The fascination of Plymouth

Devon is full of ancient towns, sweeping rural landscapes, and wild moors, and above all it is a land of wonderful coasts. Such differences, too – the intricate bays and sunlit beaches of the south, often framed in sandstone, and the wide, almost continental shores of the northern coast, with broad stretches of sand emerging from low hills or sitting under bluff cliffs of shale or sandstone. The sea roars in there, as it does in Cornwall, but on the south coast stretching from Falmouth through to Poole and beyond there is a series of deep harbours. It was here that over time the British navy came to anchor and supply its ships, and Plymouth like Portsmouth ultimately selected itself as a prime naval port, with the seemingly unlikely company of Torquay as a wide bay protected from the south-west winds.

Plymouth had its old Sutton harbour, with the streets of the Barbican backing off and around it, and that is now famous as being a quay from which the Mayflower sailed. But another town grew up to the east side of the Hamoaze, the estuary of the Tamar, and to this day it is one of Britain’s most enduring naval bases, Devonport. For a great deal of its life, the Dock as it was then called was larger than its sister town, Plymouth, and for a while it was the largest town in Devon. With the presence of navy and the marines and the surrounding protection of the facilities offered by army garrisons, the three towns of Plymouth, the Dock, and Stonehouse in between them provided a thriving social life for the officer class and wealthier families in the civilian population. The attractions for both married and unattached young women included a theatre and an assembly room. Remarkably, the assembly room – known as the Long Room – still stands, and can be seen on the edge of what remains of Millbay in Stonehouse, close to what is now the continental ferry terminal. During the summer season it would be thronged with what must have been a higher proportion of uniforms per square yard than many other cities could offer, its interior dazzlingly lit with candles and stiflingly hot, with card-tables and supper complementing the exciting intimacy of the hours of dancing.

By the later years of the eighteenth century, stagecoaches as well as chaises provided a swifter connection to fashionable cities such as Bristol, Bath and London, and when Amelia visits and stays in her friend’s townhouse in Plymouth she finds shops and booksellers that would equal those of Exeter. For her, accustomed to the slower pace of rural society, it is the town that demands and absorbs her attention, while the summer encampment of the Devon militia on the downs above Plymouth has incidentally a greater influence on her life than she would ever have imagined…

Plymouth and the Dock form the setting for much of the second novel in the Wentworth Family Saga series, Heir to the Manor, which also involves events in Brittany and the manor of Kergohan.

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