‘Woods and Wassail’ by Ysella Sims

Once the new year had turned, we prised ourselves from the cave of our house in mid Devon, following the sun, like migrating swallows, along the rippling barrows of the plains, towards Surrey. The closer we got, the busier the roads grew and the more impatient the drivers. Travelling along the wooded vale of the Hog’s Back we passed the hotel where Mum had her 21st; youngsters looking like middle-aged movie stars, wearing gloves and stoles and smoking cigars.

The Surrey Hills, the area my husband and I have spent most of our lives, is one of the most densely wooded in the country. Woodlands are woven into our heritage, memories and ideas of ourselves. In 2016, catapulted by life events, we had pulled our roots from the sandy soil and hauled them west to Devon, to live. But, used to tumbling easily into acres of woodland, we soon discovered that agriculture had largely stripped them from Devon’s lush green miles. We missed them.

Glen grew up in Yew Tree Cottage, just as his father had. The cottage sits at the end of a forded, unmade road in a small hamlet on the north slope of Leith Hill. Named Friday Street by the Saxons for the Norse goddess Freya, the hamlet consists of half a dozen or so houses spread along a muddy-bottomed, copper-coloured dell. They don’t so much as crowd, as amble around the hammer pond at its centre.

'Woods and Wassail' Ysella Sims

The lanes that lead there are rooted with oak and beech, its woodland ancient. In the spring it smells of childhood; purpled with bluebells and drifted with the pinks and whites of cow parsley and shepherd’s purse. It is dark a lot of the time, and damp. Friday Street once rang with the metal shiver of industry as water powered a huge hammer in the pond to beat iron from stone foraged from the surrounding hills.

Glen’s parents still live in Yew Tree Cottage. It is the kind of house that people stop to look at. It has the character of a cottage in a childrens’ story; its walls are scrambled with roses. A stream babbles through the garden, which wraps itself around the house; a family of scarecrows watch over rows of vegetables eyed by mischievous rabbits. It is a place of parties, where everybody does a turn and hats are the order of the day, a place where you can always hear the story of Jack, returned home wonky from the pub, balancing on a stool to shoot at mice in the pantry with an air rifle.

Woods and Wassail Ysella Sims 2

My family grew up in a neighbouring parish, radiating around the constant centre of my grandparents’ house. My brothers and I made camps and kicked through leaves, smelling of damp earth, in Abinger’s copses and woods, going with Grandma to pick bunches of snowdrops, primroses and bluebells tied with rubber bands, in the spring. She coaxed us up Dorking’s wooded sister hills; Pitch, Holmbury, Leith and Box Hill, with a bar of Galaxy in her coat pocket.

So when we arrive back in Abinger, uncurling ourselves from the car, we head, in the bright January sunshine, straight for the wooded slopes of Leith Hill, where the air feels right. It smells of woodsmoke and home. We climb together, Cooper wagging excitedly, stopping to greet each stranger like a forgotten friend. We feel the echoes of all the little feet that have accompanied us over the years; my son Calum and dog Cassie; Glen’s daughters Rae and Eve and their dog Lola; tribes of friends and cousins.

I think of mud-streaked children jumping from behind trees bandanaed and dangerous, brandishing stick guns; balancing on slippery tree trunks, splashing in puddles, running up and down the sandy bunkers. I remember all the times we slurped hot chocolate and soup at the summit, looking for the sea winking in the Shoreham gap to the south; Wembley’s white arches, the towering structures of the city, blinking to the north.

While we are away I hear myself answer people’s questions about our new house, our new life, with uncertainty. From a distance I can think only of the house’s awkwardness, of the ache to be back in the fold of family and friends, picking up the threads of our shared story. I long to be able to walk, as we had done on Saturday afternoon, in a big group – of children, dogs, friends and family – tramping through familiar woods and ending up at the pub.

But by the second day the itch for our new life, our new story, had begun again. It was a good story, and it was unfolding. Who knew what would happen next? On Sunday we came home. Walking down from the car to the house on Rose and Crown Hill I noticed the quiet, the distant call of cows in the fields, the flap and caw of the rooks circling overhead, the occasional buzz of a passing car. The air felt right here, too. As I went about taking Christmas down, feeling the usual childish sadness that it was over for another year, I could see and feel that we had been in a little bubble of togetherness and that the house had held us.

Buoyed by the sunshine, we set about clearing the small orchard we’d inherited in our overgrown garden. We separated out the knitted boughs of the apples, medlar and mulberry, cut back brambles and dog roses, stems the size of bean poles, to find the boundary. My excitement grew as I appreciated for the first time that we had trees of our own, an orchard, enough space to plant a tiny scrap of woodland.  I find the first snowdrops flowering by the wall and think of my grandmother. On the bank lifting up from the road, pink and yellow primroses are beginning to open their faces to the sun.

The first time that we let ourselves into our new home we found a carefully drawn plan of the garden in the previous owner’s shaky hand, along with a key to help us identify the trees that he’d planted there; apples, rowan and cypress and the most beautiful witch hazel that brings a yellow bloom to the short January days.

I am coming to love the house, but it’s the garden that will bind me to this new place. We shall plant our own trees – walnut and crab apple, magnolia and elder, plant stretches of hedgerow for wildlife.

The following weekend there is wassailing in the village; an ancient folk tradition to encourage a bountiful cider harvest. In Sandford, this  begins with a torchlit procession down the main street to an orchard on the muddy green. We join with neighbours and new friends in the square to make our way there, banging pots and pans and hollering at the tops of our voices. It feels liberating to be shouting into the darkness, upsetting the quiet. At the green we gather to sing the wassailing song to the trees, their branches tied with toast, rattle and bang and shout to wake them from their midwinter sleep, to scare away malevolent spirits, before men line up with shotguns to shoot into the sky.

Back in our own little orchard, as we bonfire the bramble and branches in the light of January’s Wolf Moon, orange sparks dancing up into the black folds of the sky, I think how the next year we could hold our own wassail. Banish the dark spirits, hope for a harvest.

About the contributor

Ysella Sims
Ysella Sims is a writer and poet. A contributing editor to The Blue Nib, she produces and hosts poetry events and has recently moved to an awkward, falling-down house near Exeter.

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