The truth about Paul Revere's ride

By Heather Ramsay

Who's heard the story of Paul Revere galloping through the night shouting, "The British are coming! The British are coming!"?

I had, but something told me that saying yes would make me the subject of gentle ridicule. Everyone else in our little group on Boston's Freedom Trail obviously felt the same, because no one even managed a vague nod or a murmur of assent.

Our instincts were correct, and encouraged by such collective ignorance, our guide went on to tell us the truth about the famous midnight ride of April 18, 1775.

It was a relatively covert operation. Revere and other riders went house to house through the New England countryside, using a pre-existing message system to raise the Minutemen - local militia who swore to be ready for service at a minute's notice.

They didn't shout, as this would have awoken British spies - and they didn't use the term "British" as many colonists still considered themselves British. It's likely that the riders called the advancing troops "regulars" to avoid confusion.

The riders were successful and the ensuing battles are widely regarded as the first armed conflicts of the American War of Independence. But it was Revere's ride that has been raised to almost mythical status by generations of poets and patriots.

His mission was to warn activists John Hancock and Samuel Adams, who were chief targets of the British advance because of their involvement in anti-British events such as the Boston Tea Party. Thanks to Revere's exploits, Hancock and Adams evaded capture and went on to play a leading role in the revolution and eventually, independence.

Today, genteel Boston is one of the most historically significant cities in the US, proudly preserving its links with famous historic figures and events. The names Hancock, Revere and Adams pop up often, while the words "oldest" and "first" pepper the commentaries of Boston guides some even calling the city "the birthplace of modern America".

Other places contest that claim, but even if freedom and democracy weren't actually born there, Boston's patriots were present at conception, and their on-going activism ensured that these much-loved foundations of American society were successfully built on to create a new nation.

Walking Boston's Freedom Trail is a good way to get a historical and physical overview of the city. It follows a red brick line for 4km through the central city, passing 16 of Boston's most significant historic sites, such as the site of the Boston Massacre and the battle of Bunker Hill, Paul Revere's house, and the Old State House, where the Declaration of Independence was first read to Boston's citizens.

The guided tours are worthwhile, but the beauty of Boston's history is that you can absorb it passively while you shop, eat and drink. Many historic buildings are still in use, such as Faneuil Hall, which is also known as Quincy Market.

The first building was built in 1742, and downstairs was a bustling central marketplace. It was a hotbed of revolutionary politics and protest, and the upstairs hall was often the scene of impassioned oratory from Adams, Hancock and other firebrands.

It became known as the Cradle of Liberty, and is still a popular platform for modern politicians (John Kerry conceded defeat here after the 2004 presidential elections).

It's also still a marketplace, with dozens of shops, restaurants, take-away stalls and bars making it a popular gathering place for locals and tourists. It was close to our hotel so we strolled down several times, watching buskers, eating traditional Boston food such as clam chowder and lobster rolls, and ingesting the spirit of Samuel Adams (the excellent local beer is named after him).

And being dedicated tourists, we did some of this in the Cheers bar in the marketplace. The original bar made famous in the TV series is a few blocks away, but we found the replica a good place to sit alfresco and watch the action in the market square.

There was plenty. Famous educational institutions such as Harvard make Boston a celebrated centre of learning, and we were at Faneuil Hall for the first Saturday night of the college year for new students.

Undoubtedly many will rise to positions of national and global influence, but that night they were busy celebrating freedom from parental supervision, and their oratory was like that of drunken students all over the world.

The next day we ducked (on an amphibious World War II landing vehicle) over the Charles River to the leafy suburb of Cambridge to visit Harvard's hallowed halls.

It's the oldest institution of higher education in the United States, and wandering through the extensive grounds feels like walking through a small city full of museums, libraries and galleries housed in well-preserved historic buildings.

Outside imposing University Hall we halted in front of the bronze statue of John Harvard, which is also called the Statue of Three Lies. Nothing on the inscription - John Harvard, Founder, 1638 - is true. The sculpture is not actually of John Harvard but of a student model; John Harvard was not the founder of Harvard College but it wsa named after him; and the college was founded in 1636 by the Great and General Court of the Massachusetts Bay Colony.

One of the statue's bronze shoes was much shinier than the other, and a local member of our party told us that many tourists rub the shoe for luck. When someone in the group stepped forward, she shrieked a word of warning.

"And knowing that tourists rub the shoe every day, students come along in the night and pee on it," she explained.

Most of us had been students at some stage in our lives, so we erred on the side of caution, muttering that at least they didn't suggest kissing the foot.

John Fitzgerald Kennedy was a Harvard graduate, and a much-loved son of Boston.

He probably got up to a few high jinks in college, but they don't get a mention at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, a striking waterfront memorial at Colombia Point.

The library and museum contains the archives of Kennedy and his Administration, and the site reflects JFK's love of the sea. His sailboat Victura sits outside the soaring glass pavilion, and inside, his TV and radio broadcasts track his personal and political life.

Many personal effects evoke the 50s and 60s, and as you'd expect, the stark gallery dedicated to his assassination on November 22, 1963, is the most poignant.

I learnt a lot about JFK's achievements and ambitions, and left with the feeling that he'd only just started on a path that would have achieved great things. No one will ever know whether he would have become tarnished by power and politics, and his death has put him the "patriotic legend" category.

A bit like Paul Revere, really - except that thanks to modern technology, we have accurate recordings of JFK's words.

I'm sure Revere and other early patriots who risked all for their cause would have agreed wholeheartedly with the famous line from JFK's inaugural address.

"And so, my fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country."

* Heather Ramsay was a guest of Langham Hotels and Air Tahiti Nui.

CHECKLIST

Getting there

Air Tahiti Nui flies Auckland-New York four times a week. There are regular connections to Boston by air (1hr 20 min), bus or the high-speed Acela train (3hrs 30min). See links below.

Accommodation

The Langham Hotel Boston at 250 Franklin St offers five-star accommodation in a historic building near shopping areas and attractions. See link below.

Getting around

Boston is pedestrian-friendly and most sights are within the compact central area. Use the subway system called the T to get around. Duck tours and hop-on, hop-off trolley tours are popular. See links below.

Eating

For casual fare, eat at Quincy Market. For indulgence, have brunch at the Langham Hotel's Chocolate Bar (Saturdays during winter season). Eastern Standard is a trendy cafe/bar known for great cocktails or try Grill 23, a stylish steakhouse. For French flair try Sel de la Terre near the waterfront or Les Zygomates, which offers regular wine-tasting sessions. In Cambridge, have lunch at Grafton Street Pub & Grille. The North End is the Italian sector, with many Italian restaurants. Links below.

Further information

Try Tourism Massachusetts at (0061) 2 8307 0220, or Greater Boston Convention Centre & Visitors Bureau. Links below.

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