After driving almost two hours to Charlbury from Heathrow Airport in a rented manual transmission Fiat 500, I was still so focused on shifting with my left hand and not careening into cars coming at me on the right that I almost forgot to look around. But as I crested a hill, I saw a dark blue sign with white lettering that announced, “Oxfordshire” and thought it familiar. But why? I’d never been here.
Cue Vicar of Dibley music, because -according to locals- this road is in the opening credits inviting the viewer to the idyllic pretend (but kinda-sorta real) village of Dibley. (A 90s Brit-com starring Dawn French and written by Richard Curtis (Black Adder, Mr. Bean). It pokes endearing fun at rural life, gets away with jokes about Jesus, and makes scatological humor seem high-brow. As only the English can do. You might also thank it for the annual Blessing of the Animals so popular now in Boston churches.) Yeah, that town.
In real life, Charlbury manages to be even more beautiful than a bunch of TV producers could possibly stylize. Imagine pink light reflecting off old ochre stone walls, the scent of lavender and honeysuckle, the twitter of birds and the gurgling of the local river, the warm welcome of an old friend and his family- is that a horse I see peacefully grazing in a nearby meadow? And – just when I thought I’d reached the sensory tipping point- church bells rang out and my eyes welled. Because… delicious real ale on top of all this was still to come!
I had been invited to give a chat at the 20th annual Charlbury Beer Festival in the Culture Club Tent about some of my beery travel adventures. My best stories involve impromptu love and the type of adventure not suitable for a family audience, and I didn’t really think anyone would be interested in my other travel stories, so I brought 17 pounds (according to the airline scale) of American craft beer to give away and made sure to interrupt myself often to give them out. I think, at one point, there may have been 20 people listening to my escapades- tops. But I was excited to be there because I really wanted to see what made this festival so great. I’d been hearing about it from Charlbury friend Nick Millea, Map Curator at Bodleian Library at Oxford, at various cartography gatherings for over a decade.
This is My Home Tree (above)
I visit a tree on my commute to work. I live in Cambridge, Massachusetts and work in Boston. Weather permitting I walk the four miles (about six and a half kilometers) to my office, and the last bit is truly the reward- a visual wonderland that is Boston’s Public Garden. There are many lovely trees there: some look like they’re dancing, others bowing, some a row of giant green gum drops. But MY tree is a Dawn Redwood I have named Spaghetti. It’s a hybrid- or a mutt, depending on how you look at it. It’s part conifer (needles instead of leaves) part deciduous (the needles drop each autumn). Spaghetti has an exposed bundle of wet-pasta-looking roots that change color from dull brown to brilliant purple and glowing orange after a rain.
An unaddressed thought had been simmering in my head: when I travel, I will fixate on one tree in the back of my mind for the duration of the visit. It’s not conscious; but when I saw the grand wooden candelabra of a tree in the center of St. Mary’s graveyard in Charlbury on my first walk from my hosts’ home to the festival grounds, I knew I had found my tree-o’-the-trip. A voice in me somewhere greeted this Yew before I had time to think- and it said, “Oh- there you are. How lovely to see you.”
Later during the festival, as part of the Culture Tent Talks organized by Ed Fenton, I listened to Professor Stafford read from her book: The Long, Long, Life of Trees. She chose to read from a chapter about the beloved Horse Chestnut- about the one Anne Frank watched, and greeted, outside her window in Amsterdam. It recently came down in spite of attempts to save it. So they planted a new one. I think I have been marking my memories of places I visit by the trees I greet without realizing it. How wonderful to become aware of this tendency at a beer festival, of all places!
You may think you’ve been to a beer festival before. Montreal, Bruge. Osaka, Rome? I’ve done all those. But trust me- you really haven’t been to a beer festival until you’ve acquired… a knitted beard.
Or knitted beer glass holder. For hands-free exploring!
The only thing this beer festival has in common with an American version are the lines. They last all day, but at least you get half pints instead of two ounces, so you can do other things besides get right back in line again.
And there are LOTS of other things to do. The international Aunt Sally competition (something about throwing sticks- a book has been written about it), a kids’ tent with live snail races, a tea & cakes tent, a wine & gin area, plus Pimm’s (yes really!) food venders including Venezuelan street food (my fave), the local Women’s Institute tent (see knitted beards above, and my new beer holder!) and live music on stage- truly a real festival. In fact, literally a Real Ale festival.
This is a long day. It starts at noon and goes until 10:00pm (or 22:00, as the locals say). There are various schedules and events, including a prize for the first beer to kick. It turns out I had had the winning beer the night before at the Rose & Crown (one of four- that’s 4 – pubs in tiny Charlbury) called Gin & Juice by Welsh Tiny Rebel Brewery with Nick’s lovely wife Alice who had a cider.
In my official beery chat I talked about meeting locals when I travel to get the best beery information, and my method did not fail me. Two handsome chaps (I can use that word in the states for at least another month- traveler’s privilege) joined me for pints after the festival at the Rose & Crown and suggested beery places in Bath when I mentioned I was headed there the next day.
Work and Play
The next morning was spent dismantling tents, picking up litter, and generally returning the grounds to pristine condition. There is something quite satisfying about this; my visit would not have been the same without the service portions of helping to set up, serve beer and cider, and clean up. I had my trees in mind, after all.
Around noon, I got back in the stick-shift and zoomed off to Bath
And found another tree. At the top of a hill in Bath in the round center of a roundabout called The Circus is a cluster of trees so large that from afar it looks like one giant tree, with its reach forming a perfect circle within a circle- it is surrounded by round buildings to truly create – a circle. Seen from above it would be a large green dot with a pale grey ring around it and another yellow one around that. No telling where one tree ends and another begins. I used this as a geographic anchor; apparently so did Jane Austin.
In Bath, I found a beer that loves trees too. Big Hug Brewing – a tree hug in a bottle. A portion of the purchase goes to My Green Squares, a project that protects the rainforest one square foot at a time.
“American Beer Lady” – That’s Me
Shortly after I returned to Boston, this email arrived from Nick:
[Y]ou may (or may not) be aware of the cultural significance of the Sex Pistols’ Manchester Free Trade Hall gig in 1976. It had a massive impart on the UK music scene, but there were only 44 people in the audience that night at what is a massive venue. Everyone who subsequently became anyone in the music business has always claimed to have been in the audience. That now amounts to hundreds of individuals. Your talk appears to be having a similar impact in Charlbury. The number of people who have approached me over the last couple of days telling me how brilliant the American Beer Lady’s talk was has been phenomenal.
If you’ll have me, I’ll be back.