As dusk faded to darkness, I headed to The Fleece Inn at Bretforton, in Worcestershire, to witness a ceremony intended to bless the apple orchards. Owned by The National Trust, the pub is sited in a picturesque village within the Vale of Evesham; an area famous for growing fruit and vegetables. Besides apples, this particular area on the edge of the Cotswold Hills is renowned for asparagus, known in the local dialect as 'gras.
The Fleece has in recent years, strived to host events featuring traditional musicians and customs. The local community use it for everything from a quiet pint to a rustic wedding venue, and throughout the year events are held at the inn, including the famous Asparagus Festival which celebrates the local asparagus crop. Rather than "something for the tourists", the inn helps to preserve living traditions and a threatened way of life as various factors affect rural communities in the modern age. The Orchard Wassail was one such event, and as I arrived, it was evident that this would be really special.
A Historic Venue
The timber-framed building started out as a longhouse to house people and livestock in the 15th Century, and became a pub in 1848. The Fleece was bequeathed to The National Trust by its last private owner, Lola Taplin, who passed away peacefully in 1977 in the snug in of the pub that she lived and worked in for her entire life.
Efforts have continued to maintain the inn as a traditional pub, and it certainly is full of charm. From its pewter plates to the roaring fires in the hearths, The Fleece is a real treasure.
You won't find any jukeboxes or one-armed bandits in this establishment. Real ales, local produce, and a hearty welcome await you instead at a place that has stood for over six hundred years.
Dressed for the Ritual
The smell of wood-smoke, roast pork, and mulled wine hung in the chill January air, as the crowds began to gather. The barn was open to the revellers, decorated with bunches of dried hops that hung from every rafter, and a hog-roast was set up in the courtyard to cater for all the visitors to this event.
The orchard looked truly magical. In some of the trees, jars hung with flickering candles. A hot brazier crackled as the logs within it burned, to warm the hands of those that would huddle near it seeking respite from the winter's bite. At the far end of the orchard, a bonfire blazed, whilst around the tree that had been chosen as the Queen of the Orchard, torches smouldered, lending an ethereal mist to the orchard grounds as smoke from them crept amongst the apple trees.
The Revels Begin
At around 6:30 pm, the celebration began in earnest.
The crowds parted like a sea as the Master of Ceremonies, a Druid, entered the courtyard.
His bare feet were decorated with silver rings, and each time his staff struck on the ground, bells upon it made their own music. His skin was decorated with ritual markings in blue paint, and from his waist hung a golden sickle, of great importance to Druids in the rite of cutting sacred mistletoe.
With gusto, he announced that the festival had begun and introduced the dancers and musicians.
Morris and Molly Dancing
The Pebworth Morris side were the first to perform. Dressed in the attire of the Cotswold Tradition with white shirts, black breeches, bells, and their colours worn on their sashes, their style was a lively mix of wild Border Morris and the more familiar local dances. Cotswold Tradition tends to be performed more in the summer months, whereas Border Morris is more active in wintertime. The fusion was interesting and well done, with perfectly executed dances performed with sticks which brought to my mind the fury of the sword dances of the Rapper dancers of north east England.
Following on from this came the Asum Gras Molly side. More recently formed in 2013, the group is made up of members from various Cotswold and Northwest sides. The members are mostly female, and their costumes each are unique and eye-catching, based around the colours of cream and green as a tribute to the local asparagus. Their dances were very lively, with props such as brooms used during their performance.
After the dancers were done, the Master of Ceremonies announced that the Wassail itself would take place in a few minutes, and instructed that revellers take a piece of toast and some cider with them to the orchard.
There are three different "wassails" that can cause some confusion:
- The orchard wassail is one such as this, whereby the fruit trees are tended to around Twelfth Night.
- A door-to-door wassail is a tradition whereby the local farmhands and labourers would visit the houses with a bowl of mulled cider, and sing and drink for the good health of the residents.
- A "wassail" has become the name of a mulled cider drink, that is used in both the orchard and door-to-door wassails.
The first recorded mention of an orchard wassail was at Fordwich, Kent, in 1585, whereby groups of young men would go between orchards performing the rite for a reward.
The word “wassail” literally means "be whole", wishing good health to whoever is being greeted. Believed to derive from Old Norse ves heil and Old English was hael, the correct reply is drinc hael.
First used as a simple greeting, it is thought that when the Danes started to settle across parts of Britain in the Dark Ages it became a drinking formula. “Was Hail” became a widely adopted toast in feasting halls.
Over time, a different sort of wassailing emerged. As well as toast the nobility or honoured among their society, farmers began to wassail their crops and animals to encourage fertility and boost the harvest. An anonymous record tells us that, “They go into the Ox-house to the oxen with the Wassell-bowle and drink to their health.”
The practice continues in Britain today, whereby the trees are toasted to promote an abundant crop the next year. The cider used in the toast would be made from the apples harvested from the same orchard. Or, if an orchard was barren, it would be a practice that cider from a bountiful orchard would be “fed” to the trees, to encourage them.
In some parts, cider-soaked bread is placed in the branches to sate the tree spirits. Other customs see the whole village splash the trees with cider. It is common for the ritual to include a lot of noise; guns are fired, pots and pans, or even drums are brought to the orchard and beaten. This is to scare away bad spirits that might blight the apple trees, and also to wake the trees up after their winter sleep.
This event is traditionally held on Twelfth Night (6th January) or in some regions, the 17th January.
Was Hael! Drinc Hael!
And so the time had come for the trees to be honoured.
The Master of Ceremonies led the procession of dancers and musicians towards the orchard, the revellers behind. Along the way, each passed a long table laden with toast and cider, and we moved in a circle motion around the tree that was chosen as Queen of the Orchard.
The Druid described the tradition, and explained how we would be making lots and lots of noise to scare away the apple blight. Cheering filled the air as the crowd made as much noise as possible.
Our cups were raised in a raucous toast as the Master of Ceremonies called "Was Hael!". The reply of "Drinc Hael!" echoed back, and all took a sip from their glasses. Then we each made our way to the trees to make our offerings.
Toast was carefully tied in the branches, with cider poured over the roots and lower trunks of the trees. There was a cheerful and lively atmosphere, one of merriment and hopefulness for the year to come and whatever it might bring.
Then came the last surprise.
Two cannons had been brought in to scare any blight away for good. Concealed in darkness, the whole crowd jumped as the first one fired a shot. Whilst we knew the second one was about to follow, it didn't make it any less loud. The sound of cannon-fire echoed around the entire village as the smell of gunpowder mingled with wood-smoke.
The wassail was done. But the celebrations were far from over.
The crowd melted into the inn and barn, whilst some remained outside enjoying the atmosphere. Musicians continued playing merry songs as the hour grew late and the fires burned low.
What a wonderful way to spend a January evening.
With thanks to the Reverend Andrew Spurr, and of course, The Fleece Inn, Bretforton.
© 2015 Pollyanna Jones