Apple trees celebrated in traditional wassail in Sidmouth

PUBLISHED: 16:32 23 January 2020

Briefing for the wassail cup bearers and the toast holders. Picture: Jeff Ridge

Briefing for the wassail cup bearers and the toast holders. Picture: Jeff Ridge

Jeffrey George Ridge

Around 50 wassailers gathered in Sidmouth's community orchard in The Byes for a traditional celebration of the apple harvest on Saturday, January 18.

The Mummers' dance. Picture: Seb FitzHenryThe Mummers' dance. Picture: Seb FitzHenry

The wassail is also an occasion to bless the apple trees in the hope of a good harvest in the coming year.

The wassailers share a traditional drink, sing and dance, and make a loud noise with drums and saucepan lids to scare away any bad spirits that may be lurking.

Kati FitzHenry, of the Friends of The Byes, said: "We were delighted to collaborate with the Sid Vale Community Productions to put on this community event.

"Over 50 people came to take part and got a chance to look around the community orchard, with some of them coming for the first time. "There was a traditional story told about the apple trees, with a wassailing song (unofficially helped by some members of the Sid Vale Folk Choir - many thanks), a dance and even a play that the audience were co-opted to take part it.

The unrehearsed Echoback Mummers play. Picture: Jeff RidgeThe unrehearsed Echoback Mummers play. Picture: Jeff Ridge

"The highlight was the toast to the trees, where everyone took an apple juice soaked piece of bread, and placed it in a tree of their choice.

"It all finished with everyone making a huge noise with drums, pans, saucepan lids and trumpets."

The event was coordinated by two local residents, storyteller Janet Dowling and musician Liz Owen.

Janet said: " I've overseen wassail events before in London and Kent, and last year Liz and I did a low-key wassail for the Friends of The Byes as a thank you for all their hard work.

The Mummers' dance. Picture: Seb FitzHenryThe Mummers' dance. Picture: Seb FitzHenry

"But lots of other people came too, so this year we thought we would widen it out.

"There were more people than expected. I had just enough toast and apple juice, but run out of song sheets. We had to sing the song three times so that the wassail cup could get to everyone who wanted to take a sip."

Liz said: "Wassailing is an old tradition, some say with pre-Christian roots, but it's always been a midwinter celebration to remind people of the value of the trees, the crop and the need to look after the land.

"Even planting the toast in the trees encourages the birds that eat the insects.

The toast holders. Picture: Jeff RidgeThe toast holders. Picture: Jeff Ridge

"Because apples were a late crop, and can be stored, they were an important food source for people and their animal stock over winter."

Janet said: "It's a celebration for all faiths to come together and know more about their food crops and how the land has to be cared for.

"And the loud noises that everyone makes to 'scare the bad spirits away' is really making people aware that all plants are vulnerable to disease and that they have to be cared for.

"This is what the Friends of The Byes do, and what we had on Saturday was the coming together of strangers for a community celebration where they laughed, had fun together and maybe learned a little something about our connection with the land and the crops."

Placing the bread. Picture: Seb FitzHenryPlacing the bread. Picture: Seb FitzHenry

The Friends of The Byes are hoping to repeat the wassail next year. If you have any suggestions to add to the event you can get in touch through the Friends of The Byes page on Facebook, or contact Janet direct by emailing janettells@gmail.com or calling 07834 194215.

Fun for all the family. Picture: Seb FitzHenryFun for all the family. Picture: Seb FitzHenry

Inspecting the trees in the community orchard. Picture: Jeff RidgeInspecting the trees in the community orchard. Picture: Jeff Ridge

Janet group. Picture: Seb FitzHenryJanet group. Picture: Seb FitzHenry

Waiting for the ceremony to begin. Picture: Seb FitzHenryWaiting for the ceremony to begin. Picture: Seb FitzHenry

Group around the 'mother tree'. Picture: Seb FitzHenryGroup around the 'mother tree'. Picture: Seb FitzHenry

Giving out the bread. Picture: Seb FitzHenryGiving out the bread. Picture: Seb FitzHenry

End of the ceremony. Picture: Seb FitzHenryEnd of the ceremony. Picture: Seb FitzHenry

Getting into the spirit of the occasion. Picture: Seb FitzHenryGetting into the spirit of the occasion. Picture: Seb FitzHenry

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