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Community Wassail marks the revival of centuries-old tradition

Wadebridge Life content writer Emma Eccles finds out more...

If you happened to look up to the hills high above Wadebridge and the River Camel early on Friday afternoon, you may have been lucky enough to catch a glimpse of a centuries-old tradition being revived to mark the start of an exciting new project!

Camel Community Supported Agriculture (Camel CSA) celebrated the planting of their new orchard with a Wassailing ceremony at their site at Treraven Farm. Whilst the Wassail is in itself centuries-old, the orchard here is an entirely new venture, and the community-veg growing scheme decided to adopt the old tradition to bless and celebrate the establishment and planting of the first of 37 trees on the project.

Hailing from the Anglo-Saxon phrase “waes hael” which means “good health”, this Twelfth Night tradition has Pagan roots and is thought to have begun as early as the 12th century in the cider producing regions of England. The ritual of Wassailing was historically a part of the new year celebrations and involved visiting orchards, reciting incantations, and singing to the health of the trees to promote a good harvest for the coming year. Part of the ritual involved much drinking of warm spiced cider, perry or ale, and generally making very merry!

On the afternoon of Friday 6th January, the group gathered to celebrate the first of the fruit trees being planted, with guests including volunteers, donors and sponsors of Camel CSA and as a Wassail newbie, I was keen to see what it was all about!

'Wassail King' and scheme volunteer Nick Roberts was to be our Master of Ceremonies, and had dressed for the occasion in black tie and wellies (well, it is early January in Cornwall!). Guests were invited to don an ivy coronet, made by some of the volunteers’ fair hands, and these certainly added to the magical and Shakespearean 'Twelfth Night' feeling!

An accordion (played by Camel CSA volunteer Kevin Everett) struck up, singing began, and we ambled down to the soon-to-be orchard for the Wassail to commence. Gathering around a freshly dug hole, we looked on as Cornwall Councillor Martyn Alvey, Lead on Environment and Climate Change, was introduced by Camel CSA project Chair, Charlotte Barry, and invited to plant and therefore formally establish the orchard with its first tree – a Cornish Kea Plum.

The tree was soon in position, upright, its roots well covered with earth, and it was time for the Wassail King to address us at the inaugural orchard awakening. I’m sure many of us have been to a tree planting before (Councillors, more than most!), and are therefore very familiar with the procedure, but we were getting to the bit that I was most curious about. As we all stood listening keenly, he asked for the orchard to awaken, to bring happiness, health and a good harvest for the years to come, finally asking the spirit of the orchard to awaken and to awaken the trees, to which we all shouted “Awaken!” three times. He then invited us to make as much noise as we could, and the pots, pans, bells and tins we’d been given upon arrival for these ends were hammered, banged and clanged to make an almighty noise, which echoed out across the Camel Valley!

The new tree was adorned with pieces of toast to attract the friendly spirits, and perhaps even a bird or two! As we wandered back up to the veg packing shed, as is traditional in Cornwall at this time of year we were treated to some fine Cornish mizzle, adding to authenticity with its seasonal timing, though not dampening spirits!

There’s a long history of Wassailing in north and east Cornwall, indeed almost every farm in the Camel Valley would likely have kept a flourishing orchard at one point. However, over the centuries as agriculture moved to a more industrial scale, and apple production became perhaps more homogenised with a shift to buying our apple fruits from overseas, such local orchards were lost. It is therefore all the more poignant that Camel Community Supported Agriculture have chosen to reconnect with a tradition of old that fits inherently with their organisation’s ethos of seasonality, sustainability, and nature-friendly farming practices – after all, the Wassail is about respect for the land, the plants, and for nature, and seeks to thank and bless the trees for the fruits they bear.

Donated by the Forest for Cornwall programme, the trees include some Cornish apple varieties such as Tregonna King and the evocatively named Pigs Nose, along with some additional fruit varieties. It’s hoped that the orchard will provide additional harvest crops for the 80 weekly veg boxes Camel CSA currently provide as part of their subscription scheme.

As we stood afterwards and chatted over cups of apple juice, and wedges of homemade Cornish apple cake, I was struck by how the new orchard and the Camel CSA had already laid down some substantial roots – each face there belonged to someone who has been involved in some way in the scheme and its evolution, and you could say it’s already bearing fruit!

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