Wassail!

Originally published December 2016

Hello everyone! temp-graph Here we are at the end of a year that has officially been declared the hottest since records began in the 19th century. It is interesting to note that, by the end of this year, sixteen of the seventeen hottest years on record will have occurred in this century.

It is a moot point whether those of us lucky enough to live in a part of the world with clearly defined seasons will notice the difference most. In this country, we thrive on conversations about the weather and as far as we are concerned anything out of the ordinary and ‘unseasonal’ is a sure sign that times, they are a-changin’, as a certain Nobel Prize winner put it. Thus we are not getting any decent sledging in the South-east anymore, we seem to have sporadic, torrential rain showers rather than good old British drizzle and of course our Summers are never as we remember them as children!

None of which, in the scheme of things, may be considered conclusive evidence in support of the Climate Change theory which encompasses the Global Warming phenomenon. However, there can be no denying the effect on the Polar Ice Caps, as they shrink at an alarming rate, and the rise in sea levels. Recent figures show that the world’s oceans have risen an average of 19cms since 1900, with the rate of change increasing dramatically in the last twenty-five years.  A rise in sea level is not just attributed to the melting of the ice at the Earth’s poles, but due also to the volume of water increasing as it expands under warmer temperatures.

Scientists are still arguing over the cause of Global Warming, but it appears that they are 95% certain that it is a result of, or at least greatly exacerbated, by anthropogenic activity.

Predictions for an increase in extreme weather events seem to have been born out. The USA is reeling from a year of Winter storms, severe floods and scorching heat waves, flooding in China caused the death of several hundred people in July and Spain made the record books with the hottest September temperature ever recorded in Europe. As I sit here listening to the tail end of Storm Angus outside, Ethiopia is experiencing its worst drought in fifty years. As always, our thoughts should be with those people at the mercy of the elements.

There is no doubt the weather has affected the way our little Reserve has looked over the last few months. We have had trees broken and blown over, cracks appear in the ground and the pond has been emptying and re-charging with the regularity of the mythical Vicar’s tea-cup!

tqw-dec-2016-pic-sel-1

The mild, damp spell has produced a crop of mini fungi which has been a delight to encounter during our perambulations of the wood.  Two of my personal favourites are the Pipe Club (Macrotyphula fistulosa) and Candlesnuff Fungus (Xylaria hypoxylon), both looking larger than life in Lorna’s stunning photographs!

tqw-dec-2016-pic-sel-2-fungi

Quarry Wood’s fauna has featured a lot this year, especially those of the striped and stinging variety (see Jasper Beware! Nov 2016 & Stripes for Danger – May 2016). As if in apology to our two comrades-in-tools who were on the sharp end of several Wasp stings in September, Ma Nature sent her own striped bruisers to mete out retribution. The remains of two nests have been found scattered about the leaf-covered ground, the large holes in the ground a sure sign that thick-skinned Brocks (our striking monochromatic Badgers) have been feasting on the wasp larvae.

This time last year we discussed the signs and portents that have been studied in the past when predicting the weather. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOne such was the number of berries on Holly trees, the more berries, the harsher the winter (see Prophesies from the Easterlies – Dec 2015). This did not actually ring true last winter; we must wait to see if that was an aberration and those Old Wives knew what they were about as there is a fine crop of red berries this year.

As the plants and animals prepare for Winter, in the assumption that we will get some seasonal weather, our thoughts turn to all things festive. During this time of feasting and merrymaking, alcoholic beverages tend to feature as part of our seasonal fare. Mulled wine has become a popular tipple after a trudge on a chilly winter’s day or, as we observed last year, after a bit of hard graft on a nature reserve. In this we are carrying on the tradition of the Sandall’d and Toga’d Ones who started heating their wine to stave off the cold. We can only imagine how many gallons were consumed by the hardy troopers garrisoned along Hadrian’s Wall.

The Middle Ages found people adding spices and herbs to their heated wine in a desperate attempt to stave off the various plagues sweeping across Europe; undoubtedly it was safer to drink than much of the water on offer. The drink did not really become associated with Christmas until the Victorians re-invented the Festive Season for themselves. bishop3bEven today, a quick scan of the internet will unearth several recipes for Scrooge’s favourite brew.

“A merrier Christmas, Bob, my good fellow, than I have given you, for many a year! I’ll raise your salary, and endeavour to assist your struggling family, and we will discuss your affairs this very afternoon, over a Christmas bowl of smoking bishop, Bob!”
Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol (1843)

However, in the year that commemorates the 950th anniversary of the Battle of Hastings, it is right and fitting that we close 2016 by celebrating a seasonal, Anglo-Saxon tradition, that of Wassailing. Our relatively modern practice of going around people’s houses carolling almost certainly has its roots in pre-Christian Britain. During those Dark Ages, the Lord of an estate started a new year by gathering his followers together and greeting them with the toast waes hael (be well) to which the assembled throng would reply drink hael (drink well!). Thus, began Britain’s New Year’s drinking culture and the need for a Bank Holiday to recover!

the-wassail-bowl-at-christmas-english-illustration-1860-ex6ggfWhen Christianity replaced the worship of Thor, Wodin and Friya et al. the revelry moved to Twelfth Night, although the actual date remained fluid, in every sense of the word!  Wassailing, as it came to be known evolved into two distinct versions of the celebration. One involved groups of merrymakers visiting different houses, singing songs and spreading good cheer. They would carry a Wassail bowl with them which the obliging hosts would fill with wine, ale or cider, warm and spiced, to be passed around until it was time to move on to the next household in need of jollity and good wishes.

wassail3A second form of Wassailing developed in the fruit growing areas of England, predominantly the southern counties where the orchards prevailed. People surrounded the apple trees, making as much noise as they could to waken the slumbering tree spirits and ensure a good crop. To this day, Twelfth Night is marked by carousing crowds in orchards throughout Somerset, Devon, Sussex and Kent; the cider-fuelled jollity even crossed Offa’s Dyke into Wales where they Wassail with the best of them.

We hope that your apple trees prosper and bear
So that we may have cider when we call next year
And where you have one barrel we hope you’ll have ten
So that we may have cider when we call again

was1The Gower Wassail,
as sung by Phil Tanner 1862-1950

So there it is, the end of another year. One which will pose more questions than answers for environmental scientists around the world.  All we can do is to keep a weather eye on our own patch, respect and care for our countryside and definitely enjoy our festivities!

Happy Christmas One and All, Drink Hael!

Any thoughts at pgcrow@yahoo.com

Paul Johnson

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