Bar/fly: Minerva, Plymouth

By Jane Luscombe

Jane Luscombe reacquaints herself with some old haunts.
The pubs of Plymouth's Elizabethan Barbican quarter are lively joints where you may still bump into a drunken sailor. Illustration / Rod Emmerson
The pubs of Plymouth's Elizabethan Barbican quarter are lively joints where you may still bump into a drunken sailor. Illustration / Rod Emmerson

The first time I stumbled into the smoky gloom of the Minerva, Plymouth's oldest pub, I'm not sure what alarmed me most: the glum stares of the assembled Goth fraternity or the fear of being ejected. I was sweet 16 and looked it.

Barely had I tripped over the threshold than I was being steered firmly back out onto the cobbled street.

Eighteen months later and armed with ID I was in and triumphant, though the mood of the Goths hadn't lightened noticeably. I suppose they wouldn't be Goths if it had.

The historic charms of the tiny 470-year-old pub appealed to the teenage me about as much as those of the ancient 40-somethings hogging the jukebox. So it was an education to return as one of the oldies, during a trip home to the UK.

We marvelled at how we'd failed to appreciate the ancient spiral staircase, made from a galleon's mast belonging to the Spanish Armada.

Or the peephole the Press Gang used to spy on customers, before dropping the king's shilling in their beer and dragging them down a secret passage and off to sea.

The pub has the same dark wooden beams, low ceilings and uneven floor. The jukebox is still there, but now they call it retro.

The place was, and remains, a haven for real ale fans. Back in the day, it was the first stop on our Friday night tour of pubs in the Elizabethan quarter known as the Barbican.

We invariably ended our evenings by sampling the questionable delights of the Maritime Inn. Built in 1844, it is a relative newcomer. I remember it best for the way it heaved with drunken sailors. It paid to keep a wary eye open for a barrel with a hosepipe.

It was always an achievement to finish each drink before it was elbowed all over your Friday night finery. It also boasted the worst toilets on the Barbican. But the atmosphere was lively and, after a few pints, any port in a storm would do.

If you are looking for sophistication you are in the wrong place; it's not somewhere you'd take anyone with expensive shoes.

The pub used to have two cramped rooms: the bar and the lounge, the only difference being that your feet stuck to the beer-soaked carpet in the lounge or the fag-filled flagstones in the bar.

They've knocked the wall through now and the carpet has gone. So too have the cigarette ends. But the floor doesn't bear close scrutiny and the place is rustic enough to appease the Navy boys.

Older and wiser, we paced ourselves and tried to avoid eye contact with the raucous regulars. But they're a friendly lot in Plymouth and always ready for a chat, however slurred that might be.

In a bizarre twist on BYO, the pub doesn't serve food so you're welcome to take your own along. We didn't, but we did take time to check out the toilets. They haven't changed: they're still the worst on the Barbican.

CHECKLIST

Getting there: Air New Zealand flies daily to London from Auckland via Los Angeles.

Further information: See visitplymouth.co.uk.

- NZ Herald

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