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Wassailers keeping tradition alive with toast, cider and songs

By Western Morning News  |  Posted: January 24, 2013

Kathy Wallis pours cider on to one of the apple trees in the orchard at Higher Westcott to the sound of drumming

Kathy Wallis pours cider on to one of the apple trees in the orchard at Higher Westcott to the sound of drumming

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A rural custom with its origins in pre-Christian times was re-enacted in the East Cornwall parish of Linkinhorne at the weekend.

Wassailing, which was traditionally carried out to ensure a rich fruit harvest, has taken place during midwinter for centuries.

Historian Kathy Wallis, who organised the Linkinhorne event, said her group of wassailers follow an account written in the early-19th century by a Cornish vicar, the Reverend Richard Polwhele. He wrote: "The custom of saluting the apple trees is still preserved both in Cornwall and Devonshire.

"In some places the parishioners walk in procession, visiting the principal orchards in the parish. In each orchard they single out the principal tree, salute it with a certain form of words and sprinkle it with cyder or dash a bowl of cyder against it.

"In other places, the farmer and his workmen immerse cakes in cyder and place them on the branches of an apple tree and, in due solemnity, sprinkle the tree."

Kathy, who has undertaken extensive research into the medieval manor of Rillaton for Linkinhorne History and Community Archive, said: "Our ceremony follows Polwhele's description as closely as possible. We use toast dipped in mulled cider to sprinkle on the trees and we also leave toast in the trees. This year we visited trees in Rilla Mill, Higher Westcott and Rillaton."

The Linkinhorne wassailers followed their visits to parish orchards with an evening of song, music and the performance of a traditional mummers play.

"As part of our research into Rillaton Manor we found a reference to a payment of thruppence halfpenny to mummers, which shows that as far back as the late 1780s they came visiting here at midwinter," said Kathy. "That's why, as part of the wassail supper, we put on a local mummers play."

The wassail was one of several taking place across the region over the weekend. And while each varied according to the tradition of a particular village or area, participants were united in raising a glass to the toast of "wassail" – or "be thee hale" – to the coming year.

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