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The Mayflower and Speedwell in Dartmouth
Although the annual Thanksgiving Dinner marks the survival of the early European settlers in New England, the less remarked upon, but nonetheless remarkable story, is of the initial obstacles they encountered even before setting sail across the perilous Atlantic Ocean. This is set to change with a series of events taking place in the lead up to and during 2020, the 400th anniversary of the sailing of the Mayflower and its 102 passengers to a new life in a new world. We are exploring the Mayflower heritage in Dartmouth in this feature, one of a series on the historic voyage of the Mayflower.
The Mayflower Story should, in fact, be the history of two ships. But, the lesser-known Speedwell, on which the Pilgrims travelling from the Netherlands had set sail, failed to embark on the ocean crossing due, it is rumoured, to sabotage by sailors fearing the journey ahead.
Having rendezvoused initially with the Mayflower at Southampton, the Speedwell limped along the south coast of England, before being abandoned finally in Plymouth, where the famous “saints” and “sinners” regrouped and reembarked on their journey to a new world in the Mayflower.
The false start from Southampton took the Pilgrims on a detour when the Speedwell ‘leaking like a sieve’ and the Mayflower were taken to Dartmouth to make good the damage, before setting sail again. The Mayflower was moored on the River Dart besides what is subsequently known as Pilgrim Hill while repairs were made to the Speedwell in Bayard’s Cove natural harbour. So the Mayflower heritage is real here – and definitely worth exploring
Dartmouth is a town full of culture, history and heritage, dating back to 1147. With its sheltered and deep-water moorings, Dartmouth has always been an important harbour. It was a setting off point for the Crusades and the D-Day landings, for the ships fighting the Armada and for privateers heading out to pillage enemy ships. More peacefully, the port was a centre for pilgrims heading to Canterbury as well as for merchant vessels sailing the Atlantic and Mediterranean.
The history of Dartmouth is the history of England, with its 14th century church, the remains of a Tudor castle (built to protect the English from the French over centuries of diplomatic fall-outs), Elizabethan houses, a Jacobean shopping mall, a naval college built high on a hill when England’s navy ruled the waves and the quayside which the Pilgrims would still recognise.
A good point of orientation is the Dartmouth Museum housed in the historic Butterwalk, a delightfully wonky terrace of merchants’ houses built in the first half of the 17th century. With an eclectic collection of historic artefacts, it offers fascinating insights into the town’s development throughout the centuries. A particular highlight is the unique, priceless, plastered ceiling showing the Tree of Jesse, Jesus’ family tree, thought to be the only representation in plaster and lucky to have escaped destruction by the Roundheads during England’s bloody Civil War.
Dartmouth’s links with the Royal Navy go way back and for many, the town is synonymous with the world-famous Britannia Royal Naval College, which grandly overlooks the town and the river and is said to be where Prince Philip met the then Princess Elizabeth. This working military establishment trains officers for the Royal Navy and for forces from Commonwealth countries around the world. The College is an important part of Dartmouth life and you will see uniformed young officers, male and female, out and about in the town. Guided tours are available on selected dates throughout the year when you’ll see the parade ground, quarterdeck, the elegant chapel and the Britannia Heritage Museum.
A short walk from the old centre of the town, through the narrow, cobbled streets and past pretty painted houses, brings you to the narrow mouth of the Dart protected by two forts, Dartmouth Castle on the west side and Kingswear Castle across the water on the east. Dartmouth Castle, or fortress, guarded the entry to the busy Dart Estuary for over 600 years and was active until WWII. It boasts a colourful history and houses interesting artefacts including a mighty harbour chain the purpose of which will be familiar to history buffs and Game of Thrones fans alike. Lovely St Petrox Church, dating from 1192, clings to the cliffside nearby. The castle’s café offers a great cream tea and with the South West Coast Path leading off invitingly into the distance, it’s a great spot to stop and consider the stories of the people who have passed this way over the centuries.
The defences were started in 1388 by local celebrity, John Hawley, the 14 times mayor, merchant and pirate. Thought to be the inspiration for one of Chaucer’s Canterbury pilgrims, the Shipman, his tomb lies in the town’s lovely Church of St Saviour.
Apart from Hawley’s tomb, St Saviour’s is a must-see for its beauty – it’s been praised as one of the best churches in England with its 17th century gallery, fabulously ornate 15th century rood screen and with its magnificent 14th century ironwork door.
At the time of the Pilgrims’ visit, Dartmouth was an important port, exporting wool and cloth and bringing home wine from Bordeaux. It would later become a leader in the Newfoundland fish trade. Although the town’s fortunes changed through the centuries, today it remains a thriving community, a destination offering visitors good food, a wealth of attractions and events to enjoy, a happy mixture of local shops and suppliers. The ancient street patterns are still there, however, and it’s possible to imagine the Mayflower Pilgrims and their fellow adventurers walking over the cobbles and climbing the steep hills, looking out to sea and pondering the journey yet to come.
Jenny was a guest of the Mayflower 400 Partnership, eleven towns working together to commemorate the 400-year anniversary of the sailing of the Mayflower in 1620. Dartmouth has planned an exciting programme of events running from November 2019 and throughout 2020. She stayed at the smart but relaxing Dart Marina Hotel and Spa; ate a delicious dinner of locally sourced ingredients at The Royal Castle Hotel and enjoyed a wonderful Sunday lunch at Bayards Cove Inn.
You can read more about the journey of the “saints” and “sinners” aboard the Mayflower as they made ready to leave England for their new world here on London-unattached.com in a series of features about the Mayflower Heritage.
There are some special tours available for those interested in learning more about the Mayflower on the English Riviera. Worth finding out more about if you don’t want to miss anything while you are in Devon.
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