Adam Henson: Rural rituals in the Cotswolds during the winter chill

Wassailing at The Fleece Inn, Bretforton, Worcestershire

Wassailing at The Fleece Inn, Bretforton, Worcestershire - Credit: Candia McKormack

Adam Henson: It’s no wonder that our farming ancestors brightened up the short, dark midwinter days with all sorts of rituals and entertainment

Mummers in Exeter

Mummers in Exeter - Credit: Archant

We’re bracing ourselves for the worst of the winter weather right now. January is usually the coldest time of the year and when you live and work at 1,000 feet above sea-level, you know all about it. It’s the month when hard frosts, widespread ice and deep snow are pretty much the order of the day.

It’s no wonder that our farming ancestors brightened up the short, dark midwinter days with all sorts of rituals and entertainment. Some of it had its roots in old agricultural customs, some in ancient paganism and a lot seemed to be just a good excuse for a bit of a party. But what is fascinating is that quite a number of these age-old rural events are being revived all over Gloucestershire.

Take for instance Twelfth Night. It isn’t just the time to bring the Christmas decorations down; in the traditional agricultural calendar it was the last opportunity for farm labourers to make merry before their employers expected them to return to work. That’s the reason that the first working day after Twelfth Night became known as Plough Monday. It’s when the workers paraded through their local villages and performed songs or plays in the street. They also tried to get money from passing members of the public as a way of boosting their income at a difficult time of year. This sort of festivity and mischief-making died out around the time of the First World War. But recently there’s been renewed interest in it. This year the Gloucestershire Morris Men will be taking part in a Plough Monday Feast and the day before, several Cotswold villages will bring decorated ploughs into their parish churches for special services.

Morris sides also take part in mumming. This is an odd-looking, and often very loud, morality play which again has its origins in rural England. It’s a cross between country dancing and pantomime with Father Christmas, Saint George and a quack doctor normally making an appearance in a story about good triumphing over evil.

Even better known is the orchard tradition of wassail. In cider counties like Gloucestershire and Herefordshire, revellers gather to drink, sing and circle the apple trees. Bread is placed on the branches and sometimes a shotgun is fired in to the air. It’s a way of frightening off the ‘demons’ and ensuring the trees thrive to produce a bountiful crop. Hundreds of years ago, wassailers probably believed they were actually warding off evil spirits but in the villages where it happens today, it’s seen as a social event and a bit of a novelty. The word wassail is old English for ‘good health’ and it actually means three different things. Wassail can refer to the actual event, as well as the hot mulled cider that is passed round and also the traditional song that’s performed. The song itself differs from place to place and there are versions from Buckland, Bisley, Woodchester and Ampney Crucis, among many others. But the best-known lyrics belong to the Gloucestershire Wassail. The song dates from medieval times and begins:

Stroud Wassail 2015 / photo:

Stroud Wassail 2015 / photo: - Credit: Archant

Wassail! Wassail! all over the town

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Our toast it is white and our ale it is brown;

Our bowl it is made of the white maple tree;

With the wassailing bowl, we’ll drink to thee.

This year Stroud will be holding its first festival based around the wassail tradition. The organisers have really done their research because they’ve included a character dressed as the mock bull which used to accompany wassailers in the South Cotswolds. It symbolised the farming lives of the people taking part and the livestock they tended. I think revivals like these are terrific. Obviously they’re great fun, but in a busy, modern world, they also serve as an entertaining way to reconnect us with the land, nature and agriculture.