When the Pilgrims set off on their epic trans-Atlantic voyage 400 years ago, it was only by chance that the port of Plymouth, England, was their final point of departure from the Old World. Originally, they’d set off from Southampton with two ships, but 300 miles out to sea, the Speedwell, their second ship, began leaking so badly they were forced to turn back, hoping ship builders in Plymouth could make the vessel once again seaworthy. But when they learned the Speedwell couldn’t be saved, as many of the Pilgrims as possible crowded aboard the Mayflower and set off again.
This year the Mayflower 400 celebration taking place in both the Old World and the New will see many visitors paying call at the various places throughout the United Kingdom associated with the Pilgrims, including the tiny villages in Lincolnshire and Nottinghamshire many of them came from. Plymouth, right on the border of Devon and Cornwall, two of England’s most beautiful counties, will likely be a major attraction. Here are the musts of what to see and do both in and near Plymouth.
Amble Through the Barbican
Plymouth was nearly leveled by German bombers during World War II, but by great good fortune, little damage occurred to the Barbican, the warren of ancient streets near the harbor with more cobbled streets than any other city in England. The area still contains many buildings the Pilgrims would have known. Two of them, the Island House and the Elizabethan House, are likely places where they lodged while awaiting to learn the fate of the Speedwell. A new museum offers interactive exhibits inside the Elizabethan House, and don’t miss the lovely hidden garden behind it. On the water’s edge, the monumental Mayflower Steps also have been recently restored. Since this area was out in the harbor in 1620, it’s not possible the Pilgrims would have descended these stairs to board the ship. A popular local legend maintains, however, that the actual steps they used were covered over a century and a half later by a structure now housing the Admiral MacBride, a charming English pub, with the original stairway supposedly buried underneath.
Take a Harbor Cruise
Plymouth’s harbor, which separates the English counties of Devon and Cornwall, is one of the finest in the world. It’s also the point where Sir Francis Drake, Captain Cook, and Charles Darwin all began their historic voyages and where many of the Titanic’s survivors returned. Today, hourlong cruises are available from Plymouth Boat Tours that explore the city’s highlights visible from the water, as well as passing by mighty warships and nuclear submarines moored at the Royal Navy Dockyard. Themed cruises offered by the company include Pirate Adventures, as well as jazz and sunset tours. Harbor ferries transport visitors to the Cornwall side of the harbor to Mount Edgecombe Country Park, where an elegant estate house and formal gardens can be seen, or to the twin Cornish villages of Cawsand and Kingsand, quaint towns with a history of smuggling in their past. Deep sea fishing expeditions depart from the harbor, and opportunities for paddle boarding, sailing, kayaking, and scuba diving are also available.
Sample Gin with a Mayflower Connection
The oldest working gin distillery in England, Plymouth Gin established the spirit as a nobleman’s drink and for centuries was the supplier for officers in the Royal Navy. Made with pure soft water from nearby Dartmoor National Park and with a proprietary blend of botanicals, the company’s gin products are all made in a Victorian-era still that can be viewed during the popular 40-minute tours. And Plymouth Gin has its own unique connection to the Mayflower also. Originally constructed as a monastery dating to the 1430s, the structure currently has a swanky upstairs cocktail lounge, a long room with magnificent soaring ceilings that was once the refectory where the monks took their meals. It’s also the room where it’s commonly believed the Pilgrims had their final meal before setting off to the New World the next morning—a list of all 102 Mayflower passengers is emblazoned on the wall. Don’t leave before picking up a recipe for the “Mayflower Martini” in the gift shop.
Sample Local Eats
A diversity of culinary choices makes dining in Plymouth an adventure. Seafood is of course abundant with menu choices at the many restaurants lining the harbor including local fish like whiting, sprat, and plaice. The Barbican’s historic Jacka Bakery, established in 1597, now prepares artisanal bread, pastries, and cakes, but in 1620 they supplied the Pilgrims with the hardtack carried on the Mayflower—it can still be ordered online. Be sure to sample Cornish pasties, savory pies filled with meats and vegetables shaped into a semi-circle with crimped edges. Partaking in a Devon Cream Tea, an afternoon ritual of drinking tea and munching on scones covered with clotted cream and jam, shouldn’t be missed. The folks in Devon insist the jam be placed atop the cream, while in neighboring Cornwall it’s the other way around. Try both ways at the Tudor Rose Tea Room or at the Duke of Cornwall Hotel, where the elegant “Tea at the Top” also offers scenic views from the hotel’s highest floors.
Park Yourself in the Hoe
Think of the Hoe as Plymouth’s Central Park. Sitting adjacent to an imposing 17th-century fortress, the Royal Citadel, the Hoe’s wide expanses high above the harbor offer spectacular views. Legend has it that Sir Francis Drake looked out on the passing Spanish Armada from here as he enjoyed a game of lawn bowling. Even better views can be had from atop Smeaton’s Tower, a beloved red-and-white striped lighthouse. Elsewhere in the park are an impressive Naval War Memorial; the Tinside Lido, an Art Deco saltwater swimming pool; and “The Beatle Bums,” an art installation on the very spot where the Fab Four sat and had a famous photo taken of them when they visited Plymouth in 1963. For two days in August, the Hoe will host the British Fireworks Championships.
Get Close to Sharks
Just steps from the Barbican, the National Marine Aquarium offers “fin for everyone” inside the United Kingdom’s largest aquarium. With more than 4,000 aquatic animals in four separate zones, the main focus is on the waters near Plymouth Sound, the British coast, and the Atlantic Ocean, but a section called “Blue Planet” offers brightly colored fish from the Great Barrier Reef and elsewhere in the world. Only a plate of glass separates viewers from sharks, green turtles, barracudas and rays swimming in huge tanks that visitors walk both through and under. VIP Behind-the-Scenes tours are offered as well as daily talks and shows like “Meet the Sharks” and “Dive Show.”
Shop for Local Wares
Shoppers in Plymouth can choose from the Drake Circus Shopping Mall in the center city with more than 70 of the United Kingdom’s top brand names, or they can hop on a ferry from the Barbican to go to the Royal William Yard, a former naval provisions storage facility that’s been repurposed into a home for restaurants, art galleries, and shops like independent clothing boutiques. Open air events like live music are offered as well as rotating art exhibitions, and the Ocean Studios located at the Yard is a creative hub where you can be paired with local makers to fashion your own ceramics, jewelry, and mosaics. Many of the centuries-old buildings lining the streets of the Barbican now house unique shops, including The House that Jack Built, a quirky arcade with meandering passageways complete with water fountains and witches and gnomes rotating on poles. Shops range from purveyors of handmade chocolates to vintage fashions. There’s even a resident tarot card reader!
Think Inside “The Box”
A new cultural hot spot for Plymouth that opened in the spring of 2020 is called The Box, which brings together local archives, natural history exhibits (including a “Mammoth Gallery”), contemporary art, and temporary exhibits like “Mayflower 400: Legend and Legacy” that has been created in cooperation with hundreds of museums, libraries, and archives in the U.S., U.K, and elsewhere, as well as the Wampanoag tribe of Native Americans in Massachusetts. Objects and images in the exhibition will take a look at early English colonization efforts in North America while at the same time detailing the lives of the Mayflower’s passengers, showing the political and religious contexts for their journey. The 18-month exhibition will extend until September of 2021. Another traveling exhibit, “Wampum: Stories from the Shells of Native America,” will be highlighted with a new wampum belt pieced together by the Wampanoags that will travel throughout England and be on display in Plymouth from September 5 to October 24.
Take a Hike
For those who enjoy long walks, the entire region of Devon and Cornwall offers a multitude of options. The 630-mile Southwest Coastal Path along the shores of both counties offers stupendous views in many places, and although the nine miles of it passing through Plymouth are largely urban, a good sampling of it can be had by taking the ferry across the harbor to Mount Edgecumbe, exploring its gardens, then setting off on the coastal path to the twin Cornish towns of Cawsand and Kingsand with their charming pubs, restaurants, and shops. Just east of Plymouth, a total of 40 walks through defined “Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty” are suggested by the organization South Devon Explorer. Spot peregrine falcons on the Plym Valley Trail, described as a green corridor connecting Plymouth to Dartmoor National Park. And organized walking tours inside Plymouth itself include one offered by Devon and Cornwall Tour Guides that gives a good overview of the Pilgrims’ story including colorful tales like the one concerning young Pilgrim John Howland, who was swept overboard but saved. In the New World, he fathered 10 children to become the ancestor of millions of Americans, including both President Bushes.
Dart Over to Dartmouth
Further east along Devon’s coast lies another enticing destination with a Pilgrim connection. The charming town of Dartmouth was actually the first town where the Pilgrims’ two ships stopped after the Speedwell started taking on water. Several days were spent there making repairs, to no avail since the Pilgrims were forced to turn back once again, this time to Plymouth, where the Speedwell was finally declared unfit for travel. Take a walk through the narrow, picturesque streets of Dartmouth with Les Ellis, the “Town Crier,” dressed in red, blue, and gold with a tunic, waistcoat, breeches, and a tricorn hat with an ostrich feather in it.
An absolute must-see in the area is Greenway, Agatha Christie’s holiday home, easily accessible by an old-time steam train from Dartmouth. Family furniture and artifacts fill the house, including the piano Agatha played (but only when no one was listening) and relics from digs found on trips to the Middle East she made with her archaeologist husband. The extensive and heavily wooded gardens outside contain 2,700 species of trees and plants, and a steep path down to the river transports visitors to the boathouse, scene of the crime in Christie’s "Dead Man’s Folly." Afterwards, take the ferry on the River Dart back to Dartmouth, passing the huge Mayflower Tree, where a local legend maintains the Pilgrims worshipped during their time in Dartmouth.
Enjoy the Wide Open Spaces at Dartmoor
Imagine an area the size of London but with more sheep than people. That describes Dartmoor National Park with its stunning vistas of hilly woodlands and heather-covered moors, punctuated by 160 rocky granite outcrops called tors that are perfect for rock climbers of all abilities. England’s highest waterfall is here, as well as the largest concentration of Bronze Age ruins in the country, including stone rows, circles, and round houses. Dartmoor is both beautiful and eerie at one and the same—it’s the place where Sherlock Holmes went in quest of the supernatural “Hound of the Baskervilles.” Recreational possibilities abound, including hiking and horseback riding where you can watch wild ponies and their foals from your own tamer steed. Tours to Dartmoor by Select Southwest Tours and Unique Devon tours are regularly scheduled or can be arranged privately, and the adventurous can rent bicycles or even get a bird’s eye view of the whole 400-square-mile park from a hot air balloon!