Sign up to The American magazine's newsletters (below) to receive more regular news, articles and updates on America in the UK.
As I walk the streets of Plymouth, I keep thinking of Bo Young Park.
Bo Young was a Korean classmate of mine who moved to my small North Jersey suburb when we were in third grade. Sweet from what I can remember, but quiet owing to her initial insecurity in not having a confident command of English.
I have a particular memory in mind, an image that keeps coming back to me while I tread the same streets that the Mayflower passengers, those early forbears of ours trod before me in search of a land in which they were free to worship in the way they chose, without prejudice and judgement.
I am thinking of Bo Young’s first Thanksgiving in America and how in elementary school – and hell, probably up into middle school before our liberal, revisionist high school History teachers got to us – we used to have the Mayflower myth recounted to us every year, of those brave pilgrims, looking steely-eyed over the deck of that proud ship, their flat top hats standing tall and buckle-encrusted above their determined brows as they face down disease and bid goodbye to the land of their birth and all they have known for all of their lives on the wager that they could and would be better off carving out new and freer lives in a new world.
In my memory from this occasion in third grade it is a cold and windy November morning, the day before Thanksgiving, that great American carb-fest commemorating the pilgrims’ survival of the harvest season with the help of Squanto and the tribe of Wampanoag indigenous to the Plymouth area in Massachusetts Bay. We are all sitting outside on a concrete space in little groups with flimsy flat top, brown, black and white hats atop our own heads blowing back and forth in the wind and my best friend Andy, Bo Young Park and I, like all the other little subgroups trying to achieve the same thing, are trying to get a fire to light out with a large tin can. I can’t imagine health and safety would allow this nowadays but I’m sure the end result was that we were to roast marshmallows or something and feel something of the hardship depicted in that legendary narrative of our ‘forefathers’. I remember even then it feeling strange to watch Bo Young, with her paper flat top hat, lighting her tin can and little English though she had, forging her own identity anew, as perhaps those pioneers did then.
Because we don’t question our own national mythology very often. And this is for us our first myth, as Charles Hackett, Chief Executive of the Mayflower 400 project calls it, ‘a creation myth for America.’ Our cosmogony then. Because for all our talk about identity politics, we don’t much interrogate our fundamental national narratives. But I feel, walking down these streets near where the Mayflower Steps once waved off that armed merchant cargo ship, that it wasn’t all that well equipped for a transcontinental voyage of epic proportions.
I consider first as I walk with George Trubody of Select Southwest Tours, a company specialising in tours of Plymouth, Cornwall, and the south-west in general, we tread the first gangplanks of history that lead to that fated 1620 seafaring journey. George, as well as any of Select’s other guides are a literal font of encyclopaedic knowledge and exciting stories about England’s Ocean City and its American connections. And it is here at the harbour that we begin to interrogate that cosmogonic American myth.
Even though the Mayflower steps have long been built over (apparently the most likely location for the original location is in a ladies restroom of a nearby pub) the buildings and the streets are as steeped as an English tea bag in the history of our puritanical ancestors. It is here that I learn that, contrary to the mythology, the pilgrims did not start out in this city historically known for embracing outsiders, but by virtue of it being a historically vital point of access, a place of beginnings and a destination, puritans who had already made their way from England to Leiden in Holland and lived in relative harmony for over a decade (who saw that coming? We never learnt about Holland’s role in the Mayflower myth in elementary school) and Lincoln in North of England, a centre of religious separatism, first to Southampton with not one ship but two, The Mayflower, owned by Christopher Jones, and the Speedwell, a rickety, smaller vessel riddled with leaks that the Dutch/English congregation had clubbed together to purchase but that would not make the journey even out of the British Isles.
Laden with Puritan English expats most recently of Leiden, but also badly taking on water, the Speedwell puts first into Dartmouth for repairs, but when said fixes don’t take, both ships dock, the Speedwell for good, in Plymouth harbour, where some of the passengers decide that it is not part of God’s plan that they undertake this dangerous journey.
So the ship sets sail from those steps with approximately 102 passengers, half of which were those setting sail for religious freedom, a quarter of which were crew and a quarter essential tradesmen sent to help establish the new colony. And on the city walls, at least a half dozen of them in the city centre dating back those four hundred years, are plaques with printed passenger manifests of those who would begin the genealogical lines to which 30 million Americans (including Matt Damon and George the Dubya, no seriously!) alive today trace their ancestry.
But after inhaling the history of early Americans around the harbour and the sound and walking along Plymouth Hoe, overlooking the picturesque sound, George regales me with the various more recent American connections, including those of the half American legendary Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, who used Plymouth as a rallying point during the second world war, and of his fiery but ultimately affectionate relationship with Lady Astor, whose constituency was here and whose father laid the foundations for the famed Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York.
In fact not only is this city famed for its American connections but also for its piratical, nautical history, particularly that of Sir Francis Drake, the (rumoured to be) very close associate of Queen Elizabeth’s who lived here and is known for finishing his game of bowls of an afternoon, a favourite pastime of his era, before leading the local garrison to defeat the incoming Spanish Armada. So thrilling are the tales you will hear on a Select walking tour that you will feel as though you’ve been on a nautical journey itself.
Should you wish to continue along a theme, you will find an excellent place to stop and enjoy Plymothian seafood in the harbour at Mitch Tonk’s Rockfish restaurant, where the staff are incredibly hospitable, where you are given a menu with a list of what fish has been caught that day – Plymouth’s daily haul is second only to Brixham down the road, which also has a branch of Rockfish – and given vivid descriptions and recommendations. Their whimsical claim is that ‘If we don’t have your favourite today try tomorrow as it’s probably still in the sea,’ is thoroughly plausible given the freshness and delectablity of the lemon sole I had washed down by Rockfish pressed West Country cider. A sure bet to keep the seafaring spirit alive and tastebuds happy.
Bear in mind though that Plymouth and the Mayflower 400 project has been at least 6 years in the making. As Amanda Lumley, chief executive of Destination Plymouth explains to me, Plimothians have been reawakened to their transatlantic connections and the city has been much revived as a result. Endeavours culminate with the voyage’s 400th anniversary on 16 September 2020, with ceremonies that are highly important, potently symbolic, and set to leave a lasting legacy. Represented in the celebrations will be the four nations invested: England, The Netherlands, The US, and of the Wampanoag Nation (without which, of course, the passengers, pretty poor survivalists by most accounts, would surely have perished before that first harvest for which we annually give thanks). Events will span all four nations, including Boston, Leiden and at least 10 locations aside from Plymouth such as Southampton and Gainsborough Hall in Lincolnshire, both of which hold historical importance for the puritanical voyagers.
Both Lumley, and Jo Clarke, the Media and Communications Officer for ‘The Box’, the building that is rapidly transforming into Plymouth’s interactive new cultural hub out of the ashes of what was once the Plymouth Museum, are keen to bring the Mayflower from myth to living history for tourists and locals alike, by hosting discussions about topics like patriarchy on The Mayflower and by organising a plethora of cultural events including helping to bring twelve indigenous artists across the water to organise a ‘reverse settlement’ in Central Park near Plymouth University. Neither Clarke or Lumley are afraid to challenge the traditional narrative, Lumley noting to me that ‘the language we use is important,’ particularly when talking about the Wampum belt project, where Wampanoag artists are working to make a new ceremonial belt, to symbolically stand in for the one given to King Philip by Native Americans, which has sadly been lost to history. This belt will not be ‘gifted’ (a term I tentatively and regretfully hazarded) but restored to the tribe’s representatives in the commemorations of 2020.
The Box’s location is fitting as a cultural hub as, aside from the stunning area nearest to the Plymouth sound, it does feel like the most exciting area of the city, adjacent to the Plymouth Centre for the Arts, and a stone’s throw from the hipsterish Ebrington Street, where proudly cultured Plimothians can hold lingering discussions over the merits of Churchill, Drake and religious separatism over smooth flat whites and buddha bowls from Prime or The Good Coffee Headquarters (it was a tossup! I had to have coffee in both and they were both frankly incredibly tasty) and continue their discussion over Plymouth Gin in the nearby famed original distillery, before retiring for the night to the perfectly located and luxuriously attentive Crowne Plaza hotel just down from panoramic Plymouth Hoe (which supplied running maps. At a table with lime water and apples. Running maps! Fellow runners, we know these things are important!).
And at the end of my stay in England’s Ocean City, have I understood my own cultural heritage better? Yes, as I never have before. It’s humanised history for me, and challenged, broadened and deepened a very old story that says a lot about what it is to be American, including what an undertaking it was for Englishmen and women to leave everything they knew. In a time when we are still finding our cultural identity as a people, it says something that only a few decades ago, families like my elementary school classmate Bo Young Park’s were making similar physical and psychological journeys to forge new American selves and to add to the story, as so many continue to do every day.
For a full and detailed programme of events to attend as part of the Mayflower 400 celebrations, head to
Slapton Sands, near Plymouth, was the site of one of the worst disasters in American military history: the Exercise Tiger rehearsal for the D-Day landings in World War II. Read Peter Lawler’s powerful reflections on the tragedy here