PLYMOUTH’s predominantly bland and modern face belies its great historic role as a naval base and, in the sixteenth century, the stamping ground of such national heroes as John Hawkins and Francis Drake. It was from here that Drake sailed to defeat the Spanish Armada in 1588, and 32 years later the port was the last embarkation point for the Pilgrim Fathers, whose New Plymouth colony became the nucleus for the English settlement of North America. The importance of the city’s Devonport dockyards made the city a target in World War II, when the Luftwaffe reduced most of the old centre to rubble. Subsequent reconstruction has done little to improve the place, though it would be difficult to spoil the glorious vista over Plymouth Sound, the basin of calm water at the mouth of the combined Plym, Tavy and Tamar estuaries, largely unchanged since Drake played his famous game of bowls on the Hoe before joining battle with the Armada.
One of the best local excursions from Plymouth is to Mount Edgcumbe, where woods and meadows provide a welcome antidote to the urban bustle. East of Plymouth, the aristocratic opulence of Saltram House includes fine art and furniture, while to the north you can visit Francis Drake’s old home at Buckland Abbey.