Jamestown: Follow in the footsteps of the first British settlers in America

The real-life story behind the 17th century English colony – and how you can visit it today

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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.

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The brutal female-led drama Jamestown chronicles the creation of the first English colony in America (Fridays, Sky 1, 9pm). It’s set in the early 1600s 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.

The real 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, 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 in Hungary. 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 to Eastern Europe to evoke 17th century Jamestown.

If you want to experience the real thing and walk in the footsteps of America’s first British settlers, these are the three top places to visit in Virgina…


Historic Jamestowne

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.

Jamestown Settlement

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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.

Colonial Williamsburg

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Leap forward 100 years and explore Colonial Williamsburg Visitor Centre, 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 returns on Friday 9 February at 9pm on Sky1

For more information on Virginia, go to virginia.org

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