How to make the most of your Plymouth holiday

Plymouth Hoe: the Plymouth trail

If you’re planning a Plymouth holiday, and looking for lighthouse inspiration in or around the city, then read on for some great ideas. Not all of these have a lighthouse connection, but they’re worth a visit if you have the time.

Plymouth is a great place for a city break and a good base for visiting lighthouses along the coast. Explore further and find out about the lighthouses, past and present, in and surrounding Plymouth, and also discover some other places with lighthouse connections to the city.  There are some hidden clues that you may not yet have found!  I hope you will find inspiration to explore further.

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Britain’s Ocean City

The most south-westerly port of England, located on the Devon-Cornwall border, Plymouth has been dubbed Britain’s Ocean City.  The city of Plymouth plays an important part in Britain’s maritime history – it was from here on 16th September 1620 that the Pilgrim Fathers first set sail for North America, settling in what became Plymouth, Massachusetts.  It was also from here that the famous Eddystone Lighthouse was built, the first offshore lighthouse, leading the way in lighthouse engineering.

Plymouth has always held a fascination for me.  I have great memories of visiting the area on family holidays, and climbing Smeaton’s Tower on Plymouth Hoe for the first time with my parents.  Later I learned to sail around Plymouth Sound and had many memorable sailing adventures around Plymouth and beyond.  I took my Day Skipper course from Plymouth Sailing School, and remember a night sail starting near the Tamar Bridge, heading past Drake’s Island and out towards Plymouth Breakwater using just the sector lights around the Sound for navigation.  But one of my most memorable experiences has to be sailing around the inspiring Eddystone Lighthouse.

Check out the Lighthouse Directory for more ideas in the area.

Mayflower Steps memorial, Plymouth

Historic Plymouth

Located in Sutton Pool in the historic harbour area of Plymouth, a memorial stone and archway commemorate the Mayflower Steps from where the Pilgrim Fathers set sail from Plymouth in 1620 to found Plymouth in America.  The original steps no longer exist but are said to be close to the location of the Admiral MacBride pub.

In Mountbatten, across the water, recently uncovered Bronze Age items tell of the city’s significance as a trading port.

A castle protected Sutton Pool, the location of the naval fleet. Fortifications were extended in 1512 and later a fort was added at the site of the Royal Citadel, which was built in the 17th century.

From the 16th century the town was an important link for the export of local wool.  However, by the mid 17th century, trade had declined, and many local sailors turned to piracy.  The Atlantic Slave Trade also played a small part in Plymouth’s history.

The city expanded as a commercial shipping port, forming trading links with America.  Due to its sheltered location, the neighbouring area of Devonport became the base for Royal Naval shipbuilding and developed into a dockyard town.  Today Her Majesty’s Naval Base Devonport, established in 1690, is the largest operational naval base in Europe.  Based on the banks of the River Tamar, further docks were added in the following century.

By the 18th century, grain, timber and coal were the primary goods being imported, and in 1824 Plymouth Dock was renamed Devonport.

Wartime

During the First World War, Plymouth was the entry port for troops from around the empire and became a base for the development of munitions.  Although Scapa Flow in Scotland became the headquarters for the Royal Navy, Devonport played a significant part as a base for escort vessels and repairs, and flying boats operated from Mountbatten.

Devonport became the headquarters for the Western Approaches Command during the Second World War, and was an important embarkation point for US troops for D Day.  The city suffered greatly during the Second World War, as it was heavily bombed.  Although the dockyards were the main target, much of the city centre was also destroyed.

After the war the dockyard at Devonport refitted aircraft carriers, such as Ark Royal, and later nuclear submarines were based here.  It is now the base for the 42 Commando of Royal Marines.

There are strong seafaring links with France and Spain, and ferries regularly cross to Roscoff, St Malo and Santander.

Plymouth Sound

Plymouth Sound

Located on the south coast of Devon, where the Rivers Plym and Tamar flow into the natural harbour of Plymouth Sound, the River Tamar marks the boundary between Devon and Cornwall, joined from the land by the Tamar Bridge.  From the estuary, the area of Hamoaze is the site of the Devonport Naval Dockyard.

The headland of Rame Head marks the southwestern entrance to Plymouth Sound, near to Penlee Point.  Wembury Bay marks the southeastern entrance with the Great Mew Stone providing a hazard into the nearby River Yealm.

Approaching the Sound the impressive Plymouth Breakwater, built in 1814, marks to its western side the main shipping channel for vessels entering the natural harbour.  From here, Drake’s Island marks a further turning point, and the Hoe, directly ahead with the impressive Smeaton’s Tower, welcomes you to Plymouth.

Around 1860 a ring of Palmerston forts were built around Plymouth as protection from attack.  A similar system was set up in the Solent.

Plymouth Hoe, Devon

Top things to do on your Plymouth holiday

Smeaton’s Tower

No visit to Plymouth would be complete without visiting Smeaton’s Tower.  Located on Plymouth Hoe, this is the third Eddystone lighthouse, re-erected following the building of the current, fourth lighthouse.  Built by engineer John Smeaton, the tower is a memorial to his revolutionary design, which became the inspiration for future lighthouse design. Climb the 93 steps and from the top, you can see the current Eddystone lighthouse in the distance on a clear day.  

Smeaton's Tower
Smeaton’s Tower, Plymouth Hoe

Plymouth Hoe

As well as finding Smeaton’s Tower here, the Hoe is an excellent viewpoint from which to view Plymouth Sound. Sir Francis Drake is reputed to have played bowls here when the Spanish Armada fleet was first spotted.

Close to Smeaton’s tower is the Naval Memorial, built in 1924 to commemorate sailors who were lost at sea and had no grave.

Nearer the waterline, the art deco Tinside Lido, built in 1935, looks out over the Sound.

Naval Memorial on Plymouth Hoe

Royal Citadel

Alongside Plymouth Hoe, the Royal Citadel was built in the 17th century. It is possible to take a guided tour of the military site, and climb up onto the ramparts.

Eddystone pavement

In nearby Millbay, opposite the Duke of Cornwall Hotel, can be found the Eddystone pavement, which shows the footprint of Smeaton’s Tower.  It shows how the courses of stone were dovetailed together and other pieces of history are embedded in it, such as the lifesize lump of lead that was swallowed by lighthouse keeper Henry Hall following a fire in the second Eddystone lighthouse.

Eddystone Pavement, Plymouth
Eddystone Pavement

Boat Trips

Taking a boat trip is a great way to see the city from a completely different perspective.  Being a maritime city, there are plenty of opportunities to take to the water in Plymouth.

There are lots of sightseeing trips and ferries across the water.  The Cremyll ferry will take you out past Royal William Yard, and a short hop across the River Tamar to Mount Edgecumbe House and Country Park.  Take the Cawsand ferry from the Barbican, or a harbour cruise, which is well worth it if you have the time.   The ferries are easy to get about on, crossing the waters regularly.

If you like fishing or diving, there are plenty of choices of boat trips, and if you want to go further out to sea, then dive charters regularly go out to the Eddystone Reef, so you may be able to take a trip out with them, even if you don’t go diving!

Plymouth looking across to Mountbatten

Mountbatten

Take the ferry over to Mountbatten, where you will find a lightvessel lantern at Plymouth Yacht Haven.  At the time of writing I’m unsure which lightvessel it belonged to.  If you know any further information about it, do please let me know.

LIghtvessel lantern, Plymouth yacht haven
Lightvessel lantern, Plymouth Yacht Haven:
geograph-1557009-by-Rod-Allday Photo © Rod Allday (cc-by-sa2.0)

Drake’s Island

Originally named St Michael’s Island, and clearly visible in Plymouth Sound, Drake’s Island was used to defend Plymouth from potential attack from French and Spanish invasions in the 16th century, and again during World Wars 1 and 2. Over the years the island has been used as a prison, religious centre and outdoor training facility.  It came under new ownership, and there are plans to open up the island again.  

The Box

Plymouth’s newest attraction, The Box  is a new museum, gallery and archive.  The museum is located in the heart of the city.

Barbican

The historic Barbican area is packed with shops, pubs, cafes and historic sites, including the famous Mayflower Steps marker stone, although the original steps no longer exist.

Plymouth Gin Distillery

Located within the historic Barbican quarter, Black Friars Distillery is the oldest working gin distillery in England, dating back to the early 1400s. It is reputed that the Pilgrim Father’s dined or stayed here before departing on their epic voyage aboard the Mayflower in 1620. For nearly two centuries every Royal Navy ship would depart with supplies. Take a guided tour and learn how it’s made. 

National Marine Aquarium

Sited in Sutton Harbour, Plymouth is home to the National Marine Aquarium, the UK’s largest aquarium, run by the Ocean Conservation Trust.

Royal William Yard

Built between 1825 and 1831, alongside Devonport Dockyard, and designed by Sir John Rennie, the Royal William Victualling Yard was the Royal Navy’s major victualling depot, providing the Navy with food and drink supplies. and comprised a bakery, slaughterhouse, brewhouse, warehouses and accommodation.

Occupying around 16 acres, the Yard was in use until 1992 when the Ministry of Defence transferred ownership; the site now being a waterside haven of shops, restaurants, bars and apartments.

Royal William Yard, Plymouth
Royal William Yard, Plymouth

Walk the Plymouth Trail

There are some great walks and trails around the city, and you can opt for a guided or unguided walk.  

Visit Plymouth have launched an app with a number of walks that will guide you through the city to learn more about the area and its history.  

The Devonport Heritage Trail has 70 waymarkers to guide you around the city.

Devonport Naval Heritage Centre

The site hosts a collection recording the development of the Naval Dockyard and Plymouth’s role as the largest naval base in western Europe. Collections include model ships, figureheads and HMS Courageous, the decommissioned Naval submarine. Advance bookings are advised.

Nearby lighthouses and places to visit

Cornwall

Gribbin Head Daymark – built in 1832 as a daymark, at the entrance to Fowey estuary, the beacon is sometimes open to the public in the summer.

Fowey – the short tower of St Catherine’s Point can be found a short walk from the nearby village of Fowey.

Penlee Point – Located on Rame Head, within the Mount Edgcumbe Country Park, part of the South West Coast Path follows the headland. Penlee Point was built in 1902 as a fog signal station, working with Eddystone Lighthouse and Plymouth Breakwater.

From Rame Head there are great views across to Plymouth and out to Eddystone Lighthouse.

Cornwall
Penlee Point Fog Signal Station

Wadebridge – A stone marker depicting the works for the current Eddystone Lighthouse can be found here. The blocks were prepared at the Oreston yard, on the outskirts of Plymouth, and the supply ship Hercules was based here.  The stone was supplied by Messrs Shearer, Smith and Co of Wadebridge, and the memorial block can be found in Wadebridge in Eddystone Road.

Eddystone marker, Wadebridge
Eddystone Memorial Stone, Wadebridge

Devon

Start Point Lighthouse – Established in 1836, to the design of James Douglass, the lighthouse was automated in 1993, and can be accessed along the South West Coast Path.

Start Point Lighthouse, Devon
Start Point Lighthouse

Berry Head Lighthouse – Located near Brixham in the Berry Head National Nature Reserve, Berry Head is the shortest lighthouse in Britain, at 5 metres high, but with an elevation of 58 metres from the clifftop. 

Brixham Breakwater Lighthouse – established in 1916, you can walk out along the pier to visit the lighthouse and enjoy the spectacular views across the bay.

Visit the Lighthouse Directory to find more places to visit nearby.

Where to stay

Booking.com

Stay in a lighthouse

Penlee Point, Cornwall
accommodation The Old Signal House

Start Point Lighthouse, Devon
accommodation Landward sleeps 4, Beacon sleeps 6

For more inspiration, check out Lighthouse Accommodation Britain and Worldwide – the ultimate guide to staying in lighthouses, lightvessels, and related unique places throughout the world.