Gateway to Exmoor


Dunster -


In 2012 Dunster revived the tradition of Apple Tree Wassailing which had died in the 1950s. A new Orchard of 54 apple trees and three Dunster Plum trees was established at the Butter Cross in St Georges Street and as a new project it was thought that we would need all the help we could get to attract the good spirits and drive away the evil spirits if the Orchard was to be a success. Since 2012, Dunster First School children have assisted in the Wassailing.

On 17 January every year representatives of all five years arrive in the morning, douse toast with apple juice and hang it from the trees which the school sponsor, to attract good spirits. They bring tins and drums, and along with the traditional Dunster Wassailing Song they make enough noise (and a bit extra) to drive off any evil spirits.

In the evening, just to make sure, the adults arrive to continue attracting good spirits and continue the assault on the evil spirits around the campfires. Local musicians and story tellers entertain the crowd with stories and traditional songs from Somerset (and The Wurzels) while cider and cake is served. After the revelry three or four villagers load their guns and fire off several volleys to drive away any remaining spirits.

When the evil spirits have finally been driven off, torches are lit and a procession through the village ensues, with much merriment, to the Foresters Arms where Pat, the friendly landlady, provides ale and cider and local musicians play on into the night. A great night is enjoyed by  everyone which these days includes people from around the country.

The Traditional Dunster Wassailing Song

   Old apple tree, we wassail thee,
       And hope that thou wilt bear
       For the Lord doth know where we shall be
       Till apples come another year.
       So to bloom well, and to bear well
       Then happy let us be.
       Let every man take off his cap,
       And shout out to the old apple tree!
       Old apple tree, we wassail thee,
       And hope that thou wilt bear
       Hat fulls, cap fulls, three bushel bags full
       And a little heap under the stair
       Hip! Hip! Hooray! (x 3)

       Followed by the guns firing

Foresters Arms, Dunster

The popularity of Apple tree wassailing is probably due to it being the first step in the beginning of a new cycle of growth. Though the ritual is held several weeks before trees begin to bud, it focuses on the fruit that they will bear, and thus assures the participants that summer is not too far off.


Community Orchards in Dunster and surrounding area

Carhampton Community Orchard is a community orchard in the middle of Carhampton with over 40 trees of mainly local varieties. They have local events such as annual Wassail & apple day as well as pruning & juicing learning days. FFI: elizabethandemily@btinternet.com

Dunster Community Orchard has over 57 trees & is widely used by the community with many public events. FFI: dougat12a@btinternet.com

Old Cleeve Community Orchard is another local project. FFI: Jeanne.webb@tiscali.co.uk

Porlock Community Orchard also hosts many community events and produces a large amount of juice. Volunteers are always welcome. FFI: milloaks@btinternet.com

The History of Buttercross Community Orchard in Dunster

Back in 2011 the Crown Estate came up with the idea of re-introducing an orchard in Dunster Village.

They approached Dunster Parish Council with the offer of a piece of land in a beautiful spot behind the Butter Cross, to be leased at a peppercorn rent, if DPC were installed as leaseholders. After some discussion DPC agreed and Buttercross Community Orchard was born.

The Crown Estate financed the buying of 57 trees and locals came forward to help, particularly Geoff Witherford and Alan Vicary. The trees were all planted with the help of the local scout group. Sponsorship for the Orchard was begun and within a few months the entire 57 trees had been sponsored. Since then further sponsors have been found to erect a new fence to separate the orchard from the picnic area, four picnic tables and four benches for enjoying the fantastic views. Maintenance of the orchard is organised by a very enthusiastic committee using the expertise and equipment of the Sully family. This maintenance is quite extensive involving watering, pruning all the trees and keeping the grass cut throughout the year. Geoff Witherford has arranged for several local people to help with the upkeep and the committee is extremely grateful for the help received. The committee has set up several fundraising initiatives, the most important being the Friends of the Orchard which, for a donation of £25, enables donors to have a special plaque on the Friends of the Orchard tree located in the Orchard.

Other fundraisers include the annual Barn Dance which has been held in the Barn on Higher Marsh Farm since 2011, although we need to find a new venue now that this land has been sold. The committee donates 50% of its profits from the dance to organisations in Dunster who make Dunster a better place to live and provide facilities for local school children.

Other events organised by the Orchard committee are Wassailing Night, Cider & Cheese Evenings, an annual coach outing every year to various gardens in Devon, Dorset and Somerset, and Apple Day. However, these cannot be classified as fundraisers as we are lucky if we break even on these events.

Origins of wassailing

How far the tradition of wassailing dates back is unknown, but it has connections with Anglo-Saxon traditions; the word Wassail comes from the Anglo-Saxon toast Waes bu hael, meaning "be thou hale" (be in good health). Thus wassailing probably predates the Norman Conquest in 1066.

In recent times, the toast has come to be synonymous with Christmas, but since Christianity gradually replaced the Anglo-Saxon religion around the 7th and 8th centuries, there is no evidence that the traditional ceremony of wassailing is Christian in origin.

Traditionally, the wassail is celebrated on Twelfth Night (mostly regarded as January 6, but more properly the evening of January 5). However, most people insist on wassailing on Old Twelvey Night (January 17) as that would have been the correct date before the introduction of the Gregorian Calendar in 1752.

In the middle ages, the wassail was a reciprocal exchange between the feudal lords and their peasants as a form of charitable giving. The lord of the manor would give food and drink to the peasants in exchange for their blessing and goodwill.

Although wassailing is often described in innocuous terms, in England it has not always been considered so innocent. Wassailing was associated with rowdy bands of young men who would enter the homes of wealthy neighbours and demand free food and drink. If the householder refused, he was usually cursed, and occasionally his house was vandalised.

The Orchard-visiting Wassail

In the cider-producing West of England (primarily the counties of Somerset, Dorset, Gloucestershire, Devon and Herefordshire) wassailing refers to drinking (and singing) the health of trees in the hopes that they might better thrive.

The purpose of wassailing is to awake the cider apple trees and to scare away evil spirits to ensure a good harvest of fruit in the Autumn. The ceremonies of each wassail vary from village to village but they generally all have the same core elements.

The crowd will sing and shout and bang drums, pots and pans and generally make a terrible racket until the guns men give a great final volley through the branches to make sure the work is done and then off to the next orchard. This ancient English tradition is still very much thriving today. The West Country is the most famous and largest cider producing region of the country and some of the most important wassails are held annually in Dunster and Carhampton (Somerset) and Whimple and Sandford (Devon), all on 17 January (old Twelfth Night).

A folktale from Somerset reflecting this custom tells of the "Apple Tree Man", the spirit of the oldest apple tree in an orchard, and in whom the fertility of the orchard is said to reside. In the tale a man offers his last mug of mulled cider to the trees in his orchard and is rewarded by the Apple Tree Man who reveals to him the location of buried treasure.