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Boston, England

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The Pilgrim Fathers landed in North America in 1620. They crossed the Atlantic not just for the fun of it, but because they were the victims of religious persecution in an age when faith in Western Europe was a deadly serious business for everyone – and having the wrong faith could spell imprisonment, torture and death.

Before they left the old world aboard the Mayflower, the pilgrims had already had a number of adventures. In the early years, most of these had been focused on the small town of Boston on the east coast of England. Most of the Pilgrim Fathers came from the east midlands of England – places like Boston, Nottingham and Leicester. Boston in particular was a stronghold of the established church, and the group had been imprisoned there during their first, failed, attempt to leave the country.

Its strange then, that many years later the descendants of the Pilgrim Fathers should memorialize the town that had persecuted their grandparents by naming the capital of their Massachusetts colony after it.

Boston, England, redefines the word ‘sleepy’ nowadays. It’s also, officially, the most remote town in England – by virtue of being a whole sixteen miles from the next town in this small, crowded country. Little happens, though there’s a great deal to see, and every year hundreds of US tourists visit the town looking for their roots.

There are a lot of roots to find. Boston may be quiet, but there’s an awful lot of history going on. One of the first things that you’ll notice as you enter the town is the church of St. Botolph, known to the locals as ‘the Stump’. The immense structure – 262 feet high – is the largest church in the UK that isn’t a cathedral. The land surrounding the town is almost completely flat, and ever since it was completed in the fourteenth century the Stump has dominated the surrounding landscape. Before the surrounding marshland was drained, beacons used to be lit at the top of the huge beacon tower to guide travelers through the treacherous quicksands on the approach to the town.

The Stump’s interior is worth exploring, and there’s a small museum and gift shop where you can buy souvenirs and find out a little about the history of the town. Outside you can sit by the river soaking up some sunshine, or explore the town’s marketplace, where all kinds of fresh produce are available.

One of the most charming aspects of Boston are the many small lanes and alleys, some of them still lined with medieval and Tudor shops and houses. Dolphin Lane – on the opposite side of the marketplace from the stump – is particularly attractive.

Eating in Boston is a real treat. If you feel like some traditional English fish and chips, take a left from the marketplace down Strait Bargate and stop off at Tate’s Fish Shop, tucked away on the left-hand side. Alternatively, go around the back of the stump and locate the Wormgate pub, which lies on the street of the same name. Some fantastic food and beer is available here: if you want an authentic taste of the town you should sample Batemans beer and some local Lincolnshire sausages. The town is full of great pubs. Although there have been some problems in recent years, as a result of conflict between locals and incoming foreign agricultural workers, most are completely safe. If you’re after a great British pub atmosphere, try the Britannia in the marketplace, or the Magnet Tavern a few hundred yards away on South Square.

When your lunch has digested you can go back to looking for those roots. Probably the best place to do it is the town’s medieval Guildhall. This is where local trade associations would meet and do business is medieval times – later on it was the town’s courthouse. Today, the Guildhall is a museum. The real treat for US visitors lies in the basement, however. It’s here that you’ll find the cells where the Pilgrim Fathers were imprisoned. They’re tiny! There’s an extensive permanent exhibit dedicated to Boston’s ties with Boston, MA – the town has strong links with its US namesake, and in recent years many Bostonians from both sides of the Atlantic have been making the journey between the two cities.

Boston is a great place to visit if you’re an American interested in the very origins of your country. Even if you’re not, it’s a taste of the real England – something that you don’t really get from London and the other big cities, and which movies set in England distort terribly. It’s easy to feel a thrill run down your spine as you walk through the sleepy streets of Boston and think to yourself; this is where it all started.

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