The Sussex Wassail
I missed it.
I can’t believe that I bloody missed it.
We were listening to Mark Radcliffe on BBC Radio 2
“…good bunch of folk traditions happening around now, do drop us a line, get in touch if you’re doing any wassailing or plough plays…so here we go with Magpie Lane and The Somerset Wassail”
I looked at Mike, “that’s what we’re doing, wassail!”
I grin with glee. I can be a bit goofy at times, granted, but the prospect of going wassailing for the first time had me excited, like being a kid at Christmas, or a drunk fool at New Years.
I turned up the volume
“…wassail all over the town, the carpet is white and the ale is brown, the carpet is made of the good ashen tree, and so with the malt of the best barley, for its your wassail and it’s our wassail and this joy be to you and the jolly wassail..”
“Take the next left”
Mike looked at me
“Left? Where’s this sat nav taking us?”
I looked at the sat nav
“Shoreham. The pretty way though”
I looked out of the window, surrounded by darkness, Midwinter was only two weeks ago and that light it promised is still taking its time to reach into the evenings.
“What’s the name of the pub?”
We continued into Shoreham, made our way into the high street, it’s not a town either of us know at all well. I looked around for a pub. Every other building seemed to be a pub (or a church), it had to be close.
“Keep driving for quarter of a mile and your destination will be on the left”
“Can you see it?”
“Nope. This can’t be quarter of a mile, we’ll be in Brighton soon!”
So we turned around. We toured the narrow back roads of central Shoreham, seeing parts of Sussex we never knew existed and we eventually spotted the pub.
We walked through the door to reasonably busy but not packed pub, made a beeline for the bar and ordered a half of Wassail by Ballards and a Dark Star Hophead. Wold Top and Brighton Bier were also on cask and the fridge looked stocked with Beavertown beers, Lervig Lucky Jack and other ‘craft’ styled brews. I was already beginning to like this place.
I took my first sip of beer and turned around just in time to see a crowd make their way back into the bar from outside, a couple of our mates among them…
“You missed it!”
Whist we were struggling to find the pub, hopelessly driving around in circles, faffing about trying to park, the rest of the pub were getting their wassail on. I’m pretty sure some of you will at this point be wondering what the bloody hell I’m banging on about, well, let me (try to) explain:
Wassail (or Waes Hael) is a Saxon tradition, at the start of each year, traditionally on Twelfth Night, the community would come together, “Waes Hael!” would be called out and the gathered would ‘drink hael’ i.e drink and and be healthy. In a way it’s an early form of seeing in the New Year and wishing your nearest and dearest all the best. So whilst many of us modern folk half-heartedly write a little greeting in a card every December, the Saxon’s (in my humble opinion) had a much better way of doing things, especially when the drink of choice was a spiced and honeyed ale.
It was this ale based drink that was called the Wassail, and was passed around in a pewter bowl with the greeting ‘wassail’ which translates to ‘be well’. It’s a custom that also sought to ensure a good crop for the year ahead and so an apple tree often features among the festivities. Many would make a noise to awaken the tree spirit and/or ward off the evil spirits. These customs, I’m assured, did happen, in fact you check out the pub photos on their Facebook page for an idea of what I missed.
I didn’t get to do any of these things but I did manage to score some spiced ale (two versions were going around, one with egg, one without, so I opted for the eggless). It looked like murky pond water but tasted like liquid Christmas pudding; I detected some cinnamon, nutmeg, clove, honey and a big boozy character. It was served warm and it was quite simply wonderful. If seeing in a prosperous new year involves ale like this, why did it ever fall out of favour?! The pub was heaving with folk, a traditional Mummers/Plough Play was acted out and the beer was flowing. I may have missed the main event but I discovered a wonderful pub, I drank some flavourful beers and I soaked up the good vibes & cheery atmosphere and with that I can definitely be well.