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The English footsteps of Pocahontas

Heacham is a pretty and proper English seaside village, with an ancient stone church, well-tended gardens and a painted village sign that prominently displays the carved image of Pocahontas.

What was a nice American Indian princess from Virginia doing in a place like Heacham? Visiting her in-laws, according to local legend.

She was also caring for her young son, planting a mulberry tree and resting up before visiting the court of King James I and Queen Anne in London.

Few Americans know about the English chapter in Pocahontas' short life. Most do recall that Pocahontas rescued Capt. John Smith from death at the hands of her father, Chief Powhatan. But there the certainty ends: Did she marry Smith or settler John Alden?

Neither. In 1614, seven years after the 12-year-old princess supposedly flung herself on Smith to save his life, Pocahontas married John Rolfe, a Heacham lad who has the dubious distinction of introducing the cultivation of tobacco to the New World. Some sources suggest that she married Rolfe on the rebound, believing that Smith, who had returned to England for medical care of a wound, was dead.

Whatever the truth, Pocahontas' story, one version of which is told in the Disney animated film that opened a few days ago in the 400th year of her birth, is not well documented. In fact, we have only Smith's word for it that the dramatic rescue actually occurred.

Smith was from the same East Anglian countryside as Rolfe. It does seem true that Pocahontas regarded him as a friend and that she helped the straggling English settlement of Jamestown. And it is certain that in 1612 she was kidnapped by settlers and converted to Christianity, adopting the name Rebecka and wearing English-style clothing.

Rolfe and Pocahontas had a son, Thomas, in 1615, and sailed to England in 1616. They made the trip to drum up support for the fledgling colonies and, if tradition can be believed, to have Rolfe introduce his new bride to his family, pillars of Heacham society who lived in Heacham Hall. History is mum on what the princess and the Rolfes thought of each other.

Rosalind Rolfe Marsden, a descendent of the Rolfes but not of Pocahontas, wrote, "I can't remember any stories detailed by my grandmother." Perhaps, she wrote, because the Rolfes who stayed in Heacham were not Pocahontas' descendants and also because "some of the Victorian generations were very highly cultured "Europeans' who would have seen any culture outside Europe as being inferior and, therefore, not worth considering. What we might now call "racist' perhaps, but more likely just plain lack of awareness of the culture of other peoples."

As for the mulberry tree Pocahontas supposedly planted, Marsden offers a quote from the Rolfe family records: "There used to be a legend that the old mulberry tree in the gardens at Heacham Hall was planted at the time of a visit of John Rolfe and his wife. It was known as the Pocahontas mulberry tree. That it dated from that time is extremely probable, for in 1605 King James I ordered mulberry trees to encourage the silk industry by the cultivation of silkworms."

Whether she ever was at Heacham, Pocahontas was most definitely presented at court; an oil painting of her, dolled up in a starched lace ruff and carrying a fan of three feathers is in the Smithsonian Institution. In London, Pocahontas was caught up in social events and attended Ben Jonson's 12th Night Masque in 1617. Along the way, she was reunited briefly with Capt. Smith.

The Rolfes were set to return to Virginia in the spring of 1617 when Pocahontas, who had been ailing, grew much worse and died aboard ship in late March, in the port of Gravesend. She was buried in the local church.

Her son Thomas was reared in England, returning to Virginia as an adult. He had many descendants, some of whom still come to Heacham and make their way eventually to the handsome church of St. Mary the Virgin, which would have been standing during Pocahontas' sojourn in England. An alabaster plaque commemorates her.

But while the sign has been up since 1960, East Anglians in general are apt to say, "Who?" when asked if they know the name Pocahontas. Tess Wright, tourism development officer for King's Lynn and West Norfolk, said that plans are under way to produce an open-air pageant retelling Pocahontas' story in King's Lynn in August 1997.

But visitors to Heacham can enjoy a piece of the region that is is widely celebrated: Norfolk Lavender, across from the quiet village, describes itself as England's last full-scale lavender farm. It provides a glorious treat for the senses in midsummer. Then, the lavender, which is green, pink, white and deep purple, is at its peak and rows of the tidy plants stretch like lengths of gleaming corduroy over the sandy countryside.

The scent of lavender lightly perfumes the air and visitors stroll through the exhibition gardens of lavender and herbs, or stop for tea in the Miller's Cottage Tearoom, which features scones, cream cakes and, if you fancy it, tea with bits of lavender in it.

At Norfolk Lavender, even the children and dogs (who lap water from lavender-tinted water dishes) seem on their best behavior. Perhaps it is the pervasive lavender scent _ crisp and soothing at the same time. Or perhaps it is a spell cast by the old Caley Mill, which rises like a golden-brown, gingerbread giant in the midst of the fields. The mill was built in the 1820s of carstone. It is now the administration building, with the lavender distillation done in adjacent buildings.

In summer, visitors can take a short tour of the premises, and during harvest times, tours of further-flung lavender fields are offered. Much of the lavender is grown in surrounding fields, about half of which are rented from nearby Sandringham House, one of the Queen's private residences.

The farm, which began in 1932, now covers 100 acres with lavender. From this crop, a tour said, 500 pounds of lavender yields a little more than one quart of lavender oil, the basis for perfume and soap.

Anne Gillespie Lewis is a Minneapolis-based freelance writer whose husband is also a Norfolk lad born and bred.


Heacham, in Norfolk county, is a village located a few miles north and east of King's Lynn, which is approximately 100 miles northeast of London. King's Lynn can be reached by train from London. To continue on to Heacham, rent a car or take the bus. The village, with the Church of St. Mary the Virgin, is on the seaside, about a mile in from the main A149 road.

WHERE TO STAY: The Feathers Hotel, in the nearby village of Dersingham, offers superb meals, a nice pub garden, rooms and a view of the local cricket team in season. Bed and breakfast for two is less than $100. Hunstanton, further up the coast, and King's Lynn also offer numerous hotels and bed-and-breakfasts. The Tudor Rose, once a merchant's house and dating to 1500, is now a rosy pink, timber-framed hotel, with a beamed dining room. All rooms have private baths. Doubles, breakfast included, are less than $100.

WHERE TO EAT: The Gin Trap, in Ringstead, near Heacham, is a bustling pub. Landlord Brian Harmes dispenses humor along with specially brewed Gin Trap Bitter, a traditionally brewed Norfolk Ale, and good pub lunches. It is close to the Peddar's Way, an ancient walkway that is pre-Roman.

In King's Lynn, a favorite gathering place for coffee and desserts is Crofters, a cozy den tucked in the undercroft of the 500-year-old Guild Hall undercroft.

IN THE AREA: King's Lynn was one of the most important ports in England during medieval times and many beautiful buildings survive from that era, including the 11th-century Church of St. Margaret and the 15th Hanseatic warehouse. Outside of town, on the road to Heacham, is Castle Rising, set in the village of the same name. The castle, a magnificent 12th-century keep with intact moat, is open year-round.

EVENTS: The annual King's Lynn Festival, held in mid- to late July, has many musical and other arts events. The Sandringham Flower Show in late July is a good place to catch a glimpse of the Royals close up.

INFORMATION: Write West Norfolk tourist information, the Old Gaol House, Saturday Market Place, King's Lynn, Norfolk PE30 5DQ, England.