Almost too good to be true

For a pretty little town, Concord, in New England, has made its mark on the historical, religious and literary map of America. But it still manages not to take itself too seriously. By Graeme Grant

AMERICANS pronounce it "Conquered" which, given the history of this small New England town, is rather apt. For them, that is. Concord is where America began the process of conquering the Brits, where the first hostilities of the American War of Independence took place. "By the rude bridge that arched the flood," runs Ralph Waldo Emerson's "Concord Hymn", was fired "the shot heard around the world". A slight exaggeration, perhaps, but the shot was certainly heard by the British soldiers. They ran away. "You do," said an American friend, "have a funny way of getting rid of your colonies, don't you? You ran away from here, and then you gave away Hong Kong."

Yet the British were far more efficient at bestowing their Britishness here than they ever were in Hong Kong. Concord, 20 miles from Boston and in the heart of New England, behaves like an English country town. It is very affluent, beautiful, old fashioned, unhurried and unworried. It has a town square and history with a capital "H".

Apart from its role in the Revolution, Concord has two other claims to fame. In 1635, it was the first inland settlement to be founded by the Puritans. Two centuries later, it again rose to prominence as the home of Emerson, Louisa May Alcott, Henry Thoreau and Nathaniel Hawthorne, authors of the period known as the "Flowering of New England".

Concord was flowering like mad when I arrived, and very pretty it was too. And hot, especially if one is on foot. Like everywhere in the States, except New York, walking is a very un-American activity here. Sensible people arrive by car, not train. But I had never taken an American commuter train before and wanted to experience it because I thought it was part of life in an American small town. It is - if you are poor. The train takes 45 minutes from Boston, stops 10 times, hoots a lot and then disgorges you at Concord Junction next to Coggins bakery - an establishment that moonlights as a ticket office and waiting room.

I had arrived sooner than my hosts were expecting me so I walked - an object of curiosity to the people purring by in their Mercedes - past beautiful white clapboard houses to the home of Louisa May Alcott, author of Little Women. I confess that I expected to be bored rigid by this shrine to a Victorian spinster and her family. I was wrong. The hour-long tour of this modest, slightly sombre house provides a fascinating insight into life in Concord a century and a half ago. "Busy" is the word that springs to mind. Louisa (you feel she is your friend after this excellent tour) and her family were fervent abolitionists, education reformers, pioneering social workers and Transcendental philosophers. They sounded absolutely terrifying.

So do the other Concord literary luminaries - all of whose houses are open to the public. Emerson and Thoreau, Transcendentalists both, propounded the theory that America was God's Own Country and influenced the entire nation with their celebrations of nature. Thoreau went as far as to build a hut at nearby Walden Pond where he communed with nature for two years and penned a two-million-word journal.

Nathaniel Hawthorne found this all a bit much and wrote - of Concord - that "Never was a poor little country village infested with such a variety of queer, strangely-dressed, oddly-behaved mortals, most of whom took upon themselves to be important agents of the world's destiny, yet were simply bores of a very intense water". One hopes he doesn't turn in his grave - he is buried next to those very bores in Concord's cemetery.

But what, I wondered as I left Louisa's house to walk to that of my hosts, were the current inhabitants of Concord like? My friends, being English and here for only six months, did not count - but they would probably know.

They did. While they had not yet encountered anyone masquerading as an agent of the world's destiny, they confirmed that strange dressing and odd behaviour were still the norm. "Everyone," said my hostess, "wears revolting clothes and no one goes out at night." She, funnily enough, used to live in Hong Kong and was still reeling with shock at being catapulted from Devil's Island to God's Own Country.

I could appreciate why. Concord has something of The Stepford Wives about it - it is a little too good to be true. It has no cinema, no shopping malls, no high-rises and no neon. Its 25,000 inhabitants enjoy the highest per capita income of any town in Massachusetts, yet their money does not shout out loud. Instead, it whispers from the elegant porticoes of white mansions; it whisks children to and from some of the best schools in the state; it does not get spent on clothes and it does not trip the light fantastic at night. The Puritan spirit lives on.

Our spirits, however, were lifted when we broke the curfew and dined out at the Colonial Inn in Monument Square (the Monument is to those who died in the Civil War) in the centre of town. Parts of the building date from 1716 and the exterior is gorgeous. The interior suffers from "Ye Olde" syndrome yet, like the rest of the town, stops short of terminal tweeness.

We had a terrific evening. The other diners - lots of them - were obviously lapsed Puritans and appeared to drink even more than we did. We quaffed excellent wine, ate great fish and cheered up no end.

The following day, we drove our hangovers the two miles to the North Bridge, that "rude bridge" that witnessed the birth of American Independence. The setting is idyllic - and so were the two hours we paddled up and down the river in a canoe. I began to appreciate why the Concord authors had been so carried away by their environment, and why the Indians who inhabited Concord before the Puritans called the place Musketaquid, or "sweet meadow".

Back on dry land, we walked across the bridge - a beautiful and apparently faithful replica of the original. On both sides, there are poignant reminders of the events that took place here. One has a plaque bearing the legend that "on this spot the first of the enemy fell in the war of that revolution which gave independence to these United States". On the other is a statue called The Minute Man.

"What on earth," I asked, "is a Minute Man?"

"The Minute Men were the Dad's Army of colonial times," my host replied.

This, I discovered when we went to the nearby Visitor Center, was a correct, if irreverent, diagnosis. Minute Men were farmers who formed the local militia and, in the event of a British attack, were required to be ready for action in one minute. The chap on the statue looks as if he could have tackled anything in a minute. He stands, sturdily determined and musket at the ready, atop the plinth engraved with Emerson's "Concord Hymn".

We spent ages at the Visitor Center, partly because it is very interesting, partly because my guidebook claimed that visitors could don colonial costume if they wished, and we wanted to see if anyone would take up the offer. No one did. "If you were staying longer," said my host, "we could drive to Plymouth for a day. They've recreated a 1630s community there. People wandering around in hessian, sawing wood and things. Totally over the top."

His words made me realise what I liked about Concord. Nothing about it is over the top. It wears its history proudly but avoids crass commercialism, and even the people are not, after all, too good to be true.

On my last day I relaxed with a beer on the verandah of the Colonial Inn. The sun was shining, the birds tweeting, the flowers blooming. The world, in short, was a perfect place. And then, a crowd of people appeared to disturb my peace. Brash and loud, they were wearing baseball caps the wrong way round and they pushed past me as if they owned the world.

They were British.

FACT FILE

Concord, Massachusetts

GETTING THERE

Concord is a 40-minute drive north-west of Boston on Route 2. Virgin Atlantic (tel: 01293 747747) and British Airways (tel: 0345 222111) fly daily, direct to Boston (20 miles from Concord). Prices for September start at around pounds 353 return (plus around pounds 45 tax). Trailfinders (tel: 0171-937 5400) does return flights with BA for pounds 244.50 including tax, during September, and can arrange car hire for pounds 166 per week (pounds 136 in October).

WHAT TO SEE

Concord and the Revolution can be fully explored by following the Battle Road, starting in Lexington, eight miles to the east. Information on the Revolution and the Minute Man National Historical Park is available from the local National Park Service (tel: 987 369 6993).

The Concord Museum (tel: 978 369 9763).

Orchard House (Louisa May Alcott's House) (tel: 978 369 4118).

ADDITIONAL INFORMATION

Concord Tourist Information Center (tel: 978 369 3120).

Massachusetts Office of Travel and Tourism (tel: 0171-978 7429) will send you a free information pack on Boston and the state of Massachusetts.

The Colonial Inn (tel: 978 369 9200) also provides information services for visitors. If you wish to stay there, prices range from $149-295 per person per night for accommodation only.

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