Five places to explore the Mayflower story in Plymouth in 2020

Jul 15, 2019

The Mayflower Pilgrims weren't in Plymouth for long - in fact their stay in the maritime city was more of a stop on their pioneering journey to America in 1620.

But such was the historic nature of the crossing that their time in Plymouth, the last UK stop in their voyage, means their legacy looms large and the effects long-lasting. Evidence of their stay can be found on the streets around the city and Mayflower is a familiar name heard by many.

They arrived in 1620 aboard the Speedwell and the Mayflower, having already stopped once in nearby Dartmouth to try to patch up the leaking Speedwell.

In Plymouth though, they realised it was useless to try to cross the Atlantic in both ships, such was the condition of the Speedwell. So in Plymouth they stocked up, made repairs and sheltered from the bad weather before transferring everyone to the Mayflower for an overcrowded journey to the New World in September 1620 - nearly 400 years ago.

Here are five places you can explore the Mayflower story in Plymouth:

The Box

The Box

The Box is a major new cultural and heritage attraction which is set to open in Plymouth in spring 2020 - and its opening exhibition will be a highlight of the Mayflower 400 commemorations.

The opening exhibition called ‘Legend and Legacy’ will be the national commemorative exhibition for Mayflower 400. Created in partnership with the Wampanoag Native American Advisory Committee, and with the help of over museums, libraries and archives across the UK, US and the Netherlands, it will present an epic journey of survival and imagination.

The curators of The Box have begun an international search for artefacts that tell the Mayflower’s story for the groundbreaking opening exhibition. More than 100 museums, libraries and archives have already donated a hoard of objects that tell forgotten stories linked to the Mayflower - everything from toys children played with on board to the astrolabes and cross staffs the skilled seafarers used. These precious relics will tell a story of survival and imagination that connects four nations over 400 years. It will run from spring 2020 until autumn 2021.

The Box will contain extraordinary gallery displays, high profile artists and art exhibitions, as well as exciting events and performances that take visitors on a journey from pre-history to the present and beyond will form part of its exciting launch.

Highlights include the permanent Mammoth Plymouth exhibition, complete with life size replica wooly mammoth, that explores the natural history of the region, including when mammoths roamed the Sound. The ambitious '100 Journeys that Shaped The World' will recount the voyages made by the Pilgrims, Drake, Cook, Raleigh and many more - complete with extraordinary exhibits that will bring their global stories to life.

Mayflower Steps

Mayflower Steps

The exact spot where the Pilgrims boarded the Mayflower in 1620 is a topic of much debate, but the Mayflower Steps on the Barbican is Plymouth’s most well-known connection.

It is a memorial that was built in 1934, one of many plaques and memorials installed at different times that you will find dotted around this part of the city. The actual steps they embarked from no longer exist, and the subject is of much debate. Many believe they would have cast off from where the current Admiral MacBride pub - a Victoria-era public house. A granite block bearing the ship’s name is situated here.

The Steps today consist of a commemorative stone portico with columns and a small platform over the water with a brushed steel rail, some nautical bronze artwork and historical information. They are flanked by both the British and American Flags and mark the last English departure of the 102 passengers who set sail on the Mayflower, their last contact with England and Europe. Today it is a popular tourist spot - particularly with American visitors. 

Nearby plaques chronicle other key events to occur near the site: the return in 1838 of four Tolpuddle Martyrs after exile in Australia; the departure in 1839 of the Tory, the pioneer ship that colonised New Zealand; and the arrival in 1919 of the American seaplane that made the first transatlantic flight, almost 300 years after the Pilgrims’ voyage.

Please note the Steps are currently undergoing refurbishment ahead of the 2020 commemorations.

Mayflower Museum

Just opposite West Pier, where the Mayflower Steps Memorial can be found, is the Mayflower Museum, which explores the story of the voyage of the Pilgrims and their journey aboard the Mayflower to the New World.

Your journey of discovery begins by stepping onto the balcony on the top floor to enjoy a fantastic panoramic view of todays' busy Barbican. Take some time to discover the exhibits, including the stories of the Mayflower Pilgrims and their significant role in American history.

There is also a gallery featuring a model of the Mayflower Ship built  on a 1:11 inch scale by apprentices at Devonport Royal Dockyard for the 350th year anniversary of the Mayflower Pilgrims sailing from Plymouth in 1970. The model features 360 fathoms of rigging, 332 handmade blocks and six handmade sails totalling 64 square feet in area.

New Street

New Street

New Street is one of the most historic and picturesque streets on Plymouth’s Barbican and still contains many houses the Pilgrims would have seen and potentially took shelter in. It was part of a brand new development built when Sir Walter Raleigh set out for the New World in 1585, and were still considered to be modern when the Mayflower passed through in 1620. 

New Street contains the Elizabethan House at number 32, which takes you back to the times of Sir Francis Drake and the Pilgrims and is being expertly restored for the Mayflower 400 anniversary. It would have originally been the home of an Elizabethan merchant or sea captain, but by the 1850s the then ancient houses of New Street had become slums where nearly 60 people inhabited a property. After the First World War, the local council proposed to clear the slums but the Elizabethan House was saved from demolition in the 1920s by MP Nancy Astor and survives in its near original state.

Visitors can see its panelled hallways, spiral stairs, low ceilings, creaking oak floors, kitchen, dining room, parlour and bedrooms. Its Elizabethan Garden to the rear of the house is also a popular tourist stop where one can enjoy a bit of peace away from the busy Barbican.  

Around the corner from the Elizabethan House stands Jacka Bakery,  Britain’s oldest commercial bakery. Established in the early 1600s, the bakery claims to have provided the Pilgrim’s with snacks and biscuits for their journey in 1620. Today it has been voted the best bakery in the UK on Tripadvisor.

Prysten House

Prysten House

Prysten House is the oldest surviving merchant house in Plymouth and was built next to St Andrew’s Church during the reign of Henry VII around 1498.

It was built by the famous Plymouth merchant Thomas Yogge, and is the furthest from the sea of the city’s surviving merchant houses. The Yogge family were major supporters of St Andrew’s Church, paying for the construction of its great tower in about 1490. The size of their three-storey house is a sign of the family’s great wealth, power and influence at that time. It was home to the Plymouth Tapestry and displayed a model of Plymouth in 1620  - the year the Pilgrims were in the city. Today it houses a number of American plaques and is a fine dining restaurant.

Looe Street

Looe Street

One of Plymouth’s oldest streets, Looe Street is a mixture of surviving Georgian townhouses and Elizabethan timber-framed houses that were saved by the slum clearance campaign. It was one of the city’s most fashionable streets where wealthy merchants lived from the 16th to 18th century - including Sir Francis Drake. 

But the street became a slum for the poor and forgotten when grand villas were built in the suburbs to the west of the old town and the rich people moved out.

Looe Street is also home to the Minerva Inn - thought to be Plymouth’s oldest pub dating back to the 1590s, a potential watering hole for the Pilgrims.

Continue exploring the ancient quays and cobbled streets of The Barbican to experience the walkways where the Pilgrims and Plymouth’s merchants would have passed, and today are a huge draw for both locals and visitors alike. The city’s old port is full of narrow streets with historic buildings, Elizabethan warehouses, specialist shops, art galleries, cafes and restaurants. 

The Mayflower may be the most famous, and a huge part of Plymouth’s history, but it was not the first ship to set sail from The Barbican for America and the Caribbean. Countless historic voyages have sailed the shipping route from Plymouth, which is the closest major port to North America and the other side of the Atlantic, including Sir Walter Raleigh to Roanoke Island off Virginia in 1585. Four years before the Mayflower sailed, Pocahontas arrived in Plymouth from the other direction in 1616 with her English husband John Rolfe. 

Situated across from The Barbican is Sutton Harbour, one of the busiest fishing ports in the UK, and home to modern yachts and leisure craft. But in the past it was a tidal basin filled with timber vessels, masts, rigging and drying sails of Elizabethan and Georgian sailing ships, and the focus of considerable maritime trading activity. Archaeological digs around the harbour have found broken bits of pots and plates, old clay pipes, shards of broken glass, bits of leather shoes, as well as seeds, nuts and spices all used by people who worked in and around the harbour over the centuries. Excavations in 1963 to 1969 uncovered a series of quays, waterside warehouses and merchants’ houses built over the foreshore between the 13th and 15th Century.

Sign up for the latest Mayflower 400 news

You'll be the first to hear the latest Mayflower news, events, and more.

RT @400Tours: Check out the fun video we made this morning with @plimoth, @LeidenMarketing at #trex2019 @NTAnews., @GSMD @DavidAFurlow @ma

Follow @mayflower400uk