How apple wassailing in Derbyshire became a New Year tradition
- Credit: Richard Bradley
Richard Bradley discovers an ancient January tradition adopted from our friends in the south.
Apple wassailing is traditionally more synonymous with the cider-producing counties of the south-west: Somerset, Dorset, Devon, Gloucestershire and Herefordshire.
However, as Derbyshire’s best-known folk tradition, well dressing, has in recent years sprung up in places as far afield as Holywell (Cambridgeshire), Ashwell (Hertfordshire) and Kemsing (Kent), it seems only fair we import a Southern custom in return.
In essence, wassailing is a ritual performed in January in an orchard, designed to ensure a successful crop of apples in the forthcoming year.
Anyone who has seen the 1973 British folk horror film The Wicker Man will be relieved to hear there is no human sacrifice involved – although it does traditionally involve a shotgun.
The first Derbyshire wassail I attended back in 2017 (and again the following year) was at Inkerman Park, tucked away behind a row of cottages off Ashgate Road, in Chesterfield.
It is a green space surrounded by houses, but one which could only be in Chesterfield, as peeping over the rooftops can be seen the town’s familiar landmark (and source of several colourful folk legends), The Crooked Spire.
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Over a different set of rooftops, plumes of white smoke billow into the winter air from a large chimney belonging to some kind of industrial enterprise, of which there were once many in this neck of the woods.
The park has only been a recreational space since the 1970s. It's hard to visualise today, but in the early 20th century, this was the location of a jumble of various manufacturing operations, including a coal mine, clay pit, quarry, brickworks with its own light railway, and pottery.
The ‘Wasp Nest’ brickworks was sited here, and the park is still known locally as ‘The Wasp’s Nest’. ‘My house is built of Wasp’s Nest bricks’, Shirley Niblock - local councillor and Morris dancer - tells me.
Shirley, energetic secretary of the Friends of Inkerman Park, is the mastermind behind the Park’s annual mid-January Wassail event, which began in 2012: ‘It was a way of getting people into the park at this time of the year and promoting the space - there’s £3,500 worth of playground equipment here’.
A stall underneath a small gazebo at the entrance to the park is selling hot mulled cider and apple juice, homemade cakes and flapjack in exchange for donations to the park funds.
Kicking off proceedings are the Cock and Magpie Morris, of which Shirley is a member, named after the two birds who prop up the shield on Chesterfield’s coat of arms.
Their heraldic presence on the town’s arms stems from the name of the inn on Whittington Moor, The Cock and Pynot (‘pynot’ being an archaic local folk dialect name for a magpie).
This innocuous building has national significance as it was here in 1688 that three local noblemen met to plot the overthrow of James II - nowadays the building is the small museum known as Revolution House.
After the dancing, song sheets are handed out and we are invited to move into the park and surround the trees.
Four fruit (a mixture of apple and plum) trees funded by Transition Chesterfield were planted in 2010 by the Park's Friends body and pupils from the nearby Old Hall School. They were joined by a further ten apple trees in 2013.
Small groups assemble around each tree, a mixture of spectators and the colourfully-clad Morris team.
A wassailing song is sung before a short ode is chanted, beginning, ‘Old apple tree we wassail thee, and hoping thou would bear’.
At one point everyone is asked to doff their hats to the trees, culminating in giving them three cheers. The thinking seems to be showing the trees respect will help ensure a fruitful harvest.
Traditionally, at the climax of a wassail, shotguns are fired into the trees to scare away any evil spirits present who might be tempted to tamper with the forthcoming year's apple crop.
At the Inkerman Park Wassail, this has been charmingly downsized to firing party poppers, distributed to the crowd into the branches.
Following this mutedly explosive climax, the gazebo is quickly dismantled and the park quietly empties, leaving only the image of a dozen apple trees, their branches festooned with party popper streamers fluttering in the January breeze.
The Inkerman Wassail has now lapsed, which is a shame as it provided a fun and slightly surreal alternative to a more traditional wassail.
Shirley explained to me, ‘Cock and Magpie have now retired from dancing - too many knee, shoulder and hip problems, and the Inkerman Park has stopped the wassail as there was a lack of numbers last time, so you witnessed it at its best’ – the event’s swansong being 2019.
A more traditional wassailing event can be found in the Amber Valley, where The Holly Bush Inn at Makeney, near Belper, hold their annual wassail on a Sunday in mid-January.
Many Derbyshire’s customs I attend and profile in Derbyshire Life have such ancient origins it is impossible to say quite how, why and when they began.
In spite of the fact the Holly Bush wassail has been taking place for less than a decade, there is still some confusion as to exactly when it began.
When I attended in 2019, there was some debate over this between officiator Alan Squires and the assembled crowd of pub regulars.
Alan claimed 2019 marked the third year of the ceremony, suggesting a 2017 start date, but the crowd observed the date of 2016 was to be found on the specially commissioned wassail pot produced locally by Kilburn-based potter John Steel.
The January sun is beginning to set over the horizon as participants enter the Thistlefields Orchard, owned by the pub and located a short walk away, bathing the apple trees in a golden glow.
A small bonfire blazes in the bottom corner of the field. It feels like a scene from one of the Scandinavian countries, which is apt as the Oxford English Dictionary reckons ‘wassail’ is a corruption of the Old Norse salutation ves heill, roughly translating as ‘good health’ or ‘good fortune’.
Master of Ceremonies Alan – clad in shorts, t-shirt and ribboned hat in spite of it being the depths of midwinter – is our guide through the various elements of the traditional wassail ceremony.
Firstly, a similar ode to that recited at Inkerman is chanted. A wassailing song with impressive harmonies is then sung by a small bunch of folk singers.
During the singing the three-handled wassail pot is passed around and the spiced cider made with last year’s crop of Thistledown apples sampled – unfortunately I was so busy taking photos of the proceedings I didn’t get chance to try any, as it ran out!
The crowd are then invited to approach the apple trees and gently beat them with sticks to knock out any insects, bugs and pests they may be harbouring.
A cacophony is then produced to frighten away bad spirits, with instrumentation including drums, triangle, bells and a bulb horn, culminating traditionally with a climactic shotgun volley fired by Tim Sutton.
Bread soaked in cider is placed in the branches of the trees (as Alan points out, this part of the ritual may have a slightly more rational grounding than other elements, as the bread attracts robins who will eat any interfering insects resident in the trees).
To conclude, Alan pours a libation of cider from the wassail pot at the base of one of the tree trunks.
As the last dying embers of sunlight fade, the merry party troop back to the pub (said to be one of the oldest inns in Derbyshire) where celebrations continue with a communal folk music session, Wassail Cake – and, of course, lashings of more cider.