Wassail this about, then?

Wassail this about, then? – Topics, Notes And Comments

Chris Barltrop

They tell me Bill Bryson, the American essayist, was in the West of England recently, exploring Offa’s Dyke and the Marches for his latest work. No doubt they showed him all the tourist attractions, and no doubt he will write some hilarious and perceptive stuff about them–I look forward to reading it!

But Bill Bryson visited the area as a tourist, albeit a professional one, and as a tourist he has inevitably missed things which are genuinely important to the area, and which are also genuinely, well, genuine rather than being manufactured, tarted up, artificially inflated, or otherwise not really real, however they may seem so to the overseas (or, indeed, British!) visitor to the region.

You can tell the “Real Local Events” from the Not-So-Real ones quite easily. Real Events are unlikely to be announced by prominent advertisements in the local media; they will get a couple of inches of copy in the weekly paper, but that is all. They are (forgive me for stating the obvious) of interest to local people; they may (but only may) also be of interest to others, but the circumstances of their taking place may forbid or deter those others from attending. Apart from that, and this is almost definitive of the sort of thing I am talking about, they will most likely be entirely free of charge to those attending them, a concept which definitely and outstandingly separates the genuine from the–for want of a better term–commercial, the sort of event we all need if visitors are to bring their money and add to regional prosperity by departing without some of it, but nevertheless the sort of event we quite likely think of as artificial and slightly embarrassing.

Mr Bryson will therefore be sorry he did not leave the tourist trail long enough to read a brief note in a recent edition of the local weekly that the Leominster Morris Men would lead a torch-lit procession and wassail at seven o’clock in the evening on Saturday 6 January from the Riverside Inn at Aymestrey, in the cider-making county of Herefordshire.

There is no stadium or concert venue at Aymestrey to house such an event. There is a very welcoming pub, but the whole thing took place out of doors, in public, taking in the riverside area, the road through the village, a muddy lane, and an orchard which must have been in use as such well before living memory. There was no ticket office; no toll to pay to enter the area; no luminous armband to wear, health and safety inspection to pass, or European Standard to conform to, nor even a charge for car parking. Apart from extra business at the inn, no one was looking to make a few bob out of any of this; in fact, the resources needed for the evening’s events all owed their existence to love and commitment rather than any profit motive at all. There were no persons present who could have been mistaken for overseas or non-regional visitors. All were, if not homespun, at least home-style, in wellies, thick socks, Barbours and woolly hats; not tourists by any stretch.

It was chilly, and we were well wrapped up. We waited in the area behind the pub, on the bank of the river. Some of us had short, thick sticks, with a wide tubular metal fitting on the top end; perhaps a simple sort of hand warmer if the evening was tediously long? The crowd grew. The strip of car park was long since full; cars parked on the road, the occupants walked fifty or a hundred yards and joined us.

Two minibuses arrived. People in odd clothes got out, and walked with a jingling of leg-bells to climb the short steps and go into the bar, refreshing themselves before starting. We waited, quiet but enthusiastic.

The appointed hour came and passed. Patience. No complaint. A man brought four sacks of short, thick sticks, and laid them on the ground. Wait.

Half an hour after start time, and there was no audience restlessness here, no mutterings against an inefficient promoter. Still anticipation. And now, rewarded at last! More leg-jingling, people in motley colours, bright flower-patterned jackets, and in hats with ivy or holly or mistletoe wrapped around, with pheasant’s feathers sticking up; and the sticks were leaned against the pub wall and the tubes (which were old bean cans nailed on) were filled with firelighters and became torches to be carried by anyone wanting to pick one up. No charge; nothing to pay, just a feeling of pride in taking part in a living tradition.

Torches were lit, one from another. The drum beat a simple rhythm, the accordion played in two-time, the fiddler joined in, and we walked away from the inn, a long, long line of us, along the road, through the village, the band and Morris Men leading, the line of torches following for 150 yards behind, carrying the warmth and light of fire to warm the Cider-God back to life from his midwinter slumber.

In the orchard, a circle of circular bonfire heaps, twelve of them, one for each month, around the hub of the central and ancient apple tree. Darkness except for our torches; cold except for their little radius of heat. Together, we lit the fires; there was a thirteenth fire, for Judas, quickly stamped out, and a ball of twigs, symbolic “bush,” to tell the Sun to wake up, that winter had begun to end. Now there was warmth and light and music and dancing; they brought mugs of cider so we all joined in sharing the hopes and aspirations of the centuries, of the generations, of the British and the Norsemen and the Shetlanders and the Northumbrians, all with their midwinter fire rituals to drive out the cold and dark and replace them with warmth and light.

There were no tourists; no foreign visitors; no promoters or profiteers; just us and our past, present and future. If Bill Bryson could have been there, then he would have had something to write about!

Chris Barltrop is a participant in folklore rather than an observer. As a child, he was keen on local history. The first record he ever owned (and still cherishes!) was of Suffolk singers at the now-famous Ship Inn in Blaxhall. He developed a lifelong interest in traditional song, himself singing in folk clubs. His professional training was as an actor, but since 1973 he has been involved in the world of the travelling circus, until recently a very traditional British artform. Chris has appeared as Ringmaster with many famous circuses here and abroad, and has become an integral member of the circus community. “Wassail this about, then?” is his first published writing on folklore.

COPYRIGHT 2002 Folklore Society

COPYRIGHT 2002 Gale Group