It's wassail weekend. We covered Wassails in World's Best Cider. I also wrote about different wassails for the now-defunct magazine Fire and Knives. Below is one edited piece that's an amalgam of three of my favourite wassails. Photos by Bill Bradshaw. If you've never been to a wassail, now's the time to start.
A man wearing a facial disguise, a coat that looks like it’s made out of 1970s wallpaper and a top hat with flowers and ostrich feathers on it advances towards me with a lit blowtorch, his eyes gleaming in the firelight.
There would be no point trying to run – we’re up to our ankles in sticky mud. We’d be blind outside this circle of firelight. And we’re in the middle of a field, miles from the nearest village.
The man with the blowtorch raises it above my head and lights a torch I’m carrying. Soon there is a procession of us carrying yellow flames that give surprising illumination against the night.
Strings of light bulbs adorn the naked apple trees, turning them silvery and petrified, faerie-like.
We gather around a large, hot bonfire, a poker protruding from its embers, and the drizzle loses its spirit-sapping powers completely if you get close enough to the flames. Someone plays a jolly tune on an accordion – and then everyone falls silent. The Wassail Master of Ceremonies takes the poker from the fire and plunges it into a wooden pail brimming with cider. The liquid steams and foams, spewing onto the grass. The MC carries the pail solemnly towards the oldest apple tree in the orchard, steam flowing down its sides like a witch’s cauldron.
Now, the Morris men carry the queen on their shoulders and deposit her at the base of the tree. She takes a pitchfork with a slice of toast speared on its prongs and dips it into the pail, then raises it into the tree and teases the toast free from the prongs, leaving it in the branches of the tree to attract robins, who will in turn attract good spirits to the tree. The crowd raises a hearty cheer, and scores of flashlights fire, freezing raindrops in the air like diamonds.
The Queen’s reward is a hearty drink from the cider pail, something she accomplishes so enthusiastically it earns her another cheer. She pours the remains around the base of the old apple tree, giving back the fruits of last year’s harvest to its roots. And now the entire crowd is gong batshit-crazy, banging sticks, cheering and ululating, scaring away the evil spirits from the tree. Five men in flat caps and neckerchiefs stride forward, raise shotguns and fire two volleys into the branches, the retorts so loud I feel it in my chest rather than hear it. Orange sparks fly, smoke fills the branches, and the air is thick with the smell of cordite.
And that’s when it happens. Reality shifts.
Mythology often talks about ‘liminal’ places. Liminality, from the Latin limen, or ‘threshold’, basically refers to a transitional state during a rite of passage. Anywhere from an airport terminal to TV’s Twilight Zone could be described as a liminal place. Throughout our history we’ve spun tales of the existence of other worlds parallel to ours own, various heavens and hells and, especially, the world of faerie. Normally these worlds are entirely separate from ours and it’s impossible to pass between them at will. But there are certain places – liminal places – where the walls between the worlds are thin. A little magic seeps through and the edges, the margins of our world, become infected by it. Normal rules bend, and at times don’t apply at all.
In our search for liminality, for mental freedom, we’re rediscovering that childlike ability to simultaneously believe and disbelieve in magic. And as the cordite fills the air and the thick smoke hazes the faerie-lit trees, for a few minutes I genuinely believe – I know – that we have succeeded in driving evil spirits from this realm, back through the liminal space to the dimension where they belong.
Everyone else knows it too. Tomorrow we’ll completely accept that the apple harvest is down to weather patterns and soil, judicious stewarding and farming technology. But not tonight.
Or maybe it’s all just a good excuse to get pissed.
As the younger children start to file out home, happy and tired, the Fallen Apples take the stage and do a brief soundcheck, West Country style:
Harmonica player (blasts a note): Z’at sound oroight?
Guitar (strums a chord): Z’at sound oroight?
Bass (plays a few notes): Z’at sound oroight?
Audience: cheers, and then before the cheers have chance to die down, the band launches into something so stupidly bluegrass-catchy that there’s a moshpit where families were standing only seconds before. Cider flies through the air in golden arcs. The farmyard mud is stamped into submission.
It’s late by the time they finish their set, but over in the big barn, the Skimmity Hitchers are just getting going. These are the kings of the genre known as ‘Scrumpy & Western,’ possibly because they invented it. In the hands of these funnier, modern day Wurzels (a band they’ve supported), My Girl Lollipop becomes My Girl Cider Cup, and Ring of Fire becomes, well:
I drank down a lovely point of cider
It went down, down, down and my smile it grew wider
And I yearns, yearns, yearns,
For a pint o’ cider
For a pint o’ cider
By the time Monkey Man is somehow impossibly improved by its mutation into Badger Man, and a fully-grown man in a badger costume takes centre-stage, the audience has abandoned its earlier moderation. Everyone, myself included, has their own two-litre carton of Jungle Juice hooked over one thumb. Plastic glasses long since hurled through the air, we drink straight from the spout.
As the set nears its end, the audience reaction, while enthusiastic, sounds strangely incomplete. Then I work out what it is: people are too drunk to clap.
One of the nice things about this wassail is that it requires no crowd control. By midnight, the crowd is simply too wankered to carry on, and everyone makes their way home happily, haphazardly, with wide, warm grins on their faces.
But that’s not the best thing about wassailing. The best thing is simply that it’s here, it happens. Wassail simply sticks up two fingers to the most depressing time of the year. It says, yes, I know party season is over, but we’re going to have a party anyway, a really big party, and we’re going to hold it in a farmyard, in the middle of winter, and it’s going to be really good.
And while I’ll admit it might be the drink talking, I can think of no more laudable triumph of the human spirit.