Last weekend, to the accompaniment of the setting sun, we made the short journey along narrow Devon lanes to the village of Stoke Gabriel. It was the evening of their annual Apple Wassail, a traditional ceremony to encourage the apple trees to produce a bumper crop of fruit later in the year. The custom was revived 24 years ago in Stoke Gabriel and judging from the hundreds of people who turned up this year, it is set to continue well in to the future.
The Wassail ceremony began with a lantern procession to the community orchard. This started in a fairly orderly manner as we gathered in a nearby lane but once the procession entered the orchard any semblance of order evaporated. People moved about freely among the trees, the strains of “Here we come a-wassailing” drifted through the night and the orchard took on an air of mystery. Although I knew there many people around me, it was mostly too dark to see them. Occasionally one of the lanterns would pick out an eerie face and I imagined Shakespeare’s midsummer fairies making a special visit to help bless the trees. My reverie ended suddenly when, ahead of me across the orchard, I heard loud singing and shouting followed by a sharp burst of gunfire (from real shotguns!); the first apple tree had been wassailed.
The Wassail Master of Ceremonies then moved to another old apple tree near where I was standing. Adam Lay looked suitably gothic, dressed in black tail coat with silvery epaulettes, yellow muffler and black top hat with a white scarf tied around it. With him were the Wassail King and Queen, a young boy and girl chosen from the local community to perform the evening’s rituals. This year’s King was Barnaby Hargreaves and with his flat cap liberally decorated with leaves, he was more Puck than Oberon. Amy Rance was the Queen, a convincing Titania with her floaty clothing and her hair decorated with ribbons and flowers.
The duties of the Wassail King and Queen are not particularly onerous. They began by pouring cider over the roots of the tree after which they scrambled precariously up a ladder in to the branches. Once safely installed in their airy kingdom the Wassail Royals decorated the branches with pieces of cider-soaked toast supposedly to feed the robins, the good spirits of the trees. In the meantime the Wassail Singers had materialised beneath the tree and when the MC gave them the nod they sang the Wassail Song.
Old apple tree we wassail thee
Here’s hoping thou wilt bear
For the Lord doth know where we shall be
When comes another year;
For to bloom well and to bear well,
So happy let us be;
Let every man take off his cap
And shout out to the old apple tree
The MC then led the Wassail Shout urging everyone else to join in and generally make as much noise as possible.
Old apple tree, we wassail thee
Here’s hoping thou wilt bear
Three-bushel bags full,
And little heaps under the stair!
Loud gunfire followed the cheers, the King and Queen descended and the MC moved the crowd to the third and final tree where the ceremony was repeated.
The earliest reference to the Wassail ceremony dates from the 16th century in Kent and there are later reports from Sussex, where it is commonly referred to as Apple Howling, and across the West Country. The aim of the Apple Wassail is to encourage a good crop of apples in the year’s harvest and it is usually accompanied by noisy shouting and gunfire to frighten off evil spirits that might lurk among the trees and to wake the trees from their winter slumber.
You might think all this messing about in the orchard was enough for one evening but earlier we had been treated to some warm up acts to get us in the mood. First on were the Newton Bushel Morris Dancers who entertained the assembled masses with their lively Cotswold dances. I have a lot of time for Morris Dancers, I enjoy the music and the tradition and they were a perfect introduction to the joy and the eccentricity of the Wassail ceremony. Talking of joy and eccentricity, there was a wonderful moment when one of the older dancers wearing a long white smock addressed the crowd about the link between Morris Dancing and fertility.
The Wassail Singers were on next and gave a very spirited performance of several Wassail Songs. They were urged on by their conductor and when she sensed a loss of spirit she did a little dance while continuing to conduct. And if you weren’t in the mood by now, there were also stalls selling local cider, beer, burgers and hot mulled apple juice.
This was a lovely traditional evening and many people (and dogs!) of all ages from the village turned out to take part as well quite a few incomers like ourselves. In this cynical, scientific age we don’t really believe in apple spirits but we do still value community spirit and that is perhaps the strength of events like this. Many people work together to make the event go well and the profits of the evening go back in to the community.