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Have you done the Harbour Heritage Trail?

For centuries mariners have been setting sail from Sutton Harbour at the heart of historic Plymouth to fish, to explore, to go to war and above all to trade. It would be no exaggeration to say that those small ships and their crews shaped the world as we know it today; in Drake’s day Plymouth WAS Sutton Harbour! 

But did you know that you can circumnavigate the harbour itself using the Sutton Harbour Heritage Trail and walk in the footsteps of history across the historic Barbican and quaysides, enjoy the views and all that is on offer around the waterfront – and learn of what happened here in times long – and not so long – ago.  Whether you want to do the mile circuit as some exercise, a learning-stroll or to exhaust the children, then Bracken Jelier has the full guide here for you.

The Harbour Heritage Trail is a one-mile circular route, linked to the South West Coast Path, and is easily accessible for walkers, wheelchair users and pushchairs. Don’t forget your camera – and your appetite – as the views and cafes are second-to-none!

Families will enjoy the brass rubbing plaques around the trail, which explain the story of that particular spot (bring your own paper and crayons) and the many events (such as ‘Pirate Days’) which take place throughout the year.

Everyone wants to be a time traveller, and here that is exactly what everyone can be – The Sutton Harbour Heritage Trail – a 500 year walk around the world in less than an hour!

Set your course by the guide below and see what treasures you can find …

Much of the route is traffic free but there are roads to cross so take care! Most surfaces are tarmac or smooth-paved but be aware that there are substantial areas of cobbles – attractive and historic but a little bumpy! 


There is plenty of short term parking all around the Sutton Harbour and Hoe area, but a great (and easily accessed) place to leave your car for a longer period is the Harbour Car Park by Lockyers Quay ( PL4 0DX ). This will set you off beside the Plymouth Fisheries and National Marine Aquarium.


Begin at the Harbour Car Park on Lockyers Quay.

Outside you will see a section of reconstructed walling from one of the old warehouses (which were called ‘palaces’ in their heyday and had many uses). You are now standing beside the route of one of the many railways which once served harbour trade. Indeed here on Johnsons Quay was the first – a horsedrawn route all the way to Princetown on the top of Dartmoor! It probably carried the granite for London’s Covent Garden and Nelsons Column from Foggintor and King Tor Quarry to a waiting ship – but that’s another story! 

The Johnson brothers were typical of the entrepreneurs of the 18th century, and their tale of railways and quarries is full of incident; they bought Haytor quarry for its fine stone a good reputation and then called all their stone ‘Haytor Granite’ even when from inferior quarries; and when a rival railway threatened their monopoly, they simply dumped granite slabs on their trackway!

You will be crossing the road here – take care as you do so.

All the Sutton Harbour quays have different names; some reflect location, others a particular trade, and others are named for their owner.

Originally tidal with muddy beaches, Sutton Pool as it was originally known was natural harbour in which the small boats of pre-Tudor times could take shelter from the South Westerly weather. Of course sloping mud was not ideal for loading and unloading cargo as the boats would roll half-over when the tide was out! So walls or quays needed to be built to improve access – these were built over the beach, levelling the quaysides. The tide remained a problem until the lock gates were installed. Merchants also needed to control their own quayside, and specialist cargo handling was needed for some commodities – for example the coal wharf which was where the Fish Market and Aquarium now stand. Lockyers Quay was built in 1833 by Edmund Lockyer to deal in copper ore (which was being extracted in huge quantities around East Cornwall and West Devon). As the copper boom passed its use altered and it was a lead works, a manure dump (vital for agriculture which flourished along the Tamar), fish storage, and in more modern times as a site for assembling parts of the harbour wall and lock.

Follow the path between the Lockyer Inn and the moored fishing boats.

Plymouth Fisheries is the second largest fish market in England, and has grown its trade massively over the last decade. The fisheries complex plays a crucial role in the South West economy, sustaining over 600 direct and indirect jobs through the wider supply chain, and sells more than 6,000 tonnes of fish every year. You will pass the old fish market on the other side of the Harbour later on the Trail. Boats from all over the UK land fish here, and the fish and shellfish are taken all over Europe. Public access is limited to organised visits only. The colourful boats and their constant activity make a characterful backdrop to the harbour scene. 

You are now heading toward the once-named China House, today a vibrant restaurant called Miller and Carter Steakhouse; the building has served many purposes. Its original name remembers an original occupier – William Cookworthy – a Plymouth chemist and Quaker who first perfected hard porcelain for fine tableware in the latter 1700’s. This had of course been a secret of the Chinese for centuries – hence when the particular type of clay needed to make it was identified around the southern fringe of Dartmoor it was called ‘China Clay’! The building was later used as a warehouse, gun wharf and seamen’s hospital. It features in a painting of 1666.

There would have been warehouses all along these quays, and this part of the Harbour was used as a storage area for ‘prizes’ – ships captured (generally from the French!) by the Navy in war and in the course of ‘privateering’ – in other words authorised piracy!  It was said that you could cross the harbour here by stepping from deck to deck. No wonder that the warehouses were known as ‘palaces’. Many were also used as makeshift prisons for the sailors captured in the wars with France and (you may be surprised to learn) America! Indeed the presence of so many Prisoners of War around 1800 led directly to the construction of Dartmoor Prison, built to house them properly – and a safe distance from vulnerable dockyards.

This was always the ‘industrial’ side of Sutton Harbour, with much boat-building, and manufacture of rope, tar, candles and all manner of activity. Unsurprisingly fires were frequent!

The car park was itself the site of a Victorian shipyard, Shilstons; he built the first floating dry dock in the West of England which could raise a floating ship out of the water for repairs.

As you approach Miller and Carter, look right and cross the car park toward the modern office buildings

You will now be walking on Marrowbone Slip. It’s slope and shape still echoes the time when ship building and ship breaking was the business here. The unusual name goes back further to when this area was the ‘victualling yard’ (pronounced ‘vittling’) of the Navy, and here cattle were slaughtered and salted to be put into casks. The unwanted bones were thrown in the water.

In 1957 a famous ship was broken up here; HMS AMETHYST was a name known across the nation for her daring exploits in the River Yangtse, and featured in a later movie ‘The Yangste Incident’, in which she played herself.  In 1949 as the Chinese Revolution was in full swing she was fired on while patrolling  Chinese waters and trapped, later breaking out to the open sea in the best traditions of the Royal Navy – and here she ended her days a few years later.

Continue along the Trail to North East Quay and North Quay

Now with much modern development North East and North Quays were built in the mid 1800’s of limestone and granite (the naturally occurring stone of Plymouth and of Dartmoor). Originally known as Friary Quay because of the medieval monastery which stood nearby, the coming of the railways and increases in trade brought the larger scale of Victorian construction laid over the medieval structures – which still exist beneath the modern buildings and whose outlines in the North Quay House car park are marked with red brick.

In the corner below the brass rubbing plaque you can see a stone archway; this spot is called the ‘horsewash’ because since medieval times carters brought their horses to the beach to wash them of the road dirt from their journey. When the new quay was built the arch allowed access to the water via a tunnel beneath.

You will see here plenty of remaining track from the London and South Western Railway which served the harbour; the wharfs would have been crowded with small goods wagons, and several small steam shunting locomotives worked hard moving them all around. Half way along North Quay there is a circular bench on the old tracks; pause a while and wonder as you admire the boats in Suttton Marina – what a sight and sound it must have been!

Dock Labour would gather here awaiting work as the coasters came in; everything from potatoes to tobacco, wine and spices came over these quays to the warehouses behind, carried by hand and by crane (one remains but there were many more).  Up behind that circular bench is Hawkers Avenue, remembering the Hawker family who traded here for 300 years. On the street corner looking inland is a blue plaque on the wall of the Hawker warehouse commemorating a raid by Frenchmen (these happened frequently in both directions) – and this area is known to this day as Bretonside after those men from Brittany.

Continue the Trail around the quayside to the left

You are now on Sutton Wharf, built around 1813.  In the corner is Tin Lane which tells you what was traded here; a little further along is the somewhat forgotten Dung Lane and Quay – hard to believe now but manure (animal AND human) was a valuable commodity and the city sold contracts for collection of this waste which was carried by boat up the River Tamar where market gardening flourished on the fertile riverside slopes. The last surviving Tamar coaster, The Shamrock, still survives and navigates the river in the summer from its Cotehele (National Trust) base.  Running uphill from Tin Lane and Dung Lane are Howe Street and Looe Street; remember the slopes to the beaches? You can imagine them here. Drake had a house at the top of the hill, and although slum clearances and WW2 bomb damage have greatly changed this side of Sutton Harbour you can still find one of England’s oldest Inns, The Minerva, in Looe Street.

Check out the Sutton Quay plaque on the wall of the former warehouse beside the restaurants; a certain Mr Brunel has associations with Plymouth and his broad gauge railway came here, later replaced by the narrower standard gauge – this of one of the few places that both still survive.  Ahead of you is Sutton Marina, which began development in 1972 with 70 berths and now is home to yachts and boats of all sizes. Mr Brunel designed the nearby Millbay Docks in which Sutton’s sister Marina, King Point, is now located.  He also proposed a plan to put a lock gate across Sutton Harbour and create a non-drying basin! Imagine that….a hundred years before it happened!

Note the preserved quayside crane – made in one of Plymouth’s many foundries.

Follow the Trail to the right at Sutton Marina Jetty onto Vauxhall Quay

‘Vauxhall’ is a derivation from ‘Fox Hall’, a large house once located here. Notice the old warehouses now converted into apartments, and how each has a lifting crane at the gable. Each also has a small arched and barred window above the door, typical of the style.

Walk ahead past the dive shop and restaurants; this is the old shoreline before quays and warehouses pushed outward. Emerge onto Guys Quay to the left across the small car park.

Follow the waterside past the Three Crowns pub and the Customs House onto the cobbles of The Parade.

The ‘three crowns’ refers to the Army, the Navy and the Marines, who were billeted locally and gathered to parade here. The large triangular space was reclaimed from the shore around 1500 and was also at one time the fish market, and today plays host to many events as well as being an excellent place to enjoy some refreshment.  

Notice the tall, thick ‘lamp post’ in the centre? More of that later!

The 1820 grand granite Customs House was in official use until around 2010; its previous incarnation is much smaller and stands opposite. It is now a unique and stylish venue with a diverse range of beautifully decorated rooms, each with its own striking identity for private functions or corporate events.

The men of ‘The Excise’ were a busy lot in the 17-1800’s. The endless on-and-off wars meant plenty of redundant seamen who were ready to turn to smuggling, encouraged by the heavy taxation on luxury goods needed to pay for the same conflicts! Devon was no stranger to dubious cargoes, after all men such as Drake and Hawkins were both heroes and villains as the privateered and pirated and (shamefully) initiated the slave trade.  So smuggling cargoes was all grist to the same mill; should you take a boat trip across to Cawsand and Kingsand on the Cornish side of Plymouth Sound you will discover that it was once part of Devon, and was a smuggling hub. It was stated that around 1800, more brandy and rum was smuggled through Devon that was imported legally into London! Customs men had the incentive that their salary was paid from the dues they collected and the smuggling they detected.

Follow the quay around to your left onto Quay Road, lined today with bars and restaurants in the old warehouses. Fishing boats still berth here alongside the yachts, and this is often a temporary home to visiting classic and tall ships. This a superb area to soak up the ambience of Sutton Harbour, and as it opens into the wider area at the quay’s end you may often find an event taking place – from Pirates to Seafood to Classic Cars or boats.

At the end, on White House Pier, is one of the great institutions of Plymouth and the historic Barbican – Cap’n Jaspers. Still family operated, this is a unique al fresco café, attracts an incredible diversity of customers, and serves the most gigantic burgers and hot dogs you are ever likely to encounter!

You will also see that you are beside a large building that looks rather like a Victorian railway station. This was the old Fish Market; the railway never reached this side of Sutton Harbour but it was designed by a man who did build stations for the Great Western Railway.  Constructed between 1892 and 1896 it was purpose-built on a reclaimed new quayside, marked by a change in the cobbles that is still evident. It closed in 1995 when the new Market was built across the harbour.

Fishermen were landing fish here in the 1500’s and in the 1600’s were beginning to cross the Atlantic to fish the rich cod stocks. Fleets of trawlers and drifters would follow the fish and pack the harbour from quay to quay.

Remember that ‘lamp post’ on the Parade? While this market was being built the fish were gutted and sold on The Parade, beneath which still ran an old stream. The fish guts and slime ran between the cobbles and made a huge stink – and as methane built up it would occasionally blow the manhole covers out of the road!  The ‘lamp post’ is in fact a ventilator built to relive the stench!

Follow along the quayside

You are now in ‘The Barbican’.

This really is an historic spot, in a global sense, as you will shortly see. Why ‘The Barbican’? You may have noticed that Plymouth’s Coat of Arms features an anchor (appropriate for a seaport), a saltire cross (for St Andrew, patron saint of fishermen and rope makers, whose church stands atop the hill above the harbour) – and the four towers of a castle. This was the Tudor castle which stood here at the harbour entrance, and the Barbican (or ‘gateway’) tower stood close to the water’s edge, beside where West Pier exists today. Although The Barbican is actually the name of just this stretch of roadway, many locals will know this side of the harbour by that name.

You now emerge past the outdoor cafes, gift shops and Tourist Information Centre (which also houses the Mayflower Museum) onto West Pier.

In 1620 a group of people landed here, and after a short stay set sail for a new life in a new world. Today known as the Pilgrim Fathers, this group were fleeing religious persecution and aiming to settle in the newly established settlements in Virginia. Their vessels being somewhat old and leaky they stopped in Plymouth for repairs, and subsequently arrived in Plimouth Virginia. The story of of course immense – and it resonates in the world today, In the USA many trace their descendancy from these intrepid travellers.  A commemorative stone was placed here in 1890, and an archway in the 1930’s.  Known as ‘The Mayflower Steps’, the steps you see here are actually a later construction and the Pilgrim Fathers (many of whom were of course female!) would have used steps which are probably buried deep beneath what is the Admiral McBride pub.

The Admiral was a real person, and a local MP; it was in fact him who saw to the construction of the West and east piers which improved the harbour considerably.

Many other memorials are to be found here, as well as something rather unusual – a giant prawn.

Many people, locals and tourists alike, wonder about the meaning behind the strange sea creature which looks out over Plymouth’s famous Barbican. Designed by Brian Fell of Glossop in Derbyshire and installed as part of an Arts Council initiative it is an amalgamation of various fish and marine life. It has a cormorant’s feet, a plesiosaurus’s tail, the fin of a John Dory, a lobster’s claws and the head of an angler fish. The pole supporting the fantastic sea creature, which is manufactured from mild steel coated with copper paint giving it its attractive colouring, is decorated with plaques describing other sea creatures. Named “The Leviathan” and sitting 33 feet above the West Pier the imaginative sculpture has become an icon of Plymouth, affectionately nicknamed the Barbican Prawn.

Sutton Pool formed such an ideal natural harbour because the soft-beached tidal pool was protected by a ‘wall’ of harder limestone; the piers sit on top of this ancient reef. There was originally a small, shallow gap in the middle that could be walked across at low tides; this was deepened and improved, the piers built, but still the tides were problematic for harbour use. So, in 1992 construction began to place a 10,000 ton concrete and steel lock in the entrance to Sutton Harbour.  This keeps water in the harbour at all states of the tide,  with easy access for vessels – and a high level of protection from stormy weather.

Follow the Trail across the lock bridge.

It is not unusual to spot the resident seal around the lock, and porpoises are often seen.

The National Cycle Route no 27 passes by the harbour here, as does the South West Coast Path – if you fancy a 650 mile stroll!

You are now approaching the National Marine Aquarium, which houses an incredible array of sea life in its vast tanks.

This area was once a huge coal yard (imagine – apart from industry – every chimney pot of every house in the city being connected to a coal fire burning a few kilos per day – the stocks needed were immense.  Beyond is a flat-ish straight area which was once a ‘rope walk’, one of many. Sailing ships needed huge amounts of rope – HMS Victory used 37 MILES or cordage!

Your last view as you pause by the waterfront and look out toward the sea is over Queen Anne’s battery Marina. One of Plymouth’s many forts once stood here, and during WW2 it was the site of a large American base in the run-up to D Day. You look out across the water toward the older tower at Mountbatten where for most of the 20th century the RAF had a seaplane base (a water taxi will take you there) – TE Lawrence (of Arabia) developed fast rescue launches. Look back to the Royal Citadel on The Hoe which both protects the City from invaders AND remind the citizens (after some Civil War disloyalty) who they owe their loyalty to!

Plymouth and the sea – there are few places to match it.

Follow the Trail now past the Aquarium, and down to the left around to its rear. You will find yourself back where you began – and hour or so (or what it a thousand years?) ago!

Did you know that you can circumnavigate the harbour itself using the Sutton Harbour Heritage Trail and walk in the footsteps of history across the historic Barbican and quaysides?
Did you know that you can circumnavigate the harbour itself using the Sutton Harbour Heritage Trail and walk in the footsteps of history across the historic Barbican and quaysides?


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