The Keston Wassail
By David Hicks
In Mumming, Howling And Hoodening: Midwinter Rituals In Sussex, Kent And Surrey by Geoff and Fran Doel, there is a reference to Edward Hasted who makes disparaging remarks about the rustic Keston and Wickham Wassailers in his History and Topographical Survey of the County of Kent written in 1787. He said they were a confused rabble who perambulated the orchards making a most horrible noise. What a cheek! However, I recognised this as an important local custom, distinctive to Keston and in 2007, the 210th anniversary of Edward Hasted’s book, I realised that an irresistible conjunction of circumstances had come together. Ravensbourne Morris were practicing in Keston Village Hall at that time and we had been performing and practicing Morris culture in Bromley since 1947 so we were perfectly placed to revive this annual celebration.
Searching for my roots, I found evidence of our vanished community celebrations including in Nigel Pennick's Practical Magic in the Northern Tradition and Bob Pegg's Rites and Riots. There probably were Kentish wassailing songs but none have been collected so I chose the Gloucestershire Wassail song as performed by by Magpie Lane, with words and music from the Songs and Dances of England. While out tracking down pockets of culture, I had attended Apple Tree Wassails in Kent; Mark Lawson’s Wassail (Or Youling as it’s known in Kent), which used to be at the Red Lion, Baddlesmere but is now at The Gate, Marshside. I also attended a Wassailing at the Kent Museum of Rural Life in 1992 and The Long Man Morris’ Wassail at The Star, Waldron in 1997. With these experiences and armed with the historical precedent I was ready to begin planning to revive Wassailing in Keston.
I planned for The Keston Wassail to be revived at The Fox Inn, Keston, a cosy pub with an old mature apple tree the garden. Unfortunately, the tree was removed to make way for decking and ‘Refurbishments’. Undaunted, I gained permission to plant an apple sapling and so on 5 January 2008 we went ahead and wassailed a twig! It was during 'The Fox Years' that I contacted Geoff and Fran Doel; after all, it was their book that got it all started! They came along on 3 January 2009, Geoff took photos of the wassailing and the mumming, and we were featured in their book, A Kent Christmas, published in 1991. It was an encouraging validation of what we were doing.
From 7 January 2012, The Keston Wassail has been conducted at The Two Doves. Under The Rules of Folk, if you do something more than three times it becomes ‘Traditional’. It belongs to me now so I’ll take it where I like and can be unbearably snooty with other wassailers because I’ve got a historical precedent (Even though I had to plant another new tree and we spent the first couple of years wassailing a twig again). I would like to pass the wassailing over to Keston villagers so if anyone is interested, please contact me to make a claim!
The landlady at The Two Doves, Ellen, knows how to run a proper pub and the Wassailing packs out the pub on the first Saturday after New Year when you would expect pubs to be empty. It’s warm and convivial and Ellen puts on Real Cider which attracts the Camra Cider division back every year. Just before 9pm, the Wassailer (me up to now) invites the patrons to charge their glasses and come out to the apple tree in the garden where they gather around to witness the wassailing and join in 'The Shout' at the end.
First, salt is thrown over the tree for purification then bread is dipped in cider and is placed in the crooks of the tree. Although wassailing is one step away from tree hugging, it's not all mumbo jumbo y'know, the reason for the bread is to help keep the birds alive through winter so that they'll eat the bugs in the spring. The invocation is then dramatically chanted and the audience is invited to join in making as much noise as possible at the end when they’re incited to 'Hollar':
Stand fast root!
Bear well top!
May the Goddess of our orchards
Send a good youling crop
Every twig, apple big
Every bough, apples enow
Hats full, caps full
Three bushel sacks full
Some in my pockets and some under the stairs
Hollar boys, hollar!
Kent's only Wassail revival with a cool historical precedent
In the old days, the Keston and Wickham Wassailers would go around local farms and in return for food and drink, would wassail the trees and entertain with songs. Today we recognise that this is an important piece of local heritage which is distinctive to Keston and we've had a lot of fun reviving and continuing the tradition. With the orchards now gone, we base our event in a pub but still fill the evening with Music, Songs and a traditional Mumming play.
Keston was once part of Kent's famous apple industry and in common with other apple producing areas such as the West Country and Worcestershire, the workers who relied on the apple crop for their livelihood (And cider!) felt it was important to ensure the apple harvest for the coming year by blessing and toasting the health of the trees.
I blow a Cow horn while whistles, a football rattle and other noise makers are also added to the racket of the crowd cheering while I throw cider over the tree as a libation. Satisfied that the apple harvest is ensured for another year, we then retired inside to pass round the wassailing bowl containing warm mulled cider. I sing a wassailing song to start the singing. Wassail! you say as you pass the bowl, Drink Hail! you reply as you receive the bowl.
Later, the Famous Ravensbourne Mummers enter the room to perform a traditional winter play. What's mumming? See our mumming page.
From Tiny Apple Pips
One of the people who attends the Keston Wassailing is Ian White, Chairman of the One Tree Hill Allotment Association. Ian is also involved with Camra's promotion of real cider. Ian saw me wassailing and thought it would be fun to wassail the apple trees and small orchards on his allotment in an urban environment. The allotment members come with their families and some bring food to add to the jacket potatoes. They light a big fire against the cold and have drinks and snacks. Ian performs the ancient ceremony beneath the apple trees with the backdrop of the city skyline. He explains that it would be foolhardy to fire off shotguns as they do in the West Country, it would attract the attention of the Met’s finest Armed Response Unit. Instead, the kids fire party poppers into the trees to scare off the evil spirits and it’s an instant tree dressing. Bang, there it is. How urban: Wassailing London Style. Ian has an apple press, produces small batches of cider from windfalls and uses his local cider in his wassailing ceremony. Inspired by this, I collected wild apples from Keston Common in October 2016 and Ian allowed me to press my apples to make authentic Keston Cider to use in Keston’s 2017 wassailing ceremony. It was surprisingly very nice. We see the cultural propagation of wassailing from Mark Lawson to me and on to Ian, then the cultural feedback of the local cider production from Ian.
Chief Wassailer, David Hicks
Passing round the wassailing bowl