Plymouth pilgrimage 3

For the past two years I’ve made a visit to Plymouth in memory of my old friend Mike Flay, who died in May 2016. We used to meet a few times a year there and talk about books, football, family, education.

Here’s a link to the two previous posts, each of which has photos of the zones we frequented in the city, bombed heavily during WWII because of the Devonport naval shipyard – still a military base. The brutalist reconstruction has not been entirely picturesque, but the waterfront is still lovely.

The Waterfront restaurant bar from the Hoe. Kids were having great fun jumping from the harbour wall into the sea.

The last two years I went in July. This summer I’ve been away in Mallorca and otherwise engaged, so this year’s sad pilgrimage is a month later than usual.

I did my usual dérive along the commercial bleakness of Armada Way and on to the Hoe. No bowls match in progress this time – locals nor ghostly Drake awaiting the Spanish Armada.

The customary pint of local brew ‘Jail Ale’ (named presumably for the famous Dartmoor Prison nearby) at the Waterside bar we used to patronise – where Mike would always have a burger, having started his journey earlier than me.

No Brittany ferry passed by this time, either. A gaggle of Italian school kids perched on the wall nearby, legs dangling over the water, trying to look cool and largely succeeding, as Italian kids do.

The attractively restored Tinside Lido, when I walked on, was much busier than last time. The sun had finally emerged after a rare cloudy start to the day; it’s been an unseasonably hot, dry summer in the west country, where we usually get more than our fair share of rain, even in summer. Now the fields look parched and brown – an unusual sight in this green land.

On to the ‘colonial hotel’, as Mike called the Copthorne, close to the station. He was thinking of Conrad, though the comparison was ironic, for there’s not much of the Far Eastern exotic about it. A business couple talked earnestly about mortgages and financial deals. The young woman serving at the bar wore a name badge: Jelena. She’s one of so many who will unfortunately find Britain less congenial after the Brexit negotiations finally come to their dreary end. Not our finest time.

The doors to the hotel are now locked and one has to press a button to gain access after speaking through an intercom. The bar now calls itself a ‘Brasserie’ – an unconvincing development. The toilets are also locked and it’s necessary to get a code number from the bar staff in order to get in there. Clearly the proprietors are expecting invasion of some kind.

The layout of the lounge had changed, and the customary Sky News on the TV is now playing on a side wall, on a much bigger screen. Sports news was on: football transfer news (Mike would have enjoyed that, and grumbled about the state of Man Utd), cricket.

As I sped back through Cornwall on the train home I felt the usual pained sadness of loss. The usual doubts about these trips: but I’m sure they’re not a wallow – they’re a celebration of his life.


6 thoughts on “Plymouth pilgrimage 3

  1. That was a beautifully observed, moving essay, Simon. You honor his memory.

    I loved the observation on the Italian kids. You might enjoy hearing about the Italian couple who came to Falmouth (the U.S. one) on Cape Cod where I worked as a chambermaid at “The Starboard Inn and Dining” in the summer of 1975 at age 16. It was a pretty drab job, working for a very loud mouthed proprietor of our little bed and breakfast and attached restaurant. The chef* hated “Braaaantz” (His name was “Brance Bryan” ..he washed up on the Cape from New York City, as many people did, after some sort of checkered advertising career). Chef regularly kicked him out of the kitchen if he came in and tried to give unwelcome advice.

    One day, a chocolate-brown [!] Rolls Royce arrived, and a sleek, tanned Italian couple in what must have been couture cruise wear swept out. For a long-weekend, they lent an air of glamour to our sad little hotel, and used up an incredible collection of towels. The most memorable event for me was, as usual, heading up to the rooms to tidy them up in mid-afternoon, opening up the door, and being greeted with the vision of the two of them spawled out on their double bed, like two naked, tanned seals. I turned beet red. They weren’t particularly perturbed, just smiled. I quickly shut the door, mumbling “I’ll come back.” They left early that next Sunday morning, and life returned to normal.

    * The chef’s family lived in upstate New York, and he was moving rooms to prepare for his one summer visit from them. Unfortunately, he left behind a truly prodigious stash of girly magazines. After scanning them briefly in the interests of educating myself on the ways of the world, I double-wrapped them all in two trash bags, draped them across the handles of my bike, and safely disposed of them in the casino building up the road, after dark. Sort of a manufactured adventure. The next day, the chef and I had a brief and cryptic conversation:

    Chef: “Um… did you see the….”

    Maureen The Chambermaid: “Took care of it. All gone.”

    Chef: [Nods head]

    We never spoke of it again. : )

  2. I think it’s lovely that you do an annual pilgrimage and think of your friend. I’ve never stopped off in Plymouth apart from changing trains to Cornwall and enjoying the thrill of the first class coach down. Last time we were down, we were amused to see a chihuahua in the station on the way down and a great dane on the way back up!

    • There are some sights worth seeing in Plymouth, Liz, if you ignore the more brutalist stuff. Around the Barbican and the waterfront generally is mostly fine, with some good cafes and bars. I walked past the 17C citadel yesterday, not having really noticed it in the past, but had to catch my train, so didn’t linger. Looks well worth a visit, with a splendid baroque entrance portico and huge granite-block walls with little slits for military to shoot through (there’s a technical term for these, but I forget what it is; not embrasures, I don’t think). There are a couple of half-timbered buildings nearby that look late medieval that the German bombers (and English ‘planners’) missed. One is now a restaurant. Didn’t see any chihuahuas or Great Danes, but I did meet a nice American tourist at the station waiting for the train up.

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