On 17th/18th January across Somerset (and these days, as far afield as America) Old Twelfth Night is celebrated with the wassailing of the apple orchards – from which the famous Somerset cider is made. A libation of cider is poured on the roots of the oldest tree, chosen to represent the Apple Tree Man. The tree is ‘toasted’ with toast soaked in the Wassail bowl – usually an alcoholic concoction. The Bad Spirits are banished with loud noises and the Good Spirits welcomed in with Wassail carols and general merriment. It’s a great community event encouraging people to connect with the land and its natural cycles.
I managed to miss two such events on Saturday – it was lashing down by the evening, which didn’t make the prospect that enticing, even to a ‘hard-core’ apple wassailer. I had also been invited to a 60th birthday celebration to perform, but I still felt a little disappointed to miss out, especially since I was looking forward to seeing the Weston Mummers. But I made up for it the next day – it felt like a very different world. The storm had blown itself out and there were patches of blue sky aboive, spring shoots pushing through below. What really thrilled me was the prospect of going for a spin on my recently repaired bike (I finally got it back on Friday after two months of nightmarish entanglements). I got suited and booted and, checking everything over, took the bike on one of my favourite short blats – to Stoney Littleton long barrow. The narrow lanes were strewn with storm detritus and flooded in parts, so it was a good back lane test of my riding skills. I got there okay and enjoyed the walk up to the barrow in the sunlight. I ventured inside the ancient Neolithic ‘tomb/womb’, crawling to the very end chamber. There I crouched in the dripping darkness – savouring its anonymous shadow, silence and stillness, before emerging ‘reborn’ and ready for what the new year may bring. It felt like a symbolic enactment of my ‘Underworld’ journey of the last year – a difficult year for many, by all accounts. With a flurry of personal good news last week, it felt like that had finally come to an end and the new cycle was beginning; the Bad Spirits had been banished – and thank goodness!
This is happening on a grand scale tomorrow with the inauguration of the new President of the United States, Barack Hussein Obama, and it feels, with the departure of Dubya, that the world is waking up from a bad dream. I ardently hope so.
Tomorrow, humanity should rejoice at the dawn of a new era: one that proves, with enough vision and will, another world is possible.
This new ‘buzz’ seemed to be present in microcosm later when I made it over to Willsbridge Mill, Somerset Wildlife Trust’s HQ, which was holding its annual wassail. Hundreds of ‘Shire folk’ turned up – families with little ones, all wrapped up warm – to enjoy the numerous craft activities. I joined in – carving toast (to make letters of the wassail song to hang on the Apple Tree Man); making a musical shaker (to make noise); and a crown of greenery (to present to my Apple Queen later). I sat around the campfire, toasted bread and enjoyed some spread with local honey (a rare commodity, with the worrying decline in the bee population). A local primary school did some Morris-dancing, complete with hobby horse – it was lovely to see some young ‘uns doing it – they looked like little fairy folk (the Morris scene is apparently struggling to recruit new blood and is also in danger of dying out): no wonder I get accosted to join every time I watch some). A wassail queen was chosen to pour the libation, plus a princess and a ‘holly lad’ to beat the bounds. It was a charming affair, which brought a smile to my face. It felt like the first inklings of Spring, and also wonderfully Hobbity: a scene from the Party Field, beneath the Party Tree, in Hobbiton.
By riding there and back again (in the dusk) I too banished my own bad spirits, dispelling any ghosts of November. I enjoyed the freedom my wheels afforded and look forward to ride-outs this coming year.
I can’t wait to head for hills. Here’s to brighter days ahead.