Organisers were expecting a few brave souls to defy the wet winter weather, and hoped that members of the Marlborough Community Choir might boost the numbers, as well as leading the musical merrymaking.
In fact, around 200 people joined members of the Marlborough Community Orchard committee to revive the pagan tradition of wassailing the town’s apple trees – heralding the end of an amazing couple of years for the community initiative, which has seen nearly 200 new fruit trees planted in the town.
Wassailing has its origins in pre-Christian Britain, when the Anglo Saxons would hold a mid-winter feast and offer toasts of ‘waes haeil!’, which loosely translates as ‘be thou hale’ or ‘good health’.
In the middle ages, peasants would visit the house of the lord of the manor, hoping for a share of the fine food and drink he would be enjoying. Over time, the wassail became carolling.
Meanwhile, in the West of England, wassailers would toast the health of fruit trees, to ward off evil spirits and ensure a good harvest.
Cider would be poured over the roots of the trees and cider-dipped toast tied to the branches for the robins, tree guardians.
Those traditions were celebrated again on Saturday, at the insistence of mayor Edwina Fogg, who had made the revival of the wassail one of her mayor-making promises.
The town’s vicar, the reverend Andrew Studdert-Kennedy, offered a Christian prayer for a fruitful harvest, while children duly attached pieces of toast to the branches of apple trees and the mayor offered her libation of cider.
The procession from orchard to orchard was led by the mayor’s ceremonial officer David Sherratt, who waved his hoo-ha stick to command silence from the crowds, and beadle John Yates, who offered a call-and-response chant:
“Here’s to thee, dear apple tree
May’st thou bud, may’st thou blow,
May’st thou bear apples enow.
Hats full; hats full,
Caps full; caps full
And my pockets full too
And my pockets full too.
Waes Haeil, Waes Haeil,
Waes Haeil, Waes Haeil.”
The ceremony started at Priory Gardens, where the wassailers were joined by Grace Denman, one of the town’s oldest residents, who offered the first piece of toast to the robins at one of the first trees planted by the Marlborough Community Orchard team, as part of their effort to create A Town in an Orchard.
From there, the wassailers proceeded to Culvermead Close, once part of an ancient orchard, possibly belonging to the priory. There, the ceremony was performed before three of the town’s oldest apple trees – trees which, unusually in a poor harvest year caused by a bee-bothering wet summer – actually produced an abundance of fruit.
And as dusk gave way to darkness, the candlelit procession wended its way to St Mary’s churchyard, where another of the apple tree saplings had been planted.
Both the mayor and the renowned food writer Philippa Davenport, the founder of the Marlborough Community Orchard project, said they were delighted with the turnout.