When the Roman Emperor Hadrian came to Britain in 122 AD he set about building his famous northern frontier wall between the Cumbrian coast and the North Sea, and at the eastern end he constructed a bridge and fort on the River Tyne known as Pons Aelius, or Hadrian’s Bridge.
The wall was later extended to Segedunum (now called Wallsend), and the fort at Hadrian’s Bridge has become the city of Newcastle-upon-Tyne.
After the Romans left, little is known about Anglo-Saxon Newcastle, which is surprising when you think that the great chronicler of the time, the Venerable Bede, was living only a short distance away on the other side of the river at Jarrow.
What we do know though is that the original Roman bridge was replaced, and that bridge too was replaced after a fire in 1248. Today, the site of all these bridges is occupied by another one – William Armstrong’s practical and wonderfully designed Swing Bridge of 1876. There are now seven bridges that span the river from this part of the city and this is definitely one of my favourites.
As I mentioned in my introduction, fishing has always been the most important part of Brixham life, and even as far back as the Middle Ages it was the largest fishing port in South-West England, but by the 19th century the port was so influential that it became a victim of its own success.
Up until then, deep sea fishing had largely been done by long lining which, as its name suggests was a technique that used hundreds, if not thousands, of baited hooks. Although trawls had already been invented, a much better system was developed by Brixham boat builders and fishermen that allowed trawls to be towed from beams that not only caught more fish but could also do so in all kinds of weather.
These boats with their tall gaff rig had sails which were treated with a local red ochre dye to make them more durable, and a design that made them both fast and strong. Only a small number of these boats have survived, but six of them have been restored and at least two or three can usually be seen alongside the pontoon next to the Prince William pub on the far side of the harbour.
There were in excess of 200 of these boats that sailed from the harbour to places as far away as the North Sea, where demersal fish such as plaice, haddock, and cod were much more plentiful. To begin with they returned to Brixham with their catch but as time went on they started to put down roots in places like Hull, Grimsby, Great Yarmouth and Lowestoft, and it wasn’t long before these ports became much bigger than Brixham itself.
The area around Sutton Harbour is known locally as The Barbican and is a magnet for both visitors and locals alike.
This is the oldest, and most atmospheric, part of the city and, as you’ve probably already guessed, its name comes from the fortified entrance that once protected the castle on Lambhay Hill.
Both have long since disappeared, but the area is still the historical core of old Plymouth where many maritime adventures started from and returned to, including the Mayflower.
The area was the haunt of Drake, Hawkins, and Raleigh and the layout of the streets hasn’t changed that much since. It’s apparently got the largest concentration of cobbled streets in England and over a hundred listed buildings.
The houses were originally built for wealthy merchants (I prefer to call them privateers), but as time moved on they became slums. The Elizabethan House in New St which is open to the public, housed over fifty people at one time, although a house further up the street housed sixty, and they’re not large houses by any stretch of the imagination.
Eventually of course many of these buildings had to be demolished, and I’d like to be able to tell you that they were replaced with something better, but I’m afraid I can’t.
Many ships carrying settlers and explorers have left Plymouth’s Sutton Harbour over the years, but The Pilgrim Fathers’ journey on the Mayflower in 1620 resonates with the city more than any other.
There’s a Mayflower St, Mayflower College and a Mayflower Centre. Plymouth Argyle, the local football club, has a Mayflower Stand and call themselves The Pilgrims, with Pilgrim Pete as their mascot. So what makes the Pilgrim Fathers and The Mayflower so special to Plymouth?
The story begins when a band of English nonconformists, who rejected the laws of the Church of England, decided to seek religious freedom elsewhere. The first part of their journey took them to Leiden in The Netherlands, but finding it difficult to settle there, they left Delfthavn (Rotterdam) on a boat called ‘The Speedwell’ for America. The Speedwell joined up with more English passengers in Southampton who were on board ‘The Mayflower’.
The Speedwell sprang a leak and both ships put in at Dartmouth to ensure they were ship-shape before attempting to cross the Atlantic. They didn’t get far before The Speedwell sprang another leak, and both ships turned back to Plymouth. It was just The Mayflower therefore that sailed out across the ocean looking for a new life.
Their intentions were to aim for North Virginia but were blown off course and eventually landed at Cape Cod (Massachusetts). They named their new settlement Plymouth, and although only half of them had survived by the time the first winter was over, the rest remained, and today Plymouth is regarded as the oldest permanent European settlement in the United States.
The survivors held a thanksgiving feast the following year which is commemorated by Americans every 4th Thursday in November.
In around 700AD Anglo Saxon mariners settled and created a small fishing community which they called Sutton (South Town).
From these humble beginnings Sutton Harbour has grown into one of the three largest fishing ports in England (the other two being Brixham and Newlyn).
The old fish quay on The Barbican has now relocated to more modern facilities on the eastern side of the harbour, but there’s more to the harbour than fishing.
This is the harbour where Sir Francis Drake organised his fleet to attack the Spanish Armada, where the Pilgrim Fathers set sail for America, and where Sir Francis Chichester landed after completing his epic solo voyage around the world.
To understand Plymouth better it’s worth knowing something about its geography and background.
The city as we know it today is situated between the mouths of two rivers – The Tamar and The Plym, which meet up in Plymouth Sound, a bay protected from the elements of the English Channel by a Breakwater.
The city of Plymouth is actually made up of four separate towns – Plymouth, Stonehouse, Devonport and Plympton.
In medieval times Plymouth was just a small farming and fishing settlement, Stonehouse was of no significance, and Devonport didn’t even exist. Plympton, on the other hand, was one of the four influential stannary towns of Devon involved in the production of tin (the others being Tavistock, Ashburton, and Chagford). Continue reading →