Getting to know the Boston that predated New England

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

My original plan was to stay at an inn close by massive Lincoln Cathedral so as to be able to inspect this magnificent example of 13th-century Gothic architecture at my leisure. But every lodging with some appeal was booked because the annual county fair was in full swing. Rather than settle on a place in the outskirts, I took a quick tour of the cathedral and then looked at my map to find an interesting alternative. To the southeast of Lincoln I saw Boston marked on the map. This impromptu discovery immediately perked up my spirit, and with renewed enthusiasm I headed for the town from whence our Pilgrim fathers had come.

I had driven south from the highlands of Scotland and was by this time well conditioned to the steep mountains, high hills, rolling countryside, and curving roads. As I drew closer to Boston, however, I found myself moving along what seemed like an absolutely level landscape, more reminiscent of the Netherlands than England. I was to learn later that this area of Lincolnshire is called ``the Parts of Holland.'' This rich agricultural district is also known as Fenland, and the Romans were the first to reclaim the fecund soil for farming. Here is some of Great Britain's most fertile land, made exceedingly beautiful by tulips and other flowers, gabled houses, and windmills.

I was still about 10 miles from town when I caught sight of the famous Boston Stump rising above a layer of mist that was settling across the fens. The Boston Stump is the elegant, 272-foot high, Gothic tower of St. Botolph's Church. People who live in these parts say that the Boston Stump, the second highest church tower in the country, can be seen from more than 20 miles away. In medieval times, when Boston, a member of the Hanseatic League, was an important port trading in wool and wine, the Stump was a vital navigational landmark for ships coming ontointo? the Wash, a shallow inlet facing the North Sea. Boston is situated on the Witham River, which empties into the Wash. The sight of the Stump was indeed heartening, because the sun had set below the horizon, and I was looking forward to a hot meal and a cozy bed.

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It was dark when I arrived in the Wide Bargate section of Boston, but fortunately ahead of me was a sign most welcoming to a tired American: the New England Hotel. Even though I didn't have a reservation, I was warmly received and assigned a comfortable room with a bath for around $50 US (about $65 for a double), which included a full English breakfast. An electric kettle, china, tea bags, instant coffee, and Scottish shortbreads were on the dresser for me to use at will. The supper in the hotel's dining room, consisting of mushroom soup, veal cutlets, and jam and custard trifle, was very good, disproving the old image of bland British cuisine.

Early the next morning I walked toward Boston's main attraction -- St. Botolph's Church. The town was alive with children, dressed in their snappy school blazers and ties, scurrying in every direction, and with tradesmen and women chattering and opening up their shops for another day's business. The huge cranes on the docks were already swinging in operation, loading vessels with coal, cattle, and agricultural products.

Although little is known about St. Botolph, it is said that he came to this part of England with his brother St. Adulf. In 654 they founded a monastery on this site, which was then called Icanhoh. Botolph was hailed by contemporaries and historians as a man of ``remarkable life and learning.'' He was such a popular figure in medieval England that those seeking enlightenment, such as St. Ceolfrid from Wearmouth, traveled long distances to Boston just to converse with Botolph.

The name Boston is a corruption of its second appellation -- Botolph's Town. The Puritan 'emigr'es from this region imparted the name of Boston on what would become the capital of their new commonwealth in Massachusetts. And the old usage of ``Botolph'' can be found as the name of a street and that of an exclusive men's club in New England's Boston.

When I visited the church, it was undergoing a dramatic transformation. Many centuries of grime, soot, and mold were being gently steam-cleaned from its exterior surfaces. The natural beauty of the stone and the superb artistry of long-forgotten masons and carvers that had been hidden to other generations were being uncovered. St. Botolph's church, suffering neglect in the past, has undergone extensive restoration since the 1930s. Actually, it is even more attractive when seen from a distance, such as from the other side of the Witham, which flows past its main entrance, or from outside of town, where the tower takes on an ethereal, Monet effect in various conditions of light.

The interior has an impressive medieval painted ceiling, and its misericords (supports in hinged church seats) are said to date from 1390. Its prize is a stained glass window commemorating Anne Bradstreet, who sailed to Massachusetts on the Arbella in the mid-1600s. She was the first Englishwoman to write poetry in America.

Her father and her husband helped to organize the Massachusetts Bay Company in 1629. This window also commemorates Jean Ingelow, born in 1820, another poet who wrote popular ballads such as ``High Tide on the Coast of Lincolnshire.''

St. Botolph's Church and Market Place are at the heart of town, and Boston is at its most interesting here. There are outdoor caf'es and small hotels on the banks of the Witham. Nearby, on South Street, is the Guildhall, built in 1450, which now houses the Borough Museum of local history, which is full of prints, archaeological artifacts, marine exhibits, and old fire marks.

Within the Guildhall are the dismal cells in which the Pilgrim fathers were imprisoned in 1607 because they attempted to flee to Holland seeking reli gious freedom. William Bradford, in his journal, speaks of seven of them spending several months in Guildhall confinement.

Also on South Street and next to the Guildhall is Blackfriars Theater, built in the 13th century as a refectory of a Dominican friary. On the other side of Guildhall is Fydell House, built by Boston's three-term mayor, William Fydell, in 1726. Fydell House has an American Room which is reserved for visitors from the United States. such as blood and spiritual kindred from Boston, Mass.

When you are touring the eastern length of England, from Cambridge to Durham, do take a brief diversion to Boston in Lincolnshire and experience another strong link in the chain that irrevocably binds Britain and America together in common heritage.

Frederick John Pratson is author of the newly published second edition of ``Guide to Eastern Canada,'' Globe-Pequot Press, Chester, Conn.

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