Wassail Fire Leeds

My First Time Wassailing

Last night I went wassailing in some woods not too far from my house with a bunch of strangers and my friend Pete. Here’s the story of My First Time Wassailing.

I’d never heard of Wassailing until my housemate Peter, invited me to attend the annual (didn’t happen last year) Leeds Urban Harvest Wassail. Peter has a proven track record of inviting me to enjoyable oddities and this time with a promise of free cider and dancing I was there.

Wassailing dates back to the Celtic times and although there are various accounts of what Wassailing actually is online, I determine it to be the worship of fruit producing trees in a forest accompanied with singing, cider drinking (with fruits from the tree) and FIRE. Wassails usually include people involved in local folk and urban harvest communities.

So it’s Friday the 17th of January, I’ve got my Doc Martins on, I’m wrapped up and Peter has a bicycle light to use as a torch. We set off through the urban streets of Leeds heading towards the equally urban, Woodhouse Ridge, a significant area of woodland in the otherwise highly developed area. Peter has a bottle of red in his bag and I have forgotten mine, but with the promise of free cider I’m not worrying too much. We arrive at the ridge and walk the entirety of it until we come out the other end, met by a group of around 30 Wassailers and two fire sticks. We’re a bit late and Charlotte who seems to be the chief in charge is telling the crowd about Brian who has been crowned King of the Wassail and Deadry (she wasn’t called this) who had been crowned Queen. We are then taught the “Wassailing Song” which we would sing as we trek down to the apple tree in the woods.

Wassail, wassail all over the land, Our bread it is white, our ale it is brown, Our bowls they are made from the old maple tree, Wassail, wassail alone with me.

The Wassail Song

An orderly line is formed and the chants of the Wassail song grow steadily. I thought we would be trekking deep into the woods, fire sticks leading the way, but it turns out that the apple tree was a short 3 to 4 metre walk away. Not to worry though, we gathered around and Charlotte told us something about the tree and all the demons that encompass it, threatening the harvest of the apples. At this part of the Wassail, we all had to shout violently at a tree to scare away the demons. I loved it. I seem to have built up a bit of aggression lately so shouting at the top of my voice to a tree full of demons has really helped me cope with it. Everyone else got proper involved too and local residents (remember we are not really in the woods yet) streamed into the streets to see why there was a gathering of people shouting at a tree. After more stories, we put some bread on the tree and the king and queen singed some songs.

After that we were treated to a play, lit up by fire, 5 volunteers performed a very comical take on the tale of a dragon and a baddy that turned good with the help of apples.

Wassail Play

The play was decent and luckily I had some Milkybar Giant Buttons in my coat to snack on with the red wine. At this point I took a step back and thought to myself, “I’m spending my Friday night sat on a wet field with 30 strangers and Peter watching a play about apples and a dragon lit up by fire torches and I’m having a great time. ” I really was and I’d spent no money whatsoever yet I was out meeting new people having a blast.

After the play, we all joined hands in a circle encompassing 4 musicians and were taught a variety of dances. I got fully involved in this section, I enjoy dancing and expressing myself and before I knew it the coat was off, I was down to my jumper, sweating from jumping around, covered in mud. One dance in particular allowed for a maneuver where you were free to express what you imagine “air” to be. Jumping around, flapping our arms, weirding people out and not having a care in the world, me and Peter seemed to have attracted the attention of Charlotte, the leader woman. She asked us if we would like to be in charge of starting the fire in the woods for later on. Yes. Yes, of course we would like to be in charge of starting a fire in the woods.

So, skipping the free soup section of the Wassail (you had to bring your own bowls anyway) me and peter were handed a fire torch and a canister of paraffin and we trekked back into Woodhouse ridge. We didn’t quite make it to our designated fire point (not that we really knew where it was anyway) as the fire torch nearly burnt my hand off. We set up camp in the middle of a path, Peter foraged an impressive amount of mostly damp wood and I somehow managed to get an impressive fire going. All those years of watching Ray Mears and failing my Duke of Edinburgh award at school had paid off. After an hour or so the soup had dried out and we could hear the rest of the Wassailers approaching. I was nervous. I wanted them to be proud of the fire and the log seating we had provided and they were. Impressed by the size of the inferno considering the conditions we were praised by many. I was made up. I felt like one of them. The whole group gathered around and we sang folk songs (none of which I knew) into the early hours of the morning.

It was fantastic. I felt very welcomed and thoroughly enjoyed this one truly unique experience. Come 2am we decided to head back to reality. Looking back at the scene in the woods, it could have been the 13th century. Walking back through Woodhouse I could not get the Wassailing song out of my head and was disappointed only in the fact that there was not as much alcohol going around as I had imagined, probably due to the fact that I forgot mine.

I’ll be back next year.