‘Waes hael!’ ‘Drink hael!’: An Anglo-Saxon tradition lives on in Swale

A plantation event followed by traditional wassailing was held in the suburbia of Sittingbourne on a breezy wintry Saturday.

The event, organised jointly by the Swale Borough Council, Kent Wildlife Trust, Swale in Bloom, and Sittingbourne in Bloom, was put together to pray for a bountiful harvest at the town’s newly-created community orchard on February 1st.

From noon onwards, parents had brought along their children and arrived at Lakeview Village Hall to participate in the council-funded programme.

Japhet Goodburn of Easthall Community Orchardists was one of the volunteers who had helped to set up an orchard planting event in Sittingbourne.

Mr. Goodburn said having previously volunteered for The Orchard Project in London, a charity which aims to bring community orchards to cities and towns in the U.K., it, in turn, inspired him to organise an event of his own in his hometown.

“I got in touch with some people at a … tree week exhibit in Faversham,” the Sittingbourne native said, “and through that event I got some names.

“The local council and the Sittingbourne in Bloom group have been supporting and donating to help run this event, and empowering me to approach other people and get this community group going,” he added.

Apples are first crushed by the scratter (right) before they are compressed by the press (left) to produce juice

The aims of the event were to garner and generate local interest in the community orchard, according to the volunteer.

“We have some beautiful old trees sitting over there … and they are splitting and falling apart,” Mr. Goodburn said.

“So, it would be lovely to gather a group of interested locals to preserve the site, and get more people out in the land together as a collective – producing food for the local community and preserving wildlife habitat, which is increasingly rare these days.”

Ali Corbel, the Green Spaces Activities co-ordinator for Swale Borough Council, said the Council was contacted by Mr. Goodburn in relation to creating a community orchard in the open space near Lakeview Village Hall.

“We are hoping that people would come out and use the open space, and join (Mr.) Japhet (Goodburn) to make a community allotment and using the space more, and taking care of it and making it a nicer area for everybody,” Ms. Corbel said.

The co-ordinator also highlighted the noble and historic Anglo-Saxon tradition of wassailing later in the afternoon that day “celebrating, in mid-winter, the orchard and … the trees, and hoping the harvest next year will be really good”.

“It’s an all-day activity,” she said, in addition to the plantation and wassailing events, arts and crafts would be held in the village hall for children, as well as apple-pressing and pencil-making.

“We’re going to show people the ancient trees in the orchard, and we want to work to save those, and we’re going to plant some new trees today.”

Other activities were held at the village hall on the day, including stalls set up by the Sittingbourne Heritage Museum and Bumblebee Conservation Trust

Tony Thorley has set up Sittingbourne in Bloom originally to improve the environment in Sittingbourne town centre, but his organisation is more “community-based” nowadays.

“We are looking to assist and get the community to actually take part in the events,” Mr. Thorley said.

“That’s why we are pleased to be able to part-fund this event with the Swale Borough Council, because it is an event which will eventually improve the community ethos of Easthall.

“We’ve got a bit of ground over there, which is going to be turned into a community orchard – again, community-based, and get the community involved,” the chairman emphasised, hoping this event could “kick-start” that effort.

Martin Keelor, who works for Kent Wildlife Trust, has run his own project “Wooden It Be Crafty”, which included making pencils from twigs and sticks, a handicraft activity popular with children.

Mr. Keelor said the programme was designed to “bring together the community, and see if there’s an interest in having a community orchard here”.

“The goals and aims of this event today is to bring together this community of Great Easthall, and to see if we can set up a regular orchard project here, using heritage apples,” he added.

Organisers and visitors helped to collect twigs and sticks as firewood for the bonfire during the wassail later

Tree planting began at 2 p.m. with dozens of locals eagerly and delightfully partaking in the re-plantation of five new trees to repopulate the existing orchard.

As gardening volunteers demonstrated to parents and children on how to cultivate for the foundation of new trees, participants were off shortly after, digging holes in the plot of land with their shovels for the eventual positioning of the respective plants.

One of the parents present at the event was Karen, whose daughter is an ambassador for the Kent Children’s University, which is overseen by the Skills and Employability Team at the Kent County Council, in hopes to improve the outcomes for children and teenagers in the county through creativity and innovation.

“We saw the event on (the) Children’s University website, and it looked like a really good event, and we’d like to learn some more about apple trees,” the mother said.

She added that she and her family have thoroughly relished their time there: “It’s been really good – everybody’s been really friendly.

“We’ve travelled quite a way to get here, so it’s been good (that) there’s been some arts and crafts that my daughter’s enjoyed – and all the food has been lovely that we’ve tried.”

Gardeners used metallic frameworks to secure the soon-to-be saplings after participants planted them into the ground

The five trees have been planted into the soil by 3 p.m. and gardening volunteers inserted a wooden pole to buttress the soon-to-be blooming plants, and fenced them with pieces of metallic frameworks to secure and safeguard the eventual saplings.

Participants retreated to the village hall for refreshments at 4 p.m. before heading out once more to observe and celebrate the traditional wassailing to bring health to the orchard – as well as to the community – for the year to come.

As dusk approached and nightfall loomed over the horizon, folklorists Ali Bloomfield and Gidge Cleverly led everyone to the plantation ground, accompanied with traditional English folk music played with an organetto by Ms. Cleverly.

A bonfire was initiated, a chorus of songs were sung, and an anthology of poems were recited during the wassail, where wassailers coalesced around the biggest and best tree, wishing for a plenteous harvest in autumn.

Ms. Bloomfield then invited two children to hand offerings out to the tree spirits, first by pouring some water around its trunk, and then placing some toast into its branches, followed with chants of “Waes hael!” and “Drink hael!”.

Then came the finale: participants were told to make as much noise as possible by means of chanting and banging pots and pans so as to waken the tree spirits and petrify any evil demons that might be within the tree.

A bonfire was lit at 4 p.m. to mark the beginning of the wassailing, with Ms. Bloomfield leading the procession

“There are basically two wassailing traditions: the first one that is more of a Christmas time (event), where people go door-to-door,” Ms. Bloomfield said.

“But the orchard wassailing is growing in popularity again now – a lot popping up particularly in areas where there are a lot of fruit growing, so Kent’s a primary place for that.

“The words ‘waes hael’ come from Old English – Anglo-Saxon, and it basically means ‘good health’, and the farmers wanted to bring good health to their lands, their crops, and to their local communities,” the folklorist added, that it was a good opportunity for communities to get together.

“Mainly it (wassailing) … ended up particularly with agricultural workers as a way to raise money in the hard times of the year when there wasn’t much agricultural work,” Ms. Cleverly chimed in.

“So, they would go from house to house to get money for the orchard, and they get fed by the farm, and get some money from the farm that let them stay until ploughing season starts,” she added.

The event ended at approximately 5:30 p.m., and as wassailers were offered mulled drinks from a large pot, Japhet Goodburn of Easthall Community Orchardists hoped that: “For us as a collective – hopefully keep getting together every now and then, doing this sort of thing.”

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