Old apple tree we wassail thee... every year, every January in Somerset as it goes! Yes, it’s that time when groups of us West Country weirdos (only kidding... we’re not weird really, honest) gather in orchards all across the county to bring ‘good health’ to the apple trees for the coming year - and to encourage the best and most plentiful crop to make cider from (crowns of leaves and flowers optional!).
Wassailing is actually an ancient pagan custom. How far it really dates back is a bit of a mystery, but it certainly has connections with Anglo-Saxon traditions and wherever you are in the UK, if you haven’t heard of it, the evenings we've had at a wassail go something like this:
1. Drink some cider (and if you’re in luck, get your chops around some traditional apple cake. COR!).
2. Prepare a concoction of drink (cider is usually involved) in a special wassail bowl or cup.
3. Head to the orchard in a large group, often led by the selected Wassail Queen or King for the evening. Sometimes the Queen or King is pre-ordained and in other ceremonies, if you find a bean in your piece of apple cake, YOU become the chosen one! You can then issue an edict ("drink, eat and be merry", that kind of thing), with your reign lasting until midnight.
4. Gather around a chosen tree (often the oldest tree in the orchard) and pour some of the wassail bowl elixir around the base of it.
5. Watch as some toast (often soaked in cider ;)) is placed in the tree, to encourage birds and insects to the orchard.
6. Recite wassail chants or sing a wassailing song to the trees.
7. Make a shed load of noise – bang pots and pans as loud as you can, to frighten away any evil spirits.
8. Scare off any remaining nasties, with a gun fired in the distance
9. Drink more cider! ;)
10. Depending on which wassail you go to, there’s normally some entertainment too, making an evening of it and keeping the celebrations going - morris dancing, theatre, local bands and yep... you guessed it... more cider is indeed drunk!
In the time we’ve been in Somerset, we’ve gone to some great organised events and had our own wassail in our garden too. Our 'wassail for two' was the first January we were in our new home, and we actually sang 'Wassail away' to the tune of Enya's 'Sail away' to our trees! I think they liked it, judging by the amount apples we had that September! ;)
Anyway this year, if we were going on a Somerset cool 'Wassail Crawl' over the next couple of weekends (now there’s an idea), here’s where we’d do it:
Harry's Cider Wassail – Saturday 26th January, 5pm, Littlefield Farm, Long Sutton
Harry's wassail, at his farm in Long Sutton, is a ticketed get together with proceeds going to Dorset and Somerset Air Ambulance and to help the local cricket club. There'll be award-winning cider of course, morris dancing and local band The Legendary snakeSNAKEsnake will be getting their folk on (and the revellers going), once the ceremony concludes.
A dear friend of Harry's is the awesome master of ceremonies at this one, guiding you though the history of the wassail, the traditions and most importantly the chants! When we interviewed Harry on our Frome FM radio show recently, he told us he's after extra loud voices this year to guarantee the very best crop. So, if you're in the mood to make some noise in the orchard, this is the place to be! You can listen to our interview with Harry, here. Just click on January's show and it's on at the 31minute 22 second mark.
Tickets for the wassail are priced at £8.50 in advance and £10.00 on the evening. A limited number of tickets are still available and can be bought by calling the farm on 01458 241324 or by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
Tucker’s Grave Inn, Faulkland, BA3 5XF – Friday 25th January, from 7pm
Where better for a bit of wassailing than a landmark Somerset cider house? If you're looking for authentic, steeped in history and serving Somerset cider since 1827, you'll find all that and more at Tucker's Grave (named after Edwin Tucker who died and was buried there in 1747). The inn is bursting with character, has hardly changed since World War 1 and there's no real bar to speak of (the bar barrels are stacked in an alcove). It's a bit like going round someone's house... complete with Tap Room, a shove ha'penny board and a skittle alley where local teams regularly compete!
What it definitely is, is a precious piece of Somerset history. It's even on the National inventory of Historic Interiors and as one of our friends put it, it's a "real rustic wassail". So, if you're looking for tradition and no mistake, put Tucker's on your wassailing list too! As they say of their wassail:
"drink plentiful amounts of alcohol and enjoy oneself with others in a noisy. lively way".
Glastonbury Tor, Avalon Orchard – Saturday 19th January 2019, 2- 6pm
What a truly iconic place to join a wassail! This one's for all the family and welcomes the town crier, the druids of Glastonbury and a band of storytellers to bring the ceremony to life at Avalon Orchard. There'll be singing round the apple trees, stories by the fire and performances throughout the afternoon, as well as a pop up bar, food and other drinks (cash only, so remember to bring some with you). Tours of the Tor will be going on during the afternoon's celebrations too.
Booking in advance is recommended. You can get tickets here and entry on the day is available at £3 for adults and £1 for children.
Somerset Museum of Rural Life – Saturday 19th January, 7pm
If you fancy rolling right from one wassail to another this weekend, the Somerset Museum of Rural Life in Glastonbury is having its annual event in the stunning Abbey barn there...
... and out in the orchard, from 7pm.
There are very limited tickets left (under 20), so if you want to cheer on their apple trees for the coming season, you'd better get in quick!
West country legend Les Davies, MBE will be acting as Master of Ceremonies and crowning the Wassail King or Queen, and local band Rapscallion will make sure you're up dancing afterwards!
Tickets are £8 per adult and £5 per child and can be booked by calling 01458 831197 - or you can pick them up from the museum reception.
UPDATE: All tickets now sold out
There's many more wassail's going on up and down the county too, so do chuck on your winter woolies, pack up your old pots and pans and wherever you go, get out and enjoy a good old traditional celebration in the orchard! Wassailing is definitely the way to banish those January Blues.
Cider I Up!
P.S. If January passes you by, never fear! There's always the wassail at The Sheppey in Godney in Feb! :)
A big thank you to the photographers Clayton Jane and Celia Bartlett who kindly gave permission for us to use their images (as credited) and huge thanks to Michelle Cowbourne for her photo of the wassail at Glastonbury Abbey last weekend.