On the trail of the Pilgrims and the Mayflower in the UK

The slightest breeze rustled through the open doors of All Saints Church, a 600-year-old structure in Babworth, England.

I shuddered. It wasn’t very cold and I don’t believe in ghosts, but I could certainly feel the spirit of history in this well-worn house of worship. After all, I am an American.

“This is really where America began,” argued Peter Swinscoe, the warden and tour guide. “This is where William Bradford and William Brewster met, where he began his journey.”

This month, as we celebrate Thanksgiving, our thoughts may turn to the stories of Plymouth Rock, the Mayflower, and the Native Americans who helped the Pilgrims survive their first winter. But he had never given much thought to the Pilgrims before they came to the New World. So, always sprinkling a dose of history on our travels, my husband and I set sail (metaphorically) for the Old World to better understand how the Thanksgiving holiday came to be.

If you remember your world history, King Henry VIII left the Roman Catholic Church and formed the Church of England so that he could divorce Catherine of Aragon and marry Anne Boleyn. That was in 1534 and it shook England to the core. British citizens were now required to worship in the Church of England.

In the late 16th century, the minister of All Saints began to preach about the separation of church and state, a radical concept at the time. Brewster and Bradford were drawn to the idea, as were many others who would eventually board the Mayflower.

Today, visitors can attend services at All Saints Church on the first, second, and third Sunday of every month. In nearby Scrooby, Nottinghamshire, you can attend a service, tour the church where Brewster was christened, or visit Gainsborough Old Hall in Lincolnshire, where worship services have been held in secret for years.

Southampton to Plymouth

The Separatists, whom we now call Pilgrims, wanted to worship as they pleased without government interference. After escaping to the Netherlands for 12 years, they decided that the United States was the answer to their prayers.

Originally, there were two ships bound for America: the Speedwell and the Mayflower. They stocked up on provisions and sailed from Southampton. So my husband and I took a train from Scrooby 200 miles south to Southampton, a much easier journey than it would have been 400 years ago. The SeaCity Museum there, with its rich maritime history, is a must-see.

The Pilgrims planned to leave in August 1620, before storms developed in the North Atlantic, but the Speedwell developed leaks and both ships stopped for repairs at Dartmouth. This city, where Agatha Christie’s house is one of the main attractions, is also a charming summer community with a significant World War II history.

Again the Pilgrims set sail, only to return to England once more, this time to the port of Plymouth. With the delay and with the Speedwell creating risks, many passengers changed their minds. The remaining 102 boarded the Mayflower and left England for the last time on September 16, 1620. Only 48 would survive to celebrate their first Thanksgiving in America.

Every nook and cranny in Plymouth, England celebrates its connection to the Pilgrims, whom the British call the Pilgrim Fathers. I was silently upset by that, acknowledging the more than 50 women and children on the Mayflower who also suffered and died.

The Box Museum in Plymouth displays the history of the Pilgrim, as well as other famous voyages that left the port. The Box commissioned artwork from the Wampanoag Nation that taught pilgrims about agriculture and other food-gathering techniques in America.

We stopped for brownies and a cup of coffee at Jacka Bakery where locals were enjoying a “cup” and conversation. It’s a small place, so it’s easy to notice a small plaque on the wall quietly boasting that this is the oldest continuously operating bakery in Britain. Since the early 1600s, much of that time in the same family, this bakery has been making cookies, biscuits, and other treats.

When the little Mayflower finally left Plymouth for the New World, there was a barrel of Jacka Bakery cookies in its cargo hold. The owner told me that they still have the recipe and that he made a batch in anticipation of the 2020 quadcentenary.

“They tasted like sawdust bricks,” he said. That was the end of his plans to permanently add them to the menu.

Our next stop was the Plymouth Gin Distillery. When the Pilgrims were here waiting for repairs, it was a convent. Several of the men in the group slept here. The women stayed on the ship.

In the 1790s, the convent was converted into a distillery. It was here that the first martini was mixed. Many believe that a true martini can only be made with Plymouth Gin. Look closely at the label: it contains an image of the Mayflower.

london drink

Your trip to England will most likely include flights to and from London. Take some time to visit the Mayflower Pub. Built in 1550, it is considered the oldest pub on the River Thames.

Before the Mayflower carried pilgrims, the little boat carried goods up and down the Thames. Captain Christopher Jones lived just a block from the pub. When he was home, he moored the Mayflower right outside this pub, then hailed the Spread Eagle. Captain Jones died a year after returning to England and is buried near St Mary’s Church in Rotherhithe, London.

Enjoy a pint on the terrace overlooking the Thames and ask to see the guest register. It lists the names and locations of Mayflower descendants, now scattered around the world, who have visited this historic pub.

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