Beautiful Buildings: The Royal William Yard

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Located in the Stonehouse suburb of Plymouth, The Royal William Yard is a Grade I listed ex-naval victualling yard where ships during the 19th Century would restock for food, drink and other supplies before setting sail once more. Designed by Victorian architect Sir John Rennie, the site itself took only six years to build, between 1825 and 1831, and was, at the time, one of the most vital naval buildings in the UK. Today, the buildings stand as a reminder of the great naval past of both Plymouth and the country as a whole, as the collection of buildings is the largest group of Grade I listed military buildings in Europe.

Each of the 11 buildings on site had a purpose to docking ships and have their own unique personality and shape that has allowed the new developers to squeeze out every last bit of remaining character that the Royal William Yard still holds today. For example, the Mills Bakery building continued producing bread until 1925 and the Slaughterhouse, which was used for meat production and barrelling, only ceased to function in the early 1900s. Other buildings include Brewhouse which was, in fact, never used due to new emerging technologies, and Clarence which was used as a storage facility (like many of the other buildings on site) where goods could be kept, waiting to be loaded onto ships for their next voyage. Around 250 people worked on site at its busiest, all striving to ensure that the sailors and ships are in perfect condition.

Whilst the Yard served its original purpose for over 150 years, the last 50 being more for naval maintenance and storage purposes, the site closed in 1992 after becoming derelict and decreasingly useful to the modern day naval ships and the navy as a whole. However, the magnificent buildings look almost the same today as they did some 200 years ago, thanks to outstanding conservation work by the South West Regional Development Agency and Urban Splash carried out between 1999 and 2008, after the site was released by the Ministry of Defence during the ’90s.

The sheer scale of the great limestone buildings is what sets this site apart from the rest. It stands bold and heavy on the mouth of the River Tamar, and yet this is juxtaposed by skilful and delicate stonework throughout the site, from the stoned paved roads to each window detail being unique to every building. The general cladding of most of the buildings is wrought limestone. However, all through the Yard, the plinths, dressings, cornices and architraves are made of granite. Some of the simplest engineering techniques can be some of the most beautiful. The buildings’ cast iron doors and window frames were used with the columns to create a metal skeleton for each building.

The sense of community is also strong within the Yard, with everything from large charity events and fairs happening on the lawn to outdoor cinema screenings of classics and modern hits, the site draws people in from both Plymouth and all across the South West. With the large basin being the focal point of the Yard, regular boat trips head across the Tamar and various restaurants and art galleries look out across the waters once home to warships. The various large courtyards that some of the buildings surround are now also key spaces for socialising and hosting events. When stood in the middle of one of the courtyards, the sense of both history and grandeur is unmissable.

The grand Melville Building overlooks the harbour and it has been linked with becoming a hotel for the past three years

Whilst the history and shell of the Royal William Yard is something to be preserved, the developers, Urban Splash, have managed to completely regenerate nine buildings on site since their acquisition of the Yard in 1999. Over 200 high-quality luxury apartments are encompassed by the spectacular naval façade, and each hints at the great stone walls with their minimalist design. Apartments in Brewhouse and Clarence have high ceilings and clean finishes, with views over the mouth of the Tamar and the docking area.

The Royal William Yard is a beautiful fortress, protecting history, naval stories and stunning homes. There is no doubt that the site deserves the 29 awards it has been given over the past 15 years including the British Homes Best Conservation Award and RIBA Award for Architecture. This project is a prime example of why regeneration is just as important as building from scratch – this is the real life revival of buildings, memories and an atmosphere just as exciting as it would have been all those years ago.