A host of traditional customs have helped brighten the winter gloom over the centuries, from carol singing to wassailing – an ancient ritual of singing to fruit trees to guarantee a good crop.
London’s old traditions have mostly died out but new and imported ones are taking root and thriving. Here are a few of the most popular events around the city.
Third Sunday in January, 5pm-11pm. Ferryboat Inn, Ferry Lane, Tottenham N17 9NG
The Apple Yowling, in a characterful old pub nestled amid the sprawling reservoirs and wetlands of the Lea valley, is a sort of family-friendly mini folk festival all to itself.
Held on the Sunday closest to Old Twelfth Night – the traditional wassailing date in many areas – it’s presided over by Chris Hayes, a singer with Broomdasher and formerly the HogEye Men.
Things kick off with morris dancing from local sides in the pub’s front car park – “entertaining the patrons and the passengers on the top deck of any passing bus”, says Chris – which usually includes a chance to get involved and learn some steps.
Then it’s out round the back of the pub to wassail the trees in Waltham Forest’s oldest orchard. There’s a song and a chant for every tree plus cider and toast to anoint them (usually the children’s job, and usually beigels, in a north London twist).
Finally it’s back inside the pub for a bite to eat and a relaxed, convivial singaround till closing time – including locals who don’t often sing in public. The great thing is, says Chris, that “it’s family-friendly and attracts people without a folk background … who get to contribute, sing, dance and celebrate outdoors in the cold of winter”.
The 2022 event was its 11th anniversary, having had to skip the 10th because of Covid. It was founded in 2011, Chris says, by the late Katy Andrews – an environmental and community activist who died suddenly in 2015 – “who harked from the Kent/Surrey/Sussex area where she grew up with an apple yowling tradition”.
After moving to the Tottenham area and researching local traditions she found records of orchards all around. “She decided to look around for remnant signs of the orchards and wanted to restart some kind of tradition,” says Chris – which led her to the trees at the Ferryboat Inn.
The songs and rituals are “a mix of traditions based on Katy’s background and from all over” but “they have certainly developed their own flavour”. Including Chris’s leafy, sprawling hat of power: “The hat is the work of my special helpers and is evolving.”
Chris was initially involved to “help get the singing going” and took over organising duties after Katy’s death – but, he says, “It’s the people who came that have made it the event it is. Turns out Tottenham likes a good waes hael!”
Second Sunday in January. Around Walthamstow
The Walthamstow Wassail is an all-ages mass participation event aimed at building the community – and, obviously, having tremendous fun.
“Every year’s been a bit different”, says its organiser, Lucy Gibson. The basics are fairly constant: in the pub learning vocal parts for wassailing songs, then singing them in and around the pubs, streets, gardens and parks of Walthamstow, usually ending up at Walthamstow Folk Club. For children, there are craft activities plus a role in the wassailing ritual itself.
Lucy set up the wassail in 2011, to capture a community spirit she had encountered through involvement in Georgian and Bulgarian singing. “They’ve still got a lot of living traditions. Traditions make sense to them. It’s very normal: you have a song for this kind of occasion and a song for that kind of occasion.”
After having a son, “I started to think: have we got traditions in Britain as well?” That question was answered by taking part in a wassail near Peterborough, and so the Walthamstow Wassail was born.
Children were made welcome from the start. Lucy and a local artist, Lesley Palmer, who by 2011 both had four-year-old sons, ran the event over two days – a family wassail with crafts on the Saturday, and an adult, singing-focused one on the Sunday ending up at the folk club.
As participants’ children outgrew the crafts activities, “I then had to think of a way to keep them involved. I developed the concept of ‘senior wassailers’ … When they were six or seven they started to do stuff like holding up the big words and calling out the blessings, and they knew what had to happen in what order.
“They’re all now about to be 16 and we haven’t wassailed for a bit so I’m not sure how many of them will come back when we get going again. But it’s been lovely to have those different ages there.”
The event is now condensed into one day, evolving along the way. In 2016 there was a Mari Lwyd theme, with a horse decorated by the children. From that came a new tradition of exchanging rude songs with Mark, the owner of the Froth and Rind cheese shop, which had just opened.
Lucy says she asked him: “We’re going to come and be really rude to you in verse and we’d like you to be rude to us back in verse, please, and then give us some free cheese and alcohol. And the guy just said: ‘Yeah, sure!’”
“Because it worked so well with him, every year with him we’d have a special Mari Lwyd corner and he’d write a new song with new rude words to us. And it was so funny and brilliant.”
Mark has moved on, but new elements are constantly added. When the wassailers were invited into someone’s house a couple of years ago, they were surprised to be led right through to the back garden where a huge bonfire awaited them. Local people are “so welcoming”, says Lucy. “People really engage with it.”
The songs come from all over England. “Being a bit of a wassail vulture – so looking on the internet for tunes but also listening to CDs,” says Lucy. “There’s the Oxford Book of Carols … I’ll take them from anywhere, really.”
The arrangements, which are all hers, are collected in a new book. This also contains the ritual wording plus some simple tunes, with the hope that others will use it to set up their own wassail tradition.
“What’s nice is that it’s already in use. I had a preorder of 75 copies for a choir in Chippenham who are going to drive to Somerset in a coach and wassail in five orchards in Somerset and then come back in a coach. Probably completely hammered!”
The wassail community is “a real mixture of people”, she says. “For me ritual is really, really important. It’s an important structural part of a community and I think we’ve lost that to our detriment.
“I found it really moving. That time when we come round the corner, we come down from Vestry House and along Orford Road, singing ‘We wish you a happy new year.’ And we really do! This is our community and we really do wish the whole community a really happy new year.
“This is what the songs were designed for and we’re doing it properly.”
Mari Lwyd Llundain
Mid-January. Around King’s Cross
The arrival of the Mari Lwyd in pubs around Euston Road on a Friday night must come as an awful shock to the unsuspecting drinkers. The Mari Lywd (“grey mare” or “grey Mary”), a hooded figure with a horse’s skull, arrives with a crowd of followers who trade songs with another group inside the pub, in a tradition imported from Wales and enthusiastically adopted by London.
All are welcome, Welsh speaker or not, to follow the horse as it stalks the streets and join in the singing. Lyrics sheets are provided and there’s usually a chance to go through the songs at the start.
In 2020, the last event before lockdown, the Mari started in the Boot at 6.30pm before moving on to the Harrison, the Calthorpe Arms and finally the London Welsh Centre, where the night closes with more singing and a twmpath (ceilidh) dance.
Ffion Mair of the Foxglove Trio, one of the founders, explains that the event was inspired by one in Dinas Mawddwy, near her family home in Llanwddyn, mid Wales.
Traditionally, she says, it was a sort of singing battle as people went visiting their neighbours. “The Mari and her party would knock on the door and ask, via the medium of song, to be let in and the people indoors would, again in verse, say no.
“The two groups would go backwards and forwards singing as many verses as they could think of, even making them up on the spot, until the group who ran out of verses lost the battle and either Mari got to go in and eat all of the food or she had to turn away and head to the next house.”
In January 2016 a group of her friends, the Spring Heeled Jacks ceilidh band, went to the Dinas Mawddwy event. “On the journey back home to London one of us said: ‘Next year, wouldn’t it be fun to try and do this in London?’”
The first event drew about 60 people, “which was surprisingly high”, says Ffion, “and it’s grown every year since” – to the point where it was difficult to get into some of the pubs in 2020.
It’s a diverse crowd too. “There are a lot of folkies and a lot of people who are members of the London Welsh Centre who you’ll find in the bar singing their hearts out until closing time. But this event also attracts a younger group of Welsh people in London who explain the event to their friends who think: ‘Sounds a bit weird but might be fun, let’s give it a go.’
“I think it also appeals to people with an interest in folklore, paganism, ancient traditions etc. There’s even a group of London Jewish vegans who come every year!”
The London event “is a little more scripted” than the Welsh tradition, says Ffion. “We know where we’re going and we always let Mari’s party win and come into the pub for a drink!
“There are two traditional songs – the competitive one and then ‘Mari’s victory song’. We knew not everyone who came to our event would be fluent Welsh speakers so I translated the second song into English and sandwiched those lyrics into the Welsh verses.
“We’ve always been very impressed with how enthusiastically people get involved with the singing, regardless of their Welsh language skills.”
The most difficult thing about setting up the event, she says, was creating the Mari. The first one was cardboard – a flatpack Mari created by Trac, the Welsh folk development agency. “We spent several evenings building and decorating our cardboard Mari but by the end of the evening she was looking a little worse for wear (too much whisky perhaps!)”
So now it’s a real horse’s skull – bought, in a new twist to the folk tradition, from eBay.
Traditional Carols in London
Sundays in December. Royal Oak, Tabard Street, Borough SE1 4JU; Victoria Inn, Hill Rise, Richmond TW10 6UB; Bricklayers Arms, Waterman Street, Putney SW15 1DD
The Traditional Carols sessions are inspired by the annual carolling in village pubs around Sheffield, many of which have their own distinct local versions of songs.
Three pubs in south and west London host communal singing of these Sheffield carols plus a few of the standards and some from other sources. There’s a booklet with the words but, according to the organiser, Jeff Dent: “I must stress that we are not a choir and we do not teach parts.
“These are communal singing events and although we do encourage people to sing in parts, they will have learnt these maybe from the well-known Worrall ‘blue book’ or by listening and joining in with a part that suits them.”
The sessions started around 2010 and took off in their current form in 2011, with two Sunday afternoon sessions and a smaller Thursday evening session in between. Recently, collections for Crisis at Christmas have raised more than £1,440.
Hackney Wassail: wassailing community orchards around Old Twelfth Night. Details: hackneywassail.org.uk
Willesden Green Wassail: parade through Willesden in late February, with drumming, songs and spoken word.
Twelfth Night, Bankside: The Lion’s Part, a group of actors, perform free outdoor events including the Holly Man, wassailing and The Mummers Play. Details: thelionspart.co.uk
Boxing Day morris: various sides including Blackheath, Colchester and Greensleeves in Wimbledon. Details: themorrisring.org/traditional-morris-events/traditional-morris-events-christmas
Tradfolk Wassail Directory: UK-wide events listing
This article appeared in Folk London 316, December-January 2021-22