A centuries old tradition is being brought to life once more in the orchards of Purbeck to ensure a good crop of apples in autumn – and to bring the community together at the bleakest time of year.
Purbeck Cider Farm near Corfe Castle is holding its third annual wassail on Saturday 20th January 2024 and, with the help of Dorset’s Hobo Border Morris team and the Purbeck Mummers, hopes to inspire a new generation of fans for the medieval tradition.
The torchlit procession heads off to the main orchard to begin the wassail ceremony
Wassail songs to bless the trees
Wassailing, believed to ensure a good harvest, was once carried out wherever there was an orchard, and across the West Country, it would have been the most important date of the winter calendar after Christmas.
In a torchlit ceremony at Purbeck Cider’s Lower Bushey Farm orchards, pieces of toast soaked in cider will be placed in the branches of a chosen apple tree to bring good luck, some of last year’s cider will be poured over its roots, and a shotgun will be fired in the air to scare away evil spirits.
Then, crucially, the trees will be blessed and wassail songs sung to complete the custom before an expected crowd of around 200 people get a chance to toast the health of the orchard in mulled cider – or hot, spiced apple juice for the drivers.
Flaming torches light the way to the orchard in this medieval tradition
Swedish torch logs add to the atmosphere at the wassail
“Such an atmospheric ceremony”
Kate Hartle, who runs the Purbeck Cider Company with husband Joe, said:
“The first year we wassailed it was very clear and very still, but last year we were a bit concerned about the weather. When you are using a lot of fire you have to be careful of the wind, which was very strong – but in the end, we had a window of perfect weather for the event.
“This year looks set to be cold but dry, which will be wonderful if everyone wraps up warm – wassailing is such an atmospheric ceremony and a cold, dark night just adds to that.
“Our mummers and Morris dancers have been down to rehearse and they are very professional! Most of them are cider drinkers, so it seems to be a very good marriage with them performing here!”
Tickets for the wassail, at £15 each, are available through Eventbrite and include a torch to light for the procession and a glass of hot mulled cider or apple juice. Some of the takings from ticket sales will be going to the chosen charities of the mummers and Morris dancers.
Wellingtons or walking boots and warm clothing are recommended as the ceremony itself is outdoors, and guests are also asked to bring along pots and pans to bang together to help scare away any evil spirits from the orchard.
The Purbeck Mummers will present a play which has its roots in the Middle Ages
The Purbeck Mummers gathered together in costume at Corfe Castle
Purbeck Mummers to perform
The Purbeck Mummers, who were featured on the front page of The Guardian newspaper between Christmas and the New Year, will be performing a traditional play featuring Saint George and Father Christmas among other characters, elements of which go back to at least the 14th century.
The all woman Hobo Border Morris team, a favourite of the annual Swanage Folk Festival, will once again be dancing at the wassail, while local singer and guitarist Chris Edward will provide live entertainment after the ceremony and Wareham town crier Jacquie Hall will also be in attendance.
- 5 pm: Doors open with food and drink available on arrival
- 6.30 pm: Morris dancing
- 7 pm: Mummers
- 7.30 pm: Procession to orchard
- 8 pm: Music from local musician Chris Edward
Getting ready to bless the orchard at the 2023 wassail
Scare off bad spirits lurking in trees
Wassailing the apple tree is documented from the 14th century, but it almost certainly would have been performed much earlier.
The word wassail is derived from the Old English ‘waes hael’, meaning ‘good health’ and would generally be followed by the reply ‘drink hael’ as a toast.
Local villagers and farm workers would visit the orchards on Twelfth Night after dark, banging pots and pans and singing loudly to scare off any bad spirits lurking in the trees. Its popularity fell away after Victorian times, but interest in the ancient tradition is once again growing.
Strictly, wassail should be performed on Old Twelvey, 17th January, the date Twelfth Night celebrations were shifted to after 1752 when the Gregorian calendar was adopted in Britain.
But the event now is being held at a more fluid point in mid January and has become an opportunity to bring communities together for an uplifting celebration at a dark and cold time of the year.
Lights around the tree symbolise the twelve months of the year
“Every ceremony is a little different”
“Now in its third year, our traditional wassail has proved to be a great success, bringing together the local community in celebration of the orchards.
“Every wassail ceremony is a little different, but it is always a fantastic atmosphere as guests are welcomed with a steaming mug of our mulled cider and the smell of fire pits fills the frosty night air.
“I put twelve candles around the chosen tree to symbolise the months of the year before we pour last year’s cider on the roots and ask the tree for a good harvest in the coming year.
“Everyone circles the chosen central tree to sing wassailing songs, perform the age-old blessing giving thanks for the previous year and welcoming the new, then we also make a huge bang and clatter to ward off the evil spirits.
“It is a truly magical evening that honours this ancient English tradition as well as the history of our own orchards.”
There’s buried gold to be found in the new Purbeck Cider treasure hunt
Treasure hunt for Purbeck gold
Purbeck Cider has also launched an outdoor treasure hunt for everyone to get involved with over the winter months, where the hidden treasure is of course, liquid gold!
The company’s No 10 cider has undergone a rebrand to become Purbeck Gold and treasure hunters who can find a golden tin at various landmarks around Purbeck will win themselves a case of Purbeck Gold.
The Gold Rush competition was launched on Thursday 11th January 2024 and clues to the locations are being published on Purbeck Cider’s website and social media pages every Thursday.
Solve the riddle, find the golden tin, claim your gold and relax with Purbeck Gold
Bring the treasure, claim your prize
Kate Hartle said:
“We wanted to give Purbeck Gold a higher profile and to get people talking about it, so we came up with the idea of a treasure hunt to get families out into the open air and enjoying local landmarks.
“Bear in mind that some locations may have opening times, but they will all be in public locations and no trespassing or dangerous behaviour is needed to reach them.
“Once you think you know where the treasure tin is hidden, don your wellies and head for the location, open the treasure up, take a photo and bring the treasure to us to claim your prize – there are full instructions inside.
“We think it’s a nice way of introducing our new brand to the general public while having fun looking for some real Purbeck gold!”
The Hobo Border Morris team will put on a display of Morris dancing
Hey, Mrs Tambourine woman, play that song for me… the Hobo Border Morris team in full flight
- Book tickets to the Purbeck Cider 2024 Wassail through Eventbrite
- Join the Purbeck Cider Gold Rush on the company’s website