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24 September 2014

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You are in: Devon > Coast > Coast Walks > Point 1 - Customs House

The Customs House on The  Barbican

The Customs House on The Barbican

Point 1 - Customs House

Shortly after you leave the Mayflower Tourist Information Centre, you arrive at our first destination, the site of both the original and present-day customs house. It's an area which is inextricably connected with the infamous slave trade.

Our walk begins on The Barbican, the historic heart of Plymouth. It's from around these quays that countless adventurers, fishermen and traders have set off on their sea journeys across the globe.

Starting at the Mayflower Visitor Centre, turn left and head towards Island House at the bottom end of New Street. It's reputed that some of the Pilgrim Fathers stayed here before setting sail for America in 1620. You'll see a plaque on the wall listing the names of some of them.

Plaque showing names of Pilgrims

Pilgrims plaque on Island House

From here, cross over the road and follow the quayside past the Old Fish Market towards The Parade - where you'll see the imposing arches of The Customs House.

Since Plymouth's earliest days fishing has been an important element of the town's economy.

Today fishing remains a thriving local industry and you can see the new fish market on the opposite side of Sutton Harbour in front of the National Marine
Aquarium.

On route to the Customs House you'll pass old warehouses lining Sutton Quay - where cargoes like sugar and pearls from South America and spices from the East Indies were unloaded in the days when Plymouth was a thriving Elizabethan port.  

The ground beneath your feet may feel solid but this is reclaimed land  - 400 years ago boats were moored on this spot.

Look up at the buildings around you and you can still see the pulleys that were used to haul up sacks to the top floors of the warehouses.

The heroes of Elizabethan Plymouth were Francis Drake and John Hawkins  - but like most merchants and explorers of the time, their trading methods may surprise us today.

The Old Customs House

The old customs house

Drake and Hawkins and the rest of those great Elizabethan adventurers were all pirates and many of them were slave traders too.  The infamous slave trade was actually founded here in Plymouth by Hawkins and Drake and both men made a fortune from the trade.

SMUGGLING

Built in 1820, The Customs House is probaby the most imposing building on The Barbican - but those who worked their weren't always on the right side of the law.  

Smuggling was rife and customs men were just as likely to take bribes than turn in those involved in the lucrative trade in contraband. 

Sailors discharged here after the Napoleonic Wars were signed up by the smuggling gangs and put to work on the many boats running illegal goods through Cawsand Bay - the headquarters of Devon smuggling.

At the beginning of the 19th Century it was reported that each year more brandy and rum was smuggled into Devon, Dorset and Cornwall than was imported legally into London.

On the opposite side of The Parade you can see the port's original Customs House, where Elizabethan ships' captains including Drake himself would have paid dues on their imported goods.

Back then customs officers received no salary, but were able to earn vast fortunes from the fees they charged ship owners.

With the Customs House on your right walk along The Parade away from the harbour. After a few yards you  should  turn down an alleyway on your left called CITADEL OPE.

Carry on straight across Southside Street into FRIARS LANE.  Keep walking to the top of the street to the junction of New Street.

last updated: 25/01/2008 at 16:40
created: 15/08/2005

You are in: Devon > Coast > Coast Walks > Point 1 - Customs House



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