Some four hundred years ago, a group of women were shipped over to Jamestown, Virginia as “maids to make wives” for the British men who had arrived 12 years earlier. Today, a brutal and unflinching female-led drama is hitting our screens that chronicles the creation of the first English colony in America.
From the producers of Downton Abbey, Jamestown is set in 1619 and follows the lives of three women – played by Naomi Battrick, Sophie Rundle and Niamh Walsh – as they strive to create a new life in a beautiful yet perilous land.
Jamestown still perches, wild and wind-beaten, on the east coast of the United States in Williamsburg, Virginia – attracting fourth-graders on field trips from every corner of America. We took a trip across the pond with Sue de Beauvoir, the series producer, to find out a bit more about how the drama was made.
Despite almost all of the filming having taken place in Hungary – apart from the scene which depicts the gruelling two-month journey across the seas, which was recreated off the coast of Cádiz in Spain – de Beauvoir revealed to us the huge effort that went into making the series feel authentic.
When the first settlers arrived in Jamestown, their mission was to grow tobacco, and so the crew obtained a special license to grow tobacco. When filming finished, they weren't allowed to leave tobacco there or sell it – so it all went up in smoke. Even the pigs, which needed to be a certain breed, were shipped in to Eastern Europe to evoke 17th century Jamestown.
To experience the real thing in Virginia, and walk in the footsteps of America’s first British settlers, these are the three top places to visit…
A cultural heritage site, Historic Jamestowne is the exact location of the first permanent English settlement in America. It is dedicated to preservation and archaeological research into the land. Historians and archaeologists work together to unearth building foundations and human remains which date right back to the early 1600s.
A pleasing detail is that the superintendent of Historic Jamestowne today is female, Kym Hall – meaning that four centuries after maids were sent to make wives, a woman is now in charge. At the site, you can take part in a variety of tours and walk in the footsteps of Captain John Smith, the explorer, and Pocahontas, who is thought to have saved his life and who married another Englishman on that very plot of land.
Just a mile or so west on the James River is the Jamestown Settlement where there are reconstructions of the village that the first settlers would have lived in, and of the three boats that the men arrived on in 1607. Exploring these ships, you really get a sense of how bleak the four-month journey would have been, with hundreds crammed on deck suffering from seasickness and infested with scabies. There are also costumed "historical interpreters" dressed up like Englishmen and the native Powhatan. Visitors can have a go at sculpting 17th century pottery or using fire to shape huge logs and turn them into canoes.
Leap forward 100 years and explore colonial Williamsburg, an 18th century city restored. It is hard not to feel like you are an extra in The Truman Show as you walk around a town dedicated to imagining another world. Everyone who works there is dressed up as if it were the 1700s, and they speak and act as if you are living in that time. Many of the people who work there also live there, meaning their whole lives exist in the time warp. Just outside the walls of Colonial Williamsburg is a Hooters, a Denny's and multiple breweries. Seeing the contrast makes for a surreal but evocative experience.
Jamestown begins on Friday 5 May at 9pm on Sky1
For more information on Virginia, go to virginia.org
Radio Times Travel holidays
Boston, New York and Washington, 7 nights from £1,269pp. These spring and summertime journeys lift the lid on some of the Eastern seaboard's most historic cities: US capital and seat of power, Washington; mesmerising, non-stop New York; and historic, elegant Boston. Step into the past in Thomas Jefferson's beloved Charlottesville, journey through Virginia's Blue Ridge Mountains and explore Newport, Rhode Island. Meanwhile, on the optional excursions, discover America's earliest beginnings in Historic Jamestowne and at the Plimoth Plantation.
- Step back in time in colonial Williamsburg
- A scenic, full-day drive taking in the Blue Ridge Mountains, Shenandoah National Park and Charlottesville
- A visit to Washington DC
- A full day in Manhattan, New York - explore Fifth Avenue's shops or visit a museum
- Visit Boston - considered America's most European city
- An en-route stop in Newport, Rhode Island
- Seven nights' room-only accommodation at hotels in Williamsburg (2 nights), Tysons Corner (1), New Jersey (2) and Hull (2)
- Flights from the UK to Washington, returning from Boston
- Click here for more details and to book