Walking through history | Daily News

Walking through history

Juliet Coombe learns about the UKs Last Great Bake Off with Plymouth’s Guiding Light Janie Dymock Gibson

The sun came out as I reached the imperial entrance to Britain's Royal William Yard, Plymouth, only stopping to take a look at a giant boulder with a biscuit recipe written on it. The ship’s biscuit recipe was I discover from Janie Dymock Gibson, a legendary Blue Badge guide was an infamous double baked provision for long sea voyages and was made in the Royal William Yard bakery with its 12 ovens, next to the brew house inside the historic naval walls for over a hundred years. The last great bake off I discover among many other amazing gems on her two hour walking tour took place in 1925, by which time wooden ships had been replaced with metal ones that included ovens. Biscuits were cooked in squares on a conveyor belt and were baked twice to harden them off, thus the name bis- twice cuit- cooked. Each biscuit was then stamped with an arrow, the indication that it belonged to the king, and the letter ‘W’ that indicated that it was from the Royal William Yard, or a ‘C’ if from the Clarence yard. The stored biscuits from the last bake off as she calls it with a twinkly look of mischief in her eyes were still being sold a decade later and records show that up to two decades later, during WWII, they were still being eaten. To quote one officer, “It would have to be quite an emergency to eat one of these biscuits” and some said they would rather starve than have one. Tim Burton, when directing Alice in Wonderland, stayed in the biscuit bakery for three weeks and some wonder if the openings to the ventilation to the biscuit ovens inspired the look of the tiny door that Alice passes through into another world.

The tourist entrance to the Royal William Yard where you meet Janie at the start of the walk, with King William IV’s statue (AKA 'Silly Billy’, owing to his penchant for eying up the ladies) is often mistaken for the main entrance to this historic naval victualling yard. In fact, the main way into the yard was of course from the sea and the second way from the Clarence steps. The surrounding area is protected by artillery towers and a massive wall next to Devil’s Point that date back to King Henry VIII’s time, when it was crucial to protect England from her Spanish enemies, from whom he feared a backlash for his appalling treatment of Catherine of Aragon. The main entrance had two ox-heads representing the victuals as they supplied the navy with their goods ranging from underpants to boiled tongue, the latter of which was considered a delicacy for the officer class. The yard was a very grand hive of activity, where all kinds of provisions, in addition to beef, beer and biscuits, could be selected from massive storage facilities, much like Walmart, and loaded onto ships from 1825 bound for the outer reaches of the Empire and for epic sea campaigns to Spanish and later French territories.

The gateway is made of Penryn granite, the best to be found locally, to make it look grand, whereas the main stone of the site was quarried in situ. The sixteen acre site was built from 350 million tons of this prehistoric rock, rich in fossils, and we see some examples of them in the liquid storehouse (lemon, lime, molasses, gin, beer and rum) where fossils in the walls date back 14 to 15 million years and were the ones that fascinated Charles Darwin, who actually spent as much time studying the quarried rock in Cornwall as he did the Galapagos Islands in his discoveries of evolutionary principles.

On the left as you enter the tourist gate you will still find the security detail for the yard, which was once 12 constables strong, back when it was built in the 1820s. On the opposite side was the best looking slaughterhouse in Britain, deliberately positioned to create a good impression when entering this very grand naval base. Above it is the muster bell, which was once used to summon help from the local townspeople in an emergency.

The warehouses stored anything from dried fruits to nuts, and opposite to where top restaurant Bistro Pierre operate today, near the only boutique hotel in the vicinity, is the original walnut tree, dating back to around 1830, which still produces its walnuts in September. These are enjoyed by the squirrels today but well over a hundred years ago were used to keep people nourished on their lengthy six month voyages. They also grew plums in the area, which were dried to make ‘plum duff’, helping to prevent scurvy. There were only ever two residences built for families, which had walled gardens.

Firestone bay, overlooking Plymouth Sound, a stretch of water between the militarised Drakes Island and the mainland, received its name from the red iron deposits in the rock. To make it safe, they built a breakwater, so, giving rise to the phrase ‘safe and sound’. On the left hand side is a sea bath swimming pool that is a hundred years old. In front of the opening, there are old holes in the granite where a wooden walkway once corralled the cattle as they were herded from the boats into the yard. Today only a few movable cows are a reminder of one of the many uses of this imperial yard. From there they would be slaughtered and butchered into many different cuts that can be seen in a diagram the other side of the ship’s biscuit recipe at the tourist entrance.

I learn as we continue on past the numerous warehouses that the finest gold of 22 carats, which was used for trading goods, like blocks of chocolate or cinnamon is so called because of the carob seeds, which come in pods of 22 seeds. In 1825, it cost £2 million to build what we see today, which was supposed to cost ¾ of a million. The brew house was built in 1830 to brew beer as a replacement for water, as the sustaining drink for voyages, since the water acquired a green slime after a few weeks, whereas the beer, owing to the alcohol, remained bacteria and mould-free for longer. Owing to the introduction of cast iron by the time the brew house was finished, and the subsequent obsolescence of wooden barrels enabling water to be stored for much longer, the brewery was never actually used for beer making. Milk, being such a perishable item, could not be taken, but in its condensed form in a tin, it lasted longer, even though tins had to be opened with a hammer and chisel as recorded in the trenches during WW1. However, Plymouth Gin, made from juniper berries, continued to be taken on long voyages and is the only original gin to be made solely in England.

During the wars with France, Napoleon tried to cut off all food supplies to England, which made the English cannier with production methods that involved drying and preserving fruits and nuts for prolonged use in ocean voyages.

Nancy Astor, MP for Plymouth in 1919, was the first woman in parliament. On realising the serious effects of alcohol on naval sailors’ families, she fought for the prohibition of the rum racket and use of alcohol in the Forces. She succeeded, leading to what is now known as ‘black tot day’. One wonders whether she would have advanced a motion to ban the biscuit, too, if she had known how much fear and dread it provoked in hard seafaring folk. Janie Dymock who recreated the biscuit for the Antiques Road Show will happily show you what one of these dreaded biscuits looked like on her Royal William Yard tour that reveals many hidden secrets that you will only discover by going on a walk that really brought epic history back to life.


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