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Where - and how - to go wassailing

The word wassail comes from the old Anglo Saxon ‘wes hal’ meaning to be whole, in good health. Wassailing is a very old English custom with its roots in paganism; the idea is to protect the cider apple trees from evil spirits and to ensure a plentiful crop in the coming season.

The tradition is still upheld throughout the country, but particularly so in Somerset, the home of cider.January 17th, old Twelfth Night is the traditional date for Wassailing and although ceremonies and songs (example below) vary slightly from orchard to orchard they all run along the same theme.

The evening commences with sustenance in the form of apple cake* washed down with mulled cider, at which point a wassailing queen is chosen. The best or oldest tree in the orchard is chosen as a guardian to represent them all, pieces of toast soaked in cider are placed in the tree and cider is poured around the base of it.

Shot guns are fired into the top most branches and buckets are beaten, the aim being to scare away evil spirits and wake the sleeping trees. Some believe that if the trees aren’t wassailed there will be no harvest. Once the harvest has been assured the evening continues with music, fun, cider and food.

Old apple tree, we wassail thee,
And hoping thou wilt bear
For the Lord doth know where we shall be
Till apples come another year.
For to bear well, and to bear well
So merry let us be.
Let every man take off his hat,
And shout to the old apple tree!
Old apple tree, we wassail thee,
And hoping thou wilt bear
Hatfuls, capfuls, three bushel bagfuls
And a little heap under the stairs
Hip! Hip! Horray!

There are several Wassails of note happening in Somerset:* On Saturday 12th at 1pm people will be gathering in the car park of the New Inn in Blagdon. They then make their way over to Eldred’s Orchard for the wassailing ceremony. There’ll be cider and apple juice a plenty and hopefully a good show from the Morris Dancers. It’s free to take part, contact the New Inn for more information, 01761 462475.

Glastonbury Rural Life Museum will be holding their Wassail evening on the 17th January in the Glastonbury Abbey Barn. Enjoy wassailing by candlelight accompanied by live music, mulled cider and apple cake. 7.00 – 9.00pm Tickets should be bought in advance, £6.00 for adults and £3.00 for children. 01458 831197

The Carhampton Wassail claims to have the oldest unbroken wassailing tradition in England. It takes place on the 17th in the orchard of the Butchers Arms Pub. The ceremony kicks off at about 7.30, though the pub welcomes people before, and there’s a sing song in the bar afterwards. Call the Butchers Arms for more information 01643 821333

On the 19th January, Landsend Farm will see approximately 300 people gathering to guarantee Roger Wilkin’s cider apple harvest. Live music will be supplied by the Somerset Levelers. Mulled cider (it’s got gin in it, so watch out), apple cake, bread and cheese will be supplied by Roger. Get there at 7.00 for kick off at 7.30. 10 per head, all in. 01934 712385

Mulled Cider Apple Juice – a non-alcoholic Winter Warmer

Use the recipe as a basic guideline, adding more sugar or honey if you like it sweeter.
Serves 122 x 75 cl bottles cider apple juice**

1 orange stuck with 10 cloves
2 oranges, sliced
2 lemons, sliced
6 level tablespoons granulated sugar or honey
5 cm piece cinnamon stick
2 level teaspoons finely grated fresh root ginger or ground ginger

Put all the ingredients in a saucepan and heat to simmering point, stirring until all the sugar has dissolved. Keep it barely at simmering point for at least 20 minutes. This can be made in advance, then re-heated just before the party.

* You can find a recipe for Somerset cider cake here

** you can buy cider juice on line from www.sfmdirect.co.uk

*** You can find my mulled cider recipe here

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