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.
If you’ve read my previous post, Plymouth’s Origins and Layout, you’ll realise that Sutton Harbour is where Plymouth was born.
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.