Notes from underground Plymouth: remembering Bretonside bus station

Plymouth’s central bus station is empty now and cordoned off from travellers. Smart new advertisements on the developer’s barriers hide its condemned concrete passageways swarming with lush graffiti, zero budget decorations of neglect in a place where rents from businesses had become so low no one minded what bloomed on the walls.  This odd building, invisible on three sides, but an essential piece of the city’s infrastructure had long since fallen off the edge of the world of purchase enhancing interiors and the domains of the big brands.  It had become an actual niche in the city where niche interests could flourish in freedom, and people could express the peace or turbulence of real lives lived nearby.

In 1957 when the Council approved the architect’s plans it was needed urgently.  The great post-war reconstruction of the commercial centre was nearing completion and to ensure customers could reach shops easily from the new estates on the outskirts, the Council had purchased 21 new double-deckers the previous spring. A bus station was a necessity somewhere in the city centre’s vehicle friendly road network. They chose an area under a viaduct that linked two roundabouts, making the station a kind of extension to the pedestrian subway system under the larger one, and reachable by steps down from street level at either end. Even the extensive bus range in front was insufficient for the number of vehicles using it then since the coach companies were given permission to park along the street opposite during summer months as well.

Bretonside station belonged aesthetically with the shops of Abercrombie’s centre, and served the same function, providing space for local tradesman, including even elegant glass display cabinets in the clean-lined style of contemporary fashion.  First to occupy it when it was finished in 1958 were a café, a newsagents and a fruit and flower shop, as well as the two coach companies’ offices. 

Fifty-eight years later the long colonnade stretching below the busy road still looked impressive behind the massive coaches swaying out of their bays off to the vagaries of the UK road system.  People waited on the benches in front, sometimes with snacks from the same newsagents, but inside the station was not somewhere to linger, especially at night.  The darkness was only intimidating in the alleyways. The retail units were now home to a record shop, and two well-respected venues: Maggie’s Café and the White Rabbit; making a vital contribution to Plymouth’s music culture as first-time gig space for new bands. Anything could happen but the crowd was supportive and made you proud if the music sounded good.This building and coach park, squeezed into left over space in the road system is to become Drake Leisure, extension to Drake Circus – Plymouth’s first great mall, as a new cycle of development begins.  So it does not disappear from memory Chris Gale, a sound artist and Sam Akroyd, a painter based at Ocean Studios are working on a major exhibition (already shortlisted for a governor’s award) to preserve the sights and sensations of Bretonside when its physical presence goes.  Recordings of the station in use, a sculpture using 104 clay reliefs of its surfaces made by children, and Akroyd’s intensely coloured, hyper-real oil paintings of its unsettling views will be the collection’s main focus, but they are also gathering an archive of personal accounts, photographs and film relating to Bretonside’s history and its place in Plymouth’s culture. In this way, finally set loose from its purpose within the city’s economic activity it can continue to be a node of communal creativity and democratic expression

Rosemary Babichev 2017

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