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

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