Tuesday, 24 January 2012

Review: Chepstow Mari Lwyd & Wassail

-->On Saturday, I went to the Wassail and Mari Lwyd celebration in Chepstow. A wassail is a celebration that happens in cider-growing regions, and you go and wake up the apple trees in time for spring. The Mari Lwyd is Welsh for grey mare. I have never been to a Mari Lywd celebration, and didn't know anything about it. I turned up at Chepstow at three o'clock. An enquiry as to where I might find the celebrations was met by a mysterious shrug in the tourist office. “Could be anywhere, depends how much they've drunk.”

I found the revellers in a pub garden, serenading an apple tree. It wasn't the biggest or best apple tree I'd ever seen, but it was festooned in toast.

The garden was full of morris dancers and locals, ages 0-100. There were a lot of these guys ('Widders' Morris) with the pheasants feathers and spider hats. They obviously spend hours and hours collecting stuff for these, and each was a work of art. 

I grew up in the 70's when folky type things were in fashion, I remember seeing Morris dancers, who were always middle-aged blokes with beards. They wore white. Things have obviously changed in the world of Morris (I know, you're getting old when Morris dancers start to look young) but there's clearly no danger of it dying out because most of the dancers were young, and some even teenage. They don't seem to do men's and women's teams any more; the only qualification seems to be whether you're prepared to risk getting whacked with a really big stick.

There were Morris teams from all over the place. I particularly liked the guys from Nottinghamshire, who had a red horse's skull touted around by a death figure, which proceeded to chase the compère. There were wassail singers from Gloucestershire, so I was pleased to see my home country represented! After that, somebody handed out party poppers and they were all fired at the tree. Then, everybody went to drink cider.

We reassembled about 6, by the end of the bridge over the River Wye. Traditionally, two processions, from the English and Welsh sides, meet on the bridge. By then, it was dark, and I don't mean the kind of dark you get in cities. Beyond the river, it was total, impenetrable blackness. Behind us, the castle was lit by floodlights. We milled around, unsure what was going on. Somebody was playing what I presume was Welsh or Breton bagpipes, which make a weird and mournful sound. All we could see was a flapping Welsh flag, and the Mari Lwyd, at the head of the procession.

The Mari Lwyd was a big horse's skull, real, and worked like a puppet so the jaw was snapping and cracking. The horse's eyes were baubles, and they were about eight foot tall. I was surprised that there wasn't just one Mari Lwyd, but, I think, four: three white and the Notts one, which was red. Some were lit with lights in the skulls.

We couldn't really see what was happening, but suddenly everybody surged forward across the bridge. There were no streetlights; people weren't talking much, you could just hear the bagpipes and the water, underneath. I think there might have been a drum. At this point, inexplicably, all the hairs on the back of my neck just stood on end. I wasn't sure what was going on, I couldn't really see, and I didn't understand the nature of the ceremony that was taking place. I honestly wasn't sure if anyone else did, either. But I did feel that slightly odd shift when reality goes a bit sideways, and you're not surprised at whatever you see, like you are when you're dreaming.

And then we all stopped – I didn't know where I was going, anyway – and people came back towards us, with the procession from the other side of the bridge dragging an apple tree on a cart. A man was handing round a wassail bowl full of cider, and gave a me a drink, which I was very happy about since I figured it was good luck.

And then we all got back to the town side of the bridge, some musicians started playing outside a pub, and it all went back to normal, and the sideways-to-reality thing just sloughed off. Everybody was very cheerful and friendly, and seemed in some way, relieved.

I didn't ask anyone why they were there: I'm really sure I'd have got as many different answers as people. I think some people were there because they like folk music and dancing, and some people because they like cider. I think some people were there because they are serious Pagans, and some because they like organising stuff in the community. The guys from Notts looked like they live in an anarchist commune the rest of the time, but I'm pretty sure that a search under the top hats and blacked-out faces would have turned up several pillar-of-the-community local councillor types, as well.

I found the whole scenario interesting for a number of reasons. First, I used to work for an outdoor theatre company and know how much work and money goes into organising something of this size. I also know that only 'arty' people turn up. I'm sure that this was done for a fraction of the cost, with a cross-section of community attending that you'd never get if you labelled it 'art' instead of 'tradition'. Also, there were no stewards in hi-viz jackets, no-one giving out programmes, and no generators, portaloos, or requests to fill in feedback forms including your ethnicity. Everybody just got on with it.

Second, although the entire thing was vehemently politically incorrect, it was never threatening in a personal sense. (Apart from the eight foot high dead horses, which were bloody terrifying). Maybe the EDL are scared of the Welsh, or the Welsh nationalists think Chepstow is really England, but I think the suspicion that this type of tradition is somehow linked with racism and/or right wing nastiness is probably just a paranoid fantasy from trendy urban types, who, like many people, are frightened of what they are unfamiliar with.

What I liked most about this event was the sense of people coming together in a very loose, non-control-freaky way, to link not only to old traditions but also to look to the future. There was a great atmosphere, and although there was plenty of drinking, everyone seemed friendly, confident, and pleased to show off their talents: music, dancing, a woodcarving they'd made, or a particularly nice hat.

As I walked back through Chepstow to the station, I left the wassailers behind and ran into the Saturday night crowd, staggering into pubs in the upper part of town. There was a faint air of desperation to it, that was completely absent in the wassailing crowd at the lower part of town.

Many thanks to Kelly Rennie (and family) for suggesting this event!


  1. Thank you for coming on Saturday, for entering into the spirit and for this review.
    Perhaps a few, very brief, explanations might be usefully made public: We've been holding this event for eight years. It began with two Morris Sides and one Mari Lwyd (Grey Mare). This year we had eight Morris Sides and SEVEN Horses (including Poor 'Owd 'Oss from Nottingham).
    The afternoon's activities are based in and around the licensed premises near the Chepstow Riverbank. The Wassail is the traditional ceremony of drinking the last of this year's cider and blessing the trees for the next. The ladies hang toast from the tree. The men should fire shotguns. We use party poppers! Spot the fertility symbolism!
    Contrary to popular belief Morris Dancing is not all about handkerchiefs! There are very, very many regional varieties....some of which are scarey! The Widders are "Border Morris". Originally the black faces were to protect the identity of farm workers moonlighting elsewhere. Much more to it than that. Check out www.thewidders.co.uk
    As the dancing and singing continues on the Riverbank there is a simultaneous Wassail on the English side across Chepstow's Old Iron Bridge across the Wye. The centre of the bridge is the boundary between Wales and England. At the signal of the rocket the English and the Welsh congregate at either end of the bridge. The drums, the bells, the pipes and the caterwauling evoke an overpowering eeriness which you so accurately describe. The backdrop of the floodlit Castle and the reflections in the river add to it. The streetlights on the bridge are on but there aren't many of them!
    The two groups march towards each other. From the English side with a purpose built wooden cart carrying an apple tree. From the Welsh side with the Maris. The pace increases. It's like marching to War. The two groups meet in the middle. It's all about to kick off....and then all peace breaks out!! Flags are exchanged. The Wassail Bowl passed around.Friends embraced.The English are invited into Wales.
    What follows is the Mari Lwyd Ceremony A kind of Welsh "first footing". The Grey Mare and her followers seek entry to a pub/house for food and drink. They are refused. Singing, banter and argument (In both English and Welsh) ensue. Eventually the Mari crowd are admitted. Mass celebration and more cider.!
    You wrote about ages 1 - 100 and a feeling of a Community peopled by differing types. Music to our ears. That is exactly what we are trying to achieve. It is for everybody. The Mari/Wassail has been publicly referred to as "the oldest new tradition in the Country". That lovely ambiguity sums it up.... there is structure, but not stricture. We love the evening to develop itself too....hence the extended dancing outside the Museum after the Mari there. Break into song. Don't be self - conscious. Have fun/take it seriously. Make it what it is for you.
    And all followed by a ceilidh in the Drill Hall.
    You are so right about cost. If you knew what the road closure alone costs you would fall over. We subsidise the whole event through other events we organise through the year. Shortfalls are met by a generous benefactor from within the Widders.
    We believe the event to be totally unique and, as you guess, we do it because we love it and we believe in "Strength in Community".
    See you next year. Say "Hello".
    Tim, Mick, Ness and the (feared throughout the land" Widders.

  2. Very Cool Tim, thnakss for sending that. I found the writers opening comment about the tourism office quite amusing.
    The Very Best to my Welsh Friends,

    A Loyal Colonial from Canada.

  3. A colonial that doesn't type very well (or at the very least proof read)