The Providence Inn, Plymouth: where the wild things are

The Providence Inn is a small backstreet pub full of dogs, plants and bric-a-brac – but there’s somehow still plenty of room for people.

Would we ever have thought to go there if Sam Congdon at Vessel hadn’t recommended it as “probably the best place for cask in town”?

We enjoyed walking through street after street of terraced houses on our way, up and up the hill, until we saw it glowing yellow in the blue late evening light. It looked like a relic or throwback – the very ideal of the street-corner beerhouse.

The cluttered interior of a pub with pot plants, books, framed pictures, cushions and board games.

Inside, we found a wall of warmth, in every sense.

Despite our strangeness – we gawped, took a photo or two, elbowed our way to the bar – we were given a cheery “Hello!” by the landlady from her seat by the fireplace.

The beer was typical for Devon: malty golden ale in good condition, but not in itself especially exciting. But there was enough going on in the pub that the beer didn’t need to carry the weight.

First, those dogs. There were three, two big and one small. The bigger dogs had the look of retired prizefighters about them – muscular but sleepy. They submitted to being fussed by the regulars and, at the first opportunity, stole the two armchairs and began to doze.

Two dogs sleeping in pub chairs in front of a fireplace.

Then there were the drinkers, several of whom wore Hawaiian shirts, and a couple of whom (not in Hawaiian shirts) were quite merry.

One tried to leave several times but kept spinning on his heel in the doorway and returning, like Columbo, to mention just one more thing. Another demanded of a fellow drinker: “Go on, feel my arse – I’ve got buns of steel.”

At one point, a party of five or six turned up in an already crowded pub and still managed to find a seat. We don’t really understand how.

There’s the decor, too, which ticks every box on the pub interior checklist. Carpet, dark wood, houseplants, pump clips, nautical nick-nacks… Wherever your eye lands, there’s something to enjoy. Even the gents toilet has crocheted seahorses dangling from the ceiling.

Finally, there’s the landlady. Once we’d been seated for a few minutes, she came over to say hello. “I’ve not seen you before,” she said. “I’m Shirlie. What are your names? Jess and Ray, Ray and Jess, Jess and Ray, Ray and Jess… Got it.”

This reminded us of Garvan’s approach at The Drapers Arms. It’s a way of saying to us, and to the perhaps territorial regulars, that we were welcome.

Once we’d been given the royal greeting, we couldn’t leave, so another round it was. And if we lived nearby, we’d probably be there three times a week.

The Providence Inn is at 22 Providence St, Plymouth PL4 8JQ.


Vessel makes Plymouth a beer destination

Vessel Beer Shop in Plymouth has the range of a craft beer bar with the atmosphere of a friendly local pub.

It was opened in 2017, when we wrote about it for Devon Life:

“Katie and Sam Congdon are from Cornwall and Devon respectively but have spent the last half-decade immersed in the craft beer scene in Leeds. Now they’re back in Plymouth and ready to spread the word in their native West Country… For now, it’s a shop with some limited facilities and hours for drinking on the premises, but the plan is to make it something more like a bar in the near future. To start with, there are more than a hundred bottled beers, six keg lines, and a new innovation for Plymouth: a growler machine…”

Back then, we’ll confess, though we were rooting for them, we were a bit worried.

Plymouth, and Devon more generally, seemed resistant to anything with a whiff of up-country hipness.

Would Vessel, a little out of town, in a former cooker showroom, find enough business to stay afloat?

Then came COVID-19, putting hospitality businesses everywhere under additional pressure. We could see from social media that Vessel was still going, but struggling.

We were delighted, then, to bump into Katie and Sam at a pub in Bristol in November 2022. They were in town on beer-related business and taking the opportunity to enjoy a session on the other side of the bar.

What was clear from that conversation was that Vessel had not only survived the pandemic but to some extent found its feet, and its people.

How to describe Katie and Sam? They’re the kind of people who default to smiling. They are optimistic by nature, and full of ideas and energy.

They’d made it through the pandemic with a mix of deliveries, takeaway, events over zoom, and sheer enthusiasm.

That challenge out of the way, they told us about plans for expansion, for a brewery, for more trips and tastings.

They talked about their customers with evident affection, and with none of the too-cool-for-school frostiness that sometimes comes with craft beer culture.

As we waved goodbye on that autumn evening we decided we needed to go back to Vessel and see for ourselves how it has matured in five (challenging) years.

Sunlight through the window casts the shadow of the Vessel logo onto the wall.

Return to Plymouth

When we lived in Penzance, Plymouth was where we went for big city thrills, especially out of season. It often frustrated us, though – where was there to drink, or eat?

Sure, we enjoyed pints of perfect Bass in old school maritime pubs. And, yes, there was at least one pub where we could drink Belgian beer.

But Bristol it was not. Hell, even Falmouth had more going on in terms of food and drink.

Now, even though the city centre looks more ragged than ever (the trees!) there are signs of change. It’s a crude barometer but there are now multiple places to get a decent cup of coffee, or an aspirational breakfast.

Vessel feels like part of this change. Though its surroundings remain down-to-earth, the bar itself – smartly decorated, neat as you like – could be picked up and dropped into any city in Britain, including London.

You might not like the sound of this – when you’re in Plymouth, don’t you want to feel as if you’re in Devon? But if you live way out west, rather than being there on holiday, your attitude will be different.

In that context, you just want good places to drink, where you can find beer from elsewhere, instead of the same old same old.

As it is, Katie and Sam, and their engaged customers, provide plenty of local flavour. Listen to the conversation over the counter and you’ll be in no doubt where in the world you are.

On our visit last weekend we enjoyed Sierra Nevada beer on draught, with some highly competitive pricing: £6.60 for a pint of 7.2% IPA is pretty good going in 2023.

We were also impressed by the range of bottled and canned beers in the fridges, from German classics to fascinating products from UK ‘blenderies’ and farmhouse breweries.

The tap list in chalk on the wall, including Sierra Nevada Pale Ale at £2.80 a half, Torpedo IPA at £3.30 a half and Bigfoot Barley Wine at £5 a half.

It makes Plymouth worth a visit

If beer is the deciding factor in where you spend your weekend city breaks, Vessel changes the equation.

You could spend three nights in the city, go to Vessel every evening, and never drink the same beer twice.

Add to the mix those previously mentioned old skool pubs, and the potential for day trips to brewery taprooms and micropubs across the border in Cornwall, and you’ve got more than enough to keep you busy.

Vessel is at 184 Exeter St, Plymouth PL4 0NQ, and online at


Reflecting on Devon Beer

Vintage map of Devon showing Beer Head.

About two years ago, when we still lived in Penzance, we were approached by the editor of Devon Life magazine. He wanted to introduce a monthly beer column and reckoned we were the right people to do it.

We pushed back: we didn’t know Devon well, although Ray spent some time there as a kid and we’ve often visited; and the fee they were offering would barely cover the cost of researching the column. Still, he was insistent, and there was something interesting in the idea of focusing on one county and ferreting out what there was to be ferreted. So we said yes.

Over the course of 20 months we wrote about notable pubs, breweries, bottle shops, nuggets of history, and specific beers. We made special trips to Cockington, Exeter, Exmouth, Newton Abbot, Plymouth, Tavistock, Teignmouth, Tiverton, Topsham and Totnes, and convinced people from various other places to come to us at The Imperial, AKA our Exeter office. We don’t claim this makes us experts — you have to live in a place, ideally for years, before you can really say that — but it did give us a deeper sense of what is going on than we’d otherwise have acquired.

When the column came to an end at Christmas, we took a bit of time to reflect on what we learned, and to draw some conclusions.


Three Decent Pubs in Plymouth

In the past, we’ve struggled to find great places to drink in the old naval city of Plymouth, just over the border from Cornwall in Devon.

The trick, it turns out, as in many other cities, is to look outside the central ring-road: two of our new discoveries are in the suburb of Mutley, which is literally on the wrong side of the tracks. The Fortescue, Plymouth. Leaving the station and heading along the bustling Mutley Plain, we stumbled upon the Fortescue by chance. The building dates from 1905 and has a couple of nice Art Nouveau touches, but inside is a bare-bones and rather old-fashioned CAMRA pub.

On the way to the Plymouth Argyle football ground on a match day, it was crammed with mostly middle-aged men minding their own business. The beer line-up wasn’t what we’d call exciting — several from Hunter’s of Devon, Jennings’ Cumberland Ale, and St Austell HSD — but we couldn’t fault the condition in which it was served.

The pricing was pretty keen, too: a pint of c.4% bitter is £2.98, but the barmaid asked if we had CAMRA membership cards on us (we did) bringing it down to £2.68. If we’d had also had some CAMRA Wetherspoon’s vouchers on us, that would have knocked off another 50p.

If you’re, ahem, ‘cost conscious’, like brown bitter, and the company of blokes, then this is the place for you.

Double Diamond at the Hyde Park. Sitting proudly at the top of Mutley Plain like a down-home Palace of Versailles is the Hyde Park Hotel. Recently the subject of a preservation battle, it re-opened last week as a 1970s retro theme pub. (With thanks to Sam Congdon for the tip-off.)

The building is festooned with breweriana from enamel signs advertising Vaux to an illuminated Brewdog shield. Inside, a cosy, womb-like double-bar set up has walls covered in what must be half a million quid’s worth of vintage signs, keg fonts and advertising materials. On discreet TV screens, 1970s TV ads plays on loop. We spent ten minutes goggling at the museum exhibition before turning our attention to the bar.

The Plymouth Herald article suggested that Watney’s and Double Diamond would be on tap. As we suspected, though there is a  glowing plastic Red Barrel on the bar, it is being used to serve Caffrey’s. To our amazement, however, DD was indeed on offer.

Along with Watney’s Red, it was one of the beers at which CAMRA targeted its ire in the 1970s, nicknaming it ‘K9P’. (Geddit?) Now down at 2.8% ABV and brewed in small amounts for the northern club market, the landlady, Pat, had managed to find a supplier in the West Country. It looked pretty — golden and glowing, with a fluffy white head — but tasted of… nothing. Water, dental fillings, and perhaps vegetable peelings. Here’s the amazing thing, though: after Double Diamond, a pint of Dartmoor Legend, not the world’s most exciting beer, suddenly tasted like nectar, with a sweet maltiness and leafy green hop character amplified in contrast with the blandness of the keg bitter.

Along with more retro keg beers (Worthington Best Bitter), several cask ales and a fridge full of ‘craft’ and ‘world’ beers (from Brewdog, Westmalle, and so on), and an onsite brewery is due to start operations soon.

If you’re a beer geek on holiday in Devon, this is a must visit, and would be a great place to read your copy of Brew Britannia.

Bread & Roses, Plymouth. Finally, we made our way back through the city centre and out the other side in search of another Sam Congdon tip, the Bread & Roses.

Housed in another nicely preserved Victorian pub building (The Trafalgar, 1897) on on Ebrington Street, which feels a bit like Hackney in East London did 20 years ago, the B&R opened as a community-run social enterprise last summer. The quirky décor (oompah band LPs, Action Man dolls in knitted jumpers, furniture from house clearances) didn’t strike us as contrived or forced.

There were a couple of local cask ales on offer (a mild from Teignworthy and Avocet from Exeter) along with various ‘world beers’ on keg and in bottles. O’Hara’s stout went down nicely; a bottle of Tripel Karmeliet seemed paler and cleaner than the last time we tried it; and Bristol Beer Factory West Coast Red was a spicy, toasty delight. Laverstoke Park Farm Organic Lager was a dud — mostly bland except where it was a bit rough — and Einstök Icelandic Pale Ale was too much sticky toffee pudding for our tastes.

Neither this pub nor its beer selection would turn heads in Bristol or London these days, but it’s quite exciting for this part of the world, and a lovely place to spend an afternoon.

PS. Can anyone give Justin any more information about a cask version of Double Diamond he drank in the mid-90s?

homebrewing opinion

Lessons for Beer Street from Gin Lane

Plymouth Gin Distillery, Devon, UK.

By Boak

Last weekend, seeking to avoid what could easily have felt like five wet Sundays in a row in Penzance, we spent a couple of days in Plymouth, and made like tourists. Activity one: the Plymouth Gin distillery tour, where we learned a lot about beer.

We don’t drink a lot of gin, but my Mum’s partial, and I’ve been buying her bottles of ‘small batch’, ‘artisanal’ gin as presents for a couple of years. Plymouth Gin rates itself as the most artisanal of the big brands, if that makes sense. But… the base alcohol is produced in Scotland; the gin is bottled in Essex; and most of the process is automated. “Here’s where our distiller loads the botanicals himself, through this hatch,” said the tour guide. “That’s what makes our gin handcrafted.” At this point, her voice was drowned out by the sounding of the bullshit alarm.

Lesson one, then: unless you’re talking objects, ‘handcraftedness’ really is a poor measure of quality.

The tasting stage of the tour was the real eye-opener, though. First, we were talked through the various herbs and spices (‘botanicals’) in the recipe and couldn’t help but think of Belgian Witbier when talk turned to coriander, cardamom, lemon and orange peel. It was when things got tactile that a bulb really went on: crushing the small-seeded Russian coriander used in Plymouth Gin, we realised it is nothing at all like the earthy, woody Indian stuff we use at home. It smells more like lemons or lemon verbena, and extremely pungent.

Lesson two: coriander is a more complex variable than we’d appreciated, and we need to experiment more.

We’d never even heard of Orris Root which the guide tells us is used mostly for its ability to help keep essential oils in suspension in the gin.

Lesson three: there are more herbs and spices to play with in brewing than we’d previously been aware, some of which might be very useful.

After all that, we enjoyed our complimentary gin and tonic at the end of the tour, but, being beery people at heart, found ourselves itching to brew a gin-inspired Wit sooner rather than later.

The tour costs £7 per person and takes about 30 minutes. The cocktail bar upstairs also happens to have a small selection of bottled beers including Brewdog Punk IPA and Anchor Steam.