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Yo ho ho and a bottle of gin

semi-overcast 22 °C

Determined to make it to Cornwall, ancestral land of some of my ancestors on my mother's side, we headed to the salty seaside city of Plymouth, carried away by British High-Speed Rail. In this nautical nook of Devon history fairly drips off the cobblestones, especially in the area known as The Barbican. This has barely changed in many respects since the days of pirates, in fact the proprietors of the strip of overpriced and underdelivering restaurants that dominate the sea front seem intent on continuing the tradition. For instance, a "vegetarian paella" turned out to be "fried rice with a few stringy bits of celery" without a paella pan in sight. Even the oversized gulls, with big, hooked beaks, wheeling about and conducting territorial disputes with other species seemed to be crying "Rrrrrrrgh" with a piratical and sinister edge. Maybe Hitchcock made that film in the wrong town after all.

As we explored the seafront further it became apparent that Plymouth is a great place to depart from. Most famously, the Pilgrim Fathers stepped down a very humble little stone stairway to their boats to make their way to America and found their colony, spreading their genes to an amazing number of descendants currently populating the US. Captain Cook sailed from here on each of his three voyages of exploration, Bligh also had his beginnings here, and even Scott of the Antarctic and Charles Darwin set off from this tiny harbour to each leave the world substantially altered by their deeds. For each of these events, small plaques note the places from where they stepped off the land to commence their journeys.

Plymouth's favourite son by far seems to be Sir Francis Drake; what with the Drake Circus Shopping Centre, the Armada Shopping Centre, and innumerable references to him in the streets and cafes. We strolled upon the Hoe, the high park overlooking the sea, where Drake allegedly played bowls while awaiting the Spanish Armada, then went out and whipped them. It seems a popular place, with the enormous art deco Lido swimming pool recently refurbished so people can swim on the edge of the sea in an incongruously brilliantly blue tiled pool that clashes with the dull grey of unruly waves outside. Even the Beatles have sat upon the Hoe, as shown in a framed photograph of the fab four sitting on the grass in 1967, all in a line with Seaton's Tower, the former lighthouse, in the background, John on the left with his trademark ironic smirk. The photo is for sale at one of the seaside art shops. If you like that kind of thing.

The core of Plymouth as a city seems to be in an active state of decay, with the mainly 1950s architecture crumbling at the edges. We had an interesting chat with a fellow in the St Andrews church which illuminated the story further. This church, like the Charles Church down the road, was burned out in the bombing raids of the Blitz in 1941. A small diagram pinned up on a display board has small dots representing each site where high explosive bombs landed over the duration of the German bombing campaign. The dots almost touched each other, from the docks and naval base right out into what was purely civilian dwellings. And then there were the firebombs, too numerous to mention. In short, virtually the whole city was levelled, leaving a massive rebuilding task in the postwar period.

There is a photo of young Princess Elizabeth in 1949 dedicating a stone in the rebuilt St Andrews; for the years preceding the building of a new roof, new stained glass all round, and a new interior, the church was open to the elements and grass and flowers were grown inside it, while it still functioned as a house of worship. While this landmark, and the adjoining guild hall, were reassembled and revamped, the Charles Church which our room looked down over has been left as a burned out shell in the middle of a busy traffic roundabout, a permanent reminder of the devastation experienced in the blitz and a memorial to the suffering of its citizens.

When the plaster on the walls of the St Andrews church came off in the bombing during the blitz, graffiti was uncovered that had been there since Drake's time, depicting his ship the Golden Hind, with a rope extending from the bow of the ship up to the heavens, to the hand of providence. Supposedly Drake may have seen this and been inspired to create his family crest with a very similar motif. Who knows, there is so much embellishment and distortion of the truth that happens as the centuries pass. The fact of the resounding defeat of the Spanish is seemingly confirmed by a small plate on the doorway of the "Spanish Barn", a substantial stone building constructed by the monks of Torre Abbey close to Torquay beach, stating that 398 Spanish prisoners taken in the Armada defeat were held captive there. Its inches-wide windows and formidable doors would have made it an impregnable gaol, that would have been extremely crowded and uncomfortable.

In keeping with the nautical preoccupations of the town, it is also the home of Plymouth Gin, the single site where it is permitted to be distilled. Originally, the recipe was invented by a fellow named Coates, and in a time when the French were at war with England, the naval officers who were unable to get their usual rations of brandy and wine soon developed a taste for this local invention, made from wheat spirit together with certain botanical flavourings, and a distillation process that is still a carefully guarded secret. I took a tour of the factory, still housed in its former monastery building,dated 1431, which survived the bombing raids of the Germans, though the adjoining office block was totally destroyed. The entire output of the Plymouth Gin brand is produced here in one single still, and a tasting revealed it is a damn fine drop. Like refining oil into its components such as diesel, kerosene and petrol, the volatile oils from the various flavouring elements, such as juniper, coriander, orris root, and cardamon, emerge through the condenser in a fixed order, and the raw product needs to be watered down according to time-honoured steps to get to the final level of acceptable alcohol content.

Through this visit, I finally understood the term "proof". It seems that the Royal Navy required their gin to be undiluted as a matter of military necessity: the gin supplies on ships were always stored with the gunpowder below decks. If gin cut with water were to leak onto the gunpowder, the powder would not be usable. However, if the gin were pure, even if mixed with the gunpowder, the powder would still explode as required. To give the "proof" was to actually mix some of the powder with some of the gin up on deck, and light it. If it blew, then you knew the gin was at least 100% proof.

On Friday and Saturday nights, the local folk seem intent on keeping up the tradition of getting well and truly soaked in a range of drinks, and staggering through the streets in a disorderly and rowdy fashion. So England keeps up its traditions, while its infrastructure slowly falls apart, and unemployment and chronic health conditions seem to spread far and wide, as wide as once were the pink bits of the map of the world.

Having filled our lungs with the fresh air of the Plymouth coast, I organised a hire car for the next stage of our journey, down to Cornwall to explore the land of one stream of my ancestors lived for hundreds of years.

Posted by piepers 14:22 Archived in United Kingdom

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