A VERY WELSH WASSAIL

The spec­tral fig­ure of the Mari Lwyd, or grey mare, is the eerie fig­ure­head of a sur­pris­ingly cheer­ful tra­di­tion still ob­served in Wales to­day, says Jude Rogers

Countryfile Magazine - - Contents - Pho­tos: Oliver Ed­wards

Watch out for the eerie Mari Lwyd: a colour­ful new-year tra­di­tion en­joy­ing a de­served re­vival in Chep­stow.

“It’s about bring­ing light and to­geth­er­ness to the dark­est time of the year”

It’s a dark win­ter’s night on a bridge be­tween bor­der­lands. Many tribes are meet­ing here, their faces painted in fright­en­ing colours. Among them are sev­eral cloaked fig­ures, topped with the pale skulls of dead horses. It would feel like a hor­ror film, if it wasn’t for the up­roar­i­ous singing, danc­ing and drink­ing.

It’s the same every Jan­uary in Chep­stow, South Wales, and many other parts of that coun­try, where the Mari Lwyd tra­di­tion is be­ing joy­fully re­born. The Mari Lwyd (pro­nounced marry low-eed) is the horse it­self: an eerie cen­tre­piece of a tra­di­tion with fit­tingly shad­owy ori­gins. Some ac­cord it pa­gan roots or con­nec­tions to Celtic mythol­ogy, de­spite it first be­ing recorded as a rit­ual in 1800. His­tor­i­cally, it in­volved a cloaked man car­ry­ing a horse’s skull on a pole, be­ing led to the front doors of house­holds and pubs. Here, his group sang songs, or in­dulged in pwnco (an ex­change of rib­ald rhymes), be­fore be­ing al­lowed in­side for food and drink. Bad luck tainted places the Mari didn’t en­ter, al­legedly. The glow­ing skull held – and still holds – a ma­cabre power. Its re­vival in South Wales is best seen at the Chep­stow Wassail Mari Lwyd, a cel­e­bra­tion last­ing from 1pm un­til mid­night on the third Satur­day of Jan­uary (19 Jan­uary in 2019). It was founded in 2000 by Mick Wid­der, who man­ages the fit­tingly named Green­man Back­pack­ers’ Hos­tel in town. Mick is usu­ally a no-non­sense man­ager in a fleece and jeans, but on Mari day, he’s in a top hat fes­tooned with feath­ers, badges and rags.

The Mari is con­nected with new-year house-was­sail­ing across Bri­tain – the prac­tice of go­ing door-to-door, of­fer­ing a warm­ing drink from a com­mu­nal bowl in ex­change for gifts – but its ap­peal to­day is about some­thing else, ex­plains Mick. “It’s about bring­ing light and to­geth­er­ness to the dark­est time of the year, and it’s also a re­ac­tion to the way we live to­day. We’re so over­loaded now with things that go out of date quickly. We long for things rooted in the past that hold magic, and the Mari cer­tainly has that.”

In the packed back­pack­ers’ bar be­fore kick-off, re­tired guest-house man­ager Shirley Rogers is hav­ing a cel­e­bra­tory cider; it’s her first Mari, af­ter all. A re­cent con­vert to Morris danc­ing, she reck­ons the re­vival in that cus­tom has en­cour­aged in­ter­est in broader tra­di­tions. “And danc­ing around with bells on your legs is lovely; it’s go­ing back to child­hood!” Shirley likes how in­clu­sive the Mari is to­day, in­cor­po­rat­ing all ages and gen­ders. Soon af­ter, Ju­lia Warmin shuf­fles past with her 13-year-old son “lit­tle Ed”. “It’s re­ally grown,” she nods, then looks up at Ed, and the beer mat in the mid­dle of his hat. They first at­tended when he was three. “As has he.”

PUNKY PA­RADE

The cre­ativ­ity in th­ese cos­tumes un­der­lines this tra­di­tion’s way­ward ap­peal; th­ese are clothes of psy­che­delic, punky Pearly Kings and Queens. Then the first Mari wan­ders in, draped with rib­bons, Christ­mas baubles for eyes, the comfy train­ers of lo­cal re­tiree Bob Porter only slightly un­der­cut­ting its eeri­ness. (“What’s it like in there, Bob?” “Hor­ri­ble, love!”)

Other Maris ar­rive: one led by David Pitt, a Swansea-based chil­dren’s

“There are beast-men in other folk cul­tures who stand at door­ways be­tween worlds”

sto­ry­teller who builds Maris him­self. He men­tions beast-men in other folk cul­tures who stand at door­ways be­tween worlds, high­light­ing Mex­ico’s Day of the Dead cel­e­bra­tions; the tra­di­tions of hood­en­ing in Kent and soul cak­ing in Cheshire also share char­ac­ter­is­tics. David loves the el­e­ments of mis­chief and mis­rule in Mari Lwyd too, and its class as­pect: the Mari be­ing cheeky at his master’s door, de­mand­ing favours. “And when you wear it, it’s strange,” he says. “Some­thing takes over. You’re not pos­sessed, ex­actly… but it’s like it’s got a life of its own.”

MIS­CHIEF AND MAY­HEM

An hour later, at a cash­point ma­chine, a Mari is try­ing to steal some­one’s fiver. He’s led away by a woman in tra­di­tional Welsh cos­tume, laugh­ing like a drain. The open­ing dances all done, ev­ery­one pa­rades down to the cas­tle, where toast is be­ing hung on the ap­ple trees (an­other was­sail­ing tra­di­tion, to as­sure a boun­ti­ful crop) and songs, such as the Gower Wassail, are be­ing row­dily sung. Par­ents push bug­gies and lo­cals stroll along ac­com­pa­ny­ing the wide range of groups tak­ing part in the Mari. Th­ese in­clude rep­re­sen­ta­tives of younger sub­cul­tures, in­clud­ing goth and steam­punk, as well as cou­ples such as jour­nal­ist John Foxen and his asy­lum-sup­port-worker wife Mab, here to­day from Teign­mouth, Devon. Mab car­ries a fox skull on a stick, red bat­tery-op­er­ated lights in its eyes. “John had the ar­du­ous task of drink­ing all this beer,” she says, point­ing out the bot­tle tops up the pole. As she does, a Mari wear­ing a ‘Naugh­ti­est Pony’ badge steals my wal­let.

By 4.30pm, it’s dark and all the cloaked crea­tures have a pageant at the back of a pub. There’s Mor­vaugh the sea­horse from Land’s End, draped in turquoise and fairy lights. The group from Ystradg­yn­lais, Swansea in­cludes a jester and ostler (the Mari Lwyd also has con­nec­tions with sea­sonal Mum­mers’ plays). Then there’s Car­marthen­shire art ther­a­pist Vivien Mor­gan-Larcher, lead­ing a Mari with a gothic hood on her head. Vivien is con­tin­u­ing a fam­ily tra­di­tion, as her grand­fa­ther, Dai, used to do his own pwnco. “He’d get cop­pic­ing work from the lo­cal farmer. It was a way to sur­vive. It was net­work­ing be­fore net­work­ing, in the best pos­si­ble way.” Her hus­band Phil Larcher, a men­tal-health worker, nods in­side his cloak. “Phil never talks when he’s the Mari. I shouldn’t be talk­ing to you, Phil, should I?” She laughs. “You’re a dead horse on a stick!”

Two hours later, the in­clu­sive­ness of this day reaches its fan­tas­tic cli­max, at the town’s beau­ti­fully or­nate, bor­der­cross­ing Wye Bridge. Glouces­ter­shire was­sail­ers come over from the other river­bank. The new friends share cider, sing was­sails and Welsh hymns. They head back into Chep­stow, all to­gether, for a spot of re­fresh­ing pwnco and a cèilidh, and as they do, 25 horse skulls glow brightly in the dark­ness. Their power is great enough, un­can­nily, to linger all win­ter.

5 From the horse’s mouth: Welsh hymns on the Old Wye Bridge 6 Phil Larcher rests his weary hooves 7 Was­sail­ers join the pa­rade from the Glouces­ter­shire side of the Wye8 The Wid­ders Morris dancers bring bells to the pro­ces­sion 9 Af­ter an at­tempted theft, a naughty Mari makes a quick get­away 9

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