As we settled into the corner of the pub, chitter chatting with a few American tourists, swapping stories of slightly crazy antics (me: sheep herding, them: flash Halloween parades in Ohio) it struck me just how much I love the oddities of London and the magic of England.
They said to my friend and I, ‘hey, actually, do you know why there are slices of toast hanging from the tree outside the Brunel Museum,’ my friend and I exchanged wordless, laughter filled glances.
‘Oh yeah, that’s for the twelfth-night wassailing tonight. It’s an… *consults google* ….old Anglo-Saxon fertility ritual, ensuring that the crops will be bountiful.’
They take another sip of beer, and nod wisely.
This is my London.
In the middle of the ancient icons, and marble-topped hotels, the skyscrapers that puncture the clouds and the Victorian archways, lie small and wonderful pockets of history. Morris Men dancing around bell-ringed handkerchiefs, Roman ruins are unearthed and disrupt modern architecture, and Pagan royalty dressed head-to-toe in green sprinkle cider libation over (stand-in) apple tree roots.
First we wandered through the Brunel Museum.
The Brunel Museum is housed in the Brunel Engine House, Rotherhithe, London Borough of Southwark. The Engine House was designed by Sir Marc Isambard Brunel to be part of the infrastructure of the Thames Tunnel. It’s small, but interesting – and tells the story of Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s first project with his father Sir Marc, the Thames tunnel under the river. The tunnel is a scheduled ancient monument and international landmark site with a museum.
But, we weren’t just there for the engineering history.
Midnight Apothecary is Brunel Museum’s highly acclaimed campfire-and-cocktail pop-up bar, located in a secret rooftop garden above Brunel’s Thames Tunnel in Rotherhithe. The special wassail-themed evening involves dancing around crabapple trees in the orchard, pouring cider over their roots, and singing wassail carols led by traditional figures like the Wassail Queen, the Green Man and the Butler of the Feast.
It was insane, and hilarious – especially when us, the crowd, got confused by the folk band accompaniment to our carols, so the butler had to take control of the singing. I blame the cider.
‘Wassailing’ sounds like something quaint, English and straight out of Shakespeare. Correct — except that it pre-dates Shakespeare by several hundred years, and is believed to have originated around 1,000 years ago.
The word ‘wassail’ is an old Anglo-Saxon term, a toast that means ‘be in good health’, as the custom involves visiting apple orchards and singing to the health of the trees to ensure a good harvest in the coming year. The lively ceremony aims to ‘awaken’ the trees and ward off evil spirits. Often the roots of apple trees are doused in cider, and cider-soaked toast (toast!) or cake is hung from their branches. Closely associated with Christmas carols, the event is traditionally celebrated on Twelfth Night (5 or 6 January; or 17 January according to an ancient calendar no longer in use).
Best of all? If you’re catching the Overground through Rotherhithe, you’ll be tracing using the Thames tunnel according to the plates.
What’s the most random local event you’ve been to?