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Visiting the British town where they remain heroes, and a re-creation of their Plymouth, Mass., colony

November 22, 1998|VICTORIA SHEARER | Shearer is a freelance writer who divides her time between Cape Cod and the Florida Keys

BOSTON, England — Today we'd label the Pilgrims the "religious right," I guess, or maybe even a cult. The British certainly thought these Protestant nonconformists were out of line--way out. So much so that the Church of England drove them underground, forcing them to worship stealthily,, in private homes. When these simple folk could take the religious repression no longer, they decided to leave their homeland. But, defying the law that forbade emigration without the Crown's permission, they reaped a harvest of further hardship.

Harsh times, those.

Like all American schoolchildren, I studied the Pilgrims' story, imagined their first Thanksgiving with the Indians in Massachusetts and cut turkeys out of construction paper. The Mayflower was a national icon. Plymouth Rock was legendary. But it was 40 years before this history came to life for me when I journeyed to the place where the legends were forged: the town of Boston in northeast England. Later, on returning home to Massachusetts, I revisited the legends in Plimoth Plantation, on the coast south of our Boston.

The Pilgrim fathers originally came mostly from tiny villages sunk deep in the English countryside of Lincolnshire, Yorkshire and Nottinghamshire, not far from the medieval market town of Boston. Strongly independent and vocal in their deeply held convictions, these Englishmen and their families determined that the only path to religious freedom was to escape the grasp of the Church of England and its titular head, King James I.

In 1607, lay minister William Brewster and others who rejected the official church devised a plan to emigrate to Holland, which had a reputation for religious tolerance. They bribed the captain of a Dutch ship that was anchored in Scotia Creek, about three miles downriver from Boston, to smuggle their group to Amsterdam.

The captain took their money but betrayed their presence to the port authorities, who threw Brewster and six others into the stark, iron-grated cells of Boston's town hall. They were imprisoned for months, then sent home penniless. But they kept the faith, and by 1609 most of the men in the original group were settled in Amsterdam and the Dutch town of Leiden. Their families eventually joined them, and in 1620, 35 of the Leiden group were aboard the Mayflower, destined for a place in history beyond their imagining.

I was living in London when I discovered the English village that inspired the name of our historic city, Boston. On a two-year sojourn in Britain, where my husband was working, I frequently explored the English countryside. On one jaunt I aimed for Boston.

When I left the A-1 motorway north of London for the rural A-17, the undulating landscape abruptly changed to the flat, once marshy region of straight roads and drainage channels called the Fens.

Boston is on the Witham River just inland from the North Sea. Visible for 20 miles, the 272-foot lantern tower of the town's medieval church guided me into Boston, just as for centuries it led mariners upriver into port.

The town began as a monastery founded 1,300 years ago by a Saxon monk, St. Botolph. Over the centuries, Botolph's Town (pronounced but-TOFS-ton) evolved into Boston.

Affectionately called the Boston Stump because its soaring tower is no longer topped by a spire, St. Botolph's Church is cleverly designed to reflect the divisions of time: 365 steps to the tower coincide with the days of the year; 12 pillars represent the months; 52 original windows, the weeks.

This towering symbol of the Church of England was the ecclesiastical burr that rubbed raw the conscience of the separatists, a constant reminder of their differences with the Establishment.

Boston was a bustling port from the 13th century onward, when people from far and wide in England gathered to trade with merchants from across the North Sea. Today it is just a small town whose only attractions for tourists are the still-majestic Boston Stump and its links with our Pilgrim Fathers.

Stone-paved lanes spoke out from the hub of the Market Place, which still draws traders from the shires. The sheep fairs of yesteryear have given way to weekly markets and auctions with all sorts of goods--fish to flowers, paintings to produce.

I found Brewster's jail--originally the Hall of the Guild of the Blessed Mary--sitting as it has since 1450 on narrow, cobbled South Street. The guildhall-turned-town-hall now is a museum that showcases the trial and imprisonment of the separatists.

Hooked to the headset of an audio guide, I followed the Pilgrim Fathers through their heartbreaking ordeal. I stood before the ghost of a bewigged magistrate in the authentically restored courtroom, smelled the acrid peat of the ancient fireplaces and the spits of the below-stairs kitchens, squatted in the tiny cells where the nonconformists bore witness and endured. I couldn't help but marvel at the spirit that sustained these ordinary men in their determination to worship as they wished.

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