Stand atop the city walls of Southampton today, and you may imagine the Pilgrims of 1620 boarding the Mayflower for their historic voyage to America.
Medieval stone walls, built in the 1360s to protect the town from the French, enclosed Southampton for more than 300 years. About half of those walls survive, including defensive towers and six of the eight city gates. A sign at the Westgate says, “The Pilgrim Fathers embarked here from the West Quay on the Mayflower August 15, 1620.” No doubt, Pilgrim Mothers did so as well.
Nearly 400 years later, in the summer of 2018, I walked the stone walls and passed through Southampton’s Westgate toward the docks where the Pilgrims boarded two ships. They lost one ship to leaks before 102 of them finally re-sailed on the Mayflower out of the port of Plymouth, farther to the west. The brave passengers left their homes to cross the Atlantic Ocean because their Protestant religious views were not acceptable to the Church of England and government leaders.
Exploring the ruins and contemplating the circumstances of 1620 are a bonus for North American travelers, most of whom arrive in Southampton to begin a cruise to New York, the Norwegian Fjords, the Baltic Sea, the Canary Islands, or the Mediterranean Sea.
For an easy walking tour near the docks, use Southampton’s descriptive tour pamphlet — free if you download “Southampton old town walk” — to guide you. Start at the Bargate, built about 1180 at the northern entrance to the old town. Stop at the guard towers; Blue Anchor lane, which led into the town market in St. Michael’s Square; God’s House Tower, where the town gunner lived with an armory of weapons, powder and shot; and the Westgate, built after a French raid in 1338 and through which the Pilgrims exited in 1620.
A year later in the fall of 1621, in what now is Massachusetts, 90 Native Americans and 53 Pilgrims attended a three-day celebratory feast, organized as a spiritual thanks for the summer harvest. The successful harvest followed a devastating winter when about half of the Pilgrims died. That feast is called the First Thanksgiving, though it was not the first harvest meal of gratitude in the Americas, nor anywhere else, as such celebrations at the end of fall harvest were, and remain, typical in cultures around the world. The Pilgrim Thanksgiving, however, gets the ink that led eventually to a national holiday in the United States.
Public fascination with the historic and difficult Mayflower voyage continues on both sides of the Atlantic, and each country is preparing for 2020, the 400th anniversary of the Pilgrim crossing.
At Plimoth Plantation in Massachusetts (https://www.plimoth.org), the Mayflower II, a full-scale reproduction of the tall ship, is being restored in time for the anniversary. In England, the Harwich Mayflower Heritage Centre (http://harwichmayflower.com/) plans to build a replica of the ship, which was about 100 feet long and carried, with crew, a total of about 135 people on the sail to America. The Mayflower crossed a turbulent North Atlantic in 66 days, then crew and passengers lived out much of the winter at anchor. Southampton is also planning festivities during 2020.
Among other famous ships that sailed a single voyage from Southampton toward the Americas was the Titanic. With an interactive model of the ship, the SeaCity Museum (https://seacitymuseum.co.uk) is dedicated to the more than 500 city households that lost a family member in April 1912, when the Titanic sunk after colliding with an iceberg during her maiden voyage from Southampton to New York City.
Other diversions for travelers with a day in Southampton include the Southampton City Art Gallery, specializing in modern British art; the Solent Sky Museum that features vintage aircraft such as the Spitfire; and, inside the old city walls, the Tudor House & Garden, which covers 800 years of English history.
PLANNING A TRIP TO SOUTHAMPTON
If you are booked on a cruise from Southampton, getting to the city is easy by bus from Heathrow airport. I chose online a comfortable bus seat through National Express (https://www.nationalexpress.com/en) from Heathrow, arriving at the Southampton port in two hours, 15 minutes. The ticket was about $27 U.S.
There are several hotels near the old town wall and piers. Online, looking for lodgings in restored buildings, I found Ennio’s Boutique Hotel, which has delightful second-floor rooms (no elevator) in a renovated Victorian warehouse on the waterfront, at the wall’s edge, and a well-reviewed Italian restaurant downstairs. The room at Ennio’s (https://ennios.co.uk/ennios-boutique-hotel) was less than $150 for the night, and my dinner, fish and pasta, was excellent. I recommend both.