APPLE trees have been a key part of culture and business in the West Country for over a thousand years, and in Somerset there is an equally ancient ceremony to ensure a good harvest.

At Stewley Orchard, near Ilminster, the tradition was revived three years ago and is being welcomed back by old hands and newcomers with equal appreciation.

The damp, chilly evening was no match for the enthusiasm of the hundreds who turned up.

Wassailing is a tradition as old as cider itself, in a county where the drink paid workers and farm hands’ wages even into 20th century.

Being such a key part of life, the wealth and nourishment provided by the trees grew into a lifeline for Somerset folk, and where there are spirits there are often prayers to god.

Coming from the Anglo-Saxon ‘Waes Hael’, or ‘good health’, the ceremony honours the ‘Apple Tree Man’ – the oldest tree in the orchard. Spiced cider is poured around the roots and toast dipped in wassail is placed in the branches for the robin, symbol of the good spirits.

To ward off evil, pots and pans are clattered and shotguns fired into the boughs as the traditional wassail song is sung.

Tauton Deane Morris Men were there, another tradition with a long, proud history.

“Taunton Deane Morris Men are doing just fine thanks!” said a colourful Graham Barrett.

“We’re strong as ever, but we’re always looking for young ‘uns to join us.”

The Men began the dance for the coronation of Wassail Queen Katie White, whose day job for the Gaymer Cider Company is working in a laboratory - the modern equivalent to wassailing to ensure a good year of cider.

As she led the merry throng through the orchard to the Apple Tree Man, the crowd sipped their wassail - warm cider mulled with ‘Shiraz, sherry, spices and other secret things’ according to Chief Wassail Brewer Andy Carruthers - and took comfort against the rain-whipped night.

Katie poured the wassail around the roots and the crowd of hundreds took up the chorus: ‘Old apple tree, we wassail thee, hoping thou will bear, hatfuls, capfuls, three-bushel bagfuls, and a little heap under the stairs’.

The shotguns blasted the dark skies, and Master of Ceremonies Adrian Somerfield brought the ceremony to a close.

He said: “Thank you for that everyone, I’m sure we’ll get a good crop of apples this year, and some for the robin too!”

CAMERAMAN: Tony Parker of Picture Box Productions.