In mediaeval times it was the custom in many places to serve ale in church, particularly at the feast of Whitsun; indeed the term “Whitsun Ale” was applied to both the beverage and the event at which it was drunk. This was in the days when the Chancel was maintained at the Rector’s expense (out of the tithes he received from parishioners) and reserved for the administration of the sacraments but the rest of the church was the responsibility of the parish and could be used for all manner of social as well as religious purposes. During later centuries such things came to be frowned upon and the whole building was permeated by the odour of sanctity, but times are changing again and churches are once again beginning to serve as community centres, a trend which I think is generally to be welcomed - particularly in communities which have lost the other traditional focal point, the village pub.
I gather the timing was largely fortuitous, but Whitsun Ale flowed again at Christ Church, Swindon on Saturday 18 May, the eve of Pentecost. Apparently it all started last year when they held a hog roast accompanied by a couple of firkins to celebrate the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee and one of the churchwardens thought “Why not a full scale beer festival next year?” And so, after some months of meticulous planning, the 1st Old Town Beer Festival came about. There was plenty of interest locally and the initial allocation of 300 tickets sold out well before the day.
The event started with a quarter peal of Grandsire Caters on Christ Church’s fine Taylor ten, in which Mrs Bibendus and I were privileged to take part. Then the doors opened at one o’clock and the drinking began. The building, one of George Gilbert Scott’s early designs, proved perfect for the occasion, with an ambient temperature just right for serving ale † and plenty of pews to forestall the complaint often heard at beer festivals that “there is nowhere to sit down”. The 24 beers were racked up behind two makeshift bars in the transepts and dispensed in half pint souvenir glasses by enthusiastic volunteers. Interestingly (but perhaps not surprisingly) the only comments doubting the appropriateness of the venue were from non-churchgoers.
Beers were wisely chosen to cover the whole range of ale styles: milds, traditional and golden bitters, IPAs, stouts and porters, and supplied by a number of local breweries as well as some from further afield. But the star of the show was the one brewed specially for the occasion - Christ Church IPA (6.0% ABV) from the Three Castles Brewery. Sadly there was only one firkin and it ran out late afternoon (Fortunately I had already been back for seconds by then).
For the more pomaceously-minded there were five ciders and a perry. Beer tokens could also be exchanged for crisps and peanuts, while in the churchyard Vowley Farm from Royal Wootton Basset had set up a stall selling burgers made from their British White beef or Gloucester Old Spot pork, the wonderful aroma of which wafted into the church from time to time. And it was all in a good cause with profits going to Ruby’s Fat Cow Fund *.
I didn’t stay to the end. Mrs Bibendus and I had a train to catch and were persuaded to make a little detour en route to the station. The Glue Pot in the “railway town” is, according to our hosts, the best pub in Swindon and (with the caveat that I have not had the opportunity to evaluate the competition) I don’t feel inclined to disagree. It’s a simple, unpretentious free house with half a dozen well-kept, mostly local, ales and no electronic distractions.
I must thank Brian Harris and the local ringers for inviting me to what proved to be a most enjoyable day out and I look forward to next year’s event. In these days when many churches are trying desperately to engage with their local community, the vicar and PCC of Christ Church, Swindon are to be congratulated on this inspired act of “outreach”.
* Ruby’s Fat Cow Fund is a charity dedicated to raising money for four organisations which provide practical support to families of children with cancer. Fat Cow was a cartoon character devised by Ruby, who died of a brain tumour at a tragically young age.
† My church has yet to hold a beer festival but there have been one or two wine tastings when the big stone receptacle near the west door has made an admirable cooler for the whites.
Reproduced by kind permission of The Ringing World.
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