This bank holiday weekend a dragon will stalk the streets of Plymouth and then – all being well - fly out into the English Channel towards the Atlantic from Plymouth Hoe.
The Hatchling is a huge public theatre performance celebrating Britain’s Ocean City and, belatedly, the 400thanniversary of the Mayflower’s departure for America. It will draw in community groups and scores of local volunteers as well as world leaders in the fields of puppetry, set design and kite flying.
The dragon’s earthbound incarnation is the work of Mervyn Millar, part of the original team that created the National Theatre hit War Horse (that show’s equine puppets needed three operators each: the Hatchling requires 36 in total). The flying version springs from the mind of Carl Robertshaw, who has designed structures for the Superbowl, the London 2012 Olympic ceremonies, Kylie Minogue and Bjork: he is also a five-times world sport kite champion and is currently designing satellites with Oxford Space Systems. I was lucky enough to see both versions of the beast during rehearsals in a Plymouth sports field. She looks amazing.
It’s third time lucky for the Hatchling. Her planned appearance on the actual Mayflower anniversary in 2020 was scuppered by you-know-what: the rescheduled date earlier this month was then put back after the mass shooting on the 12th. Visiting two days after that horrible event I expected a community in shock: I found a bustling, unbowed city of 234,000 people layered with history, commerce and fun, where a pint can cost less than £4.
Even if a dragon doesn’t fly your kite, so to speak, there’s plenty in Plymouth to get your teeth into.
What to see
The architecture, both naval and landlubbing, is a microcosm of Britain’s rise and fall as a trading and martial power, from Charles II’s Royal Citadel (built on Francis Drake’s original base) to the city centre gutted by German bombs and town planners. Personally, I love the mixture of brutalist monstrosity and decaying Victorian and 20th century behemoths left behind, now augmented by new and better architectural interventions by the university and others. But the recently restored Elizabethan House on New St in the warren-like Barbican area near the Sutton Pool port gives a good idea of how trade affected Plymouth – the spiral staircase is built around a ship’s mast - and the port buildings are stunning.
The harbour steps by which the Pilgrim Fathers accessed the Mayflower are underwhelming – I can picture the disappointed faces of American tourists – but nearby monuments to the Tolpuddle Martyrs and others lost at sea are very moving. Plymouth’s undulating miles of dock-, beach- and harbour-front – especially the Hoe, where the Beatles’ bumprints are immortalized in metal – give beautiful views of sun-strafed sea and Tolkein-esque countryside.
What to do
There’s a smallish, dedicated museum to the Mayflower by the steps and a bigger, more evocative exhibition at The Box, which gives an idea of conditions on board and shows how the pious (but still vicious) Pilgrims were chosen as America’s founding myth rather than the brutal, racist colony at Jamestown.
The Box is a glassy and inviting new building drawing together the old civic museum and art gallery. It’s got a fine collection of local art and an intriguing room of medical specimens. The National Marine Aquarium is the largest in Britain: I could have stared at the jellyfish alone for hours.
A 60-minute cruise of the harbour is a must, but take a waterproof. As is a tour of Plymouth Gin’s Black Friars distillery, first opened in 1793, where I learned that gunpowder soaked in its 57% proof Naval Strength gin will still ignite. Probably best to sample this after, rather than before, a swim at Devil’s Point, or in the ravishing Tinside Lido. If rain sets in, there’s a Cineworld in the Drake’s Circus shopping complex and the attractive 1970s-vintage Theatre Royal.
Where to stay
We stayed at Residence One, part of the late-Georgian listed Royal William Yard, a collection of magnificent naval buildings covering 16 acres between the River Tamar and Plymouth Sound, and superbly restored by architects Urban Splash as offices, apartments, bars and restaurants. (The rooms at Residence One are operated by nearby Bistrot Pierre).
The Yard is also home to yoga classes on the green and paddleboarding from Devil’s Point. Hotel accommodation in Plymouth tends towards the functional rather than the quirky or opulent, but there are good Airbnb’s to be found in Royal William Yard and in the Barbican.
Where to eat and drink
In addition to the serviceable Bistrot Pierre, Royal William Yard is home to Wildwood Pizzeria, independent vintners Le Vignoble, and The Hook and Line which serves seafood and a boggling selection of rums, and has lovely views to the seaside hamlet of Cremyll.
Breathtaking panoramas, decent burgers and swordfish steaks, and eye-watering measure of gin can be had at Pier One. Takeaway chips from the Harbour were excellent. Next time, following the recommendation of a woman at the distillery, I plan to try Barbican Kitchen run by celebrity chefs Chris and James Tanner and the beer-battered anchovies at Fletcher’s in the city centre.
Shamefully, this is the first time I’ve stayed in Plymouth, having previously used it as a jumping off point to seaside cottages on the Rame Head peninsula. After our weekend in the city, we squeezed in a couple of days in a delightfully quirky, converted fisherman’s house overlooking the beach and the boat-bobbing sea in Kingsand/Cawsand, the conjoined villages that straddle the Devon/Cornwall border.
We hired a car, but you can get to Cawsand from Plymouth by Ferry. Looe, Polperro and Exeter are all in striking distance, and the bleak beauties of Dartmoor are on your doorstep.
The Hatchling will be appearing in, and over, Plymouth on 28 and 29 Aug; visitengland.com