Barbican

The outer defence of a castle or walled city, especially a double tower above a gate or drawbridge. Usually barbicans were situated outside the main line of defence and connected with the city walls with a walled road called a ‘neck’.

A day trip to Plymouth, car free, thanks to the Looe to Liskeard rail connection. I remember the odd brief visit to the Barbican, many years apart when it was a more workaday waterfront environment rather than the leisure and cultural destination it has now become. That spirit was captured in the exuberant life affirming paintings of local landlady and self taught artist Beryl Cook (1926-2008). Victoria Wood memorably described her hugely popular and instantly recognisable work as ‘Rubens with jokes’.

This is the historic heart of the settlement that grew to be known as Plymouth and the C14th castle on the hill the Barbican led to only exists as a fragment today. The modern day harbour walls are crammed with commemorative plaques, most famously the one recording the sailing of the Mayflower for America in 1620. Over the road that leads to the hoe and its outstanding views, the great grey cliff like bastions of the Royal Citadel, built in the wake of the civil war and still a military base, marks one boundary of this eclectic maze of narrow cobbled streets where post war social housing rubs shoulders with expensive penthouses. Today the harbour is chock full of yachts moored at pontoons while the old Victorian fish quay has become home to a variety of eateries and artisan outlets. The new quay, relocated across Sutton harbour, thrives as a major landing and market for the commercial fishing community and the neighbouring national aquarium draws the crowds .

I’d recalled from my youth the astonishing mural produced by that other famous Barbican artist and resident, Robert Lenkiewicz (1941-2002). Eventually rediscovered his ‘Everyone is Welcome’ old studio and, on its end wall, the now ghosted and crumbling 300 square foot mural. Created with such verve 50 years ago, and fusing art and life in using local people as his models, it celebrates the metaphysics of the English Renaissance and the Barbican’s role as a dynamic mercantile powerhouse at that time c. 1580-1620. Here’s an online re-coloured version. More at: https://www.robertlenkiewicz.org/

The Barbican’s Southside Street leads one way traffic into what is billed as the largest concentration of cobblestoned streets to be found anywhere in the country. Sitting out on the pavement of the busy narrow thoroughfare over a coffee we watched as a lorry driver halted and man managed all traffic for nearly ten minutes so he could, deftly as any athlete, unload and deliver two pallets worth of goods to one of the many art and craft galleries here

There are some 200 listed buildings in the Barbican, many of them only existing today thanks to bodies like the Plymouth Barbican Trust (PBT) formed in 1957. No 32 New Street has been a museum since being saved from demolition by a big public campaign in the 1930’s and has recently been extensively renovated and given new visitor facilities by the city council. In descending its three wooden floors we discovered a history reflecting that of the neighbourhood at large. Built by a local merchant adventurer in the 1580’s (when the street actually was new) the house was subdivided in the 18th with a wigmaker occupying the middle floor. As the middle classes left to the suburbs in the 19th century the lower floor had a through passage added and rooms were given over to multi-occupation. A female sex worker’s story is told here. The Elizabethan house, like others in New Street, recycles a ships mast as newel post, around which the steep stairs wind, extending through to the loft.

The biggest surprise was an attraction I never knew existed until this day. The Elizabethan Garden is actually a recreation of garden designs from the C17th and is a PBT initiative dating from 1970, set behind the New Street properties where once cottages had stood, cleared as slums in the last century, and can only be accessed by a narrow side passage & steps. We were entranced by the garden’s specimen black mulberry tree, the boxwood knot garden, gravelled paths and cool fountain. An inscribed slab lists all those who sailed in the Mayflower and a stone replica of the ship is set in an arch.

The contrast of formalised greenery with walls of grey marble stones was striking. A welcome peaceful haven stepped back from the heart of the old town, overlooking the long narrow gardens of New Street’s cafe bars with their shaded outdoor seating. (proved ideal for a laid back lunch, al fresco).

Despite the old city centre being largely destroyed in WW2 and the naval dockyards badly damaged the Barbican itself survived relatively unscathed and now seems to embrace yet another social and cultural role for the 21st century.  

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