M.y paternal great-grandmother used to maintain that if you’re feeling the pinch and you’ve got itchy feet you ought to go to Plymouth. Being a sucker for ancestral wisdom, I snap up a ticket for what must surely be, pound for pound, the best-value journey in the UK – FlixBus’s new 99p London-to-Plymouth coach service.
FlixBus is a German brand in expansion mode. Its newest routes, which also include Glasgow to Manchester, bring the locations on its UK network to more than 30 – London Victoria to the West Country’s self-branded Ocean City works out at 0.5pa mile. The true cost of more than six hours on a crowded 60-seater? That remains to be seen.
I stockpile the snacks (unlike the glory days of the National Express, there’s no “hostess” service), take my seat somewhere around the middle of the coach and, at a little past 4pm, we’re off – westward along Chelsea Embankment, past the former homes of Sylvia Pankhurst and Hilaire Belloc , and a postman on an e-scooter. The seat is comfortable, the armrest isn’t broken and it’s all surprisingly. . . slick.
You see things by coach – Norman fronts, Roman remains, postwar eyesores. And on top of seeing things you hear them as well; motoring along the M5, beside fields of rape and the Mendip Hills, I turn to the young man behind me and ask for the lowdown on Devon; he says that the cream goes on first and leaves it at that.
Plymouth is just one of FlixBus’s destinations on its expanded, affordable route map
There are stops in Bristol, Taunton and Exeter, and with the wi-fi decent enough for binge-watching Fred Dibnah’s Made in Britain series, the time passes at a decent lick. We reach Plymouth just after 11pm.
I move seaward along Armada Way, a wide, pedestrianized avenue that’s lined with robust, unfussy, ashen buildings. Personally I don’t mind the look of them. And I don’t mind what they stand for either – the Plymouth Blitz took care of the old town center, and the response couldn’t afford to be intricate.
That said, where Armada Way crosses Royal Parade there is a modernist block of staggering heft, seemingly untroubled by purpose. No, that’s a lie – the purpose of the Civic Center is to appear awesome and inexplicable, and the opposite of discreet. The building’s architect was Hector Stirling (1907-70), and apparently the tower used to be known as Stirling’s Castle. Certainly, had the building been on its toes back in the 1580s I doubt the Spanish would have given Plymouth a second look.
What I know of Plymouth could be written on a scone – Francis Drake, the Pilgrim Fathers, the Hoe. The latter is an elevated park overlooking the sea, and I have the place to myself. It’s just me and a lighthouse, and statues of Drake, Britannia and Nancy Astor.
I study the sea. It’s calm, oily and quiet – barely a Sound at all. There are lone seagulls scattered around keeping shtoom, scared or unwilling to break the peace. Several glittering warships remain at bay, while sitting proudly below me is Plymouth’s famed lido, an art deco semi-circle – a pasty-shaped virtue – that protrudes confidently into the sea.
I go west on Hoe Road until I get to Pier Street, where I find my home from home: Edgcumbe Guest House – a well-reviewed, fittingly affordable “boutique” stay.
Smeaton’s Tower, on Plymouth Hoe, overlooks the Sound
By daylight it’s clear that Plymouth’s topography is an asset. The city’s natural curves beget visual surprises – sightly compositions and chance vistas, each the thoughtless result of various dips and drops and peaks.
I sit near the bowling green and enjoy watching the ladies there roll their biased balls towards a small, unmoving target, just as Drake would have done in 1588, before he pulled up his breeches and duffed up the Spanish. Some of the remarks made by the players are difficult to make sense of – “Jack’s safe with you about, Jenny,” being an example.
At the Barbican, Plymouth’s harborside warren of cobbled streets and period housing, I purchase a pasty. It’s a fair size, all right – hardly smaller than Stirling’s Castle. The pastry is puff and buttery, while the inside mix of steak and veg is top-notch. If the oggy has a fault it’s the amount of seasoning – it’s packing enough pepper to blow up parliament.
I find the Mayflower Steps, from where in 1620 a hundred nonconformists set off for New Plymouth. Like them, I too embark, on a cruise of the Sound and the River Tamar. A lot of the onboard commentary is lost on the wind, but I get the gist of what goes by – the Royal Citadel, built at the behest of Charles II, its cannon aimed in all directions to keep the locals in check as well as the French at bay; Royal William Yard, a collection of grade II listed buildings, formerly a victualling depot for the navy, now an upmarket way to enjoy your weekend; the vast dockyard at Devonport, where frigates are revamped and nuclear submarines await safe dismantlement.
Throughout the voyage, the scenery is sublime – the spires, masts, towers and domes; the anglers and paddleboarders; distant Dartmoor and the floodlights of a cricket ground, ready to illuminate a crunch match that’s gone on beyond dusk.
Back ashore I eat dinner at Mama Rita’s Kitchen, an Afro-Caribbean restaurant on Mayflower Street. Rita tells me that business is good, despite Covid and the cost-of-living crisis, though she admits that a larger proportion of people are having food delivered. “People are scared of socialising, or maybe the pandemic’s made them lazy,” she says as she sets before me sufficient jerk chicken and rice to sustain a flotilla.
Take a refreshing dip in the Tinside Lido
A digestive wander follows, on Cornwall, Raleigh and Union streets. Outside the Eagle fans of Plymouth Argyle tend to their wounds, while outside the Theater Royal a giant sculpture stops me in my tracks. From what I can tell it’s a colossal young woman playing Twister. I read the explanation: Messenger is by the Cornish artist Joseph Hillier, and it captures the latent potential of the city. At almost half a million quid I should hope it does.
Sunday starts with a swim in the sea (the lido is shut). Undressing on the stones of Tinside beach I experience a sharp sense of my own folly. I seek encouragement from those returning from the water, but I don’t get it; all they can do is shiver. I swim about ten meters in a hasty, foul-mouthed semi-circle then return to dry land and dress as fast as humanly possible. There is this to be said for swimming in Plymouth Sound: it’s certainly affordable.
The Box is Plymouth’s principal gallery and museum, and there can’t be many better municipal diversions in the country. Where else for the princely sum of zilch can you admire a woolly mammoth named Mildred, Captain Robert Falcon Scott’s extremely long socks and endless jars of pickled marine life? The atmosphere is anything but reverential – on more than one occasion I overhear an infant badmouthing Walter Raleigh.
There’s time for a Sunday roast. Having been tipped off about a place called Salumi I proceed there at speed in drizzling conditions. I find it at the end of West Hoe Road, opposite the Duke of Cornwall Hotel – and very much as advertised.
It would be stretching the truth only a smidge to say that I’d return to Plymouth for a Salumi roast dinner alone. The gravy is unnervingly good, the spuds crunchy, the Yorkshire pudding has a mind of its own and, what’s more, my waiter, Jack, is good enough to plate me up a scaled-down version – meaning I’m able to depart Plymouth not feeling like a blimp.
Ben Aitken was a guest of FlixBus, which is offering coach services between London Victoria and Plymouth, five days a week from 99p, until May 26 (flixbus.co.uk)