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Let’s visit… The Barbican

If Plymouth is rightly titled as ‘Britain’s Ocean City’, there is one part of this maritime port that might equally be billed as ‘The Crucible of the World’ – for it was from Plymouth’s historic Sutton Harbour and the surrounding waterfront that so much of the activity that shaped the globe as we know it today set forth on the tides of time. 

That area is best known in Plymouth today as ‘The Barbican’ – so let’s explore the ancient quayside streets with their fantastic shops and cafes!

To begin – why is it called ‘The Barbican’? Plymouth grew up from Saxon times around the muddy natural harbour of ‘Sutton Pool’, with the fledgling town of Plymouth just above it, sheltered behind ‘The Hoe’ (which means ‘high’).

As the port developed it was an obvious target for pirates and Frenchmen, who could raid fairly much at will from across the Channel (and the French will tell you that the English did exactly the same!)

It needed to be defended and so fortifications were built on the high ground above the harbour entrance, with a substantial four-towered castle eventually constructed above what is now West Pier. There was a gateway and tower down to the water, and this was called a barbican – a defensive extension of the fort. 

The name lives on today as the stretch of quayside by that part of the harbour is named ‘The Barbican’ as it’s street-name; the ‘castle quadrate’ can no longer be seen on the ground but it lives on in the coat of arms of Plymouth, with the four towers and the cross of St Andrew (Patron Saint of Sailors) and the City’s Mother Church as the main features.

We love the sense of history that can be found in Plymouth; with just a little imagination you can walk in the footsteps of people such as Sir Francis Drake, from the old church down along ‘New Street’ (which was ‘new’ five hundred years ago!) to the old harbour, passing original buildings all soaked in a time-warp patina, with the salt-air scent and call of the gulls, to the boats on the water. This is where ‘The World’ grew from – as the Mayflower 2020 celebrations would have informed you.

Plymothians will refer to ‘The Barbican’ as meaning anywhere around the harbour; we are going to focus on just a few of the many independent cafes and shops that can be found on the western side, in and off Southside Street and the quayside, around toward The Hoe.

The Barbican has long been a centre for trade, and that is certainly reflected in the shopping opportunities that exist today; many of the shops are galleries, and indeed this has been Plymouth’s artistic quarter since the 1960’s. World famous artists such as Robert Lenkiewicz and Beryl Cook had their studios here. Today you can find painters such as Brian Pollard finding their inspiration beside the waterfront. 

A great Gallery to begin with is Kaya in Southside Street, where you can find something to suit all tastes and pockets, with Plymouth showcased in many of the pieces on offer. 

Don’t miss Glass for some incredible contemporary pieces. Much of the fused glass art work is made to commission, meeting customers requirements on colour, size and design. Ian’s work can be found in homes in a variety of cities around the world.

45 Southside has an amazing range and variety of items – be ready to lose a chunk of time in there as you find more and more of interest!

Reflections in the Harbour. Photograph by Mike Kinsey

People are drawn to the artistic heritage and vibrancy of the many galleries and frequent exhibitions; take your watercolours down to the boats and give yourself a challenge!

Castle Street is today a tiny backwater, but a century ago it was a den of iniquity in which every other house was a pub or beer seller! The Barbican today has a wealth of pubs and bars to choose from if you feel a thirst coming on. 

It seems unfair to choose one above others, but perhaps the best known and most fondly regarded is The Dolphin (and it’s so traditional that you won’t find a website for it!) on The Barbican itself – a pub with a very traditional feel and a cosmopolitan clientele which has to be experienced to be believed. The old coal fire is always lit in the wintertime, there’s never a shortage of people to chat to.

At the other end of Southside Street is the Plymouth Gin Distillery where the famed spirit has been produced for centuries, and at which some of the Mayflower Pilgrims are reputed to have stayed in 1620; you will never enjoy a finer Gin and Tonic than you will here. 

In between are more bars that you could ever sample in one night, and in styles to suit every preference. Which is your favourite?

Doubtless you will be hungry too, and again The Barbican will not disappoint; you can go for high end seafood, eat your way around the globe with offerings from every continent, sample award-winning fish and chips, or eat al-fresco at dozens of cafes and brasseries. We love the tradition of Cap’n Jaspers!


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