A pilgrimage into the past

Samantha Mayling explores the Pilgrim Roots region of the East Midlands, to follow in the footsteps of the Mayflower Pilgrims.

It’s a story of betrayal, secrecy, thwarted escapes and fleeing to freedom.

It sounds like the plot for a Hollywood movie – but it’s the story of the Mayflower Pilgrims who fled England in 1620 to start a new life in America.

With the 400thanniversary of their historic voyage coming up in 2020, destinations across England are working together to commemorate the journey – and prepare for an influx of American tourists.

It’s well known that the Pilgrims set sail from Plymouth in England and landed in Plymouth, Massachusetts, but the beginning of their story can be traced back to the East Midlands.

The Pilgrims were known as Separatists, as they wanted to separate from the official church in England, and they worshipped secretly in villages across Nottinghamshire, South Yorkshire and Lincolnshire.

Their first attempt to escape to religious freedom was in 1607 but they were betrayed and arrested.

Cramped cells

I visited the Guildhall Museum in Boston, Lincolnshire, to see the court where they were tried, and the cramped cells below, where they were held for a month.

A plaque tells visitors how their leaders – William Bradford and William Brewster – were imprisoned with others in small cells “after attempting to escape to religious freedom”.

Other displays tell how they tried to flee but were thwarted, then later managed to reach Holland, and eventually sailed to America aboard the Mayflower in 1620.

I then travelled back in time – and over to the neighbouring county of Nottinghamshire – to see the churches where the congregations worshipped.

My guide for the tour was Richard Brackenbury, founder of Brackenbury’s Britain, who told me the history of the Separatists and the stories associated with each church.

Radical words

We visited St Wilfrid’s in Scrooby (pictured), where a sign tells us that William Brewster – one of the most famous Pilgrims – worshipped.

Richard explained how the Pilgrims were like extreme Brexiteers – the Puritans wanted to purify the church from within, but the Separatists wanted a complete break from the established church.

Brewster was inspired by the radical words of Richard Clyfton, the rector of nearby All Saints’ Church, Babworth – the next stop on our tour.

We met an American couple in the church who were on holiday in England, and following the trail of the Pilgrims.

The church has several items of Pilgrim-related memorabilia, including a scale model of the Mayflower and a painting of the Separatists.

A glance at the visitors’ book shows the church is visited by many Americans, and it’s expected that many more will come to see these sites thanks to the Mayflower 400 project.

Worshipped in secret

Our next stop was Gainsborough Old Hall, where the Separatists are thought to have worshipped.

It’s a fascinating medieval manor house, with many Tudor connections and displays for visitors who can find out about the reputed visits of Richard III and Henry VIII.

Historians believe the Hickman family, who owned the Old Hall, allowed the Separatists to worship in secret, and visitors can see exhibits about the Pilgrims.

Dr Anna Scott, a heritage professional working for Bassetlaw and West Lindsey District Councils on the Mayflower project, told me there are plans to increase the number of exhibits about the Pilgrims – and why the interpretation will be updated to refer to the Pilgrims, or Mayflower Pilgrims, instead of the traditional ‘Pilgrim Fathers’ term.

Many of the Pilgrims were women and children, so the ‘Fathers’ term is not accurate.

Mayflower memorabilia

Next on the tour is the village of Austerfield, the original home of William Bradford, who became the second elected governor of the Plymouth Colony in Massachusetts in 1621.

He was baptised St Helena’s church where the original font can be seen, and the north aisle was built in 1897 in his memory.

Like the churches in Scrooby and Babworth, it has Mayflower exhibits and memorabilia – as well as quirky architectural features such as a tympanum (arch above the doorway) with a carved dragon, and a sheela-na-gig – a strange Norman carving of a female figure.

Again, the visitors’ book shows the church is popular with Americans, including descendents of the Pilgrims.

Our final two stops of the day were the Harley Gallery on the Welbeck Estate, to see the paintings of the Portland Collection, described as “one of the finest aristocratic collections in England”, and a drive through the National Trust’s Clumber Park.

Nottinghamshire museums

There was still time on the following day to explore more history in the area – although this time it was the English Civil War and the Holocaust.

Near the Nottinghamshire village of Laxton – famous for its medieval field system – there is the National Holocaust Centre and Museum.

It was founded in 1995 by brothers Stephen and James Smith, and their mother Marina, following a visit to the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial in Israel.

The centre is visited by more than 20,000 schoolchildren each year, as well as other visitors, to see its memorial garden and two exhibitions – one about the Holocaust, and the other about the lives of young Jewish children living in Germany during the 1930s and 1940s.

With antisemitism still hitting the headlines in the UK today, it’s vital that museums such as this are able to thrive and tell the story of the Holocaust.

Another major Nottinghamshire museum is in Newark, telling the history of the British Civil Wars, as well as the town itself.

From an Iron Age gold torc, to the Suffragettes, there’s plenty of heritage on display at the National Civil War Centre – but the focus is on the conflicts of the seventeenth century.

It tells the story of the civil wars, as well as life for the ordinary folk caught up in the battles, with exhibits of weapons, medical techniques, costumes – and films dramatising the lives of Newark characters.

Sadly, I only had 48 hours in the ‘Roots’ region to soak up all the history – but thanks to the enthusiasm of guides such as Richard, and others I met at the churches and museums along the way, I feel fully immersed in the Pilgrims’ story and eager to explore more.


Where to stay

I stayed at Ye Olde Bell Inn, a coaching inn, at Barnby Moor, near Retford, on the Great North Road.

The four-star hotel made an ideal base from which to visit the many sites and churches associated with the Pilgrims’ story.

It also has a new spa with eight hot and cold thermal experiences, a vitality pool and a brasserie.

You can only imagine what the Mayflower Pilgrims would have thought of the luxury and indulgence on offer.


Making the Connections

2020 is the 400th anniversary of the sailing of the Mayflower ship from England to the New World.

There are 35 million descendants of the 112 passengers and crew who sailed on this voyage.

This anniversary provides a significant opportunity to generate visits to the UK from Mayflower descendants who want to ‘follow in the footsteps of their Pilgrim Ancestors’ – and the 12% of the general US population who see the anniversary as a reason to visit England and are seeking holidays that offer Mayflower content as part of a wider trip.

A group of 11 destinations across England has been working together as part of the international Mayflower Compact that spans four nations of England, the US, the Native American people and the Netherlands.

Five of the 11 destinations are based in the East Midlands region and are working together as the ‘Pilgrim Roots’ locations, which play a significant role in the early part of the story.