Peculiar things to do at the weekend: Wassailing down a shaft
That's Wassailing, the Old English tradition of singing to apple trees at New Year to boost cider production. This all made perfect sense in the Middle Ages, not least because it involved drinking a lot in midwinter, which was always to be recommended. And that's a shaft, as in the cavernous cylinder sunk at the southern end of the Thames Tunnel by a young Isambard Kingdom Brunel. Obviously it's that.
Every January, as part of its calendar of events, the Brunel Museum in Rotherhithe gets into the pagan spirit by hosting a Wassailing evening. I mean why not, it's as good a reason as any, and a fine excuse for theatrics and music and and dressing up and a dash of midwinter frivolity. 2016's Wassail took place on Saturday so you've missed it, sorry, because the event was scheduled to coincide with Twelfth Night.
That's Old Twelfth Night, of course, which is the date Twelfth Night would be if we hadn't switched to the Gregorian Calendar in 1752. That switch required the jettisoning of eleven days, allowing the calendar to catch up with astronomical reality, hence Old Twelfth Night falls eleven days later than our modern calendar suggests. Add eleven to six and obviously Old Twelfth Night is 17th January, which was Sunday.
So why did the Brunel Museum hold its Wassail on Saturday instead. Well, are you completely certain when Twelfth Night is? Is it 6th January, which is twelve days after Christmas, or is it 5th January, which is the twelfth night? It all comes down to how you count to twelve. And if you assume 5th January then eleven days later is the 16th, which is precisely the date the Brunel Museum picked. Plus, well, who'd hold a piss-up on a Sunday evening anyway?
A good-sized crowd of wassailers turned up, I'd say around a hundred, which is damned impressive for an ancient ritual outdoors at an industrial museum during a cold snap. What's more the majority of those wassailers were younger rather than older, I'd say mostly under 35, which isn't the expectation at an event where you might have expected a greyer beardier clientèle. But fun has no age barrier, of course.
The museum used all of its spaces to good effect. The basement of the main Engine House, for example, was laid out with tables for drinking and conversation, or for listening a dose of light fiddling. The Greenwich Traditional Musicians Co-operative had turned up and brought their instruments, including a violin, an accordion and something I think was a ukulele, causing many a foot to be tapped.
The Wassail, that's a hot mulled punch, was ladled out in the extension by the chimney. Alas it was non-alcoholic, but beers were available in the museum's unique circular garden laid out on top of Brunel's iron shaft. During the summer this elevated space hosts regularboozy evenings dispensing "prescriptions infused with herbs and flowers from the garden or foraged nearby", but not in January so the upper bar was bottle only.
It was also marshmallow-friendly. The brazier had been stoked and a bowl of pink and white treats provided alongside, plus with a set of long sticks for spearing the marshmallows and holding them in the flame. It proved a delicious midwinter pastime, even if the fire didn't quite take hold and repeatedly extinguished. My coat still smells of smoke, a deep whiff of bonfire it may take weeks to shift.
Three characters were employed to bring the evening's celebrations to life. The main man was The Butler of The Feast, dressed up in top hat and tails, who announced and conducted and ushered and coerced. Less vocal were the Green Man and the Wassail Queen, he behind a giant verdant plant-like mask, she beneath a floppy crown of leaves in clothes better suited to May Morning than a freezing night.
At the appointed time the multitudes gathered by a non-apple tree on the terrace where the main Wassail ceremony took place. This involved the oration of a traditional verse, rather (thankfully) than the singing and dancing hinted at in the event's publicity. The Wassail Queen also stepped up and hung a slice of punch-soaked toast from a branch, which might sound bonkers, but is actually the proper age-old custom.
Go eat, drink and be merry, said the Butler, and then we'll all head down the Hobbit Hole. Eating proved awkward, because the Irish stew served by the caterers from Surrey Docks Farm had run out and the lentil offering was less desirable. A few stomachs rumbled. Instead grabbing another beer was the way to go, plus a swift visit to the downstairs loo, because nobody wanted to get caught short where we were going.
The 'Hobbit Hole' referred to is the tiny ground level entrance to Brunel's shaft, since 2010 the only way to enter the subterranean chamber. Access requires stooping and ducking, and not bashing your head on a girder, then descending into the blackened cylinder via a temporary tower of scaffolding. It's functional but by no means not ideal, hence a new door is being added, and from March entry will be via a far less Middle Earth route.
The chamber is an amazing space, not least because it leads to the very first underwater tunnel ever dug. Six men drowned during its construction, but when it opened to the public in 1843 it was the wonder of its age. A gentle gradient encircling the soot-blackened walls still shows where the well-trodden public staircase used to be attached, later removed when the tunnels were reappropriated for trains.
Once all had descended to the chamber floor, the Butler continued the Tolkein slant by standing on the stairs and reading out excerpts from The Hobbit in his best Master of Ceremonies voice. By now the Wassail vibe had diminished somewhat, but hey, it's not every day you get to stand in a historic hole in the ground with London Overground services rumbling audibly beneath your feet.
That is the plan, however. Once a permanent set of stairs has been installed the shaft will be opened up as an entertainment space, its acoustics ideal for concerts, gigs or even theatre. Instead we revellers made do with four short passages and a quick history lesson before being invited to leave, our collective exit up the twisty steps and squeezing through the 'Hole' a good-natured but somewhat lengthy evacuation.
I realise it's a bit late to tell you all this, given that the next Wassail event is twelve months off. But the Brunel Museum hold regular quirky events throughout the year, or you could visit the exhibits in the Engine House (it's only three quid, where's the harm?), or you could join a guided tour and go down into the shaft to discover Rotherhithe's world-beating secret for yourself. Wassail!