Wassailing at Tarring Village in West Sussex

The Wassail at Tarring village. Members of the Sompting Village Morris carry flaming torches as they lead the procession along the High Street in Tarring, West Sussex.

Banging and chanting filled the air on the Eve of the Twelfth Night (5th of January) in the ancient village of Tarring in West Sussex, UK. The annual Wassailing at Tarring was awakening the ancient Sussex village.

Trying to ignore the fact that my coat seemed a little tighter than before the Christmas Holiday, I prepared my cameras in the car before setting off to the High Street in Tarring. It was cold and I did wonder what I was doing out and about on such a night, but I could spot a warm looking glow of light and hear laughter further down the road so I convinced myself it would be worth it and started to walk. A month earlier I had heard about the annual event and seduced by the thought of adding some more photographs to my on going photo project documenting unusual traditions, I thought it a good idea to attend. However it was my first time at a Wassail, so I did not know what to expect and if I'm honest I was not completely sure if I had arrived at the correct location.

Apart from a lone man walking a dog, things looked a bit quiet. As I stopped and lifted my coat collar a little higher, trying to keep the cold wind out a little longer, and thinking to myself that maybe I should have become a fashion photographer working in a nice warm studio, out of the dark a green man approached. Unusual even for Sussex I thought! He was wearing a large green jacket and looked like a character from a Lord Of The Rings film. The King Of the Forest! A folklore type character. As he passed me by I shared a polite 'Evenin' and admired his beard (I received a beard for Christmas this year and ever since it's arrival have found myself comparing beards). His arrival had confirmed the location was correct and as I continued my approach into the village, I smiled to myself.

It was not because he looked silly, his costume was amazing (you can see his photo at the bottom of the page), its that I love the fact that normal everyday people feel the urge to get dressed up once in a while to celebrate a Pagen-like tradition that dates back hundreds of years. And we need people like this to keep the old traditions alive.

My mind had now changed and although cold I didn't want to work in a centrally heated photographic studio! This King of the Forest in all his glory was the very reason why I was there!

Putting my best foot forward I soon arrived outside The Vine Pub in the High Street and received a warm welcome from members of the Sompting Village Morris who organise the event. I asked a few questions and one of the Morris men explained more about this ancient celebration.

Wassail or Wassailing is an ancient Anglo-Saxon tradition to promote a good harvest for the coming year. There are two types of Wassailing, the house visiting wassail (a form of carol singing) and the orchard visiting wassail. The orchard visiting wassail (which I was interested in photographing) is an ancient custom of visiting orchards in cider producing regions of England. It involves lots of banging, singing and chanting to awaken the tree spirits of the chosen apple orchard. Toast is placed in the branches of the trees for winter robins to eat and carry off any bad spirits. A Wassail Applecake and a Wassail Cup full of mulled cider is passed around for everyone to enjoy whilst they chant and sing amongst the apple trees.

The Wassail at Tarring village also incorporates a torchlight procession along the high street and this year was also accompanied by a performance of a Mummers Play by the Prize Old Mummers. (photos will appear in a future blog post).

And as I left the orchard with my ears still ringing from all the chanting and singing I said 'Waes Haeil' (Good Health) to a Morris man as we passed in the night, his bells jingling as he walked off into the darkness. 

So if life is getting you down and you are feeling the January blues why not go and find an apple orchard and shout 'Waes Haeil'. Just watch out as you might be joined by the bearded Forest King!

Till next time 'Waes Haeil', Scott the photographer. 

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Musicians lead the procession along Tarring High Street during the Wassail.

Here we come a Wassailing amongst the leaves so green. Here we come a wandering so fair to be seen.
— The Wassailing Song

With flaming torches held high, morris men walk through Tarring in West Sussex during the Wassail.

Members of the Sompting Village Morris dance and chant whilst carrying flaming torches through the streets in Tarring, West Sussex during the annual Wassail.

Call Up the master of the this house, put on his golden ring, Let him bring a glass of beer and better we shall sing.
— The Wassailing Song

By the light of flaming torches the Wassail takes place in an apple orchard in Tarring, West Sussex.

In an apple orchard in Tarring village, West Sussex, the wassail takes place. 

During the Wassail in Tarring village, toast is placed in the branches of a tree for winter robins to eat and carry off any bad spirits.

Here stands a jolly ol’ apple tree.
Stand fast root, bear well top.
Every little bough, bear an apple now.
Every little twig, bear an apple big.
Hats full, caps full, threequater sacks full!
— The Wassailing Chant

A member of the Sompting Village Morris leads the chanting during the Wassail in an apple orchard at Tarring village in West Sussex. 

During the Wassail at Tarring village in West Sussex a stick is hit against an apple tree and a chant shouted. The idea is to make as much noise as possible to awaken the tree spirits.

To awaken the tree spirits a large stick is hit against an apple tree during the Wassail at Tarring village in West Sussex.

The Wassail chant is read out during the Wassail at Tarring Village.

Standfast root, bear well top,
pray good God, send us a howling crop.
Every twig, apples big
Every bough, apples now
Hats full, caps full, three-quarter sacks full!
and a little heap under the stairs.
— The Wassailing Chant

Dressed in green and holding a Wassail Cup a member of the Sompting Village Morris stands in an Apple Orchard during the annual Wassailing event at Tarring Village.