On the Pilgrim Trail Across England, 400 Years After the Mayflower, Part 4

(PHOTO: DENNIS LENNOX)The old harbor of Plymouth, where the Pilgrims departed on the Mayflower for the New World in 1620.

I went on a week-long road trip across England to discover the places the Pilgrims would have known ahead of the 400th anniversary of the Mayflower's sailing to the New World in 2020.

My last stop, quite fittingly, was Plymouth.

Without a doubt, this town in southwest England is the place, fairly or not, most Americans associate with the story of the Pilgrims.

However, anyone with a basic understanding of history knows Plymouth's connection to the Pilgrims and the Mayflower came about by accident. Call it a fluke of history.

To be clear: Plymouth's part in the Pilgrim story wasn't unimportant. Far from it, actually. While it's impossible to speculate on just how differently the story would be had it not been for that fluke of history, it's a given that Plymouth wouldn't have been the namesake of Plymouth Colony in present-day Massachusetts.

Neither the Pilgrims nor the Mayflower were from Plymouth. But they sailed from here after failing on their first attempt to cross the Atlantic in the late summer of 1620.

The Pilgrims, split between the Mayflower and a second ship, were 300 miles off the English coast when leaks on the all-but-forgotten Speedwell were so bad they had to return to port to avoid a disaster on the high seas.

After calling upon nearby Dartmouth, where some repairs on the Speedwell were carried out before their first departure, they arrived in Plymouth, which by then was long-established as a major port and fortification. (It was from Plymouth that Sir Francis Drake sailed.)

Once here it was determined the Speedwell wasn't fit to continue. The Pilgrims stayed in port — they had already been traveling for six weeks — restocking supplies and reconfiguring the Mayflower to handle the additional cargo, passengers and crew.

While some of the original passengers stayed behind, the remaining Pilgrims — numbering 102 — crammed aboard the Mayflower on September 16, 1620, for their faithful trip. As the saying goes, the rest is history.

Today, Plymouth (population 256,384, as of 2011) remains a big seaside town that feels a little more continental European than British, particularly with sunny weather of spring and summer. If not for Georgian and Victorian terrace homes, you might think this was the French or Italian coast.

It's also a relatively modern town by virtue of the post-Second World War urban planning schemes carried out in the aftermath of extensive German bombing. The city center with its late 1950s and early 1960s streetscape isn't dissimilar from many American suburban locales.

(PHOTO: DENNIS LENNOX)The streets of Plymouth, England.

The aptly named Mayflower Museum is located a stone's throw away from the spot in the old harbor (called the Mayflower Steps) where the Pilgrims are said to have climbed down to board the Mayflower.

Meanwhile, construction is underway on The Box, a £37 million (approximately $49 million) comprehensive museum set to open as the Mayflower 400 flagship in 2020.

Radiating from the quay of the harbor, called the Barbican, are one-lane streets, undoubtedly based on an ancient plan, that wind through blocks of historic buildings with the architecture ranging several centuries. Some of the oldest buildings are hidden behind newer facades or cement rendering. Others have been converted into pubs or restaurants, making the area a lively place to be at night.

Within walking distance is the Royal Citadel, a historically important fortification that dates to the late 17th century and remains active today as the base of a British Army commando regiment.

If you go

You could easily spend several days in Plymouth, as the town makes the perfect base for exploring the surrounding Devon countryside.

I stayed at the Crowne Plaza Hotel, which is within walking distance of everything to see and do. The hotel's Marco Pierre White Steakhouse, situated on the penthouse floor, has excellent food. Just be sure to reserve a table in the bar area, which has amazing views of the Plymouth Sound.

Spires and Crosses, a travel column exclusive to The Christian Post, is published every week. Follow @dennislennox on Twitter.

Dennis Lennox writes about travel, politics and religious affairs. He has been published in the Financial Times, Independent, The Detroit News, Toronto Sun and other publications. Follow @dennislennox on Twitter.