Forest of Dean legend Pete Symonds has finally hung up his wassailing top hat and waistcoat and handed the baton to his successor. For many years Pete has performed the role of Butler at wassailing’s all over the Forest of Dean and beyond. From Twelfth Night onwards his “master of ceremonies” confident baritone voice could be heard ringing around the counties orchards and apple barns. Wishing everyone “Wassail!!” and educating as many of us as possible in the process. But all great things change and Pete is moving on. There couldn’t have been a better bookend to our recent Wassailing piece at Apple County Cider’s Monmouthshire orchards.
In the foulest of weathers well and truly off the Beaufort scale, Pete’s bonhomie was sorely needed for the hardy bunch who had braved the winds and the stair-rod rain of storm Imogen. The resultant flooding which had turned the valley road into a lake and the inclined road to Ragmans Lane Farm into a mountain stream that wouldn’t have looked out of place in Iceland! But brave it the bunch did to see Pete on his Butler’s best form for his last ever wassailing.
Ragmans Lane Farm is a 60 acre site around a cluster of farmhouse and outbuildings. It is a beacon of permaculture farming training as well as offering a myriad of complimentary agricultural courses. Matt Dunwell, who has owned and run the farm since 1990 had (in the circumstances) set aside the Mushroom Shed for an indoor ceremony – much to everyone’s relief. Once inside the Mushroom Shed, all the visitors began to overheat under the many layers they had assumed necessary and quickly started shedding outer layers of fleece and down jackets before hanging them on the rack by the door. From the other side of the room the sweet smell of mulled Ragmans apple juice wafted from stove top pots and there was a jug of Kingstone Black cider on hand to fuel the crowd and prime Ragmans own wassailing bowl. In the centre of the shed was an apple tree in a pot. The very healthy looking sapling was very nicely decorated by Matt’s team, who had also provided straw bale seating around the edge of the room, but it was nevertheless an anti-climax.
Don’t misunderstand; the crowd were in good spirits. Pete was imparting about 0.01% of his local knowledge to a couple sipping on Kingstone Black transfixed by his enthusiasm and .com-like access to anything anyone ever wanted to know about wassailing, apples, cider, orchards……Really, someone should record Pete Symonds!
The folk music track of The Life of Riley band of Morris and Penny (the latter being, Pete’s accomplished and now blooded successor) set the scene against the chatting crowd, waiting for proceedings to begin. Impatient for action, the kids had already started and were careering around the cider apple tree centrepiece in a dizzying blur. Matt suggested that we all brave the weather for the traditional orchard procession. Cue furtive glances out of the windows and door and he didn’t, let’s say, have the most enthusiastic take up. But with overwhelming enthusiasm, and his offer of wellingtons to anyone without, the crowd had nowhere to go but the orchard.
Just what it all needed really. Although now wet and windswept the assembled “good healthers” exhaled their collective sighs relief at being out of the storm and the rest of the ceremony continued in the welcome warm and dry. Good music, lots of singing, party poppers (to represent the traditional shotgun noise), adorning the tree with toast, all handed out by the wassailing “fair maiden” and the blessing for the health and wealth of the orchard for the coming year and the ceremony was bought to a close so that the Ceilidh could begin.
Bringing the wassailing year to a close, and in a final personal and heartfelt thanks, Matt paid tribute to Pete Symonds’ contribution to the Ragmans harvest and ethos in the many wassails conducted at the farm. There were attempts to get him to commit to one last year, but to me he did not look like he was going to budge on retirement.
And the anti-climactic sapling – well that will takes its place in the orchard planted in Pete’s honour as a thank you.