To think of a favourite place is to think of a favourite time; a heady mixture of fabulous buildings and structures and the memories of what you were doing in them, on them or – in my case – under them.
My first date with my ex-partner and great friend Alex de Rijke not only began our great love affair but also my great affection for the city of Plymouth. Picked up from my mum’s house in Cornwall on his motorbike, I was taken on a magical mystery tour of Alex’s home town.
We first pulled up at Saltash station – an architecturally unremarkable place, other than it marks the beginning of the Royal Albert Bridge, one of Brunel’s masterpieces. The crossing is impressive enough when you are simply speeding across it on the train, a sweeping two-span bow-string suspension bridge that marks the transition between Devon and Cornwall. But Alex took me for a walk out on the tracks.
Up close, its magnificent engineering is breathtaking, and memorable for me not just for the intricacy of its construction but also for the fear of falling 34 metres to the Tamar river below. I always believe that the underside of any building or structure is where you see the real creativity and dedication of an architect. If you bother to design the parts that are invisible, it says a great deal more about care and consideration than those that are on show.
The underside of any building or structure is where you see the real creativity and dedication of an architect”
Next we set off to Plymouth Hoe, a plateau above the sea with an incredible view of the big natural harbour. You can feel the 400 years of history, and a connection with the city’s ocean-faring ancestors who started out fishing but went on to discover treasure, make scientific breakthroughs and set up whole new lands and cultures. It was the last port of call for the Mayflower, and where Sir Francis Drake set sail to fight the Spanish Armada. At night its grandeur is emphasised by lights both from the city and out to sea. Night or day it is one of the most generous and expansive places you can be. It has an ambition reflected in its scale and the confidence befitting a city with such an illustrious past.
At the end of the Hoe you reach the old town of the Barbican, one of the few places to escape both the destruction of the blitz and nineteenth-century slum clearances. It is easily the most picturesque part of Plymouth. The scale is intimate, with lots of boutiques, restaurants and gift shops taking advantage of the tourist trap that it’s become. The ancient quays – where pilgrims and many of Plymouth’s merchants, mariners, privateers and buccaneers would have passed – gives it an authenticity that’s hard to deny. Back on the bike as a pillion, however, it was the cobbled streets that made the impression.
There are few pools as wonderful as the Art Deco-styled Tinside Lido, a real slice of the quintessential British seaside”
As someone who loves the sea, the clincher to my evening was a midnight swim in the Tinside Lido. I love swimming in salt water and have been lucky enough to swim in some of the most spectacular pools in the world, from Icebergs on Bondi Beach to Alvaro Siza’s architectural classic in Leca da Palmeira and the barely-changed 1950s pool at the Hotel Riviera in Havana. There are, however, very few pools as wonderful as the Art Deco-styled Tinside Lido, a real slice of the quintessential British seaside from a bygone era. Soaking up the moonlight or the sunlight on the expansive deck, it is one of the best places to relax, night or day.
Plymouth is shaped by the sea, and fortunes won in trade and war. The legacy of its naval past is both beautiful and bombastic, a juxtaposition that only adds to the romance of this seaside town. There are plenty of places in Plymouth that have been ruined by years of deprivation or ham-fisted regeneration, but I will always wear those rose-tinted glasses acquired on my first night visit, and I defy anyone not to walk along the Hoe and fall in love.