Tag Archives: shakespeare

Kings, Queens, apple trees and shotguns – a Wassail Tale

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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.

apple tree, lantern and moon
One apple tree with a lantern and the moon


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.

Wassail MC
Adam Lay, the Wassail Master of Ceremonies


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.

Wassail King
Barnaby Hargreaves, the Wassail King.


King and Queen climbing
The Wassail King and Queen scramble in to the tree


King and Queen
Safely installed


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
Hats full,
Caps full,
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.

Wassail singers beneath the tree
The Wassail shout


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.

Morris Dancers
Newton Bushel Morris Dancers perfoming a hankie dance


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.

Wassail singers
The Wassail Singers with their conductor


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.

The food and drink stalls

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.

Moon lantern and church
The church with a lantern and the moon, taken from the orchard

Bee bread, benches and a crows nest in the April garden



There is no escaping it. Wherever you look, there is pulsating growth: trees, plants, birds, insects, all swept up in an orgy of renewal. From my vantage point overlooking the Leechwell Garden, the predominant feeling is green, although there were days in the middle of the month when the sun picked out the white blaze of blossom on nearby trees. Trilling wrens and chiding blackbirds provided the soundtrack, saluting the warmer weather.

It’s a favourite time of year for me, I like the feeling of everything starting afresh and alive. Shakespeare gets it right for me in Sonnet 98
When proud-pied April dress’d in all his trim
Hath put a spirit of youth in every thing,

Others, however, see April as a time of hopes and aspirations that can never be fulfilled. TS Eliot began his poem The Waste Land: “April is the cruellest month” and, in Spring Edna St Vincent Millay wrote “To what purpose, April, do you return again?”

I don’t share their pessimism; I know autumn will come and these new leaves will wither and fall, but I also know that there will be another season of growth next year.

Down in the Garden, there has been much to see. Three new rustic benches have been installed making it even better for people to visit and spend time here. On the pergola, the clematis continue to entertain.

Clematis Francis Rivis

The tear-like buds of the Francis Rivis that I admired last month have now opened showing delicate mauve outer petals and white inner petals.



Clematis Montana

Another clematis, a Montana, has been covered with round pinkish buds resembling small grapes.



Golden Marjoram

In the herb garden, a burgeoning patch of golden marjoram comes alight when the sun shines.



Sweet Cicely

A clump of sweet cicely shows frothy white flowers above the fern-like, green foliage; the leaves of this plant are edible and have a mild aniseed-like flavour with sugary overtones.




Several spikes of borage seem to have appeared from nowhere as if called to stand to attention. Bees love borage; the plant is sometimes called Bee Bread so they will be eagerly awaiting the full opening of the flowers.




Wild Garlic

The far side of the Garden has a much wilder feel. A small bank of wild garlic (Ramsons) shows starry flowers beginning to appear above the fleshy leaves. Wild garlic is very abundant in the Devon countryside and the spring-smell of a woodland path lined with the plant is unmistakable. The leaves now find favour with celebrity chefs as a gentle garlic substitute.



Hidcote-blue Comfrey

In a hidden corner, I found some beautiful comfrey, another bee favourite. Its buds are a deep red and, once opened, there are clusters of bell-like flowers; that part of the flower nearest the plant is pale blue with the remainder being white. This unusual variety is Hidcote-blue comfrey.



Garlic Mustard

Near the comfrey was an upstanding plant with copious green, heart-shaped leaves and small white flowers. This is garlic mustard or Jack-by-the-Hedge; when bruised or chopped, its leaves emit a mild garlic smell.


The bees are out and about and I have seen a common carder and a hairy footed flower bee on the white lungwort.

Common carder bee on white lungwort


On April 20th I noticed a bird glide gracefully down between the trees to land on the grass. It was quite large, predominantly dark but with pale patches on its wings and my first reaction was that it was a buzzard. It stalked about the Garden, occasionally stopping to eat and with its long tale and dark plumage it reminded me of the proprietor of a posh French restaurant eyeing up his staff and clientele while keeping his hands clasped firmly behind his back. The more I looked the more I realised this was no buzzard and most likely it was a very large crow with a few pale feathers. The bird kept returning to the Garden and I found this puzzling until one day I saw it land on a nearby tree. On the tree was another crow sitting on a nest made of twigs balanced between two branches. Both birds are occasionally on the nest together; there will be a new crow-family before too long.

This is the fifth of my monthly reflections on the Leechwell Garden in Totnes. To see what I wrote in earlier months, follow the links at the end of this post or put “leechwell” in the search window.

Thanks to Hazel Strange for improving the photos I took on April 19, 26 and 27.