Lots of fun being invited to the very first Apple County Cider wassail ceremony at the cider orchards at Newcastle in Monmouthshire at the weekend. For this inaugural event, there was a modest but very enthusiastic crowd too on a cold, but stunningly beautiful, Monmouthshire day. Just a short walk from the roadside car parking and we were into the orchard proper. Stark and bare at this time of year the orchard was mid-winter prune but the mistletoe was on full power with bright white gelatinous berries glinting in the afternoon sun.
Wassailing is a one of those fabulous pagan ceremonies that date back thousands of years. The name Wassail is thought to originate either from the old Norse Scandinavian language “Ves heil” or the old English “Was hal” in either case a hearty toast to good health. Mix in a little bit of medieval German drinking tradition and, well anyway you get the picture…Fabulous English pagan tradition that Christianity (like so many of our other traditional ceremonies) put up with, adopted and adapted.
Wassailing is a ceremony to wake up the trees from their long winter snooze and to give them life and vigour just as spring is about to spring (very early as it happens this year). Actually, the history of it is far more complicated than that it would seem with any number of geographical variations. Wassail, is more accurately, the name for hot mulled cider drink which accompanies the festivities and Ben & Steph Culpin had a large pot of their cider on the burner with their secret mulling recipe on a gentle simmer. The smell of the mulled cider on the breeze was just fantastic.
No pagan tradition seems complete without a tipple or indeed music, singing and generally being pretty hopeful that, you, having a good time and paying respect to nature will pay off with a bumper harvest. You start to see the attraction of paganism….? On accordion the magnificently bearded Morris Wintle played some lovely traditional music and with him (as Life of Riley folk band partner), Penny Plowden, in her own very first act of, master of ceremony of the wassail, led the singing and read the traditional wassail texts. Dressed in her black school teachers gown and blazer with top hat decorated with ribbon and of course, the traditional black face (no-one seems sure why, but probably just a notional “disguise”).
And so, what could be nicer than a couple of hours outdoors in a fabulous orchard, drinking mulled cider, respecting tradition and having some exercise with a processional walk around the orchard behind the band. We wished everyone “good health” and drank a tipple to, hopefully, a great harvest and another great year for this young but fast becoming famous Welsh craft cider maker.
The band and the crowd moved on to The Bell at Skenfrith where to the musical score provided by the Life of Reilly in Ceilidh music and dancing mode the pagan well-wishers dined on confit belly pork, mash and cider jus or roasted sweet potato, apple, chestnut and blue cheese pie followed by apple crumble or apple tarte tatin.