As I sit in a wee church near Scrooby, Nottinghamshire, in Northern England, and listen to the story of the 102 separatists who crossed the Atlantic for the New World in 1620, I am transferred to a time 400 years ago when a group of people wanted nothing more than the opportunity to live their lives as they saw fit.
As 2020 approaches, and the Puritans’ crossing to America on the Mayflower reaches its 400th anniversary, the United Kingdom is gearing up to welcome a different sort of pilgrim: those looking to discover their family’s beginnings. At last count, there could be up to 30 million living descendants of these Mayflower Pilgrims.
I took in an abbreviated Mayflower 400 tour, run by UK Countryside Tours, which followed the path of this hardy group of early settlers and discovered that their harsh journey from Scrooby to Plymouth, Massachusetts included imprisonment, persecution, secrecy, tragedy and hope.
In 17th century England, attending church was compulsory, and if you did not attend a hefty £20 fine was levied, followed by imprisonment and banishment for repeat offenders. And where you attended church was not a choice: Queen Elizabeth I laid down the law that you could only go to the church in your own parish, regardless of the talents of the preacher.
But in that little church near Scrooby, the unassuming 13th century Babworth Church, where the tour begins, you sit in the same small, proper pews where worshippers from all around the area rejected the law and went to hear the spirited preacher, Richard Clifton, tell tales of fire and brimstone as well as those that served to inspire; speaking words that matched the reality the separatists knew and understood, and not the stories they heard about in the bible.
Breaking from the dictates of the Church of England to do their own thing, though, was treasonous, and our resolute, rebellious churchgoers were considered to be dangerous religious renegades by the Church.
When Clifton finally lost his position at the church in 1605 because of his non-conformist views, he was taken in by William Brewster—in the employ of the secretary of state under Queen Elizabeth I—at his home, Scrooby Manor, the second stop in the tour. If Clifton was the spirit of Puritanism, it was Brewster who was the doer.
Currently privately-owned but graciously shown, all that is left of Scrooby Manor is its renovated wing, turned into a cottage in the 1700s, and landscaped grounds. The manor is set along the important Great North Road, the main route between London and Edinburgh and, where horses used to go, now iron horses do: high-speed trains run between the two cities today. This spot is where Clifton’s dedicated congregation continued to meet in secret and make their plan of escape, which would ultimately change the face of America.
So the journey began to leave England, and the famed Mayflower—as well as its sister ship, the Speedwell, which did not finish the trip—set sail for the far shores of America, although the travelers’ destination was actually Virginia and not New England at all.
One of the greatest benefits of this particular Mayflower 400 tour is that true historians and scholars who love (and appreciate) the history of each destination lead each tour. From seeing the prison cells in Boston Guildhall where the separatists were held after their first attempt to leave the country to exploring the full-size replica of the Mayflower, this tour has you visit inns, towns and public houses that were around at the time of the pilgrims’ voyage. Near the end of the tour, you find yourself on the steps in Plymouth Harbour where the Mayflower finally left to successfully make it to the New World, a poignant finale to a story that ends in England, only to just begin on the other side of the world, about a group of disenchanted people who would found a colony based on the hope of having spiritual freedom.
In The Know: Nottinghamshire
The area of Nottinghamshire—in the center of England about 140 miles from London—has a full bounty of history with plenty of sights to see, making it worth taking a few extra days to explore. Several highlights include:
Sherwood Forest — as in Robin Hood and his merry men. But what makes this an engaging experience is that tours are offered with the great man himself. Although Robin Hood is a fictional composite character, actor Ezekiel Bone so personifies the mythical man that you want to believe. Entertaining stories, a beautiful park and being able to wear a Robin Hood hat make this a worthwhile stop. Booking in advance is recommended.
The School of Artisan Food — Found on one of the old Ducal estates known as Welbeck Abbey, this is as authentic and artisanal as you can get in a cooking school. While respected worldwide for their Advanced Diploma in Baking, the beautiful facility offers everything from a butchery and charcuterie course to cider making. Courses run anywhere from a few hours to the intensive 10-month advanced baking diploma.
Harley Gallery — This gallery is also located at Welbeck Abbey, still home to descendants of the Cavendish Bentinck family. Many of the family’s treasures are found in The Portland Collection, which opened in March 2016, housing works by Michelangelo and Van Dyck as well as items like the Portland Miniatures and the family’s silver collection. The Harley Café is the happy beneficiary of some of The School of Artisan Food’s handiwork.
Also nearby are the grand estates of Chatsworth and Haddon Hall, and the many sights of Cambridge and Manchester.
Where To Sleep and Eat
Tamburlaine Hotel, Cambridge — The town of Cambridge is about 95 miles from the heart of Nottinghamshire and this modern boutique property is worth the trek. Newly-opened this year, with 155 light and airy, spacious rooms—full of classical, elegant touches such as Persian pillows and warm wooden headboards—the hotel has a very good restaurant overseen by Michelin-starred chef Alan Dann, an informal deli, a feature bar and an inviting library.
Midland Hotel, Manchester — Another gem of a hotel, the Midland Hotel is in Manchester, which is only about 75 miles from Nottinghamshire. A good-sized hotel with 312 rooms that are contemporary in look and feel, done in luxe purples and golds. The hotel bustles with two worthy restaurants—one with two AA Rosettes and the other with three—an excellent cocktail bar with delicious drinks, a dedicated tea room and a spa.
Ye Olde Bell Hotel — Located in the rural village of Barnby Moor, this is a lovely English country-style hotel, dating back to the 1600s. Traditionally furnished with opulent fabrics and period furnishings, the 59 rooms are individually-designed. The hotel has an AA Rosette-awarded restaurant, a bar and bistro and a new spa that just opened this year. One word of caution: If you have difficulty with stairs or have particularly heavy luggage, ask for a room on the main floor.
The Peacock at Rowsley — This elegant-chic restaurant, located at the edge of Derbyshire Peak District National Park, is about a 45-minute drive from Welbeck Abbey down lovely country roads. It has been awarded three AA Rosettes and serves fare sourced from the immediate region including the estate it is housed on—Haddon Hall. Favorite dishes included the smoked beetroot tartare with horseradish cream and the roast pork loin served with a sage and onion stuffing and apple sauce. For those who want to stay in the Peak District, The Peacock at Rowsley also houses guests in its fifteen rooms.
A sampling of other tours to take with UK Countryside Tours
- The Dukeries: The great houses of central England
- Great Lives: Dickens, Darwin and Churchill — Their Homes, Writings and Legacy
- The Myths and Legends of Northern England: Where Fact and Fable Mix
- England’s Music Powerhouse: The Beat of The Beatles and More
- Girl Power: The Women Who Made Britain Great
- The Story of English Rural Life: From the 1850s to the Modern Age
- England’s Bloody Borderland: An Ancient Land Rich in History
- A Seafaring Nation: Exploring England’s Maritime Heritage
- Over Here: The Story of US Servicemen in Britain
- The Glorious Gardens of Southwest England: England’s Gentler Climate