We are wassailing

“Gloucestershire was once home to a recorded 157 apple species, but only 86 are believed to be left in existence now”

HUGH COLLINS layers up and heads out to toast the health of our all-important orchards this January

The morris men whooped and hollered. In the orchard, the staccato rhythm of their clashing sticks and the tinny peals of their bells cut through the crisp winter air. A torch-lit procession, led by the Green Man and his two Apple Queens, wound its way among the skeletal trees. Behind them, a motley collection of pot-banging, huzzah-shouting locals followed, the noise intended to drive away evil spirits. Then, gathering around the ceremonial tree – which was to have cider poured onto its roots and toasted bread, doused in more juice, placed in its branches – songs were sung and poems recited in the flickering light of a bonfire.

Welcome to the absurd, chaotic and quintessentially English tradition of wassailing. 

Taking its title from the Old English phrase ‘waes hael’, meaning ‘good health’, wassailing is an old country tradition dating back to at least the 1400s. As the name suggests, it is a ceremony intended to encourage growth in the orchard; a plea for a bountiful year. Common throughout the South West, but predominantly in the cider-producing counties of Gloucestershire, Herefordshire and Somerset, wassailing traditionally took place on Twelfth Night (6 January) as the harshness of the mid-winter period began to recede. Varying in specifics from county to county, there isn’t a universal fixed order to a wassail, with each region having its own traditions and songs.

One cider producer keen on keeping the local tradition alive is Barnes & Adams, which each year hosts a wassail in the orchard at Nibley House. Based in Wotton-under-Edge in Gloucestershire, Barnes & Adams produce a range of craft ciders and perries which can be found in a farm shops and pubs throughout the area.

Gloucestershire was once home to a recorded 157 apple species, but only 86 are believed to be left in existence now. The company’s founders, John Barnes and Matt Adams, believe passionately in protecting this cider-making heritage and have invested heavily in protecting ancient orchards and replanting traditional Gloucestershire cider apples. Via their sponsor-a-tree scheme, they’re encouraging their drinkers to do so, too.

Matt Adams – dressed as the Green Man, with twigs and branches framing his cheery face – impressed this point to the crowd at the Nibley wassail.

“Orchards,” he explained, “connect us all with the land. To preserve and protect them not only does them good, but does us good too. They are one of our five-a-day.”

He smiled to the crowd, who, judging by their cheer, had already enjoyed several of their five-a-day, in the form of mulled cider. 

That, to me, encapsulates all that is brilliant about wassailing. At a time in which we live increasingly sedentary lives, and where a sense of community has all but disappeared, how refreshing to see people of all ages come together to stroll around an orchard, and utter a friendly ‘wassail!’ to one and all. Plus, you know, it is ruddy good fun.

To find out more about Gloucestershire’s traditional orchards, wassailing, or to find an event near to you, visit the Gloucester Orchard Trust’s website.