Wæs Hale

I have to admit to being almost entirely ignorant about wassailing before I went to Willesden for their ‘urban wassail’. Of course I’d heard and even sung the odd wassail carol, but though we sang the song we never drank the drink, and it seemed to be something that came from an older and more bucolic (and alcoholic) past. Rather like the traditional English breakfast which was ale. Bacon for most was a rare treat.

In my parental home, Christmas drinking was in any case restricted to non-alcholic ginger cordial, my mother being a firm supporter of the temperance movement and my father who I think had enjoyed the occasional pint of beer in his youth knowing what was good for him. Temperance was of course a misnomer; as a small child I would be taken to regular meetings of the National British Women’s Total Abstinence Union (NBWTAU), and well before I could write or come to my own decisions on the subject my infant hand was guided to a shaky signature pledging to abstain from the demon drink as a ‘Little White Ribboner’.

Doubtless it added excitement to my teenage excursions into binge drinking, though our excesses were generally limited by lack of cash, and even now I sometimes feel a little guilt as I walk into a pub or drink wine with lunch (though I’ve entirely got over it for dinnertime.)

Traces of the old tradition still persist, with ‘mulled wine’ being offered at some of our family Christmas get-togethers, though its a drink I avoid. It seems to show a lack of respect for the oenologist’s labour and skill to water down the stuff down, add chunks of apple and cloves and other spices and boil the mix up, doubtless removing much of the alcohol, certainly a fate that should be reserved only for the cheap and undrinkable mass produced products.

But wassailing was also another excuse for a party in cider country, with the blessing of trees in the orchards on Twelth Night (and later ‘Old Twelth Night – January 17th.) I don’t think it was ever done in Middlesex, and certainly not in my grandfather’s orchard in Feltham where he was a market gardener, nor for that matter in the nearby orchards of Heathrow. It was apparently revived in the West Country by the Taunton Cider Company in the 1930s.

Perhaps I might have got some cider later had I stayed around in Willesden, but all that seemed to be on offer at the art gallery where the event on the street finished seemed to be soup or fruit juice. The soup looked fine, but I looked at my watch and found it was an hour later than I thought – and I had a longish journey home to where my dinner and a bottle of a quite drinkable French red was waiting for me, and rushed away.

The point of the event was to promote local community and a vital part of that is the small local businesses that contribute to the character of the area. Willesden Green is fortunate to have so far evaded the worst of the invasion by chains and franchises that have made so many of our high streets bland, though how long it can continue to do so as gentrification advances into every remaining area of London is doubtful.

It was a also an event which brought poets on to the street and performing, as well as a community choir, a multi-faith choir and other performers, and it ended at the site of Willesden Green Library, long an important centre for the many communities in Brent, though currently a building site. Brent has one of the most diverse populations in London, and in the past the borough has financed many festivals and projects.

Photographically I had few problems and it was a fine opportunity to take pictures. The low winter sun did occasionally make life difficult, particularly at the first shop where we paused, Daisychain Florist. I would have liked to be able to move to put the sun behind the Underground sign, but couldn’t do so. With the pictures that show shop interiors as well as people outside, there were also problems of colour temperature difference in the lighting. Fortunately these are perhaps less pronounced with digital (I think some films exaggerated them) and it’s also possible to apply a change in colour temperature to selected areas with Lightroom’s Adjustment brush.

But it really was just a very nice event, and in very good weather for the time of year. I missed the previous year’s Willesden Wassail, which might have produced some interesting images, but would have been rather less comfortable, with snow on the ground. You can see many more images and an account of the event at Willesden Wassail.


My London Diary : Buildings of London : River Lea/Lee Valley : London’s Industrial Heritage

All photographs on this and my other sites, unless otherwise stated, are taken by and copyright of Peter Marshall, and are available for reproduction or can be bought as prints.

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