Like most Americans, I have heard the story of the Pilgrims and their Mayflower journey since my kindergarten days. But as I landed in England for the Mayflower 400 tour, I realized that I really didn’t know many details about the Pilgrims, truth be told.
Luckily, this trip—sponsored by Emma Tatlow of U.S. Connections and organized by Keith Somers of Select Travel Services—was about to increase my Pilgrim knowledge exponentially, leaving me in awe of the courage and determination of this small group of people so dedicated to their religious beliefs that, two different times, they were willing to leave all they knew behind for a life in an unknown land. They first moved to Holland in 1607, and then, of course, to the New World in 1620.
Although most of the 13 cities we visited on this PDT were directly related to the Pilgrim story in some way, others had a connection to America in other ways.
Here we visited the unassuming country church where Richard Clyfton, named church rector in 1586, shared his radical ideas from the pulpit and drew worshippers from neighboring villages who walked for miles to hear him. Standing on the very path where the villagers once walked, we were able to imagine their determination to hear Clyfton’s controversial sermons.
Because Clyfton deviated from the Church of England’s teachings, he was removed as pastor in 1605. He and other like-minded church members chose to “separate” from the church, thus becoming the Separatists and sparking the Pilgrim movement.
The Separatists began gathering and worshiping in 1606 at Scrooby Manor, where Pilgrim Father William Brewster lived and had grown up. All that remains today of this once-glorious 500-acre property is the brick home built in 1493, but Scrooby Manor is significant to Pilgrim history because it was here that they planned their escape to Holland in search of religious freedom.
In 1607 the Separatists walked 60 miles to the port of Boston, where they had arranged to sail to Holland. Instead, they were betrayed, arrested and held at the Guildhall for a month. We toured the well-preserved rooms of the Boston Guildhall, built in the 1390s, including the tiny cells where the Pilgrims were held and the courtroom where they were tried. The expansive kitchen in the basement served as a makeshift government-operated restaurant during World War II, providing reasonably priced meals to Boston residents to supplement war-time meal rations.
After 12 years in Holland and ready for a fresh start in the New World, the Pilgrims spent two weeks in Southampton gathering provisions prior to their departure.
We visited two historical buildings here: Tudor House, a restored 900-year-old home and the city’s most important historical building, and nearby St. Michael’s Church, built in 1070 and still in use today.
Despite the prominence of these two very old sites, Southampton had a more modern feel overall. That’s because 80 percent of the port city’s buildings were destroyed by German bombing raids during World War II. Luckily, civilian casualties were minimized thanks to the many wine cellars in the city that served as makeshift bomb shelters (and can be toured today).
Interestingly, the Germans used the church steeple (topped by a rooster, oddly) as a guide for their bombing raids, explaining why the church and nearby Tudor House were spared.
The Mayflower set sail from Plymouth in 1620 with 102 Pilgrims on board, and the Mayflower Steps, a columned archway right by the water, memorializes this departure point. We all wanted a photo of where this famous voyage began.
During our tour of Plymouth, we visited many places from the Pilgrim days: St. Andrew’s Church, a Puritan church that welcomed the Separatists for worship; New Street, the oldest street in Plymouth; and the historical Barbican area. The city also offers modern tourist options, such as boat tours, museums and an aquarium.
Other cities of interest
Beyond the destinations directly related to the Pilgrim story, we visited additional cities with other American connections and important religious ties to Protestant faiths.
Our first stop in this city was Gloucester Cathedral, a stunning building dating to 1089. We were greeted in front of the cathedral by the town crier in period costume, Alan Myatt. After his official proclamation of welcome, we entered the enormous Gothic structure only to be surprised by an overwhelmingly beautiful rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner” being blasted on the church organ. The organist literally “pulled out all the stops” while playing that 600-year-old organ, making it the most unique and stirring version of our national anthem that I have ever heard.
We learned that the author of the tune of ”The Star-Spangled Banner,” John Stafford Smith, was from Gloucester and was the son of the cathedral’s organist. No doubt this now-famous tune was played on this same organ long before it became the U.S. national anthem.
Shortly thereafter we were ushered into the pews as a church service began. The pastor, or vicar, specifically welcomed the American visitors to the service. Her message was short yet powerful. “I invite you to become pilgrims,” she urged, “like those in the past.” She then led the congregation in the Lord’s Prayer. The whole experience was one to cherish.
The cathedral had gorgeous stained-glass windows and architectural elements from several different periods. Most interesting is the fact that Gloucester Cathedral offers the oldest example of perpendicular architecture in England, with the rectangular designs reaching all the way to the ceiling.
The city of Worcester (pronounced “Wooster”) is the birthplace of one of the Pilgrim Fathers, Edward Winslow. Baptized in nearby Droitwich at St. Peter’s Church (where we also visited), Winslow attended school at Worcester Cathedral from 1606–11 and spent his school years in this beautiful place.
We visited the schoolroom at the cathedral where Winslow studied and found it remarkable to consider what lay ahead for him after his days here. The damage to some of the stonework in the classroom and other areas of the cathedral occurred during the Reformation years, when monasteries were destroyed by order of the king.
The cathedral offers an array of stunning architecture and stained-glass windows, and it encompasses many architectural styles because of being built and restored over many centuries beginning in 680. However, I was most impressed with our visit to the cathedral’s library, where we viewed an array of fascinating ancient and rare documents and books. Built in 1377, the library houses religious relics such as Puritan Bibles, an Anglo-Saxon Bible from the 10th century and a family prayer book from the 15th century. Monks were tasked with transcribing these texts and decorating them as well.
We viewed non-religious texts that included a lawyer’s handbook from the 14th century (including the owner’s doodles in the margins), a book from 600 A.D. written in Latin before the Moors arrived in Spain, and one of only three law school textbooks from the 1100s still in existence. Most fascinating of all were the papyrus fragments from the first, second and third centuries featuring texts written in Greek. We were able to view these remarkable treasures up close, with the librarian turning the pages for us. Groups can make advanced requests to view certain texts and can see them in an accessible room (the library is on the second floor with no elevator) if planned ahead.
Our Lincoln-born tour guide declared this city to be the most charming in England, and I believe he is correct. In addition to seeing the picturesque British village that is in itself a treat to experience, groups can visit the 12th-century Gothic Lincoln Cathedral and the nearby Lincoln Castle, which was built by William the Conqueror in 1068.
In a windowless vault in the castle, we viewed an original copy of the Magna Carta from 1215, one of only four that exists today. The way the document is displayed—spotlighted in a glass display case in the center of its own darkened room—somehow underscores the significance of this document and its far-reaching influences, even inspiring the U.S. Bill of Rights.
We then climbed the stairs to reach the castle walls, where we had a spectacular view of the cathedral and the rest of the city. Visitors can walk the full perimeter of these walls, although we chose to stay put and take photos instead.
Additional details on England destinations related to the Pilgrim's journey
Tudor House: Visit Southampton’s restored 900-year-old home and gardens in Old Town to gain insight into life in the 15th century. The home includes interactive and family-friendly activities to educate and entertain all ages.
Grand Café: Located close to the Southampton docks, the Grand Café offers a modern menu of locally sourced foods served in the former South Western Hotel. Because it was the finest hotel in the city in the early 1900s, the first-class passengers of the Titanic stayed here before leaving on the ship’s maiden voyage.
Mayflower Museum: Located across the street from the famous Mayflower Steps, this museum provides all the information you need about the Mayflower, including a full list of everyone who boarded the ship and a built-to-scale model of the ship.
Plymouth Boat Trips: Take a one-hour harbor cruise narrated by the boat captain, and enjoy great views of Plymouth’s coastline, Drake’s Island, and the Devon and Cornish coasts. Private tours can also be arranged for groups, including themed evening dance cruises or other options.
National Marine Aquarium: The largest aquarium in the U.K. is located in the Barbican area of Plymouth and focuses on education, conservation and research. Special options for groups include sleepovers in the aquarium, tours that include lunch or creamed tea, special talks as requested and boat trips with a nature focus.
Plymouth Gin Distillery: The oldest working gin distillery in England offers daily tours that explain the gin-making process followed by gin tasting.
Le Vignoble: Learn about the burgeoning British wine industry at this wine shop and lounge. The charming French owner will host a wine-tasting for groups and introduce you to England’s best wine offerings.
Gloucester Methodist Church: On a site that has held a Christian church for the past 1,000 years, this church was home to several Gloucester natives who influenced religious history or had connections to the United States, such as Robert Reikes, the founder of the Sunday School movement; George Whitfield, one of the founders of Methodism; and U.S. Founding Father Button Gwinnett.
The Commandery: This historical structure, built in 1480, served as the Royalist headquarters during the Battle of Worcester, the final one of the English Civil War.
Gadfield Elm Chapel: The oldest Mormon chapel in the world is located near the village of Pendock in Worcestershire.
Sherwood Forest: This woodland was originally established as the royal hunting grounds in the 10th century and became famous in 14th-century ballads written about the legendary Robin Hood. Today the property includes hiking trails and a brand new visitors’ center with a gift shop, a restaurant and an education center. Tour groups can arrange to have educational hikes led by Robin Hood himself!
Knebworth House in Hertfordshire: Robert Lytton began construction of this stunning Gothic mansion in 1490, and it was completed in 1563. The current owner, Henry Lytton, is the 19th generation descendant of Robert and still lives in the home with his American wife and family. The home is open for tours and special events.
To read the story that discusses the Plymouth 400 portion of the Faith Travel Association Product Development trip in Massachusetts, click here.
Top photo: Plymouth
Photo by CC Flickr/Nigel Brown: bit.ly/2THZ2bm