Getting to the root of it
Getting to the root of it

Special to The Post-Star

By Patricia and Robert Foulke

With few exceptions, 16th-century European attempts to establish permanent colonies along the coast of North America repeatedly failed - by the Spanish at Pensacola, Fla.; the French at Jacksonville, Fla.; both at Parris Island in South Carolina; and the English at Roanoke Island in North Carolina.

Only more than a century after Columbus' first voyage did two English colonizing enterprises ultimately succeed after overcoming many unanticipated perils, both in getting to the New World and in surviving there.

Many of the Jamestown and Plymouth colonists came from just two counties in eastern England: Lincolnshire and Suffolk. As experienced heritage travelers, we decided to repeat a pattern that had worked well for us before: focus on a specific historical quest during the day and spend the evenings and nights in attractive country inns in the same region.

First we would trace the roots of two key leaders of the Jamestown settlement in the two eastern counties, learning as much as we could by visiting sites associated with the lives of John Smith and Bartholomew Gosnold. And then we would head for the south coast, visiting the ports associated with the troublesome voyage of the Pilgrims as they encountered delay after delay - Southampton, Dartmouth and Plymouth.

John Smith in Lincolnshire

Captain John Smith was born in Willoughby in 1580. The man who became the essential leader of the Jamestown colony started life as the son of a tenant farmer.

We drove into the village of Willoughby and found St. Helena Church. It dates from the 14th and early 15th centuries. There is a photograph of John Smith's registry entry on the wall. The font at the church today is the same one in which he was baptized.

A memorial plaque given by the Jamestown Foundation commemorates the event and so does the brilliant stained-glass window by the font. This and two other windows in the chancel were gifts to the church from Philip L. Barbour of Kentucky, who published a major biography of Smith, "The Three Worlds of Captain John Smith," in 1964.

The centerpiece of one of the chancel windows features the arms of Peregrine Berte, who was Lord of the Manor of Willoughby. John Smith's father was his tenant farmer. When we visited, there was a poignant entry in the Visitor's Book dated the week before made by a woman from Virginia who was a descendant of John Smith.

John Smith first attended school at Queen Elizabeth's Grammar School in Alford. In its early days, the school was housed in the upper story of the church porch, still standing as the entrance to St. Wilfrid's Church. A largely mediaeval building, it has a magnificent original carved chancel screen, a very early 17th-century pulpit and mediaeval stained-glass in the chancel windows.

George Smith moved his son to the King Edward VI Grammar School in Louth when he was 12. Since church attendance was compulsory under Elizabeth I, John Smith would have worshipped at St. James, a magnificent building with the highest church spire in England. We drove into Louth, and at 295 feet, you can't miss it. Inside, the stained-glass windows are magnificent.

John Smith left home at age 16 after his father died to begin an adventurous life that prepared him for the rigors of Virgina. He became a volunteer in France fighting for Dutch independence from Spain, then worked on a merchant ship in the Mediterranean Sea, joined Austrians to fight the Turks, where he was wounded, captured and sold as a slave to a Turk. He escaped and traveled in Europe and North Africa before returning to England.

Bartholomew Gosnold selected John Smith for the expedition to America, and he became the president of the colony after demonstrating crucial leadership in getting food from the Indians, rebuilding the settlement after a disastrous fire and exploring Chesapeake Bay - all in less than two years before an accident sent him back to England for treatment.

Bartholomew Gosnold in Suffolk

Born in 1571 in Suffolk, Bartholomew Gosnold attended school with other Gosnold children in Otley Hall. In 1583, the tutor read about the North American Indians, which may have inspired young Bartholomew, then 12, to think of voyaging to North America.

Bartholomew attended Jesus College, Cambridge in 1587 when he was 16. He became a member of the Middle Temple, the most famous Inn of Court in London. Gosnold was headed for a career in law, not as a mariner.

But by 1602, Bartholomew was leading an expedition to the New World in the Concord. He sailed around the headland of Provincetown and named it Cape Cod, then circled the cape all the way to Martha's Vineyard, naming it for his daughter, who had died as a small child.

Shakespeare may have drawn on this voyage, as well as the wreck of the Sea Venture in Bermuda (the relief ship heading for Jamestown in 1608) when he wrote "The Tempest." In fact, some scholars claim that Edward de Vere, Bartholomew's cousin, may have written some of the plays. Should that be the case, perhaps Ariel danced on Martha's Vineyard and Caliban was a Wampanoag Indian.

One of the highlights in Suffolk was a visit to Otley Hall, the family home of the Gosnold family. It has been owned by Ian and Catherine Beaumont since 2004 and is the oldest house in Suffolk, dating from 1440.

Ian Beaumont ushered us into the Great Hall, which is stunning with a large fireplace, mammoth ceiling beams, dark paneling, a carved fleur-de-lis motif and leaded-glass windows. Bartholomew Gosnold planned his 1602 and 1607 voyages beside this fireplace. In 1607 he interviewed 104 settlers and 55 crew members for that voyage. John Smith was among them.

Bill Kelso, the chief archaeologist for the Jamestown Rediscovery Project, stood by the fireplace not long ago and said, "This is where it all started." He discovered the remains of a mysterious "Jamestown Captain," who may be Bartholomew Gosnold. Gosnold died at age 36 after being in Jamestown only three months. A decorative captain's leading staff was found inside the coffin, indicating the status of the corpse. The Church of England gave permission to take a DNA sample from a woman who may have been his sister, Elizabeth Tilney, in an attempt to verify his identity.

(Otley Hall, Otley, Suffolk IP6 9PA, telephone: 1473 890264; www.otleyhall.co.uk)

Another highlight in Suffolk was St. Edmundsbury Cathedral in Bury St. Edmunds, built by Abbot Anselm in the 12th century. The Cathedral Treasury is dedicated to the original Jamestown Settlers. The Rectory Garden has a modern sculpture by local artist Jonathan Clarke, called "Godspeed," the name of the ship captained by Gosnold on the voyage to found Jamestown. (Angel Hill, Bury St. Edmunds IP33 1LS, telephone: 01284 754933;www.stedscathedral.co.uk)

Nearby, the Suffolk Record Office has documents and signatures of Bartholomew Gosnold, which they laid out on a table for us to see. The office commemorated the 400th anniversary of Gosnold's historic voyage with an exhibition.

We read documents about the Gunpowder Plot, the Charter for the colony from James I, a notice prohibiting "swearing, drinking, singing loud and lewd songs," a lottery grant from Elizabeth I, a 1570 inventory of books and furniture, saw the signature and seal of Bartholomew Gosnold and more. (77 Raingate St., Bury St. Edmunds IP33 2AR, phone: 01284 352352 www.suffolkcc.gov.uk/sro)

Country House: Milsoms Hotel, Stratford Road, Dedham, Colchester, Essex CO7 6HW, telephone: 01206 322795; www.milsomhotels.com.

The hotel has been renovated and its contemporary style includes a gastrobar where guests can unwind with a glass of wine. Milsoms is located in the Dedham Vale in the heart of Constable country. Views are placid and relaxing.

Sister hotels include Maison Talbooth, Stratford Road, Dedham, Colchester CO7 6HN, tel: 01206-322-367, www.milsomhotels.com, and The Pier at Harwich, The Quay, Harwich CO12 3HH, telephone: 01255-241212, www.milsomhotels.com.

Troubled voyage of the Pilgrims

As the Leiden separatists embarked on a voyage to the New World, they would endure a series of frustrations and delays, a miserable transatlantic crossing in autumnal gales, uncertainties about their eventual destination and a winter of starvation. When they finally set sail for Southampton in the Speedwell - surely a misnamed ship - on July 22, their troubles were only beginning.

In Southampton, they found the Mayflower, the expedition's second and larger ship, already filled with many "Strangers" recruited by the London investors who financed the voyage. Further delays followed, as well as disputes between the two groups about the costs of provisioning the ships. The two ships set sail on their transatlantic voyage from Southampton's West Quay on Aug. 15, 1620. A memorial tower on the Western Esplanade across from Mayflower Park commemorates this departure with an engraving of the Mayflower and memorial plaques.

However, this first attempt to put to sea was short-lived. The Speedwell had been overmasted, and the stress opened up her seams in ocean swells, so both ships put into Dartmouth to cure her leaks. After some repairs in Bayards Cove, they both set sail again on Aug. 23 and got well west of Land's End when the master feared the Speedwell might sink and they put back to Plymouth. There they determined to abandon her, cut their number by 20 persons, and crowded 102 persons (35 Pilgrims and 30 strangers, plus children and crew) into the Mayflower for the third and final try on Sept. 6. (A number of our friends in Glens Falls and Saratoga Springs are descendants of the original passengers.)

A plaque on the Mayflower Steps at Old Sutton Pool Quay commemorates this departure. Across the road the Mayflower Visitor Centre (The Barbican, telephone: 1752-306330) overlooks the harbor and the stair the Pilgrims used to embark. A film details the history of the area from the Bronze Age through the medieval and Tudor eras, focusing on Plymouth's key role in defeating the Spanish Armada in 1588, and the Pilgrims leaving England for religious freedom in Holland in 1609 before the expedition to America.

The clock had been ticking on sailing season as the summer passed, so a passage that might have been completed in five or six weeks took a miserable, stormy 10. And when they anchored off what is now Provincetown on Nov. 11, 200 miles north of their intended destination with winter setting in, their prospects were bleak.

In William Bradford's words, "They had now no friends to welcome them nor inns to entertain or refresh their weatherbeaten bodies; no houses or much less towns to repair to … and the whole country, full of woods and thickets, represented a wild and savage hue."

Not until Christmas Day did they begin building the settlement at Plymouth.

Country House: Soar Mill Cove Hotel, Near Salcombe, South Devon TQ7 3DS, telephone: 01548-561566; www.soarmillcove.co.uk.

In a unique, wild setting, the hotel looks out on a scene framed by hills and rock outcroppings surrounding green meadows leading down to the cove below and out into the sea.

The coastal path crosses this view and you can walk for miles each way.

This family-run hotel offers delicious cuisine in the dining room with a view. They serve West Country beef, organically bred lamb, hand-picked white crab meat, local lobster and fish.

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