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It isn’t without a daily snigger, that the branding of Plymouth is discussed. Not just by outsiders but by locals too. It isn’t on the ocean. There’s no getting away from it, so why is it branded that way?

Well, the mundane truth might well be that the title is a very clever piece of marketing – but to leave it at that would belie a much deeper truth, and would do no justice to the tapestry of maritime history which clothes Plymouth in rich ocean shades.

Whilst the motives of the brand may come into question – the brand essence (as those in the know may refer to it) runs deeper than any river possibly could and in the build up to Mayflower 400 in 2020, when a huge proportion of the world’s eyes will turn to face us, Plymouth’s modern face and brand has never been more crucial.

The sea – Plymouth Sound and the horizon out to the Eddystone lighthouse, together with the tidal feeder-rivers – pretty much surrounds the city, and creates the reason for the existence of the place from it’s earliest days; but why does it deserve the title of ‘Britain’s Ocean City’? After all, there are plenty of other important maritime towns and cities around Great Britain!

You can’t arrive in Plymouth and not notice the sea – it just isn’t possible! By train you will have travelled the magnificent coastal route along the South Coast of Devon and then beside the estuary of the River Plym, along the Laira – or have crossed the River Tamar by Brunel’s incredible bridge at Saltash.

By road you will have seen Plymouth Sound in the distance, whether from the A38 or from Dartmoor, and if heading up from Cornwall will have crossed the Tamar by the equally beautiful road bridge.

Early history

Plymouth almost certainly began from the sea, with Saxon settlers migrating along the coast by boat and finding the shelter of Sutton Pool (now Sutton Harbour), fed by fresh water streams, and the sheltered valley where we see St Andrews Cross, Bretonside and Royal Parade today.

The tiny town clustered around the Church above the Pool, and farming, fishing and trading began to gather pace.

So even from earliest days, the sea was Plymouth’s life blood – and people whose forefathers had crossed the North Sea were soon venturing across the Channel and down into Biscay. Traders from the Mediterranean were well-known off Devon from early times – in search of metals especially tin for the making of bronze.

Seas soon give way to Oceans – so Plymouth fishermen were soon catching Cod off North America and sailing all around France and Spain. This knowledge would be invaluable for English Kings to transport their Armies into France, to combat the Armada at sea, to sail around the globe, and to see the first settlers across to America.

It is no flight of fancy to claim that it was Plymouth men and their ships who carried England’s interests around the Oceans of the world, allowing the development of Empire and giving Britannia the chance to Rule the Waves!

But it really starts with the Geography

The UK has many rivers, and these were frequently used by small ships, from the Vikings to Tudor traders. Most are now silted up and it’s hard to imagine boats of 50-100 feet in length making their slow progress up and down – but that’s how Plympton came to be a town before Plymouth did, as a focus for the tin trade.

Few however have the length and breadth of the Plym and Tamar, with a reach that allowed exploitation of mineral and agricultural wealth from the hinterland.

In pre-history these rivers carved great gorges through the limestone bedrock – much like Cheddar Gorge today – when sea levels were much lower. These sheer-sided hundred-foot-deep gorges form the channels that Naval and cargo vessels use today. They also carved out the wide valley that was to become Plymouth Sound – and this all meant that when men replaced dinosaurs, there was a relative abundance of reasonably sheltered anchorages!

Sitting between the rivers was the high ground of Plymouth Hoe (‘Hoe’ means ‘high’); this provided a vantage point for defence and was of course a great lookout. It also provided some shelter from the prevailing Sou’Westerly winds for a town to grow in it’s lee.

Below that town was the natural marvel that created Plymouth as a seaport – the harbour provided by Sutton Pool. With a narrow rock-protected (and defensible) entrance, muddy beaches, and plenty of space, the Pool provided a place for boats to shelter, load and unload cargoes, be built and repaired, and for merchants to build warehouses and quays. Here Drake was based, the Armada was fought, the Mayflower was sailed to America, and countless voyages of exploration and trade commenced. But let us return to this crucible of history later in the tale!

A city needs food and fresh water, as well as natural resources; the rich agricultural lands behind Plymouth (easily accessible from the rivers in days when roads were poor or non-existent) together with the mineral-rich and  a very wet Dartmoor ‘sponge’ of peat to feed streams and leats provided all of this for Plymouth – and what couldn’t be grown or dug could be imported by ship! Also, the existence of growing town populations and markets for trade – as well as military garrisons and expeditions plus a growing Navy – meant that there was a worthwhile and constant market to be served, allowing the ‘’Three Towns’’ (Plymouth, Devonport and Stonehouse) to thrive and eventually become one city.

To Trade or not to Trade

Plymouth is not as large a commercial cargo port as some others in modern terms – but it has a substantial history and still handles large vessels into the Cattewater.

Sutton Harbour was in it’s heyday (which lasted for several centuries!) a major handler, taking china clay, tin, granite, coal, timber, foodstuffs – and people (of course) across it’s quays. In Nelson’s day it was a centre for the collection of ‘prizes’ – ships and their cargoes captured at sea and brought back for sale; many a sailor made his fortune in this way! It was also the ‘Victualling’ (food, drink and other items) store for the Navy, until the building of the Royal William Yard at Stonehouse.

Brunel built the Great Western Docks at Millbay, which was a major handler of goods, and a massive player in the Transatlantic Ocean Liner business, bringing thousands of passengers and thousands of tons of mail in and out of Britain.

Strong rail links came right onto the quaysides and a passenger could be in London only a few hours after stepping off the liner – in fact at about the same speed as today!

There was another great trade on the water – agriculture from the banks of the Tamar. These sheltered and fertile slopes were prodigious producers of fruit, vegetables and flowers – all of which could be easily shipped downriver to Plymouth for onward carriage by boat or rail to markets far afield.

If you take a stroll around Covent Garden (and many other major London locations) you are in a way walking on granite from Dartmoor – in a place built by a major Devon estate owner (The Duke of Bedford) and selling Tamar produce.

Nelson stands today atop a column of Dartmoor Granite – shipped out from Plymouth after riding by rail down from Princetown.

Royal Navy

After the great lesson of the Armada, it was clear that an efficient Navy was needed to defend the interests of Britain – to protect her trade and project her power. The tradition was that commercial trading ships would be hired as required, with a military element imposed upon the civilian crew – not an ideal arrangement for war-fighting. Henry VIII began to develop purpose-built warships, but building a ‘proper’ Navy was not so straightforward!

After the Civil War the subsequent Kings and Governments saw that dedicated Naval bases were needed – and if you wanted to be able to get easily down toward France and the North Atlantic then the only location to choose was Plymouth. Remember that this was all about the age of sail – you needed to be based as close as possible to your objectives and have the sea-room to get out onto the blue water in winds and weather that weren’t always favourable. You also needed crews and specialists who knew their trade AND the seas in which they would operate – and Plymouth had these aplenty.

So the great Dockyard on the Hamoaze began to be built – stores and armouries, shipyards and barracks – all were created on ground largely reclaimed from a muddy riverside foreshore – the ‘ooze’. Devonport became the largest dockyard in Europe, and still is.

The weather remained a problem and it could wreak havoc even inside Plymouth Sound, and so the ‘Great National Undertaking’ of the mile-long Plymouth Breakwater was constructed, keeping the storms outside the anchorages. It was admired by Napoleon aboard HMS Bellepheron as he headed into his final exile; Napoleon also influenced the building of the chain of immense ‘Palmerston’ Victorian forts – 22 main ones – circling Plymouth. This was a major expense and was not undertaken lightly; it indicates the importance of Plymouth to the Nation and Empire.

These forts would be enhanced through the two World Wars as Britain and her great ‘Blue-Water’ Navy faced threats around the globe. The mighty ‘Hood’ sailed from Devonport to her destruction by the Bismark. And the gallant ‘Exeter’ returned here after her battle to destroy the Graf Spee. Devonport built ships too – and the last warship built here lies today as a man-made reef in Whitsand Bay – the frigate HMS Scylla.

The Scylla brings many divers to visit Plymouth, as do a wealth of events and attractions. The Hoe and the Sound are iconic – as is Smeaton’s Tower atop the Hoe, brought piece by piece back from the Eddystone Reef when it was replaced. The tower looks down onto a waterfront that is truly world-class and forms a venue for a great deal of yacht and powerboat racing, including International events such as the Americas Cup and TRANSAT. Drake was the first global circumnavigator – with Plymouth as his base; and when the first sailor circled the world alone, Francis Chichester started and finished at Plymouth Hoe.

There is another – massively important – set of visitors who passed through Plymouth before crossing the Atlantic Ocean to North America – the Pilgrim fathers in the Mayflower.

Today we see a memorial arch, the Mayflower Steps, and a small museum; many passers-by will not give it much thought. But if you are an American this is one of those utterly iconic moments in history, from which the history of their Nation flows! Millions of Americans claim a descendancy from that small group of religious pilgrims, whose determination, suffering and sense of democracy inspired generations of successors.

It is hard to overstate the importance of the Mayflower and Plymouth – as events planned in 2020 for the 400th anniversary will show. 

Earlier in this piece Plymouth was referred to as a ‘crucible of history’; from here Britain reached out to the entire World, connected and conquered, warred and traded, explored and ventured.

Other river-port cities exist in Britain; many will have a similar claim – but when you think about how a small muddy pool gave berth to sailors and birth to an Empire, Plymouth can certainly lay claim to be ‘BRITAIN’S OCEAN CITY’!