For the Lady knows where we shall be when apples come next year
It’s been a really difficult January here on Dartmoor: biting cold, constant rain and high winds, short daylight, relentless work, and very little to warm the heart. So what do we do in the south west of England to bring cheer to the depths of winter?
A couple of weeks ago, I was standing in the dark and cold in the village of Torbryan with about a hundred other people, some of us blacked up in full Morris kit, many others wrapped up in coats and scarves. We danced, we passed around a wishing cup of spiced cider, we prowled around the parish singing to the apple trees we could find. We made as much noise as we could to scare away the bad spirits (drums, hooters, you name it). We danced some more. There were poems and pronouncements by torchlight, there was roaring and clashing of fire sticks. We made quite a dent in the blackness of a January night in rural south Devon.
The word ‘wassail’ means ‘your health’ in Old English. A thirteenth century version of the story of king Vortigern has his bride Rowena toasting his health with the wassail bowl and the words Waes hael. Of all the rituals blessing crops and animals at this time of year, the most enduring is the wassail of fruit trees: variations of our Torbryan night are still going on everywhere, well into the nearly-as-dreary month of February.
Ronald Hutton* reports that in the West Country, wassailing was often done by the farm workers, or sometimes a whole parish turning out for the occasion. Cider was splashed on the trees and bread soaked in cider placed in the crooks of apple tree branches. (Some people say that this is as much for the guardian robins as the trees themselves.) Loud singing is a ubiquitous feature of the wassail celebration, sometimes accompanied by the shooting of guns into the air. There are a few records of the wassail continuing to the ox-house: in Herefordshire a cake was stuck on the horns of a cow and cider thrown onto her as blessings and prayers were sung for a bountiful harvest later in the year.
Hats full, caps full, three bushel bags full,
And a gurt heap under the stairs. Hurrah!
I take great heart from the wassailing tradition, at a time of year when the apples of the last harvest are too soft and yellowed, and the trees are fast asleep. Apple trees have traditionally represented happiness and abundance, symbolic of the giving of love and trust, and of course apple trees bear sacred mistletoe. The magical silver bough of Irish legend was made of apple wood, with nine silver apples that played continuous lullabies. The magician Merlin was said to possess a magical apple orchard with seven score and seven trees, that held the secrets of the earth and the understanding of the planets, as well as the sweetest of apples. Orchards in Dorset are still guarded by the fairy colt Lazy Lawrence, who will give you a nasty nip if you dare to scrump the fruit at harvest-time. The names of the old varieties tell stories themselves: Paignton Marigold, Slack ma Girdle, Catshead, Brown Snout, Bloody Ploughman….
Contrast this to the modern day, and the uniform, tasteless, soul-less apples that have the misfortune to land on our supermarket shelves all year round, often flown from halfway round the world. They have had all the life and joy beaten out of them, and I dread to think of the conditions they are grown under. Happily, our remaining native orchards are enjoying something of a resurgence, with Apple Days celebrated all over the country in October. You can find out more at the Orchard Network webpage.
The Somerset folklorist Ruth Tongue collected a number of stories about apples, and one in particular has caught my imagination, although the origins of this story are debated. It concerns two brothers. The younger one inherits the family farm, leaving the eldest to scrape a living on a poor bit of land with a couple of old apple trees and an old donkey and ox on their last legs.
The elder brother makes a go of it, and tends to the land, the animals and the trees. In time he runs out of money and his spirits sag, but it is only when he respects the old traditions and wassails the apple trees on Christmas Eve that he receives help. One old apple tree comes back to life, and shows him where treasure is buried; and the younger brother gets short shrift.
In this story, respect for the land is rewarded, and at the dark still time of the year the trees and animals have magical powers and choose to reciprocate. And it’s just the same for all of us: by appreciating the wonders that our local orchards and apple trees give to us, we can enjoy their harvest all the more.
As for the infamous apple scrumpy hangover? That’s quite another story.
*Hutton, R (1996) The Stations of the Sun. Oxford University Press
You can find out more about Beltane Border Morris here.
Thanks to Alex Graeme of Unique Devon Tours for permission to use the Torbryan Wassail images and film.