Many ships carrying settlers and explorers have left Plymouth’s Sutton Harbour over the years, but The Pilgrim Fathers’ journey on the Mayflower in 1620 resonates with the city more than any other.
There’s a Mayflower St, Mayflower College and a Mayflower Centre. Plymouth Argyle, the local football club, has a Mayflower Stand and call themselves The Pilgrims, with Pilgrim Pete as their mascot. So what makes the Pilgrim Fathers and The Mayflower so special to Plymouth?
The story begins when a band of English nonconformists, who rejected the laws of the Church of England, decided to seek religious freedom elsewhere. The first part of their journey took them to Leiden in The Netherlands, but finding it difficult to settle there, they left Delfthavn (Rotterdam) on a boat called ‘The Speedwell’ for America. The Speedwell joined up with more English passengers in Southampton who were on board ‘The Mayflower’.
The Speedwell sprang a leak and both ships put in at Dartmouth to ensure they were ship-shape before attempting to cross the Atlantic. They didn’t get far before The Speedwell sprang another leak, and both ships turned back to Plymouth. It was just The Mayflower therefore that sailed out across the ocean looking for a new life.
Their intentions were to aim for North Virginia but were blown off course and eventually landed at Cape Cod (Massachusetts). They named their new settlement Plymouth, and although only half of them had survived by the time the first winter was over, the rest remained, and today Plymouth is regarded as the oldest permanent European settlement in the United States.
The survivors held a thanksgiving feast the following year which is commemorated by Americans every 4th Thursday in November.
There were 102 passengers that left Plymouth and their names can be seen on a board outside Island House on The Barbican where some of them stayed. The departure point was from West Pier at what is now known as the Mayflower Steps.
Just across the road is the Tourist Information Centre which incorporates a small Mayflower Museum. There’s a small admission charge, but don’t expect too much.
For me the best bit is the view of Sutton Harbour from the top floor.
It’s probably nigh on impossible not to come across the word ‘Mayflower’ somewhere along your travels in Plymouth, but the city is proud of its Mayflower connections and Americans are always warmly welcomed when coming to see where the Pilgrim Fathers finally left for a new life in the New World.
Preparations are now under way to celebrate the 400th anniversary of the departure in 2020.