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Original Boston: where pilgrims ponder the past; Link with America

As Boston, Mass., prepares to celebrate its 350th birthday, it is not surprising to find a revival of interest in the original Boston. Many travelers will undoubtedly find this the opportune time to visit both Bostons. The stranger in old Boston is soon made overtly aware of ties to the Massachusetts namesake. American accents can be heard everywhere, American addresses can be read with surprising frequency in various visitors' registers, and the American flag may even be seen flying on several buildings.

If a visit is undertaken as a pilgrimage to the past, to the source of new Boston, the tour could appropriately start in the old Guildhall.Inside the 15 th-century Guildhall are the irongated cells which once imprisoned seven "offenders" including William Bradford and William Brewster. The group, later to be known as the Pilgrim Fathers, were betrayed by the captain of a Dutch ship and arrested as they attempted to sail in 1607 from Boston to Holland and thence to the New World. They were tried in the courtroom above the cells. A more successful attempt followed in 1630, and the settlement established was named "Boston" to commemorate the associations which were so meaningful to the Massachusetts colonists.

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But the naming of old Boston in Lincolnshire goes back to A.D. 654 when a considerate and popular Benedictine monk named St. Botolph requested a site in the uninhabited, desolate fenland in order not to evict residents from lands they possessed. When his monastery was destroyed by the Danes in 870, it was rebuilt and the area called St. Botolph's Town. From that tribute to its founder, the name can be traced to the contracted and corrupted form in present usage.

Boston today, with a population over 26,000, is a prosperous country town situated in a highly productive agricultural area. Situated also on the River Witham, Boston is a busy port and a center for a thriving shellfish industry. That and the surrounding fen country, characterized by stretches of watery fields, recall the American Boston. (No wonder a certain area in the marshy Back Bay came to be called the Fenway.)

It was largely in the 18th century that huge areas of the fens were drained by canals and dikes and man-made watercourses and enclosed for farming purposes. The centrally located Market Place, with its stalls selling fresh produce, serves as a perennial reminder of agricultural yield. As a further extension of crop production, the canning of fruits and vegetables is a major Boston industry.

But this is not a modern trafficked city, for there in the center of downtown Boston, in Willoughby Street, is a windmill. The Maud Foster Windmill, unusual for its five sails or sweeps, was built in 1809 to grind corn. It is still in working order and remains a fine example of just one of the many mills which once abounded.

Among many other Dutch associations and influences is a thriving tulip bulb industry. More than 10,000 acres of tulip fields in Lincolnshire rival those in Holland for production and beauty and are worth a visit in the springtime. One area of the county, to the southeast, is even called Holland for the reason that it, too, can be characterized as hollow or flat land.

But one need not leave the center of the town to enjoy the pleasant impression of Boston itself, which is conveyed in the area around the irregularly shaped Market Place. The architectural variety and charm can be seen all around in such buildings as the Grand Peacock and Royal Hotel of about 1670 or the Exchange buildings dated 1772 or the Assembly Rooms of 1826 with Tuscan columns and tall windows lighting a large assembly room.

Colorful though the area may be on market days, the scene is dominated, as it has been for centuries, by the enormous St. Botolph's Church with its fine soaring lantern tower, affectionately known to all as the "Stump." This prodigious parish church is 282 feet long and 100 feet wide with a tower that rises to a height of 272 feet.

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Why the exceedingly high tower is called the Stump no one knows. But the tradition of the name may be the best evidence that a spire was originally intended to top the whole. Perhaps it reflects the modesty of Bostonians. Or perhaps it was the envious expression of neighbors, for a climb to the first balcony of the tower can give some remarkable views of the town and Fenland -- one-third of the county -- including, on a clear day, Lincoln Cathedral, some 30 miles off. The ascender can look down at the red roofs and confused maze of streets or follow the course of the Witham or look northward to the Lincolnshire of Tennyson's childhood.

In fact, the open stonework gives this medieval lantern tower a rather fragile appearance for its practical function. Designed to act as a guide to mariners out at sea and to travelers who would see it across the fens, it obviates any idea of originality attributed to the new Boston patriots who used a lantern in the Old North Church steeple as a warning guide: "One if by land and two if by sea. . . ."

Inside, the tower again makes an unforgettable impression as it opens up to a height of 137 feet. American associations pile up, too. In the tower area is a memorial to five Boston men who later became governors of Massachusetts. Ironically, the need for repairs is one of the ties that binds the two Bostons. In 1931, Americans donated a generous sum for restoration of the tower. And earlier, in 1857, the people of Boston, Mass., were responsible for restoring one of the former guild chapels in memory of John Cotton, who was vicar of St. Botolph's from 1612 until he left for the other Boston in 1631.

Renovations and changes, which have been going on continually, tie the two Bostons in both directions. Tracery from one chancel window in the east end was removed and shipped across the ocean to be installed in a cloister at Trinity Church in Copley Square, Boston.

Next to the Guildhall is the Fydell House, built in 1726, predictably by William Fydell, a successful merchant who was also three times mayor of Boston. It is a superb town house and an excellent example of 18th-century domestic architecture. One room, opened in 1938 by the American ambassador, Joseph P. Kennedy, has been designated for the use of American visitors from Boston, Mass. Here, the pilgrim may pause to rest or to ponder the past. American identity and Boston beginnings are everywhere. Consider this final curiosity: Just eight miles away is a place, a hamlet actually, called Bunker's Hill.


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