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Let’s go…to the Hoe!

Not many places in the world are as instantly recognised as this, and not many can claim to have witnessed half the world’s history pass by – but Plymouth Hoe really is a very special place, and ranks high in any list of ‘iconic maritime locations’. Here in our third ‘Let’s Go!” of the series, Bracken Jelier gives a brief history and a guide to all you can see and visit when you explore the area by foot.

It’s hardly surprising that Plymouth became the port that it did, with a large anchorage in the Sound (the only place where you can ‘Hear the Sea and See the Sound!’) and its surrounding bays and rivers, giving access to a productive hinterland. 

The Hoe itself (literally ‘Hoe’ means ‘high’) is a ridge of marble-like limestone that gives both a long view out to sea and a position for fortifications, and a shelter for the town from the South West gales.  The stone was also ideal for building, and half of Plymouth is made from stone quarried from the western end of the Hoe.

So now if you take yourself back to the days of Drake, that famous son of Devon and Plymouth, who still stands in bronze watching the horizon from the heights, you can see why he could stand on the Hoe playing bowls, saw the Spanish ships at the mouth of the Sound – and knew that wind and tide meant that there was no rush to get out after them! Afterwards he made sure that as Mayor of Plymouth a proper fort and defences were built to protect the harbour at Sutton Pool and the town itself; that fort was replaced after the Civil War by the Citadel that we see today (tours are available).

An interesting point about the Royal Citadel (still a Military base, for 29 Commando Artillery) is that as Plymouth had sided with Parliament against the Crown, the new King made sure that guns also faced over the town, to remind the people of who was now back in charge!

Plymothians regard the Hoe with great affection, and see it as stretching from ‘The Barbican’ (the side of Sutton Harbour near the Mayflower Steps) right around to Millbay, taking in the shoreline and the great green park behind the heights of the Hoe. From Victorian times to the Second World War it was the focus for Sunday strolls, tourism, gala and concerts, boat trips and events – with enormous crowds a regular feature.  Today the Hoe sees regular events, large and small, from fairs to classic car and bike rallies, Armed Forces days and Remembrance Parades – and of course as the start of Plymouth’s Half Marathon!

So let’s take an imaginary stroll along the Hoe from East to West, and see what it has to offer…..

At the Eastern end is Fisher’s Nose, well named as people have been fishing from this point for centuries! Duttons Café stands here in part of the old fortifications – a lovely view from the tea garden over the Cattewater to the old RAF seaplane base at Mouthbatten.  Did you know that TE Lawrence – of Arabia fame – was once stationed there? He was instrumental in the design of high speed launches for rescue of downed airmen. 

Before the mid 1930’s there was no road through here as the Citadel stretched down to the water – you can still see the protected walkway above Duttons. There is a lovely story that the Citadel’s baker would bring a tray of buns down the walk and toss them over to the urchins waiting down below!

Madeira Road allows an easy walk, past the old cannons, which are sited above a small fort built before Drake’s day, and on past the yacht club (open to all for coffees and meals, and a great place to hold a meeting!). Above you towers the Royal Citadel, with its steep grass slopes.

Another charming tale is that these grass slopes were known in the 20’s and 30’s as ‘Spooners Mountains’ – a favourite spot for courting couples to enjoy a cuddle!

Up on the right now comes the Marine Biological Laboratory, a world class marine scientific establishment. And on the left, the Terrace café with their striped deckchairs, chilled drinks, simple food and a Café Mambo vibe and all alongside one of the most amazing views in the area.

Down by the water are all sorts of steps and terraces, still popular, but once absolutely thronged with swimmers and sunbathers. It’s become a popular spot for the wild swimming community to meet. Many people pass all this by, but it is worth a wander.

Ahead now is Ocean View Bar & Dining at The Dome an Art Deco-inspired venue for great food, sensational cocktails and amazing panoramic ocean views!

Down to the left following the shoreline is Tinside Lido. Open all summer, this Art Deco masterpiece is a superb outdoor pool, recently refurbished. Read our article here on its history. 

Follow along past the cafes, each with a superb view, and open all year round. You’ll find regular customers at all these great spots, even in the middle of winter. The Coffee Shack above Maritimos is typical of these, and is many people’s ‘favourite’ café because of its location.

On now past the Wet Wok and the Waterfront, beside the old West Hoe harbour, once a yacht club, from which Sir Francis Chichester set sail to circumnavigate the world singlehanded. 

Take a turn around ‘Rusty Anchor’ on the point, with its ship models  – a great spot to watch the Brittany Ferry come in to Millbay, or the warships come and go from the Dockyard. 

Then head back, past West Hoe Park (don’t miss the little train – popularly known as the ‘Gus Honeybun’ train) and then ascend the walkway up onto the top of The Hoe.

You are now above the ‘Wedding Cake’ colonnades which faced the Pier entrance; built in 1884 Plymouth’s Pier was incredibly popular until the 1930s. Unfortunately during WW2 an incendiary bomb destroyed it – but what a sight it once was!

You can follow along the top of the Hoe, enjoy the Liner Lookout café in the curious small octagonal building that was once a Camera Obscura, or visit the delightfully Edwardian Valenti Café.

Down over the back of the Hoe is Putters on the Hoe a great Pitch’n’Putt course for some fun with the family.

But of course the thing the MAKES Plymouth Hoe is Smeaton’s Tower – the Eddystone Lighthouse that was dismantled and rebuilt on the Hoe when a new light was place eight miles out on the infamous reef. Climb up, wonder at the idea of being a keeper in a storm miles from land, and if you have a head for heights admire the view from the balcony.

There’s more to explore around The Hoe, and every walk brings a new discovery. And after all, when you consider Plymouth’s heritage as ‘Britain’s Ocean City’, that’s what Plymouth and The Hoe were all about – Discovery!  

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