It’s almost impossible to look at Plymouth’s architectural landscape without thinking about the war. The city was so hammered by bombs during WW2, there was almost nothing left of the historic centre – and most of what survived the Blitz was bulldozed to make way for a modern reconstruction. Even before the war was over, there was talk of a new ‘Plan for Plymouth’. Enter architect-cum-town-planner, Sir Patrick Abercrombie with a bold vision for a city of the future – a grid of streets (sorry, ‘boulevards’), precincts, piazzas and municipal gardens that swept seawards to the Hoe.
This vision survives – now a landmark city of the past with heritage protection and conservation status. Plymouth’s centre boasts one of the highest concentrations of post-war listed buildings in the UK. Good enough reason to pay a visit? Indeed, but what makes Devon’s ‘Ocean City’ so interesting is the contrast of new and very old. Our Covid-friendly trail features an Elizabethan merchant’s house, a lighthouse, an Edwardian museum with a 21st century box on top, a 1930s lido and a neo-Egyptian hall. Even the carbuncles are interesting.
• Main photo: Civic, the planned redevelopment for the city centre’s 1960s Civic Centre (see below). Image courtesy of Urban Splash.
The Merchant House
Grade II listed. Dated circa 1600.
Plymouth is fundamentally an Elizabethan city and the omnipresent ghost of Sir Francis Drake is not the only legacy of its buccaneering Tudor heyday. Unfortunately, the Blitz razed much of the old city, leaving a few precious relics stranded in unlikely places: this little beauty, tucked away in a cobbled side street (between the city centre and the Barbican harbour) is now dwarfed by post-war development. The timber-framed Merchant House, a museum (currently closed), is billed as Plymouth’s best preserved 16th century building (precise date unknown, but this is likely to be a remodelled version of an older house). The first recorded owner was privateer (the polite term for a pirate) and Spanish Armada veteran, William Parker who is thought to have moved in when he became Lord Mayor of Plymouth in 1602.
Go to: St Andrew’s Street, PL1 2AX
Grade II listed. Dated 1759
The work of civil engineer, John Smeaton, the lighthouse tower was originally built on the treacherous Eddystone Reef, 14 miles out to sea. In 1884, the upper section was relocated brick by brick to its current site on Plymouth Hoe (a shallow eroding reef was not the best foundation for a 72-foot tower) and Smeaton’s disused lighthouse has been a tourist attraction ever since. Normally (pre-Covid) you can climb its 93 steps (there are ladders, too) to the Lantern Room at the top, catching great views of the city and Plymouth Sound while getting a feel for life in an 18th century lighthouse.
• Go to: West Hoe Road, PL1 2NZ
Grade II* listed. Dated 1820.
Designed by architect David Laing (a pupil of Sir John Soane), this waterfront treasure was originally the Barbican’s custom and excise building – a function it served for nearly 200 years. Built of granite by Napoleonic prisoners of war, it also housed bonded warehouses and jail cells. HM Revenue and Customs were here until 2010; their departure left the building empty until it was bought two years later and finally re-opened as Custom House Plymouth – an elegant multi-use venue which combines events spaces with a bar and restaurant and serviced apartments. To see what a great job has been done on the interior, check out the website.
Not to be confused with the older Old Customs House (opposite, Grade II*, dated 1586 and home to second-hand bookseller, the Book Cupboard.
• Go to: The Parade, PL1 2JP
Grade 1 listed. Dated 1822
For this one, you’ll need to take a bus to Devonport (it’s a long walk from the city centre); unless you’re particularly keen on fluted Doric pillars you might not think it’s worth the journey, but the Guildhall, along with its adjacent column and neighbouring Egyptian House (all Grade I listed) are among the city’s most intriguing buildings. All three were designed by Regency architect John Foulston; the municipal hall combined courthouse, ballroom, police station and mortuary in the days when Devonport was a town in its own right; just behind, is the lofty Devonport Column (124ft high and open to the public since 1830); and next door, the extraordinary Egyptian House (see below). Amazingly, this odd trio of Georgian relics survived the war (only just – see picture 1 above, courtesy of The Box archive) although they were severely compromised by the surrounding devastation. When I first came across them in the 1970s, they were marooned in a cul-de-sac of dreary, dysfunctional post-war council flats. These were demolished in 2008 to make way for a new generation of housing – an improvement but still at odds with Foulston’s finer buildings. After restoration, the Guildhall reopened as a community centre in 2010. The column was back in use three years later (visitors can climb to the top via an internal staircase). Covid update: both closed until further notice.
• Go to: Ker Street, Devonport, Plymouth, PL1 4EL
The Eygptian House
Grade I listed. Dated 1823
As one of only two 19th century, Egyptian-style buildings in the UK (the other is on Chapel Street, Penzance), the Odd Fellows Hall deserves its own listing – despite having already been covered (see above). The work of Georgian architect, John Foulston, it was designed, says a plaque on the wall, ‘in the Egyptian style following the popularization [sic] of Egyptian architecture after the Napoleonic campaigns’. Originally, the exuberant building served as the Stonehouse and Devonport Classical and Mathematical Subscription School; then as a military library; in 1867 it was bought by the Odd Fellows – an international, non-sectarian fraternity about which I can tell you nothing (at least not here). Since 1968, it has been a social club and despite its Grade I listing is said to be in a poor state of repair. I’d love to see inside: pictures suggest an alluring combo of original Egyptian-style features, retro bar-room and modern Tutankhamun tat.
• Go to: Ker Street, Devonport, Plymouth, PL1 4EL
Royal William Yard
Grade I listed (a Scheduled Ancient Monument). Dated 1825-1831
Pictures: Left, courtesy of Visit Plymouth / Jay Stone. Right, new outdoor staircase designed by Gillespie Yunnie Architects (photographs by Richard Downer).
The work of architect Sir John Rennie, this remarkable collection of Napoleonic buildings was constructed as a Royal Naval victualling yard (bakery, cooperage, slaughterhouse, brewhouse, mill etc) using chunks of granite dressed with Devon limestone. On 16 acres at the tip of the Stonehouse Peninsula, it is, no less, the largest collection of Grade I listed military buildings in Europe. The Yard was decommissioned back in 1992, and after several years of uncertainty, regeneration specialist Urban Splash stepped in to realise a bold plan to re-use this historic site; buildings designed to provision Naval fleets have now been converted into apartments, restaurants, bars, galleries, creative spaces – and there is more to come. Of note, is the imposing granite archway at the entrance, the clock tower on the Melville building and a funky new staircase (designed by Gillespie Yunnie Architects) which links the yard to the Coast Path. To get a different perspective, take the Cremyll foot ferry to Mount Edgcumbe and back. From the water, the yard’s spectacular buildings look particularly good at dusk on a summer’s evening. Normally (pre Covid), there is a ferry service that runs between harbours at Royal William Yard and the Barbican. More info here.
• Go to: Stonehouse PL1 3RP
Grade 1 listed. Dated 1859 (and 1961).
One of the finest works of Victorian engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel (his name and the date can be seen on the Cornish side of the western pier), Royal Albert Bridge is a Grade I listed marvel. Historic England says it’s a rare ‘bowstring tubular plate girder bridge’, the only survivor of its kind to carry a railway track. Serving the Great Western Railway, the cast iron structure creates a spectacular entrance (or exit) to Cornwall crossing the Tamar Estuary between Plymouth and Saltash. The contrasting addition of the adjacent road bridge, a fairly standard suspension job built in 1961, makes the view doubly impressive. One of the best places to get the full two-bridge experience is from the Saltash shoreline (pictured, above) where you can look up at its undercarriage beneath a line of towering supports. The view is similar from the Plymouth side (minus the Brunel statue, and the patriotic Union Inn, see picture 3, above); alternatively, the Tamar Valley scenic branch line that runs from Plymouth to Gunnislake passes right underneath. All trains on the Paddington to Penzance route cross the Tamar railway bridge (slowly, usually). The A38 road bridge toll is currently set at £2 (only payable from Cornwall into Devon).
Go to: Tamar Street, PL12 4EL (Saltash); Wolseley Road, PL5 1LB (Plymouth)
Grade II listed. Dated 1935.
A classic Art Deco swimming bath, the Lido was originally a ladies’ pool, designed by architect John Wibberley and encased within a semi-circular sea wall that projects into the sea from Plymouth Hoe’s cliff face. The pool closed in 1992 and was left empty and neglected for over ten years; leaving a tragic legacy of degraded concrete, rust and green slime. There was a plan to replace it with an ampitheatre but residents successfully campaigned to re-open the lido which was listed in 1998. At a cost of £3.5 million, it re-opened in 2005 (minus a few original details – like the diving boards) and remains open between May and September. The reality doesn’t quite live up to some of the glam pictures on, say, the Visit Plymouth website, and it looks pretty forlorn during the fallow winter months, but it’s still a glorious confection of salt water, sun decks, fountains and art deco architecture. Oh, and there are plans afoot to add a huge, retractable domed roof which will enable all-year-round use.
• Go to: The Hoe, PL1 2AA
Conservation area status with Grade II listings. Dated: 1947-1962.
This is the core of Abercrombie’s Plan for Plymouth (see intro): a grid of wide streets (Armada Way, New George Street, Royal Parade) lined with purpose-built department stores, banks, piazzas, green spaces; a lot of Portland stone. It’s a place that looked unfashionable barely a decade after it was built but the entire ensemble was deemed a Conservation Area in 2019, the first modern city to be granted such status. Even fans of modernism struggle to feel the love (a combination of neglect and sea air hasn’t done the place any favours) but think of its legacy as a very precise moment in post-war planning history; a ‘welfare state city’ with international aspirations – including Lutyens New Delhi and the Festival of Britain style. Look for the details (carvings, crests and mosaics) and a few stand-out buildings: the Pannier Market and the Civic Centre (more on both below), the former Royal Bank of Scotland (cuboid clock tower and sea-blue Venetian glass façade at the head of Royal Parade) and the Theatre Royal (a late addition, dated 1982) – all Grade II listed. Pictured (above) is the House of Fraser (originally Dingles) by Thomas Tait (who incidentally also designed the pylons on Sydney Harbour Bridge).
Grade II listed. Dated 1959.
Head down to what I call the ‘bottom of town’ (also known as the ‘West End’) where the big chain stores peter out into a hotch-potch of low-budget retail (Coral, Cash Converters, Burger King) and the Portland stone gives way to flat-roofed red brick. The market (also known as the Pannier Market) is where you go for, say, stretch-nylon car seat covers, vacuum cleaner dust bags, net curtains, air rifles, hair extensions, pre-loved vinyl …I could go on. You’ll also find veg stalls, fishmongers and butchers (which is why it’s remained open for ‘essential shopping’ during lockdown). Designed by Walls and Pearn, this hangar of a building (with its distinctive wavy roof), replaced a bombed predecessor – there’s been a market in the city since the 13th century. I love its echoey volume, the big clock on the wall, the roof lights and the ‘pre-tensioned reinforced concrete trusses’ (thanks to Historic England for that definition). On a mezzanine level, there’s normally a row of indy cafes (think all-day fry-ups, school-dinner roasts – this is not the place for sushi or sourdough). More info on the website.
• Go to: Cornwall Street, PL1 1PS.
Grade II listed. Dated 1962.
There were snorts of derision when the city’s former council HQ was given conservation status in 2007, but I must admit I’ve got a soft spot for Jellicoe, Ballantyne and Coleridge’s fourteen-storey tower. Plymouth’s first skyscraper originally had a restaurant beneath its butterfly roof; the tower, which floats over two low-rise office blocks, sits on legs – like a giant mid-century sideboard – and presides over a landscaped ‘civic square’ centred by a rectangular pool (for some reason people used to toss coins into the water – maybe they still do). In the detail, are pillars clad in red Murano glass mosaics, Portland stone columns, Delabole slate and Plymouth limestone. To its detractors, however, the building is just a big slab of concrete which hasn’t aged well. Thankfully, developer Urban Splash (who have an impressive record as the saviours of challenging landmark buildings, see Royal William Yard, above) has taken the building under its wing. The derelict centre now has a future as ‘Civic’ which according to the project’s architects (Gillespie Yunnie) will become a ‘mixed use destination worthy of its iconic status’ (think retail, office space, apartments etc). Thanks to Urban Splash/ Uniform Studio for the use of the computer generated images. Thanks to The Box archive for the vintage black and white.
• Go to: Armada Way, PL1 2AA
Christ the King: Cathedral Church
Grade II listed. Dated 1962.
Blink and you might miss it (there’s nothing loud about this building) but the Catholic Cathedral Church of St Mary and St Boniface on Armada Way is the last work of Sir Giles Gilbert Scott – better known for Battersea Power Station, Liverpool Cathedral and the K6 red telephone box among other achievements – and was built posthumously following his death in 1960. In plans drawn up for the city’s post-war reconstruction, the site was within a zone originally designated for hotels, but as no hotelier came forward, it got a church instead – this one meant as an auxiliary to the older Cathedral which is in a relatively suburban street just north of the city centre. Historic England say it has ‘Gothic style with Italianate influences’ Personally, I thinks it’s rather dull – and as a very late example of the Arts & Crafts style it certainly looks older than its years. I believe it’s quite nice inside.
• Go to: Armada Way, PL65AA.
Drakes Circus (and other carbuncles)
Unlisted. Dated 2006
Just after it was completed, the city centre’s indoor shopping mall (pictured, right) became the deserving first winner of the Carbuncle Cup – now awarded annually to the ugliest new building in Britain. Building Design magazine (who picks the offending eyesores) described Drakes Circus as a ‘crime against architecture’; journalist Tom Dyckhoff, said the architects (Chapman Taylor), should ‘hang their heads in shame’. Worth a look, just to see if you agree with the critics.
On the carbuncle front, Drakes Circus is not alone. Nearby Beckley Point (a 23-storey student housing block – now the South West’s tallest building) was shortlisted for the same award in 2018. And then there’s the so-called Barcode building: the Bretonside multiplex (completed in 2019) is stripy, largely monochrome and does actually look like a barcode – see left-hand picture, above).
Roland Levinsky Building
Unlisted. Dated 2007
The flagship of the city’s university campus on North Hill, the nine-storey, copper-clad tower houses the arts, culture and education faculty. Designed by Danish architect Henning Larsens Tegnestue, it replaced an earlier, rather ugly, tower block (I’m guessing late 1960s) that served the old Plymouth Polytechnic (university status was granted in 1992). The building is named after the late Professor Roland Levinsky, biomedical researcher and the Uni’s former Vice Chancellor. It presents different faces at different angles, and I rather like the way this blue, glassy elevation (above) reflects the colour of the sky.
• Go to: North Hill, PL1 4EL
Unlisted. Dated 2020
Plymouth’s latest architectural statement is a bold box-like extension grafted onto the city’s Edwardian museum and art gallery. At a cost of £46 million, the project was designed by architect Kevin Presland and was allied to the Mayflower 400 celebrations in 2020 (most of which were scuppered by the pandemic). Its defining feature is a ‘floating’ cube which, according to the Guardian, looks a bit like ‘an out-of-town storage shed got blown here in a gale’. It does look a tad incongruous, particularly from the front elevation where the said box – clad in a blue mosaic of metallic squares – looms over the roof of the original museum (now rebranded as a ‘cultural destination’). But get this, the eponymous box is the largest double cantilever in the UK. We were lucky enough to squeeze in a visit between lock-downs and there’s much to enjoy here, not just the hybrid gallery spaces but the exhibits: a clever digital film on Plymouth’s maritime history, a woolly mammoth replica, a collection of vintage photographs (from the city archive) and 14 original Victorian ships’ figureheads which dangle from the ceiling in a lofty glass atrium. The café is good, too.
• Go to: Tavistock Place, PL4 8AX.
While you’re here….
Eventually, we’ll get around to adding more sights to this list but for now here’s some of the Plymouth places we left out. The Prysten House is one of the city’s oldest surviving buildings (dated 1500); a former courtyard house it’s now in use as the Greedy Goose restaurant. The 16th century Elizabethan House on New Street is open to the public as a museum devoted to ‘Drake’s Plymouth’ (currently in the throes of restoration complete with scaffolding). Skirt the walls of the Royal Citadel, a 17th century fort – still in use – between the Barbican and the Hoe promenade (tours are available through English Heritage). Also, on the Barbican, look out for Plymouth Gin – pictured, left – the oldest working gin distillery in England (since 1793); and the London South Western Railway building (no details to hand, but pictured centre). Also worth a look is the striking entrance to the Law Courts (left) designed in 1963 by former City Architect Hector Stirling.
Eye-traveller is planing architecture tours to Georgian Bath, Penzance in Cornwall and Weymouth in Dorset.