Much of Britain’s history has been forged by great ships, and although most have been lost to the depths of the ocean, there are a few that have been expertly restored and turned into living museums, giving you a fascinating insight into life on the high seas in times gone by! So, whether you want to walk the plank, take charge of the helm and spin a ship’s wheel, or step back in time on a Tudor shipwreck, there are many ways to immerse yourself in Britain’s nautical history!
The Mayflower festival of events
2020 is an important year for British ships, as it marks the 400th anniversary of the Mayflower’s journey to America. This is being commemorated with a packed year of events, exhibitions and restored historic buildings aiming to highlight the story of the pilgrims and the Native Americans, and the connection between the UK and the USA, in a culturally sensitive way.
The opening event
This commemorative programme of events will open with a set of illuminations at multiple locations in the UK, including Plymouth, Rotherhithe and Dartmouth. Local and international artists will create immersive light installations to mark the first Thanksgiving that happened between the pilgrims and the Native Americans in 1621. Taking place from 28 November – 1 December 2019, entry is free.
‘Mayflower Self-Guided Tours’, a free app aiming to tell the stories of the original pilgrims via trail guides, has been released as part of Mayflower 400. Allowing you to follow Mayflower trails, the app uses GPS to guide you along routes in British cities, towns and villages associated with the Mayflower. Free guided walks and driving tours encourage you to retrace the steps of the pilgrims in connected locations such as Rotherhithe in London, Southampton, Dartmouth and Plymouth. With exciting new additions such as artworks, way-markers and new installations along the trails, key spots such as Gainsborough Old Hall and the Mayflower Steps in Plymouth can be explored in a fun and insightful way.
Mayflower 400: Legends and Legacy
The commemorative festival will also include ‘Mayflower 400: Legends and Legacy’, a major artistic programme due to show at The Box, Plymouth from spring 2020 to autumn 2021. Enjoy a series of community projects, events and art focusing on the pilgrims and Native Americans touched by the Mayflower voyage. Showing objects from the National Museum of the American Indian, the Harvard Peabody Museum and Pilgrim Hall for the first time in Plymouth, the events will showcase Native American culture to a new audience in Britain from spring 2020 to autumn 2021.
The Elizabethan House
An Elizabethan House in Plymouth is being expertly restored as part of the Mayflower 400 commemorations, taking you back to the late 16th century. Experience the feel of a traditional British house from the time of the pilgrims, set out in the style of a merchant sea captain’s home and complete with restored wooden panelling. As you walk across creaking floorboards, you can easily imagine how people lived hundreds of years ago! Set to reopen in 2020, the house will feature expertly restored rooms over two floors, including a kitchen, dining room, bedrooms and a parlour.
Mayflower Heritage Tours
From 102 passengers, there are now currently an estimated 30 million Americans alone whose linage can be traced back to the pilgrims and crew from this voyage, making the Mayflower 400 a new and interactive way to trace ancestry. If you’re curious, you can book a range of ‘Mayflower Tours’ which will guide you around historic cobbled streets and traditional pubs, as well as stopping for educational Mayflower 400 events or talks.
South-east England’s historical ships
If you want to experience more of Britain’s nautical history and continue on your own journey of discovery, south-east England has a number of fascinating ships to explore.
HMS Warrior, Portsmouth
Once the highlight of Queen Victoria’s fleet, the HMS Warrior was the world’s first armour-plated warship. A fantastic example of a Victorian combat vessel, the ship is now a museum where you can explore the decks and learn about life on the ocean. This is and one of the most interactive historic ships to visit. You’ll meet characters from its heyday walking the decks, learn sword fighting skills, master signal flag waving and peek inside the captain’s cabin, which was previously closed to the public!
The Mary Rose Museum, Portsmouth
Once serving the Tudor Navy under King Henry VIII, the Mary Rose made her first voyage in 1510, and was a successful war ship for almost all of the monarch’s reign. This ship was raised from the seabed in 1982, after underwater research uncovered the shipwreck.
You can see what was saved of the ship at the Mary Rose Museum, along with thousands of Tudor artefacts that were also recovered from the wreckage.
HMS Victory, Portsmouth
Famous for being Lord Nelson’s flagship at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805, HMS Victory embarked on numerous voyages after first setting sail in 1765. Docked at Portsmouth since 1922, it is now a museum where you can discover what life would have been like on board such a vessel. Walk through the Great Cabin where the Admiral would have planned his battle strategy, the lower gun deck where 460 members of the crew slept and ate, and the Poop Deck, which has only recently opened to the public. This is the highest point of the vessel, giving you an in-depth historical perspective as well as great views of the surrounding dockyard!
The Cutty Sark, London
Get a taste of Victorian life on the sea as you explore the decks of the Cutty Sark. There are both above and below decks to capture your imagination, plus a chance to live out your sea captain dreams and manoeuvre the ship’s wheel! You can also listen to the stories of people who lived and breathed the Cutty Sark in daily dramatic retellings.
Built in 1869 and restored in 2007, this impressive example of a British sailing ship is an unmissable award-winning London attraction.