London ball

FlixBus: London to Plymouth on the new 99p express | Travel

MYour paternal great-grandmother argued that if you feel the pinch and your feet itch, you should go to Plymouth. Being a yearning for ancient wisdom, I take a ticket for what must surely be, pound for pound, the best value trip in the UK – the new 99p London to Plymouth coach service from FlixBus.

FlixBus is a German brand in expansion mode. Its newest routes, which also include Glasgow to Manchester, bring locations on its UK network to over 30 – London Victoria to Ocean City, a city in the west of the country, 0.5 mile pa. The true cost of over six hours on a crowded 60-seater? That remains to be seen.

I store the snacks (unlike the glory days of the National Express, there’s no “hostess” service, picks me up somewhere about the middle of the coach and, at just past 4pm, we’re off – west along Chelsea Embankment, in front of the former homes of Sylvia Pankhurst and Hilaire Belloc, and a postman on an e-scooter. The seat is comfortable, the armrest is not broken and it is surprising. . . layer.

You see things by car – Norman fronts, Roman remains, post-war horrors. And in addition to seeing things, you also hear them; driving along the M5, past Rape Fields and the Mendip Hills, I turn to the young man behind me and ask him about Devon; he says cream comes first and leaves it at that.

Plymouth is just one of FlixBus’ destinations on its extended and affordable route map

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There are stops in Bristol, Taunton and Exeter, and with decent enough wi-fi to binge watch Fred Dibnah Made in Britain series, time flies by with a decent lick. We reach Plymouth shortly after 11 p.m.

I head out to sea along Armada Way, a wide pedestrian avenue lined with sturdy, sober, ashen-colored buildings. Personally, I don’t mind their appearance. And I don’t mind knowing what they stand for either – the Plymouth Blitz took care of the old downtown, and the answer couldn’t afford to be complex.

That said, where Armada Way intersects Royal Parade, there is a modernist block of staggering weight, seemingly indifferent to purpose. No, that’s a lie – the point of the Civic Center is to appear impressive and inexplicable, and the opposite of understated. The building’s architect was Hector Stirling (1907-70), and apparently the tower was known as Stirling Castle. Certainly, had the building been on its toes in the 1580s, I doubt the Spaniards would have taken a second look at Plymouth.

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What I know of Plymouth could be written on a scone – Francis Drake, the Pilgrim Fathers, the Hoe. The latter is an elevated park overlooking the sea, and I have the place all to myself. It’s just me and a lighthouse, and statues of Drake, Britannia and Nancy Astor.

I study the sea. It’s calm, oily and silent – barely a sound at all. There are lone seagulls scattered around keeping shtoom, scared or unwilling to break the peace. Several glittering warships stand in the distance, while Plymouth’s famous lido sits proudly below me, an art deco semi-circle – a dough-like virtue – jutting confidently out to sea.

I go west on Hoe Road to Pier Street, where I find my home away from home: Edgcumbe Guest House – a well-reviewed and suitably affordable ’boutique’ stay.

Smeaton's Tower on Plymouth Hoe overlooks the Sound

Smeaton’s Tower on Plymouth Hoe overlooks the Sound

In daylight, it’s clear that Plymouth’s topography is an asset. The natural curves of the city engender visual surprises – visual compositions and incidental vistas, each the thoughtless result of various dips, drops and peaks.

I sit by the bowling green and enjoy watching the ladies there roll their skewed balls towards a small stationary target, just like Drake would have done in 1588, before pulling up his breeches and puffing the Spaniards . Some of the remarks made by players are difficult to understand – “Jack is safe with you, Jenny”, being one example.

At the Barbican, the maze of cobbled streets and period houses in Plymouth Harbour, I buy a block. It’s a good size, okay – barely smaller than Stirling Castle. The crust is flaky and buttery, while the interior blend of steak and veggies is excellent. If the oggy has one flaw, it’s the amount of seasoning – it contains enough pepper to blow up parliament.

I find the Mayflower Steps, from where in 1620 a hundred Mavericks left for New Plymouth. Like them, I too am embarking on a cruise on the Sound and the Tamar River. Much of the commentary on board gets lost in the wind, but I get the gist of what’s going on – the Royal Citadel, built at the behest of Charles II, its cannon pointed in all directions to control the inhabitants as well as the beleaguered Frenchman; Royal William Yard, a collection of Grade II listed buildings, once a naval supply depot, is now an upmarket way to enjoy your weekend; the sprawling Devonport Dockyard, where frigates are refitted and nuclear submarines await safe dismantling.

Along the journey, the scenery is sublime — the spiers, masts, towers and domes; fishermen and paddleboarders; distant Dartmoor and the floodlights of a cricket ground, ready to illuminate a crunch match that unfolded beyond dusk.

Back on land, I dine at Mama Rita’s Kitchen, an Afro-Caribbean restaurant on Mayflower Street. Rita tells me business is going well, despite Covid and the cost of living crisis, although she admits a greater proportion of people are getting food delivered. “People are scared to socialize, or maybe the pandemic has made them lazy,” she says, putting enough jerk chicken and rice in front of me to sustain a flotilla.

Take a refreshing dip in the Tinside Lido

Take a refreshing dip in the Tinside Lido

ALAMY

A digestive stroll follows, in Cornwall, Raleigh and Union streets. Outside the Eagle, Plymouth Argyle fans tend to their wounds, while outside the Theater Royal a giant sculpture stops me in my tracks. From what I can tell, she’s a colossal young lady playing Twister. I read the explanation: Messenger is by Cornish artist Joseph Hillier, and it captures the city’s latent potential. At almost half a million pounds, I should hope it does.

Sunday begins with a swim in the sea (the lido is closed). Undressing on the stones of Tinside Beach, I feel a strong sense of my own madness. I seek encouragement from those returning from the water, but I do not receive it; all they can do is shiver. I swim about ten meters in a hurried, rough semi-circle then come back to dry land and get dressed as quickly as humanly possible. There’s this to be said for swimming in Plymouth Sound: it’s certainly affordable.

The Box is Plymouth’s main gallery and museum, and there can be no better civic distractions in the country. Where else for the princely sum of zilch can you admire a woolly mammoth named Mildred, Captain Robert Falcon Scott’s extremely long socks, and endless jars of pickled sea life? The atmosphere is anything but reverential – on more than one occasion I’ve heard a baby speak ill of Walter Raleigh.

It’s time for a Sunday roast. Having been informed of a place called Salumi, I speed there in drizzly conditions. I find it at the end of West Hoe Road, opposite the Duke of Cornwall Hotel – and exactly as advertised.

It would be stretching the truth only a little to say that I would return to Plymouth for a Salumi roast dinner alone. The gravy is amazingly good, the potatoes crispy, the Yorkshire pudding has a mind of its own and what’s more my server Jack is good enough to make me a scaled down version – meaning I can leave Plymouth not feeling like an airship.

Ben Aitken was a guest of FlixBus, which offers coach services between London Victoria and Plymouth, five days a week from 99p, until May 26 (flixbus.com)