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Meet Plymouth’s Pilgrim

16th September 2016

Whilst Plymouth gears up to celebrate Mayflower 2020 – the 400th year since the Pilgrims left for the New World there is one man that dedicates his time to welcoming Americans to the Mayflower Steps rather than waving them goodbye. David Saunders is Plymouth’s Pilgrim. He, his wife Liz and other volunteers celebrate and recreate the history of the time with authentic costumes and amusing banter through One Candle Plymouth. They also work with Associated British Ports to welcome most of the cruise ships into Plymouth. We went to meet him to find out why.

Why does Plymouth Need One Candle?

Since coming back to England from America many years ago, I have always thought that Plymouth needs to make more of our American connections and so my wife and I have become Pilgrims to help tourists at the Mayflower Steps. I’m 65 this year – gardening and decorating just isn’t me!

I like to think we are ambassador’s to Plymouth as we are so very often public facing and greet tourists from all over the world. We’re always asked for recommendations for restaurants, pubs, fish & chips shops; we are a highly visible tourist information group!  I feel special being kind and helpful to people…being kind is good.

Plymouth Pilgrims

Who makes up Plymouth’s Pilgrim Family?

Besides myself there is my American wife Liz who is from Detroit. We used to have Sophia Bennett (9) and her brother Charlie (10). Both are big fans of drama and history. We’re looking for a few more adult Pilgrims now; we pay volunteer expenses and sometimes get offered a free late lunch at restaurants.

What does being a Pilgrim entail?

The main part is being warm, friendly and approachable. Staying in character is important although almost impossible, how can we shrug our shoulders when asked where a good chip shop or restaurant is? Wearing authentic costumes is essential, I’m very picky about that. I think the main thing is to know when people want to approach us and gauging interest – realising when people don’t want to engage is important.

Is there anything you don’t like about being a pilgrim?

Looking after and storing costumes is a real headache at times. Liz wears a real era sensitive corset and it’s uncomfortable, claustrophobic and hot! For me I am really quite shy and get so nervous when we are getting in costume.

Tell us about your Pilgrim costumes are they authentic and where do they come from?

The costumes are authentic to the 1620 – 1627 period and we are just having some “on board the Mayflower” costumes made; the voyage to the New World was awfully grim and we want our new costumes to reflect that.

Pilgrims Shoes

I have custom handmade shoes from Teignmouth, handmade wool socks from Pembrokeshire, blouses from Bishopsteignton and Brighton. I have hats from the United States and 16th century musket from Spain. We spend some time foraging in charity shops and surfing eBay. I have coins from decades ago .. all feature the Mayflower and/or Plymouth. Our main costumes and designers are Plymouth College of Art and Lipson Co-operative Academy.

What would life really have been like for a Pilgrim leaving Plymouth?

Terrifying! Just imagine the squalor and filth of the voyage. No washing facilities, toilets or creature comforts. The space the “Pilgrims” were in was unbelievably tiny and only five feet high. Clothes were washed in wee too!

What are your plans for the Pilgrim family?

We’ve recently been awarded over £8000 in Heritage Lottery Funding. Plymouth Culture have also donated some funding to us. With all of that support behind us, we aim to be the public facing Ambassador’s of Mayflower 400 in 2020.

We’re growing! We’re working with the Barbican Theatre, including sourcing a professional stage scriptwriter and also some filming in the Elizabethan House this year.

We have been asked by Associated British Ports to welcome most of the cruise ships into Plymouth on a long term basis. We absolutely love doing this. Being kind and welcoming has always been a strong point with me and I am passing my people skills onto new Pilgrims.  To greet hundreds of cruise ship passengers is a wonderful feeling and most of the time we feel like we’re the one’s being greeted!

One Small Candle can also officially announce we are producing a Mayflower 400 in 2020 book (title to follow) Authors are well known published history writer Laura Quigley along with our friend, historian and Sutton Harbour resident Barbie Thompson.

Plus of course, The One Small Candle Choir is selecting choristers in September and is led by well known Musical Director Marcus Alleyne. The OSC choir will also feature an orchestra section. The choir will go into rehearsals in October for a Christmas Concert to be announced and to appear at the Plymouth Christmas Lights switch on. The choir presentation will be big with anthems and songs reflecting Plymouth, England, the Mayflower and America.

Pilgrims on Plymouth Hoe

Finally we are working on producing a “gun deck” which will be a simple way to show people the small and squalid conditions the Pilgrims lived in on the journey. We would like the gun deck to be easily stored somewhere close to the Mayflower Steps.  We envisage a LOT of people wanting to stand in the “gun deck” space and imagine how tough life was for the Pilgrims. This idea came to me when I was watching hordes of people at the Brittany Ferries stand in Brest the people were all wanted a photo with a carnival cut out and I thought we can do better and came up with the gun deck idea. I’m full of ideas….!

I enjoy telling the Pilgrim Mayflower story to schoolchildren; I’m told I’m quite good at it…my Dad would have been proud.