Education, education, education. An old government slogan that applies to many households of school age children. Holidays should be a break, a change of scenery, but it’s always nice to throw in the odd educational experience. For a 16 year old who has just completed mandatory schooling, a solid dose of education was in order - so off we went to Boston to explore the Universities and the story of America’s break from Colonial rule. I was also keen to get the boy into the idea of independent travelling on a budget.
Our AirBnB was a twin room in a shared house in Revere; great value but well away from the tourist sights of the city centres. Revere is a firmly residential area of white clapboard houses adorned with patriotic tributes, sprawling shopping malls, and enormous roads - in short, what some might call the “real” America. The contrast of our small European city home to the suburban American sprawl was evident as we negotiated our way across 6 lane roads to a near deserted sandy beach barely half an hour from downtown Boston.
As is often the case in the United States, public transport difficulties ended up being a theme of the trip. We had installed the MTicket app on my phone to buy transport tickets, but couldn’t work it. However the MBTA Transit App was reasonably reliable, albeit that there weren’t a huge amount of buses to show us. We also downloaded Boston CityMaps, which gave us lots of adverts and a useful map of the subway; and Lyft, but didn’t use it.
We’d booked tours of Harvard and MIT as “prospective students”, which I suppose #1 son is. I’d always thought of him as more of a nerdy MIT type, and figured the tailored tour through his preferred faculties would be jolly interesting. However, whilst the charismatic student showing us round told us dozens of great quirky stories, it was Harvard that really grabbed his attention. The cool shady squares, ancient buildings (by American standards anyway), vast multi-storey library seemed to really inspire him. The bursary system really inspired me - Harvard and MIT give away over $100 million each in tuition fees every year! Harvard even pays for crazy overseas field trips all around the world. But I could see why the boy was inspired, Harvard has no modesty about appointing itself as the world’s most eminent university, and confidently asserts itself as such. The canteen is good (and cheap) too. Boy was inspired to do a bit more work for sixth form - mission accomplished.
A scientific friend had told me that we needed to visit the Science Museum, which contains the world’s largest van der Graff generator. This seemed a good plan for the rain forecast that afternoon. I had images of my own school science lessons when van der Graff generators turned our 1980’s expansive hair into quite an alien form. However this generator was actually developed to demonstrate lightning. You can miss the rest of the museum - this really was the thing. Played out in a purpose built theatre, the audience protected by a vast birdcage-like Faraday cage surrounding the central stage, the show demonstrates a phenomenal range of sound and light effects from the sparks generated. A bizarre highlight was playing Star Wars music through differently tuned generators as sparks flew between them. The boy is too old to be a thrilled child, too cool to be interested in the Physics, but was as thrilled as I was, and as fascinated as all the other ages in there.
While the rest of the family basked in the hottest British day ever, the rain in Boston continued the next day, so we invested $63 each in a one day Boston City Pass which gave us free entry to dozens of indoor and outdoor venues across town, including bike hire. This accelerated our tour through the aquarium, Paul Revere’s house, the Prudential Tower to look out across the neat rows of Brownstone Houses towards Fenway Park and the hills beyond, across Harvard Bridge (curiously measured in “Smoots” by some amusing co-MIT students of the diminutive Mr Smoot who was used as a measuring rod for the occasion),
The unexpected highlight was the museum of Contemporary Art (MCA). Neither of us are artists, or remotely appreciative of art. I find Modern Art to be a very hit and miss affair, sometimes we’ll see something that we really like, but have no idea why. And so it was in the MCA, in the form of a permanent exhibit in a large room with various immense screens showing films taken simultaneously in a large house, in which people are jointly playing a piece of music in a weird range of locations within the house, various states of dress and undress, obviously different instruments and singers, but with the music perfectly synchronised. Walking round the gallery is like walking round this old house with the music all around you. We stayed there a while soaking it all in.
Next day the rain had gone and a beautiful clear day dawned. Following some basic research of Public transport, we plotted a trip Northward to Rockport. This took us through absolutely stunning scenery with names utterly incompatible with their British namesakes. Manchester had huge clear blue lakes on both sides of the train tracks, lined by magnificent houses with vast green lawns reaching down to the shores. Gloucester and Chelsea meanwhile looked more like... well British Manchester really. Rockport itself seemed rather genteel when we arrived. Plenty of Art Galleries lining the main streets attracted the wealthy elderly crowd more than the teenage son and his dad crowd. However we had a jolly tasty seafood lunch, and proceeded on to collect a pair of pre-booked kayaks to paddle out across to some of the islands in Massachusetts Bay. The wildlife was surprisingly abundant, there were areas of big fish jumping out of the water (although I’ve no idea why), and hundreds of birds diving from the rocky shores. We stopped at Stratsmouth Island which was occupied solely by a retired couple who were restoring the lighthouse on the island. It was a fascinating tale, there was no running water or electricity when they arrived, so they had rigged up rainwater traps and solar panels to make the house habitable as a holiday let.
Our final day involved a proper day’s sightseeing, walking Boston’s famous “Freedom Trail” incorporating places of significance in America’s battle to shake off the colonial oppression imposed by the British Government. As Brits, we have a civic duty to express some cynicism about romanticism of some of the stories. It’s really not clear why Paul Revere is revered more than the other chap who rode another horse through the night to warn of the British Advance. But that aside, the route is well planned, clearly marked for self-navigation with or without an explanatory leaflet, and at around 3 miles on both sides of the river - is easy to walk in half a day looking at the sights. Many visitors overlook the North side of the river, but that’s a shame as the view from Bunker Hill gives some real perspective to the City, and the old dockyard is fascinating. Back on the South side, and as someone who originates from close to Boston, England; it’s surprising to me to see the names of South Lincolnshire villages on street names and gravestones. We finished the tour in Chinatown, where we ordered some fantastic Dim Sum, familiar tasty Cantonese food in enormous American portions!
The one thing that our One Day City Pass didn’t cover was the Boston Tea Party Museum, so we took ourselves there after lunch. It’s a bit enthusiastic for my muted British tastes, and much too enthusiastic for a self-aware British teenager, but it really is very well put together. All visitors are assigned an identity of a colonial rebel, and start in a protest meeting led by charismatic actors representing some of the heroes of the rebellion. The party then processes out onto a tea clipper and ceremonially dumps the tea into the harbour. The tour guides really were excellent, staying in character but answering any questions thrown at them with a wealth of knowledge of Boston’s history. The escalating rhetoric between the rebels and Crown was well illustrated through “paintings” of King George and Sam Adams having a heated row, their words based on actual correspondence between them. An understandably different slant to that taught in British Schools, and a welcome educational finale to the trip!