Topsham goes a wassailing

Greg Towning

Greg Towning

In the orchard dark we muster
North Wind whistles through the Northwood tree
Gather Topsham, Sing and rattle
We’ll bring cider back to thee.

Topsham Wassail Song by Adrian Wynn

Topsham, Devon January 21, 2009 To be honest, it was a pretty horrid mid-January night, though it could have much worse, with the torrential rains that had been forecast just about holding off. Deep mid-winter (traditionally the old Twelfth Night, 16 January) is the time of year in the West Country to wassail the apple orchards. This ritual, which apparently was last done in Topsham in 1936, probably stems from the pagan belief that plants will grow more fruitfully if the beneficial spirits are encouraged and the evil ones frightened away.

The evening began in The Globe where about 25 or so had gathered at the invitation of Alastair Mumford, Lizzie, and Greg Towning, Topsham’s local brewer. After a quick cider (delicious Heron Valley Organic) and some hot apple fritters prepared for the wassailers by Liz (thank you very much!), we made our way up Globefield, led by Adrian on the accordion as we sang the Wassail Processional:

Wassail, Wassail, all over the town,
Our bread it is white and ale it is brown;
Our bowl it is made of the green maple tree;
In the Wassail bowl we’ll drink unto thee.

We stopped first by the railway embankment on Holman Way where Ian Jay had recently planted a pear tree. Here the Wassail Queens – Bella, Polly and Gemma, wearing splendid branched hats made by Lizzie – poured cider on the roots of the small tree to encourage growth and fertility and tied some cider soaked toast in the branches for the good fairies, while we banged pots and pans to frighten away the evil. We sang, and, why not, had another nip of cider ourselves for good measure. After such loving and careful treatment, we fully expect to return next year to find that this small tree has shot up in size and bears a bounteous crop of delicious fruit.


Here's to thee, old apple tree,
That blooms well, bears well.
Hat fulls, caps full, three bushel bags full,
An' all under one tree.

We carried on our way, singing the Processional again, up to Grove Hill where we gathered in Bob Andrew’s garden around some old apple trees. Alastair had prepared some mulled cider, hot and nicely spiced, and Lizzie passed around pieces of a delicious apple cake that she had made for the occasion. Mark and Leslie Hodgson offered a toast for the spirits. The Wassail Queens once more tied cider soaked toast to the trees, then liberally poured more cider around the base of each tree ('but not too much,' said Alastair to the girls, 'no point in giving it all to the trees'), while we continued to drink, sing and bang.

Wassail queens

Wassail queens Bella, Polly and Gemma enjoy some mulled cider after their exertions

Job done, Topsham’s orchards both literally as well as symbolically wassailed, we made our way next to The Bridge Inn. There, in the comfort of the old Malt Room, we – well, what else is there to do on a wassail? – drank more cider (a particularly potent brew called Rumdiddlydum or something like that - apparently it's aged in old rum casks),  sang (or in my case tried to sing), and generally just chewed the fat.

All in all, Topsham’s first wassail for, what, more than 70 years, was a great success. A longstanding and traditional link with the land was re-established; a drink that has long been part of Devon’s heritage was copiously enjoyed; and a seasonal ritual that marks the transition from the dead of winter to the fertile rebirth of spring was celebrated joyously.

Alastair would like the Topsham Wassail to become an annual event. Who knows, he said, perhaps it might lead to the creation of a communal Topsham orchard. Freddie Dudbridge suggested that this could possibly work with the Slow Food Orchard Project that aims to safeguard heritage orchard fruit and seeks to work to re-establish forgotten varieties native to a particular region.

West Country cider made from our distinctive bittersweet and bittersharp cider apples is most definitely a vital part of our Devon heritage. Let’s hope that our symbolic wassailing of the apple trees of Topsham helps to result in a bumper crop next year.

We hope that your apple trees prosper and bear
So we may have cider when we call next year
And where you’ve one barrel, we hope you’ll have ten
So we can have cider when we call again.

And it’s our Wassail, your Wassail
Joy come to our jolly Wassail


For the robins


The Globe Hotel

Heron Valley Cider

Lizzie's Apple Cake

The Bridge Inn

Slow Food Orchard Project

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