Plymouth – The Departure of the Mayflower, the Demise of The Speedwell:
She is open and leakie as a sieve; and thr was a bourde, a man might have puld of with his fingers, 2 foote longe, wher ye water cam in as it at a mole hole. I thinke, as others also, if we had stayed at sea but 3 or 4 howers more, shee would have sunke righte downe.
Table of Contents
The Mayflower arrives in Plymouth:
Limping along the South Coast of England, from Southampton to Dartmouth and then to Land’s End, the Mayflower and the Speedwell set sail for the New World. Some 300 miles clear of Land’s End, the Speedwell started to leak badly again and the two ships returned to Plymouth for essential repairs. By this time the Pilgrims must have been despairing. Towards the end of summer, any further delays would have made the journey for the Mayflower Pilgrims across the Atlantic even more treacherous.
Plymouth in 1620, at the time the Mayflower and Speedwell arrived, was a thriving port. Fortified during and immediately following the Hundred Years’ War, Plymouth Castle a ‘castle quadrate’ was constructed close to The Barbican to protect Sutton Pool. There were defensive walls and a series of six artillery blockhouses. And, a fort, built on the site of what is now the Citadel, part of the work of Sir Francis Drake who had been appointed to improve the defences of Plymouth. The town itself had grown with imports of wine, fruit sugar and paper from France and Spain and hops from Holland. Exports included wool and tin. And, there was a thriving fishing community, with fishermen from Plymouth venturing as far as the coast of Newfoundland by the 16th Century.
The separatists would have found a town that was Protestant with a leaning towards Puritan and which, just a few years later, unlike much of the West Country, became a Parliamentarian stronghold during the civil war. Plymouth had a strong community. An orphanage was built on Catherine Street and opened in 1615 and Almshouses followed in 1628. These were people who welcomed the Pilgrims and embraced their beliefs. And, the people of Plymouth had the expertise to examine the Speedwell. It was decided that she was overmasted and carrying too much for the Atlantic crossing and she was abandoned. Some of the Pilgrims, including Robert Cushman and his family, stayed behind, while others crowded onto the Mayflower when she finally set sail on 16th September 1620 with around 30 crew and 102 passengers. Half of the passengers were Separatists or Pilgrims, the rest ‘economic migrants’ – skilled tradespeople sent by the investors to help build the new colony.
For those who did sail, Plymouth must have been a welcome break. Indeed Edward Winslow wrote as they set up to depart
Wednesday 6 September; the wind coming east-north-east, a fine small gale, we loosed from Plymouth having been kindly entertained and courteously used by divers friends there dwelling
No one knows exactly what form the ‘kind entertainment’ was but, Plymouth as a last port for the Pilgrims was likely to have been a fortunate twist. Not only had native Americans been in and out of the port since 1531 when William Hawkins brought back a Brazilian leader to meet Henry VIII, but the cosmopolitan town was already familiar with Atlantic trade and exploration.
The Mayflower Heritage:
So what heritage remains from the town the Mayflower pilgrims found in today’s Plymouth?
A visitor to the City of Plymouth looking to learn more about the Mayflower might head first for the Mayflower Steps. At the time the Mayflower moored in Plymouth, the docks would have been surrounded by steep banks with steps leading down to the water and houses right on the waterfront. The actual steps where the pilgrims left no longer exist but there’s a granite block bearing the ship’s name and a tablet commemorating the voyage. A commemorative archway was built in 1934 though it’s believed the actual site where the Mayflower finally casting off is roughly where a Victorian public house, The Admiral MacBride, now stands.
Right now the steps are covered in boarding and scaffolding, while they are restored in time for the 2020 400 year celebrations of the Mayflower Sailing. Normally, you’d spot them easily because there’s a British flag to one side of the portico and an American flag on the other side. From the Mayflower Steps, walk back towards the ‘Barbican’, one of the oldest parts of Plymouth where you can see some of the ancient houses around the quay which would have housed and entertained the Pilgrims.
Originally called London House, what is now known as The Elizabethan House was built in the 1580s. It’s thought to have been the Plymouth offices of the London Company of Virginia, the commercial organisation which supported both the Separatists and the economic migrants who travelled to the New World. The merchants funding this organisation had agreed to fund the settlers’ trips with a view to recouping their investment from profits made by the travellers. As we know, the Mayflower went off course and eventually, the Pilgrims landed 220 miles northeast of their intended destination and not in the region which had been earmarked for settlement. It’s believed that the Mayflower Compact was in part intended to ensure no repercussions from this error.
Right now, the Elizabethan House is closed for refurbishment, with the intention of reopening in 2020 for the 400-year celebrations but visitors can normally tour the building to learn how an Elizabethan merchant or sea captain would have lived. The building was rescued from demolition in 1929 and has retained most of its original fixtures and fittings. A little further up the street, you’ll find the Elizabethan Gardens (not part of the same building). A formal garden in New Street, it has been restored to demonstrate more about what life in Plymouth would have been like in the 16th and 17th century.
Island House dates from somewhere between 1572 and 1600. At the time the Pilgrims were in Plymouth it would have been largely surrounded by water. It’s believed this building was one of the houses where the Pilgrims were entertained before their departure. Today it bears a large plaque on the wall with the names of all those who left on the Mayflower.
Jacka’s Bakers, one of the oldest commercially working bakeries, dates back to 1597 and is supposed to have supplied the ship’s biscuits.
Finally, what is now Plymouth Gin Distillery, was originally a Black Friar Monastery. After the Reformation, it became a town hall and meeting rooms. It’s thought that the Pilgrim men and boys were houses here before their voyage and that the final meeting for worship of the Pilgrims was held here.
It’s now the oldest working gin distillery in England and although that function followed some 50 years after the departure of the Mayflower, I somehow felt compelled to try the gin while I was there…
More about the Mayflower in Plymouth:
Already a key site to visit if you are interested in learning more about the Mayflower Pilgrims and their voyage to American in 1620, there’s a small museum situated on the upper floors of the tourist information centre in Plymouth. It’s the kind of place where children will enjoy dressing up as pilgrims and learning more about the role of Plymouth and the lives of the voyagers.
In spring 2020, the Box, a new exhibition and arts centre will open with a whole series of Mayflower related events.
Mayflower 400: Legend and Legacy is a national commemorative exhibition for the Mayflower which has been created in partnership with the Wampanoag Native American Advisory Committee and which pulls together information from over 100 museums, libraries and archives across the UK, US and Holland. There are special events planned for 2019 and 2020 including a national touring exhibition, Wampum: Stories and Shells from Native America, aiming to acknowledge the connection between the English settlers and the Wampanoag people. There’s also a Mayflower 400 dance project, with performances across the country, starting in Nottinghamshire. And, the Box’s learning team are setting up programmes of Mayflower masterclasses for audiences of all ages and abilities.
More to do in Plymouth:
Although in the lead up to 2020, there’s a real focus on The Mayflower you’ll find plenty more to do in Plymouth.
Don’t miss Smeaton’s Tower. A lighthouse on Plymouth Hoe, Smeaton’s tower was originally built out at sea (you can still see the ‘stump’ next door to the much larger replacement that was built in its place). Constructed in 1759 at a cost of £40,000 it was the world’s first stone lighthouse. In those days was lit by just 24 candles too. Taken down in the early 1880s because it was believed the sea was undermining the rock it was standing on, the lighthouse was moved to shore stone by stone and reconstructed on Plymouth Hoe as a memorial to the Civil Engineer John Smeaton who had designed it.
Now standing at 72 foot high, you can go inside and climb the 90 or so stairs as I did to get some great views of Plymouth Sound and the city from the lantern room which, along with the rest of the building, has been painstakingly restored to its original glory. Although this was the third lighthouse on the site, the first wooden construction wasn’t built until 1698.
And then, of course, there’s Plymouth Gin at the top end of Plymouth Barbican. I’ve already mentioned the building which, at the time of the Mayflower sailing, had evolved from Priory to Town Hall and Meeting Rooms. Visitors can tour the working distillery and even take part in a gin masterclass where they create their own gin. Or just sit in the bar and enjoy a cocktail or three.
Built in 1566, The Royal Citadel was one of the most important coastal defences in England at the time. Built to protect the country from a Dutch invasion, the Citadel is also thought to have been a way to ensure the people of Plymouth did not rebel against the King again. It was constructed on the site of an earlier fort built at the time of Sir Francis Drake and is still in use by the Military but there are free public tours throughout the year.
There’s something Harry Potteresque about a Church that was largely destroyed by bombs in the Second World War and which now has a plaque bearing the word Resurgam over the main entrance.
Apparently, the sign was originally placed there by Margaret Smith, an English Teacher, after the worst of the bombing. Later, as the church was restored, the wooden sign was replaced by stone.
The bell tower, paid for by wealthy merchant Thomas Yogge, dates from around 1460 and there are still a few memorial stones for merchants who would have been there at the time of the Mayflower sailing. I was intrigued to learn that during the civil war the Town appointed a Puritan vicar (and imprisoned the Royalist vicar appointed by Charles I). But, after the civil war, when Charles II returned to power and there was a need for a new church to accommodate a growing population, they cleverly called it ‘Charles Church’.
Also bombed during the Second World War, the shell of Charles Church remains as a war memorial.
Where to Eat in Plymouth:
Barbican Kitchen is set in the Blackfriars Distillery, home of Plymouth Gin. Run by celebrity chef brothers Chris and James Tanner, I feasted on a delicious dinner with fresh local fish and seasonal ingredients.
The Greedy Goose is set in Plymouth’s oldest building, Prysten House, in the centre of Plymouth, it is grade 1 listed, built for Thomas Yogge, a wealthy merchant and dates back to 1487. The building itself still has the original well and a stunning courtyard.
Jacka’s Bakery is still open, though not for Ships Biscuits. Instead, you’ll find coffee, light snacks, artisan bread and cakes.
If you are looking for seafood, of course, you’ll find plenty of excellent offerings in Plymouth.
I enjoyed lunch at the Boathouse Cafe set in the fisherman’s arches on the Mayflower Steps, just a stone’s throw from Plymouth’s historic Barbican. In addition to a fine cafe menu, you can catch your own lunch – go out on a trip with owner Ben Squire’s Plymouth Boat Trips and bring your catch home to be cooked in their kitchen. Ben told us that he’s planning to launch a shellfish version soon where visitors can take a boat trip to collect their own scallops and bring them back to be cooked.
Plymouth is home to the award-winning Harbour Seafood Restaurant too which serves everything from Salcome Crab Rolls to MSC Line Caught Cod and Chips served with local cider.
Harbourside Fish and Chips, the winner of third place in the 2018 National Fish and Chips awards, has a gluten-free menu available.
Mayflower 400 Celebrations in Plymouth
Mayflower 400 celebrations will officially start with Illuminate in November 2019. An event taking place across the UK, Illuminate will be the opening event in November 2019 and the closing evening in 2020.
In addition, there are some special events taking place from May 2019 onwards.
The Plymouth History Festival 04 May 2019 – 31 May 2019 will provide talks, guided walks and behind the scenes tours, to performances, family activities, exhibitions and displays
Mayflower Week runs from 14 Sep 2020 – 20 Sep 2020
A new event, Mayflower week marks the date the Mayflower sailed from Plymouth on 16th September. A range of activities are planned including
- A visit from The Matthew, a replica 15th-century tall ship
- Daily fly-bys
- An international field gun competition
- The Navy’s Rehabilitation Triathlon which is traditionally held in Lympstone but has been transferred to Plymouth for 2020
Mayflower week includes two major events. The Mayflower Ceremony on 16th September is a four nations civic ceremony to commemorate the Mayflower’s journey and legacy. There will be representatives from the UK, US, Netherlands and Wampanoag. Schools and community participation will ensure that the people of Plymouth are at the heart of this event.
The Mayflower Muster is a celebration of Plymouth’s heritage as a Naval base. A spectacular festival in partnership with the US and Dutch armed forces will include live displays, demonstrations and other activities over a two day period from 19th to 20th September.
Visiting Plymouth – Useful Facts:
I stayed at the Crowne Plaza Hotel. Situated on Plymouth Hoe, it’s worth asking for an executive room which comes with a view out to sea, looking across the Hoe to Smeatons Tower and then across Plymouth Sound.
Plymouth is around 4 hours drive from London or can be reached by train from London Paddington. Direct trains take just over three hours. You can even travel overnight on the Night Riveria Sleeper Train from Paddington to Penzance, leaving just before midnight and arriving in Plymouth at around 5.30 a.m.
For more information about Mayflower 400 celebrations please see the Mayflower400 website
For more information about Plymouth please see the Visit Plymouth website
Jane Dymock can provide Blue Badge guide services and walking tours of the historic Barbican in Plymouth. She can be contacted by email – firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone 07876 402728
I travelled as a guest of Mayflower400.
Thinking of visiting Plymouth for the Mayflower 400 Celebrations? Why not pin this post for later