Walk - Sutton Harbour Heritage Trail
Walk information provided with help from Natural England. Map reproduced by permission of Ordnance Survey on behalf of HMSO. © Crown copyright and database right 2022. Ordnance Survey Licence number 100022021.
Sutton Pool, or Sutton Harbour as it is now known, is the birthplace of the modern City of Plymouth. In about 700AD Anglo Saxon settlers sailed here, making their first settlement on its shore. They named it Sutton meaning South Farm or Town. From here Sutton grew, northwards and westwards, as trade in the port brought increasing wealth. In the 13th century documents start to refer to the port of Plimmue instead of Sutton. The name 'Plymouth' was first officially appeared in the 1440 Charter of King Henry VI.
In the 16th century Sutton Harbour was used as the base for the fleet that gathered to face the Spanish Armada. In 1620 the Pilgrim Fathers sailed to America from the Mayflower Steps at the western end of Sutton Harbour. Since 1989 Sutton Pool has been owned by Sutton Harbour Holdings PLC.
This walk starts at the Harbour Car Park.
- At the pedestrian entrance of the Harbour Car Park turn left and walk to the roundabout. At the roundabout carefully cross the road and take the new footpath on the waterside of the Lockyers Quay Inn, passing Johnson’s Quay.
In 1833 Edmund Lockyer built Lockyer’s Quay with a copper ore yard behind it. Edmund Lockyer was a director of the Plymouth & Dartmoor Railway who involved himself in many local ventures. Lockyers in the form of Edmund, Thomas, William and Nicholas appear regularly on Plymouth’s list of mayors from 1803 to 1844.
By 1879 the copper boom was over. Since then the yard has been occupied by a lead works, a manure dump, used for fish storage, as a builders’ yard, and for assembling components for the new dock and harbour wall.
Johnson's Quay is named after two brothers, John and William Johnson who also owned King’s Tor granite quarries on Dartmoor. They operated the Plymouth & Dartmoor Railway which brought stone down to the harbour for shipment. In 1848 they attempted to stop the South Devon Railway, a rival company, crossing their tracks by dumping large slabs of granite on their opponent’s railway line.
Turn the corner and walk towards China House.
The China House is a pub and restaurant. The building was first seen in a 1666 watercolour painting of Sutton Harbour by Sir Bernard Gromme. In 1768, William Cockworthy, a successful Plymouth pharmacist and Quaker minister made the first hard porcelain produced in England. Made from china clay, it was known as Plymouth Porcelain. It is thought that his factory may have been on this site before he moved the works to Bristol, hence the name The China House. The building has since been used for a variety of purposes including a gun wharf and a hospital for ailing mariners.
On the site of the China House car park there was a Victorian shipyard founded in 1823 by Mr William Shilston. The 1841 census records him as a shipwright. In August 1858 Mr Shilston launched the first floating dry dock in the West of England. Measuring 150 feet long by 40 feet wide it was said to be capable of taking vessels of up to 800 tons. The dry lock was moored at his yard but when required taken to a deeper part of Sutton Pool. It was first used in October 1858 when a schooner and a smack were docked at the same time 'without the least difficulty'. The largest vessel he built was the 370 ton "Earl of Devon". Mr William Shilston died in 1904 at the age of 82. Although his sons were connected with the business, it seems to have folded within a year of the old man's death.
- Before you reach China house turn right across the car park and regain the waterfront at Marrowbone Slip.
Look out for shield shaped plaques placed all around the Heritage Trail. They are intended as brass rubbing plates and provide extra information about the area immediately around them.
Marrowbone Slip housed the ship breaking yard of Demellweek and Redding. In 1957 they broke up the famous "HMS Amethyst". HMS Amethyst was launched in 1943 and deployed during the war on anti-submarine patrols. On 20 April 1949, she was on her way from Shanghai to Nanjing when she was fired upon by the People's Liberation Army. This started the Amethyst Incident. HMS Amethyst was trapped in China for over 3 months. HMS Amethyst was brought out of storage to play herself for the 1957 film Yangtse Incident: The Story of HMS Amethyst, She was scrapped at Marrowbone Slip shortly after filming was finished.
Continue along North East Quay and North Quay.
Work was started on the North East Quay in early 1879 costing £12,000. The wall to the quay had a concrete backing, dressed with limestone facings and granite copings. The remains of a railway line can be seen. This line was laid from the terminus of the London and South Western Railway's Sutton Harbour branch right around North Quay and Sutton Quay to a goods shed on Sutton Jetty. Space would not allow the line to be curved so turn-plates were installed at the corners of the quays.
North Quay was built in 1849 and 1850. The noted railway engineer, Joseph Locke was involved in its design and construction. In its heyday the quayside was busy with shipping and cargo. Dock labour would gather here waiting for work. There were coal stores, transit sheds and goods yards. Wines, spices, potatoes and tobacco were stored here. Today, in North Quay House’s car park, coloured brickwork marks the position of the older waterfront buildings constructed after 1650.
On your right halfway along North Quay is Hawkers Avenue. The road takes its name from the Hawker Family who were wine importers for over 300 years.
Look closely at the quay wall and you will see the tunnel arch of the Horsewash. Carters, after unloading their goods, had always led their horses down a slipway to the beach to wash them in the sea. When the quay was built a tunnel was incorporated to allow this to continue.
- The road directly in front of you as you reach Tin Quay House is Tin Lane. This is the site of Tin Quay. Walk behind Tin Quay House. Turn left to follow Sutton Quay passing Looe Street on your right.
At the bottom of Looe Street the Dung Quay was created in 1639 where all Plymouth's waste was collected. The adjacent Sutton Wharf was built between 1813 and 1815 by the Sutton Pool Company. In 1972 70 yacht moorings were laid off the Wharf. Soon all the spaces were taken. 2 years later there were 200 moorings.
- At the corner turn right along Vauxhall Quay leaving the waterfront to walk briefly along Vauxhall Street before turning left back to the waterfront.
Continue around Guys Quay. The Custom House is on your right.
Guy’s Quay was originally called Gaye’s Quay. It dates back to the mid-1600s. The natural shore actually followed the line of Vauxhall Street where quays, houses and warehouses were already being built by the 1600s. Many of the waterfront stone warehouses were destroyed by bombing in the Second World War. The large open space of the parade was originally called Newquay. The ground beneath your feet may feel solid but this area was reclaimed from the sea in the late 1500s. Between 1755 and 1783 it served as the Parade Ground for the Royal Marines (Plymouth Division) giving the area its name.
White's 1850 History, Gazetteer and Directory of Devonshire states that the Custom House is “a large and handsome structure, built of granite, in 1819-'20, at the cost of £8000, in lieu of the old one, which was small and inconvenient. It contains a long room 52 feet by 26, and all other necessary offices for the business.” A Mr William Lockyer was the Comptroller of Customs, a financial position of some importance.
- Follow the waterfront along Quay Road turning the corner and passing West Pier.
Today this whole area is known as ‘The Barbican’. A Barbican is a fortified entrance. Here it refers to the waterside gateway of Plymouth’s long-gone medieval castle that stood on Lambhay Hill. The Barbican has a street pattern that Drake, Hawkins and Raleigh would recognise, boasting the largest concentration of cobbled streets in England with over 100 listed buildings, many dating back to Tudor and Jacobean times.
The old fish market was built between 1892 and 1896 where the Glassblowing House Restaurant now stands. It was a purpose-built harbour-side fish market. A 900 foot quay was formed involving dredging a portion of Sutton Harbour. The old quay boundary can be seen where the cobble stones change direction. The building itself looked like a railway station. It was designed by James Inglis (later Sir) who left in 1895 to work for the Great Western Railway. Opened on February 1st, 1896, the market remained in use until 1995. A new fish market was opened on the opposite side of the harbour.
While the new market was being built the fish market was held on the Parade. This was not popular because the fish slime soaked between the cobblestones and produced a terrible smell. It also sank into the storm water chamber under the Parade. The build-up of sewer gas often caused manhole covers to be blown off. The lamp-post in the centre of the Parade is a disguised ventilator put up to deal with the sewer gas.
- Turn left at the end of West Pier.
In 1890 a stone bearing the inscription ‘Mayflower 1620’ was set in the ground remembering the Pilgrim Fathers who left from here bound for the New World. However, they only stayed in Plymouth because the Speedwell, Mayflower’s companion ship, became unseaworthy. They sought temporary refuge in Plymouth. They were well received. Indeed, when they arrived in America, they named their landing point Plymouth Rock.
Many people, locals and tourists alike, wonder about the meaning behind the strange sea creature which looks out over Plymouth’s famous Barbican. Designed by Brian Fell of Glossop, Derbyshire and installed as part of an Arts Council initiative it is an amalgamation of various fish and marine life. It has a cormorant’s feet, a plesiosaurus’s tail, the fin of a John Dory, a lobster’s claws and the head of an angler fish. The pole supporting the fantastic sea creature, which is manufactured from mild steel coated with copper paint giving it its attractive colouring, is decorated with plaques describing other sea creatures. Named “The leviathan” and sitting 33 feet above the West Pier the imaginative sculpture has become an icon of Plymouth, affectionately nicknamed the Barbican Prawn.
Cross the Harbour entrance by means of the footbridge over the lock.
Lock gates to control the tide were first proposed in 1845. However, work on the lock gates only started in January 1992 with the 10,000 ton concrete lock chamber finally sunk into place on the site of the East Pier in April 1993.
Teats Hill is the rocky promontory on the eastside of the harbour. For centuries it was a centre for rope-making, ship building and ship repair. The harbour entrance was originally a narrow opening through the natural limestone 'breakwater' or Cawse which could be walked across at low tide. The entrance was widened in the 1790s when the East and West Piers were improved. However, after the harbour entrance was widened it was only possible to cross by boat.
In front of you is the National Marine Aquarium.
The National Marine Aquarium which opened in 1998 and is the UK’s largest aquarium. It is a charity which receives no revenue support and is totally dependent on visitor income to cover its costs. There are over 4,000 marine fish in the Aquarium and almost 400 different species with a large proportion coming from local waters.
The new fish market, relocated to the eastern side and opened in 1995 at a cost of £3 million, has re-established Plymouth as a major fish auction centre. After the fishing boom years of the 1970’s, the 1980’s saw a general decline, with Newlyn and Brixham gaining ground. From a low point in 1994 when just £800,000 worth of fish passed through Plymouth fish market, fish landings have steadily grown to over £17m in 2012.
Since 1989 Sutton Pool has been owned by Sutton Harbour Holdings PLC. They have overseen the transformation of the decaying port into a vibrant waterfront with sustainable uses. The installation of lock gates created a depth of water to accommodate fishing boat movements and a larger marina with the potential for a harbour which did not dry out at low tide.
- Keep to the right of the National Marine Aquarium building. Follow the South West Coast Path alongside the building back to Lockyers Quay and the Harbour Car Park.
There are plenty of restaurants and pubs all around Sutton Harbour.