Plymouth is our next overnight stop. And on the Plymouth list are two places: the Plymouth Gin Distillery (which I just discovered while reading a United Airlines in-flight magazine last month) and the Mayflower Steps. Years ago my mother did a lot of genealogical research for our family, which her brother continued, and discovered we had ancestors come over to America on the Mayflower in 1620. I’ve had the good fortune to be able to visit the landing site in Massachusetts at Plymouth Rock. And now I hope to see where the ship sailed from.
We catch a bus downtown on a weekday morning and walk a few blocks to get to the gin distillery which opens at 10am. Their first tour isn’t until 10:30 so they suggest we walk down the road for a coffee while we wait. As its a cool and misty morning, we decide to do just that and find our way down the street. At Jacka Bakery we wander in for a hot cuppa and the heady aroma of fresh-baked bread and pastries. It’s intoxicating. We see a small sign on the wall declaring that this bakery is the oldest in Britain having been here since the 16th century. We are both impressed and skeptical.
Afterwards, we scoot back up the damp cobblestoned street for some gin-ish education and sampling. There’s more about this bakery than we know at the time. And much more than I knew about my family history too.
We enjoy the small tour immensely, and take advantage of the complimentary drink we get with the price of the tour in the upstairs lounge. Brian opts for the classic G&T while I try a Sloe Fizz, since Sloe Gin is also made here. And after our first sips, we swap. They are both really good, even this early in the day. Our tour guide gave us a little of the background of the building, including confirmation of something we had discovered online when making our final plans to visit. Brian read that the Pilgrims reportedly spent their last night in England in the building that the distillery is now in. Keeping in mind that I originally had only one place on my list for Plymouth (the Mayflower Steps), I was impressed by the coincidence that we found at the distillery. An ancestor of mine may have slept in the very building that I happened to want to visit after reading a magazine article less than a month before. The word “Plymouth” caught my eye in the article title, and now that I’m here I find it interesting that there is more of a connection. The tour guide says that the distillery building used to be the town meeting hall where visitors would have been housed before sailing out. He says there is a list of names of the passengers on the wall of the bar upstairs. We wander back to see it while enjoying our cocktails and search for James Chilton, my I-don’t-know-how-many-great grandfather. And sure enough, he was here, nearly 400 years ago.
We finish our drinks. I say a silent hello and thank you, paying tribute and gratitude to my forefather for making the incredible journey he did, and for his part in the life I have today. Off we go, out into the damp to walk down and see the steps at the harbor where the boat departed. The original dock is no longer there and the stone markers and monuments of today are in only the general location, but that’s good enough for me.
Just across the street is the Mayflower Museum…so, of course I have to go. The museum overlooks the inner harbor and the Steps monument. I see my ancestors name, and his wife and daughters name on the list of passengers inside the museum.
The museum confirms that the male passengers stayed in the town hall (now the distillery) just before leaving Plymouth and says women and children were taken into local homes. I try to imagine for a moment what it must have been like in 1620 for a family to travel across England to board a ship bound for a new and untamed land. They would have arrived in the late summer at the edge of their own country in need of places to stay and food….and locals took them in. The Mayflower passengers and crew tried to provision the ship and prepare her as best they could for the rough crossing. They hoped to have some provisions left when they arrived in the new land as they would be arriving at the threshold of winter. Crew bought bread for the voyage and guess where they did that? That’s right….the very place I went for coffee this morning, that same bakery that is the oldest in Britain. Wow…
After the museum, we stop in the Barbican for a lunch of fish and chips and then wander back to the bakery to buy some bread. Early in the afternoon we carry on toward Cornwall, which technically begins just across the river, on the edge of Plymouth. But we are bound for somewhere near Lands End and have a few hours to go.
When we arrive at our friends house that night I tinker online and find out more tidbits about my Mayflower ancestors. Sadly, the voyage was very hard on the passengers. Nearly half the passengers died within the first year. James Chilton had been the oldest passenger on the Mayflower at 64. Although he lived to sign the Mayflower Compact, he died within a month of the landing. His wife died a month after him, leaving their 13-year-old daughter, Mary, an orphan in a new land. She was where my branch of the family tree continued.
It is commonly believed that Mary Chilton was the first person of the landing party to step ashore at Plymouth, making one of my ancestors the first person from the Mayflower to actually set foot on land at Plymouth Rock. After the death of her parents, she was reportedly taken into either the home of Myles Standish or John Alden. She was given three shares of land, one for herself and each of her parents shares. A few years later she married John Winslow and together they had ten children. She lived to the ripe old age of 72 which for the 1600s must have been nearly ancient.
What must her life have been like? What enormous odds must she and all her fellow passengers have overcome for any of their descendants to be here today? How many hundreds of people in the U.S. are descendants of hers today?