Director’s Diary: Wassail & Hobbit

Our fifth anarchic Wassail! Anachronistically, Isambard Kingdom Brunel, as Butler of the Feast, presides over this ancient ceremony, but the important thing is: all men, women and trees are properly watered. The Butler is aided and abetted by the Wassail Queen, the Green Man and GREENTRAD the Greenwich Traditional Musicians Co-op. The shout Wassail given throughout the evening is call and response, like church but without the incense. This year a congregation of 250.

Wassail is from the Old English ‘waes hael’ or ‘Good Health’ and usually involves dancing round apple trees, but at the Brunel Museum we celebrate under the huge Acacia. The Acacia does not make cider, but the blossom appears in cocktails at the Midnight Apothecary. The Wassail Queen arouses the tree, and the Green Man attempts to impregnate everything: men, women, trees – even musical instruments. It’s all in the best possible taste.

The night is cold, so we set up the cocktail bar in the underground chamber. This is like Beowulf’s Mead Hall, where warriors ate and sang and drank. Brunel’s Entrance Hall has always been a place of welcome, and like the mead hall, noisy with entertainment. We also called it the hobbit hole, as a joke, and because the old doorway was half height. Before the dancing starts, we give our guests a reading from The Hobbit.

But look closely at Tolkien’s text. There are, of course, countless references to tunnels, but more than that, we read of ‘tube shaped halls’, sliding doors, maps, keys and slots. The slot can only be the place for travel cards at the ticket barrier, and now all is clear: this is not just a journey through Middle Earth, this is London Underground the early years. How else to explain ‘the great Kingdom in the east’? Clearly Tolkien’s tribute to Isambard Kingdom Brunel, the tube’s first great architect. The nomenclature ‘Great Hall of the high ELF’ is part anagram, part clumsy disguise: ELF is clearly TFL. The ‘one ring that binds them’ is prophetic reference to London Overground, an orbital railway encompassing the whole system.

Like you, I feel a little foolish because I did not immediately see the allegory. Buried meaning…

Next week we have the usual heritage walks and boat tours every day. Embankment Pier is likely closed for a month, so we meet at Embankment tube and walk to Westminster Pier.

Sunday 15th January
10.40 riverside walk from Bermondsey tube offered in partnership with London Walks

Monday 16th January
10.40 riverside walk from Bermondsey tube offered in partnership with London Walks

Tuesday 17th January
10.40 heritage boat trip from Embankment tube offered in partnership with London Walks
11.00 meeting prospective booker

Wednesday 18th Jan
10.40 heritage boat trip from Embankment tube offered in partnership with London Walks
18.15 riverside walk from Bermondsey tube offered in partnership with London Walks

Thursday 19th Jan
10.40 heritage boat trip from Embankment tube offered in partnership with London Walks
08.00 BBC Stargazing Live and Prof Brian Cox filming in Grand Entrance Hall
10.00 funeral Mass St George’s Catholic Cathedral for Stephen Humphrey, eminent local historian, author and Brunel supporter

Friday 20th Jan

10.40 heritage boat trip from Embankment tube offered in partnership with London Walks

Saturday 21st
10.40 heritage boat trip from Embankment tube offered in partnership with London Walks
13.30 lunch at the Tunnel Club, Mayflower pub upper room

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