Trying to discover Plymouth

Looking for day trips from Looe, we decided to go to Plymouth, about an hour’s bus ride away. For North Americans, the big thing about Plymouth is that it is the place that the Mayflower sailed from. Filled with Pilgrims or “English Dissenters”, the boat’s inhabitants were looking for a new life in a land of religious freedom. The rest, as they say, is history.

For the English, Plymouth was a major shipping port, and with neighbouring Davenport as a shipbuilding and dockyards town, the area was of great strategic importance during the Second World War. That, unfortunately, led to it being especially targeted by the Germans. The Plymouth Blitz consisted of 59 different bombing raids on the city and resulted in the destruction of virtually the entire city centre.

We arrived in Plymouth on a lovely sunny day. The harbor was busy with picturesque sailboats and tourists. It was the first day of English half term and there was a feeling of carnival in the air.

Plymouth Harbour

Our time in Plymouth was limited, so we decided to focus on the art exhibit “British Art Show 7: In the Days of the Comet”. The British Art Show happens only once every 5 years and is recognized as the most ambitious and influential exhibit of contemporary British art. There were 5 different galleries involved with the exhibit in Plymouth, so traveling to each of them would give us a unique view of the city.

Our first stop was to be “The Slaughterhouse” in the Royal William Yard. To get there we followed directions from the tourist information office that led us along the Grand Parade, a promenade along the oceanfront. Prominent on the waterfront is Plymouth’s Lido, and although I have always known the word, I never really knew what a Lido was: “A public open air pool or beach”.

The Tinside Pool from Plymouth archives. circa 1958.

Plymouth’s Lido is the “Tinside Pool”, built in Art Deco style 1935. It survived the bombings, but it was apparently a rather convenient marker for the German raids. A 55-meter diameter semi-circle stretching out from the cliff edge, the Lido has a large fountain in the middle. There are segregated changing rooms and terraces where orchestras used to play above the bathers. It fell into disuse and was closed in 1992, but it has since been restored to its Art Deco glory and was reopened in 2005. Although only open in the summer months, there were a couple of intrepid swimmers on the beach directly beside the pool. It was that kind of a day.

But as our walk progressed, the day turned cool and we went through other parts of Plymouth that have yet to be restored. In fact, we were surprised that the tourist office sent us along Millbank road, a very disheveled part of town. We passed by the marvelous but entirely decrepit Victorian New Palace Theatre. The New Palace Theatre opened in 1898, and most of the great vaudevillians played there over the years.

New Palace Theatre

But after vaudeville it went downhill and became a bingo hall, a dance hall, a disco hall and eventually closed in 2008 in what much have been a rather spectacular drug raid. Judging from the trees growing out of it, I suspect the days of restoration are passed. I’ve found a photo blog by an urban explorer that shows some of the inside. (

Looks like all of the original Victorian fittings are still there, even down to the rigging for the fly gallery. It is horrible to think of something that beautiful being allowed to crumble.

After a much longer and uglier walk than we anticipated based on the directions from the tourist office, we arrived at The Royal William Yard. This is a fabulous renovation project, still in its early stages. The former army barracks are being rebuilt as luxury condos and the surrounding buildings are restaurants, stores and galleries.

Royal William Yard marina. The bakery/restaurant is straight ahead.

We had a good tapas meal at the renovated Bakery building and the gallery we went to was in the old slaughterhouse. With a marina in the centre, this area is destined to become incredibly fashionable, similar to the Distillery district in Toronto. Except for one problem. You’d have to want to live in Plymouth.

Although the gallery itself is a gorgeous space, the art show was a huge disappointment. We travelled to the next location, and on and on, getting lost and frustrated as we negotiated the streets of Plymouth to get to the Art Gallery, the University, the Arts Centre and the Museum. Rebuilding after the war, much of the city centre is grey concrete and uninspiring. Much of the artwork, which is touted as cutting edge, is in fact idea-driven, technically uninteresting and empty. There are only a couple of the 39 artists whose work touches us in any way. George Shaw is up for the Turner Award and we hope he’ll win. He paints with Humbrol enamel paints, the kind used for models, and his work reflects the poverty of growing up in Coventry council estates. They are dark, lonely and melancholy. Wolfgang Tillmans has a huge photographic print (the size of a whole wall) that was made without a camera. He exposes photographic paper to points of light, creating textures and colour that are really uncanny.

By the time we had been to all of the art venues, the day was overcast, and so were we. Plymouth has no “feng shui”, says Tim. We caught the next bus back to Looe and treated ourselves to a wonderful fish dinner on the wharf at The Old Sail Loft. The Old Sail Loft is part of the “Fish Fight” campaign, fighting for sustainable fishing practices. We had a delicious meal of fish that had “extremely low food miles”. It was caught just off the coast by Looe fishing boats, and travelled only 200 yards from the boat to the restaurant. It was a perfect balm to warm us from the chill of Plymouth. We were very grateful for each mouthful.

Author: Amanda West Lewis

AMANDA WEST LEWIS has built a life filled with words on the page and on the stage, combining careers as a writer, theatre director and calligrapher. Her book THESE ARE NOT THE WORDS was published in April 2022 by Groundwood Books. Previous books include The Pact, (Red Deer Press) which was listed on the 2017 USBBY Outstanding International Books List; selected for the 2017 ILA Young Adults' Readers Choice List; Nominated for 2017 Snow Willow Award; and listed in the Canadian Children's Book Centre Best Books for Kids & Teens, Spring 2017. SEPTEMBER 17: A NOVEL was nominated for the Silver Birch Award, the Red Cedar Award, and the Violet Downie IODE Award. Amanda has an MFA in Creative Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts. In her theatre career, Amanda is the founder of The Ottawa Children’s Theatre, where she teaches and directs children. She has developed specialized drama and literacy programs for youth at risk, and for children with autism spectrum disorder. She has a Certificate in Theatre for Young Audiences with Complex Difficulties from Rose Bruford College, England. In 2015, Amanda co-produced the hit play “Up to Low” is based on the book by Brian Doyle. As a professional calligrapher and book artist, Amanda is passionate about the history of writing and has taught calligraphy courses to students of all ages. She studied with Hermann Zapf, Mark Van Stone and Nancy Culmone among many others. Amanda lives with her husband, writer Tim Wynne-Jones, in the woods in Eastern Ontario. They have three wonderful grown children. Find out more on her website at Photo Credit: Marianne Duval

2 thoughts on “Trying to discover Plymouth”

    1. I am so glad you know his work! And I would think that Newcastle would be a perfect setting. We’ll keep you posted on further sightings.

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