2016, Bodmin, Bodmin Wassail, cider, Cornish Orchards, Cornwall, Cornwall Today, Festivals, Folk Music, Heritage, January, Kernow, Lostwithiel, music, Performance, Pub singing, Pubs, Redruth, Revived tradition, Shout Kernow, Singing, Twelfth Night, Wassail
For the uninitiated, the notion of Wassailing might conjure up images of pagan revelry and mystical customs. And with the word itself having Nordic roots – the old Norse “ves heil” and old English “was hál” mean “be you healthy”, some people believe that it doesn’t have a place in Cornish culture. But in Cornish, it’s known as “Wassel” and has been practiced in Bodmin and other parts of Cornwall for centuries. And there are groups of very enthusiastic Wassailers who’ll tell you why it’s a really important – and very Cornish – custom.
My first encounter with Wassailing was many years ago on a December evening in the Globe at Lostwithiel. I was treated to my first experience of pub singing in Cornwall, a worthy and highly enjoyable living tradition much feted in towns and villages across the Duchy and the subject of Hilary Coleman and Sally Burley’s recent book, “Shout Kernow”. On this particular occasion we had in our company a local male voice choir (who, in order to protect their reputations, shall remain nameless), and they delighted us with a very lusty performance of the Bodmin Wassail song, possibly enhanced by the numerous pints of excellent Cornish ale they’d downed beforehand.
There are in fact at least three official Cornish Wassail songs and the tradition can be practiced in two ways depending on whether you’re in a town or the countryside. The “town” Wassailing is a form of caroling where a group of “Wassailers” visits from house to house with a large Wassail bowl, singing carols and collecting various alcoholic (or monetary) contributions to the bowl. The countryside or “orchard” Wassail refers to the ancient custom of going out into the dormant apple orchards with lights and anything that makes a loud noise in order to scare off the evil spirits and ensure a good harvest of fruit that year. It’s also customary to choose one special apple tree to symbolize all the others and to treat it to a little libation of apple juice or cider while saying a prayer or incantation to further encourage the orchard to deliver a bounty of apples.
Wassailing usually takes place on or around Twelfth Night, but last November the Redruth Wassail was resurrected by the Cornish Culture Association after an absence of generations as part of the Redruth Christmas Festival, and at Cotehele House they hold an orchard Wassail every December.
But in Bodmin, according to town records, Wassailing has been a part of the town’s life since 1624. Each year on 6th January (or the 5th, if the 6th falls on a Sunday), a group of men known as the Bodmin Wassailers make their way around the town singing Wassail songs to the locals. They dress in top hat and tails, smart outfits comprised of “gentlemen’s hand-me-downs” – clothes acquired from the local gentry and passed down from one Wassailer to another over the decades. They begin by wassailing the Mayor in the Shire Hall at 12 noon, and then across the afternoon visit private houses, and the main street of Bodmin, several pubs then finishing late in the evening at the Hole In the Wall pub.
The songs are full of poignant memories of another time but are kept alive by the practice. Years ago, one of the Bodmin Wassailers, Charlie Wilson, suddenly sang a little Wassail song, saying he had learnt it in St Columb Boys’ Home in 1910. It is possible that it was the original St Columb Wassail song. Two years after he shared it, he died. Peter Marlow, who has sung with the Wassailers for over forty years and is joined in the Wassailing by his son Will, now proudly sings this song. Peter shared with me how it feels to go out into the streets of Bodmin on Twelfth Night. “It’s just incredible, the adrenaline runs so high – and you’ve got to bear in mind that we’re stepping out in the footsteps of Bodmin men over hundreds of years. It’s a great honour”. Peter can also testify to how welcome a small glass of whisky is after nearly ten hours of Wassailing, and the Bodmin Wassailers look forward to serenading members of the community on 6th January, 2016. There’s also an altruistic aspect to this celebration – any monetary – as opposed to alcohol – collections taken will be donated to Cornish charities.
Fifteen years ago, Andy Atkinson, a dairy farmer from South East Cornwall, foresaw the decline of the dairy industry and decided to sell his herd in favour of setting up an apple juice and cider business. This became Cornish Orchards, still situated on the Westnorth Manor Farm in Duloe. One of Andy’s most inspired decisions was to create a spiced cider, which he called “Wassail”. It’s a brew of cider, apple juice and an infusion of fresh oranges and spices, and served warm it’s as delicious as it sounds.
Andy said “Our Wassail Mulled Cider is a firm favourite at this time of year. Our cider makers here at the farm take great enjoyment and pride in blending newly pressed apple juice with aromatic spices and cider, using traditional techniques.” I can attest from significant experience that the Cornish Orchards Wassail is worth a try; if you’re in a hurry, you can gently warm it in a sneaky mug in the microwave (1 minute is plenty, don’t want to evaporate too much of the alcohol!) or if you’re having guests (or just still feeling festive), warm it in a saucepan on the hob and serve it in a red wine glass. Perfect with a leftover mince pie and a dollop of Cornish clotted cream.
Of course at Cornwall Today we advocate the responsible serving of alcohol, and other excellent mulled ciders and wintry drinks are available, but this will always be my favourite. It’s available online (if you really like it, try the bag in box version, it lasts for 12 weeks!) or do yourself a favour and visit the farm shop in Duloe – don’t forget to make yourself known to Margaret who works in the shop and is one of the loveliest people you’ll ever meet.
I can’t think of a better accompaniment to fine singing and the company of good friends, whether walking through the streets of Bodmin or crashing pans through the fields, scaring away evil spirits and who knows what else.
At a glance:
The Bodmin Wassail
6th January, 2016
The Cornish Culture Association
© Sally Bell 2016
Originally published in Cornwall Today www.cornwalltoday.co.uk
With thanks to the Bodmin Wassailers and Cornish Orchards for the use of images.