Tuesday, 7 April 2015
This was the sign outside Plymouth railway station, as I headed towards the city centre. On the sign, a sunny day; the wide blue western approach to the English Channel; and the iconic red and white bands of Smeaton's lighthouse on the broad green Hoe. The celebrated Hoe, where the cool dashing Elizabethan adventurer Francis Drake once nonchalantly finished his game of bowls while the Spanish Armada came into view on the horizon, before putting into force his cunning plan to confuse and repel that foreign invader - the most famous defence of England before the Battle of Britain in World War II.
And like the tale of Francis Drake's cunning plan, reality was nothing like the sunny image. It was a cold, overcast day three weeks ago. I had only just over two hours to play with, before catching my train back. I intended to have lunch, see the picturesque Barbican area, and absorb whatever impressions of Plymouth I could.
I hadn't been here since 2009, when, greatly daring, I had walked around Plymouth in a half-transitioned state. A guy I chatted with in a bar, named Joe, actually told me that I'd had a lot of bottle to trot around looking as I had. He considered that I was in danger of being waylaid and beaten up. But Plymouth had seemed welcoming to me. Perhaps his world was too narrow to see what I saw. The full story of that day is in my post on 2 August 2009 titled Bishops, bars and Bude - part 1, but to save anyone the bother of finding it, this is what I wrote then about Plymouth:
I did go to Plymouth. I wandered around the Hoe, the city centre, and the Barbican, for several hours. No problems. I went into the House of Fraser departmental store to buy a small purse and spent 15 minutes chatting to a young girl student about what I wanted before buying. She was really sweet, really young, and didn't turn a hair. (Perhaps Plymouth has a massive tranny scene, but I didn't see anyone else like me while there) The girl who sold me coffee and a sandwich at the Theatre Royal was likewise very pleasant. (NB: the loos at the Theatre Royal are swanky and ultra-clean. They get my rosette) I walked around looking for the supposedly trans-friendly bars I'd researched, finding The Swallow (looked OK but empty at 4pm, and I didn't go in), and Hawkins' Meeting Place, which I did visit: I was by then glad to rest my feet. I spent over an hour at Hawkins. It was clearly a gay venue above all else, but I was welcome, and I had a chinwag with a nice guy called Joe who thought I had 'a lot of bottle' to walk around Plymouth dressed as I was. He thought Plymouth folk tended to be a bit narrow-minded. Well, not my experience! I then drove across the city centre to The Clarence in the Stonehouse area. This was billed as the place where 'trans people are always in evidence' but I didn't see a single one. Once again it was pretty friendly. Another guy, an engineer who worked on the nuclear submarines at Devonport, chatted to me for the space of a drink or two. Quite amusing really: he was bound by the Official Secrets Acts from saying much about his job, and although I had retired, I was similarly bound. We had to be quite inventive to make our work sound interesting. Fortunately photography was his hobby too: plenty to discuss there. We didn't talk about whatever a man and a woman might speak about when meeting casually in a bar. He didn't seem that kind of man, and I certainly wasn't that kind of girl.
Favourably impressed as I was by the ordinary folk of Plymouth, there was no pretending that it was a visually exciting city, a photographer's dream, and I hadn't been back for six years.
What was wrong with it? It was an historic place, or at least a place with many historic associations both old and modern. There was that business with Drake and the Armada. There was the Pilgrim Fathers connection. Plymouth (or rather Devonport, then a separate town) was one of the Royal Navy's big bases, very active from the Napoleonic Wars right up to now. In the Great Age of Ocean Liners, Plymouth had been a passenger port. And in 1967 Francis Chichester had famously 'come home' to Plymouth after his solo circumnavigation of the globe, a fast, record-breaking voyage of nine months.
Note that all these associations are very much to do with the sea, and Plymouth's extraordinarily fine geographical situation as a sheltered, strategically-placed seaport. Justly 'Britain's Ocean City'. And yet for me it lacked the kind of appeal that many other places had.
It wasn't always so. When young, meaning from age ten to eighteen, I'd regarded Plymouth as a fine city that I longed to see. I'd seen pictures of its new city centre. Tidy-minded, I'd savoured its new street plan, so symmetrical and boldly rectangular on the map. I'd drawn imaginary town plans of my own, inspired by Plymouth. Pictured on paper, in two dimensions, it promised to be very exciting. Here is the 1:25,000 Ordnance Survey map of the city centre published in 1988, but mainly based on surveys up to 1983. It shows the post-war rebuild at its most evolved, but before they finally turned roads created for cars into pedestrianised areas:
Throughout the 1960s I admired the stark, no-compromise grid pattern imposed on the old city centre. I really liked symmetry. And it seemed progressive, the creation of a go-ahead city council with the future clearly in mind. But I must have been under the spell of idealism.
I did finally persuade Mum and Dad to take me there for a day out while on holiday in 1968, when I was sixteen. By then its post-war rebuild was complete. All the concrete-and-glass buildings were clean-looking and still contemporary, and I was very pleased I'd come. But there was much I didn't get to see. For instance, I wanted to view what might be left of the pre-war, pre-Blitz, Plymouth. But neither Mum nor Dad were historically-minded. I resolved to return. I knew I would. I might be the awkwardest teenager in the world, but I was stubborn and determined - you might say selfish and obsessed - if there was something I really wanted to do. (What has ever changed?)
I think I came back early in 1973, before I passed my driving test - and therefore as a passenger in Dad's car. Once again, I wasn't free to explore as I wished.
My next visits were in 1980 and 1982, in the company of girlfriend Deborah, when visiting friends. And once more I wasn't free to wander at will. We had a good time, but we kept to the shops and pubs. Here we are on Armada Way in 1980 - Deborah (foreground), Maggie and Graham (behind, left):
Only my 2009 and 2015 visits have been truly rewarding, from the exploration point of view.
By the 1980s, the concrete buildings were no longer looking clean and contemporary, and the now-boring grid pattern of streets was choked with cars. They had built most of these new straight streets too narrow for easy manoeuvring with cars larger than Morris Minors. They were indeed designed for an age of almost universal bus travel, before everyone owned a car and wanted to park it. You could go round and round the city centre on the dual-carriageway ring road, but turning off it to park was a frustrating experience. And the city was stuck with this. The big money had run out.
It's easy to shudder now at town planning mistakes. Too easy. I do sympathise with the state of mind that contemplated the devastation brought about by the German bombing in 1941, and yearned for a new modern city to rise from the rubble. And it had to be rebuilt, asap. I found and bought this book the other day while in Chichester:
There were pictures inside of what the Blitz did to Plymouth city centre:
The planning to change all this for the better began early, and the first results were in place by the late 1940s. Building continued into the late 1950s. How clean-cut and dazzling-white then were the concrete department stores and office blocks! How swish and spacious the bold, wide straight line of Grand Parade, looking here like an airport runway fit for Concorde!
Elsewhere places like Brasilia, the new capital of Brazil, were being built. All symbols of a New Beginning. The rectangular glass-and-concrete regeneration going everywhere in that period seemed just right for post-war aspirations. But, with some honourable exceptions, it has all aged badly. In Plymouth as much as anywhere else.
So I wasn't expecting to be much enthralled by seeing Plymouth in March 2015. And I wasn't. But read on, especially if you are Alice Broule...
The walkway from the station came out to the top of broad Armada Way, that broad north-south straight line of green grass and scattered water features, that stretches the entire distance from the big roundabout at top end of the city (near the station) down to the foot of the Hoe - as seen on this street map, a screenshot taken off my phone:
The basic street plan had not changed since 1950. I planned to make for the Barbican (lower right on the street plan), then cut back to the station (at the top) via the shops (centre), if there was time. Coming from the station, a pedestrian subway emerged onto a green: a somewhat vast and bleak space inside that big roundabout. Not a great place to be at night, I thought.
Then another subway took me through to the northern slopes of Armada Way. This spot was the haunt of beggars asking for 'change'. That is, layabouts and leeches who wanted rather more than just a bit of silver. The sort that, given the opportunity, would hold onto you and spin a yarn they had learned, and hope to propel you towards one of the cash dispensers. One approached me. He looked pretty unsavoury. He whined. I felt slightly threatened, even though I could have kicked him where it hurt, in a manner uncharacteristic of a lady of sensibility and perception. This was awkward. I didn't want his calculated conversation, his spiel. He'd spoil my day if I let him. I waved him away with an impatient gesture. I had time and kindness for those in genuine distress, from whatever cause, but I had none for those who only wanted to cadge a fiver or two for their next bet.
He did spoil my day, temporarily anyway. Some of these persons are genuine, really are down on their luck, really have hit a brick wall and can't see a way forward. That's the thought that nags at you after you've been firm with them - rude to them - in self-defence.
And I thought to myself: hold on, if you were homeless in a strange city, and entirely dependant on handouts, wouldn't you have to beg too? But then I'd say to myself: well, if I were in that position, I'd tidy myself up, brush my hair, put on my most winning smile, my most intelligent face, and try to secure a deal - my effort, my work, my time, for a place to stay, a hot meal, and just a bit of cash for some necessaries. I'd use my brain, my talents, any knack I had for winning trust and respect. Yes: start small. Be alert to chances. Be very useful. Get results. Achieve. Impress people who can give you a leg up. Earn the moral right to ask for more. Work yourself up to good accommodation - safe, warm and healthy accommodation - and maybe even a living wage and real independence. Make friends. Make contacts.
Share the plight of the invisible poor, the ones who have no safety net, and come to understand what it means to have very little. But also how such a life is successfully managed.
Bank the experiences; and one day tell the world what was learned. You have the words. And they need to know the inside story.
I walked on through the shops and plazas. Oh dear. The concrete looked positively light brown in the poor light of a dull day. The over-large plazas were half-heartedly filled with unnecessary arty-farty monuments and tourist fun rides. The stores looked monolithic, in the Cold War style, and decidedly past their sell-by date.
It all needed a jolly good scrub! It wasn't colourful enough either. The architecture looked dated and very tired. Perhaps on a sunny summer's day, with some festival going on, it would all have looked a lot nicer.
The Barbican area was a much-needed antidote. The edge of it had not escaped the bombs, and characterless modern buildings abounded - offices and flats both. So much so, that despite the cobbled streets it was a shock to come across original buildings that were really old, like this one:
Round the corner in Palace Street was an interesting-looking eatery called The Mission. The Italian-style menu looked OK. I didn't hesitate. In I went, and enjoyed a spaghetti main and a yummy sticky pudding, all served with friendliness and despatch:
This was more like it. Plymouth fights its way back into my affections!
I had just over an hour left. Proceeding along Buckwell Street, I found Hawkins Meeting House, the scene of that conversation with the man Joe in 2009, the person who had thought I was chancing my arm to walk around Plymouth in a skirt.
Seeing it revived memories. Should I go in? As a visitor to the city? As anybody might come to Brighton's Clare Project drop-in? But I was just another woman in the street. I had no reason, even for nostalgia's sake, to go in and pass a little time there. In the last six years I'd moved on too much.
Continuing, I turned down towards Sutton Harbour, on which the Barbican area was centred. it was yachty, full of restaurants and pubs and gift shops. Pleasant for all that, a great place to wander with friends in the evening, if looking for a place to eat. And there were some genuinely ancient alleyways to peer into.
Alice Broule had left a long comment on one of my March posts (Gus Honeybun and The Artful Bodger, published on 8 March 2015) which mentioned her father living in the Barbican when young, at 1 New Street - maybe. This is what she had said:
My father was born and raised in Plymouth and emigrated to Canada when he was 14. When he visited with my sister in his 60s, he pointed out the house the family lived in, and apparently it was the same house that was occupied by the Pilgrims who sailed on the Mayflower. And strictly fro the story from my sister and memory, I think the house was number 1 New Street in Plymouth. I checked it out on Google Earth and there's no verification of that conjecture.
Well, I'd decided to find New Street, and if possible identify the house she was referring to. Footwork was needed: I could inspect places invisible to Google Earth! And I do like to have interesting objectives. I found New Street easily enough, just off the harbour. At the harbour end of the street was this isolated old house:
Could that be it? It looked old enough to house migrating Pilgrims. I walked further into New street, looking carefully at the door numbers.
Hmmm...the Tudor House on the left, just in from the harbour, was at 17/18 New Street. So numbers decreased as you walked away from the harbour, then? I walked on, my back to the harbour, breasts pointed forward like scent-hungry bloodhounds straining at the leash. They practically bayed.
Yes, it definitely seemed so, that as you went towards the city centre the street numbers decreased. Number 1 New Street must lie somewhere ahead! I came to a modern block of flats numbered 5a to 5f New Street.
Beyond that were some older buildings, built of stone, that carried no numbers that I could find. But possibly one of them might be I New Street.
Could Alice's father have lived in one of these buildings in the last photo? Had they renumbered the entire street at some point? Well, the photos are here to ponder over. Mission accomplished, for now.
Demelza told me that I had forty minutes left for trekking back to the station and catching my train. Not enough time to visit the Hoe, nor really to look around the shops. Unless I wanted to hang around for the following train, two hours later. On such a cold dull day? No! So footed it featly, and arrived at Platform 3 with twelve minutes to spare.
I'd like to see Plymouth again on a warm, sunny day when I have plenty of time to see the city at leisure. It has to be more than a touristy harbourside, an outmoded city centre, and sprawling suburbs.