When the New Year celebrations are over, Herefordshire has another unique seasonal tradition up its sleeve!
It’s time for the wassail, an ancient ceremony passed down through the generations in cider-making counties to bless the orchards, the apple and pear trees, with singing and dancing by the light of burning torches to encourage fruitfulness and bounty in the year ahead. The word itself originates from “waes hael”, meaning ‘be healthy’ in both Old English and Old Norse.
Typically, the wassail kicks off with a lively, torch-lit procession, led by a wassail King and Queen, to the orchard, where the queen will be lifted into the boughs of the tree to place ‘toast soaked in wassail (cider)’ as a gift to the tree spirits. Revellers are positively encouraged to make loads of noise to ward off any evil spirits in the orchard.
‘Apple tree, apple tree
Bear good fruit
Or down with your top
And up with your root.’
Often a wassail bowl, filled with warm spiced cider, perry or ale, is shared among the procession and wassailing ceremonies will typically carry on with a visit to a local pub to warm up.
So pull on your woollies and your wellies and head for one of Herefordshire’s wassailing evenings for an experience like no other. We’ve rounded up what’s on offer.
Westons Cider Wassail
Head to Westons, one of Herefordshire’s biggest names in cider, for the annual Wassail” at Westons Cider Mill with the Silurian Morris on Saturday 7 January 2023 with all proceeds going to St Michaels Hospice. From 6pm for 7pm, with torches lit at 7.30pm.
The Silurians will introduce you to some of the elements unique to wassailing such as the Burning of the Bush and the Herefordshire Apostle fires. The evening begins with dancing outside the cider mill before the torchlit procession leads the way down the lane to the orchard where the Apostle Fires have been prepared. Once everyone has arrived at the central apple tree, wassail songs are sung, the fires are lit, the offering made to the tree followed by more singing and dancing!
This year, for the first time, the Westons Wassail is ticketed – buy your tickets here and “share in a ceremony bursting with fire, poetry, weird gifts, ancient songs and lots of laughs” – Wassail Butler, Ian Craigan.
A daytime wassail this time – join the Jenny Pipes Morris, ‘the most entertaining women’s Morris side in Herefordshire’, to process down to the Community Orchard below the Priory Church and playground, be part of the wassail ceremony to ensure a fruitful harvest for the orchard’s apple trees when autumn comes around.
Everyone is welcome, including musicians and singers. The Leominster Wassail is organised by the Friends of Grange Court Gardens, with Grange Court Cafe open for lunch/refreshments afterwards. The festivities will start at 11am on Saturday, January 15 in Leominster’s Corn Square.
Herefordshire Wassail at Burton Court with Leominster Morris, January 6 from 7pm.
In a digital age, there is something very real about the prospect of standing in a muddy field in the dead of winter with the only light provided by the flaming torches lighting the way to the orchard. The wassail was the first custom to be revived when the famous Leominster Morris was re-formed almost 40 years ago. This year they will be at Burton Court, Eardisland from 7pm on Friday, January 6, to pour cider on apple trees and hang toast in their branches as an offering to the spirits, while fires are lit as a sign of renewal and the coming of spring.
This year, Newton Court Cider welcomes Blackthorn, Herefordshire’s innovative ritualistic folk group. The members of Blackthorn come mostly from this mysterious borderland county, home to superior ciders, excellent hops and the spiritual presence of the folklorist, Ella Mary Leather, and the ley line investigator, Alfred Watkins.
Blackthorn will be wassailing in the orchard and performing songs, dances merriment on the dark evening of Saturday, January 21.
This is a ticketed event and all tickets have SOLD OUT.
Monkland Wassail and Ceilidh
In Monkland there’ll be singing, dancing and a short walk to the orchard for a traditional wassail with Foxwhelp Morris. This will be followed by a ceilidh with Join the Dots ceilidh band in the village hall on Saturday, January 7. Tickets are £6 from The Monkland Arms.
The Crown Inn, Woolhope
Saturday, January 21
Wassailers will be gathering at The Crown Inn for the Woolhope Wassail at 5pm on Saturday, January 21, ready for the torchlit walk to the orchard at 6pm. Everyone is invited to join in the fun as the apple trees are blessed and the spirits invoked. Expect great food, a great atmosphere and a great night for all the family.
Main photo: Matt, Landlord at The Crown Inn, Woolhope