Discovering Leiden, 400 years after the Mayflower Pilgrims left it for America


A reflective glory: It’s 400 years since the Mayflower Pilgrims set off for America from the charming Dutch city of Leiden – and it’s never looked better (think Amsterdam without the queues)

  • A Dutch group set off from Leiden in north-west Holland for America in 1620
  • To absorb their world, follow a trail that takes you along the streets they trod  
  • The American Pilgrims House is a treasure trove of old books, chests and tools 

Leiden has all the appeal of Amsterdam without the queues, cannabis cafes and clamour to see the Rijksmuseum. This Dutch city is about windmills, prodigious churches, canals lined with charming gabled houses and markets and a compelling history.

This year, Leiden is commemorating the 400th anniversary of the summer day in 1620 when the men, women and children, known as the Mayflower Pilgrims, set sail on their momentous voyage to America. Not from the starting point of Plymouth, Devon (as myth has it), and not on the Mayflower but on the Speedwell, which they boarded in Delfshaven, close to Leiden.

The plan had been to meet the Mayflower, which was carrying a bunch of fortune-seekers, in Southampton and sail on in convoy. But the Speedwell sprang a leak and its passengers were forced to board the Mayflower in the Devon port.

A city centre channel running through Leiden, which is not far from Amsterdam

Leiden is still as ‘faire and beautiful’ as the day they arrived in 1609, fleeing persecution in England. 

To absorb their 17th-century world, take a booklet from the tourist office near the station on Stationsweg – or hire a guide – and follow a trail which takes you along the streets they trod.

The latter-day pilgrim can stroll along the Beestenmarkt and on to the old red light district where Groenhazengracht 3, a pretty pink house, was once owned by the notorious prostitute Groene Haasje (Little Green Hare).

Next, the Rapenburg – the loveliest of streets which winds past the cafes and restaurants of Kloksteeg to St Peter’s Church where a plaque lists the English families who were buried there.

St Peter's Church in the Dutch city lists the names of English families who were buried there

St Peter’s Church in the Dutch city lists the names of English families who were buried there

They met and prayed in a house opposite the church which was replaced in 1683. But behind its door is an unexpected delight: a courtyard of almshouses.

The pilgrims’ homes were as tiny as the almshouses. To discover how they coped in cramped quarters, visit the American Pilgrims House (Thursday to Saturday, 1-5pm). It is a treasure trove of ancient books, chests and tools.

Between March 27 and July 12 The Lakenhal Museum has an exhibition of artefacts and paintings reflecting the refugees’ boundless quest for freedom, including a contemporary depiction of the day they sailed away. 

A statue marks that spot on the River Vliet, while a stone memorial lists those who left, many of whom could not join the overcrowded Mayflower, and even more who would die within weeks of landing in New England. To commemorate the exodus, a flotilla will sail along the canals to Delfshaven on July 18.

An aerial view of the tree-lined canals and brown brick buildings of Leiden

An aerial view of the tree-lined canals and brown brick buildings of Leiden

A recreation of the original Mayflower ship docked at Plymouth Harbor, Massachusetts

A recreation of the original Mayflower ship docked at Plymouth Harbor, Massachusetts

Stay at Boutique Hotel Steenhof Suites, a recently converted house with rooms with beams and original fireplaces and a top breakfast of eggs cocotte, nutty yoghurt, cold meat, cheese and croissants.

Then visit the cafe L’Esperance, in Kaiserstraat, which was opened to celebrate Napoleon’s defeat in 1814. 

A slogan on the wall reads: ‘Cold beer gives you warm blood.’ The pilgrims might not agree with this but would be delighted that Leiden is back in the spotlight.

  • Richard’s book, Voices Of The Mayflower, is out on Friday.

TRAVEL FACTS

EasyJet (easyjet.com) London to Amsterdam from £44 return. The 16-minute train ride from Schiphol airport to Leiden costs about £5 (ns.nl). Boutique Hotel Steenhof Suites (steenhofsuites.nl) from £87 a night.

 

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