The Freedom Trail is the most wide-ranging of the many examples of Boston’s pride and devotion to its own historical significance; a 16 stop walking tour to demonstrate the cities role in American liberation from British rule. The trail is marked largely by a neat, thin, two brick line that runs unobtrusively through the city’s pavements, with frisbee sized plaques inlaid to mark the sixteen points of interest. This brick trail is well maintained nearly throughout, with only a couple of very short sections on School St and Union St that need repair.
The FT begins ambiguously in Boston Common, America’s oldest public park; being America’s first city, Boston lays claim to the oldest of a number of things and is keen to inform and then remind you of these facts. Searching for a definite start point in the common, I pass one of the numerous guided Freedom Trail Tours that run throughout the day, and hear the thick and good-natured Boston accent of an out of work actor in full American patriot gear telling his group how the men of the time vowed to “Beat the Brits out of the country!” He is unapologetically overblown but holds the attention of the group of two dozen or so that crowd around him, who appear happy to accept the corniness of it, having paid [approx.] $12 for it.
Site 2 is where I find the start of the literal brick trail, beginning outside the grounds of the Massachusetts State House, the front gates to which are locked. I am later told that the front doors and steps to the building are only used for heads of state, their most recent use coming with the visit of the President of Armenia in 2016 – when David Cameron visited in 2013 he had expected the full horse and carriage but, being a head of government rather than a head of state, he was shown in through the side door. The State House is grand, with a gilded gold dome centrepiece emerging from its roof and, as I see upon entry, off-white marble almost throughout its interior. There is security to be passed at the Barker Entrance and both my bag and myself are scanned [I don’t set these scanners off] before I am allowed in; the guards at the entrance are extremely friendly and this is consistent with pretty much everyone I meet at the State House. I don’t intend to take one of the free guided tours but after ten minutes of aimless solo wanderings I hear one starting and slide in with the half dozens others taking it. Our tour guide – Nathan, an undergraduate originally from Austin – is informed and utterly charming and rehearsed to the point where it seems completely natural. He is also funny, properly funny, not just in a tour guide sense that relies upon his authority – the same way students/pupils will laugh at anything remotely resembling a joke from their lecturer/teacher.
The building is fairly European in its grandeur, but with an unmistakable American slant, present in the gilded gold dome [which, I am told, is actually the thinnest of veneers and would fit in the one average sized hand if scraped off and collected] and the inevitable golden avine figures that feature and will be returned to later.
Nathan starts the tour by asking where everybody is from and chuckles when I say England; the first half of the tour revolves largely around the American Revolution and is filled with references to the misdeeds of colonialist Britain. He used the collective pronoun ‘we’ throughout when referring to the exploits of past Americans, and there are numerous stock jokes at my nationality’s expense, but it is all in good spirit. The tour really is very well done and entertains for the whole prompt hour: some wonderful details crop up throughout, such as the Sacred Cod that points toward the majority in the House of Representatives, Bill Weld’s use of the carte blanche that Governors are granted with their portraits to include his pet armadillo in the painting, the seats in the Senate Chamber being permanently adjusted to ensure each member in the chamber is operating at the exact same eye-level, and the compromise made between Benjamin Franklin [who thought the Turkey should be the bird of America] and the majority of people [who thought the Eagle the correct choice] to create the Teagle, a gold version of which is displayed proudly in the Senate Chamber, caparisoned with the American Flag.
With the tour completed I head down from the State House and, skirting down the edge of the Common, the brick line guides me to Park Street Church, which is the first of many red-brick Georgian style churches on the FT, and has an impressive white clock tower steeple that is hard to find a decent, neck-saving vantage point of, and which I later overhear another tour guide say was once the tallest building in America. This fact surely attests more to the longevity of the church rather than its height, dwarfed as it is by even the moderate modern high-rise buildings around [It turns out to have been tallest from construction in 1810, until 1828].
Inside, the church has been modernised but not that recently and it doesn’t look great for it. There are a few high-mounted TV screens, and a dedicated ‘Stroller Parking’ station. The place is crammed full of people, the vast majority accompanied by children of single-digit age, here for Sunday school. Contrary to my popular culture informed imagination, pretty much all of the single-digiters seem to be having a killer time, running around loudly together. Looking pretty scruffy and feeling a couple of stares come my way after I go upstairs and find myself in what is essentially a primary school corridor, I make a hurried exit.
The adjacent Granary Burying Ground [sic. – The present participle form is consistent with all the graveyards on the FT, of which there is three; it sounds strange to me at least] hosts the graves of figures such as the James-Earle-Fraser-immortalised Ben Franklin, and Beastie-Boys-immortalised Paul Revere. The cemetery holds some of the inherent weight of all graveyards, but its atmosphere is marred somewhat by the constant scattering of impersonally curious visitors and their consistent camera clicks [I am guilty on both these counts]. I am also not accustomed to seeing graves overlooked on three sides by high-rise blocks of flats – I wonder how it affects their value?
Coming out of the graveyard there is a moment where I think I am going to witness an authentic American bust-up when two robust men start shouting at each other and gesturing vigorously after one parks in the spot of the other’s large roadworks truck, but it turns out that they know each other and end up friendly – it is almost impossible for me to detect the change in their tone upon recognising one another.
Next on the FT is the Benjamin Franklin Statue, located outside the Old City Hall, a fairly underwhelming experience. The Franklin statue stands in front of the starboard wing of the Old City Hall and another very similar statue stands in front of the port wing, which statue is ignored in most of the stuff I find on the Old City Hall, itself playing second fiddle to the Franklin statue in the same literature [In all honesty I find myself having to backtrack in order to [re]discover that the statue depicts Josiah Quincey]. The Old City Hall itself actually features on the Freedom Trail as the former site of Boston Public Latin School, America’s first public school, but is now an office building, as I find out upon entering and receiving some more looks at my appearance.
I spend a few minutes looking for the next stop, The Old Corner Book Store, then hide from the cold [-8˚C despite the sun] in Bruegger’s Bagel Bakery to regroup and reheat; I buy a coffee and ask the guy if he can point me in the right direction. The guy starts laughing and tells me that I can stop looking – the poor old book store has been turned in a Bagel shop and a Chipotle! A small plaque is about all I can find that marks the site so I head across the road from the violated book store to the pleasingly named ‘Old South Meeting House.’
The Meeting House is a second large Georgian red brick church with what must once have been a towering steeple, but is again now dwarfed by the glass titans that surround and emasculate it. On entering I find out that the building has been museumified, with two sets windowless doors preventing even the slightest of glimpses without paying the $6 entrance fee. I pay it [so] begrudgingly and head through. The building itself is impressive; large and clear in the secular aspect of its purpose, but the museum is feeble, consisting mainly of glass cabinet displays that line the side of the church’s nave, opposite the speaking platform [which unconventionally lies on one of the building’s long edges] and hold e.g. the hourglass used at the Boston Massacre and Tea Party debates held here. There are also some fairly bizarre wax statues of significant figures from the church’s history, such as Phillis Wheatley, the first African-American author. I can’t help but feel shortchanged here: the displays hardly interact with their surroundings and the information could be read online to similar effect. In a determined attempt to get my $ worth, as I leave I take a dozen or so of the complimentary postcards that have a picture of the museum’s waxwork of James Micheal Curley, former [Democrat] Mayor of Boston and Governor of MA – it helps a little, though I know I will never send any of them.
I realise that I have inadvertently missed out the Kings Chapel and so backtrack up School Street past the Franklin statue. On the walk back I am approached by a woman who asks if I can give her any change. Vagrancy is of course present here, and hnot nearly so overtly as my hometown, Brighton, but the current temperatures mean those that do suffer undoubtedly suffer more. Their temperament and attitude toward you when tapping for a dollar is surprisingly amiable, grateful when I do give something, understanding when I don’t; it is noticeably more pleasant than my experiences in Brighton and Nottingham. When I give the pitiful [in the literal and kindest sense of the word] woman the three pennies that have been rattling around in my pocket and apologise she looks confused, saying that it all helps and thanking me for talking to her.
There turns out to be a service in progress at the chapel for the next quarter hour so I check out the adjacent graveyard, another FT stop. It is less impressive, in terms of its residents, than the Granary Burying Site – admittedly strange way to compare, the quality of its corpses when animate, but a valid one I suppose. The chapel is imperial in its appearance with thick pillars walling what I can only think to call a porch, and does in fact turn out to have been designed by a colonial architect, Peter Harrison. There is a reasonable [if strongly] suggested donation of $2 upon entry. Inside, the Kings Chapel is grand and blankly impressive inside, with further pillars spaced down either side of its fusillade and a prominent white stone theme – to its credit it feels like a current point of interest rather than a relic of significance.
The Old State House is a short walk up the busy Washington Street away and stands beside the site of the Boston Massacre [which is marked with the grandest plaque yet] and is another Georgian red brick structure, with square edges and large, clean-cut rectangular windows. It is also fully commercialised; you have to both enter and exit through the museum gift shop, which is full of all kinds of expensive and irrelevant shit [e.g. Fenway Park fridge magnets]. I am told that the museum gives a decent overview of the Boston history but it is $10 to get in and I am still feeling the sting of the Old South Meeting House so I sneak a quick look at the exhibits where I can and bail – the girl at the till laughs and nods when I exclaim at the price, which makes me feel better about my decision.
Faneuil Hall is a couple of corners down from the Old State House and I make my way there; the trail is stated as 2.5 miles, not including the varied time spent within the different stops; I am about halfway in terms of distance at this point. Quincy Market stands directly opposite Faneuil Hall and I had heard it mentioned enthusiastically a few times at the hostel and so stop in. It is essentially made up of an arrow straight runway lined either side with endless fluorescent soda taps and every rich food you can imagine, that is visibly sweating under hot lights and delivers an olfactory mess to the innocent passer-by. Reaching the end of the runway and finding that my appetite has fled, I walk back around the outside of the market and head back to Faneuil Hall, otherwise known as the ‘Cradle of Liberty’, which is a delight. The assembly room above commands the quiet – even with two dozen people roaming inside with me – that is reserved for some places of significance. I don’t know whether this effect is put upon by awareness of significance or if there is a tangible presence to places such as this. Behind the stage there is a monstrous [approx. 5m x 3m] and impressively detailed oil painting that – the informed and approachable guards-slash-guides tell me – a debate between Senators Hayne and Webster on the preservation of the union shortly before the civil war and certainly adds to the gravitas of the setting. The effect of the hall is marred only slightly when I enter a side room off the entrance and again find glass cabinets of significant objects. I think this is because it takes away from the hall still being in use – the guards-slash-guides tell me that the hall was used for Kennedy’s 1960 election eve speech, McCain’s 2004 concession, Obama’s 2013 defence of the Affordable Care Act, and, just three weeks ago, a demonstration to protest the repeal of that act. Beneath the Hall there is a slightly tragic market but I am made to understand that the marketplace was actually the reason for the building’s inception. I complete the swiftest of laps around this market and head back to the FT.
There is a fifteen minute walk between Faneuil Hall and the next stop, Paul Revere’s House. At the start of this walk I overhear a guy carrying a professional looking camera telling his friend that the Boston City Hall was voted the ugliest building in America, and to be fair it is hideous, but the nearby Hard Rock Cafe, which resembles a multi-storey car park and is just so lazy, is surely trying to contend. I suppose there is need to bother with the usual routine of attracting customers when you have a name to rely on – when did it stop being a name to maintain?
I reach the heart of Boston’s North End and with it Paul Revere’s house, where there is another tour guide [casually dressed this time]. The large wooden townhouse is the oldest in downtown Boston and has – I hear – undergone numerous transformations since Revere inhabited it [1770-1800] before a more recent [early 20th c.] attempts to make it resemble its original structure. There is a $5 entrance fee and I am wary that the final stop on the trail, the Bunker Hill Monument, closes at 4:30pm so I take my lead from the tour group, who I notice don’t linger long here, and head swiftly on toward the Old North Church. On the way, about halfway between his house and the church, there is a bad ass action shot statue of Paul Revere; leaning back on his horse and shouting down to me as I stand on his right, confiding that he never actually said ‘The British are coming!’ on his midnight ride, and that he did not do it alone.
Passing by Paul, the back of the Old North Church is directly ahead. In the small paved yard behind there stands a memorial of hanging dog tags, one for each of the soldiers that died in the Iraq [4,486] and Afghanistan [2,345] wars. The aesthetic is fine and gives some impression of the scale of loss, but then the wind gusts and the cumulative effect of the thousands of individual wind chimes is truly haunting.
The Old North Church has, like most places on the FT, a steady stream of people heading both in and out of it. The church is another Georgian structure and similar to the Old South Meeting House, with a towering white-topped steeple of its own. This steeple is where the signal lamps were held and used to indicate the British Army’s mean of travel, with Revere coining the phrase: ‘One if by land, two if by sea.’ Inside, after another suggested donation, the church is American-grand, with clean painted-white wood and gold fittings, and it reminds me [perhaps incorrectly] of an old Southern plantation house. It is interesting that the church seems to still be active as a place of worship yet also has a gift shop in an unattached building to the side, though I guess it shouldn’t be surprising as everywhere seems to have a gift shop here: churches, libraries, cities, TV networks. This one holds more of the irrelevant and unwanted, like a t-shirt that reads ‘tea shirt’ above a picture of a tea pot – I must admit that I do chuckle at the shirt but then the woman behind the counter gives me a strange look and I put my head down and make a hurried exit.
Next there is the third and final ‘burying ground’, the Copp’s Hill Burying Ground; it is still bitter cold despite the sun and I approach knowing that I won’t spend long here. When I arrive I find that this cemetery fits fairly neatly with my suburban expectations: picturesque and open and sporadically wooded. There is only a little information given on the history of the place and after a scan of some of the tombstones in search of names I recognise, I am forced to resort to my phone, where I find out that this particular cemetery has ‘4.4 stars out of 5 based on 43 reviews’ [one enthusiastic reviewer describes it as her ‘favorite cemetery to visit.’]. I won’t recount what is found easily enough online and which I myself didn’t find particularly interesting, but though the cemetery was pleasant enough, the impact of seeing names that I didn’t know were significant until minutes before, inscribed upon tombstones is limited.
The FT takes me right (North West) out of Copp’s Hill, and I am led across an industrial bridge toward Charlestown. In a testament to the desire for total integrity across the trail, there is a noble effort to paint the thin brick line onto the dark metal of the bridge. I am taken down the far side of the river toward the USS Constitution, which is modestly described as ‘the greatest and oldest warship afloat in the world.’ The ship itself is disappointingly closed at the moment but the dedicated museum nearby is open. I pass the USS.C. in a dry dock on my way to the entrance and it does indeed look impressive to my entirely lay eye: gleaming black wood with a simple white band running around its perimeter, she appears to know her status.
The museum has pretty much abandoned all pretence of paying for admission being optional and has a sign outside that reads: ‘Admission by donation.’ The suggested ‘donation’ is $5-10 but I only have a $1 or a $20 and the change machine is broken so, after spending five minutes trawling through the gift shop and finding it all inevitable overpriced and unwanted [though the products on offer here are at least largely relevant to the USS.C.], I slyly drop a dollar in the box and scamper through.
The USS.C. museum is seemingly aimed at the younger audience and is full of interactive exhibits, described as ‘Mission #1, #2 etc. These exhibits include dropping small metal balls onto blocks of the different types of wood used in the ship, to demonstrate their varying hardness, designing one’s own naval vessel with an IKEA or golf scorecard [depending on your preference] sized pencil, and assembling a model of a ship from a few easily joined parts. I catch up with a father and son pair around this point who appear to have contrasting levels of interest in the subject matter. The father is crouched down and singly focussed upon reassembling the ten inch USS.C. to her full state, while the pre-adolescent boy stands beside him with his arms folded.
“Come on Dad, we’ve been here long enough.”
“What are you talking about!? She’s nearly finished!”
The father’s own enthusiasm seems to be blind him to his son’s ennui, and it continues to do so when they complete the ship and round onto the model shop. I get the impression that the father has been here at least once before; the son may well have been also actually, though he is clearly not yet old enough to have chosen either way. I am unsure who museum’s real target audience is; I think it recognises the man-child appeal to some.
I decide to take the son’s advice rather than the father’s and leave the USS.C Museum. On the way out there are numerous advertisements for museum membership, which grants free entry [I thought it was a donation?] and 10% off at the museum gift shop. I find a path between these and head out toward my final stop on the FT, the Bunker Hill Monument and adjoining museum.
There is a bit of a walk first though, and the trail takes me through a quiet residential area which has the feel and eerie, cardboard aesthetic of a model village; there is even fresh sawdust and a rolled up newspaper on the steps to one of the terrace houses that I pass. The trail is indeed long old slog and at this point I have been going for nearly five hours and am undeniably welcoming the final stop.
The towering monument is visible from a distance and I follow the trail toward it, but find that I reach the museum before the monument itself. Thinking that it is probably best to learn about the site before I see it, I head into the museum and find that its entrance is littered with exhausted people, a few of which are panting audibly. The Bunker Hill Monument museum is refreshingly factual after its USS.C counterpart and I am immediately surprised to learn that the Battle of Bunker Hill actually resulted in a [pyrrhic] victory for the British, but that it is significant in that it represented a turning point for the Americans as it proved their relatively untrained troops were able to effectively stand up to the professional British army. The museum understandably emphasises this and there is a David vs. Goliath tone to the exhibits, where the underdog amateur Americans triumph against all odds and claim their independence. The museum doesn’t vilify the Goliath British though, and I am surprised to see that one exhibit actually justifies the British’s tax impositions by talking of the expensive French wars that necessitated them. The narrative of the BHM museum – and the FT generally – is decidedly more pro-American than anti-British.
Feeling now informed and pleased at not being asked to pay, I leave the museum and head straight toward the BHM itself. The monument is a 221 foot obelisk, simple and phallically domineering, that resembles almost exactly the [much larger] Washington Monument in DC. I arrive at the monument and find out that it is free to climb at the moment as well – now I understand the various weary people in the museum. The climb is a 294 step ascent up a spiral staircase within the monument and is actually quite tough; there is a couple of people about halfway up who appear to be beginning to lose hope/interest, but fear not, your noble scribe is made of sterner stuff. At the bottom of the monument I had been assured that the climb would be worth it for the views over Boston on offer, and while these are indeed good [though I do not know the city anywhere near well enough to get the personal joy of picking out favourite spots from an entirely new vantage point] it is the giddy, altitude and achievement driven chatter in the 8ft diameter cell at the summit which makes it most worth it for me, with everyone – eventually including the people I passed halfway – congratulating one another and talking freely, all four views often ignored entirely. In amongst this there is an unmistakeable Boston accent, suggesting that the FT might not be just the quest of the tourist.
Feeling exhausted [all-in, the trail took over five and a half hours to complete] but enjoying the satisfaction of completion, I head back down the steps and back the way that I came toward downtown Boston, passing the BHM Museum once again. Here I notice the slogan ‘FREE FOR ALL’ is emblazoned in the stone above the entrance and which I missed on entering the museum. This is refreshingly true of the monument and its museum but cannot be said for the Freedom Trail generally, which is often not so ‘free’. I guess there is some comparison to the attitude of America generally; the much-treasured freedom comes at a cost, and these costs must be paid. This will inevitably leave some who are unable to enjoy the freedom [trail].