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Old and new side by side

By Western Morning News  |  Posted: December 07, 2013

  • Chris Robinson has produced books and DVDs celebrating Plymouth's past

  • From the top: Plymouth Barbican's West Pier with the Seamen's Bethel in the centre, c1890; the same spot around 1958 and the scene today with the green space replaced by the Mayflower Visitor Centre and the old Seamen's Bethel still recognisable

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Historian and artist Chris Robinson tells Su Carroll how he treasures the past of Plymouth’s Barbican.

Chris Robinson is an artist who has spent more than 30 years recording the changing face of Plymouth – with drawings and photographs in a popular series of books and films called Then and Now.

As a member of Plymouth Barbican Trust since 1985, he has a particular interest in this part of the city that links land with sea.

This week he launched a new DVD capturing the Barbican, then and now, in which he charts the history of the area, the architectural and historical importance of the buildings and what the Barbican is like today.

How did the new DVD come about?

The story was going to be another Then and Now when we realised it was an opportunity to do more than that. The Hoe was the first one – we did a little bit about the Astors and Smeaton's Tower – and we thought that, as long as they were well received, we would do The Barbican and then make the City Centre the next one.

What we've tried to do is make them like little documentaries, without being too po-faced about them. We wanted to tell the story of the Hoe and the Barbican, which has changed out of all recognition.

It's the heart of Plymouth really. At one time Plympton was a thriving town and Plymouth had been a fishing harbour for well over a thousand years. Fish still underpin what the Barbican is all about.

It's quite an historic area then...

Yes, and it's important because, until about 200 years ago, it hadn't fundamentally grown. The growth in the 19th century was on the back of the industrial revolution. The Barbican was really just the area from what is the Admiral McBride pub to The Dolphin pub.

Plymouth's history obviously revolves around its relationship with the sea.

Very early on it became an important Naval port. Plymouth doubled in size in Drake's time because of all the money brought into the town. He went round the world and came back with an absolute fortune. Quite a bit was given to his men, who could then afford nice houses. There was a monastery, Greyfriars, on the Barbican, but not much else at all.

Some buildings have gone – partly from the war but predominantly through demolition – but has it changed much?

If Drake came back today, he'd probably be able to find his way around. The street pattern is pretty much the same. And the new buildings are pretty much in keeping. What is nice is that there's really nothing above five or six stories. The City Centre is pretty much the same. It was unique during the Elizabethan era, and it's unique in the time of Elizabeth II.

The Plymouth Barbican Trust has done a lot to preserve the area's history...

The trust was given 20 properties in 1957, which we still own and maintain. When I moved into New Street there were a couple of artists, a dressmaker, a potter, writers, a leathermaker. At one time it had been pretty much a slum area. Plymouth was a pioneering town in terms of saving old buildings.

In our building in New Street there had been more than 20 people living there on three floors.

What are the jewels of the Barbican today?

Undoubtedly The Elizabethan House and the Merchant's House. So is the Customs House, which is without a reason for being since the Customs and Excise moved out last year, but there are various plans. The pier for me is quite special in a funny way. And the National Marine Aquarium where we held the DVD launch is an amazing space. I have to pinch myself and ask "am I still in Plymouth?"

And your filmmaker Alan Tibbitts liked the place so much he moved in!

Yes, Alan lived in Exminster and we've done several films together. He was looking for somewhere to relocate to and the place next to mine in New Street became vacant.

Then and Now: The Story of Plymouth Barbican is £12.95, or you can buy it with The Story of Plymouth Hoe for £20. Order online at chrisrobinson.co.uk, or visit the Christmas stall, open every day until Christmas Eve in Plymouth's Armada Way Christmas market. Also on sale at Waterstones in the city, Plymouth Arts Centre, National Marine Aquarium and Chris's shop at 34 New Street.

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