On a recent bleak and rain-lashed evening, a crowd gathered in a sodden orchard in Somerset, UK (writes Amy Laughinghouse). It was January the 17th, dubbed “Blue Monday” by psychologists, who have determined that the third Monday of January is the most depressing day of the year. The jaw-dropping Christmas debts have come due, the days are damp, cold and dark, and it’s ages until the first Bank Holiday weekend.
But despite the dire date and the unrelenting downpour, the mood was downright jovial in Stewley Orchard, where Magners' Shepton Mallet Cider Mill has held an invitation-only wassail for the past five years. Guests basked by a bonfire that burned bright as Beelzebub’s hearth or huddled within leaky-roofed farm buildings that had been converted into a canteen, concert hall and standing-room only pub, where orchard manager Martin Ridler dispensed several varieties of free-flowing Gaymers cider. A buzz began to build as a band of Morris dancers, tarted up in rainbow-coloured rags and top hats, gathered upon the stage (actually, a wet patch of al fresco asphalt), gaily hooting and clicking sticks during a fleet-footed series of advances and retreats.
Perhaps inspired (or alarmed) by their derring-do, Bob Cork, Shepton Mallet Cider Mill’s general manager, stepped out into the rain in his wool coat and wellies to deliver a short safety speech, warning all in attendance not to poke their eyes out with low-lying branches as we headed into the apple grove. (Never mind that he would shortly be heading up a firing squad - but more on that later). And with this announcement, the wassail had officially begun.
So what, you might well ask, is a wassail - other than a health and safety inspector’s knee-knocking nightmare, combining inebriation, ammunition, and ample opportunity for accidental incineration by the bonfire? It can refer to a form of Christmas carolling, but in the West Country - counties such as Devon, Dorset, Somerset, Gloucestershire and Herefordshire - a wassail usually denotes a knees-up in an orchard.
“It’s designed to drive the evil spirits from the orchard and encourage good spirits to bring lovely blossoms and fruit,” according to Adrian Somerfield, a jovial, white-bearded fellow, Somerset born and bred, who served as the evening’s master of ceremonies.
The ritual dates back to at least the 1800s, but its roots (ahem) are likely much deeper. The term “wassail” means “good health” and may have originated as early as 1,000 years ago.
Traditionally, this woody wooing is held on Twelfth Night, which can be interpreted as either 5 January or - for those who prefer to defer to the old Julian calendar - 17 January. (Why the reluctance to switch to the Gregorian system, which has been around for more than 400 years? Maybe Jules’ calendar pictured a cuter crop of kittens or Chippendale dancers than his mate Greg. But I digress).
Let us return now to the Somerset countryside, where the Morris dancers hailed the new wassail Queen, dusky beauty Karen Jensen, a production administrator at the cider mill. “It’s nice to be involved with the old West Country traditions,” said Jensen, adjusting the floral garland that crowned her long brown tresses. “It’s a bit of a privilege,” she insisted - although, naturally, the honour required a strict training regimen. “I’ve been drinking lots of cider in preparation,” she grinned.
Yet the wobbling horde had no trouble hoisting her slight, velvet cloak-clad frame upon their shoulders, transporting Jensen a short distance to the grove, where she deposited cider-soaked toast into the branches of a tree to attract robins, which are thought to embody benign spirits. She then tipped a mug of cider at the base of its trunk. “That’s putting some goodness back in the ground,” noted Bob Chaplin, fruit and orchard manager.
After Jensen’s tender display, the next step was - rather horrifyingly - to shoot the unsuspecting tree (albeit with blanks). This, as master of ceremonies Somerfield explained, was to evict the evil spirits (squatters rights - and sleeping neighbours’ eardrums be damned) and make way for the good spirits to swoop in.
As the smoke cleared, the increasingly jolly crowd concluded their courtship by serenading the leafy object of their affections. “Old apple tree we wassail thee, and hoping thou will bear hatfuls, capfuls, three bushel bagfuls - and a little heap under the stairs!”
The rain was falling harder, but we danced the blue Monday away, kicking up the hay-strewn dance floor as the Wassail Blues Band, attired in dark suits, sunglasses and de rigueur fedoras, regaled us with hip-swivelling tunes like “Mustang Sally” and “In the Midnight Hour.”
Surveying the weaving crowd, Bob Cork looked on with an expression of amused benevolence. “Wassailing could be considered an organic way to get rid of pests - as we couldn’t find anyone who produces a spray to get rid of evil spirits,” he quipped. “But most importantly, it’s about having a good time and enjoying ourselves.”
If the success of the wassail is in any way proportionate to the next morning’s hangover, I can predict a most abundant harvest this year.
For more details on where you can attend a wassail next January, visit www.nationaltrust.org.uk.
For tourism and travel information, see www.visitbritain.com and www.visitengland.com.