Portsmouth vs. Plymouth: A Traveler’s Comparison
Well, here, we have it: my comparison of the two big naval bases in Britain: Portsmouth, also known affectionately as Pompey, and Plymouth, nicknamed ‘Guzz’ (and I don’t think anyone is exactly sure why!). I’ve been going to Portsmouth for years, and I recently got back from my first ever excursion to Plymouth, which was pretty exciting- although, boy, it sure is a long way away! Here are my thoughts.
One thing both places have in common are their histories. Both are major naval bases now, and were centuries ago. Both have witnessed a lot. Yet both cities seem very different. The have different personalities, if you like.
Portsmouth, one the one hand, is, perhaps, a bit more ‘earthy’, considerably smaller, and fiercely proud of it’s naval and maritime background. It has a quiet confidence, but seems to be struggling to get people’s attention. Plymouth, on the other hand, is much more ‘hip’, and seems to show no need to brag about it’s history. The place assumes that you already know. As a city and seaside resort, it has an air of confidence. It’s an awesome place to be, for many reasons, and it knows it. It has, after all, been a tourist hot-spot for a lot longer than Pompey.
I think it’s history really is the pride of Portsmouth and they make full use of that. You can’t really escape it, unless you spend all your time in the city centre, which I don’t find a particularly interesting activity to do during a holiday! Even Gunwharf Quays, a shops outlet, has got loads of missiles, figureheads, capstans, a mast, and even a canon, scattered all over the place! There’s an anchor by the Hoverport. The Spinnaker Tower, very bravely erected in Gunwharf, is named after and inspired by a sail. There’s about a million different pubs in the Hard, named things like, ‘The Victory’, ‘The Ship Anson’, ‘The Lady Hamilton’, etc, and I do mean etc! Portsmouth also seems to be Museum Central. The place is full of museums and historical attractions. The National Museum of the Royal Navy has it’s headquarters there, in the Historic Dockyard.
While Portsmouth’s history is pretty much all around you, at least in the touristy areas, in Plymouth, I found that you kinda had look around for it a bit. I was quite surprised. I thought that they might have made more of it – especially the Drake connection. If Nelson could be considered Portsmouth’s hero, then Drake would most definitely be Plymouth’s hero! Surely it would bring more tourists in? But let’s face it, Plymouth doesn’t really need the extra tourists!
Another thing I’ve noticed over the years is that there is an element of snobbery when it comes to Portsmouth. Me, my dad, and my auntie were all discussing this in a Chinese restaurant in Plymouth (as you do), and they said, quite rightly, that saying that your going on holiday to Portsmouth ignites a reaction that would be a bit like saying you’re going to Coventry for your holiday. People don’t know how to respond because they don’t really understand why you’re going there. ‘That’s, uh, that’s just an old naval base isn’t it?’ You can see them thinking it. Or maybe they think we’re just die-hard football fans. It’s sad really, because Pompey really does have a lot to offer, and is, I think wrongly, overshadowed by the other major tourist spots in the area, like Bournemouth, Brighton and the Isle of Wight. But I like to look at Portsmouth as being a hidden gem. If you like history, especially naval history, you will enjoy Portsmouth, perhaps more so than Plymouth.
I imagine Plymouth is very proud of it’s history, and most of all of it’s association with Francis Drake and his defeat of the Spanish Armada, but it seems like a very quiet kind of pride. The naval aspect is pretty subtle there. That may have something to do with the fact that the actual naval base, Devonport, (the largest in Europe) is some way away from the centre. It’s like a totally separate area of Plymouth – unlike Portsmouth, where you can go into some of the dockyard, the historic bit, which is closed off from the rest, although you can see it fairly close by some of the naval vessels that are in port.
Portsmouth, in comparison with Plymouth, probably has more to offer for youngsters, as well (a shingle beach, a small aquarium, Southsea Castle, an indoor fun-pool, Southsea Boating Lake, Southsea Model Village, the Spinnaker Tower, Clarence Pier and loads of kid-friendly museums!). Plymouth is a lovely place, with beautiful views from the Hoe, and loads of character in the Barbican, but is a six-year-old really going to appreciate any of that? Plymouth has an air of sophistication about it that would probably be best suited for teens and up.
Ok, so this is all looking a little bit one-sided towards Portsmouth, and it probably is- I know the place a lot better than Plymouth. I have had a lot of happy memories there, and I’m pretty familiar with the place, and those are massive plus points for Pompey. Also, it’s quite hard to not want to love a place that is basically a kind of shrine to your hero. Nelson is everywhere down there! But there is something about Portsmouth, and I’m not sure what exactly it is, that I completely fell in love with before any of that mattered.
My first holiday to Portsmouth, since I was two, was before I even knew who Nelson was, although, I kind of knew who he was afterwards. I remember, either towards the end of the holiday, or at some point after it, I made a kind of word diagram, with all the words I could think of associated with Portsmouth. And when I was asked where I wanted to go on holiday the following year, I replied with absolute certainty, ‘Portsmouth!’
So, for me, Portsmouth is like a spiritual home (and I hope, one day, my real home), and Plymouth had a lot to go against. But I enjoyed my holiday there for the most part. The first full day was tiring because everything is very spread out, there was a lot of walking, and I couldn’t help but feel a bit lost in the new place. I kind of wanted to leave at first. But I kept an open mind and I did have a good time in the end, especially once I became more familiar with it. I have a genuine liking for Plymouth, and I’d be happy to go again- as long as, of course, I get my holiday to Portsmouth too! 😉
(Just as a side note, Portsmouth and Plymouth both are terrible for parking if you’re a tourist! Plymouth is better in the day [you can park until 10pm in the centre for £5, but will have to pay if you want to stay in the centre after that. It only becomes free at midnight!] and Portsmouth is better in the evening [free after 6pm.] Just in case you’re going to either place- be prepared to do extra walking or bring extra cash for parking!)
Rae-Rae is a college student from The United Kingdom. Her home is in Worcestershire, England, in the West Midlands where J.R.R. Tolkien resided and drew his inspiration for The Shire. She also has some Welsh blood from her Grandfather, who settled in this area. Most people who know her would describe her as a bit of an odd-ball, but she (for the most part!) takes pride in being different. She’s a huge animal lover (excluding spiders!) and her cats are her most loved companions. She taught herself to sing and yodel, and loves the sound of the electric guitar, which she might learn to play one day. She also dabbles in creative writing. By far, her biggest interest is naval history, particularly ‘Nelson’s navy’, and she hopes to become a naval historian and help re-establish the connection Britain once so proudly had with the sea.