Plymouth? Ho! 28-30 May 14

coffee and croissantWednesday, 28 May 14: the problem with the weather at the moment is that it’s great for growing: plenty of rain, enough warmth and long hours of daylight so everywhere’s green and today’s typical. It’s been raining overnight and it’s an overcast sky but I’m sat in First Class on the 0745 Cambridge to King’s Cross.

I had worried that the automatic ticket barrier wouldn’t like my Senior ticket before 0900 but there was no problem and it let me through. Fingers crossed that there’s no officious ‘revenue control officer’ on the train.

I was horrified as were many by the devastation in the West Country from the weather of January and then staggered at the speed at which Network Rail (or whatever it’s called today) repaired the iconic stretch which the Cornish Riveria Express takes down south of Exeter. So I checked out my rail map and saw that Plymouth is the other side of the repairs and in itself interesting enough to visit. So that’s why I’m on my way today.

In London on time and it’s into my London arrival routine. I generally arrive half an hour early and then enjoy my breakfast at Patisserie Valerie. I’ve blogged about this (click here) and it’s a part of my philosophy of being in control of the start of the day and getting my head in order for the excesses which the world is going to throw at me. Patisserie Valerie does good coffee and rather large croissants and today was my third visit within a week.

I’m then forced to shell out 30p to use the toilets before taking the tube to Paddington where it’s a short wait until we can get on the 1006 for Penzance. I grab an Americano to go at Caffe Nero express where everyone seems to be a trainee and nobody seems to listen. I tweet in disappointment.

Anyway I’m on board, car L seat 18 and we’re ready to go. And as I sit typing this I recognise that I’m on a train and not an aeroplane so I don’t have to switch my iPAD to airplane mode and so lose the bluetooth connection of my key board. And we’re away!

First Class is of course very comfortable: plenty of room, leather seats, trolley service etc. But the toilets are still of the ‘do not flush when standing in a station’ variety. Why is it acceptable to spray toilet flush across the countryside? And the ‘automatic’ water supply isn’t.

Brain check: crossword complete except for ‘sea eagle’ 4 characters e_n_. I should know that. Medium Sudoku’s easy and I even do about a half of the cryptic.

It’s a long journey. Paddington to Reading and then non-stop to Exeter. Just after Exeter we get the Dawlish bit which was washed away in the January storms. It’s noticeably very smooth now but there are people still working on it. The beaches at Dawlish and later at Teignmouth are empty of sun bathers of course but pretty full of families in waterproofs exploring rock pools, looking for crabs and other sea life, and generally making the most of less than exciting summer weather. At least it’s not raining.

We actually get a flicker of sun as we arrive in Plymouth but that’s all we do get and for the rest of the day it’s off and on a very light drizzle. The hotel is a mile from the station but it’s an easy walk and I confess to using my phone for directions. It’s actually straight on to the Hoe down the Armada Way then turn right. It’s the Grosvenor Hotel (www.grosvenor-plymouth.com) and it’s family run. Once I get checked in it seems OK: clean, wifi and should be quiet. There’s no evidence of the gulls I encountered in Bath last year.

I head of quickly to the Barbican district and get an excellent late lunch, I enter the restaurant at 1400, at the Barbican Kitchen (www.barbicankitchen.com). It’s a bona fide brasserie and I enjoy super olives, an excellent hunk of cod and a glass of Chardonnay followed by an espresso. Apart from the fact that is seems to want to charge for everything (olives, bread) and ‘sell up’ (double espresso as standard) it was excellent.

DSC02251 crop Plymouth GinAfter lunch I wander round this part of Plymouth which is where the city started and I take in the Plymouth Gin (www.plymouthdistillery.com) and the Plymouth Mayflower museums. It costs a whopping £7 at the former but at least I get a voucher for a free gin and tonic which I cash in later on. That must be worth £4. At the latter there’s a discount for seniors but the lady flatters me by trying to charge me full price.

At least a part of the heritage of Plymouth is focused on one point in the Barbican viz the Mayflower Steps. This is the point from which the Pilgrim Flowers are said to have sailed and judging by all the other plaques around it just about every voyage of significance began or ended there. And even if that wasn’t the case Plymouth is still happy to claim some connection.

I wander back via Plymouth Hoe which would look better in the sunshine but then it would probably be too crowded as well.

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As I walk back to the hotel I see the impressive buildings facing onto the Hoe including the newly renovated Grand which is now luxury flats. To its right (facing the sea) is another block from the 60s which is drab concrete but with perhaps some intent to match the scale and structure of the Grand. To its right again is the Quality Hotel which is straight out of the OstBlok book of functional design. What were planners thinking of in the 60s?

I head off again early evening to check out restaurants. On tripadvisor there are lots of cafes and fish and chip shops and even filtering those out you’re still left with wine bars that do food. The impressive looking Scott’s (www.scottsbrasserie.co.uk) which I’d seen earlier was empty and then had closed early when I walked past later. I finally chose ZUZiMO! (more later) but before that I cashed in my free gin voucher at the Refectory Bar (www.therefectorybar.co.uk) upstairs at the Plymouth Gin distillery. This is indeed a classy joint with more excellent olives. I topped up my free gin with a second measure to make it a double.

???????????????????????????????ZUZiMO! (www.zuzimo.co.uk) is ranked high on tripadvisor but it’s confused. It does tapas and tagines and teriyaki and all sorts of other stuff as well. It seems to specialise in hen parties but then maybe it’s just female friendly. It’s rather vast but the table density is low and the carpet looks like it was inherited. It’s run by a Slovakian lady and her Iranian partner who are very visible and engage well. It has an excellent choice of wines by the glass, I enjoyed a super Malbec, but the food was not great. I talked at length with the boss lady and you really can’t fault this place for trying but maybe it’s just a little too big and insufficiently focused.

Thursday, 29 May 14: I sleep OK but with the window open I realise we are at the seaside. The gulls remind me of that.

Breakfast is of the cardiac variety with no fresh fruit and no croissants. I insist on an Americano from the proper coffee machine and then grumble that my eggs are not cooked as I like them. Cat from Rumania serves me politely but firmly!

???????????????????????????????I follow the City Centre Trail and find out how the bombed out centre of Plymouth was redeveloped. I’m not sure who did the most damage: the Luftwaffe or the city planners. The new town is bold with a wide pedestrian street running from the railway station to the Hoe but for me it’s too wide and featureless and there’s far too much concrete. The contrast between the 19th century Guildhall and the Civic Centre of 1961 says it all

At 1100 I get a coffee at Caffe Nero and then spot another one just around the corner. Unlike some towns and cities Plymouth is not dominated by Starbucks.

I have lunch at The Mission (www.themissionplymouth.com), a restaurant in a converted mission (as the name implies). Nice tasteful conversion and I enjoy chorizo and olives followed by a generous portion of healthy looking West Country mussels washed down by a glass of South African Chardonnay.

I come out of the restaurants to see that I’ve missed a fairly heavy downpour and it’s now cloudy bright instead of gloomy and overcast. Not quite sunny though.

I waste a couple of hours logged onto the Rugby World Cup web-site waiting for my turn to buy my tickets. When it’s finally my turn I get to choose between expensive and very expensive seats, it reminds me a little of my last visit to the dentist (click here). I decide it’s the last opportunity I’m likely to get so spend more on 2 tickets (that’s 2 birthday presents and a Xmas present for Alex) than I spent on my first car.

DSC02309 Smeaton's TowerThen it’s time to stretch my legs again and I do the Hoe Trail. I get flattered again when I go up Smeaton’s Tower when the guy asks me of I’m close to 60. Then it’s a good walk up and down but it’s a good view and I finish with a cream tea in Dutton’s (www.duttonsplymouth.co.uk). It’s not as good as Peacocks and I sit outside because the atmosphere inside is heavy with the whiff of fried food. This is another place which doesn’t understand focus. You’re either a tea shop, a bar or a greasy fork but don’t do all three. The Earl Gray is suitably refreshing.

There’s plenty of activity on the water and I watch a warship heading up towards Devonport. What makes it special is that it’s German.

And I finally understand the significance of the ‘no tomb-stoning’ signs along the front. I see a bunch of young guys no more than 15 and one girl in wet suits jumping off the sea wall. It must be 30m down. It’s not a difficult jump and it is a jump and not a dive but it’s still pretty scary. A quick Google subsequently tells me that this is something of an issue and the Daily Mail has opined on the matter (click here). However what I saw appeared almost casual with no attempt from anyone to stop it happening.

On the way back to the hotel the sun actually comes out!

And now we’re onto real time again and it’s ‘where do I go for dinner’ again. I head off in the rain so I get to use the umbrella I’ve brought with me.

2014-05-29 20.41.22 ChancelI opt for the Chancel (www thechancel.co.uk) because it looks nice and clean and it does get good reviews although the menu is not very challenging. I haven’t booked and since it’s small this creates a problem so I’m seated downstairs. But whereas upstairs is nice and airy, a wine bar with food, downstairs is dark and gloomy with lighting from candles in bottles, very 1960s, and this doesn’t make it easy to read the white on black printed wine list. That’s when you’re grateful for the flashlight app on the smartphone!

The wine list is excellent with 8 or 10 of each colour available by the glass but then this is more wine bar than restaurant. My starter of scallops and chorizo is also good. I then ask for and get a table upstairs.

It starts well with an excellent blended red from Patagonia (number 24). Then disaster: my fish is not fully cooked. It’s handled well and discretely and I’m not charged for it so I guess the end result was positive both for me and the Chancel. I finish off with rhubarb and strawberry cheesecake and, disappointingly, a capsule espresso.

So: Chancel. An excellent wine bar with good food but not exactly fine dining.

Friday, 30 May 14: I don’t sleep well but I’m OK at 0800 when the alarm goes. I begin to think about the five essentials of a good hotel these days. Maybe wifi, fresh fruit at breakfast, shampoo bottles with a large enough print for me to read without my glasses on, access to exercise and a room big enough to do more than just sleep in. Watch this space.

Breakfast goes well and this time my egg is cooked just right. I check out and then head back to the station. After 2 days here I can really appreciate the main drag, Armada Way, and it really is brutalist. Makes Bucharest seem sensitive. Although to be fair there are few empty shops and it seems like a successful city centre.

And as I’m sat here at the station typing this in real time the sun has really come out! The announcements remind me that there are 2 connections between Cambridgeshire and Cornwall viz St Ives and Cambourne/Camborne.

Train is on time and the sun is still shining and we’re away. It’s also busier in first class and coach L is fairly full, too many kids around and maybe my seat occupied. So I head up to the very front and there’s plenty of room in coach M.

I make the mistake of getting a coffee from the service. It’s awful. I am reminded of my theory that all institutional coffee is brewed in a recommissioned oil refinery in Essex and shipped by tank truck around the country. I succumb to a Walkers shortbread thinking I won’t eat until Paddington. I had hoped to get some food at M&S at the station but there was only a Spar.

I get a good view again of the repair works between Dawlish and Teignmouth again but by then the sun has gone in. I realise that one reason they’ve been able to do the repairs so quickly is that they’ve repaired the old stone wall with concrete. Not so pretty but I guess more practical.

About 1230 and suddenly there’s an influx of refugees from the back of the train. Don’t know what’s happened but all of a sudden we have about 20 beer swilling extra passengers in the carriage. I hear from two other passengers that ‘they have declassified the train’ which means that people who’ve paid first class fares now, quite rightly, feel cheated. Couple opposite I gather have just spent £180 to upgrade.

I speak to the Train Manager who tells me that because the train is overcrowded in standard class he has ‘declassified’ the train. That’s fair enough and I’m pleased that he feels able to make a decision. He says I should speak to customer services about getting a partial refund on my ticket. However since I’ve ‘only’ paid £68.20 I’m not sure it’s going to be much. But then my outbound ticket was only £36.30. That sounds like an exercise of some patience and resolve. Not sure that I’ve got either.

We arrive on time at Paddington at about 1345 so I reckon I’ll get the 1444 out of King’s Cross with time to grab some lunch before departure. But then we arrive just before 1410 and with a bit of a sprint I’m on the 1414 (front four coaches makes it a longer sprint). On-time in Cambridge then a short wait for a guided bus and then you realise it’s still a bus. Slow progress through the Cambridge traffic, not a smooth ride and very frustrating before a quick zip up the guideway to Histon & Impington. Then a good 30 minute walk home.

So there it is. Another quick visit to a city on a railway line and with enough to be of interest. However despite its heritage which mustn’t be understated Plymouth isn’t in the same league as Bath (last year’s destination). The weather didn’t help but you felt that it hadn’t graduated to making itself interesting enough to be on the tour circuit. Maybe it would be too  much of a detour. The tripadvisor selection reminded me of Llandudno, more cafes than restaurants.

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