Into the Unknown: The Mayflower story on England’s southwest coast (Part two)

Dartmouth at the Dart estuary. Credit: Robert Birkby/AWL Images Ltd

In the first part of our Mayflower series we walked in the footsteps of the early Puritans. Here we pick up the trail on England’s southwest coast

In 1620 two ships set sail for the New World. Had providence seen fit for them both to land we might now be celebrating 400 years of a double voyage. As it is, the smaller Speedwell sprang a leak while the Mayflower sailed into history alone, but only after a couple of unscheduled stops… 

The ships set sail from Southampton, a thriving sea port. After a brutal pirate raid in 1338, the town had been rebuilt, walled and fortified. It was an ideal place to start the voyage, thanks to established transatlantic trading links, an experienced pool of local sailors, and the availability of goods required both for the voyage
and for the community that was to be set up thereafter.

The Speedwell, which had ferried the group from the Netherlands to Southampton, was already leaking. The ships lay at anchor for almost two weeks while it was repaired, some of the Pilgrims having to sell their belongings and precious supplies bought for the
voyage to pay port fees.

READ MORE: Pilgrims’ progress: Dissent deep in the heart of the England (Part one)

We don’t know exactly how much of Southampton the Pilgrims would have known. “They would have bought supplies in the town,” says tour guide Jack Wilson, “and there was at least one local man on board. John Alden was hired as a cooper, an important job when all supplies were in barrels.” A network of around 50 vaulted, medieval cellars have been discovered, 12 of which may be explored by the public if accompanied by a key-holder such as Jack.  

Southampton repays guided tours. Small and grid-like, the old town is easy to navigate but surprisingly hard to interpret. Jack also holds keys to Southampton’s famous Bar Gate, otherwise closed to the public. The views from the building’s roof are filled with history, ancient and modern.

Boats moored in the centre of Dartmouth Credit: Tommy (Louth)/Alamy

Tudor House was one of the finest merchant’s houses in Southampton. Now a museum, recent renovations have revealed some fascinating secrets, including a wall of medieval graffiti. Henry V set sail for his famous battle at Agincourt from here and the courthouse where he tried traitors survives. Now the Red Lion pub, the great hall still carries its ancient beams, original fireplace and air of mystery. Elsewhere, the Dolphin coaching inn may have hosted Pilgrims. 

Some places can be more definitely associated with the Mayflower. The church of St Michael, founded in 1070, would have been known by the Pilgrims, and they had to pass through the West Gate to get to their ship. Land has been reclaimed around West Quay; the Grand Harbour Hotel, built in the 1980s, sits pretty much where the great ship once lay at anchor. 

The Pilgrims would also been familiar with God’s House Tower. Built in 1340, the fortress was originally built for defence but by the 1600s its sturdy walls had a different role, as the town gaol. Until recently derelict, it is just about to enjoy its next transformation, to
a museum and arts space, in time for the Mayflower 400 commemorations.

The two ships departed Southampton on 5 August 1620. Not everyone on board was there by choice, and it’s rumoured some of the crew may have ‘made sure’
the Speedwell leaked after it left Southampton. Whether or not this is true, on 23 August both ships sought temporary refuge in Dartmouth, a small port in Devon. 

We don’t know if anyone actually set foot in this lovely old town during the ten days’ emergency repair work, for fear of disgruntled crew members absconding. It’s possible some passengers briefly landed, but most would have had to settle for long-distance views of Dartmouth’s cobbled streets and the Tudor Bayard’s Cove Fort. 

Town Crier Les Ellis and his wife Liz conduct guided tours of Dartmouth in full ceremonial regalia, cleverly avoiding the town’s 10,000 steps to enjoy sights the Pilgrims may – or may not – have seen. A lovely old Tudor house, whose overhanging first floor once formed a covered butter market, now houses Dartmouth Museum. Plans are afoot to expand its floor space to include even more information about the town’s history, including the Mayflower.

To find out how part two ends, read the full feature in Vol 88 Issue 2 of BRITAIN magazine, on sale here. if you haven’t read the start of the story, you can enjoy it in full here.