Retracing historic sailing with Mayflower 400

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The All Saints Church in Babworth, England, was among the Pilgrims’ meeting places.
The All Saints Church in Babworth, England, was among the Pilgrims’ meeting places. Photo Credit: Jenny Hart

2020 will mark the 400th anniversary of the Mayflower sailing, when approximately 132 passengers and crew members, who would come to be known as the Pilgrims, made the harrowing voyage across the Atlantic from Plymouth, England, to the New World to escape religious persecution and settle in what is now Plymouth, Mass.

To commemorate the anniversary, 13 destinations across the U.K., U.S. and Netherlands with historical connections to the sailing have partnered to create the Mayflower 400 program. Throughout 2020, each destination will host events that honor the Mayflower's impact, celebrate the roles the individual destinations played and promote tourism to the key areas.

A Mayflower-inspired trip will appeal not only to history buffs but to those interested in genealogy. With more than 20 million Americans descended from the "Pilgrim Fathers" and the trend of heritage-themed travel continuing to grow, the Mayflower 400 team is eager to attract and welcome those who want to learn about and experience their forefathers' backstory and pre-pilgrimage firsthand. I got a sneak peek during a recent visit to England sponsored by Mayflower 400.

The journey started for the Pilgrims with the Separatist movement and the English counties of Nottinghamshire, Lincolnshire and Yorkshire, where many of the Pilgrims were originally from. 

In the towns of Scrooby, Babworth, Austerfield and Gainsborough, visitors can see the homes and churches where many Pilgrims, including noted leaders William Brewster and William Bradford, lived, worshipped and met in secrecy before eventually fleeing to Leiden in Holland. "Mayflower Maid" tour guide Sue Allan has exclusive access to many of these sites and an unparalleled wealth of knowledge.

Nearby are Worcester and Droitwich Spa, from which Pilgrim Edward Winslow originates, and Boston, where the Pilgrims were tried and jailed after their first attempt to escape to Holland. The Pilgrim Fathers Memorial in Boston marks the site of the arrest, and the Boston Guildhall hosts the very cells in which the Pilgrims were held (and which visitors can climb into).

Though it does not have direct ties to the Pilgrims, the town of Lincoln serves as a marvelous base when visiting the above destinations. It's centrally located, extremely quaint and picturesque and is home to the Magna Carta, the historic document that later inspired the Mayflower Compact. The White Hart Hotel has a traditional but modern feel.

After the Pilgrims finally made it to Leiden, they stayed for 12 years before starting the process of crossing the ocean. They arrived first in Southampton, a known seaport and thus the ideal place for the Mayflower and her sister ship, the Speedwell, to sail from. Today visitors can enjoy a fun mix of old meets new, visiting historical sites like a medieval gatehouse before seeing a show at the Mayflower Theatre. The SeaCity Museum offers fascinating information about the area's maritime history, including the Titanic, which also set sail from Southampton.

The Pilgrims did not get very far from Southampton before the Speedwell started taking on water; they docked in Dartmouth for repairs. Today visitors can browse the many shops and galleries or enjoy a traditional Devonshire cream tea while looking out on the same waters the Pilgrims sailed on.

The Mayflower Museum in Plymouth, England, offers three floors of interactive exhibits.
The Mayflower Museum in Plymouth, England, offers three floors of interactive exhibits. Photo Credit: Jenny Hart

After departing Dartmouth, the Speedwell once again began to leak, and the Pilgrims were forced to make one final stop: Plymouth. Nicknamed "Britain's Ocean City," it is perhaps the most well-known of the Pilgrims' stops in the U.K. and has much to see, from the Mayflower Steps, which the Pilgrims descended to board the Mayflower for the final time, to the Mayflower Museum, which offers three floors of interactive exhibits. 

Be sure to stop by the Plymouth Gin Distillery, the country's oldest working distillery and the site where many of the Pilgrims slept during their time in Plymouth. Opening in time for the 400th anniversary will be the Box, Plymouth's new visitor attraction and museum that will predominantly feature a "Mayflower 400: Legend and Legacy" exhibition, full of Mayflower-inspired art and initiatives. 

Those particularly interested in the ship and its captain, Christopher Jones, should be sure to visit Harwich, where the ship was built and where Captain Jones once lived. The Harwich Mayflower Heritage Project aims to have a full-scale, seaworthy replica of the Mayflower ready by 2020.

The Mayflower Pub in London’s Rotherhithe district.
The Mayflower Pub in London’s Rotherhithe district. Photo Credit: Jenny Hart

London, too, is an important part of Jones' story. While the Speedwell carried the Pilgrims from Leiden to Southampton, Jones sailed the Mayflower up from London's Rotherhithe district. Visit the Mayflower Pub, where Jones reportedly had his final meal before shipping off, and see his burial site nearby. The Flemings Mayfair offers luxurious accommodations that are an easy commute to the Mayflower sites as well as the rest of London.

While much of U.K. is well connected by train (BritRail has stations in or near many of the Mayflower 400 towns), traveling via public transit can make the journey long and a bit more complicated. It may be in many visitors' best interest to hire a private guide to take them from place to place. During my visit, Alex Graeme of Unique Devon Tours was supremely helpful navigating the Mayflower's harbor destinations.

Although the anniversary is still a couple of years away, agents are encouraged to start researching and planning tours now. Rowena Drinkhouse, co-owner of faith-based tour operator Reformation Tours, is already in the process of putting together six Mayflower-themed trips and anticipates that demand will spike as the anniversary gets closer.

"We're bringing the stories alive of the people who were on the Mayflower," she said. "We want to understand the time period, where they were coming from and who they were."

Visit www.mayflower400uk.org.

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