BOSTON, England – Caroline Wilson says, “Oh, you’re from that other Boston? We’re told it’s a nice place. Bigger than ours, and on a river, too.”
“Well, it is, but your Boston is very nice as well. Very nice,” says my friend, Aurelio, as Caroline sets a late breakfast on the garden table: bacon, eggs – and baked beans.
Baked beans in the original Bean? Ah. Perfect. Is this where it all began. Did the Bostonian tradition commence here?
“A tradition? I don’t think so,” says Caroline, who operates the cozy Churches Restaurant with her husband, David, the cook. “Just since your Mr. Heinz started putting them in cans. But very popular here.”
Never spoil a good story with the facts. Cardinal journalistic rule.
Nevertheless, with or without baked beans, this first Boston is the root of our town. A pleasant and extremely friendly small city of about 30,000, riven by the River Witham in Lincolnshire, it goes back to the first century. An easy 100-mile drive northeast from London takes you into the neighborhood, agricultural country as flat as day-old champagne.
Puritans who’d spent time here, and had done some of it in the Guildhall jail before fleeing the persecution of King Charles I and landing in America, were responsible for naming the “other Boston.” They liked this place when they weren’t in the slammer.
“When we see the Stump, you’ll know you’re almost there,” said English friend Liz Kahn, who did the driving. “Oh, there it is.” The imposing gray tower of St. Botolph’s Church loomed clearly above the countryside even though we were miles away, passing through broccoli and cauliflower fields and the village of Frampton Fen.
Botolph, Boston II’s roundabout namesake, was a Benedictine monk, later canonized. He founded a monastery in the area in 654, and the hamlet would become known as St. Botolph’s Town.
“After a while it was just Botolph’s Town,” says Mike Haynes, verger of the mammoth Gothic church of St. Botolph, a beauty. “Eventually, with usage, it just slid into Boston, and has been that for centuries. And will be forever, I suppose.”
Good man, Botolph. I tell Haynes that their saint is honored in the other Boston by a street and a distinguished private club bearing his name.
“Oh, the other Boston. I’d like to see it sometime.”
That’s how I’d felt about Boston I, and I’m enjoying it. Even the 200 step slog to almost-the-top of the landmark for travelers and sailors, the 272-foot Stump. It’s as far as climbers are permitted. Thank goodness. But the view is spectacular, even though it’s not quite sunny enough today to see Lincoln Cathedral 30 miles distant.
Expansive St. B’s, with its tower and nave both stretching nearly as far as a football field, has all the appearances of a medieval cathedral, right out of the 14th century. But Haynes says, “It isn’t a cathedral strictly speaking. It’s designated as a parish church, the largest in England.”
Constructed of sandstone from nearby Barmack and floored in huge slabs, well below the nave’s wooden ceiling, the church could hold the citizenry, 2,000 souls, on completion about 1400.
Haynes says, “It took 90 years to build, but they were in no hurry and had plenty of money. Gradually the Stump grew. This was a wealthy community because of shipping and wool. A lamb atop a wool sack is the town symbol.”
Boston, still prosperous and neat, has a windmill and some cobblestone streets left over from a few centuries back, and is solidly structured, mainly in Georgian brick. It slumped as a port for a time but has made a comeback, dealing with Scandinavia.
He points to a wall tablet commemorating eminent seafarers from the parish – botanist Joseph Banks, explorers George Bass and Matthew Flinders – who sailed with Captain James Cook on his voyage to the Pacific.
“Come over here and look at our famous misericords – the seats in the choir.”
He flips up the fold-down seats, revealing handsome carvings, many amusing, on the wooden bottoms. One is a housewife pounding her husband with something like a rolling pin because he has come home empty-handed. Another, a schoolboy trying to block a flogging by a schoolmaster with one of his boots.
Much light flows in through tall, clear windows. “The stained glass was knocked out during the Reformation,” Haynes says. But a more recent one, 1857, is in place showing the United States ambassador to Britain attending the reopening of Cotton Chapel.
“Rev. Cotton, the pastor from 1612 to 1633, was known for his three-hour sermons, which,” Haynes chuckles, “some say was a factor in hastening parishioners on their way to America.”
To depart they had to sail up the Witham into The Wash, a bay in the North Sea. A tidal river, coursing through downtown, the Witham is banked high in mud at low tide, rising in the afternoon.
Among those who got out of town, glad to go, and make their way to Southampton to catch the Mayflower were William Bradford and William Brewster, the Pilgrim Fathers. They had been arrested for trying to leave the country, and, were incarcerated “in this cell,” says Noel Pulford at the Guildhall. “Try it. You won’t like it.”
He’s right. Seven-by-5 1/2 feet, cold and not user-friendly. Even a winter in Plymouth was preferable.
A circular staircase leads from the jail to the courtroom. Pulford, a guide whose bearded mien is prized as he plays King John in an annual local pageant, takes us through the small but choice museum on the same floor devoted to the work of townsfolk.
A thick 16th-century copy of John Coxe’s “History of the Martyrs” is in pretty good shape. “It was a best-seller,” says Pulford, “even though it was in Latin. Here’s a book of poetry by Jean Ingelow that was lauded by Tennyson, but she never got anywhere, being a woman.”
One sector belongs to William Bartol Thomas, a 19th-century painter whose miniatures, landscapes, and seascapes are tender and touching.
Claiming to be tender was the town executioner, William Marwood, who specialized in “painless, scientific hanging.” His calling card is on display.
“He needed only one,” Pulford says. “Of course it could be used over and over. They had a sort of riddle in Marwood’s day: ‘If pa killed ma, who’d kill pa? Mar-would.’ ”
You might call him Boston Strangler I, from Boston I.