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Friday, June 14, 2024


Wassail is an old Norse word for “Good Health”.

This is the season for apple trees to be wassailed by tradition on the eve of Twelfth Night, to ensure a good crop free from disease. This took place on 4th January on the old calendar, but now on the present calendar on the 16th January.

The change in our calendar resulted from an Act of Parliament in 1752 to replace the Julian Calendar, which had become inaccurate, although Britain had hung onto it far longer than most of Europe owing to protestant anti-catholic feeling. Europe in general had changed to the Gregorian Calendar in 1582. To bring the two calendars into line Britain had to lose eleven days in September 1752, the 3rd being followed by the 14th. Not surprisingly many people complained, there were riots and some believed they would lose 11 days of their life. Christmas Day was left as 25th December and Guy Fawkes Day as 5th November, although no longer a true anniversary of the earlier date.

On the 16th January you may encounter strange things going on around cider apple trees in the evening. Guns may be discharged, cans beaten like drums and of course cider-fuelled singing. Probably cider is also splashed on the trees to ensure a good crop. The Mummers and maybe the Dorset Ooser could also be at large!

Ralph Whitlock in his “Calendar of Country Customs” says that a sacred totem bird, a wren, was hunted back in the Bronze Age, to be slain and brought back to life. It is well known that Christmas decorations are traditionally removed on Twelfth Night and Ralph tells us that the Monday following is Plough Monday when sword dancing is performed. An actor playing the fool is killed by the sword dancers, who perform a mock burial. Then the ceremonial plough enters, and on its fertilizing touch the fool springs to life. All cry “Speed the plough” and it is taken to plough its first furrow, in which is laid a corn dolly. Ralph also says that ploughing, hauling, muck spreading, hedging and ditching were all abandoned during the twelve days of Christmas to be quickly restored on Plough Monday.

Ralph Whitlock gave a recipe for “Wassail Punch”: To 5 quarts dry cider, add ¼ teaspoon grated nutmeg, 7 tablespoons brown sugar, 3 sliced oranges, ¼ grated cinnamon, 4 cloves and heat until almost boiling. Pour into a bowl and add 2 bananas thinly sliced. Too good to splash on trees!

Our late friend, Leonard Studley, in his book My Story quotes Thomas Hardy on Great Things—“Sweet Cider is a sweet thing, A great thing to me. Spinning down to Weymouth Town, By Ridgway thirstily!”.

Leonard says Thomas Hardy evidently liked a drop o’ cider and goes on to talk about “Scrumpy”. “You had to have some cider, callers expected to be offered a drink and of course “strappers” were enticed to help with haymaking if you could be liberal with the cider”. The Studleys had no apple mill or cider press of their own and went to a friend’s “wring house” to make “them up there”. His father would go again before bedtime to give the “cheese” another squeeze or two and Leonard would carry the lantern. He liked the new sweet cider, but his mother didn’t like him to drink too much of it as “it had the same effect as a dose of salts”. Cider contributed much to the smooth running of a farm—it “oiled the wheels” and if someone overindulged he was said to be “well oiled”.

To make cider first the apples were pulped in the apple mill between granite rollers turned by hand with a heavy wooden flywheel on each side. This was hard work. Occasionally a beetroot would be pulped with apples, “twould improve the colour of the cider”. No metal was allowed in contact with the apple juice as “twould turn it black”. Lead poisoning was discovered when lead vessels were used with cider in the 17th century in the West Country.

After pulping the pulped apple four or five inches thick was laid on a bed of clean straw on the press bed with a good overlap of straw all round and pulled up over the edge of the pulp, like an envelope. Another layer of straw followed, then apple pulp, then straw and so on. When complete it was called a cheese. The press was then carefully screwed down until the golden liquid began to flow. The cider was collected in a tub under the lip of the press and as it filled poured into a cask, not corked and allowed to ferment over for a few days. Sometimes raisins were added to sweeten and “feed the brew”. Leonard wrote that he had heard of a piece of raw beef being placed in the barrel, but he had not seen it done, but they said “cider will eat beef”. When I was a boy a Devon lad said that no one worried if a rat fell into the large tubs used there, but we were not sure if he was joking.

Bridport History Society meet to open the New Year on Tuesday 12th January at 2.30 pm in the United Church Main Hall, East Street, Bridport with a talk about women workers on strike in Bridport, photographed by a local man and told by a modern photographer.


Cecil Amor, President Bridport History Society.

Tel: 01308-456876

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