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, which is the first historic property purchased by Historic New England, is located on Rt. 1A, just over the Newburyport-Newbury line.

The tavern is one of four at which Hampton constable Henry Dow and deputy Nathaniel Bachelder stopped during their removal of accused witch Goodwife Unise Cole to the Boston jail in 1673. In those days, the tavern was named for its proprietor, Hugh March. It was exciting to explore the rooms that Cole likely had rested in, and the experience 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 Marked: The Witchcraft Persecution of Goodwife Unise Cole is made into a feature film. No really!

Ipswich Ale Brewery served the ale 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 delicious. A few of my communal-dinner mates seemed a bit squeamish to be eating with their hands, but hey, after one or two tankards of ale, who the hell cares?

Along with 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), and property manager for Historic New England. She gets to dress like a tavern wench and curse…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. 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 common room for more ale and an audience participation segment. I was married woman Elizabeth Cogshill, and I had been 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 early colonial ambiance; low open-beam ceilings, walk-in fireplaces, creaky wooden floors. All that was missing was a highwayman’s raid. It was $55 well spent. And if you are a Historic New England member, the price is $35.

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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