A trip to Plymouth is a must for American visitors keen to learn how the “Mother Country” influenced the creation of modern America.
The city is well worth a visit in its own right as it occupies a unique location sandwiched between Dartmoor National Park – one of the last great wildernesses in England – and the truly spectacular deep water harbour known as Plymouth Sound.
But it’s Plymouth’s enduring bonds with the USA which will delight, and in many cases surprise, first time American visitors. Here are some ideas to help you when you’re planning your Plymouth itinerary:
The Mayflower Steps
This is the spot on Plymouth’s historic Barbican where 120 brave pilgrims set sail for the “New World” on 6th September 1620. Women and children were among the pilgrims including a pregnant woman, Elizabeth Hopkins, who gave birth during the 66 day voyage. She named her son Oceanus.
After nine gruelling weeks at sea, one of the pilgrims recorded how he and his fellow pioneers “fell upon their knees and blessed the God of heaven who had brought them over the vast and furious ocean”.
The Pilgrim Fathers managed to negotiate a treaty with the local Indian chief, enabling them to establish Plymouth Colony – a settlement which grew into modern day Plymouth, Massachusetts.
Thanksgiving in Plymouth
What better place to spend your Thanksgiving than in Plymouth, Devon, which is where the story of modern America begins? Thanksgiving has its origins in the celebrations of those early pilgrims from England who gave thanks for a good harvest and their safe delivery across the ocean.
City dignitaries and American ex-pats living in Plymouth make sure this is a very special occasion with a formal ceremony at the Mayflower Steps, attended by the Lord Mayor, followed by a Thanksgiving celebration at a Barbican restaurant.
The home of American socialite Nancy Astor
Head up to Plymouth’s magnificent Hoe to see the grand former home of Viscountess Astor – who captured the hearts of Plymothians during the dark days of World War II.
Born in Virginia, she moved to England in 1905 after falling in love with the place. And England couldn’t help falling in love with her – this spirited, sharp-tongued American who became the first woman member of parliament to sit in the House of Commons.
She was married to Waldorf, 2nd Viscount Astor, and once famously remarked “I married beneath me – all women do.” Together they entertained the cream of British society at No. 3 Elliot Terrace on Plymouth Hoe. Guests at their glittering parties included King George and Queen Elizabeth.
Nancy Astor became an honorary Plymothian and was famed for her generosity as much as for her acerbic wit. She joined local people who danced with sailors on The Hoe despite the fact that the city was a key target for the Luftwaffe’s bombs. She fought the blaze herself when Elliot Terrace took a direct hit during the Plymouth Blitz and she handed out chocolate to local children’s whose lives were torn asunder by the bombing.
Lady Astor gifted No. 3 Elliot Terrace to the city along with her famous Cartier jewels. The building is now used as the Lord Mayor’s official residence and as a base for visiting judges. It’s not generally open to the public but tours can be arranged via the Lord Mayor’s Parlour at Plymouth City Council.
A wall of Hollywood stars
At the entrance to Millbay Docks, at the western edge of Plymouth, you’ll find a stone wall bedecked with stars bearing the names of Hollywood legends who arrived here on cruise ships and passed through Plymouth en route to London. Just imagine, you’re following in the footsteps of some of the greatest giants of the silver screen – including Walt Disney, Judy Garland, Bing Crosby and Charlie Chaplin!
The stars are part of the rather wonderful Waterfront Walkway – an art project designed to bring to life many of the stories from Plymouth’s past which make the city so special. The walking trail is a section of the South West coast path and is peppered with many surprising features including a 10 tonne rhino, a golden scallop and a knitted British breakfast! Quotes from Sherlock Holmes can be found in the pavement of Durnford Street, Stonehouse, where Sir Arthur Conan Doyle once worked as a doctor.
Head north from the city to the wonderful wilderness of Dartmoor – a gorgeous national park which hides grim secrets behind the forbidding walls of Dartmoor Prison in Princetown.
The prison was used to hold thousands of American prisoners during the 1812 Anglo-American war. They were forced to march 18 miles from Plymouth to the notorious prison where they were kept in the most appalling conditions. Many died of small pox and starvation and some froze to death in the winter months when the damp prison walls were coated with sheets of ice. Their bodies were dumped in mass, unmarked graves behind the jail.
Many years later the prisoners’ bones were unearthed by pigs, turned out to forage by the prison staff.
Their remains were dug up and reburied in a cemetery dedicated to the memory of up to 270 Americans believed to have died here. A memorial gate was erected at the entrance and inside there’s an obelisk with the words: ‘In memory of the American prisoners of war who died between the years 1809 to 1814 and are buried here – dulce et decorum est pro patria mori. (It is sweet and honourable to die for one’s country).’
The cemetery became sadly neglected until 2001 when a group of American servicemen based in the UK embarked on a clean-up operation which led to the erection of a monument listing the names of all American prisoners known to have died at Dartmoor.
You can’t enter the cemetery as it’s in the grounds of the prison which is still operational. But you can visit the Dartmoor Prison Museum 150 yards from the jail
Ann Knight lives and works in Plymouth, Devon, England. She’s passionate about the city which she reckons is one of Britain’s best kept secrets.