Fiery sparks streamed from the torches of the villagers, lighting their faces to demony in the blowing darkness as they surged down the lane towards the village.
A lynch mob, you wonder? No, this was the first Adstock Wassail, held last weekend for the Adstockistan orchard.
First things first. Adstokistan: A community apple orchard planted and run by some wonderful people in the village, who served in Afghanistan, primarily to raise money for Afghanaid. Each tree in the orchard has been sponsored by someone in the village – half the money went towards buying the trees themselves, whilst the rest was donated to Afghanaid, where it is used to support orchards in Badakhshan province. Badakhshan has very little arable land and the people there are forced to exist on subsistence farming, so the orchards not only provide an income for farmers, but help protect the soil from erosion, preventing the deadly landslides that occur in the area.
Adstokistan itself now has 74 trees; it will be a place where people can picnic, with a purpose built shelter and there are plans to hold an Adstocktober Fest and a Wassail ever year.
Which brings me to:
A Wassail - an ancient ceremony held in orchards, to wake the trees from their midwinter sleep and wish them health and happiness for the coming season. Personally, I had only ever heard of Wassails in the context of Christmas, drinking, eating, etc etc, so this was fascinating for me, not least, because I also made my debut with Owlswick Morris Side, (we were the pagan representatives, I think) dancing dances I had never danced before, which was interesting.
The orchard lies at the top of a hill(ish), but it was a cold and stormy afternoon, so that the pastoral view of rolling fields and hedgerows was shadowed by the wind whipped winter trees and the shredded grey clouds that scudded overhead. In the midst of the orchard was a gigantic kadai (an enormous barbeque grill!) which was streaming flames into the sky and surrounded by torches. After a few morris dances and communal singing of the Wassail song, people were invited into the orchard to feed their trees with toast, soaked in cider – thus inviting birds to the tree – and a Tree Wassail was spoken:
Old apple tree, we wassail thee and hoping thou wilt bear,
Hatfuls, capfuls, three bushel-bagfuls
And a little heap under the stairs, Hip! Hip! Hooray!
After which, there was much banging of pots and pans and screaming to wake the trees and chase off evil spirits.
There followed a blessing and the lighting of the twelve torches around the kadai – making thirteen fires in all, representing Jesus and his apostles. The thirteenth fire, that of Judas, was put out (actually I think the wind blew it out before anybody else could!) before it could take hold. Then there were a couple of hymns sung, a final blessing and the villagers were invited to light their torches and head down the lane to the village hall for warm cider.
So that, my friends, is an Apple Wassail and very good it was too. I wanted to write about this, for many reasons; firstly because I am a sucker for anything old or ritualistic; secondly because I love the connection with Afghanistan – whilst never having been there myself, I have friends who have worked there and anyway, it's one of my favourite parts of the world and one that mostly gets bad press; and thirdly, because I think it's a jolly good cause and I have a lot of admiration for the people who run it.
Jo Nicholson and Danny Tomblin, two of the people involved, are both running the London Marathon to raise money for Afghanaid, so if anyone is interested in this project, please head over to this page: