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About the Plymouth Voyagers

It’s little wonder that Plymouth’s most famous asset is its port because over the past 500 years or so, numerous important expeditions have started there.

The first man to firmly put Plymouth on the map was local hero Francis Drake, who was born and raised in nearby Tavistock. Dubbed the Queen’s Pirate due to his habit of snatching other people’s treasure, Drake was well liked by Queen Elizabeth I, who secretly funded his momentous round the world voyage.

Setting sail from Plymouth in 1577 on board the Golden Hind, the great seafarer returned three years later with a horde of treasure that he’d taken from Spanish ships. The Queen was so impressed she gave him a knighthood – much to the displeasure of Philip II of Spain. In fact Drake wasn’t exactly the King’s favourite person, especially after he helped see off the Spanish Armada in 1588 – but not before finishing his game of bowls on Plymouth Hoe!

Sir Francis Drake died at sea in January 1596 off the coast of Panama after suffering from dysentery for several days. His body was placed in a lead casket and slipped overboard. To this day he is still regarded a hero in Plymouth and his statue stands tall on the historic Plymouth Hoe.

During Drake’s lifetime another of Devonshire’s famous sons also set sail from the docks Plymouth, a certain Walter Ralegh, who was a member of Elizabeth I’s favoured circle.

Born in East Budleigh in 1554, Ralegh (also spelt Raleigh) was a successful seafarer and explorer, although he was also known for the odd bit of piracy. His trip to the New World in 1585 resulted in the creation of Virginia on the east coast of America, which he named after the Virgin Queen. Ralegh returned from his expeditions with tobacco and potatoes, which delighted the Queen so much she knighted him.

Unfortunately Elizabeth’s like of him quickly turned to hate when he got married and she sent him and his wife to the Tower of London as punishment. The Queen’s successor, James I, didn't like him either and he had Ralegh beheaded for treason in 1618.

Just a couple of years after Ralegh’s death there was another pioneering journey from Plymouth when the Pilgrim Fathers headed off to America on the Mayflower in September 1620. The boat set sail from the spot that is now called the Mayflower Steps and three months later arrived at Cape Cod in Massachusetts where the settlers created a town and named it Plymouth.

In 1768 the man dubbed ‘the greatest explorer of all time’, Captain James Cook, stood at the helm of The Endeavour as it set sail from Plymouth to the South Pacific.

During his trip he reached the eastern shores of New Zealand and stopped off in Australia, close to where Sydney stands today.
Cook also took charge of two other major expeditions; the first took him back to New Zealand where he discovered countless Pacific Islands on the way home, while the second trip, to Hawaii, was unfortunately his last. He was beaten to death in a fight with a group Hawaiians in February 1779.

Finally, the other revolutionary man to leave the shores of Plymouth on a voyage of discovery was Charles Darwin, who gave to us the theory of evolution. Despite his terrible bout of seasickness, Darwin considered his five-year expedition aboard the HMS Beagle as the most important thing he ever did. During his journey, between 1831 and 1836, he wrote a number of essays, including the Origin of Species and Descent of Man, which have changed the way humans look at the world forever.


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