Plymouth the Wonder City, 1964

Book cover: Britain in the Sixties

One of my favourite paperbacks is The Other England by Geoffrey Moorhouse (1931-2009) and here I want to share a few of his observations on a favourite city of mine: Plymouth, in Devon.

The book was published as a red Penguin Special in 1964 and contains a set of essays on every part of England except, pointedly, London, though of course a few digs are made along the way. It employs a mix of observation, political commentary and sly wit which makes it as fun to read as it is interesting.

When I lived in Penzance, Plymouth was the nearest ‘proper’ city (sorry, Truro) and a mere two hours away by train compared to three for Exeter (which feels distinctly less metropolitan) or four for Bristol, another great maritime city with which Plymouth shares a certain style and atmosphere.

Moorhouse sets the scene for his observations with a cinematic wide shot:

There is an element of surprise about Plymouth if you approach it from the East. After the bleak and haunted bulk of Dartmoor you don’t reasonably expect much in the way of civilization beyond; the idea of an ultra-modern city of 200,000 people sprawling down from that boggy plateau is faintly preposterous.

Plymouth doesn’t seem ultra-modern today and, indeed, is gaining considerable traction as a kind of living museum of mid-century planning and architecture. In 1964, however, it was ahead of the curve:

It was as early as 1943 that Plymouth, with the help of Sir Patrick Abercrombie, drafted its post-war plan. It decided that the city centre had been a pretty awful mess anyway, and that this was a chance to make something better of it. Instead of the narrow, wriggling maze bequeathed by generations of city fathers and commercial hardheads, there would be broad traffic and pedestrian ways keyed into a rectangular grid. The Plymouth Plan was something the town-planners from half Europe came to marvel at, for no one had thought of attempting anything like this before. Perhaps Plymouth got off the mark with this vision of the future just a bit too soon; if it had waited until Coventry and then the New Towns had hit upon the idea of shopping precincts totally devoid of traffic it would doubtless have been happy enough to follow suit.

A department store.
Dingle’s in 2016.

Despite being from Bolton in Lancashire Moorhouse had a personal connection with Plymouth because, like many British men, he had lived there while serving in the Navy. In this book he recalls the excitement around the opening of the first of the city’s newly built shop, a department store, in 1951:

[You] couldn’t, as I remember, do much shopping in Dingle’s that Saturday, so congested was it with West Countrymen who had come not only to wonder at the extravagance of it all after years of buying from makeshift shops rigged up out of Nissen huts, but simply to travel up and down all day long on the escalators. It was the first time this new-fangled device had been known West of Bristol.

There’s an unfortunate hint of ‘Ho ho, get a load of these bumpkins’ in that last line but I don’t doubt it’s true.

Tower block
Civic Centre and Council House.

Revisiting the city in the early 1960s Moorhouse found the transformation remarkable:

The city centre is now just about finished, a gleaming thing of Portland stone and as fine a shopping area as any you’ll find out of London; as the official guide book remarks, ‘Many London fashion houses and Bond Street tailors have seen fit to open branches in the Metropolis of the West’. It is true that hardly any of the buildings there quite dare us to accept a revolutionary line or two — thought out of Crownhill there is one of the most adventurous of our post-war churches with a free-standing altar and a flower-bed by the font. In the centre they have laid out a mosaic piazza, planted a swathe of trees…. and conjured up a pool beside the civic centre in which sailors are apt to bathe after a roistering night ashore.

Murals and architectural details
Plymouth Pannier Market, Walls & Pearn, 1959-60, as it looked in 2016.

He was quite won over by what he called a ‘smart and enterprising city centre’:

In its way it is all as exciting as a New Town, though they have meticulously reconstructed the Guildhall shell in a fanciful mixture of English and Italian Gothic, presumably to keep faith with the past. An almost tangible air of ambition hangs about this work of restoration and not long after the visitor arrives and starts investigating it dawns on him that Plymouth, having got well into its stride, doesn’t know where to stop.

That last thought suggests that, despite his admiration for the city, Moorhouse was aware that Plymouth’s post-war reconstruction was in the process of grinding to a halt. The grand architects’ plan was hobbled at various points (see this post from Municipal Dreams for details, or the account in John Grindrod’s 2013 book Concretopia) and long before the mid-1960s locals had begun to grumble about the vast empty spaces, the howling winds and how inhospitable it was for smaller independent businesses.

If you come across a copy of this book, do you pick it up — my copy cost £2 — and if you get chance, take it on a trip to Plymouth to trace for yourself the outlines of a more optimistic time.