Massachusetts: Tea and sympathy

Behind the clapboard buildings and genteel parks, Boston has a history of hosting dissidents and rebels. Rhod Sharp meets the heroes of Massachusetts

Buried deep in Boston's North End is the neatest and best-preserved 1680 home imaginable. Its roof, once bent like a broken-backed horse, is now a straight arrow. Its clapboards, overlapped with great skill, are painted in a historic – well, deep, colour. What a parson's daughter would wear. Its best-known inhabitant wouldn't recognise it.

Paul Revere's house has been a boarding house, a tenement, a bank and a cigar factory. Mercifully not all at the same time, although Revere might have given it a go. Like Ben Franklin, born across town on Milk Street, Revere was a have-a-go-at-everything hero. By trade, he was a silversmith who left us some fine examples of his craft. The house also used to have a further floor – vital for a Renaissance man who sired 16 children. For a bit of extra income, Revere did engraving; he was also a very political animal. The Masons, the Sons of Liberty, the North End Caucus: Revere joined them all. Samuel Adams and the others could wax eloquent, but the pictures Paul Revere drew could touch something quick, like television.

Downstairs, vistors now gather in the one good spot in the yard to photograph each other and to immerse themselves in the tale of American independence.

Boston has an extra dimension lacking in many US cities, which comes from being the oldest continuously operating port in the Americas. The city is perched on a thumb of land protruding into the harbour. Downtown streets meander entertainingly; walking is not regarded as a minority sport; and gleaming high-rises are tempered by doddery old terraces and interrupted by neat redbrick relics of revolution.

Revere's fellow citizens were naturally rebellious. The ordinary people of Boston lived in grinding poverty, as the city was sidestepped by the rest of the colonies, who took the line of least resistance against assertive British rule. For some years, Boston's sons of toil had been giving the British governor trouble and a permanent detachment of Redcoats arrived in 1768.

In March 1770, the notorious Boston Massacre took place. In a mix-up that was less than deliberate, British soldiers opened fire on protesters, killing five of them. An image of the event was duly "Engrav'd Printed & Sold by Paul Revere Boston", and the engraving electrified public sentiment. In fact, the dead came from the class of Bostonian who lived not in mansions but rooms. One, Patrick Carr, was Irish-American. One, Crispus Atticus, was black. Three were apprentices.

The revolutionary history of Boston is remarkably accessible. Every tourist follows the Freedom Trail, a red line on the sidewalk. Be the exception, and get the inside track from a National Park Ranger; parts of the city are as much National Park as Yellowstone and Yosemite. Free guided 90-minute tours depart from the National Historical Park Visitor Center, behind the Old State House. A notable highlight of the tour is Fanueil Hall (in Boston, the name rhymes with "annual"), the stout, simple meeting house where the first steps were taken towards a written constitution.

The definitively revolutionary gesture of 1773 was the Boston Tea Party, when rebellious stirrings were brewed into a treasonable act. A hundred or so revolutionaries, their faces blackened with soot, cast some 342 chests of heavily taxable tea into the harbour. Today the site is unremarkable, although the redeveloped harbour area by the impressive Aquarium is stuffed with nautical activities for a family day out.

After the Tea Party, the British took the dreadful sanction of moving the customs house to Marblehead, some 17 miles north. It is hard to believe now that Marblehead was the 10th-biggest city in the colonies. The hundreds of yachts that line the harbour in summer are a distant echo of the money that rained down from a slick foreign trade in dried cod fished by transplanted Cornishmen. Nothing could quite prepare the visitor for the smell of shoals of split cod drying around the shore. One New York merchant, Captain Francis Goelet, wrote: "It's a dirty, irregular, stinking place."

Marblehead was probably easier to reach two centuries ago, although from May to October a fast ferry goes to neighbouring Salem from Boston Aquarium in 40 minutes. At other times of the year you can take the "T" (Boston's excellent subway, the first in the US) Blue Line to the dubiously named Wonderland and then hop a bus. Or just drive up Highway 1A, a name which merely hints at this road's antiquity.

In the mid-1770s, Marblehead was also a bitterly divided town. The Patriots, led by Jeremiah Lee, Jonathan Glover, and the future Vice-President Elbridge Gerry, began to funnel supplies south, for the war that they were convinced was coming. All of these men's large homes survive, preserved in part by depressions that followed the disastrous loss of the fishing fleet in the Great Gale of 1846 and the later destruction of the winter industry of making childrens' shoes.

Lee's mansion on Washington Street, demonstrably one of the two biggest homes surviving from the pre-revolutionary colonies, makes a good starting point. An American visitor entering the cavernous atrium in the 1750s would have been dumbfounded: such grand places simply did not exist in the colonies. Volunteers give excellent guided tours from June to October.

Then walk across the road to the Marblehead Museum and Historical Society. A permanent exhibition spotlights Marblehead's own naïf artist, JOJ Frost, who worked with house paints and sold his pieces from a barrow in the street in the 1920s for 25 cents each. Frost's works now change hands for numbers that would buy a new barrow for everyone in town. The pictures of cod drying on flakes and dories weighed down by mighty piscine specimens have an instant appeal. Ruin Wreckage and Death depicts the 1846 tragedy on the Grand Bank in words written by Frost in bold white letters: "11 VESSELS LOST 65 MEN 43 WIDOWS 155 FATHERLESS CHILDREN AND THE SEA GAVE UP THE DEAD WHICH WERE IN IT."

Back up the hill that is Washington Street, the Romanesque tower of Abbot Hall is unmissable. Its foundation stone was laid on Centennial Day, 4 July 1876. In the Selectmen's Room, part-council chamber and part-museum, you can admire a huge image of American revolutionary guts and glory. The painting shows a drummer-boy marching with his drum-playing grandfather and fife-playing father to the salute of a dying youth on a battlefield as the American flag flutters in the smoke. The artist, Archibald MacNeal Willard, called it Yankee Doodle but after it had been brought to Marblehead from the Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia it was rechristened The Spirit of '76.

Afterwards, walk down State Street to The Landing for lunch; or, for a late breakfast, to The Driftwood, a simple red cabin with a clientele of weatherproof locals. Marblehead became a darling of the international yachting crowd when it hosted the America's Cup for three years in a row in the 1880s, defended by the Eastern, one of five yacht clubs here. (Maddie's Sail Loft, named as one of the 10 best sailing pubs in the world by Sail magazine, is shuttered – waiting for the right owners to let in some light.)

Take a Victorian button pendant back home from the Button Shop, have a little something at the Muffin Shop or hang out at Devereux Beach. Lime Rickey's is a simple beach café with a wraparound deck and children's portions. Or wander all the way down Front Street to Fort Sewall, a park on the tip of the harbour, where Marblehead cannon blasted two British frigates in the war of 1812. Resist (or not) the temptation to stop at the hospitable bar of The Barnacle.

Back in Boston, pay a visit to the Old Granary burying ground on Tremont Street just off Boston Common, full of monuments to Revere, John Hancock, Samuel Adams and the rest of the pioneers and revolutionaries who turned a scattering of colonies along America's East Coast into the world's richest nation. Yet jostled by the giants of the past, some Americans are experiencing emotions from a generation ago as they seek an inspirational figure to bring them from the cellar of world esteem to the corner office.

The John F Kennedy presidential library near Savin Hill on Boston's southside is one of the most visited places in the city. Expect a spike in visitor numbers to one of the most sombre yet inspirational sights in Boston: the suburban Brookline birthplace of John Fitzgerald Kennedy, the assassinated president whose name is repeatedly summoned up by seekers after profound change. Yet the comfortable, middle-class home, in which visitors speak in hushed, reverential tones, feels anything but revolutionary.

Rhod Sharp presents BBC Radio 5 Live's 'Up All Night'. He lives, increasingly, in Marblehead, Massachusetts

Traveller's guide

Getting there

Boston is served by British Airways (0844 493 0787;, Virgin Atlantic (08705 747 747; and American Airlines (020-7365 0777; from Heathrow.

Getting around

The cheapest way into Boston is the subway ( Connect to the Red Line for the onward journey. Single journeys cost $2 (£1.05).

Boston's Logan Airport is close to the centre, so a taxi to a Back Bay hotel costs in the region of $15 (£7.90), excluding tip.

To get direct to Marblehead from Logan, try a personal limousine service such as Bruce Block's (; $61/£32 for two people, excluding tip).

Staying there

The Eliot Hotel, 370 Commonwealth Avenue, Boston (001 617 267 1607; Doubles from $332 (£175), room only.

Jurys Boston Hotel, 350 Stuart Street, Back Bay, Boston (001 617 266 7200; Doubles from $265 (£139), room only.

The Lenox, 61 Exeter Street, Back Bay, Boston (001 617 536 5300; Doubles from $219 (£115), room only.

The Harbor Light Inn, 58 Washington Street, Marblehead (001 781 631 2186; B&B from $153 (£81).

The Seagull Inn, 106 Harbor Avenue, Marblehead (001 781 631 1893; B&B from $148 (£78).

Hawthorn Inn, 18 Washington Square, Salem (001 978 744 4080; Doubles from $117 (£62).

Visiting there

The Paul Revere House, 19 North Square, Boston (001 617 523 2338; Open daily 9.30am-4.15pm and to 5.15pm from 15 April to 31 October. Closed Mondays from January to March; $3 (£1.60).

The Old State House, Freedom Trail, Boston (001 617 720 1713; Open daily 9am-5pm, until 6pm in July and August; $5 (£2.60).

The Marblehead Museum and Historical Society, 170 Washington Street, Marblehead (001 781 631 1768; Open Tues-Sat 10am-4pm; admission free. The Jeremiah Lee Mansion (161 Washington Street) is open June-October 10am-4pm; $5 (£2.60).

John F Kennedy Presidential Library, Columbia Point, Boston (001 617 514 1600; Daily 9am-5pm; $10 (£5.30).

JFK Birthplace, 83 Beals Street, Brookline (001 617 566 7937; Visits by arrangement; $3 (£1.60).

More information; 001 617 536 4100.; 001 617 973 8500

The Independent travel offers: Discover a world of inspiring destinations

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Flocking round: Beyoncé, Madame Tussauds' latest waxwork, looking fierce in the park
travelIn a digital age when we have more access than ever to the stars, why are waxworks still pulling in crowds?
Arts and Entertainment
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench appeared at the Hay Festival to perform excerpts from Shakespearean plays
tvJudi Dench and Hugh Bonneville join Benedict Cumberbatch in BBC Shakespeare adaptations
Is this how Mario Balotelli will cruise into Liverpool?
Ronahi Serhat, a PKK fighter, in the Qandil Mountains in Iraqi Kurdistan
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Arts and Entertainment
Poet’s corner: Philip Larkin at the venetian window of his home in 1958
booksOr caring, playful man who lived for others? A new book has the answer
Arts and Entertainment
Exhibition at the Centre Pompidou in Metz - 23 May 2012
Matthew McConaughey and his son Levi at the game between the Boston Red Sox and the Houston Astros at Fenway Park on August 17, 2014 in Boston, Massachusetts.
advertisingOscar-winner’s Lincoln deal is latest in a lucrative ad production line
Life and Style
Pick of the bunch: Sudi Pigott puts together roasted tomatoes with peppers, aubergines and Labneh cheese for a tomato-inspired vegetarian main dish
food + drink
Arts and Entertainment
Alfred Molina, left, and John Lithgow in a scene from 'Love Is Strange'
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Oracle 11g SQL 2008 DBA (Unix, Oracle RAC, Mirroring, Replicati

    £6000 - £50000 per annum + Bonus+Benefits+Package: Harrington Starr: Oracle 11...

    Recruitment Consultant (Graduate Trainee), Finchley Central

    £17K OTE £30K: Charter Selection: Highly successful and innovative specialist...

    SQL DBA/ C# Developer - T-SQL, C#.Net

    £45000 - £55000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Working with an exciting ...

    Sales and Office Administrator – Sports Media

    £23,000: Sauce Recruitment: A global leader in sports and entertainment is now...

    Day In a Page

    Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

    Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

    The President came the nearest he has come yet to rivalling George W Bush’s gormless reaction to 9/11 , says Robert Fisk
    Ebola outbreak: Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on the virus

    Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on Ebola

    A Christian charity’s efforts to save missionaries trapped in Africa by the crisis have been justifiably praised. But doubts remain about its evangelical motives
    Jeremy Clarkson 'does not see a problem' with his racist language on Top Gear, says BBC

    Not even Jeremy Clarkson is bigger than the BBC, says TV boss

    Corporation’s head of television confirms ‘Top Gear’ host was warned about racist language
    Nick Clegg the movie: Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise

    Nick Clegg the movie

    Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise
    Philip Larkin: Misogynist, racist, miserable? Or caring, playful man who lived for others?

    Philip Larkin: What will survive of him?

    Larkin's reputation has taken a knocking. But a new book by James Booth argues that the poet was affectionate, witty, entertaining and kind, as hitherto unseen letters, sketches and 'selfies' reveal
    Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?

    Waxing lyrical

    Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?
    Texas forensic astronomer finally pinpoints the exact birth of impressionism

    Revealed (to the minute)

    The precise time when impressionism was born
    From slow-roasted to sugar-cured: how to make the most of the British tomato season

    Make the most of British tomatoes

    The British crop is at its tastiest and most abundant. Sudi Pigott shares her favourite recipes
    10 best men's skincare products

    Face it: 10 best men's skincare products

    Oscar Quine cleanses, tones and moisturises to find skin-savers blokes will be proud to display on the bathroom shelf
    Malky Mackay allegations: Malky Mackay, Iain Moody and another grim day for English football

    Mackay, Moody and another grim day for English football

    The latest shocking claims do nothing to dispel the image that some in the game on these shores exist in a time warp, laments Sam Wallace
    La Liga analysis: Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

    Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

    Pete Jenson starts his preview of the Spanish season, which begins on Saturday, by explaining how Fifa’s transfer ban will affect the Catalans
    Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

    We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

    Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
    Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

    Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

    Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
    Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

    The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

    Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
    Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

    Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

    Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape