Why your Mayflower tour must include Southampton.
Southampton, where four hundred years ago, two ships, the Mayflower and the Speedwell, first came together and were fitted out with supplies for the voyage. Where the pilgrims actually boarded the ships for the first time. Where all the planning for the trip to the New World came together. In Southampton, much of the history from that time has been brought to life with walks and interactive tours. Definitely an essential stop on any Mayflower tour.
The people of Southampton value their past. Most of the city walls and historic buildings were very well maintained until the Second World War Blitz in 1940 when after 2 days of heavy bombing, there was major destruction across the entire city. As much as possible of the historic sites were kept, with wall segments being rebuilt from the broken stone to retain the historical town. Many parts of the original wall still exist and you can go on a tour of the city walls, although you are likely to spend a bit of time looking for the next signpost in certain areas. That’s where a guide really helps.
Southampton was a very important and established town in 1620, a vital port for both imports and exports, and with that, a vital source of tax revenue generated for the crown. In order to ensure taxes to the King were paid, Southampton was a walled city, with the main entrance governed by the King’s tax collectors. This entrance was called Barr Gate, now Bargate, and is the place to start any City tour.
The Bargate was originally built around 1180 as part of an early wall; it’s role to keep out intruders and impress upon visitors the status of the town. While the gates closed every night, anyone locked out at night could stay and eat in the many inns and taverns that existed outside of the town walls.
Southampton had a team of gunners and three guns were stationed at Bargate, a demonstration of how secure and powerful the town was at that time. A watch bell still hangs on the battlements to raise the alarm in case of attack. It is inscribed “In God is my hope – RB 1605”
In about 1320 the drum towers were added to either side of the central archway, and the upper floor was extended to create a magnificent Guildhall. By 1620, the Bargate was a busy centre for tax collection and reporting, with all goods entering or leaving the city having to pass through this gate.
Most goods would be moved around the town in barrels, which could be rolled easily over the muddy roads, or dragged on sledges. In preparation for the battle of Agincourt in 1415, 14 million arrows were transported in barrels through these gates and onto ships.
Halfway down the main street from Bargate is Oceans Gift Shop, which although filled with souvenirs, has space to store visitors luggage as they tour the town. For £5 a day you can safely drop off your bags and stroll around the town with ease. Bargain!
To the West side of the old town is the Tudor House and Garden. This is Southampton’s most important historic building, reflecting over 800 years of history in the original walled town. This house is typical of the area that the Pilgrims would have stayed in whilst waiting for the Mayflower and The Speedwell to be readied for travel.
The Tudor House had a large garden, as did some of the Merchants Houses in the town. As space was at a premium within the walled city, anyone who had a garden was very wealthy. The square pattern of the garden at Tudor House is based on drawings from the 1600s, and the garden would have been used both for pleasure and decoration, as well as for growing herbs and items for the kitchens.
Today, visitors to The Tudor House can take an audio guided tour around the building, providing an in-depth explanation of the rooms, their purpose and the way people lived in the time of the Pilgrims. There is also a complete model of the Old Town, which allows you to visualise what it would have looked like, and how life operated in those days.
At the time the Pilgrims arrived in Southampton in July 1620, the people of the town were suspicious about them and about the Separatist movement as a whole. It is highly likely that they kept a low profile during their short stay here. With five churches within the town walls, many who would have wanted to see the separatists stopped and jailed. We know that both John Aidan, a merchant and the separatist William Brewster joined the Mayflower here, but William was already in hiding having angered King James with his published writings.
Just down from Tudor house is an original 14th Century Merchant house. Typical of the era, the merchant lived above his warehouse which may also have had an underground store. As with Tudor house, you can visit here and explore the property, its gardens and working exhibits inside.
The town has numerous 16th century underground stores and workshops, that are concealed and locked from the general public. So, I’d suggest a Green Badge tour guide is a must – they have keys to let you in! The cellars were originally built to keep wool and cloth safe and dry, then to hold wines and sprits before becoming workshops and general store areas. Buring the Second World War they were also used as air raid shelters, with many maintained for display today in an authentic period look.
Following in the steps of the Pilgrims, head out of Southampton by the West Quay. This is the same exit that the Pilgrims would have used to leave the town in 1620 to join river barge to take them out to the Mayflower or the Speedwell. You go through the West Quay Gate, next to which is a well maintained historic wool store.
Wools was very importany in the 1600’s and a major source of tax revenue to the Crown, so its importance is seen throughout the town. The tour guides explain this to you, but there are also numerous plaques around thetown that explain not just where you are, but what its place in history is. Every one is worth reading in order to soak in the history.
Once through the narrow passag and outside, at the bottom corner of the wall is the Mayflower Tower, a monument marking the point where the pilgrims boarded the barges that took them to their ships. Although inland now, you must remember that this would have been a wooden jetty to which the sea came up to. One cannot help but pause here to imagine the voyage these people were about to make.
Feeling thirsty after walking? Head further on, outside of the walls to what would have been the end of the Western wall, and you’ll find the Dancing Man microbrewery. Located in a 15th-century building, this was once a wool store and later a prison during the Napoleonic wars. With spectacular wooden beams and a great multi-level structure, it’s a great place to go for a meal and a drink, and also to discuss the day’s excursions.
Next to this is Ennios, a great Boutique Hotel also based in a 15th-century warehouse. It’s a great place to stay having an ideal location for both the town, cruise ships and the Ferry to the Isle of Wight. I have stayed here a few times and love its history, style and uniqueness. There is a full review coming.
In 1620, these warehouses would have been the West side of the towns and the sea would come up to their walls. This should be remembered when walking the wall so that you understand why it was built there. Flat bottom barges would take items to and from the ships directly to the walls of the warehouses to be winched up. Nowadays, with the expansion of the docks and the need for access to deeper hulled ships, the sea walls are about 200ft further away from where they originally were and built of concrete.
The Mayflower and the Speedwell set off from Southampton on 15th August 1620 to head to Virginia, USA but stopped a short distance down the coast at Dartmouth 8 days later. There are notes of the time that say it was “because the Speedwell was taking on water”, but there is uncertainty as to its meaning. When the pilgrims left Southampton there was a cholera epidemic, so some believe the reference is to the two ships taking on barrels of fresh water from Dartmouth, which had no sickness. However, the Speedwell was clearly an unseaworthy ship and was eventually retired before The Mayflower went on to the New World so we can only speculate.
To see the changes to the town since 1620, you should examine the many town maps that are around the town. They clearly show the original town walls, and how much the city has sprawled since.
Today there is still more than enough to make for an exciting and interesting tour, with the historic original named streets from over 400 years ago. Over 60% of the original walls exist and there is an active enterprise to promote “Walk The Wall” tours with good signage, clearly marked interest points and resting places. Southampton is a “must visit” location for any Mayflower400 followers.
For your Mayflower Guide (the one I used and personally recommend)
Geoffrey Wheeler, Institute of Tourist Guides. Tel 07500 330 410
For more about Mayflower 400 and the programme of activities to celebrate the 400 year anniversary of the Mayflower sailing please see the Mayflower400 website
Tudor House and Garden
Dancing Man Brewery
Town Quay Road
We stayed at:
Ennio’s 5star Boutique Hotel
Town Quay Road
For more about the Mayflower and Mayflower 400 activities, do check out our roundup.
Or find out what happened next in the Mayflower story, when the Pilgrims ended up in Plymouth with a leaking Speedwell and the Mayflower herself.