TRAVEL / The folks who live on Beacon Hill: Henry James's Boston, with all its high-minded rectitude, still exists alongside the original 'Cheers' bar. Michael Leapman explored both worlds from a B & B

Click to follow
IN HIS 1947 book The Proper Bostonians, Cleveland Amory told a story about a denizen of Beacon Hill, 'a place where all true Boston spinsters have always belonged'. Asked why she was uninterested in travelling, the lady replied: 'Why should I travel when I'm already here?'

Boston has always prided itself on being self-contained, conservative with a small 'c' and impervious to flashy modern fashion - in short, on occupying a higher social plane than other cities. Its values are intellectual rather than meretricious, though its academic heart is to be found across the river at Harvard University. Boston is one of the few places I know where the restaurants close earlier than the book shops. Visiting its splendid Museum of Fine Arts, where most of the paintings were bequeathed by wealthy residents, I overheard a teacher explaining to a group of students why there was relatively little modern work: 'Bostonians went big on Old Masters and Impressionists but they didn't go too much for Picasso, Cubism and anything after that.' They were happy, no doubt, to leave such dangerous experimentation to New York and Los Angeles.

Ever since the domed Massachusetts State House was built at its crest at the end of the 18th century, Beacon Hill has been the nerve centre - if that is not too excitable an expression - of this highly proper Boston. In his novel The Bostonians, Henry James used the 'ladies of Beacon Street' as a symbol of respectable opinion. Naturally, there is nothing as vulgar as a hotel in the Beacon Hill district but that does not mean you cannot stay there. A call to Ferne Mintz at her Bed and Breakfast Agency secured me three nights in a charming converted coach house in Lime Street, a cobbled mews just behind Charles Street - a busy street lined with antique shops, running along the foot of Beacon Hill and linked to the State House by the still splendid Mount Vernon Avenue. Lime Street is only yards from the red brick Charles Street meeting house, built in 1807 at the corner of Mount Vernon Street. Once the venue of impassioned anti-slavery meetings, its ground floor now houses a variety of shops and snack bars. In The Bostonians, James's heroine, Olive Chancellor, lived in the area, and one of his characters mused that 'a residence in Charles Street must at least produce some contact with the brilliant classes'. Until the middle of the last century the backs of its houses ran down to the Charles River, then landfill shifted it several blocks inland.

The Lime Street coach house used to serve these big houses and those higher up the hill. In its time it was also a puppet theatre and has now been well adapted as a spacious residence with a split-level reception room running its entire depth and, upstairs, enough bedrooms to allow two of them to be let to visitors - one at dollars 110 (pounds 44) a night and a smaller at dollars 95 (pounds 38), both including Continental breakfast. A modest hotel would cost no more, but would not compare for location or ambience. John and Rosemary Glen, who are from Canada, have lived in the house for 15 years and have been letting rooms for 13 of them. 'Boston has a very European feel about it,' Rosemary says. 'It's a city of neighbourhoods and characters.

Everything is near and everything is to scale, but it's big enough to have an international atmosphere. There's so much history - especially here in Beacon Hill - and a lot of academic life. It has the best of all worlds.'

The first thing I did after installing myself in Lime Street was to take a walk around the neighbourhood. The simplest way of getting a fix on Beacon Hill is to follow the Black Heritage Trail, a short signposted walk starting outside the State House. The route is designed to take in buildings and monuments significant in the struggle for civil rights, but it also passes the most attractive streets and houses in the Beacon Hill district, many in red brick with characteristic curved bays.

Paul Revere and Samuel Adams laid the foundation stone of the State House in 1795, and since then the land surrounding it has become the most expensive real estate in the city. Some of the traditionally powerful families made their fortune from an enterprising (some would use a ruder word) deal in which, armed with inside knowledge, they formed a syndicate to buy the surrounding pasture land cheaply before the site for the State House had been publicly announced.

A leading syndicate member was the merchant and politician Harrison Gray Otis, who had three houses built in the area, each grander than the last and all designed by Charles Bulfinch, architect of the State House. The man who sold the land, ignorant of its potential value, was the painter John Singleton Copley, who later protested - to no avail.

From the State House, the walk takes you down Beacon Street before turning into Joy Street. This was originally called Belknap Street and its change of name gives an insight into Boston's social history. In the mid-19th century the southern section of the street, nearest Beacon Street, was highly fashionable but it gradually deteriorated towards the north, where the end nearest Cambridge Street was inhabited mainly by blacks. (A terrace of the narrow 19th-century houses they used to occupy is preserved at Smith Court, an alley off Joy Street.)

The 'proper' folk at the south end, not keen on sharing a street address with the less fortunate, had the name of their section changed from Belknap to Joy. Soon, the slightly inferior people in the middle stretch decided they wanted to identify with their betters and changed too. Finally, as ideas of equality took hold, the whole street assumed the new name.

Near the corner of Joy and Mount Vernon Streets is the only old Beacon Hill home regularly open to the public, the Nichols House. For years it was the residence of Rose Standish Nichols, a spinster who, although she lived until well after the Second World War, kept it furnished as it was in the early years of the century and as it remains today. The rooms contain nothing of spectacular beauty or value - ostentation is not a Boston trait - but they do provide a vivid impression of the lifestyle of Beacon Hill at the peak of its social standing.

The smartest address in the district is the privately owned Louisburg Square, off Mount Vernon Street, which is lined with uniform brick houses around a cobbled street, dating from between 1834 and 1847. Louisa May Alcott, author of Little Women, is one of its former residents. A more recent phenomenon, on Beacon Street, is the Bull and Finch basement pub. This was the bar that provided the inspiration for the television series Cheers and it exploits the fact ruthlessly. It may once have been the friendly neighbourhood place depicted in the series but today it is crammed with noisy sightseers taking each other's picture, and it is easier to buy an expensive souvenir T-shirt than to get served with a drink.

A more decorous and pleasanter drinking experience is to be had at Sevens, a bar at 77 Charles Street that John Glen recommended to me. Here everyone really does seem to know the staff and their fellow customers and an hour or two at Sevens does a lot to break down the image of Boston as a reserved, unwelcoming city. 'A Boston man is the east wind made flesh,' complained the 19th-century wit Thomas Appleton. That may have been true of the Beacon Hill that he and Henry James and even Cleveland Amory knew, but it is not now. 'I thought it would be stuffy when I came here,' Rosemary Glen admitted, 'but people are incredibly friendly. Mind you, they do place a lot of importance on intelligence. In Montreal they judge you by the clothes on your back, in New York it's how much money you've got, but here it's more cerebral.'

Henry James would have recognised that. If you steer well clear of the Cheers boxer shorts ('for a guy with a libido as big as the world's most endearing lover') you will still find a lot of his Boston, with its 'plain living and high thinking, pure ideals and earnest effort, moral passion and noble experiment'. -


GETTING THERE: Virgin Atlantic (0293 747747) has daily flights from Gatwick to Boston starting from pounds 349 until the end of June (21-day advance booking, plus pounds 25.10 airport tax and security). US Airtours (081-559 2020) has pounds 219 return fare in April, pounds 279 in May. Both are mid-week prices and exclude pounds 22 tax. Trailfinders (071-938 3939) has flights starting from pounds 229 until the end of April and pounds 299 from then until June, plus pounds 16 tax.

STAYING THERE: The Bed and Breakfast Agency, 47 Commercial Wharf, Boston MA 02110, USA, tel: 010 1 617 720 3540; or toll-free from Britain: 0800 895128. Days Inns of America (0483 440470) offers pre-paid vouchers for accommodation from pounds 39-pounds 63 per night. The United States Tourism and Travel administration (see below) provides lists of places to stay.

TOUR OPERATORS: Transamerica Holidays (0293 774441) offers charter fly-drive holidays in June from pounds 385 for 13 nights, plus pounds 23 airport tax. The company will find accommodation to suit and add it on to the basic price. American Dream Holidays (081-552 1201) has a seven-day inclusive package for pounds 482 return to Gatwick.

CAR HIRE: Avis (081-848 8733) provides basic car hire from pounds 137 per week plus local taxes (5-10 per cent). Drivers must be over 25 and have a full clean licence. Hertz (081-679 1799) provides special rates for BA passengers.

FURTHER INFORMATION: United States Tourism and Travel Administration Office, PO Box 1EN, London W1A 1EN (tel: 071-495 4466; fax: 071-409 0566) has an answerphone taking names and addresses for a free pack. Allow a week to 10 days for delivery.

(Photographs omitted)