Hoe Down at the Sea

Tuesday, May 24, 2011 Road Junkies 0 Comments

PLYMOUTH, England — With Plymouth as a base, we've spent the last four days exploring the surrounding area.  Before departing this morning, we had to visit the famous Plymouth Hoe, a large seaside public park with a panoramic view of Plymouth Sound and the English Channel beyond.

The park's origins date back to medieval times, making it well-established by the time Sir Francis Drake was allegedly playing a game of bowls there in 1588 when he was told of the approach of the Spanish Armada.  According to legend, Drake replied that he had plenty of time to finish his game and still defeat the Spaniards, which indeed he did as he commanded the English forces.

Below the Hoe is the city's semi-circular Tinside Lido, an Art Deco seaside swimming pool that opened in 1935.  The pool is filled with sea water pumped in through three aerator/fountains, which completely refresh the water every four hours.  In its early days, the Lido was a popular place for beauty contests and for locals to swim.  During World War II, its distinctive shape provided a convenient landmark for German bomber pilots as they flew over the coast.  After a period of decline resulting in the closing of Tinside in 1992, a campaign by locals galvanized support for a massive renovation, and the famous landmark reopened in 2005.

Another fascinating piece of history on the Hoe is the story of Smeaton's Tower, which formerly stood 14 miles offshore on Eddystone Island.  Built as a lighthouse almost 250 years ago, the tower marked a major innovation in lighthouse design.  John Smeaton was given the job of designing a new lighthouse after the first two had been destroyed by violent storms and fire.  In attempting to create a lighthouse that could withstand the gale winds off the Plymouth coast, Smeaton found inspiration in the oak tree, a tall natural structure which bends with the wind but does not break.

Using 1,493 granite blocks, Smeaton built the lighthouse like the rings of a tree, all dove-tail jointed together with marble dowels and oak pins. And just like a tree, the tower bends in the wind. So when storms raged, the lighthouse bent to and fro as the waves crashed over it, but the tower did not break. And now the Smeaton design is the model for all lighthouses built on rocks.

The lighthouse stood for 120 years warning ships and would probably be there still be offshore guiding ships today had not the foundation rock on which it was built became too eroded to support the structure.  In 1877, the upper part of it was dismantled and reassembled on Plymouth Hoe as a monument to the Yorkshire engineer who designed it.  Its base can still be seen near the shore next to the current lighthouse.

The Hoe is a popular area for Plymouth residents and visitors with lots of activity on the water and in the park.  This morning a large group of school children had arranged themselves to form the number 50, and one of their teachers was on top of the tower taking photos of them as well as video greetings for the recipient of this special birthday message.  Once the photo session was done, the children were allowed to take full advantage of the coastal winds and fly the tiny kites they had been given.

It was quite a festive sight with so many little kites flying and children laughing.  Their teachers were all dressed in fluorescent yellow high-visibility vests of the type worn by roadside workers.  We thought this was a brilliant idea, an easy way for the children to locate a trusted adult when needed.

Leaving Plymouth, we drove toward Reading on the outskirts of London, locating a letterbox (planted by an American) in the churchyard of St. Peter's in the little town of Woolhampton.  If the volcanic ash has reached this area from Iceland, as news reports indicate, it certainly was not visible to the naked eye in this gorgeous blue sky.

St. Peter's Church, Woolhampton
There was a second letterbox in Woolhampton and we located the spot where it was said to be hiding.  However, it was "protected" by a jungle of stinging nettle plants.  Even a letterbox isn't worth a battle with that fiend.

At the end of the day, we checked in at the New Inn in the little village of Kidmore End near Reading.  When we saw the building, we quickly realized it has seen lots of history.  The innkeeper confirmed our suspicions that the New Inn isn't exactly new.  It has been called that, however, for 320 years.  There's no one around who remembers the old inn.