Wassail in the Wyre

Last weekend at St George’s Farm we hosted an informal ceremony to ‘wassail’ the newly planted fruit trees.    The occasion also served as a thank you to the wonderful Wyre Community Land Trust volunteers who have worked hard planting trees over the past few months, and to all our new neighbours and friends who have made us feel so welcome here.  A wassail, after the old Saxon ‘wes hal’ meaning good health, is a traditional ceremony held mainly in apple growing areas to encourage a good crop of fruit in the coming year.

While the weather was not as good as forecast at the start of the week,  the rain mostly held off and the temperatures were, appropriately for the time of year, close to zero.  The huge bonfire we built earlier in the day, as well as the mulled cider and apple juice (both made from local apples harvested and juiced by the Bewdley Apple Cooperative volunteers, part of the Community Land Trust) all helped to ward off the cold.  And the hearty singing of the Worcestershire Wassail Song, actually a home made variant of the well known Gloucester version, also played a part.

Wassailing has undergone a revival in recent years.  No doubt this is linked with the growing number of community orchards, inspired by the work to promote the value and distinctiveness of old orchards and fruit varieties carried out by the conservation/arts charity Common Ground.  According to the folklorist Ralph Whitlock the ceremony almost died out completely in the 1970s.  Nowadays, it seems that almost every town or village in areas with orchards has its own event, even Ambridge!  While we chose to hold the St George’s wassail on Sunday 17th January, Twelfth Day in the old Julian calendar. They usually take place shortly after Christmas around Twelfth Night.

This year, just down the road at Stroud in Gloucestershire, the community has really gone to town with their wassail ceremony.  They organised a weekend of activities starting with a symposium on midwinter festivals, continuing with workshops on ‘raggy coat’ making, mummers and morris groups, and wassail songs, and culminating in an evening of ‘mid-winter merrymaking’ with musicians and dancers on the Saturday.

By comparison with Stroud, ours was a relatively low key affair.   The children who came made crowns with leaves and other bits and bobs.  Ricky, our Master of Ceremony and stalwart of the Apple Cooperative, wore an impressive wassail hat of his own creation.  Out in the orchard we sang the wassail song, doused some trees with last year’s cider, made a racket to scare away the evil spirits and hung toast from the branches to attract good ones.  And we were joined by some wonderful musicians, Rachel on violin, Lindsay on melodeon and Dave on guitar, who played on valiantly despite the bitter cold.

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Festivities such as these are wonderful ways of reconnecting people with the rhythms of the natural world and ancient cultural traditions.    We’re not aware that the original orchard at St George’s farm ever hosted such activities but we hope the wassailing of the new orchard here will become an annual event.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Water, water not quite everywhere!

After the wettest December on record its not surprising that the Wyre Forest is awash. We’ve been amazed at how the forest floor has literally sprung to life with hundreds of threads of water seeking the fastest way to the River Severn that flows through nearby Bewdley.  With the undulating terrain due to the intricate geology of the area, and the almost continuous tree cover, thankfully this isn’t very fast!  As a result, unlike many less fortunate souls, the area has so far avoided serious flooding.  Earlier in the winter though, the Severn rose sufficiently to require the deployment of the town’s temporary flood defences.

 

The River Severn is the longest in the UK and the greatest in terms of water flow.  It rises in Wales, near Lanidloes not far from the home of Welsh Mountain Cider who, not entirely coincidentally, have supplied some of the cider apple trees we are planting in St George’s Orchard. It’s widely known the Severn is prone to flooding and this has been a major problem for Bewdley in the recent past.  The town’s proximity to TV studios Birmingham means that the beautiful Telford bridge over the river has been a popular vantage point for TV crews.  Tony Blair paid a televised visit in 2000 when families had to be evacuated from their Severnside homes.  It was those floods that led to the investment in the current temporary defences.  Downstream, the Severn flows through Worcester, Gloucester and Tewkesbury which have all suffered serious flooding recently.

Dowles

Dowles Brook, a tributary of the Severn, is the main waterway through the forest.  It flows about half a mile from St George’s Farm and for much of its course forms the border between Shropshire and Worcestershire.  There used to be three mills along Dowles – Coopers Mill, Knowles Mill, Town Mill.  Needless to say they ceased working many years ago but Knowles Mill has been preserved by the National Trust.  It is one of our favourite stops on our widening and increasingly muddy network of walking routes through the forest.   The Dowles floods regularly as evidenced by carvings on the mill’s door frame.  While it’s in spate at the moment, it’s still a few metres lower than the heights it reached in 2012, the year of the most recent flood.

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With the threat of more frequent flooding as the climate changes, there has been a lot of discussion in environmental world about natural flood defences.  This involves changes to land management to delay and reduce the passage of rainfall downstream, such as by restoring wetlands, planting trees in floodplains and creating small dams with woody debris.  Reintroducing beavers with their dam-building expertise, it has even been suggested,  might be one way of helping to stem run-off from upland areas.

Natural measures such as these – so far excluding the beavers – have been used in Slowing the Flow, an award-winning scheme in Pickering, North Yorkshire. The beauty of the watery, wooded landscapes we are now enjoying is greatly enhanced by the new babbling watercourses flowing downhill overcoming the small natural dams of leafy and woody debris, creating associated miniature waterfalls on their way. One wonders how much more frequently the Severn would break its banks were it not for the flood-regulating function of the trees and woodland streams of the Wyre Forest?