Banging and chanting filled the air on the Eve of the Twelfth Night (5th of January) in the ancient village of Tarring in West Sussex, UK. The annual Wassailing at Tarring was awakening the ancient Sussex village.
Trying to ignore the fact that my coat seemed a little tighter than before the Christmas Holiday, I prepared my cameras in the car before setting off to the High Street in Tarring. It was cold and I did wonder what I was doing out and about on such a night, but I could spot a warm looking glow of light and hear laughter further down the road so I convinced myself it would be worth it and started to walk. A month earlier I had heard about the annual event and seduced by the thought of adding some more photographs to my on going photo project documenting unusual traditions, I thought it a good idea to attend. However it was my first time at a Wassail, so I did not know what to expect and if I'm honest I was not completely sure if I had arrived at the correct location.
Apart from a lone man walking a dog, things looked a bit quiet. As I stopped and lifted my coat collar a little higher, trying to keep the cold wind out a little longer, and thinking to myself that maybe I should have become a fashion photographer working in a nice warm studio, out of the dark a green man approached. Unusual even for Sussex I thought! He was wearing a large green jacket and looked like a character from a Lord Of The Rings film. The King Of the Forest! A folklore type character. As he passed me by I shared a polite 'Evenin' and admired his beard (I received a beard for Christmas this year and ever since it's arrival have found myself comparing beards). His arrival had confirmed the location was correct and as I continued my approach into the village, I smiled to myself.
It was not because he looked silly, his costume was amazing (you can see his photo at the bottom of the page), its that I love the fact that normal everyday people feel the urge to get dressed up once in a while to celebrate a Pagen-like tradition that dates back hundreds of years. And we need people like this to keep the old traditions alive.
My mind had now changed and although cold I didn't want to work in a centrally heated photographic studio! This King of the Forest in all his glory was the very reason why I was there!
Putting my best foot forward I soon arrived outside The Vine Pub in the High Street and received a warm welcome from members of the Sompting Village Morris who organise the event. I asked a few questions and one of the Morris men explained more about this ancient celebration.
Wassail or Wassailing is an ancient Anglo-Saxon tradition to promote a good harvest for the coming year. There are two types of Wassailing, the house visiting wassail (a form of carol singing) and the orchard visiting wassail. The orchard visiting wassail (which I was interested in photographing) is an ancient custom of visiting orchards in cider producing regions of England. It involves lots of banging, singing and chanting to awaken the tree spirits of the chosen apple orchard. Toast is placed in the branches of the trees for winter robins to eat and carry off any bad spirits. A Wassail Applecake and a Wassail Cup full of mulled cider is passed around for everyone to enjoy whilst they chant and sing amongst the apple trees.
The Wassail at Tarring village also incorporates a torchlight procession along the high street and this year was also accompanied by a performance of a Mummers Play by the Prize Old Mummers. (photos will appear in a future blog post).
And as I left the orchard with my ears still ringing from all the chanting and singing I said 'Waes Haeil' (Good Health) to a Morris man as we passed in the night, his bells jingling as he walked off into the darkness.
So if life is getting you down and you are feeling the January blues why not go and find an apple orchard and shout 'Waes Haeil'. Just watch out as you might be joined by the bearded Forest King!
Till next time 'Waes Haeil', Scott the photographer.
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