Revive the ancient tradition of wassailing with the National Trust

Press release
Wassailing at night
Published : 16 Dec 2019

  • This January and February, National Trust locations across the country offer the chance for visitors and local communities to join in with orchard wassailing events, which celebrate the seasonal year.
  • The ancient folk custom is on the rise again, following a decline that coincided with the dramatic loss of orchards.
  • The National Trust celebrates its 125th year in 2020 and, in line with the aims of its founders, is encouraging everyone to discover and connect with nature in their everyday lives.

Standing in an orchard on a cold winter’s day and singing at the trees might seem like an odd way to pass the time, but it’s actually part of the centuries-old tradition or orchard wassailing.

The term wassail derives from the Old Norse ‘ves heill’ which translates to 'be healthy.’ Often held on Twelfth Night (5th January), the purpose of the celebration is to bless the trees, ensuring a good harvest (and plenty of cider) the next autumn.

Although once a popular folk custom [1], in the 20th century the practice of wassailing all but disappeared. This coincided with the dramatic decline of the UK’s orchards: 63% of which have been lost since 1950 [2].

However in recent years wassailing has been experiencing something of a resurgence, and now the National Trust are encouraging people to help keep the tradition alive by joining in with the celebrations that are held each winter at several of the places cared for by the conservation charity.

 ‘Keeping cultural traditions alive is really important to us,’ says Dave Bouch, Head Gardener at Cotehele in Cornwall, where the annual December wassail has been running for 15 years. ‘Our wassail always attracts lots of visitors and local people who come together to celebrate. For some of our regulars it’s bigger than Christmas.’

As well as bringing communities together, the seasonal ritual also provides a great way for people to get back to their roots and spend time in nature, which many studies have shown can benefit health and wellbeing [3].

‘Wassailing is very much about celebrating nature and the seasonal cycle of the year,’ says Dave. ‘It encourages people to think about the changes the trees will undergo throughout seasons, from being dormant in winter to leafing and blossoming in spring, followed by fruiting and the autumn harvest.’

In the National Trust’s 125th year, this ambition to help people connect with nature follows directly in the footsteps of the charity’s founders, who campaigned to give ordinary people access to the countryside and protect these spaces for future generations. As co-founder Octavia Hill stated: ‘the need of quiet, the need of air, and I believe the sight of sky and of things growing, seem human needs, common to all men.’

The Trust currently looks after nearly 200 orchards, mainly planted with traditional apple varieties, but also plum, pear and damson. In 2019 the conservation charity announced that it will create 68 new orchards across England and Wales by 2025, in an ambitious plan to halt the decline of these vital habitats [4].

What to expect at your first wassail:

As with all folk customs, wassailing ceremonies are subject to lots of regional variations – but there are a few hallmarks to look out for:

  • A wassailing ceremony usually starts with all the revellers (sometimes in fancy dress) gathering for a procession down to the orchard – possibly led by a wassail King or Queen.
  • Once gathered round the oldest tree, pieces of toast are places in its branches to entice robins: believed to the guardians of the orchard.
  • Cider is poured around the roots of the tree, while pots and pans are clattered to ward off any evil spirits and wake the trees from their winter slumber.
  • The crowd will also serenade the tree with chants and traditional songs [5] often followed by Morris dancing.
  • No wassail would be complete without tasting the wassail drink, which is usually a local ale or cider blended with honey and spices [6] Historically this would have been drunk from a special ‘wassail cup’, which would be passed around the whole crowd [7].

Events

National Trust locations across the country will be offering the chance for visitors and local communities to join in with orchard wassailing events during January and February

South West

Buckland Abbey, Devon
Traditional wassail
5 January, 13:00 - 15:00
No New Year festivities are complete without a traditional Wassail. Join Dartmoor Border Morris to celebrate the orchards at Buckland Abbey and hope for a good harvest. At 1pm head to the Great Barn to be entertained by a traditional Mummers Play, then follow the Wassail parade into the orchard to sprinkle the trees with cider. Bring your pots and pans to make lots of noise to ward off the bad spirits. The Ox Yard restaurant will be open for mulled cider, hot drinks, and food until 4pm.
Price: Normal admission applies

Saltram, Devon
Wassail!
25 January, 17:00 - 19:00
Join Saltram’s ranger team around the bonfire to bless the orchard for the 2020 crop. Hear from the Wassail King and Queen how to "toast" the trees and join in with the ancient tradition of wassailing. This is a chance to take part in an atmospheric and fun event, in the not-often-visited Saltram orchard.
Price: Adult £8, child £5. Booking essential

Dyrham Park, Gloucestershire
Dyrham wassail
5 January, 11:00 - 14:00
Create a hullabaloo this New Year and help the team at Dyrham Park scare away bad spirits for a bountiful orchard crop in the autumn. Come along to sing and shout the orchard into good health, while enjoying tasty mulled perry and music. Feel free to bring your own percussion instruments, even if it's two wooden spoons.
Price: Normal admission applies

Glastonbury Tor, Somerset
Wassailing at Avalon Orchard
18 January, 13:00 - 16:00
Time for some seasonal, festive fun as the ranger team host a festive wassail in the orchard at Glastonbury Tor. You can tour the Tor, sing around the trees, hear stories by the fire, sample the fruit of last year's crop and enjoy hot food.
Tours of the Tor will be available from 2pm.
Price: Adult £3, child £1 (please note cash only)

Barrington Court, Somerset
Let’s wassail
4 & 5 January, from 11am
In Summer 2019, cider made at Barrington Court from apples grown at four local National Trust properties, won the Overall Drink award at the National Trust’s Fine Farm Produce awards. So it’s clearly worth joining in with a wassail to celebrate the trees and give them offerings of cider and toast. Bring all the family to a craft workshop between 11am-12.30pm in the old kitchen, and make your own wassailing stick with streamers to help frighten the evil spirits away. Then at 2pm join the Morris dancers who will lead you to the orchard for songs and merriment.
Price: Normal admission applies

Montacute House, Somerset
Montacute wassail
4 January, 16:30 - 17:30
Come and join in with Montacute’s version of the ancient West Country ceremony – sing song, try some cider and bang on some pots and pans.
Price: Normal admission applies

Tyntesfield, Bristol
Wassail
25 January, 11:00 - 16:00
Welcome in the new year and celebrate the newly completed orchard with Tyntesfield's first Wassail. Head along to the Sawmill between 11am and 1pm to make your own shaker, which you can rattle during a parade through the estate at 1:30pm. The final Wassail and blessing of the orchard will take place at 3pm, with traditional music and celebrations.
Price: Normal admission applies

South East

Slindon Estate, West Sussex
Wassail
11 January, 18:00 - 20:00
Transport yourself back in time with the old English tradition of orchard wassailing. With a bonfire, music, mulled cider and a generally folksy atmosphere, together you’ll toast the trees to ensure a plentiful crop and scare away the evil spirits.
Price: Free event

Swan Barn Farm, Surrey
Here we come a-wassailing
17 January, 18:00 - 21:00
Come join in some noisy orchard-wassailing revelry at Swan Barn Farm. Follow the torch lit procession to “Old Man Apple” (the oldest apple tree) to sing the traditional Wassail songs and generally make a ruckus. After successfully warning off bad spirits from the trees it’ll be time to head back up to Basecamp for some live music and refreshments (including produce from the orchard, of course)
Price: Free event

Midlands

Brockhampton, Herefordshire
Wassail trail
15 February - 23 February, 11:00 - 15:30
Never heard of wassailing? Come along to Brockhampton this February and follow the family-friendly trail to discover the peculiar traditions of this ancient ceremony. It’s a great way to walk off the cold weather, and with every visit you’ll be helping the fruit trees at Brockhampton to thrive.
Price: £2.50 per trail (includes prize). Normal admission applies

The Fleece Inn, Worcestershire
Wassail!
11 Jan, from 5.30pm
If January has arrived, it must be time for the Fleece Inn’s annual wassail. From dusk the apple orchard becomes alive with cider, singing and Morris men. Join in with this ancient tradition of waking the trees to encourage a good harvest - it’s fun for all the family and a brilliant way to make the most of the dark winter nights.
5.30pm: Morris dancing
7 or 7.15pm: Procession to the orchard and toasting of the trees, followed by a music & song session in the barn.
Price: Free Entry

Moseley Old Hall, Staffordshire
February half term wassailing
15 - 19 February, 11:00 - 15:00
Winter is on the way out, which must mean that it’s time to wake up the orchard at Moseley Old Hall ready for the year ahead. Head along to join in with the ancient custom of wassailing - reciting incantations and singing to the trees. It works every year! You can also start or finish your wassail by toasting marshmallows beside the woodland campfire.
Price: Normal admission applies

- ENDS -

For further information please contact:

Imogen Tinkler, Assistant PR Officer on imogen.tinkler@nationaltrust.org.uk or 01793 818562

NOTES TO EDITORS:

[1] The history of wassailing

The term wassail derives from the Old Norse ‘ves heill,’ which translates to 'be healthy.’ There are a couple of different types of wassailing, but in both cases the main purpose of the ritual is to invoke good health – whether for crops or other people.

The first type was essentially a pre-cursor to carol singing: wassailers would go door-to-door singing hymns, wishing their neighbours well and offering a drink from the wassail cup/bowl in exchange for money or gifts.

The second type is the orchard or apple wassail, which was most common in the traditional cider-producing regions of Britain. Farmers and their families or local communities would gather in orchards and gardens to bless the fruit trees for the year ahead. Traditionally it would take place on Old Twelfth Night (17th January), but now wassails can be found between late December – February.

It’s uncertain how long wassailing has been practised for, although many believe the celebration has pagan origins.

  • The first recorded mention of wassailing is in the 1585 borough records of Fordwich, Kent, by which time it was already a long-established custom (the record is an expense for repairing the garb of the wassail King and Queen.)[1]
  • The ‘wassail cup’ was a mainstay of a Tudor Christmas – it would be paraded through the great hall, and drunk from by all present as they took part in a call-and-response ritual – the drinker would shout ‘wassail!’ and the collective response was ‘drinkhail!’[2]
  • On 26 December 1661, Samuel Pepys recorded in his diary that ‘a washeallbowle [wassail bowl] woman and girl came to us and sung to us.’[3]
  • Several local wassailing songs were collected by musician Cecil Sharp in the early 1900s, as part of his campaign to preserve and promote English folk songs and dances. Sharp’s collections are now stored at the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library.[4]

[2] Natural England, Traditional Orchard Project in England (2007). http://publications.naturalengland.org.uk/publication/47015

[3] National Trust, Places Matter Research Report (2018). https://nt.global.ssl.fastly.net/documents/places-matter-research-report.pdf

[4] National Trust press release: www.nationaltrust.org.uk/press-release/a-core-issue-national-trust-plans-to-help-halt-dramatic-decline-of-traditional-orchards-as-blossoms-start-to-bloom

[5] Traditional orchard wassail song:

Old apple tree we wassail thee
And hoping thou will bear
For the Lord doth know where we shall be
‘Til apples come another year

For to bear well and to bloom well
So merry let us be
Let every man take off his hat
And shout to the old apple tree

Old apple tree we wassail thee
And hoping thou will bear
Hats full, caps full, three bushel bags full
And a little heap under the stairs

[6] Traditional wassail drink recipe from Petworth House, Surrey

www.nationaltrust.org.uk/petworth-house-and-park/recipes/petworths-traditional-wassail

Ingredients (serves 8)

  • 3.8 litres apple cider
  • 470ml orange juice
  • 235ml lemon juice
  • 43g sugar
  • 1 teaspoon cloves
  • 1 teaspoon nutmeg
  • 1 orange, sliced
  • 120ml brandy (optional)

Method

  • Mix juices, cider, sugar and spices in a saucepan. Add the brandy if using.
  • Bring to boil for 1 minute
  • Reduce heat and simmer for 30 minutes
  • Serve hot with sliced oranges in a large punch bowl.

[7] Examples of 17th and 18th century wassailing cups can be found the collections at Cotehele in Cornwall, Dyrham Park near Bath, Speke Hall near Liverpool and Lytes Cary in Somerset.

 

[1] J.Gibson, Records of early English drama: Diocese of Canterbury, Kent.