An orchard ritual
Orchards awake from their winter sleep to the beating of drums, the clanging of pots and pans, the sharp report of a shotgun and the strains of ancient songs and traditional dance tunes. It is January again, on and around Exmoor.
The frenzied activity on cold, dark evenings of mid-winter is to help ensure the prosperity of the West Country’s great gift to the world, the humble but precious cider apple, and its potent liquor. The ancient ceremony of wassailing tells the trees that spring is not far away, scares away evil spirits and encourages the liquid gold to flow in bounteous quantity and fragrant quality.
Does it work? Well, wassailing’s promoters and grateful drinkers across the nation simply point to their certainty that, for centuries, Devon and Somerset have produced the best cider.
The exact wassail ritual varies, but at the heart of the ceremony is usually a singing procession to the chosen orchard, led by a king and queen. On arrival the queen is lifted into the branches of a tree to offer cider-soaked toast to the good spirits of the orchard.
A song is then sung:
Wassailing is preceded each October by apple fairs, celebrating the harvest . At South Molton visitors flocked to the event organised by Orchards Live, enthusiasts from Exmoor and North Devon who for nearly 30 years have been arresting the mid-20th century decline in fruit growing.
Tattwa Gyani, who chairs the group, explains: “Devon and Exmoor has lost the majority of its orchards since the last war. The tradition of wassailing declined in the 1950s but is now reviving. Traditional standard orchards are valuable for their beauty, history, wildlife and rich variety of local apples.”
At apple fairs the group displays many varieties from the region including, of course, cider apples. Members of the public flocked take bags of their own apples for turning into juice. More details from orchardslive. org.uk