Here We Come a-Wassailing

17th January

midwinter wassail

Anything that helps us connect with the Earth, its seasons and cycles, and show appreciation for the bounty it generously give us every year has got to be a good thing, in my book.

This weekend all over Somerset, a county renowned for its cider, it is traditional for the wassailing of orchards to take place – this particular manifestation of the custom (a cousin of the door-to-door and hearthside wassailing that occurs across Yuletide) involves the honouring of a chosen apple tree, the ‘apple tree man’, who receives a libation of cider, poured onto its roots; followed by offerings of bread usually soaked in the wassail bowl, impaled on the bare branches of its pollarded crown – literally ‘toasting the tree’, activities both intended to welcome in the good spirits, and the making of a din (indeed, in Carhampton, the firing of shotguns). Wassail carols are sung and much mulled cider and apple juice is drunk. As a custom that takes place in the dead of winter, it often takes place in the darkest nights of the year – and so there’s often a bonfire and lanterns – which light up the gloom and connects it symbolically with many of the ‘bringing back the light’ customs of winter, such as the Up Helly Aa festival in Shetland, which takes place on 26th January and involves hordes of vikings wielding torches, with which they burn a long ship every year. Wassails are smaller, fluffier affairs – a charming custom that takes place quietly and without much fanfare in pockets of ‘orchard affection’ across the West Country. It’s easy to blink and miss, and indeed the two wassails I intended to go to this weekend I managed to miss – Chepstow’s Mari Lwyd, which has a wassail element, took place on Saturday 16 January this year, but the forecast for heavy showers – and because of the recent ice and snow – most of the events had been forced indoors or cancelled altogether. The second is happening right now, in deepest Somerset – the wassail at Carhampton. This isn’t the time of year to be travelling far, especially at night in bad weather, and so most of these events are attended by locals and die-hards like Doc Rowe, a legendary, almost folkloric figure in his own right (by dint of sheer tenacity and track record) whose been recording such customs for over nigh-on half a of century, from his first inspiring visit to Padstow’s May Day celebration in 1963 onwards.

Last night’s experience proved that. I went to the Weston Mummers wassail with my friends Marko and Miranda. After waiting for a bus that failed to materialise (I suspect M had read the timetable wrong) we got a taxi from Bath Abbey – it whisked us along to the far end of Weston, a darkened lane on a drizzly night. After a week of snow it had finally cleared up this afternoon – but had decided to rain in time for the wassail. The place had hardly any street lighting – we could see no signs of life at first, until we spotted a poster on a railing. We followed a track along and came to a park where a small gazebo was set up – chiefly to protect the musicians and the refreshments stall – but by now it had started raining hard, as forecast in Chepstow – and so we took cover underneath. Marko knew the main musician – a fiddle player – and chatted amicably. A crowd of about fifty gathered – headtorches beaming like daleks – mostly families with young kids. We were handed song sheets and the fiddler explained what was to happen. We’d sing the songs and then do the wassail. This was only the second year it had taken place, as it turned out, and to be honest it showed. The weather didn’t help – holding a flimsy photocopy in the rain, trying to read the lyrics in the dark, wasn’t easy. The three different wassail songs (Belly; Stocklinch; and Gloucestershire – the most complex and the one with the best tune) started to sound pretty familiar after the umpteenth chorus of ‘and it’s your wassail…’ Next the fiddler-player/caller explained we had to process in a clockwise direction around the tree while chanting the first part of the Somerset Wassail Carol, ‘Old apple tree, we wassail thee…’ Then back the other way, before repeating the chorus – asking for abundance (‘hatfuls, capfuls, three bushel bagfuls, and a litte heap under the stairs’), before ending with three traditional ‘hip hip hoorays’. All well and good, except it was pitch black down by the apple tree, the rain had made a soggy mess of my songsheet by then, and many of the kids decided to join along with pots and pans, making hearing the melody pretty impossible. It was a debacle, but good natured, and mad when you think about it – what people do in the rain in the middle of winter! A solitary slice of toast was placed on a branch (this seemed to have been forgotten in the briefing). A queue quickly formed for the steaming ‘cauldrons’ of apple-juice, fermented and non-fermented. The first thing I did was pour some cider on the roots. The mulled cider was so sweet it stuck to my mouth, but it helped stave off the encroaching damp, or made you oblivious to it, at least. Suitably galvanised, we set off in search of the nearest pub – we were given directions through the park, over a small footbridge and along a darkened lane. I didn’t have the foggiest where we were, but we were in good spirits. Marko was taking his time – he has a difficulty walking far or fast – but steeped in about four cups of cider, he said he was ‘having a grand time’. The carrot of another pint helped to keep him moving and eventually we saw street lights ahead and … civilisation … well, Weston. Still, it was a relief to see the shops. The first pub we came to was shut – not a good sign – but fortunately the King’s Head was open, and, as it turned out, in full swing. A bluegrass band was playing, Swamp Donkey, and the atmosphere was wonderfully hic. Talk about the Wild West. Marko and I, in our black hats, might have just swaggered in from a dusty high street, saloon doors swinging. A fiftieth birthday party in the backroom – packed with merry Beryl Cook types – might have been served for a brothel for lonesome cowboys! It was great fun, but it was also a relief to leave – I was keen not to miss the bus – and escape Weston, a ‘frontier town’ of the one-horse variety!

The next day I held my annual wassail – postponed from Twelfth Night (5th January) until Old Twelfth Night (17th January). The fortnight wait made all the difference – the snows had melted and it felt like Spring today. I spotted new shoots in my garden – the first glimmers of the snowdrops soon to bring their light into the world. I prepared a cauldron of mulled cider and baked pomme de terre – apples of the earth, potatoes – plus various fillings. Folk slowly arrived – Sunday slothfulness – and around two we did the wassail in the garden. I rapped on the trunk of my apple tree with a knobbly stick made ‘from a Gloucestershire wodwose’, a gift from Geoffrey Breeze, dealer in antique canes. Then I poured cider on the roots and got the company to placed bread on the branches, soaked in the wassail bowl. Then we chanted the old wassail carol – ending with personal toasts. Then Richard led us in some wassail songs. Sheila song her own beautiful version. We ended by firing party poppers into the trees – and our neighbours were probably glad when we went back inside! Then it was time for the first reading of my new play set in a cider orchard on Old Twelfth Night, ‘Wassailing Avalon’. Roles were alocatted – there was only eight of us, and twelve roles, so some had to double up. But most of the casting seemed spot on. We ran through it – it was great to hear the laughter! Afterwards, we shared more poems and discussed related issues – community and environmental initiatives. There was plenty of grub and grog – and it was a pleasant way to spend a Sunday afternoon. This was about the tenth time I had done this, and it is always an agreeable gathering – small and beautiful. Unable to make it to Carhampton or Chepstow, I had brought the wassailing tradition to my own home and garden. It feels like a blessing on the place – and on each of the participants. May we all have a fruitful year. Wassail!


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