Tales and Ales at Swett-Ilsley Tavern in Newbury, MA



I trekked south over the Merrimac River to Newbury with my friends Betty Moore, Director of the Tuck Museum in Hampton, and Elly Becotte, author of Answering the Call: Hampton, New Hampshire in the Civil War, for an evening of 17th century entertainment at the c. 1670 Swett-Ilsley Tavern. The tavern, an Historic New England property, is located on Rt. 1A, just over the Newburyport-Newbury line. It holds the honor of being the first property purchased by the preservation organization.

My interest in the tavern is that it was one of the four taverns that Hampton constable Henry Dow stopped at during his trip to deliver Goody Cole to the Boston jail in 1673. It was called Hugh March’s tavern then. Sitting in the same room as she may have done was thrilling. It gave my mind a real life setting to chew on as I continue to write her story. I hope it’ll be one of the locations they’ll use when The Mark of Goody Cole is made into a feature film. No really!

Ipswich Ale Brewery provided the ales and o’Carolan Etcetera played traditional Irish and British folk music. The medieval hurdy-gurdy had us all fascinated, but I have to admit that to my ear it sounded a little like broken marbles rolling around in a rusty tin can.

As to the eats, the roasted chicken, vegetable dish, and apple crisp thingie that came at the end were all very yummy. A few of my bench-mates at the dinner table were a bit squeamish to be eating with their hands, but hey, after one or two tankards of ale, who the hell cares?

Besides the bitter orange-tinged summer ale, the best part of the evening was the tales, offered up by Bethany Groff, the author of A Brief History of Old Newbury (which, if you haven’t already read it, you should. It’s a great little history). She’s also a properties manager for Historic New England. She gets to dress up like a tavern wench and swear…a dream job, for sure!  Bethany drew her tales from the Records and Files of the Quarterly Courts of Essex County, Massachusetts, which she says she has a “history crush” on. OMG a true history geek. She has the perfect story-teller’s voice, timing, and wicked sense of humor. And, of course, she was talking about a subject near and dear to my own heart, taverns in colonial New England!

After dinner we retired to the drawing room for more ale and an audience participation segment. I was Elizabeth Cogshill, a married woman, and I was caught flirting with another woman’s husband. I was so ashamed (to have been caught, that is!).

It was an evening of historic fun, set amid an ambiance of low open-beam ceilings, walk-in fireplaces, and creaky wooden floors. All that was missing was a highwayman raid! It was $55 well spent. And if you are a Historic New England member, the price is $35.

The Swett-Ilsley Tavern is hosting several more Tales and Ales this year, so if you can, go and experience the fun.You can purchase tickets online at  historicnewengland.org. 

A word of warning: the tavern is located smack in the middle of a living neighborhood and has no off-street parking. Not even one single space. So arrive early to get one of the primo front-of-house parking spaces.


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