200 small, specialist shops many of which are inside the old Pannier Market (recently renamed Plymouth City Market though no-one seem to have told the locals about the change!). Whatever you call it, it’s one of our favourite places in Plymouth.
The Pannier Market is a Grade II listed building packed with a colourful array of stalls selling everything from pasties and picture frames through to fresh flowers and fancy dress costumes. Whether you want curtains made, keys cut, fresh cockles and crabs or a spot of crystal therapy you’ll find it all here.
We love it because it’s shopping as it used to be in the good old days of the High Street and as it still in many unspoilt parts of the Mediterranean. The kind of shopping where you can spend 10 minutes talking to a helpful butcher about which cut of meat would be best for the weekend!
The Market Plaice family run fishmongers is among our favourites of the many delights on offer at this old fashioned sanctuary from all the rush and crush of modern city life. This is the place to pick locally caught fish fresh off the boats – from delicious dab to mouth watering lobster. You’ll find weird and wonderful creatures which you may not even recognise but the friendly fishmongers are only too happy to explain what they are…and what you’re supposed to do with them!
At the other end of town there’s an entirely different shopping experience in Drake Circus shopping mall. If you’re mad about malls (we’re not) then you’ll love this one. It boasts more than 70 shops including many of the UK’s top brand names, with fast food joints on the top floor, plenty of (clean!) loos and 1,270 undercover parking places.
The complex opened in 2006 and is now the most popular shopping mall in the West Country. The fish murals which adorn the interior are a lovely feature and lend an air of calm to an otherwise frantic environment.
When it comes to the building’s unusual design – well, it’s got the Marmite factor and provokes strong opinions from fans and critics alike. The architects’ journal Building Design awarded it their Carbuncle Cup and described it as ‘truly awful’. Internationally-renowned architect David Mackay, the man who created the ‘vision’ for a future Plymouth, dismissed it as ‘very ugly’. In a national survey it was voted the eighth ugliest city in the UK.
Jeremy Gould, Emeritus Professor of Architecture at the University of Plymouth, poured scorn on its ‘cacophony of materials which have nothing to do with old or new Plymouth’. And an article in The Times referred to the two huge car park drums as ‘two cheeks of a monster’s bum’.
Many architects and design experts jumped on the same Drake Circus bashing bandwagon. Well, we’re not experts but we do live in Plymouth and we’re happy to stick our heads above the parapet and say we like it!
It’s a vast improvement on the ugly carpark which was there before. And the view of the new carpark’s startling façade fanning out behind the ruins of Charles Cross Church (which took a direct hit during the war) as you drive along the approach road to the city from the east is unique and dramatic. It all goes to prove the point that beauty is very much in the eye of the beholder!
An architectural mishmash
The most eye catching addition to the city’s modern architecture is the awesome Roland Levinsky building – the University of Plymouth’s arts complex at the bottom of North Hill. It’s a bold, striking copper-clad construction with nine floors, a central atrium and terraced public spaces. As part of the university’s mission to gel ‘town with gown’, members of the public are encouraged to visit the iconic building and enjoy its coffee shops, theatre, cinema and gallery which often hosts has free art exhibitions.
What’s fascinating about Plymouth (or irritating, depending on your viewpoint) is its clashing architectural styles all co-existing alongside each other and spanning six centuries. Plymouth’s architecture may not be considered as beautiful as Bath’s – but it can certainly claim to be more interesting in its breadth.
Stand behind the Theatre Royal and look around you. The theatre was built in the early 1980s and conceals the existence of Derry’s Clock – a clock tower and fountain dating back to 1862 and much loved locally as it’s one of the few city centre buildings to remain on the same site as it was before the Blitz. The clock is sandwiched between the theatre and The Bank Pub, a thoroughly modern watering hole housed in a flamboyant 18th century former bank (see our City Centre photo gallery). Towering over this architectural mishmash is the 1960s Civic Centre which has unwittingly provoked a storm of controversy over its future.
Just as Plymouth City Council was going to have it razed to the ground on the basis that it’s falling apart and no longer fit for purpose, English Heritage scotched the plan by listing it. Many local people view the 14-storey grey, rectangular building as a hideous eyesore. Professor Gould, however, describes it as ‘brave, bold, with genuine civic presence’ and parts of its interior, he says, are positively‘exotic’. Mmm, what were we saying about beauty and beholders?!
Where ancient meets modern
Opposite the Civic Centre, on the other side of Armada Way, is the imposing Plymouth Guildhall which opened in 1874. It was gutted during the Blitz but managed to survive the city planners’ passionate pursuit of a brand new Plymouth. It’s a beautiful Gothic style building used for civic ceremonies and election counts but also open to the public for concerts, exhibitions, fairs and various other events.
The Guildhall’s 14 stained glass windows depict key events in the city’s history including the civil war and the Blitz. Alongside the Guildhall is St Andrew’s Church where a carved granite plaque represents Plymouth’s meteoric rise from the ashes of the Blitz. The 15th century church was badly damaged in the bombing but a local headmistress called Margaret Smith managed to encapsulate the city’s resurgent spirit with a wooden sign above the door. The sign said resurgam – the Latin word for ‘I shall rise again’.
Famous worshippers at the church are said to include the Pilgrim Fathers, who prayed here for safe deliverance to the New World, Catherine of Aragon who sailed into Plymouth to marry King Henry VII’s son Arthur, and Pocahontas, the Indian Princess who enchanted Plymothians with her exotic beauty when she arrived here before being presented at court in 1616.
The eastern end of the church was once the city treasury and is now one of Plymouth’s most stylish bars (unsurprisingly called The Treasury). Behind the church you’ll find one of the city’s oldest buildings – thePrysten House built in 1498 as the home for the priest of St Andrew’s. The building is owned by the church and used by youth and community groups. Its treasures a 28-feet long tapestry depicting the city’s history through two and a quarter million stitches.
The Prysten House isn’t normally open to the public except on special occasions such as national heritage open days. But the ground floor is let to the Tanner brothers who chose this atmospheric setting as the perfect ingredient to complement their gargantuan culinary skills. Their eponymous restaurant was named AA Restaurant of the Year in 2007/8. The Tanners have blazed a trail when it comes to blending ancient history with modern creativity to stunning effect.
For more views of Plymouth City Centre visit our photo gallery.
Plymouth City Centre – heroic or hideous?