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We are wassailing in Shenley

PUBLISHED: 11:35 14 January 2010 | UPDATED: 14:59 20 February 2013

Wassailing in Shenley Park

Wassailing in Shenley Park

What better way to welcome the New Year than to drink to good health and wish for a plentiful year. Jo Arthur discovers a group banging the drum - and saucepan - for another bumper harvest in Shenley

IN the apple orchard, within the 45-acre grounds of Shenley Park, a custom practised as far back as the 1400s is being revived. Enthusiastic villagers have been taking part in the wassailing event in January for the last two years and it seems to be working.
Wassail comes from the Old English greeting 'wes hael' that means 'be whole' or 'be of good health'. To Wassail something or someone - such as bees, orchards or cattle - was to drink to their health. A large wassail bowl, usually filled with a mixture of hot ale, sugar, spices and roast apples, was passed from person to person around the table at Christmas or passed from house to house to bring good luck to those who carried it and those who visited.
The medieval practice of blessing apple orchards to ensure there is a plentiful crop of wonderful apples has been somewhat adapted by the staff at Shenley Park but the original ethos remains.
On one evening, soon into the New Year, a torch-lit procession is led into the apple orchard. Once inside the orchard the assembled crowd gathers around a specially chosen tree - of the 450 varieties now growing there.
A short ceremony is held, during which pieces of toast soaked in cider are hung from the branches of the tree and cider poured around the base onto the roots as a present to the tree. Those who take part bring along something to make noise with, whether a musical instrument or a makeshift noise maker, which they use to ward off the evil spirits that could spoil the forthcoming year's harvest.
A special wassail song is sung, some fireworks are let off to complete the ceremony and then the group retires back to the nearby Orchard Tea Room to enjoy warming soup and bread, cups of mulled wine and mulled cider.
Shenley Park is managed by the Shenley Park Trust, an independent charity which finances and manages the parkland within the former grounds of Shenley Hospital for the wider community's benefit.
Originally the land was part of the Porters Mansion estate before accommodating the hospital and still the park retains many of the features from its past lives.
The Stanley Lord apple orchard - named in memory of the former head gardener of Shenley Hospital - used to provide food and pastimes for its 2,000 mentally ill patients with picking and storing duties. Such was the quality of the produce that the hospital was a frequent gold or silver medal winner at Royal Horticultural shows in the 1950s and 60s.
The Byzantine-style hospital chapel has been renovated by the trust to house a hall and a number of meeting rooms for use by Shenley residents and organisations as well as providing a perfect performance area and gallery venue for local art displays.
The Walled Garden was created in the 16th century as a kitchen garden for the residents of Porters Mansion. Overgrown and forgotten as the hospital gradually closed, its return to former glory was a priority for the trust. Although resources wouldn't stretch to recreating the original kitchen garden concept, it has been transformed into a state that has now been deemed worthy of a coveted position in the National Garden Scheme (NGS). There will be evening events when visitors will have a rare chance to view the Walled Garden from a perspective not normally seen by the public when the sunsets are splendid and the colours overwhelming.

Article taken from the January issue of Hertfordshire Life

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