<i> Shearer is a freelance writer who divides her time between Cape Cod and the Florida Keys</i>

Today we’d label the Pilgrims the “religious right,” I guess, or maybe even a cult. The British certainly thought these Protestant nonconformists were out of line--way out. So much so that the Church of England drove them underground, forcing them to worship stealthily,, in private homes. When these simple folk could take the religious repression no longer, they decided to leave their homeland. But, defying the law that forbade emigration without the Crown’s permission, they reaped a harvest of further hardship.

Harsh times, those.

Like all American schoolchildren, I studied the Pilgrims’ story, imagined their first Thanksgiving with the Indians in Massachusetts and cut turkeys out of construction paper. The Mayflower was a national icon. Plymouth Rock was legendary. But it was 40 years before this history came to life for me when I journeyed to the place where the legends were forged: the town of Boston in northeast England. Later, on returning home to Massachusetts, I revisited the legends in Plimoth Plantation, on the coast south of our Boston.

The Pilgrim fathers originally came mostly from tiny villages sunk deep in the English countryside of Lincolnshire, Yorkshire and Nottinghamshire, not far from the medieval market town of Boston. Strongly independent and vocal in their deeply held convictions, these Englishmen and their families determined that the only path to religious freedom was to escape the grasp of the Church of England and its titular head, King James I.


In 1607, lay minister William Brewster and others who rejected the official church devised a plan to emigrate to Holland, which had a reputation for religious tolerance. They bribed the captain of a Dutch ship that was anchored in Scotia Creek, about three miles downriver from Boston, to smuggle their group to Amsterdam.

The captain took their money but betrayed their presence to the port authorities, who threw Brewster and six others into the stark, iron-grated cells of Boston’s town hall. They were imprisoned for months, then sent home penniless. But they kept the faith, and by 1609 most of the men in the original group were settled in Amsterdam and the Dutch town of Leiden. Their families eventually joined them, and in 1620, 35 of the Leiden group were aboard the Mayflower, destined for a place in history beyond their imagining.

I was living in London when I discovered the English village that inspired the name of our historic city, Boston. On a two-year sojourn in Britain, where my husband was working, I frequently explored the English countryside. On one jaunt I aimed for Boston.

When I left the A-1 motorway north of London for the rural A-17, the undulating landscape abruptly changed to the flat, once marshy region of straight roads and drainage channels called the Fens.


Boston is on the Witham River just inland from the North Sea. Visible for 20 miles, the 272-foot lantern tower of the town’s medieval church guided me into Boston, just as for centuries it led mariners upriver into port.

The town began as a monastery founded 1,300 years ago by a Saxon monk, St. Botolph. Over the centuries, Botolph’s Town (pronounced but-TOFS-ton) evolved into Boston.

Affectionately called the Boston Stump because its soaring tower is no longer topped by a spire, St. Botolph’s Church is cleverly designed to reflect the divisions of time: 365 steps to the tower coincide with the days of the year; 12 pillars represent the months; 52 original windows, the weeks.

This towering symbol of the Church of England was the ecclesiastical burr that rubbed raw the conscience of the separatists, a constant reminder of their differences with the Establishment.


Boston was a bustling port from the 13th century onward, when people from far and wide in England gathered to trade with merchants from across the North Sea. Today it is just a small town whose only attractions for tourists are the still-majestic Boston Stump and its links with our Pilgrim Fathers.

Stone-paved lanes spoke out from the hub of the Market Place, which still draws traders from the shires. The sheep fairs of yesteryear have given way to weekly markets and auctions with all sorts of goods--fish to flowers, paintings to produce.

I found Brewster’s jail--originally the Hall of the Guild of the Blessed Mary--sitting as it has since 1450 on narrow, cobbled South Street. The guildhall-turned-town-hall now is a museum that showcases the trial and imprisonment of the separatists.

Hooked to the headset of an audio guide, I followed the Pilgrim Fathers through their heartbreaking ordeal. I stood before the ghost of a bewigged magistrate in the authentically restored courtroom, smelled the acrid peat of the ancient fireplaces and the spits of the below-stairs kitchens, squatted in the tiny cells where the nonconformists bore witness and endured. I couldn’t help but marvel at the spirit that sustained these ordinary men in their determination to worship as they wished.


The separatists preached a simple, personal relationship with God, rejecting ecclesiastical authority, and Boston soon became a hotbed of religious dissent. In 1630 the main contingent of local nonconformists emigrated to the New World. The group, now known as Puritans, settled on the Atlantic shores of New England, ultimately calling their colony Boston after their Lincolnshire roots.

(The English/American Boston connection lives on. American Bostonians have helped to repair St. Botolph’s, and a piece of its stonework now rests in Trinity Church, Boston.)

Outside the village I stopped at Scotia Creek and the Pilgrim Fathers Memorial, erected in 1957 on the very spot the nonconformists were arrested in 1607. Alone with the symbol of the convictions that led these men and women to abandon home and country for conscience’s sake, I thought I could hear their spirits whispering of the struggles to come.

My acquaintance with the Pilgrims’ English roots whetted my interest in the American chapter of their story. So one summer day two years ago, I made a mini-pilgrimage from my home on Cape Cod to Plymouth, about an hour’s ride away. There, a living-history museum called Plimoth Plantation re-creates the Pilgrim colony’s daily life in the year 1627.


From my first step inside the wooden stockade to my ramble through the neighboring Wampanoag Indian home site, I succumbed to the illusion of 17th century Plymouth. The village is painstakingly re-created in the minutest detail, in period costumes and dialects, authentically reproduced buildings and artifacts and realistic characterizations of the colonists as they went about everyday tasks.

I even “met” William Brewster as he might have been in 1627. Amid the traditionally garbed “interpreters,” as the actors are called, I felt underdressed and glaringly nouveau in the ubiquitous 20th century American summer costume of shorts and T-shirt. And it took my brain a few minutes to adjust to role-playing a Pilgrim contemporary. I peeked into the homes of Miles Standish, John Alden and half a dozen others. Susannah Winslow spread her laundry to dry atop a patch of grass. Barbara Standish lamented the hard winter past as she weeded her garden. Elizabeth Hopkins sewed.

In William Brewster’s house, his adult daughter was preparing the midday meal while her father regaled a roomful of modern-day visitors with tales of the difficult journey to America.

“Mr. Brewster,” I said, “I’ve seen the dank jail cell in which you were imprisoned in Boston in 1607.” That got his attention. He spun around to face me, black eyes glittering, gray beard all a-twitch.


“Ahhh,” he said, “and what shire are you from, milady? I don’t recognize the accent.”

“London itself, sir,” I replied, for that was where I had been living when I first visited the Lincolnshire village of Boston.

It was with reluctance that I left Brewster’s world and reentered our sometimes mean-spirited one. But now the Pilgrim story had a new significance for me. Whatever the sacrifice, the Pilgrims held to their principles. Whatever the challenge, their courage and conviction prevailed.

Be it in Boston, England, or Main Street, USA, the human drama today is no different.


Harsh times, these.


GUIDEBOOK: Pilgrim Paths, Old World and New

Getting there: Boston, England, is about 100 miles northeast of London. It can be reached via highways A-1 (to Peterborough) and A-17, or by National Rail, telephone 011- 44-345-484-950. The Central Line leaves King’s Cross Station in London 13 times a day, connecting in Grantham to Boston. Fares range from $52 to $111 round trip, depending on day and time.


Plymouth, Mass., is 45 miles south of Boston on Massachusetts Highway 3. Plimoth Plantation closes for winter on Nov. 29 and reopens March 28. Admission, including the Mayflower replica berthed nearby, is $18.50 for adults, $11 for children. Tel. (508) 746-1622, Internet https://

For more information: Massachusetts Office of Travel and Tourism, 100 Cambridge St., Boston, MA 02202; tel. (800) 227-MASS (227-6277), Internet

British Tourist Authority, 551 Fifth Ave., Suite 701, New York, NY 10176-0799; tel. (800) GO 2 BRITAIN (462-2748), Internet

I didn’t stay in Boston, but locals recommend two hotels:


The White Hart, tel. 011-44- 1205-364-877, fax 011-44-1205- 355-974, has doubles with breakfast for $98. The New England, tel. 011-44-1205- 365-255, fax 011-44-1205- 310-597, has doubles for $134; breakfast is extra.

In Plymouth: John Carver Inn, tel. (800) 274-1620, has doubles for $79-$99 in April, $99-$129 June-October. The Pilgrim Sands Motel, tel. (800) 729-7263, has ocean-facing rooms for $85 (April to late June) to $130 (June-September); rooms overlooking Plimoth Plantation are $70-$105.