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The origins of the tradition of wassailing in Dorset

The torchlit procession through the orchards during last year's Wassail. (Photo: Supplied by purbeckcidercompany.co.uk)
The torchlit procession through the orchards during last year's Wassail. (Photo: Supplied by purbeckcidercompany.co.uk)

Established in 2007 by Joe Hartle, The Purbeck Cider Company is an independent craft cider producer located in the heart of the Isle of Purbeck. This family run business makes cider from 100% single pressed British apples, including heritage cider varieties specific to Dorset - such as Woodbine, Golden Ball and Tom Putt - grown in our Purbeck orchards. Our current cider line-up includes Purbeck Character Ciders such as Joe’s Farmhouse Dry, Purbeck Pirate, Muddy Scamp and Posh Spice (mulled cider); the Dorset Range, including Dorset Draft, Dorset Blush and Purbeck No. 10, and Forgotten Orchard showcasing single variety heritage apples such as Dabinett.

In 2021 Joe and his wife Kate opened the Dorset Cider Farm at Lower Bushey Farm, just off the Studland Road near Corfe Castle (look for signs to the farm). This new HQ for The Purbeck Cider Company has a pressing room, tap room and shop where you can sample our cider range. You can also walk the main orchard and take in the far-reaching views across to Corfe Castle. As well as using traditional cider apple varieties, we are keen to honour the traditions that surround cider making, none more so than the January wassail.

Great British Life: The Dorset range and the Forgotten Orchard range. (Photo: Supplied by purbeckcidercompany.co.uk)The Dorset range and the Forgotten Orchard range. (Photo: Supplied by purbeckcidercompany.co.uk)

The History of Wassailing

The term wassail, from the Anglo-Saxon salutation ‘waes hael’ meaning ‘in good health’, has strong pagan roots. The wassail ceremony includes a wassail drink, in the past this contained all manner of ingredients from ginger and nutmeg to curdled cream, roasted apples and even eggs; these days it tends to be spiced cider, perry or ale. The wassail was held on Twelfth Night, which marks the end of the Christmas feasting (though these days they are held anytime in January). People would drink from a large communal wassail bowl; this was often ornate, even lined with gold or silver. Many rituals, some predating Christianity, are associated with the wassail including mumming – a somewhat ridiculous but fun play where men and women swap clothes and don masks.

Wassailing the apple tree is documented from the 14th century, but it almost certainly would have been performed much earlier. Local villagers and farm workers would visit the orchards on Twelfth Night, after dark, banging pots and pans and singing loudly to scare off any bad spirits lurking in the trees. Then they would ask the trees for a good harvest in the coming year, and some of the wassail drink would be poured upon the roots of one of the trees. This was generally followed by a cider-fuelled knees up around the fire!

Great British Life: One of the Wessex Morris men who performs at the Wassail. (Photo: Supplied by purbeckcidercompany.co.uk)One of the Wessex Morris men who performs at the Wassail. (Photo: Supplied by purbeckcidercompany.co.uk)

The Dorset Cider Farm Wassail

Now in its third year, our traditional wassail has proved to be a great success, bringing together the local community in celebration of the orchards. The wassail is held in the depths of January. Guests are welcomed with a steaming mug of our mulled cider and the smell of fire pits fills the frosty night air. The Morris team and band begin the festivities with their merry dancing and music. The local Mummers then take the stage performing their traditional mumming play before leading the audience in a torchlit procession to our orchard. Everyone circles the chosen central tree to sing wassailing songs, perform the age-old blessing giving thanks for the previous year and welcoming the new, we also make a huge bang and clatter to ward off the evil spirits. It is a truly magical evening that honours this ancient English tradition as well as the history of our own orchards. It is believed that England’s first cider orchards were cultivated in Dorset, mentioned in the Doomsday book (1086), just a stone’s throw from our Purbeck cider house!

purbeckcidercompany.co.uk

Great British Life: The Wassail ceremony and blessing around the chosen tree in our orchard. (Photo: Supplied by purbeckcidercompany.co.uk)The Wassail ceremony and blessing around the chosen tree in our orchard. (Photo: Supplied by purbeckcidercompany.co.uk)



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