The Needwood Wassail

Two sides bordered by Derby-lands
In the west, dark Bagot’s brooding stands
Trent to the south the flowing lifeblood
‘twixt them all, our fair green wood

Wassail! Wassail! On this Twelvey night!
Wassail Wassail! Your whole year be bright!

Our ancient forest calls to the heart
Rich soil, gentle valleys, never to part
Stout oak, lithe hazel, the black elder tree
We raise up our glasses and drink unto thee

Wassail! Wassail! On this Twelvey night!
Wassail Wassail! Your whole year be bright!

We, the folk of the five parishes
We, the stewards of the wood, cherish’d
Open up! Open up! And let us all in,
Open up! Open up! Or we’ll make a right din

Wassail! Wassail! On this Twelvey night!
Wassail Wassail! Your whole year be bright!

Saved from the axe, saved from the fire
The Needwood is rising, rising like spires
The Winter is going, watch it retreat,
Good health, raise cheer, give thanks for the feast

Wassail! Wassail! On this Twelvey night!
Wassail Wassail! Your whole year be bright!

Wæs þu hæl!

Ditch Diggers

They dug the ditches deep back then;
They had to –
Beating back the boundaries
Of nature’s millennia
Never had an adze or briar hook been seen
Until then.

Narrow blades; course hammered,
Drain spades and trench shovels
Lugged and bent
Where the shaft hooked the housing;
Sure footing for the sure-footed boot
To stand on, force, rend, cut.

The Navvy’s forebears,
Local stock, not travelled,
Except by foot or ox cart
Descended like bloody midges, swarming
To the Mop Fairs, hiring out blistered hands,
For work, for women, for wealth.

And they broke –
Broke the turf-sods and clod-soil,
Broke the rootstock and tap shoots,
Broke, with badging tools and sickle-scythes;
Broke, with froes and beet hooks;
Broke their backs for coppered toil.

These days, we dig and cover –
The shovel-scoop of the iron ox forces, rends and cuts
The drains, grey tubes, flushing, free –
But look close,
Where the litter lies in the old hedge line
Where the soft mud gathers, draped in half-mulched leaves –

There, lie the shallow trenches
There, the mark of the old ditch diggers
Cruddy trickles;
Chip wrappers, rusting beer cans
Their memoriam;
Their last will, their testament.

Clinker built

It was a pleasure skiff hoiked up on the back of a trailer, held in place by crude-cut chocks, vivid yellow straps with self tensioning ratchets and thick rope, twisted at points into hand-sized knots and hairy with stick out wild strands of twine. A cruising boat; bicep-powered, now cruising up the dual carriageway to who knows where? The hull was chestnut brown, brush-swept varnish strokes caringly applied, it gleamed with buffed love but not so much that the knurls and knots couldn’t show through, the heartwood breathing beneath. A high back chair across the rear portion with a wrought iron topper the only concession to fashion; otherwise this high sitter was custom made for a proud Victorian gentleman, boater-topped with a rakish cravat and a blouson shirt opened up more than modesty should allow, riffling in the breeze.

But the boat, the hull, the bow: that recalls a much earlier time. Clinker built, overlapping stanchions, smooth-planed stringers and internal trusses hand-worked not machined. On a trailer, up the A38; a craft rooted in more than 1,300 years of history. Scaled up and mast added, it could take a sail, a sea, a journey to Vinland, or a rich Abbey on the coast, swilling over with gems, Communion wine and sacred texts. Although planed and sawn by man, the lines remain organic; the wood is cut but then seems to adapt and grow back, plank over plank, the caulk the underwear; the ribs the shoes. A work of beauty, Viking designed, still functional today and being put back to work on a boating lake in Rotherham or as a daily hire on the Ouse, who knows?


Edward Cove hung himself, I recall, from a beam in the roof of his boat shed on Shadycombe Road. It was called the Island Quay boatyard; I was 12 and remember it vividly, front page news in the Gazette. The family couldn’t agree over which way to take the business and Edward could take no more. The end of over a hundred years of wooden boat building tradition was precipitated.  In that time, one of the few concessions, the fitting of choking, coughing inboard diesels, puthering and thrusting out their sooty smoke.  But these too were clinker built vessels and I loved them, the East Portlemouth ferries the police-jacket blue icon of the type, hunkering down and riding the waves, not fighting them, cutting them, pitching violently but conversing with them and reaching a rolling agreement.

Was hail? Drink hail!

In our modern times, January seems to have become a time for abstinence, like an early Lent. Cutting down, cutting out, giving up. Yet, traditionally, the Christmas celebration reached its climax today, 6th January, Epiphany in the Christian calendar, probably borrowed from some earlier, pre-Christian celebration. Whatever the beliefs, it’s a dark time of the year: almost exactly the middle of winter, everything from the last year has died off and few if any signs of life are poking through. Today, early January signals the time of year when most people feel depressed (back to work after all the festivities and the realisation after a week-long promise of new resolutions, that much will be the same); in latter days, the feeling would have been the same but for more fundamental reasons:  when will growth return? Will we be able to replenish our stocks of food? Will we – and our livestock – survive the harsh winter.

Out of this fear, the pastime of wassailing grew. Nowadays we think of it with cider and apple trees, but more widely (given the relatively restricted growth of apple orchards across the isles), the wassail was a lammas or spiced ale (unhopped beer). I knew an old farmer who strained mulled wine through lambswool – perhaps this filtering process is the source of the word.  Whichever drink was made, apple trees would be blessed; field boundaries would be walked, a drop of two of the mulled drink would be imbibed from large hand-turned bowls.  The cry of ‘Was hail?’ would be ring out; the reply, ‘Drink hail!‘. Hopefully the spirits of the trees and the plants would be involved and renewed growth would follow.

So tonight I won’t abstain.  I’ll get myself off down the pub and maybe, just maybe, sing an old carol not often sung by the choirboys of Kings College these days: the Gloucestershire Wassail:

A-wassail! A-wassail! all over the town,
Our toast it is white and our ale it is brown;
Our bowl it is made of the white maple tree;
With the wassailing bowl we’ll drink unto thee.

Source: Spitalfields Life


Wun course too low

In an idle moment today, my fingers played internet search word association. What started with an attempt to buy my children’s names as internet domains, brought me, via a competition to win an iPad Air and a report on the tourist impact of the Tour de France on Yorkshire’s economy, to a delightful British custom.  I’m fascinated by these things, haling as I do from a hotbed of clog dancing and later married in Abbots Bromley, a Staffordshire village where a rag-tag assortment of locals don Anglo-Saxon deer horns and beat the parish boundaries in what could easily pass for a Breugel-inspired inharmonic drinking competition.

So what a delight to discover the Marsden Cuckoo Festival, named after (according to Wikipedia) a local legend of the Marsden Cuckoo. Marsden is also the birthplace of poet, playwright and sometime troubadour, Simon Armitage*. Simon’s translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight won plaudits for its sensitive handling of old northern English, so it seems right to find a reference to the festival featuring local dialect from The Huddersfield Daily Examiner.

“Many years ago the people of Marsden were aware that when the cuckoo arrived, so did the Spring and sunshine. They tried to keep Spring forever, by building a tower around the Cuckoo. Unfortunately, as the last stones were about to be laid, away flew the cuckoo. If only they’d built the tower one layer higher. As the legend says, it ,were nobbut just wun course too low’.”


*And, with typical circularity, one of Simon’s books is ‘CloudCuckooLand’. I haven’t read it, but I will now.