Jonathan Footerman continues his solo circumnavigation of the UK in a mini-yacht, and stops into Plymouth for a bit of history.
(AUTHOR’S NOTE: Taken from the fifteenth chapter of ‘A Different Tack’, my book about the trials of abandoning the office in later life to become a yachtsman.)
I was on the last leg of my solo circumnavigation, going east along the English south coast from Lands End to Gosport in Portsmouth Water where I had started out. It was a mixed day of sunshine and showers on 23rd September when I left Falmouth for Plymouth, heading north-east past Portscatho and Veryan Bay, my childhood holiday haunts. The south coast of Cornwall is a succession of pretty bays bitten into the cliffs. The bays are shaped on each side by rocky granite outcrops full of pools for children to explore for tiny crabs and shrimps when they are bored with burying Dad in the yellow-white sand. The Atlantic waters never warm to Mediterranean comfort which does not worry them, but the surf is oceanic and can worry the adults on their behalf on a blustery day. The rocks worried me, and much as I wanted to hug the shore and enjoy the familiar seaside of this ‘Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty’, I kept my distance. Off Dodman Point on the far side, I decided to cross the next large double bay directly to Plymouth, a 27-mile sail which took me seaward of St. Austell, Fowey and Looe. Rumour has it that Fowey is pronounced ‘phooey’, but it might just be to keep the kids giggling about the two ports always mentioned together. It is probably pronounced ‘Foy’ just to remind strangers that they are never going to be properly informed natives. Looe is merely a derivation of Logh, signifying an inland stretch of water linked to the sea like Scottish lochs and Irish loughs.
The wind was in the West and I gybed down it when it was strong enough to power up the jib – it only stayed briefly at F3 when I had to put in the door panel to stop it blowing showers into the cabin. A few war-ships were prowling the coast towards Plymouth, and one crossed my bow, turned and kept exact pace with me for an hour or so about half a mile further out to sea, which cannot have been easy for a ship of that power since I was making barely four knots. I am always flattered when the forces give me an escort, but I prefer the kind of warship with huge cannon at the front and back, bristling with Oerlikans, and a bi-plane on a winch. They have all gone. Nowadays they are small and full of odd angles to keep enemy radar quiet, and odd-looking high-tech domes in which my boyish self hopes there is a missile launcher worth doodling. For sheer boys-art inspiration, they cannot compare with an old dreadnought.
I entered Plymouth Sound in the early evening with the wind suddenly picking up, and followed the prescribed deep water route around the breakwater, alongside large mooring buoys for ships, and up the harbour to Queen Anne’s Battery. The Sound is a large expanse of water with a long breakwater across the middle of the mouth that covers at high tide, with entrance channels on either side through which the tide moves fast, and rivers flow in on the East and West. My manoeuvres were entirely unnecessary since the whole Sound is accessible for a yacht with my draft, but it was fun to pretend to be a real ship in the wake of the many other famous ones that have berthed at the Battery, in the shadow of the fort. It is a superb harbour, the entire bay protected by the breakwater which, at over 60 yards across at the foot and almost a mile long, belongs to an exclusive set of such sea defences, like the Cherbourg 2-mile fortressed breakwater built to protect a similarly naval harbour for the arch-enemy. There are various marinas, and the Queen Anne’s Battery did not seem to be the best for any reason other than its excellent name. In fact it sits in an historic position near the remains of the old town, and on the quays there are plaques commemorating the famous visitors whose track I had followed entering the harbour: Sir Humphrey Gilbert’s expedition to colonise Newfoundland, the ‘Tory’ pioneer ship to New Zealand, the ‘Sea Venture’ to Bermuda, Sir Walter Raleigh’s pioneers to Roanoke Island to colonise Virginia and Carolina, the arrival of the first transatlantic flight, the Tolpuddle Martyrs, and of course the Mayflower – I arrived two weeks after the 390th anniversary of its departure commemorated by a stone arch where the Pilgrim Fathers boarded. To be fair to Newlyn which I had recently left, the Mayflower is said to have stopped there to replace the water it took on board at Plymouth, Devon, which had been fouled in some way, and it is therefore the real point of departure for Plymouth, Massachusetts.
In the morning, I walked across the bridge from the Battery for a cup of coffee in the old port known as the Barbican, at the foot of the fort on the east side of the Hoe. There is not much left of the original port above the bed-rock – it has always been a primary bombardment target in the very rare, occasional wars that have punctuated the history of these peace-loving, sharing, fine-weather islands. But it has been pleasantly redeveloped with places to sit out beside the old docks. From there I could walk up to the fort, still occupied by the Ministry of Defence, and along the Hoe where on that day, the University was celebrating the graduation of its students in a series of large marquees. I noticed that one of the cannon in the crenulations of the fort was pointed at the statue of Sir Francis Drake, perfectly positioned for a student prank except that they were all too busy pressing the flesh to have noticed. This is sadly out of kilter with the irreverence of Sir Francis Drake himself under whose gaze they were celebrating, basically a privateer made good by the grace of Queen Elizabeth I, about whom the story is told that he was playing bowls on Plymouth Hoe when the approach of the invading Spanish Armada was announced. Britain was no great power in the 16th Century whereas Spain was the greatest on land or sea. Drake was not put off his stroke, announcing that there was time enough to finish the game and still beat the Spaniard.
I always thought that ‘Plymouth Ho!’ was something shouted from the top of the mast as ships approached, but no, it refers to a large cliff-top area covered in grass into which the form of two giants was cut in the past, now grown out. In a conflated version codified in the 12th Century AD of the origins of Britain, its founder is said to have been Brutus, grandson of the Trojan Aeneas, whose name replaced the older Albion which referred to its white cliffs. Since Aeneas was Hector’s lieutenant in the 12th Century BC war with Greece, and the lover of Queen Dido in 9th Century BC Carthage, and Brutus was the subduer of Spain for Rome in the 3rd Century BC, there is evidently a concertina approach to history in this. The same source (Geoffrey of Monmouth) tells of the giants who populated the land, especially Cornwall, and under their leader Gogmagog, attacked Brutus’s men when they arrived. Gogmagog has Biblical, Qu’ranic and other connections beyond the scope here, but the story tells how Brutus’s son Corin wrestled the giant on Plymouth Hoe and threw him off, commemorated by their two figures cut into the grass long before Drake’s statue graced it. Brutus went on to found the city that became London, and the Lord Mayor’s parade still includes the giant figures of Gog and Magog. The provenance of these big heads is enriched with the explanation that the Emperor Diocletian had 33 naughty daughters who killed their husbands and were cast adrift, washed ashore here, coupled with demons and produced the race of giants. But if I saw any Angels or Demons, they were well disguised as graduates.
It was a beautifully bright day, but as I pointed my camera at Sir Francis, the batteries gave out and I had no spares with me. Disinclined to go all the way down to the town, I headed for a glass and concrete structure in the hope of finding a lobby shop. It announced itself as the Quality Hotel with some commercial hubris in the overstatement, while stained, eroding concrete and tarpaulined areas expressed the widening gulf between truth and representation. There was no lobby shop, but I put on a sorrowful expression, (You’re OK, I’m soooo, soooo not OK), and the girl behind the counter was sympathetic. Off she went to a well-stocked stationery drawer, and sold me an unblemished 4-pack of double-As. Perhaps I found an angel after all. Already married, I’m sorry to say.
On the way back to the boat, I visited the National Aquarium. Divers were a great attraction to the spectators as they dealt with the large creatures – sharks, cod and so on – in the giant main tanks, but I had a quiet little epiphany of my own in front of a neglected tank containing sea squirts. These strange creatures are little more than a length of bio-tubing, and in this quality they are a good metaphor for Human Beings. They like marinas, where they find ample flat surfaces to anchor to – flat surfaces are rare in nature. They start out as tadpole-like creatures with alert brains, and swim around energetically and discerningly until they have found a good spot in the marina. But once they have, they settle down and attach themselves permanently by the bottom, begin to lose their brains which they no longer need, and ultimately become little more than purposeless digestive tubes. It is startling how far this analogy extends where yachtsmen are concerned, illustrating why I do not want to get stuck anywhere for long: it is just too dangerous.
Plymouth Sound and its rivers are attractive and the town is worth a good long visit, but I was on my way to the adjacent Yealm river to visit fellow yachtsmen whom I had met in the Crinan Canal, whose comfortable yacht is named after the Aphrodite Aculeata (sea mouse). I left at the end of the afternoon for the 7 mile trip around the little island called the Mew stone that separates the Sound from the Yealm estuary. Despite the ancient presence of giants, the Mew Stone does not seem to be one of their creations like the Bass Rock in the Firth of Forth or Ailsa Craig in the Firth of Clyde (volcanic plugs), but it is a bird reserve like them, no longer populated by people. The wind was picking up to a level that would normally have kept me in harbour. It was from the North, and against the rising tide flowing fast around the breakwater, it was creating an uncomfortable little chop in the Sound itself, and odd currents that pushed the boat around in an unexpected manner as I tried to leave. Once through the entrance into the sea, the water smoothed out, exactly the reverse of what is supposed to happen around a harbour! But the wind was rising to a level I had never sailed in, roaring across so loudly that when I called my friends, I could barely hear the voice on the telephone. Another yachtsman heading into the Yealm behind me told me when we were berthed that his masthead anemometer registered 40 MPH, a full force 8 gale, and even if it only gusted to that level, it certainly reached F7 while I was out there. I had pulled out the jib to leave the harbour, but now as I rounded the Mew Stone putting the wind on my port beam, I furled much of it to keep the boat on a reasonable heel, and was down to about a third and belting along at over six knots with the tide flowing into the Yealm with no other sail out – the main was safely tied away on the boom. It is very rare to get a spanking wind across a flat sea, and for a short time it was exhilarating with Elektra behaving as though she barely noticed, although her gunwales were dipping into the water. That is the advantage of a real ocean-going fin-keeled design! The Yealm river valley is steep-sided and winds east-west, and as soon as I entered it, it sheltered me from the gale and calm returned as I made my way up to one of the floating pontoons, using the motor to berth. I was tempted to berth under sail alone, but with dozens of other yachts moored in the vicinity, the chances are I would have mucked it up and done some damage.
One way or another, I had arrived at a physically low ebb at this point in the circumnavigation. The long delay in Milford Haven after a period of hard sailing ought to have been recuperation, but instead I simply lost form for lack of activity. The haul to Newlyn had left me tired, and I had been feeling fragile ever since. I probably needed a week or two of vigorous exercise to get back to fitness, and it was this last leg along the south coast that brought home to me how important it would be to combine future long-distance sailing with some aerobic effort. A weekend of relaxation off the boat was very welcome, and I recall how I feared I might not be able to keep up with my hosts and family when we went for an afternoon walk in the hills. By the time I left, I felt much better, a boost towards Gosport that was extremely welcome.
Next week: Plain Sailing but Pain Staying in West Bay
My ports of call:
- Gosport, Haslar marina, the start and end of the voyage.
- Eastbourne (Sovereign marina)
- Felixstowe Ferry (River Deben)
- Wells-next-the Sea
- Grimsby & Spurn Head
- West Hartlepool
- Low Newton-by-the-Sea
- Muir Town Basin (Caledonian Canal)
- Dochgarroch (Caledonian Canal)
- Fort Augustus (Caledonian Canal)
- Gairlochy (Caledonian Canal)
- Corpach (Caledonian Canal exit)
- Crinan (Canal entrance)
- Ardrishaig (Crinan Canal exit)
- Lochranza (Arran)
- Bangor (Belfast Lough)
- Peel (Isle of Man)
- Port St.Mary
- Milford Haven & Dale
- Newlyn (Lands End)
- Newton Ferrers (to visit friends)
- West Bay (Bridport)
- Yarmouth (Isle of Wight)
(From there back to Gosport)