Cider, Skulls and Saucepans – Del Hughes mucks in for a good harvest
When you rock up to a pagan festival and the very first random stranger you strike up a conversation with has one of the most awesome names you’ve ever heard, you just know that the heavens have aligned and, surely, some sort of adventure lies ahead.
And that’s exactly what happened last Saturday, when I braved the inclement weather to attend Gower Heritage Centre’s Wassail and Mari Lwyd Festival.
Frankly, given that I’m well into folklore, and cider, it seemed strange that I’d never, in all my fifty-three years, been before. Plus, I love horses, though I usually prefer the living variety.
Anyway, Tim didn’t fancy it after I mentioned horse skulls and Morris dancing, but was delighted to drop me off so that, 1) I wouldn’t have far to walk, 2) I could have a few drinks, but mainly 3) because it meant he could enjoy an uninterrupted evening playing golf on his iPad, and take ownership of the TV remote. Eye roll. . . Men.
But it was lucky I didn’t drive myself because when we got there, the car park and surrounding roads were gridlocked. Wassailing was clearly more popular than I’d realised.
So, with Tim muttering darkly about ‘amateur drivers’ – yawn – as he reversed along the main road, I was then unceremoniously deposited outside Shepherds, from where I strolled the short distance to the Heritage Centre and joined the queue of people waiting for both admittance, and cider.
Though the Mari Lwyd has its skeletal hooves rooted firmly in Welsh folklore, wassailing (from the Old Norse Ves Heill, meaning good health) is a more geographically widespread tradition.
It’s celebrated in the cider-producing areas of the West of England, and Wales, around Twelfth Night (5th/6th Jan) or, if you happen to be a Julian calendar purist, on ‘Old Twelvey Night’ (17th Jan).
There are two types of Wassail – House and Orchard. The House Wassail was where people went door-to-door, singing and offering a drink from the wassail bowl in exchange for gifts.
On Gower, this practice came with its own regional song, the imaginatively titled ‘Gower Wassail’ and which, for some unknown reason, was recorded and released by Steeleye Span in 1971.
But tonight is an Orchard Wassail and it’s purpose is twofold – first, we need to ‘wake up’ the apple trees, and second, we need to ‘scare away evil spirits’, thus ensuring a rich and bountiful autumn harvest.
And that explained why my carrier bag contained a whistle, saucepan and wooden spatula. . . I was tooled up and more than ready to make some noise.
And, judging by the weight of cookware on display, so was everyone else – though I’m sure the couple who’d brought a La Creuset crock pot were just showing off.
Anyway, after no little wait, I finally found myself at the Shed Head cider counter. Their cider is made on site, using hand picked Dabinett apples from the very orchard we were there to wassail, and I was encouraged to sample the full range of their traditionally-made tipples, finally settling on a pint of Shed of Heaven. Lol.
Compared to the fizzy varieties, this was flat, strong and definitely an acquired taste. . . though happily, I acquired that taste very quickly.
Then, since the Sweyn’s Ey Morris & Sword Dancers weren’t on for an hour – and were themselves currently milling about and drinking deeply from tankards – I wandered outside to find a table where I could people-watch.
And that’s where I met a shaggy-haired young man who gloried in the name of Satchel Baggins. This was kismet – my favourite bag and hobbit combined.
Over the next thirty minutes I learned that:
He was a bit of a cider connoisseur.
He was aiming to set up his own orchard in Llanelli.
He shared my love of folklore.
He was a font of knowledge regarding ancient Welsh literature.
He lamented his inability to speak Welsh. (Yeah, me too, Satchel.)
And he was waiting for his mate who’d apparently gone for a shower somewhere in the car park (?), which seemed a bit strange but then, that’s youngsters for you. (With hindsight, it’s possible I might have misheard. . . Did I mention the cider was very strong?)
Anyway, Satchel was great company, we chatted like old friends, and when we decided to head inside to see the festivities kick off, we exchanged phone numbers so I could keep in touch regarding the progress of his orchard – and no, that’s not a euphemism.
And really, he set the tone for the rest of my evening because, over the course of some hours, I met a plethora of fascinating folk, two lovely dogs, and had an absolute ball.
Dog #1 was Maxwell, a chunky yellow lab (and therapy dog), who was sublimely unconcerned with the noise and crowds around him. He leaned against his owner’s legs and lazily accepted the numerous pats and ear scratches from all and sundry. And it was while I was fussing him that I noticed Lesley.
I’d spotted her because she was wearing the most amazing headdress, fashioned from antlers, holly and crystals, and which I later discovered she’d made herself, so I gave Maxwell a final tummy rub and headed over to ask if I could take her photo.
And that was fortuitous because, as it turned out, Lesley was a witch (and a chaos witch at that) who’d been brought up in a poison garden and grew her own healing plants and herbal remedies. Epic!
We chatted as we queued and she explained a little about plant lore, invited me to visit her garden when it’s in bloom and mentioned some witchy rituals, saying she’d be happy for me to tag along. Extra epic! (Well, it’s been a while since my last attempt at anything esoteric so I’m well up for trying again.)
Inside, the Morris group were preparing to start the revels, so I squeezed through and found myself sitting next to a festively garbed bloke called John who was accompanied by his ‘Day of the Dead’ inspired Mari Lwyd.
He’d driven down from Brecon and explained that he was always in demand around this time of year.
He told me about his forthcoming events, one of which was taking place in the Forest of Dean. Apparently, foresters were wassailing fanatics, but chose to relinquish the standard pots and pans in favour of shotguns. Wow!
That’s some hardcore carousing, but I wasn’t hugely surprised. See, I lived and worked in Gloucestershire for over twenty years and there are some areas in that ancient forest that have a strong ‘Land that Time Forgot’ kinda atmosphere. And side note: If you ever visit – and you should because it’s glorious – don’t mention the bear! (If you know, you know.)
I’d have liked to chat more, but the sound of a fiddle cut us off, the Morrisers were good to go and, with a quick shake of their bells, off they jolly well went. I’ve only ever seen Morris dancing on telly and I’ve always considered it a rather gentle, bucolic activity – just some country folk skipping about, with an occasional waft of a handkerchief, or inflated pigs’ bladder.
But in reality, it’s rather fierce, with the physicality and stamina required to complete the numerous routines evident in their flushed faces and laboured breathing. They were seriously brilliant, and though I was a tad disappointed there was no swordplay, the use of heavy sticks more than made up for it.
As they leapt around with choreographed abandon, a shiny collie woofed in frustration as it tried to catch their dangling bells, and the many Mari Lwyds present ground their giant teeth and snapped their jaws in time with the music. It was totally surreal and bloody fantastic.
After twenty minutes, the fiddle stilled, the dancers took a well-earned break and it was time for the next stage of the proceedings – the grand Mari Lwyd pageant. Eek!
By now it was twilight, and as the horse skulls (and ‘handlers’) gathered outside for the torchlit parade around the local environs, I got definite Wicker Man vibes; I honestly wouldn’t have been surprised if Christopher Lee, complete with bad wig, dress and sickle, had appeared to lead the procession.
But no. Instead, we had a genial Green Man, dapper in an ivy-covered bowler, waistcoat and red cravat, and not a sickle in sight. Phew. He was accompanied by a range of atypically attired stewards, some distinctly steampunk (shoutout to Chris and Donna).
There was also a jolly man on an accordion, a menagerie of kiddies dressed as animals, and Swansea musician Andy Tamlyn Jones, who’d been persuaded to put down his guitar – he was playing a set later in the evening – and pick up a drum.
After some minutes of semi-organised chaos (that you, Lesley?), we were suddenly silenced by a smart drumroll signifying that the horses were under starter’s orders. Then, with a thunderous cheer, they were off, swaying drunkenly along the narrow road, an eager crowd at their heels.
I’d set myself up on a picnic bench halfway along the route so was perfectly placed for taking photos, and for nipping through the hedge behind me which provided a sneaky shortcut into the orchard.
I happily snapped away as the merrymakers trooped past, singing, shouting and jigging the hundred yards to Shepherds’ Stores, before circling back and into the orchard, in readiness for the evening’s finale.
That the orchard had been under flood water just hours earlier was evident from the ankle-deep mud, and I was glad I’d decided to wear wellies.
While I waited for the procession to return, I noticed that some branches were bedecked with ribbons and, more strangely, slices of toast, so I asked the bohemian lady standing beside me if she knew what that was all about. And, boy oh boy, she certainly did.
Rosie, who just happened to be a true, ex-travelling Roma, now unwillingly domiciled in Burry Port, was the owner of a heritage vardo (round-topped decorative carts) and also the owner of Bronwen, the shiny collie who’d taken exception to the Morrisers.
Rosie told me all about wassailing and the toast tradition – you soak stale toast in apple cider and then hang it on the spurs of the dormant trees as a way of attracting friendly, helpful spirits who are thought to encourage the trees to thrive.
She also mentioned that we should pour our cider on the base of the trees as an ‘offering’, but that was a tradition too far for me – and for Rosie.
Instead, we loudly raised a glass and toasted the orchard, then Rosie went to get us another pint and I played with Bronwen until all the stragglers turned up.
Satchel trotted past, friend in tow, and gave me a wide grin and a double thumbs up. Despite being liberally splattered with mud, he was clearly enjoying himself, but I’m guessing his pal was regretting getting a shower beforehand.
Suddenly the drum, and crowd, fell silent and the Green Man took centre stage as master of this final, most important, ceremony. There was a lot of staff-waving, and several songs which I couldn’t really hear, but I caught a few time-honoured fol-de-rols and a couple of da-di-das.
Then, with a wild flourish of his bowler, the drumming started anew, we readied our pots, pans, whistles, bells, tambourines, pan pipes and the like – though no shotguns, unfortunately – and began beating, bashing, yelling and shaking the bejesus out of them.
It was discordant and deafening, but if that cacophony didn’t drive any lurking evil spirits out of that orchard, it wasn’t for lack of trying. It had been one hell of a night.
As the crowd dispersed, some wandering back to the warmth and live music of the Heritage Centre, Rosie and Bronwen headed to the bus stop and I texted Tim, who arrived ten minutes later with the pups who were delighted to see their mummy, though more delighted to have their evening walk just a few hundred yards up the road in Park Wood.
While they galloped and chased, Tim and I ambled and the night was so still, we could hear the echoes of continued carousing.
I found it rather affecting, though Tim said he was glad he hadn’t gone because he ‘couldn’t be doing with that sodding racket for more than one minute.’ Sigh.
But I’d loved it – the mayhem, the rituals, the noise, the cider (obvs) and all those wonderful characters I’d met.
And I found it heartening that the old ways, and accompanying traditions, are still remembered, and celebrated, today.
Long may it continue.
So Ves Heill, and a happy ‘Old Twelvey Night’ new year to you all!
The Gower Heritage Centre is a great place to visit. With a water wheel, corn mill, woollen mill, shops, café, activities and a wellness centre, it caters for all the family. Find out more on their website.
If you’re interested in getting into the Morris dancing business, Sweyn’s Ey Morris & Sword Dancers can be found on Facebook
If you’re into steampunk, you’ll find the Swansea Steampunk Association on Facebook too.
You can find more of Del’s adventures for Nation.Cymru by following her link on this map
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