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Union Street Blues: Plymouth’s Last ‘Run Ashore’?

According to the Daily Telegraph’s front page, it’s ‘Sunset’ for the Senior Service: ‘Navy to cut its fleet by half’.

The Navy that once ruled the waves, the global maritime force on which the sun never set, and gave the world some of the most romantic not to mention fetishistically ingenious uniforms ever devised, seems destined to become ‘nothing more than a coastal defence force’.

It’s also predicted that at least one of the remaining three UK naval ports – Plymouth, Portsmouth, Rosyth – is due to close forever.

Nevertheless, the terminal decline of the Royal Navy has been going on for many years now. As the article below (written for The Observer Magazine just before the invasion of Iraq in 2002, but never published) about an evening spent on Plymouth’s famous Union Street details, the colourful, salty tradition of the English naval town has already been mothballed. And what’s the point of a navy without drunken sailors?

Forgive me if I seem somewhat sentimental about the demise of Winston Churchill’s ‘naval traditions’. But then, doesn’t every nice girl – and naughty boy – love a sailor?

Edwardian matelots sleeping off their run ashore on Plymouth Hoe

Union Street Blues

As Britannia girds her loins to take on Saddam, Mark Simpson spends an evening patrolling the streets of Plymouth trying to savour the salty, rough-and-ready – and sadly, fast fading – flavour of a traditional English naval town.

Where, as Quentin Crisp might have asked, can you find a drunken sailor these days?

You might be forgiven for thinking that Plymouth, the famous Naval port in South Devon, from whence Drake sailed to trounce the Armada, the Task Force departed to see off the Argies, and home port for most of what’s left of today’s Royal Navy, might be a good place to start.

But drunken sailors are proving a little elusive this evening, even though I’ve recruited an expert on finding them: Provost Marshall Terry Burns RN. ‘The Navy won’t tolerate drunkenness,’ Mr Burns, the Navy’s Chief of Police tells me flatly, as we drive in his unmarked car up and down Plymouth’s notorious, celebrated Union Street looking for inebriated matelots and bootnecks (sailors and Marines to you).

‘We have much stricter standards than the civilian police,’ he explains, practised eyes scanning the streets for unseaworthiness. ‘If we see a sailor who looks like he’s had one too many, we’ll ‘ave a word with ‘im – or,’ he winks at me, ‘put ‘im somewhere for the night where ‘e can’t get into trouble!’

No one wants to argue with Provost Marshall Burns, a man who could certainly convince several over-merry Marines – with one meaty hand tied behind his burly back – that their evening has reached something of a hiatus. But isn’t getting bladdered, I suggest, very tentatively, one of the few pleasures a matelot, cooped up on board ship for months on end breathing other people’s farts can have on his ‘run ashore’? Isn’t it in fact a sailor’s duty – to tradition, to England, to anyone interested in bedding one of them – to get completely steaming?

“Ah, but you have to remember, Mark,” explains the Provost Marshall patiently, “that discipline is everything in HM Forces – without it you’re just a rabble! You’re always on duty in the Forces, even when you’re off-duty”.  A persuasive argument, but not exactly a slogan to solve the current recruitment problem the Armed Forces face.

Of course, the main reason why drunken sailors are difficult to find is that, alas, there just aren’t very many sailors these days. In Plymouth – or ‘Guz’, as matelots like to call it – the biggest Naval port in England, the number of bell-bottoms is only a fraction of what it was ten years ago, before the Cold War ‘peace dividend’ took its toll on the Royal Navy and those fantastically fetishistically-designed uniforms. Of those that are left, many are gone for most of the year as ships stay away from their home port much longer than they used to, being supplied at sea to save on costs – even before the current ‘war against terrorism’ put half the Royal Navy on permanent standby in the Indian Ocean. And while most Marines would like to pretend they aren’t part of the Navy (typical bootneck joke: What do marines and submarines have in common? Answer: They both carry sailors), there are also fewer bootnecks around in Plymouth these days to put the fear of god into matelots.

As a measure of just how ‘Guz’ has changed, today there are more students here than servicemen, and the University has overtaken the Navy as the biggest employer in the town – something that will no doubt bring a cheer to pacifists, educationalists and bicycle thieves everywhere, but hasn’t something also been lost? Isn’t another piece of ‘England’ disappearing forever? After the end of Empire and the Cold War, is Britannia’s last great Naval port losing its salty traditions and becoming just yet another post-everything bland Provincial town full of shiftless students, call centres and multiplex leisure parks? And do you have to have a taste for ‘skate’ (another, more culinary epithet for sailors) to even care?

The Provost Marshall’s driver executes an impeccable and rapid three-point-turn in a car park and bombs back down Union Street known once, when it was full of spit-and-sawdust pubs catering to sailors on the run-ashore, as the ‘Servicemen’s Playground’ (i.e. it was where you went if you wanted to play with servicemen). We zoom past boarded-up pubs and shops, past trendy dance clubs, cacophonous sirens luring student loans onto the rocks, past the tattoo parlour, once doing a roaring trade in ‘England Forever’ designs, now catering for Pammy Anderson barbed wire facsimiles and past the Palace Theatre (now the Dance Academy). So majestic amongst so much rubble and riff-raff – no matter how many times you see it, you can’t help but do a double-take, as if you had just seen Alistair Sim tottering down the street in full drag. With its ornate façade decorated with stirring splendid frescoes depicting the vanquishing of the original ‘Argies’ in the form of the Armada, it looks itself like a once-proud Elizabethan ship-o-the-line now run-aground on some wasteland at the end of Union Street.


Is there much trouble between students and matelots”, I ask Mr Burns. Any resentment about the way they’ve taken over their patch? “No, not really, servicemen are very tolerant on the whole – you have to be if you’re living on top of one another.” “Yes,” I reply, trying not to sound arch, “I can imagine.” Looking at the gelled and cropped young people, male and female, queuing to take the Millennium Disco’s ‘All you can drink and eat for £12’ offer at its word (though probably only borrowing this repast – returning it later, no doubt, with interest, doubled over), I wonder how he tells students apart from sailors.

Ironically, although the Forces are extremely unfashionable these days, and, War on Terror and imminent invasion of Iraq or no, are seen as some kind of absurd anachronism by most young people, short hair and tattoos are very much a la mode – even for boys. Not to mention the fact that young people these days like to get as drunk as… sailors used to. “Oh,” Burns reassures me, “when you’ve been in the job as long as I have you can just tell”.

“By the way”, he adds, “I hope you don’t think that we’re killjoys. We stop drunken matelots for their own good. Before they get into serious trouble. You see, Mark, at the end of the day we’re all sailors – and sailors look out for one another, and offer each other a helping hand, y’know?”  “I know”, I say. “But what do the matelots think of the kindly Provost Marshall’s generous protection and concern?” Mr Burns laughs. “That’s a good question. A very good question indeed. Hmm. We’re not the most popular people in town. But most of them are OK about us. When we let ‘em out of the cell the next morning they usually go: ‘’ope I wasn’t too much trouble last night lads!'”

“We ‘ate the fuckin’ Provost!” Steve, a Marine in his early twenties sporting a dead-giveaway Commando Comic chin and drinking pints of Fosters with his mates is cheerfully shouting in my ear. We’re in the Prince Regent, a busy, beery, warm very loud disco pub popular with servicemen, servicewomen and their admirers at the start of Union Street. “Mind, they’re only doing their job, I suppose,” he adds reluctantly. Steve, originally from Worcester but now posted at a Royal Marine base in Bickleigh, just north of Plymouth, is spending his ‘beer vouchers’ (as bootnecks and matelots like to call their pay-packet) and he seems to be getting rather drunk to me, but the Provost Marshall isn’t with me to judge, so I can’t be sure. It’s packed in here, but everyone’s friendly; a Robbie Williams record comes on and everyone sings along, smiling, holding their beer-bottles in the air: ‘I don’t want to rock, DJ/but you’re making me feel so nice’.

Does Steve like Union Street? “Oh yeah, it’s got a great atmosphere – it’s the heart of Plymouth mate!” What does he think of students? “Not much. Don’t have anything to do with them. If you want to find some, they’ll all be down the Millennium later, pukin’ up.” He’s less tolerant of matelots. “Fuckin’ ‘ate ‘em.  They treat us like shit when we’re on board ship.”  Ever get into fights with them, like in the good old days? I ask eagerly, thinking of Anthony Newley’s spiffing pub brawls with matelots in the WW2 classic film The Cockleshell Heroes: “Nah, the fuckin’ Provost would be all over us before we even got started”.  Another naval tradition bites the dust.

John, 22, originally from London, is a gunner on a frigate. “I joined to see the world, and I’ve seen it now, so I’m leaving. The Navy’s not the future – well, not for me anyway.” What does he think of bootnecks? “Hate ‘em. They’re cement-heads.” Students? “Oh, we just leave them to puke over themselves.” Is he drunk yet? “I’m workin’ on it mate” he grins, necking a bottle of Metz.

Like many Navy recruits these days, Nick, 19, a tall, slightly intense sonar-operator, joined up because he didn’t get enough A-levels to go to University. “But now I’m in I’m very proud to be a matelot,” he declares, looking me straight in the eye. “Yeah, I’d’ve loved to go to Uni and become a doctor but I didn’t, so here I am.” He likes Guz, and says he doesn’t mind the students, but recently got into a row with his sister’s student boyfriend. “He kept saying how we didn’t need a Navy any more. I think he thought I was a loser. I told him that I was defending people like him. Thing is – I know this is a wanky thing to say these days – but I’d die for my country, I really would. Well…,” he pauses. “I’d definitely die for my mates. Yeah I’d die for them no question.” Perhaps it was just the Smirnoff Ice talking, but it’s a sober truth that in civvy street you think it the height of camaraderie if your mates don’t stab you in the back for your job/girlfriend/shoes.

Over the road, in a ghastly split-level Wetherspoons the size of a car-ferry, but with less ambience, some students (the piercings give them away) drinking Alcopops know that time’s on their side. “We avoid the Service pubs,” a girl in green cargo pants explains. “Which is no great loss because they’re usually dives anyway.” What do they think of Union Street? “Oh, it’s shit, isn’t it?” says her friend. “But there’s not really anywhere else to go, apart from the Barbican [the harbour/marina area] which is a bit twee and the Warner Village, which is a bit naff.”

Just like scores of other English towns, Plymouth now has a ‘leisure park’, complete with the usual parking, multiplex, fast-food chains and bars, on the outskirts of town, some way from Union Street. It’s just like every other you’ve visited – which is I suppose the point – and there’s nothing here that speaks of Plymouth, or its rich social and seafaring history. Many businesses on Union Street complain the Warner Village is sucking money away from the Street with loss-leader drink promotions financed out of deep corporate pockets and hastening its decline.


Which is bad news for Plymouth, as the history of Union Street is inseparable from the history of the City itself. Built in 1815, Union Street provided a marshland link between the three towns of Plymouth, Stonehouse and Devonport – creating the modern City of Plymouth.  Initially a middle-class area, the expansion of the docks at Stonehouse brought legions of labourers and then dockers looking for cheap accommodation. Then it began to attract large numbers of jolly Jack Tars on the ‘run-ashore’: parched matelots back from weeks or months at sea would traditionally try to down a pint in every pub on Union Street – most not managing to make it down one side, let alone back up the other.

In the 1970s and 80s disco brought young people from the Plymouth estates, and saw gruesome violence erupt as football gangs picked fights with Servicemen out of boredom and jealousy at their pay-packets (Plymouth was once one of the roughest towns in England: a friend who grew up there then was beaten up daily by schoolmates simply for having long hair – and this was the Seventies). Then, in the early Nineties, Union Street was briefly the centre of the South West’s rave scene, coach loads of young people from Devon and Cornwall turning up to pop pills and dance the weekend away. Today Union Street still has 29 licensed premises, and attracts around 10,000 punters at weekends, but it seems to have lost it’s way; before 10pm when the pubs and clubs get busy, Union Street looks tatty, dilapidated and deserted.

There have been public meetings about what to do with Union Street.  Improvement grants totalling £3M have been made available by the local council, English Partnerships and the EU (the tattoo parlour was given £27,000 to restore its 1820s frontage), but no one seems to know quite what to do with the old strumpet or what will become of her. Much of The Street seems to be headed for the breakers yard. The Royal Sovereign, a well-known Union Street pub named after a legendary RN battleship (and also famous locally for being run for many years by a gay man and lesbian man-wife couple) was recently sold for just £6000. “If I’d known I’d have put in a bid myself,” confesses Chris Robinson, local historian and author of a fascinating book about Plymouth’s main thoroughfare called Union Street. “Quite a bargain for a piece of Union Street history,” he says.

Robinson thinks that the Plymouth’s future as well as its past may be inextricably bound to the fate of Union Street. “Now the Navy is in decline, Plymouth faces an uncertain future,” he predicts. “The Admiralty stopped other industries coming here – it didn’t want to compete for manpower. Ford was going to build a factory here in the 1920s but was blocked. Apart from the University, the main employer is Telewest, a cable TV and communications company, and call centres.” Robinson has a slightly fanciful idea that Plymouth could become the new Silicon Valley: “property prices are very cheap, the scenery is fantastic and the quality of life is second to none.”


Back in 1943, even before the war ended, a very badly bombed Plymouth thought it knew what the future held. The Plan for Plymouth – which razed more properties than the Luftwaffe – turned the centre of the historic town into something of a prototype for East Berlin, with a grandiose, windswept city centre Precinct area, complete with fountains, flagpoles, modernist sculptures, shops and municipal buildings, sweeping from the station all the way up to the seafront. (Now, nearly sixty years on, Plymouth Council is undertaking a radical restructuring of Precinct under the Urban Design Framework, which plans to modernise it – hopefully without losing its neo-Stalinist charm). Most of the residents in the city centre were decanted into new satellite estates, where they seem to have been quietly forgotten.  As was Union Street. “In this plan Union Street was meant to become a dual-carriageway,” explains Robinson. “Property was cleared to make way for it, but it never happened – thankfully.”

The almost feudal status of the town meant that Plymouth was, like its sailors, ‘looked after’ and protected from market forces and even the Eighties itself: the Task Force saved Thatcher, so Plymouth was saved from Thatcher. Plymouth has a retro feel to it which also gives is a very human face. “After London, Plymouth is the biggest city South of Birmingham,” says Robinson. “But actually it’s the biggest village in England – and it’s one of the reasons why I like living here. People have time for friendships.”

“Wayne Sleep and Michael Ball are the nearest things we have to pop stars – no wonder the kids are leaving!”

Perhaps this is why cab drivers banter affectionately on the radio like overgrown schoolboys: “Shurrup big ears” my driver on the way from the station told his Controller. And because they do it in that lilting West Country burr, the absolute antithesis of the hard, cynical sound of Estuary English, the sleazy South East’s lingua franca, you don’t much care whether they get you to your destination on time (they usually do – the roads are blissfully empty by London standards). But this lazy, ambitionless charm is precisely what threatens Plymouth’s future. Young people are moving away in droves. “Plymouth hasn’t produced a single pop group,” sighs Robinson, who has children of his own, one of whom is a regular at nightclubs on Union Street. “Wayne Sleep and Michael Ball are the nearest things we have to pop stars – no wonder the kids are leaving!”

Back on Union Street at the Two Trees, a little further along from the Prince Regent, another disco-pub popular with Forces drinkers, Sarah, a 19-year-old blond lass from Devonport who works as a Navy nurse is sipping a bottle of pink Bacardi Breezer. “I hate Union Street,” she complains affectionately. “I’d leave Plymouth at the drop of a hat,” she adds, not very convincingly. What does she think of military men? “Hate them too. My last boyfriend was in the Navy and I said never again. But,’ she laughs, “here I am, looking for another!” They must have something going for them then. “Yeah,” she snorts. “Pay day.”

The evening wears on and the crowd migrates further down Union Street (being careful to walk straight in case the Provost drives past) to Jesters nightclub, known locally as ‘The Parachute Club’ because as one matelot explained, “you’re guaranteed a jump”. Two pounds in, three pounds a pint, disco on two levels (trance upstairs, pop downstairs) and a fairground punching machine in the front bar. What more could you want on a Friday night? Nick the sonar operator who wanted to be a doctor is here, dancing away with some mates to Geri Halliwell’s ‘It’s Raining Men’ (I know he wanted to die for his mates, but still…). John the bootneck with the chin is also here, I can’t ask whether he’s plastered yet, as he’s energetically snogging Sarah the nurse, over by the cigarette machine.

As chucking-out-and-up time approaches, I rejoin the Provost Marshall’s mobile search for drunken sailors and Marines on the Street, but still without much luck. There are plenty of people who can’t and in fact have no intention of holding their drink – literally spilling out onto the streets; but Mr Burns reassures me they’re only students. Over the police radio we hear about an incident where a man has been attacked by an assailant who “cut his buttocks with a sword.” Alas, despite the promising mention of a martial weapon, this is a civilian crime – not one requiring the presence of the Provost Marshall.

Finally, Mr Burns spots a young man with cropped hair, in a white short-sleeves shirt weaving down the street, obviously worse for wear, propped up either side by a couple of similar-looking mates. “Here we go!” Burns announces as we pull up sharply. “We’ve got one!”

Unfortunately, the drunken lad is not a sailor at all but in fact another bloody student. Which should have been obvious by the way his friends deserted him the moment the burly Provost appeared. As a civilian, the lad is beyond the Provost Marshall’s jurisdiction – and protection. Reluctantly, Mr Burns has to abandon him to his fate and the disinterest of the civilian authorities. No night in the brig for him – he isn’t part of the maritime brotherhood and Mr Burns isn’t his Patriarch, and so the lad wobbles off uncertainly into the night.

Like Plymouth, he’s on his own now.

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1 thought on “Union Street Blues: Plymouth’s Last ‘Run Ashore’?”

  1. Excellent! I enjoyed reading this blog. Thank you.
    Would have been cool if you had included a current picture of Plymouth.

    You should have asked the current status on gays serving in the navy. is the opinion changing? for or agin?


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