When’s the last time you looked at a map of England? I mean, really looked? When I decided to leave Boston to go to London for graduate school, I started spending a lot of time on Google maps. It’s no secret, of course, that several cities and towns in Massachusetts and the rest of New England have their nominal roots in England. But I didn’t realize quite the extent of it until I started zooming in and out. We all know Cambridge and Brighton, but Braintree? They’ve got it. Leominster? You bet. And what of Boston? Scroll up to a region of England called the East Midlands, in the county of Lincolnshire, in an area called — yes — The Fens, and there it is. A handful of miles inland from a bay (The Wash) that looks a heck of a lot like Massachusetts Bay. I had to go.
Do a little research on Boston, England, and it’s tough to build a convincing case for visiting besides the novelty of its name. Guidebooks usually have a short, transparently euphemistic write-up about it, and Visit Lincolnshire, the local tourism body, has a very well-designed yet uncompelling website suggesting diversions for the tourist. TripAdvisor proves the most helpful tool, and that’s how I found my bed and breakfast.
I checked in at the Park Lea Guest House, about a 10-minute walk from the town center, hidden behind well-manicured hedges and other shrubbery. My room was well-appointed and clean, and the full English breakfast was superb. Anyone who still talks smack about British food should have Elaine cook for them — a fried egg, griddled tomato, griddled mushrooms, hash browns, baked beans, bacon from the local butcher, toast, and Lincolnshire sausages, a plump regional sausage whose sage-y seasoning mix lends it a pleasant Thanksgiving stuffing quality. My first morning in town, I left the Park Lea with a spring in my step. Despite choosing to visit during the deeply unflattering dead of winter, it was sunny and the sky was deep blue, not a cloud in sight.
My first stop was the Market Square, in which a market has been convening for the past 500 years. At present, the market days are Wednesday and Saturday, and Boston is known as a “market town” for this reason. The cobblestoned and haphazardly shaped square exudes echoes of medieval Europe, framed by the impressive St. Botolph’s Cathedral, affectionately (I guess?) known as “The Boston Stump.” It is St. Botolph, the patron saint of travelers, who gives both this and our Boston its name, said to be a corruption of the phrase “St. Botolph’s Stone.”
The market has everything from fully-feathered, just-shot game birds to cheese and local produce, at this time of year predominantly brassicas. And with the exception of the token World War II ephemera stall hawking, among other things, Nazi paraphernalia, the flea-market type stalls were charming to stroll around. Much as I would have loved to buy an entire woodcock or pheasant, I left the market empty handed and headed to the Guildhall to learn why we’re named after this middle-of-nowhere English town.
The Guildhall is in a 13th-century building by the banks of the River Witham, conserved with the help of funding from the European Union, the local council, and various other entities. There are fascinating displays about cooking and eating in medieval times, as well as glass cases full of pottery shards and other curiosities from — wait for it — “The Big Dig”— a 2011 archaeological dig in the Market Square. But the main draw of the Guildhall is to see the cells where the so-called Pilgrim Fathers were imprisoned for trying to flee religious persecution in England. A few of these guys would end up on the Mayflower — people such as William Brewster and William Bradford, the former lending his name to the town on Cape Cod. This is only one part of the connection to Massachusetts. I pieced together the rest of the puzzle at my next stop, The Boston Stump.
In the mid-17th century, the vicar at the Stump was a gentleman by the name of John Cotton. His fiery preaching inspired another group of folks to get out of England and cross the Atlantic, and it was his followers who went on to found the city of Boston, and name it after Cotton’s hometown; Cotton came a bit later. Anybody who’s ever wondered how Cotton Mather ended up with his unusual first name can now rest easy — he is John Cotton’s grandson.
Besides the Stump and the Guildhall, the other major site is a place called Fydell House. Supposedly, John F. Kennedy’s father, when he was ambassador to the United Kingdom, designated a room in this house for the use of visitors from Boston, Mass., to learn about the historical links between the two Bostons. Being volunteer-run and in the absolute dead of off-season, Fydell House was padlocked during my visit. So I wandered the winding streets and alleyways and ended up in an area called the West End.
Because it’s one of the cheapest areas in which to live in the United Kingdom, Boston has in recent years attracted workers from Poland and the Baltic states, namely Lithuania and Latvia. There is tension between the English community and the immigrant community, and the Eastern European part of town is palpably separated from the other areas. None of the English locals I spoke to seemed to spend time there. Their loss. I came here in part to understand my Boston roots, but I was unexpectedly confronted with another facet of my identity. My father’s family, like many Eastern European Jews, migrated from Belarus to Latvia in the late 19th century, and it was from there that they left for the United States, eventually settling in the Berkshires. Despite not being able to speak any of the languages swirling around me, I felt like I was among my people.
Later that night, I returned to the Eastern European quarter, thinking that hearty Polish food would be right for the cold, windy night. I chose the restaurant U Ani, recommended to me by the cashier at a Polish convenience store. While an incongruous soundtrack of songs such as “What Is Love” resonated over the almost empty restaurant, I worked through a bowl of soul-satisfying borscht with meat dumplings, followed by a hearty plate of placki ziemniaczane z gulaszem, goulash over a giant potato pancake topped with sour cream. I had come to Boston to learn about John Cotton, but little did I know that in this little Lincolnshire town, I’d find comfort and closure in what was essentially a giant latke.Luke Pyenson can be reached at email@example.com.