Last week we spent two nights and three days in Plymouth for the occasion of my sister’s graduation from university (more on that soon). I’ve visited her several times over the years and have grown steadily fond of Plymouth, coming to see it as a lovely, understated and fundamentally misunderstood place. While the majority of its built environment could hardly be described as beautiful – the city was bombed to ruin by the Luftwaffe during the Second World War – the surroundings and scenery are utterly arresting, teetering on hills that rise up above the vast blue expanse of Plymouth Sound, bound to the east and west by the Plym and Tamar rivers. From almost any elevated spot in the city, the waters can be seen glimmering in the distance, beckoning. London always seems a very long way away.
The seven of us – parents, grandparents, sister, her boyfriend and me – scattered across two converted apartments in Royal William Yard, a former navy victualling yard. Built between 1826 and 1835, the yard supplied food and drink to hungry sailors for over a century before its closure in 1992. After falling under private ownership, it was reopened in the early years of the new millennium as a place to stay, eat, drink and wander. Built from Devon limestone and Dartmoor granite, it’s an impressive, commandeering, handsome construction. My grandfather couldn’t stop marvelling, ‘Just look at these walls! Look at this thick stone! What a marvel.’
It’s peculiar and quite wonderful to think of how different it would have been at the height of its use – the bustling business of industrial manufacturing chiming in the yards around the harbour, sailors disembarking day and night, flour mills churning in Mills Bakery, hundreds of bulls a day slaughtered in the on-site abattoir. What a tremendous sight it must have been in the yard’s early days when the navy’s timber, rigged gunships docked at Royal William Yard to stock up for their next outbound voyage. The yard once supplied the navy with everything from oatmeal and salt beef to rum and gunpowder.
We marked each evening of our stay with a walk along the South West Coast Path in the golden hour, watching in gentle awe as the sea grew bluer with every turn. Rounding the southwestern corner of the yard, several flights of glass stairs lead to this view across the rooftops of the old naval yard. And this view out to sea…
Rounding the corner to face Plymouth Sound, we were met with this spectacular vista. (My parents, pictured, couldn’t stop snapping either.) We made sure to breathe in the saline breeze deeply, to taste the wild blackberries on the escarpment, to drink in that deep, essential blue.
The golden light, the salty air and the brisk sea breeze were enough to make us tug our scarves a little tighter around our shoulders. I felt more at peace than I almost ever do in London. You get the real sense, there, of being perched on the edge of the land, of the country, of this little patch of earth that comprises England. It’s liberating.
This was the sight from the apartment window when we returned home from our stroll. Home to cups of fruit tea, to lounging on the sofa, to long sleeps with the wind lashing the waves outside.