Celebrate the great British apple with West Country wassailing - Spear's Magazine

Celebrate the great British apple with West Country wassailing

Today is the day to go a wassailing. Oh yes. My West Country upbringing is shining through on what is, according to the pre-Gregorian calendar, twelfth night. Where I am from, that means it is time to grab your Barbour and wellies and go bang a saucepan in an orchard.

Wassailing is one of those wonderful old English traditions that despite everything has managed to survive in the far corners of Somerset and has, in fact, enjoyed somewhat of a resurgence in the past few years. The word itself apparently comes from the Anglo Saxon ‘wes hal’ meaning ‘good health’ and wassailing is carried out to ensure a good harvest that year.

Anyone who watched Giles Coran and Alexander Armstrong discussing the twelve best drinks of Christmas over the festive period may well have heard them talking about wassailing, but this is a bit different. Rather than going to various houses and caroling and wishing their neighbours good health, locals head on out to the orchard to wish the trees the very best of health, hopefully ensuring a good harvest later in the year.

As you’d expect the ritual involves a fair amount of cider, predominantly mulled, both being drunk by participants and being splashed on the ground around the oldest or best tree in the orchard. Toast soaked in cider is also hung in this tree, which is chosen to represent all of the trees in the orchard accompanied by raucous singing and often the banging of pans or shooting of guns, scaring away any bad spirits and effectively waking the trees up from their winter hibernation.

The little village of Carhampton, only a few miles from where I grew up in Somerset, holds one of the best-known Wassails just behind the Butchers Arms (which happens to be right on the A39, not as out in the sticks as you’d probably imagine). A smaller Wassail also takes place in the local orchard a few hundred metres away.


Slightly strange people

For tourists the sight and sound of a group of older men and women drinking mulled cider and banging pans next to a bonfire behind the pub must seem rather quaint. That, or reinforce the idea that the West Country is full of slightly strange people. Regardless, you can’t deny that they have very successfully reawakened not only the trees, but an interest in this ancient tradition.

Growing up I only remember there being celebrations in Carhampton but in recent years other local Wassails have popped up from Porlock to Glastonbury and even in London.

Whether this resurgence is caused by the growing popularity of cider among drinkers, an interest in our heritage or by cider companies looking to put on a spot of corporate entertainment and gain a little publicity, it is great to keep such traditions going and celebrate a fruit we produce particularly well in this country – the apple.

So, should you have an apple tree near by go wassail it and if not, why don’t you take the opportunity to use the last of last year’s apple harvest and some of our great apple products (cider and cider brandy) to make Lucas Hollweg’s wassail-inspired dinner. Find his recipes here.

And after dinner bang together the pans and sing the Carhampton Wassailing song:


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 bloom 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 and three bushel bagsful

And a little heap under the stairs,

Hip, Hip, Hooray!