Wassail, Drink Ale!!!


Down a quiet country lane in the village of Torbryan, Devon lies the charming Old Church House Inn.  It’s one of Devon’s oldest inns and dates from the 13th century. It’s a proper pub complete with beams, roaring fires, good music and great people.  It’s reputably haunted by the ghost of a monk (we’ve stayed there a few times but sadly never saw him) and there is apparently an underground tunnel to the church across the road.  The Inn boasts one of England’s oldest bread ovens and a panel retrieved from a ship of the Spanish Armada. Incidentally, the Holy Trinity Church which is directly across the road from the Inn houses and organ which my great great grandfather build and installed in the 1860s.

Every year The Old Church House Inn hosts the Wassailing ceremony. Typically held on the 12th night of the year (this year the ceremony was held on 9th January). The purpose of Wassailing is to awaken the apple trees, drive away evil spirits and ensure a good harvest in the fall.  And if you live in Devon you know how important that is!

The word wassail derives from the Old English words wæs hæil which means ‘be healthy’ or ‘be whole’. The Wassailing ceremony begins after dark with traditional dances performed by the Beltane Border Dancers. The group leader leads the procession with torches lit, carrying sticks (to make noise) and the wassailing cup (filled with cider) to the orchard. Though this year due to the amount of rain, we had to stand on the road beside the orchard.

The ceremony begins with the oldest tree in the orchard being serenaded with traditional “wake up” chants, rhymes and speeches.

Health to thee, good apple tree,
Well to bear pockets fulls, hat fulls,
Peck fulls, bushel bag fulls.

The trees are then beaten about the trunk (or any branches within reach) to begin the process of waking up the tree enabling the sap to flow up the trunk as well as scaring off any evil spirits which may be lurking in the tree’s branches. The Wassail Queen places bread soaked in the wassailing cup as a gift to the tree. The Wassail cup is then passed around for all to share. To finish the ceremony we all sing the Carhampton Wassail song (shouting the last verse and making as much noise as possible).

The Carhampton Wassail Song

Old apple tree, we wassail thee,
And hoping thou wilt bear
For the Lord doth know where we shall be
Come apples another year.
For to bear well, and to bloom well
So merry let us be,
Let every man take off his hat,
And shout out to the old apple tree.
Old apple tree, we wassail thee,
And hoping thou wilt bear
Hatfuls! Cupfuls! Three bushel bagsful!
And a little heap under the stairs.
Hip, Hip Horray!
Hip, Hip Horray!
Hip, Hip Horray!

We all then head back to the Pub for more dances and then inside for some amazing traditional music performed by members of the group.
Nights like this are what made me want to move to England. I have never felt more English then when I am sitting in a centuries old pub listening to songs from long ago. Pure magic.

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