A year under lockdown isn’t an essential prerequisite for spending a Friday evening engaging, in our instance virtually, in the slightly whacky pursuit of going wassailing in the depths of rural Somerset, but it probably helps. There was I, in my ignorance of pagan British customs, thinking that wassailing merely involved going around in groups from house to house in the village around Christmas time, or presumably the winter solstice in pagan times, and getting drunk with the assistance of a wassail cup full of ale or cider while singing wassailing songs that, in their less bawdy versions, developed into carols. While that wasn’t wrong, it was a limited understanding. Wassailing in early Spring has some similarities, but is dedicated to the necessary process of waking up the apple trees and encouraging them to get on with the serious business of producing apples.
Our route to our wassailing venue, The Newt, a country estate in Somerset (https://thenewtinsomerset.com – reminiscent in this context of the line from the witches’ chant in Macbeth, ‘Eye of newt and toe of frog’, was improbably circuitous. We found our way there via Babylonstoren (https://babylonstoren.com), one of the older Cape Dutch manor houses, dating back to 1777, in the Drakenstein Valley near Franschoek in the Western Cape. Apart from anything else, Babylonstoren has magnificent gardens, one of the finest collections of clivias in the world, makes outstanding wines, and is one of our favourite visiting spots when we are in Cape Town. Susan, who has a way of finding such things out, discovered that The Newt is the UK’s distribution point for Wines from Babylonstoren, kept an eye on their website and discovered that the estate has been finding creative ways of generating income during lockdown. The first of these she indulged in was a blood-orange marmalade making kit and on-line cooking session: a large box arrived on our doorstep with eight jam jars, a couple of pounds of oranges, all the other ingredients, and the recipes for both some excellent marmalade and some equally good blood-orange curd.
Such was the success of the marmalade and curd that the invitation to invest in the necessary equipment for a hearty wassail was irresistible. A large box duly appeared on the doorstep earlier in the week containing two bottles of Somerset dry cider, two bottles of apple-juice, a jam bottle full of spices, two magnificent apples, two wooden spoons and two tin-mugs. We were told to expect ‘an evening of light fighting darkness – with explosive energy from English Civil War cannon to banish ne’er-do-well spirits, followed by encouragement of benevolent spirits through song, revelry and cyder quaffing.’
Having duly equipped ourselves with two large mugs of mulled cider for the quaffing bit, not, I hasten to add, the tin mugs used for waking apple trees, we sat down to watch the unfolding of the ritual at the appointed time on Friday evening. This began with the Wassail King calling the assembled company, decked out in their best Elizabethan costumes, to join him in a torch-lit procession down to the orchard. ‘Waes hael!’ the King shouted, ‘be in good health!’; in reply to which his followers all replied ‘waes hael!’ in their turn and kept shouting ‘waes hael!’ sporadically throughout the rest of the ritual. I assumed that the reason they didn’t reply with the more traditional Anglo Saxon ‘drink hael!’ – which means, predictably enough, ‘drink well!’ – was out of sensibility towards younger viewers, as the evening was still young.
Having gathered round the chosen tree, usually the oldest in the orchard (presumably on the assumption that the older you are the more it takes to wake you), pieces of toast were placed in the branches to attract robins, well known to be the guardians of the orchard, and a libation of cider was poured by way of blessing on the roots of the tree. At that point a cacophony of noise was emitted by the assembled company, whose clattering of pots and pans and shouting of more ‘wassails’ must have been enough to put the frighteners on any lingering evil spirits and wake the chosen apple tree and all the others in the orchard from their winter sleep. Just in case the shouting and the clamour of kitchen utensils hadn’t been enough to waken the deeper sleepers among the apple trees, the ceremony closed with the firing of the aforesaid civil war cannons, cleverly synchronised with the distant bursting of fireworks, and a very impressive fireworks display that should have been enough to wake the apple trees for miles around.
Having refrained from joining in the random clattering of kitchen utensils out of consideration for our neighbours, I now find myself in something of a quandary. I am hoping that the televised noise from Somerset might have woken the Lord Lambourne in our garden at home, but we now have two unused wooden spoons and two tin mugs specially designated for the waking up of apple trees, and I have eleven cordoned apple trees and one free-standing one, and two cordoned pear trees and one free-standing one, all still fast asleep on my allotment. The two cordoned pear trees have never produced anything, so they could obviously do with a good bit of waking up, but the apple trees and the other pear tree have in the past been reasonably prolific without needing to be woken. Which isn’t to say that they might not be even more prolific if I wake them up in good time. Our allotment is right beside a very public footpath. Do I take my tin mug and wooden spoon and a bottle of cider down to the allotment one evening this week, pour the cider on the roots of the Jupiter or the Cox’s Orange Pippin, repetitively shout ‘Waes hael!’ as loudly as I can between singing wassail-type songs while beating the tin mug with the wooden spoon, and risk being led quietly away as one of the victims of the mental stress of a year under lockdown? Or do I just leave the apple and pear trees to wake up in their own good time, and find something more mundane to do with my unused tin mug and wooden spoon?